Month: May 2009

The “Big Five” and Economic Performance

The “Big Five” doesn’t comprise Honda, Toyota, Ford, GM, and Chrysler (soon to become the become the “Big Four”: Honda, Toyota, Ford, and GM-Chrysler-Obama Inc.). The “Big Five” refers to the Big Five personality traits: Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism.

I discussed the Big Five at length here, and touched on them here. Now comes Arnold Kling, with an economic analysis of the Big Five, which draws on Daniel Nettle’s Personality: What Makes You the Way You Are. Kling, in the course of his post, discusses Nettle’s interpretations of the Big Five.

Regarding Openness, Kling quotes Nettle thusly:

Some people are keen on reading and galleries and theatre and music, whilst others are not particularly interested in any of them. This tendency towards greater exploration of all complex recreational practices is uniquely predicted by Openness….

High Openness scorers are strongly drawn to artistic and investigative professions, and will often schew traditional institutional structure and progression in order to pursue them.

Precisely. For example,  a high Openness scorer (93rd percentile) progressed from low-paid analyst (with a BA in economics) to well-paid VP for finance and administration (with nothing more than the same BA in economics), stopping along the way to own and run a business and manage groups of PhDs. The underlying lesson: Education is far less important to material success than intellectual flexibility (high Openness), combined with drive (high Conscientiusness and Neuroticism), and focus (low Extraversion and Agreeableness).

Kling says this about Conscientiousness (self-discipline and will power):

I think that people with low Conscientiousness annoy me more than just about any other type of people.

Me, too (Conscientiousness score: 99th percentile). I find it hard to be around individuals who always put off until tomorrow what they could do in a minute, who never read or return the books and DVDs you lend them, who are always ready to excuse failings (theirs and others), and who then try to cast their lack of organization (and resulting lack of personal accomplishment) as a virtue: “Life is too short to sweat the small stuff.” Yeah, but you never sweat the big stuff, either; look at the state of your house and your bank account. The small stuff and big stuff come in a single package.

According to Kling, “Nettle thinks of Extraversion as something like lust for life, sensation-seeking, and ambition.” More from Nettle:

We should be careful in equating Extraversion with sociability… shyness is most often due to … high Neuroticism and anxiety….

…The introvert is, in a way, aloof from the rewards of the world, which gives him tremendous strength and independence from them.

Right on, says this introvert (Extraversion score: 4th percentile).

Kling says this about Agreeableness:

To be agreeable, you have to be able to “mentalize” (read the feelings of others, which autistic people have trouble doing) and empathize (that is, care about others’ feelings, given that you can read them. Sociopaths can read you, but they don’t mind making you feel bad.)

On average, women are more agreeable than men. That is why Peter Thiel may have been onto something when he said that our country changed when women got the right to vote. If people project their personalities onto politics, and if agreeability goes along with more socialist policies, then giving women the right to vote should make countries more socialist.

Thiel is on to something. Although socialism gained a foothold in the U.S. during TR’s reign (i.e., long before the passage of Amendment XIX to the Constitution), it’s important to note that women were prominent agitators and muck-rakers in the early 1900s. Among other things, women were the driving force behind Prohibition. That failed experiment can now be seen as an extremely socialistic policy; it attempted to dictate a “lifestyle” choice, just as today’s socialists try to dictate  “lifestyle” choices about what we smoke, eat, drive, say, etc. — and with too-frequent success. If socialism isn’t a “motherly” attitude, I don’t know what is. (Full disclosure, my Agreeableness score is 4th percentile. Just leave me alone and I’ll live my life quite well, without any help from government, thank you.)

Finally, there’s Neuroticism, about which Nettle says:

There are motivational advantages of Neuroticism. There may be cognitive ones too. It has long been known that, on average, people are over-optimistic about the outcomes of their behaviour, especially once they have a plan… This is well documented in the business world, with its over-optimistic growth plans, and also in military leadership, where it is clear that generals are routinely over-sanguine about their likely progress and under-reflective about the complexities….

…Professional occupations are those that mainly involve thinking, and it is illuminating that Neuroticism tended to be advantageous in these fields and not in, say, sales.

Neuroticism (also known as Emotional Stability) is explained this way by an organization that administers the “Big Five” test:

People low in emotional stability are emotionally reactive. They respond emotionally to events that would not affect most people, and their reactions tend to be more intense than normal. They are more likely to interpret ordinary situations as threatening, and minor frustrations as hopelessly difficult. Their negative emotional reactions tend to persist for unusually long periods of time, which means they are often in a bad mood. These problems in emotional regulation can diminish a ones ability to think clearly, make decisions, and cope effectively with stress.

Take a person who is low in Emotional Stability (my score: 12th percentile), low in Extraversion, but high in Conscientiousness and Openness. Such a person is willing and able to tune out the distractions of the outside world, and to channel his drive and intellectual acumen in productive, creative ways — until he finally says “enough,” and quits the world of work to enjoy the better things in life.

Cato’s Usual Casuistry on Matters of War and Peace

Cato Institute’s Tim Lynch addresses “Cheney’s Worldview.” Lynch’s comments reflect Cato’s worldview on foreign and defense policy, as I have come to know and disrespect it.

Lynch quotes the following passage from former VP Cheney’s recent speech at the American Enterprise Institute:

If fine speech-making, appeals to reason, or pleas for compassion had the power to move [al-Qaeda], the terrorists would long ago have abandoned the field.  And when they see the American government caught up in arguments about interrogations, or whether foreign terrorists have constitutional rights, they don’t stand back in awe of our legal system and wonder whether they had misjudged us all along.  Instead the terrorists see just what they were hoping for — our unity gone, our resolve shaken, our leaders distracted.  In short, they see weakness and opportunity.

Lynch distorts twists Cheney’s words to suggest that Cheney is against open debate about such issues. Cheney, of course, means no such thing. He is against the evident outcome of that open debate, namely, a de facto presidential apology to the enemy (in the decision to close Guantanamo) and court decisions overruling the commander-in-chief’s constitutional execution of his duties.

It would be evident to anyone but a professional nay-sayer on matters of foreign and defense policy that the lack of resolve demonstrated by such decisions is harmful to our defense. The fact that you have a right to hold a stupid position — and to have it ratified by a pusillanimous president or an overreaching court — doesn’t make your position correct. That would be equivalent to saying “might makes right” — hardly a position one associates with Cato.

Lynch continues:

If the CIA told Cheney that it intercepted a message and learned that bin Laden wanted some of his men to climb Mount Everest as a propaganda ploy to somehow show the world that they can lord over the globe, one gets the feeling that  Cheney wouldn’t shrug at the report. Since that is what bin Laden hopes to achieve, the enemy objective must be thwarted! Quick, dispatch American GIs to the top of Everest and establish a post. Stay on the lookout for al-Qaeda and stop them no matter what!

One gets the feeling that Lynch is in the habit of contriving stupid things to attribute to those with whom he differs on policy issues.

Lynch then asks, “what about the costly nation-building exercise (pdf) in Iraq?  How long is that going to last?” I suspect that a day more than zero days would have been too long for Lynch, who (based on his approach to issues of war and peace) might well think that the U.S. should have stayed out of World War II.

There’s more:

In another passage, Cheney bristles at the notion that his “unpleasant” interrogation practices have been a recruitment tool for the enemy.  Cheney claims this theory ignores the fact that 9/11 happened before the torture memos were ever drafted and approved.  He observes that the terrorists have never “lacked for grievances against the United States.”  They’re evil, Cheney says, now let’s talk about something else.  The gist of Cheney’s argument — that no post 9/11 policy can ever be counterproductive — makes no sense.

The gist of Cheney’s argument is that our enemies don’t especially care what we do to them. They are fanatics, and are not to be deterred. That’s why they must be tracked down and killed — much too subtle an idea for Lynch and his ilk.

Finally:

Cheney’s controversial legacy will be debated for a long time.  And he’s smart enough to know that he may have very few defenders down the road, so he is wasting no time at all in making his own case.  The problem is that his case is weak and plenty of people can see it.

In the far more likely alternative, Cheney is trying to keep Obama and his fellow “post-Americans” from emulating Neville Chamberlain — who seems to be Cato’s role model on matters of war and peace.

Monopoly: Private Is Better than Public

In this discursive post, I use the economic concept of perfect competition as a starting point from which to defend monopoly and to expose the folly and futility of governmental intervention in markets.

PERFECT COMPETITION AS A BOGUS STANDARD

I learned, in the standard microeconomics of my college days, that perfect competition is preferred to these three alternatives:

  • imperfect competition, where there is some degree of product differentiation (real or perceived)
  • oligopoly, where a particular product or service is sold by only a few firms (“product or service” is hereafter called “good,” in keeping with economic jargon)
  • monopoly, where there is only one seller of a particular good.

The theoretical superiority of perfect competition rests on the belief that, compared with the alternatives, it yields the greatest output of goods and, therefore, the greatest degree of satisfaction to consumers; that is, perfect competition maximizes “social welfare.”

The standard analysis has many problems, the most fundamental of which is the observation selection effect. The observer, in this case, is the economist who views the world through the lenses of economic efficiency and “social welfare.”

The construct of economic efficiency involves gross generalizations about economic reality, which are based on ideal firms in an ideal world, not on the behavior of real firms in the messy world of reality. The construct, in other words, sets up an ideal world of perfect competition, divergences from which are judged less than optimal — as if unavoidable, real-world divergences are less valid than the perfections of an imaginary construct. (This is an instance of a Nirvana fallacy, “the logical error of comparing actual things with unrealistic, idealized alternatives.”)

Then there is “social welfare,” which perfect competition is purported to maximize. “Social welfare” is in fact a fictitious device whereby the person who invokes it assumes (implicitly if not explicitly) that the happiness of individuals can be summed, and that he knows just how to do it. The predictable result of “social arithmetic” is a call for some kind of governmental action that effectively redistributes income; for example:

  • Affirmative action, on balance, redistributes income from shareholders, consumers, and more-qualified workers to less-qualified workers.
  • Progressive taxation redistributes income from persons who earn a lot of money (the job-creators of the economy) to persons who earn less money. It also drives out high earners, to the detriment of the rest of us.
  • Trust-busting (which is of particular interest here) amounts to a redistribution of income from the owners of a oligopolistic or monopolistic firm to consumers.

“Social welfare,” in other words, is a phony excuse for playing God — a variant of the Nirvana fallacy. (For more, see this, this, and this.)

HOW GOVERNMENT INTERVENTION DOES MORE HARM THAN GOOD

Why is it not a good thing for government to act in ways that redistribute income from the owners of firms to consumers? There are several reasons, beginning with the artificiality of perfect competition (or something like it) as a model of how markets ought to be organized.

Then, there is the arrogance of a mindset that judges consumers to be more deserving that the owners of businesses — owners who staked a lot of money (and created jobs) on business ventures that might have gone sour (and often do). Is it possible that trust-busting discourages business (and job) formation? You can bet on it.

Related to that, it is necessary to remember that business owners are humans, too — 160 years of communist-populist-“progressive“-“liberal” rhetoric to the contrary notwithstanding. Business owners’ desire for profit is no less legitimate than consumers’ desire for low prices. Government is in the business of penalizing oligopolistic and monopolistic business owners not only because economists have set up a false standard (perfect competition or something like it), but also because the act of penalizing appeals to the envy of many voters and interest groups toward persons with legitimately high incomes. Trust-busting is neither logically nor morally admirable.

It is true that not all industries lend themselves to perfect competition or something like it, but it is neither necessary nor desirable to regulate firms in industries that are characterized by oligopoly and monopoly. (pace Paul Krugman). Oligopoly and monopoly are not iron-clad. Consumers have alternatives: If the price of X is “too high” they can (and will) buy more of Y and Z; if the price of X rises a lot, relative to the prices of Y and Z, the producer of X is likely to find himself with a direct competitor. In the alternative, more consumers will abandon X in favor of Y and Z.

TWO EMOTION-LADEN CASES

What about situations in which there seem to be no ready substitutes for a particular good? Lurking behind this question are fears of private monopolies controlling the supplis of water and medical goods. The case of medical goods is more straightforward, so I will deal with it before considering the supply of water.

Medicine

The supply of medical goods already is artificially low because of government, not in spite of it. Who licenses doctors and grants the A.M.A. a near-monopoly on the accreditation of medical schools? Who licenses and regulates hospitals? Who approves drugs and licenses pharmacists? The list of questions could go on and on, but the answer is always the same: government.

The average person will react along these lines: “Government has to be involved in the provision of medical goods, otherwise we would be taking our lives in our hands every time we go to a doctor or a hospital, and every time we use a drug.” I respond as follows:

The main effect of government regulation of certain goods (including medical ones) is to raise the cost of those goods by imposing costs on their providers and effectively barring additional providers from setting up shop. This unseen cost means that Americans consumer fewer medical goods than they would if government weren’t imposing costs on providers and barring prospective providers. (There is an argument that Americans, on balance, consume more medical goods than necessary because of Medicare, Medicaid, and tax-exempt, employer-subsidized health insurance. But given those distortions, it is true that regulation raises costs and restricts entry.) Is it possible that the net effect of regulations is to make Americans worse off rather than better off? A good case can be made for that proposition. (See this, this, and this.) The case of medical goods exemplifies Bastiat’s axiom that

a law produces not only one effect, but a series of effects. Of these effects, the first alone is immediate; it appears simultaneously with its cause; it is seen. The other effects emerge only subsequently; they are not seen; we are fortunate if we foresee them.

Water: The Hardest Case

No Inherent Need for Government Intervention

If the debate about government’s role in medicine evokes much emotion and little reason, any discussion of privatizing the water supply is certain to elicit the rawest of emotions: fear. A typical reaction goes like this: “If government doesn’t provide our water, greedy speculators will corner the market and we’ll all be at their mercy.” It is hard to imagine such a reaction in the 1800s, when a large fraction of the population lived in rural areas, where most water came from privately owned wells or was taken, by private means, from rivers and lakes. Government doesn’t have to provide water, and if it couldn’t stop a you from drilling a well in your backyard (which it can, thanks to its “police power”) many urbanites and suburbanites might be able to supply their own water.

In any event, there is no inherent reason for government to supply water. The simple fact is that “municipal water works” has acquired the totemic status of “public schools.” Both institutions have become so embedded that private alternatives (on a large scale) were unthinkable, until (in the case of public schools) failure became so obvious that it could no longer be ignored. (That the dominant solution to the failure of public schools is to throw more money at them is neither a negation of their failure nor of the widespread perception of failure.)

Scenario 1: “Accidental” Private Monopoly

Given that there is no inherent reason for government to provide water, I begin the analysis of water monopolies with the following hypothetical:

We have with a small, settled community of 25 homes, in which every home has a well (and has had one for generations). It is accepted by all members of the community that each homeowner is the owner of his well; that is, wells are not communal property. Further, every well provides an ample amount of water for such purposes as drinking, bathing, cooking, watering lawns and gardens, washing cars, etc.

Suddenly, because of some unforeseeable geological change, every well but one runs dry. And the owners of the  24 homes without functioning wells (the unlucky 24″) have no immediate or easy recourse to another source of water — a spring, stream, or lake — because there are none within a day’s drive of the community. The only convenient source of water is the 25th  home (“lucky 25″), whose well  seems to provide more than enough water for its owner — enough, in fact, to meet the drinking, bathing, and cooking needs of the “unlucky 24.”

Issues Arising from Scenario 1

How should the “unlucky 24″ cope with the near-term problem of obtaining water for drinking, bathing, and cooking? Suppose that they have two practical options:

  • Appeal to “lucky 25″ by offering him a price for water that would just cover the cost of providing it (electricity, pump repairs/replacements, etc.).
  • Buy water in large quantities from an out-of-area vendor — at a much higher price than they would offer “lucky 25.”

“Lucky 25,” the accidental water monopolist, has the following options:

  • Accept the offer made by the “unlucky 24.”
  • Make a counter-offer by setting a price that is somewhere between the offer made by the “unlucky 24″ and the cost, to them, of buying water from an out-of-area vendor.
  • Refuse to sell water to the “unlucky 24,” for one of the following reasons: (1) It is his right to do so. (2) He doesn’t want to be in the water-selling business, with its attendant distractions. (3) He fears that drawing significantly greater amounts of water from his well will cause it to run dry.

(You should understand that this is a law-abiding community whose residents are respectful of  property rights — unlike the typical government — so that the water monopolist doesn’t have to worry about defending his well and himself against a mob.)

I daresay that the average reader would expect “lucky 25″ to accept the offer made by the “unlucky 24.” But why should the accidental water monopolist accept the offer? He might, out of compassion, help the “unlucky 24″ while they make other arrangements. But his help would be given out of compassion, not obligation.

The Permissibility of “Good Luck”

Yes, the water monopolist may have been “lucky” with respect to water, but perhaps he has been “unlucky” in other respects. Why, if “luck” determines one’s obligations to others, shouldn’t the water monopolist’s neighbors compensate him for his episodes of “bad luck” — the dog that was hit by a car, the underground stream which provides him ample water but threatens to undermine the foundation of his house, an errant wife, incorrigible children, etc.? Must “good luck” be penalized or paid for, as an act of “social justice”?

The answer is “no.” Anthony de Jasay explains, in “Economic Theories of Social Justice: Risk, Value, and Externality“:

Stripped of rhetoric, an act of social justice (a) deliberately increases the relative share … of the worse-off in total income, and (b) in achieving (a) it redresses part or all of an injustice…. This implies that some people being worse off than others is an injustice and that it must be redressed. However, redress can only be effected at the expense of the better-off; but it is not evident that they have committed the injustice in the first place. Consequently, nor is it clear why the better-off should be under an obligation to redress it….

Since Nature never stops throwing good luck at some and bad luck at others, no sooner are [social] injustices redressed than some people are again better off than others. An economy of voluntary exchanges is inherently inegalitarian…. Striving for social justice, then, turns out to be a ceaseless combat against luck, a striving for the unattainable, sterilized economy that has built-in mechanisms…for offsetting the misdeeds of Nature.

Scenario 2: Deliberate Water Monopoly

Suppose, now, that our water monopolist came by his monopoly in an entirely different way — a way that (to most of us) seems to draw on entrepreneurship, not “luck.” Suppose that he (and he alone) drilled a well for the purpose of selling water to his neighbors, whom (he knows and they know) cannot (and never could) find water under their properties. What should the water monopolist charge his neighbors for water? Just as much as they are willing to pay, of course. Is there anything immoral in that? If there is, why is it not immoral for an auto dealer to sell you a car for just as much as you are willing to pay, even if you need that car in order to earn a living?

Why should the water monopolist (or car dealer or anyone else) be forced by a legalized mob (i.e., government) to sell his product for a prescribed price, when he is the person who took the financial risk of drilling a well, not knowing for certain that he would strike water, at what rate it would flow, how long it would flow at that rate, and whether another source of water might materialize because of unforeseeable geological or climatological changes?

The answer to the question is found in emotion, not reason. Emotionally, we hold water to be more precious than, say, automobiles. Yet, many persons consume a lot of water for what might be called non-essential reasons (e.g., watering lawns, washing cars, filling swimming pools), and many persons need cars in order to earn a living. Water, stripped of its emotional baggage, isn’t a sacred commodity; it is merely a commodity that has different prices in different places.

Which brings us to the essential question: Who should supply water?

Why a Government Monopoly Is Worse

Perhaps government should be in the business of telling everyone what kind of cars they can have (or not have). (Not far-fetched, admittedly.) Well, then, perhaps government should be in the business of telling us whom to marry, how many children to have, where to live, etc., etc., etc. If that’s an unappealing prospect, why step down the slippery slope toward it by allowing government to dictate the price of water, as it does by controlling most of the nation’s water supply through municipal and regional water authorities?

What can government do that entrepreneurs cannot? The answer is nothing, except to set prices for water that are unlikely to correspond to the prices that would be set by voluntary transactions between private sellers and their customers. Government monopolies prohibit entry where entry would be possible, for example, along large rivers and around large lakes.

Government monopolies cannot respond quickly, if at all, to changes in costs and variations in demand. The prices set by government monopolies must therefore result in the subsidization of some consumers who would be willing to pay more for their water by taxpayers and/or other consumers who are paying more than they would pay if there were private, competing suppliers of water.

What about the poor persons who, without subsidization, could not afford water for drinking, bathing, and cooking, unless they were to forgo other necessities (e.g., medical care)? So, the market for water should be monopolized by government and the price of water should be distorted for the sake of a relatively small fraction of the population? It would be better to rely on (a) private charity and (if you insist) (b) tax-funded vouchers for the purchase of water.

Scenario 3: Government vs. Private Pricing

Which leads to the next objection to the privatization of the water supply (which was mostly private for a long time in the United States). It goes like this: “Water monopolists would bleed their customers dry; they would conspire to control the supply of water and charge whatever the market will bear.”

To test those assertions, let us consider the extreme case in which the residents of a mountainous area have only one potential source of water (other than rain), which is a river that flows through the area. Suppose “greedy speculator” buys the land surround the river’s source and dams the river, at a place on his land. (I am  ignoring, for purposes of this post, the state of the law regarding such a practice.) “Greedy speculator” then pays for the installation of water pipes to various of his customers, meters their use of water, and charges them (perhaps at different rates) in such a way as to maximize his profit.

If you have been following along, you will have realized that there’ is no difference between “greedy speculator” and government, where it declares a local monopoly on the supply of water. There is, of course, a degree of (misplaced) trust in government, that is, trust that will “do the right thing,” which means robbing Peter to pay Paul. That trust amounts to nothing more than wishful thinking about government and misconceptions about the benefits of private action, spurred by the prospects of profit.

In the case of water, for example, government may not build enough capacity (to the detriment of consumers), it may build too much capacity (at the expense of taxpayers), or it may fail to keep its system in good repair (to the detriment of consumers). Private, unregulated providers, in the more usual instances where some degree of competition is possible, can respond more quickly than government to rises in demand, are less likely than government to overbuild, and are more likely than government to keep their systems in good repair.

But the provision of water a natural monopoly, is it not? That question (with its the implied answer: “yes”) arises from the belief that there is no room in a market for more than one supplier where an extensive infrastructure must be duplicated (as in the case of water plants and supply pipes). There are market solutions to such seemingly insurmountable problems, although — in the cases of electricity, natural gas, and cable TV — their implementation generally has been botched by regulatory incompetence and intent.

How could there be competition in a market for water? Consider the extreme case of “greedy speculator” who buy the land from which a river rises, and dams the river. If he sets the price of water too high, three things could happen:

  • Some residents self-ration, reducing or eliminating the use of water for such things as watering lawns, washing cars, and filling swimming pools. (Remember, my example involves a “speculator” who is interested in making a reasonable return on a large investment, which requires that he set up shop in place that isn’t destitute.)
  • Some residents leave the area for places where their total cost of living, relative to income, is lower than it becomes after “greedy speculator” sets up shop.
  • Competition arrives in the form of a supplier who hauls water in large tank trucks and installs a water storage tank for each of the homes and businesses that subscribe to his service.

Lo and behold, “greedy speculator” forestalls competition, and perhaps some departures from the area, by setting his price “just high enough.” Is that fair?

Still No Role for Government

Well, ask yourself if it’s fair of government to keep a private individual from earning a profit by providing a product of value to consumers, or to restrict that profit in the “public interest.” Ask yourself if it is fair that such practices on the part of government lead to a general reduction in the willingness of entrepreneurs to establish and expand job- and growth-producing businesses of all kinds. (Remember “that which is not seen.”) Ask yourself if it is fair of government to circumvent the private sector and provide taxpayer-subsidized goods and services to the residents of an area, just because it lacks “good” supplies of water or electricity, or just because it is frequently and predictably devastated by fires, floods, hurricanes, or tornadoes. Ask yourself if it is fair of government to provide taxpayer-funded insurance against predictable natural disasters when private insurers won’t do so — with the result that the areas prone to natural disasters remain heavily inhabited, at taxpayers’ expense.

In other words, private action — however competitive or uncompetitive — alleviates a host of problems. Government action tends to exacerbate those problems, and to create unforeseen (and unseen) ones.

CONCLUSION

It is written nowhere (but in the imaginations of statists) that government owes us a green lawn, a residence on a flood plain, or anything else but protection from predators, foreign and domestic. As soon as government strays beyond its proper role, it begins to corrupt civil society and its essential mechanisms, which include free markets.

One of the ways in which government strays is to interfere in markets and to provide services that can be and should be provided through markets. Government — at the behest of politicians, bureaucrats, academicians, and meddlers-at-large — interferes in markets and sometimes becomes a provider on the pretext that certain markets (most of them, it seems) are insufficiently competitive or otherwise have “failed” because they fall short of measures of perfection devised by — you guessed it — politicians, bureaucrats, academicians, and meddlers-at-large.

Government intervention in markets exacts a very high price, in liberty and material goods. It strips us of the ability to do for ourselves what we think needs to be done — as opposed to what some politician, other meddler, or “aggrieved” group believes we ought to do or have done to us. It strips us — even the poorest among us — of the means to do for ourselves that which we need to do. It strips us — even the poorest among us — of the fruits of those labors which are permitted to us.  The degree of theft is so vast as to be unimaginable, but unseen and therefore (mostly) unlamented.

The bottom line: Private monopolies are superior to public ones, and should not be persecuted or prosecuted. Government monopolies are for the benefit of politicians, bureaucrats, academicians, meddlers-at-large, and the the majority of citizens who have been conned into believing that government action is preferable to private action.

What Is Conservatism?

The essence of conservatism, according to the iconic Russell Kirk, is found in six “canons” of conservatism (summarized here):

(1) Belief that a divine intent rules society as well as conscience…. Political problems, at bottom, are religious and moral problems… (2) Affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of traditional life, as distinguished from the narrowing uniformity and equilitarianism and utilitarian aims of most radical systems. (3) Conviction that civilized society requires orders and classes…. Society longs for leadership…. (4) Persuasion that property and freedom are inseparably connected, and that economic levelling is not economic progress…. (5) Faith in prescription and distrust of “sophisters and calculators.” Man must put a control upon his will and his appetite…. Tradition and sound prejudice provide checks upon man’s anarchic impulse. (6) Recognition that change and reform are not identical….

My own view of conservatism, as it is understood in America, has gone through a transformation. Once upon a time, I thought of it as a trichotomy:

True-Blue Traditionalist: This type simply loves and revels in family, community, club, church, alma mater, and the idea of America — which includes American government, with all its faults. If government enacts truly popular policies, those policies are (by and large) legitimate in the eyes of a true-blue. Thus a true-blue may be a Democrat or a Republican, though almost certainly not a libertarian.

Libertarian of the Classical Liberal School: This type may (or may not) love and revel in most of the institutions revered by a true-blue traditionalist, but takes a different line when it comes to government. Voluntary institutions are good, but government tends to undermine them. Government’s proper role is to protect the citizenry and the citizenry’s voluntary institutions, not to dictate the terms and conditions of their existence. The classical liberal favors government only when it observes its proper role, and not for its own sake.

Rightist: The rightist differs from the true-blue traditionalist and classical liberal in three key respects. First, he is hostile toward those persons and voluntary institutions that are not in the “American tradition” of white, northern Europeanism. Second, his disdain for things outside the “American tradition” is so great that he is likely to be either an “America firster” or a reincarnation of Curtis “bomb them back to the stone age” LeMay. Third, he is willing to use the power of government to enforce the observance of those values that he favors, and to do other things that he sees as necessary.

I would now call the “true blue” a left-statist or right-statist, depending on the direction of his preferences for government action (e.g., anti-defense or pro-defense); the “classical liberal,” a minarchist, most likely a right-minarchist; and the “rightist,” a totalitarian-right-statist. My new political lexicon lacks the word “conservative,” which has too many meanings to be meaningful.

But I do find in minarchism, especially right-minarchism, much of what Kirk finds in conservatism. What do I mean by right-minarchism? To quote myself:

To a minarchist … rights are limited to those that can be exercised without requiring something of others (e.g., transfers of income and property). The one necessary exception is the cost of providing a government to ensure the exercise of rights. That cost must be borne, in some arbitrary way, by citizens who, on the one hand, see no need for government (i.e., anarchists) and by citizens who, on the other hand, have differing conceptions of rights and how the cost of protecting those rights should be shared….

Minarchists … are fierce defenders of property rights. Minarchists hold that we own what we earn (or what is given to us, freely, by others who have earned it). The right to property is a negative right, in that the enjoyment and use of that which is ours need not deny anyone else the right to enjoy and use that which is theirs. (Acts of enjoyment and use, however, must not infringe on the negative rights of others.) The denial of property rights (in whole or in part) is theft, whether committed by a private party or government. (The “public use” clause of the Fifth Amendment is applied legitimately only when government must take property, with “just compensation” in order to execute one of the few legitimate functions of government.)…

There can be more to minarchy than the protection of negative rights. In the view of some minarchists [right-minarchists], government legitimately serves the broader (but related) purpose of protecting civil society. Other minarchists [left-minarchists] have no use for what they see as the strictures of civil society; they wish only to be left alone. In their introverted myopia they fail to see that the liberty to live a peaceful, happy, and even prosperous life depends on civil society: the daily observance of person X’s negative rights by persons W, Y, and Z — and vice versa. That is so because it is impossible and — more importantly — undesirable for government to police everyone’s behavior. Liberty depends, therefore, on the institutions of society — family, church, club, and the like — through which individuals learn to treat one another with respect, through which individuals often come to the aid of one another, and through which instances of disrespect can be noted, publicized, and even punished (e.g., by criticism and ostracism)….

More specifically, right-minarchists (R-M)

reject the non-aggression principle with respect to national defense. They do so not because they favor aggression but because the principle, in its standard interpretation, is a non-action principle. It would not allow a preemptive attack on an antagonistic state that is armed, capable of striking us at any time, and known to be contemplating a strike. R-M, in other words, tend toward hawkishness when it comes to national defense.

R-M also tend toward a hawkish stance on crime. For example, some R-M have no sympathy for journalists who protect anonymous sources where those sources obtain their information by breaking the law. Other R-M reject the idea that the press should be allowed to print whatever information it may obtain about America’s defense forces, plans, and operation. R-M understand that liberty and the prosperity it brings are unattainable in a lawless, defenseless society.

R-M are unsympathetic to “political correctness,” arguing that government must not do anything to quell impolite speech or to compensate blacks, women, etc., for the past behavior of those who discriminated against them, because to do so penalizes persons now living who are innocent of discrimination. But more than that, R-M would give individuals and businesses broad latitude in their affairs, penalizing only acts traditionally understood as harmful (e.g., murder, rape, and theft).

R-M see “rights” like abortion and homosexual “marriage” as government-imposed social innovations with potentially harmful consequences for civil society. If social custom, as embodied in legislative acts, rejects such things as abortion and homosexual “marriage,” it does so because those things undermine the fabric of society — the bonds of mutual respect, mutual trust, and mutual restraint that enable a people to live and work together in peace.

Finally,

[t]here are R-M (like me) … who are … worried … by the extent to which the franchise has been broadened. This has nothing to do with gender or race … and much to do with keeping government on the straight-and-narrow. A good way to do that is to restrict the franchise to those persons who have acquired sufficient maturity, and who have a vested interest in the protection of property rights (which are central to economic well-being)….

Having said all that, I redact Kirk’s six “canons” to conform to my “canons” of right-minarchism:

(1) Belief that a divine intent rules society as well as conscience…. Political problems, at bottom, are religious and moral problems… (2) Affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of traditional life, as distinguished from the narrowing uniformity and equilitarianism and utilitarian aims of most radical systems. (3) Conviction that civilized society requires orders and classes…. Society longs for leadership…. (4) Persuasion that property and freedom are inseparably connected, and that economic levelling is not economic progress…. (5) Faith in prescription [traditional mores] and distrust of “sophisters and calculators.” Man must put a control upon his will and his appetite…. Tradition and sound prejudice provide checks upon man’s anarchic impulse. (6) Recognition that change and reform are not identical….

Religion isn’t necessary to right-minarchism, though neither is it ruled out. Basic religious precepts (as in the Ten Commandments) form the moral foundation of civil society, which depends not so much on orders and classes as it does on order (as opposed to lawlessness) and respect for the persons and property of others. There is little else on which to differ with Kirk.

Therefore, in my taxonomy of politics, Kirk’s conservatism is located in right-minarchism — which is a distinct branch of libertarianism. Right-minarchism rejects the nihilism and strident anti-religionism which are rampant in strains of libertarianism, namely, anarchism and left-minarchism. Anarchists and left-minarchists believe, foolishly, that liberty is to be found in the rejection of order and social norms. Liberty would be the first victim of the brave new disorder that they wish for.

So, here’s to right-minarchism, the nexus of true conservatism and true libertarianism.

Related posts:
Libertarian Conservative or Conservative Libertarian?
Where Conservatism and (Sensible) Libertarianism Come Together
Common Ground for Conservatives and Libertarians?
The Nexus of Conservatism and Libertariansim

The Price of Government

UPDATED on 04/17/10, to include GDP estimates for 2009 and slight revisions to GDP estimates for earlier years. The bottom line remains the same: The price of government is exorbitant.

he federal government is mounting an economic intervention on a scale unseen since World War II. The excuse for this intervention is that without it the present recession will turn into a full-blown depression. Yet, with the Democrats’ and RINOs’ “stimulus” barely underway, the economy already shows signs of rebounding from an economic dip that bears no comparison with the calamitous gulch that was the Great Depression.

Despite the horror stories about a financial meltdown, what we have experienced since late 2007 is not much more than the downside of a typical, post-World War II business cycle. (For more on that score, see this post — especially the third graph and related discussion.) Would it have been worse were all failing financial institutions allowed to fail? I doubt it. Hard, fast failure leaves in its wake opportunities for the organization of new ventures by investors who still have money (and there are plenty of them). But those same investors are being shouldered out and scared off by Obama’s schemes for nationalization, taxation, regulation, and redistribution.

What we are seeing is the continuation of a death-spiral that began in the early 1900s. Do-gooders, worry-warts, control freaks, and economic ignoramuses see something “bad” and — in their misguided efforts to control natural economic forces (which include business cycles) — make things worse. The most striking event in the death-spiral is the much-cited Great Depression, which was caused by government action, specifically the loose-tight policies of the Federal Reserve, Herbert Hoover’s efforts to engineer the economy, and — of course — FDR’s benighted New Deal. (For details, see this, and this.)

But, of course, the worse things get, the greater the urge to rely on government. Now, we have “stimulus,” which is nothing more than an excuse to greatly expand government’s intervention in the economy. Where will it lead us? To a larger, more intrusive government that absorbs an ever larger share of resources that could be put to productive use, and counteracts the causes of economic growth.

Can we measure the price of government intervention? I believe that we can do so, and quite easily. The tale can be told in three graphs, all derived from constant-dollar GDP estimates available here. The numbers plotted in each graph exclude GDP estimates for the years in which the U.S. was involved in or demobilizing from major wars, namely, 1861-65, 1918-19, and 1941-46. GDP values for those years — especially for the peak years of World War II — present a distorted picture of economic output. Without further ado, here are the three graphs:

The trend line in the first graph indicates annual growth of about 3.7 percent over the long run, with obviously large deviations around the trend. The second graph contrasts economic growth through 1907 with economic growth since: 4.2 percent vs. 3.6 percent. But lest you believe that the economy of the U.S. somehow began to “age” in the early 1900s, consider the story implicit in the third graph:

  • 1790-1861 — annual growth of 4.1 percent — a booming young economy, probably at its freest
  • 1866-1907 — annual growth of 4.3 percent — a robust economy, fueled by (mostly) laissez-faire policies and the concomitant rise of technological innovation and entrepreneurship
  • 1908-1929 — annual growth of 2.2 percent — a dispirited economy, shackled by the fruits of “progressivism” (e.g., trust-busting, regulation, the income tax, the Fed) and the government interventions that provoked and prolonged the Great Depression (see links in third paragraph)
  • 1970-2008 — annual growth of 3.1 percent —  an economy sagging under the cumulative weight of “progressivism,” New Deal legislation, LBJ’s “Great Society” (with its legacy of the ever-expanding and oppressive welfare/transfer-payment schemes: Medicare, Medicaid, a more generous package of Social Security benefits), and an ever-growing mountain of regulatory restrictions.

Had the economy of the U.S. not been deflected from its post-Civil War course, GDP would now be about three times its present level. (Compare the trend lines for 1866-1907 and 1970-2008.) If that seems unbelievable to you, it shouldn’t: $100 compounded for 100 years at 4.3 percent amounts to $6,700; $100 compounded for 100 years at 3.1 percent amounts to $2,100. Nothing other than government intervention (or a catastrophe greater than any we have known) could have kept the economy from growing at more than 4 percent.

What’s next? Unless Obama’s megalomaniacal plans are aborted by a reversal of the Republican Party’s fortunes, the U.S. will enter a new phase of economic growth — something close to stagnation. We will look back on the period from 1970 to 2008 with longing, as we plod along at a growth rate similar to that of 1908-1940, that is, about 2.2 percent. Thus:

  • If GDP grows at 2.2 percent through 2109, it will be 58 percent lower than if we plod on at 3.1 percent.
  • If GDP grows at 2.2 percent for through 2109, it will be only 4 percent of what it would have been had it continued to grow at 4.3 percent after 1907.

The latter disparity may seem incredible, but scan the lists here and you will find even greater cross-national disparities in per capita GDP. Go here and you will find that real, per capita GDP in 1790 was only 4.6 percent of the value it had attained 218 years later. Our present level of output seems incredible to citizens of impoverished nations, and it would seem no less incredible to an American of 1790. In sum, vast disparities can and do exist, across nations and time. We have every reason to believe in the possibility of a sustained growth rate of 4.4 percent, as against one of 2.2 percent, because we have experienced both.

We should look on the periods 1908-1940 and 1970-2009 as aberrations, and take this lesson from those periods: Big government inflicts great harm on almost everyone (politicians and bureaucrats being the main exceptions), including its intended beneficiaries. Such is the price of government when it does more than “establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, [and] provide for the common defence” in order to “promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”

Civil Society and Homosexual “Marriage”

THE IMPORTANCE OF CIVIL SOCIETY

The liberty to live a peaceful, happy, and even prosperous life depends on civil society: the daily observance of person X’s negative rights by persons W, Y, and Z — and vice versa. That is so because it is impossible and — more importantly — undesirable for government to police everyone’s behavior. Liberty depends, therefore, on the institutions of society — family, church, club, and the like — through which individuals learn to treat one another with respect, through which individuals often come to the aid of one another, and through which instances of disrespect can be noted, publicized, and even punished (e.g., by criticism and ostracism).

That is civil society. And it is civil society which, many minarchists aver, government ought to protect instead of usurping and destroying as it establishes its own agencies (e.g., public schools, welfare), gives them primary and even sole jurisdiction in many matters, and funds them with tax money that could have gone to private institutions. Moreover, some minarchists aver that government ought to tolerate a broad range of accepted behaviors across the various institutions of civil society, as long as government also protects the negative rights of association and exit: the right to associate with persons of one’s choosing, and the right to live and work where one prefers.

The centrality of family, church, club, and the like, to civil society reflects a fundamental fact of the human condition: We tend to care more for those who are close to us than we do for those who are unrelated to us by blood or a direct social bond of some kind. Charity and civilization begin at home.

HOW HOMOSEXUAL “MARRIAGE” THREATENS CIVIL  SOCIETY

I turn to Jennifer Roback Morse’s article “Marriage and the Limits of Contract“:

Marriage is a naturally occurring, pre-political institution that emerges spontaneously from society. Western society is drifting toward a redefinition of marriage as a bundle of legally defined benefits bestowed by the state. As a libertarian, I find this trend regrettable. The organic view of marriage is more consistent with the libertarian vision of a society of free and responsible individuals, governed by a constitutionally limited state…..

My central argument is that a society will be able to govern itself with a smaller, less intrusive government if that society supports organic marriage rather than the legalistic understanding of marriage….

The new idea about marriage claims that no structure should be privileged over any other. The supposedly libertarian subtext of this idea is that people should be as free as possible to make their personal choices. But the very nonlibertarian consequence of this new idea is that it creates a culture that obliterates the informal methods of enforcement. Parents can’’t raise their eyebrows and expect children to conform to the socially accepted norms of behavior, because there are no socially accepted norms of behavior. Raised eyebrows and dirty looks no longer operate as sanctions on behavior slightly or even grossly outside the norm. The modern culture of sexual and parental tolerance ruthlessly enforces a code of silence, banishing anything remotely critical of personal choice. A parent, or even a peer, who tries to tell a young person that he or she is about to do something incredibly stupid runs into the brick wall of the non-judgmental social norm….

No libertarian would claim that the presumption of economic laissez-faire means that the government can ignore people who violate the norms of property rights, contracts, and fair exchange. Apart from the occasional anarcho-capitalist, all libertarians agree that enforcing these rules is one of the most basic functions of government. With these standards for economic behavior in place, individuals can create wealth and pursue their own interests with little or no additional assistance from the state. Likewise, formal and informal standards and sanctions create the context in which couples can create marriage with minimal assistance from the state….

Some libertarians seem to believe that marriage is a special case of free association of individuals. I say the details of this particular form of free association are so distinctive as to make marriage a unique social institution that deserves to be defended on its own terms and not as a special case of something else.

One side in this dispute is mistaken. There is enormous room for debate, but there ultimately is no room for compromise….We will be happier if we try to discover the truth and accommodate ourselves to it, rather than try to recreate the world according to our wishes….

Being free does not demand that everyone act impulsively rather than deliberately. Libertarian freedom is the modest demand to be left alone by the coercive apparatus of the government. Economic liberty, and libertarian freedom more broadly, is certainly consistent with living with a great many informal social and cultural constraints….

We now live in an intellectual, social, and legal environment in which the laissez-faire idea has been mechanically applied to sexual conduct and married life. But Rousseau-style state-of-nature couplings are inconsistent with a libertarian society of minimal government. In real, actually occurring societies, noncommittal sexual activity results in mothers and children who require massive expenditures and interventions by a powerful government….

When…Friedrich Hayek championed the concept of spontaneous order, he helped people see that explicitly planned orders do not exhaust the types of social orders that emerge from purposeful human behavior. The opposite of a centrally planned economy is not completely unplanned chaos, but rather a spontaneous order that emerges from thousands of private plans interacting with each according to a set of reasonably transparent legal rules and social norms.

Likewise, the opposite of government controlling every detail of every single family’’s life is not a world in which everyone acts according to emotional impulses. The opposite is an order made up of thousands of people controlling themselves for the greater good of the little society of their family and the wider society at large….

Libertarians recognize that a free market needs a culture of law-abidingness, promise-keeping, and respect for contracts. Similarly, a free society needs a culture that supports and sustains marriage as the normative institution for the begetting, bearing, and rearing of children. A culture full of people who violate their contracts at every possible opportunity cannot be held together by legal institutions, as the experience of post-communist Russia plainly shows. Likewise, a society full of people who treat sex as a purely recreational activity, a child as a consumer good and marriage as a glorified roommate relationship will not be able to resist the pressures for a vast social assistance state. The state will irresistibly be drawn into parental quarrels and into providing a variety of services for the well-being of the children….

The libertarian preference for nongovernmental provision of care for dependents is based upon the realization that people take better care of those they know and love than of complete strangers. It is no secret that people take better care of their own stuff than of other people’s. Economists conclude that private property will produce better results than collectivization schemes. But a libertarian preference for stable married-couple families is built upon more than a simple analogy with private property. The ordinary rhythm of the family creates a cycle of dependence and independence that any sensible social order ought to harness rather than resist.

We are all born as helpless infants, in need of constant care. But we are not born alone. If we are lucky enough to be born into a family that includes an adult married couple, they sustain us through our years of dependence. They do not get paid for the work they do: They do it because they love us. Their love for us keeps them motivated to carry on even when we are undeserving, ungrateful, snot-nosed brats. Their love for each other keeps them working together as a team with whatever division of labor works for them.

As we become old enough to be independent, we become attracted to other people. Our bodies practically scream at us to reproduce and do for our children what our parents did for us. In the meantime, our parents are growing older. When we are at the peak of our strength, stamina, and earning power, we make provision to help those who helped us in our youth.

But for this minimal government approach to work, there has to be a family in the first place. The family must sustain itself over the course of the life cycle of its members. If too many members spin off into complete isolation, if too many members are unwilling to cooperate with others, the family will not be able to support itself. A woman trying to raise children without their father is unlikely to contribute much to the care of her parents. In fact, unmarried parents are more likely to need help from their parents than to provide it….

Marriage is the socially preferred institution for sexual activity and childrearing in every known human society. The modern claim that there need not be and should not be any social or legal preference among sexual or childrearing contexts is, by definition, the abolition of marriage as an institution. This will be a disaster for the cause of limited government. Disputes that could be settled by custom will have to be settled in court. Support that could be provided by a stable family must be provided by taxpayers. Standards of good conduct that could be enforced informally must be enforced by law….

The advocates of the deconstruction of marriage into a series of temporary couplings with unspecified numbers and genders of people have used the language of choice and individual rights to advance their cause. This rhetoric has a powerful hold over the American mind. It is doubtful that the deconstruction of the family could have proceeded as far as it has without the use of this language of personal freedom.

But this rhetoric is deceptive. It is simply not possible to have a minimum government in a society with no social or legal norms about family structure, sexual behavior, and childrearing. The state will have to provide support for people with loose or nonexistent ties to their families. The state will have to sanction truly destructive behavior, as always. But destructive behavior will be more common because the culture of impartiality destroys the informal system of enforcing social norms.

It is high time libertarians object when their rhetoric is hijacked by the advocates of big government. Fairness and freedom do not demand sexual and parental license. Minimum-government libertarianism needs a robust set of social institutions. If marriage isn’t a necessary social institution, then nothing is. And if there are no necessary social institutions, then the individual truly will be left to face the state alone. A free society needs marriage.

Moreover, it is clear that the kind of marriage a free society needs is heterosexual marriage, which — as Morse explains — is a primary civilizing force.

AN ENLIGHTENED LIBERTARIAN STANCE

I therefore reject the unrealistic and ill-considered position that the state ought to stay out of “the marriage business.” I embrace, instead, the realistic, consequentialist position that the state ought to uphold society’s long-standing recognition of the special status of heterosexual marriage by refusing legal recognition to other forms of marriage. That is, the state should refuse to treat marriage as if it were mainly (or nothing but) an arrangement to acquire certain economic advantages or to legitimate relationships that society, in the main, finds illegitimate.

The alternative is to advance further down the slippery slope toward societal disintegration and into the morass of ills which accompany that disintegration. (We have seen enough societal disintegration and costly consequences since the advent of the welfare state to know that the two go hand in hand.) The recognition of homosexual marriage by the state — though innocuous to many, and an article of faith among most libertarians and “liberals” — is another step down that slope. When the state, through its power to recognize marriage, bestows equal benefits on homosexual marriage, it will next bestow equal benefits on other domestic arrangements that fall short of traditional, heterosexual marriage. And that surely will weaken heterosexual marriage, which is the axis around which the family revolves. The state will be saying, in effect, “Anything goes. Do your thing. The courts, the welfare system, and the taxpayer — above all — will pick up the pieces.” And so it will go.

Moreover, as sure as the sun sets in the west, the state will begin to apply the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment in order to protect homosexual “marriage” from its critics. Acting under the rubric of “civil rights” — and  in keeping with the way that anti-discrimination laws have been applied to date — the state will deal harshly with employers, landlords, and clergy who seem to discriminate against homosexual “marriage” and its participants.

Many will dismiss consequential arguments against homosexual “marriage” by asserting that the state’s refusal to legitimate homosexual marriage simply isn’t “fair.” In return, I will ask this:

Unfair to whom, to the relatively small number of persons who seek to assuage their pride or avoid paying a lawyer to document the terms of their relationship, or generally unfair to members of society (of all sexual proclivities), whose well-being is bound to suffer for the sake of homosexual pride or cost-avoidance?

As a practicing minarchist, I would rather have the state stay out of “the marriage business.”  But given that the state is already in that business — and is unlikely to get out of it — the next-best outcome is for the state to uphold societal norms instead of bowing to the preferences of the gay lobby and its influential supporters.

Faced with a choice between libertarian shibboleth and libertarian substance, I have chosen substance. I now say: Ban homosexual marriage and avoid another step down the slippery slope toward incivility and bigger government.

Freedom of Will and Political Action

INTRODUCTION

Without freedom of will, human beings could not make choices, let alone “good” or “bad” ones. Without freedom of will there would be no point in arguing about political philosophies, for — as the song says — whatever will be, will be.

This post examines freedom of will from the vantage point of indeterminacy. Instead of offering a direct proof of freedom of will, I suggest that we might as well believe as if and act as though we possess it, given our inability to delve the depths of the physical universe or the human psyche.

Why focus on indeterminacy? Think of my argument as a variant of Pascal’s wager, which can be summarized as follows:

Even though the existence of God cannot be determined through reason, a person should wager as though God exists, because so living has everything to gain, and nothing to lose.

Whatever its faults — and it has many — Pascal’s wager suggests a way out of an indeterminate situation.

The wager I make in this post is as follows:

  • We cannot discern the deepest physical and psychological truths.
  • Therefore, we cannot say with certainty whether we have freedom of will.
  • We might as well act as if we have freedom of will; if we do not have it, our (illusory) choices cannot make us worse off, but if we do have it our choices may make us better off.

The critical word in the conclusion is “may.” Our choices may make us better off, but only if they are wise choices. It is “may” which gives weight to our moral and political choices. The wrong ones can make us worse off; the right ones, better off.

PHYSICAL INDETERMINACY

Our Inherent Limitations as Humans

I begin with the anthropic principle, which (as summarized and discussed here),

refers to the idea that the attributes of the universe must be consistent with the requirements of our own existence.

In fact, there is no scientific reason to believe that the universe was created in order that human beings might exist. From a scientific standpoint, we are creatures of the universe, not its raison d’etre.

The view that we, the human inhabitants of Earth, have a privileged position is a bias that distorts our observations about the universe. Philosopher-physicist-mathematician Nick Bostrom explains the bias:

[T]here are selection effects that arise not from the limitations of some measuring device but from the fact that all observations require the existence of an appropriately positioned observer. Our data is [sic] filtered not only by limitations in our instrumentation but also by the precondition that somebody be there to “have” the data yielded by the instruments (and to build the instruments in the first place). The biases that occur due to that precondition … we shall call … observation selection effects….

Even trivial selection effects can sometimes easily be overlooked:

It was a good answer that was made by one who when they showed him hanging in a temple a picture of those who had paid their vows as having escaped shipwreck, and would have him say whether he did not now acknowledge the power of the gods,—‘Aye,’ asked he again, ‘but where are they painted that were drowned after their vows?’ And such is the way of all superstition, whether in astrology, dreams, omens, divine judgments, or the like; wherein men, having a delight in such vanities, mark the events where they are fulfilled, but where they fail, though this happens much oftener, neglect and pass them by. (Bacon 1620)

When even a plain and simple selection effect, such as the one that Francis Bacon comments on in the quoted passage, can escape a mind that is not paying attention, it is perhaps unsurprising that observation selection effects, which tend to be more abstruse, have only quite recently been given a name and become a subject of systematic study.

The term “anthropic principle” … is less than three decades old. There are, however, precursors from much earlier dates. For example, in Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, one can find early expressions of some ideas of anthropic selection effects. Some of the core elements of Kant’s philosophy about how the world of our experience is conditioned on the forms of our sensory and intellectual faculties are not completely unrelated to modern ideas about observation selection effects as important methodological considerations in theory-evaluation, although there are also fundamental differences. In Ludwig Boltzmann’s attempt to give a thermodynamic account of time’s arrow …, we find for perhaps the first time a scientific argument that makes clever use of observation selection effects…. A more successful invocation of observation selection effects was made by R. H. Dicke (Dicke 1961), who used it to explain away some of the “large-number coincidences”, rough order-of-magnitude matches between some seemingly unrelated physical constants and cosmic parameters, that had previously misled such eminent physicists as Eddington and Dirac into a futile quest for an explanation involving bold physical postulations.

The modern era of anthropic reasoning dawned quite recently, with a series of papers by Brandon Carter, another cosmologist. Carter coined the term “anthropic principle” in 1974, clearly intending it to convey some useful guidance about how to reason under observation selection effects….

The term “anthropic” is a misnomer. Reasoning about observation selection effects has nothing in particular to do with homo sapiens, but rather with observers in general…

We humans, as the relevant observers of the physical world, can perceive only those patterns that we are capable of perceiving, given the wiring of our brains and the instruments that we design with the use of our brains. Because of our inherent limitations, the limitations that our limitations impose on our instruments, and the inherent limitations of the instruments, we may never be able to see all that there is to see in the universe, even in that part of the universe which is close at hand.

We may never know, for example, whether physical laws change or remain the same in all places and for all time. We may never know (as a matter of scientific observation) how the universe originated, given that its cause(s) (whether Divine or otherwise) may lie outside the boundaries of the universe.

Implications for the Physical Sciences

It follows that the order which we find in the universe may bear no resemblance to the real order of the universe. It may simply be the case that we are incapable of perceiving certain phenomena and the physical laws that guide them, which — for all we know — may change from place to place and time to time.

A good case in point involves the existence of God, which many doubt and many others deny. The doubters and deniers are unable to perceive the existence of God, whereas many believers claim that they can do so. But the inability of doubters and deniers to perceive the existence of God does not disprove God’s existence, as an honest doubter or denier will admit.

It is trite but true to say that we do not know what we do not know; that is, there are unknown unknowns. Given our limitations as observers, the universe likely contains many unknown unknowns that will never become known unknowns.

Given our limitations, we must make do with our perceptions of the universe. Making do means that we learn what we are able to learn (imperfectly) about the universe and its components, and we then use our imperfect knowledge to our advantage wherever possible. (A crude analogy occurs in baseball, where a batter who doesn’t understand why a curveball curves is nevertheless able to hit one.)

THE INDETERMINACY OF HUMAN BEHAVIOR

The tautologous assumption that individuals act in such a way as to maximize their happiness tells us nothing about political or economic outcomes. (The assumption remains tautologous despite altruism, which is nothing more than another way of enhancing the happiness of altruistic individuals.) We can know nothing about the likely course of political and economic events until we know something about the psychological drives that shape those events. Even if we know something (or a great deal) about psychological drives, can we ever know enough to say that human behavior is (or is not) deterministic? The answer I offer here is “no.”

A Conflict of Visions

Economic and political behavior depends greatly on human psychology. For example, Thomas Sowell, in A Conflict of Visions, posits two opposing visions: the unconstrained vision (I would call idealism) and the constrained vision (which I would call realism). At the end of chapter 2, Sowell summarizes the difference between the two visions:

The dichotomy between constrained and unconstrained visions is based on whether or not inherent limitations of man are among the key elements included in each vision…. These different ways of conceiving man and the world lead not merely to different conclusions but to sharply divergent, often diametrically opposed, conclusions on issues ranging from justice to war.

Thus, in chapter 5, Sowell writes:

The enormous importance of evolved systemic interactions in the constrained vision does not make it a vision of collective choice, for the end results are not chosen at all — the prices, output, employment, and interest rates emerging from competition under laissez-faire economics being the classic example. Judges adhering closely to the written law — avoiding the choosing of results per se — would be the analogue in law. Laissez-faire economics and “black letter” law are essentially frameworks, with the locus of substantive discretion being innumerable individuals.

By contrast,

those in the tradition of the unconstrained vision almost invariably assume that some intellectual and moral pioneers advance far beyond their contemporaries, and in one way or another lead them toward ever-higher levels of understanding and practice. These intellectual and moral pioneers become the surrogate decision-makers, pending the eventual progress of mankind to the point where all can make moral decisions.

Digging Deeper

Sowell’s analysis is enlightening, but not comprehensive. The human psyche has many more facets than political realism and idealism. Consider the “Big Five” personality traits:

In psychology, the “Big Five” personality traits are five broad factors or dimensions of personality developed through lexical analysis. This is the rational and statistical analysis of words related to personality as found in natural-language dictionaries.[1] The traits are also referred to as the “Five Factor Model” (FFM).

The model is considered to be the most comprehensive empirical or data-driven enquiry into personality. The first public mention of the model was in 1933, by L. L. Thurstone in his presidential address to the American Psychological Association. Thurstone’s comments were published in Psychological Review the next year.[2]

The five factors are Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism (OCEAN, or CANOE if rearranged). Some disagreement remains about how to interpret the Openness factor, which is sometimes called “Intellect.” [3] Each factor consists of a cluster of more specific traits that correlate together. For example, extraversion includes such related qualities as sociability, excitement seeking, impulsiveness, and positive emotions.

The “Big Five” model is open to criticism, but even assuming its perfection we are left with an unpredictable human psyche. For example, I tested myself (here), with the following results:

Extraversion — 4th percentile
Agreeableness — 4th percentile
Conscientiousness — 99th percentile
Emotional stability — 12th percentile
Openness — 93rd percentile

(NOTE: “Emotional stability” is also called “neuroticism,” “a tendency to experience unpleasant emotions easily, such as anger, anxiety, depression, or vulnerability.” My “neuroticism” doesn’t involve anxiety, except to the extent that I am super-conscientious and, therefore, bothered by unfinished business. Nor does it involve depression or vulnerability. But I am easily angered by incompetence, stupidity, and carelessness. There is far too much of that stuff in the world, which explains my low scores on “extraversion” and “agreeableness.” “Openness” measures my intellectual openness, of course, and not my openness to people.)

I daresay that anyone else who happens to have the same scores as mine (which are only transitory) will have arrived at those scores by an entirely different route. That is, he or she probably differs from me on many of the following dimensions: age, race, ethic/genetic inheritance, income and education of parents and self, location of residence, marital status, number and gender of children (if any), tastes in food, drink, and entertainment. The list could go on, but the principle should be obvious: There is no accounting for psychological differences, or if there is, the accounting is beyond our ken.

Is everyone with my psychological-genetic-demographic profile a radical-right-minarchist like me? I doubt it very much. But even if that were so, it would be impossible to collect the data to prove it, whereas the (likely) case of a single exception would disprove it.

A Caveat, of Sorts

There is something in the human psyche that seems to drive us toward statism. What that says about human nature is almost trite: Happiness — for many humans — involves neither not wealth-maximization or liberty. It involves attitudes that can be expressed as “safety in numbers,” “going along with the crowd,” and “harm is worse than gain.” And it involves the political manipulation of those attitudes in the service of a drive that is not universal but which can dominate events, namely, the drive to power.

CONCLUSION

The preceding caveat notwithstanding, I have made the case that I set out to make:

We might as well act as if we have freedom of will; if we do not have it, our (illusory) choices cannot make us worse off, but if we do have it our choices may make us better off.

In fact, the caveat points to the necessity of acting as if we have freedom of will. Only by doing so can we hope to overcome the psychological tendencies that cause us political and economic harm. For those tendencies are just that — tendencies. They are not iron rules of conduct. And they have been overcome before.

Obama’s Law

Obama seems bent on nominating a woman (preferably a black or Hispanic one) to succeed Justice Souter. (See, for example, the top-10 list of likely nominees, at The Ninth Justice.) There’s nothing wrong with having a woman on the Supreme Court. But Obama’s evident zeal to nominate a woman  speaks volumes about his approach to the law.

The law, to Obama, isn’t a set of rules to protect the honest and — most importantly — limit government. Obama’s law know no constitutional bounds; it is a recipe that combines “empathy” (i.e., cheap compassion), political payoff, and power-lust.

Addendum to “A Short Course in Economics”

The first 19 points appear in “A Short Course in Economics.”

20. The interest-group paradox is a variant of the paradox of thrift. Many Americans (perhaps most of them) favor certain government programs because (they believe) those programs will benefit the class of persons to which they belong, or a class of persons for which they have sympathy. Each such program then becomes a “free lunch,” and you know that there’s no such thing as a free lunch — someone must pay for it, somehow. In the case of government programs, most of us wind up paying for a lot of free lunches because there are thousands of government programs (federal, State, and local), each intended to help a particular class of citizens at the expense of others. And there goes your free lunch.

Wait, it’s worse than that. Picture a row of beer-drinkers at a bar. Each of them is determined to get a bigger free lunch, so each of them eats more. Result? A rise in the price of the beer. Some free lunch.

Even the relatively few persons who might seem to have obtained a free lunch — homeless persons taking advantage of a government-provided shelter — often are victims of the free lunch syndrome. Some homeless persons may be homeless because they have lost their jobs and can’t afford to own or rent housing. But they may have lost their jobs because of pro-union laws, minimum-wage laws, or progressive tax rates (which caused “the rich” to create fewer jobs through business start-ups and expansions).

21. The interest-group paradox is closely related to the fallacy described by Frédéric Bastiat in his essay “What Is Seen and What Is Not Seen“:

In the economic sphere an act, a habit, an institution, a law produces not only one effect, but a series of effects. Of these effects, the first alone is immediate; it appears simultaneously with its cause; it is seen. The other effects emerge only subsequently; they are not seen; we are fortunate if we foresee them.

There is only one difference between a bad economist and a good one: the bad economist confines himself to the visible effect; the good economist takes into account both the effect that can be seen and those effects that must be foreseen.

Yet this difference is tremendous; for it almost always happens that when the immediate consequence is favorable, the later consequences are disastrous, and vice versa….

The pursuer of the free lunch grasps the free lunch but fails to grasp the unintended and costly consequences of his pursuit.

22. Perhaps the gravest of economic fallacies is the belief that regulated economic activity produces better results than unregulated economic activity. This fallacy stems from the fallacy pointed out by Bastiat. Most of us take comfort in plans of one kind or another because we can “see” what the plan intends. What we fail to grasp is that plans — all plans — have unforeseen, unintended, and undesirable consequences. It is those consequences — what is not seen — that undo economic plans and turn hoped-for benefits into actual costs.

By the same token, most of us fail to grasp the fact that unregulated economic activity yields positive results because it involves willing actors engaged in mutually beneficial exchanges of goods and services. Adam Smith was never more correct when he wrote that every individual

[b]y pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good.

That which is produced and consumed voluntarily benefits both its producers and consumers. That which is produced through government fiat may benefit those who dictate its production, while harming consumers by (a) failing to produce that meets their needs and/or (b) producing something that partially meets their needs, but at a higher cost than necessary.

23. Moreover, to quote Wilhelm von Humbolt:

“If men were left to their own deeds and devices, deprived of all outside help that did not manage to obtain themselves, they would also frequently run into difficulty and misfortune whether through their own fault or not. But the happiness for which a man is destined is none other than that which he achieves by his own energies. And it is these very situations which sharpen a man’s mind and develop his character.” (The Limits of State Action [1792]).

A sense of self-worth is important to us; it has economic value of its own. Economics isn’t (or shouldn’t be) the “science” of wealth or output maximization; it is (or ought to be) the “science” of happiness-seeking.

Penalizing “Thought Crimes”

Nat Hentoff, writing at RealClearPolitics, observes with dismay that

the press remain[s] mostly silent about the so-called “hate crimes law” that passed in the House on April 29[.] The Local Law Enforcement Hate Crimes Prevention Act passed in a 249-175 vote (17 Republicans joined with 231 Democrats). These Democrats should have been tested on their knowledge of the First Amendment, equal protection of the laws (14th Amendment), and the prohibition of double jeopardy (no American can be prosecuted twice for the same crime or offense). If they had been, they would have known that this proposal, now headed for a Senate vote, violates all these constitutional provisions.

This bill would make it a federal crime to willfully cause bodily injury (or try to) because of the victim’s actual or perceived “race, color, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability” – as explained on the White House Web site, signaling the president’s approval. A defendant convicted on these grounds would be charged with a “hate crime” in addition to the original crime, and would get extra prison time.

The extra punishment applies only to these “protected classes.” As Denver criminal defense lawyer Robert J Corry Jr. asked (Denver Post April 28): “Isn’t every criminal act that harms another person a ‘hate crime’?” Then, regarding a Colorado “hate crime” law, one of 45 such state laws, Corry wrote: “When a Colorado gang engaged in an initiation ritual of specifically seeking out a “white woman” to rape, the Boulder prosecutor declined to pursue ‘hate crime’ charges.” She was not enough of one of its protected classes.

Corey adds that the state “hate crime” law – like the newly expanded House of Representatives federal bill – “does not apply equally” (as the 14th Amendment requires), essentially instead “criminalizing only politically incorrect thoughts directed against politically incorrect victim categories.”

Whether you’re a Republican or Democrat, think hard about what Corry adds: “A government powerful enough to pick and choose which thoughts to prosecute is a government too powerful.”

But James Madison, who initially introduced the First Amendment to the Constitution, had previously written to Thomas Jefferson on the passage of the Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom: “We have in this country extinguished forever … making laws for the human mind.” No American, he emphasized later, would be punished for his “thoughts.”

However, doesn’t the House “Hate Crimes Bill” state that nothing in the legislation shall “prohibit any expressive conduct protected from legal prohibition” – or speech “protected by the free speech or free exercise clauses in the First Amendment”?…

This legislation, certain to be passed by the Senate, will come to the Supreme Court….

[The justices] should … remember that the Fifth Amendment makes clear: “nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy.” But the House “hate crime” bill allows defendants found innocent of that offense in a state court to be tried again in federal court because of insufficiently diligent prosecutors; or, as Attorney General Eric Holder says, when state prosecutors claim lack of evidence. It must be tried again in federal court!

Imagine Holder as the state prosecutor in the long early stages of the Duke University Lacrosse rape case!…

Consider the infamous murder of Matthew Shepard by Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney. It is evident that Matthew Shepard’s murder — like the mass slayings at Columbine and elsewhere — has been used cynically by advocates of one agenda or another. The agenda is gay rights in the Shepard case; it is gun confiscation in the school-shooting cases.

Those who are rushing to legislate against “thought crimes” should confront these questions: Would Henderson and McKinney’s crime be less heinous if Shepard wasn’t killed because of his homosexuality (a strong possibility)? In other words, why should it more wrong to kill a homosexual because he’s a homosexual than to kill a homosexual for some other reason, or to kill a straight, white male for any reason? Dead is dead, and therein lies the real crime.

If it is more wrong to kill a person because of a personal characteristic than simply to kill a person, consider the case where A kills his neighbor, B, because A dislikes having B as a neighbor. Should neighbor-killing be declared a hate crime? If so, then why not declare all crimes against persons to be hate crimes, and be done with it? That, at least, would comply with the Constitution‘s guarantee of equal-protection, assuming (wrongly, no doubt) even-handed application of the law.

The law should penalize crime, and not presume to read the minds of perpetrators, or — as Nat Hentoff reminds us — grant greater protection to some classes of persons than to others.

Baseball in the Nation’s Capital, Revisited

Way back in September 2004, before the Montreal Expos became the Washington Nationals, I wrote:

To succeed financially, the new Washington team must draw well from the Maryland and Virginia suburbs. Attendance will be high for a few years, because the closeness of major-league baseball will be a novelty to fans who’ve had to trek to Baltimore to see the increasingly hapless Orioles. But suburbanites’ allegiance to the new Washington team won’t survive more than a few losing seasons — and more than a few seem likely, given the Expos’ track record. As the crowds wane, suburbanites will become increasingly reluctant to journey into the city. And, so, the taxpayers of D.C. (and perhaps the taxpayers of the nation) are likely to be stuck with an expensive memento of false civic pride.

I’m not sure about this year’s attendance, but the trend is almost certain to be downward, given the Nats steady dive toward the bottom of the National League. Here are the Nats’ W-L records from 2005 through yesterday:

2005 – .500 (5th of 5 in their division; tied for 9th in their 16-team league)

2006 – .438 (5th of 5 in their division; 14th in the league)

2007 – .451 (4th of 5 in their division; tied for 11th in the league)

2008 – .366 (5th of 5 in their division; last in the league)

2009. – .345 (5th of 5 in their division; last in the league)

As I’ve said before, D.C. isn’t a baseball town. The teams are jinxed by their non-fans.

Inventing “Liberalism”

Modern “liberalism” is statism — left-statism, in particular. According to Mike Rappaport of The Right Coast,

[Although] John Stuart Mill was one of the thinkers who moved liberalism toward its modern meaning, it was in the works of Hobhouse and T.H. Green that the change was most affected.

As for Mill (1806-1873), here are some excerpts of my analysis of his influential On Liberty:

… Mill’s prescription for the realization for liberty … is his “harm principle” beloved of both libertarians and modern liberals. It is as if Mill began with the harm principle in mind, then concocted a description of liberty to justify it. The “devil,” in this case, lies not in the details but in the harm principle:

That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.[2]

Given the individualistic thrust of this passage and the surrounding text, the only plausible interpretation of the harm principle is as follows: An individual may do as he pleases, as long as he does not believe that he is causing harm to others.[3] That is Mill’s prescription for liberty. It is, in fact, an invitation to license and anarchy….

The main appeal of On Liberty to libertarians and modern liberals is Mill’s defense of conduct that (in his view) only offends social norms:

Society can and does execute its own mandates: and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practises a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself. Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough: there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development, and, if possible, prevent the formation, of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own. There is a limit to the legitimate interference of collective opinion with individual independence: and to find that limit, and maintain it against encroachment, is as indispensable to a good condition of human affairs, as protection against political despotism.[5]

Thus Mill rejects the enforcement of social norms, “except [in] a few of the most obvious cases,”[6] by either the state or “society.”…

Mill’s bias against the enforcement of social norms, in all but a few “obvious cases” (murder? theft? rape?), ignores the civilizing influence of those norms. That influence is of no account to Mill, as [Theodore] Dalrymple explains:

For Mill, custom is an evil that is the principle obstruction to progress and moral improvement, and its group on society is so strong that originality, unconventionality, and rebellion against it are goods in themselves, irrespective of their actual content. The man who flouts a convention ipso facto raises society from its torpor and lets everyone know that there are different, and better, ways of doing things. The more such people there are, the greater the likelihood of progress….

Of radical evil, in which the [twentieth] century was to abound, [Mill] has nothing to say, and therefore he had no idea that a mania for progress could result in its very antithesis, or that some defense against such radical evil, of which the commission was no possible without the co-operation and participation of many men, was necessary. The abandonment of customary restraint and inverted moral prejudice was not necessarily followed by improvement.[9]

There is a high price to be paid for the blind rejection of long-standing social norms, whether by individuals, organized groups, legislatures, or courts wishing to “do their own thing,” exact “social justice,” make life “fair,” or just “shake things up” for the sake of doing so. The price is liberty.

If Mill was in the van of modern liberalism, Thomas Hill Green (1836-1882) and Leonard Trelawney Hobhouse (1864-1929) were leaders of its intellectual tank corps.

An article about Green at The Stanford Encyclopedia of History includes this (under “The Principles of State Action”):

Green holds that the state should foster and protect the social, political and economic environments in which individuals will have the best chance of acting according to their consciences. Notice that in principle Green is not concerned to allow all actions, no matter what their origin…. Yet, the state must be careful when deciding which liberties to curtail and in which ways to curtail them. Over-enthusiastic or clumsy state intervention could easily close down opportunities for conscientious action thereby stifling the moral development of the individual. The state should intervene only where there was a clear, proven and strong tendency of a liberty to enslave the individual. Even when such a hazard had been identified, Green tended to favour action by the affected community itself rather than national state action itself — local councils and municipal authorities tended to produce measures that were more imaginative and better suited to the daily reality of a social problem. Hence he favoured the ‘local option’ where local people decided on the issuing of liquor licences in their area, through their town councils….

Green held that the ultimate power to decide on the allocation of such tasks should rest with the national state (in Britain, embodied in Parliament). The national state itself is legitimate for Green to the extent that it upholds a system of rights and obligations that is most likely to foster individual self-realisation. Yet, the most appropriate structure of this system is determined neither by purely political calculation nor by philosophical speculation. As we shall see, it is more accurate to say that it arose from the underlying conceptual and normative structure of one’s particular society.

Here are some key passages from a biography of Hobhouse on the site of the UK’s Liberal Democrat History Group:

… Hobhouse’s mature political and economic thought [culminated] in his extraordinary little book Liberalism (1911). He sought to explain the social programme and taxation policies of the Liberal government as an extension, not a reversal, of the economic principles of earlier Liberals such as Mill. His underlying theory, difficult to apply in practice but clear enough in theory, was that wealth was created by a combination of individual effort and social organisation, and that the state was entitled to redistribute for the common good that part which arose from social organisation. He also distinguished between property held for use and property held for power, recognising the need for the former but not the latter to be protected by a system of rights. Out of the combination of these ideas, Hobhouse developed Liberal justifications for a guaranteed minimum income funded by income tax.

Hobhouse also developed a distinctive view of liberty and the proper purposes of state power. He maintained, against what we now call libertarianism, that liberty depended on restraint – that every liberty depends on a corresponding act of control. He followed Mill in pointing out the many forms of coercion in social life, including features of existing social and economic conditions. His conclusion was that the proper role of the state was to maximise the availability of liberty by reorganising the existing constraints. But Hobhouse differed from Mill in explaining why paternalism should be opposed. Whereas Mill starts with the harm principle, that no-one should be coerced except to prevent harm to others, Hobhouse says that we should refrain from coercing people for their own good not because [their] good is indifferent to us but because it cannot be furthered by coercion. He believed that the value of liberty lies precisely in its role in human self-development.

Green and Hobhouse, in other words, were accountants of the soul. Green’s apparent delicacy in warning of too much intervention is overcome, in the end, by his recognition of the British state (embodied in Parliament) as the proper arbiter of human conduct. Hobhouse, more boldly, presumed that he and others of his ilk (but not those who disagree with him) could determine how much of one’s property arose from “social organisation,” how much of one’s property was “held for power,” and how to expand liberty by adopting different forms of coercion than those imposed by social norms.

Once again, we are met with (presumably) intelligent persons who believe that their intelligence enables them to peer into the souls of others, and to raise them up through the blunt instrument that is the state.

And that is precisely the mistake that lies at heart of what we now call “liberalism” or “progressivism.”  It is the three-fold habit of setting oneself up as an omniscient arbiter of economic and social outcomes, then castigating the motives and accomplishments of the financially successful and socially “well placed,” and finally penalizing financial and social success through taxation and other regulatory mechanisms (e.g., affirmative action, admission quotas, speech codes, “hate crime” legislation”). It is a habit that has harmed the intended beneficiaries of government intervention, not just economically but in other ways, as well:

  • Americans have learned dependence, instead of self-reliance.
  • Civil society has all but vanished, and with it our ability to solve problems and resolve conflicts cooperatively. Instead, we are forced by government to accept one-size-fits-all solutions.

Not to mention that our liberty — true liberty, not Mill’s hypothetical kind — has all but vanished.

Thus are the wages of “liberalism.”

Other related posts:
The Interest-Group Paradox
Democracy and Liberty
Greed, Cosmic Justice, and Social Welfare
The Worriers
More about the Worrying Classes
Modern Utilitarianism
Refuting Rousseau and His Progeny (and its predecessors, here, here, here, and here)
Positive Rights and Cosmic Justice (Cosmic Justice)
Positive Rights and Cosmic Justice: Part I
Positive Rights and Cosmic Justice: Part II
Positive Rights and Cosmic Justice: Part III

Is Statism Inevitable?

In “Parsing Political Philosophy” I suggest that our descent into statism may continue indefinitely. The suggestion is based on years of observing American politics, which have brought me to the understanding that voters are profoundly irrational. They prefer statism to liberty, regardless of what they say. They (most of them) believe statism to be benign because it often wears a friendly face. But statism is not benign; it is dehumanizing, impoverishing, and — at bottom — destructive of the social fabric upon which liberty depends.

If statism — and perhaps something worse — is an inevitable product of our representative democracy, why is that so? One explanation invokes the slippery slope, which is

an argument for the likelihood of one event or trend given another. Invoking the “slippery slope” means arguing that one action will initiate a chain of events that will lead to a (generally undesirable) event later. The argument is sometimes referred to as the thin end of the wedge or the camel’s nose.

That is to say, once a polity becomes accustomed to relying on the state for a particular thing that should be left to private action, it becomes easier to rely on the state for other things that should be left to private action.

Another metaphor for the rising path of state power is the ratchet effect,

the commonly observed phenomenon that some processes cannot go backwards once certain things have happened, by analogy with the mechanical ratchet that holds the spring tight as a clock is wound up.

As people become accustomed to a certain level of state action, they take that level as a given. Those who question it are labeled “radical thinkers” and “out of the mainstream.” The “mainstream” — having taken it for granted that the state should “do something” — argues mainly about how much more it should do and how it should do it, with cost as an afterthought.

Perhaps the best metaphor for our quandary is the death spiral. Reliance on the state creates more problems than it solves. But, having become accustomed to relying on the state, the polity relies on the state to deal with the problems caused by its previous decisions to rely on the state. That only makes matters worse, which leads to further reliance on the state, etc., etc. etc.

More specifically, unleashing the power of the state to deal with matters best left to private action diminishes the ability of private actors to deal with problems and to make progress, thereby fostering the false perception that state action is inherently superior. At the same time, the accretion of power by the state creates dependencies and constituencies, leading to support for state action in the service of particular interests. Coalitions of such interests resist efforts to diminish state action and support efforts to increase it. Thus the death spiral.

Can we pull out of the spiral? Not unless and until resistance to state action becomes much stronger than it is. Nor can can it be merely intellectual resistance; it must be conjoined to political power. The only source of political power toward which anti-statists — and disillusioned statists — can turn is the Republican Party. And if the GOP does not return to its limited-government roots, all may be lost.

How can the GOP succeed in divesting itself of more of its Specters, while adding new blood in sufficient quantity so as to become, once again, a potent political force? Fred Barnes, writing in The Weekly Standard (“Be the Party of No,” vol. 14, issue 33, 05/18/09) is on the right track:

Many Republicans recoil from being combative adversaries of a popular president. They shouldn’t. Opposing Obama across-the-board on his sweeping domestic initiatives makes sense on substance and politics. His policies–on spending, taxes, health care, energy, intervention in the economy, etc.–would change the country in ways most Americans don’t believe in. That’s the substance. And a year or 18 months from now, after those policies have been picked apart and exposed and possibly defeated, the political momentum is likely to have shifted away from Obama and Democrats.

This scenario has occurred time and again. Why do you think Democrats won the House and Senate in 2006 and bolstered their majorities in 2008? It wasn’t because they were more thoughtful, offered compelling alternatives, or had improved their brand. They won because they opposed unpopular policies of President Bush and exploited Republican scandals in Congress. They were highly partisan and not very nice about it.

If Republicans scan their history, they’ll discover unbridled opposition to bad Democratic policies pays off. Those two factors, unattractive policies plus strong opposition, were responsible for the Republican landslides in 1938, 1946, 1966, 1980, and 1994. A similar blowout may be beyond the reach of Republicans in 2010, but stranger things have happened in electoral politics. They’ll lose nothing by trying….

Republican efforts to escape being tagged the party of no are understandable…. But no matter how restrained and sensible Republicans sound or how many useful ideas they develop, they’re probably stuck with the party of no label. They have more to gain by actually accepting the role and taking on Obama vigorously. If they come to be dubbed the party of no, no, no, a thousand times no, all the better. It will mean they’re succeeding.

In other words, Republicans might make some headway against the forces of statism if they will simply live up to their reputation for “meanness,” instead of apologizing for it — as they have been doing for decades. (Here’s how not to do it.) In order for that to happen, the Cheney wing of the party must prevail over the Powell wing. The good news is that the Powell wing — as represented by RINOs like Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe — may simply choose to follow Arlen Specter’s cynical conversion to the party of statism.

If the GOP fails to revert to its small-government stance, all may be lost. Democrats will be free to spend and spend, elect and elect, until — somewhere down the road — voters finally rebel. But until that distant day, Democrats will have enacted so many more crippling laws and regulations, and appointed so many more lawless judges, that nothing short of a constitutional revolution could rescue us from our political and economic hell.

Having had one constitutional revolution, I doubt that we will be lucky enough to have another one. Only a wise (and rare) élite can establish and maintain the somewhat minarchistic state we enjoyed until the early 1900s. The existence of such an élite — and its success in establishing a lasting minarchy — depends on serendipity, determination, and (yes) even force. That we, in the United States, came close (for a time) to living in a minarchy was due to historical accident (luck). We had just about the right élite at just about the right time, and the élite’s wisdom managed to prevail for a while.

That we have moved on to something worse than minarchy does not prove the superiority of statism. It simply suggests that our luck ran out because statism was (and remains) inevitable in a representative democracy, where irrational voters fuel the power-lust of politicians, and politicians gull irrational voters.

But I have not lost all hope (because of this, in part). And so, I await with interest (and some hope) the outcome of the struggle for the Republican Party’s soul.

Related reading: Peter Ferrara’s The Strategy of Not-So-Smart Surrender

Parsing Political Philosophy

A revised version of this post, expanded in scope but somewhat shorter, is here.

This is a work in progress. It is my attempt to replace vague terms like “conservative” and “liberal” with a more precise delineation of political viewpoints in the United States. Accurate as this taxonomy may be, it is not impartial, nor is it meant to be. I favor a particular branch of minarchism — and it shows.

TWO BASIC POLITICAL ISSUES

Politics, correctly understood, refers to the means by which human beings govern interpersonal behavior of various kinds (including commerce), and — in some cases — behavior that might be considered strictly personal (e.g., the kinds of material one chooses to read or view). There are two basic political issues:

  • who should govern (if anyone)
  • what they should govern (i.e., government’s proper role, if any, in the regulation of human affairs).

My purpose here is to classify the range of views about those issues in terms more meaningful than “Democrat,” “Republican,” “liberal,” “conservative,” and the like. Such terms no longer convey accurate information about a person’s stance on the basic issues (if they ever did).

THREE BASIC PHILOSOPHIES OF POLITICS

I begin with a rough sorting of political preferences:

  • Anarchism is a fairly coherent (if implausible) philosophy of non-government, propounded by persons who usually call themselves anarcho-capitalists (probably because it seems a more respectable label than “anarchist”).
  • Minarchism is a somewhat more diffuse but still coherent philosophy of minimal government, propounded by persons who usually call themselves libertarians, over the objection of anarchists, who claim to be the only true libertarians.
  • Anarchists and minarchists dwell in the big tent of libertarianism.  Where anarchists are fairly monolithic in their views (government is evil because it must always be based on coercion), minarchists are of varied stripes, which I delineate below. My analyses of anarchism and minarchism span the range of libertarian ideas, so there is nothing more for me to say in this post about libertarianism as a political philosophy.
  • Statism lives not in a big tent but in a  colossal coliseum. It comprises a broad set of attitudes about government’s role, propounded by “types” ranging from redneck yahoos to campus radicals, each type proclaiming itself benign (for some, if not for others). But each type would — in thought and word, if not deed — set loose the dogs of the state upon its political opponents and the vast, hapless majority. Statism, because it is so powerful and pervasive a force, merits further analysis — more aptly, dissection — into its main types.

Thus the three broad philosophies that I parse in this post are anarchism, minarchism, and statism. Here’s a bit more about each of them:

Anarchism

Anarchists believe that no one should govern others; rather, all human interactions and joint functions (e.g., a group’s efforts to defend itself against predators and enemies) should be undertaken through voluntary agreements, including contracts with private defense agencies.

Central to anarchism is the dual principle of non-coercion and non-aggression: conjoined prohibitions against the imposition of one’s will upon others and, therefore, the use of force except in self-defense or the defense of others. (Are there loopholes for dealing with imminent, predatory threats and teaching children to behave? Only an anarchist knows for sure.) Government, by definition, imposes its will by exerting superior force. Government, therefore, is illegitimate.

The non-aggression principle is the undoing of anarchism. Anarchy (purely consensual anarchy) cannot prevail. Non-aggression often is met with aggression. Anarchists (were there a viable group of them) would fall prey to well-armed aggressors (both from within the group and outside it). This inconvenient fact is of no account to doctrinaire anarchists. They are focused on the world as they would like it to be, and have little time for the world as it is, except to object when it isn’t to their liking — which is all of the time.

Minarchism

The Central Tenet: Limited Government

Minarchists are united in but one respect: Government, being inevitable if not necessary, must be kept within strict bounds. Given the inevitabliity of government, it is better to control it than to be controlled by it. It is therefore better to design an accountable one that can be kept within its bounds (or so minarchists hope) than to suffer an imposed regime, most likely an oppressive one.

Why do minarchists prefer strictly limited government? There are two reasons. The first reason is a desire to be left alone, or more elegantly, a deontological belief in the natural right to be left alone. (Most anarchists are deontologists.) The second, consequentalist, reason is that voluntary social and economic transactions yield better results than government-directed ones. Friedrich Hayek makes that argument, at length and succesfully, in his essay, “The Use of Knowledge in Society.” Here is a small sample:

As Alfred Whitehead has said in another connection, “It is a profoundly erroneous truism, repeated by all copy-books and by eminent people when they are making speeches, that we should cultivate the habit of thinking what we are doing. The precise opposite is the case. Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.” This is of profound significance in the social field. We make constant use of formulas, symbols, and rules whose meaning we do not understand and through the use of which we avail ourselves of the assistance of knowledge which individually we do not possess. We have developed these practices and institutions by building upon habits and institutions which have proved successful in their own sphere and which have in turn become the foundation of the civilization we have built up.

What Hayek says is true not only of economic institutions but also of social ones. The seemingly uncoordinated price “system” guides economic actors toward better ways of meeting ever-changing human wants with limited resources. The social “system” accrues behavioral norms that guide individuals toward peaceful, constructive coexistence with their compatriots.

The Protection of Negative Rights

Whether deontological or consequentialist, minarchism holds that the central role of government is to protect citizens from predators, domestic and foreign. Such protection cannot be absolute, but government’s evident ability and willingness to dispense justice and defend the nation are meant, in part, to deter predators.

More generally, the ideal government is restricted to the protection of negative rights. Such rights, as opposed to positive rights, do not involve claims against others; instead, they involve the right to be left alone by others. Negative rights include the right to conduct one’s affairs without being killed, maimed, or forced or tricked into doing something against one’s will; the right to own property, as against the right of others to abscond with property or claim it as their own; the right to work for a wage and not as a slave to an “owner” who claims the product of one’s labor; and the right to move and transact business freely within government’s sphere of sovereignty (which can include overseas movements and transactions, given a government strong enough to protect them).

To a minarchist, then, rights are limited to those that can be exercised without requiring something of others (e.g., transfers of income and property). The one necessary exception is the cost of providing a government to ensure the exercise of rights. That cost must be borne, in some arbitrary way, by citizens who, on the one hand, see no need for government (i.e., anarchists) and by citizens who, on the other hand, have differing conceptions of rights and how the cost of protecting those rights should be shared.

More about Property Rights

Minarchists (like anarchists) are fierce defenders of property rights. Minarchists hold that we own what we earn (or what is given to us, freely, by others who have earned it). The right to property is a negative right, in that the enjoyment and use of that which is ours need not deny anyone else the right to enjoy and use that which is theirs. (Acts of enjoyment and use, however, must not infringe on the negative rights of others.) The denial of property rights (in whole or in part) is theft, whether committed by a private party or government. (The “public use” clause of the Fifth Amendment is applied legitimately only when government must take property, with “just compensation” in order to execute one of the few legitimate functions of government.)

There is an economic justification, as well, for minarchists’ defense of property rights. People generally use that which they own more carefully and more productively than that which they do not own. This tendency — which springs from the same psychological source as the tendency of individuals to care more for those who are closest to them — yields less waste and greater output. That outcome benefits everyone, not just the owners of economic resources.

The Role of Civil Society

There can be more to minarchy than the protection of negative rights. In the view of some minarchists, government legitimately serves the broader (but related) purpose of protecting civil society. Other minarchists have no use for what they see as the strictures of civil society; they wish only to be left alone. In their introverted myopia they fail to see that the liberty to live a peaceful, happy, and even prosperous life depends on civil society: the daily observance of person X’s negative rights by persons W, Y, and Z — and vice versa. That is so because it is impossible and — more importantly — undesirable for government to police everyone’s behavior. Liberty depends, therefore, on the institutions of society — family, church, club, and the like — through which individuals learn to treat one another with respect, through which individuals often come to the aid of one another, and through which instances of disrespect can be noted, publicized, and even punished (e.g., by criticism and ostracism).

That is civil society. And it is civil society which, many minarchists aver, government ought to protect instead of usurping and destroying as it establishes its own agencies (e.g., public schools, welfare), gives them primary and even sole jurisdiction in many matters, and funds them with tax money that could have gone to private institutions. Moreover, some minarchists aver that government ought to tolerate a broad range of accepted behaviors across the various institutions of civil society, as long as government also protects the negative rights of association and exit: the right to associate with persons of one’s choosing, and the right to live and work where one prefers.

The centrality of family, church, club, and the like, to civil society reflects a fundamental fact of the human condition: We tend to care more for those who are close to us than we do for those who are unrelated to us by blood or a direct social bond of some kind. Charity and civilization begin at home.

Statism

We come now to statism, about which less need be said than about minarchism. Statism is notable mainly for its failure to understand, respect, or protect negative rights and civil society.

The Essence of Statism: Control

Statism boils down to one thing: the use of government’s power to direct resources and people toward outcomes dictated by government. Statism is orthogonal to the libertarian worldview of anarchists and minarchists.

The particular set of outcomes toward which government should strive depends on the statist who happens to be expounding his views. But all of them are essentially alike in their desire to control the destiny of others. (Two excellent posts that spell out the essential sameness of statism, whether it comes from the “left” or the “right,” are John Ray’s “The American Roots of Fascism” and Eric Scheie’s “Rule by the Freest.”)

“Hard” statists thrive on the idea of a powerful state; control is their religion, pure and simple. “Soft” statists profess offense at the size, scope, and cost of government, but will go on to say “government should do such-and-such,” where “such-and such” usually consists of:

  • government grants of particular positive rights, either to the statist, to an entity or group to which he is beholden, or to a group with which he sympathizes
  • government interventions in business and personal affairs, in the belief that government can do certain things better than private actors, or simply should do many things other than — and sometimes in lieu of — dispensing justice and defending the nation.

The distinctions between “hard” and “soft” are, for my purposes, less important than the particular kinds of positive rights and interventions preferred by statists of various stripes. I parse the variety of statists later in this post.

Feeble Excuses for Statism

Statists give various excuses for their statism. Here are three, the second and third of which are mentioned above:

  • Government is the community. (This is an odd thing to say, given that politicians elected by a minority of the populace, and often a bare majority of voters, are able to dictate to the non-voting majority. The main virtue of  many an appointed official is that he represents a particular interest group, which is a far cry from “the community.”)
  • People (or certain kinds of people) can’t do such-and-such for themselves. (This claim is credible only because government has destroyed much of civil society by fostering dependency instead of personal responsibility; by blunting entrepreneurship, business formation, and economic growth through taxation and regulation; by breaking up families through various welfare programs; by usurping many of civil society’s functions (education, care of the elderly, and charity being the three most obvious); and by heavily taxing those who would have the means to underwrite the educational and charitable institutions of civil society.)
  • Certain kinds of activities and industries must be regulated because we can’t trust certain so-an-so’s to do the right thing. (This claim is tantamount to saying that (a) only certain outcomes are acceptable, (b) risk — which is necessary to progress — can be controlled by politicians and bureaucrats, and (c) the superficial knowledge and judgments of those same politicians and bureaucrats are adequate substitutes for the vast amounts of knowledge resident in free markets and free social institutions.

The reality from which statists avert their eyes is this: Even in a “democracy” such as ours, where government is supposed to be the people’s servant, it is in fact operated by power-hungry politicians and their often-arrogant minions. The arrogant attitudes of elected and appointed officials toward the “communities” they supposedly serve are revealed by the lavish offices and perquisites they arrange for themselves. The higher they rise on the scale of political power, the more god-like they become, to themselves at least. Constituent service is a means of garnering votes — a necessary evil, handled by staffers whenever possible, and paid for by taxpayers. (A politician naturally take a more personal interest in big contributors seeking attention and favors.)

The Bottom Line

No recitation of the character and limitations of government really matters to a statist. Government is at once a statist’s god and bully of first resort.

It is evident that we have come to statism as the ruling philosophy in America, for reasons I will detail in a future post.

REFINING THE TRIPARTITE TAXONOMY

To further distinguish anarchists, minarchists, and statists, and to delineate the varieties of minarchism and statism, I apply the following questions:

  1. Is there a need for government, that is, an institution empowered to impose rules of behavior on the populace? Or should human affairs be regulated (entirely or mainly) by voluntary agreements among individuals (say, adult individuals for the sake of simplicity)?
  2. If government is necessary, what control should it have of the affairs of citizens, with respect to (a) the types of affairs and (b) the degree of control?
  3. How should government be chosen?
  4. How should it be controlled?

The answers follow. For the sake of brevity, I generally use the following notation: A = anarchist(s), M = minarchist(s), S = statist(s).

1. Need for Government

Anarchists

A say “no” to government because, in their view, essential functions (e.g., justice and defense) can be accomplished through contracts with private agencies. Similarly, all other matters involving human interactions should be resolved by consenting individuals through voluntary agreements.

Given that A do not believe in the necessity of government, I have only one more thing to say about anarchists until the summing up: No anarchist who strives for consistency in his beliefs should have any views about the three questions yet to be addressed.

Minarchists and Statists

M and S say “yes” to government. M do so out of necessity (anarchy being impossible, in their view), or in the belief that it is possible and desirable to have a minimal government which only protects negative rights (including property rights) and civil society.

S say “yes” to government out of a desire to harness the power of government to their will. But the answers to questions 2 through 4 are fundamentally different as between M and S, and among S.

2. Government Control of the Affairs of Citizens

Minarchists

Somewhere on the political scale the must be a little room for those M who are anarchists at heart, but who accept the inevitability of government or flinch at the thought of anarchy. These tepid minarchists have little to contribute to political discourse. Their stock in trade is to point out that government always does the wrong thing, no matter what it does. I call them A-M, for anarcho-minarchists. And that is the end of them, for purposes of this post.

I turn now to those M who actually have ideas about what government should do within its proper sphere.

The main arguments among M have to do with defining negative rights and delineating government’s role in protecting those rights. The protection of negative rights requires that certain kinds of actions be prevented or punished. But there are gray areas, the most significant of which involve defense, crime, discrimination (on the basis of race, gender, or sexual orientation), and matters that come under the heading of self-ownership (e.g., abortion and homosexual “marriage”).

Some M are to the “left.” These  L-M (left-minarchists), as I call them, usually cluster around the following positions:

  • L-M embrace the non-aggression principle with respect to national defense, not because they believe in anarchy but because they simply wish that it weren’t necessary for America to be at war with anyone. They might consider it necessary to strike first at a potential enemy who is poised to strike us, but they would have to think long and hard about it.
  • For much the same reason, L-M tend toward a “soft on crime” stance and near-absolutism with respect to things like freedom of speech, freedom from warrantless searches and seizures, and freedom from self-incrimination. As with defense, L-M will admit the need for government action, but they mistrust the government that has the power to act.
  • L-M are sympathetic to “political correctness,” arguing that someone (perhaps government) must do something to quell impolite speech or to compensate blacks, women, etc., for the past behavior of those who discriminated against them. More generally, they are all for liberty, except when it is exercised in ways of which they disapprove.
  • Reverting to their embrace of the non-aggression principle, which they abandon when it comes to “political correctness,” L-M tend toward absolutism on such matters as abortion (“it’s a woman’s choice”) and homosexual “marriage” (“what’s different about it?”).

With respect to the first two points, L-M come very close to being anarchists. Government may be necessary, but it is very definitely an evil to be tolerated and restrained, perhaps even to the point of ineffectiveness in combating predators. As for the last two points, L-M come very close to being left-statists (who are discussed below). L-M fall in the M column mainly because of their general views about government: Less is better, and the only rights it should protect (with perhaps a few exceptions having to do with discrimination) are negative ones. Of course, in order to say that, you must count among negative rights the right to kill an unborn child.

It may come as a surprise to L-M, but it is possible to be a minarchist and hold views nearly opposite those of an L-M. The right-minarchists (R-M) who hold such views tend to cluster around these positions:

  • R-M reject the non-aggression principle with respect to national defense. They do so not because they favor aggression but because the principle, in its standard interpretation, is a non-action principle. It would not allow a preemptive attack on an antagonistic state that is armed, capable of striking us at any time, and known to be contemplating a strike. R-M, in other words, tend toward hawkishness when it comes to national defense.
  • R-M also tend toward a hawkish stance on crime. For example, some R-M have no sympathy for journalists who protect anonymous sources where those sources obtain their information by breaking the law. Other R-M reject the idea that the press should be allowed to print whatever information it may obtain about America’s defense forces, plans, and operation. R-M understand that liberty and the prosperity it brings are unattainable in a lawless, defenseless society.
  • R-M are unsympathetic to “political correctness,” arguing that government must not do anything to quell impolite speech or to compensate blacks, women, etc., for the past behavior of those who discriminated against them, because to do so penalizes persons now living who are innocent of discrimination. But more than that, R-M would give individuals and businesses broad latitude in their affairs, penalizing only acts traditionally understood as harmful (e.g., murder, rape, and theft).
  • R-M see “rights” like abortion and homosexual “marriage” as government-imposed social innovations with potentially harmful consequences for civil society. If social custom, as embodied in legislative acts, rejects such things as abortion and homosexual “marriage,” it does so because those things undermine the fabric of society — the bonds of mutual respect, mutual trust, and mutual restraint that enable a people to live and work together in peace.

Obviously, there are other shades of M lying between L-M and R-M. I focus on those two varieties to illustrate the broad range of positions that can be encompassed in minarchism: from the radical posturings of L-M to the true conservativism (and true libertarianism) of R-M.

Statists

S are either to the left (L-S) or the right (R-S), depending on the the kinds of positive rights they want government to bestow, the kinds of property rights they would allow government to flout, and the ways in which they would use government to usurp and trample civil society.

L-S and R-S generally clamor for their own negative rights, but they are eager to deny the negative rights of others. L-S, for example, would like to muzzle global-warming skeptics and impose penalties for “hate crimes”; R-S would quell protests, even orderly, non-disruptive ones. (A minarchist would point out that there would be far fewer protests if protesters knew that government wouldn’t do anything about the matters being protested.)  The general point is that both L-S and R-S tend to be so intolerant of views they oppose that they would use government to quell those views. The use of government in that way bestows (or would bestow) a  positive right on S, in that it takes (or would take) something (e.g., freedom of speech) from some persons for the satisfaction of others (statists). (The use of government in that way, as in other illegitimate ways, merely authorizes reciprocal treatment from one’s opponents.)

Both L-S and R-S are  proponents of overtly positive rights, as well. L-S prefer such things as income redistribution, affirmative action, and the legitimation of gay marriage, whereas R-S are reliably on the opposing side of such issues. It other words, where L-S generally support positive rights for particular classes of individuals (e.g., the poor, blacks, homosexuals), R-S generally oppose such rights. The problem (from a minarchist’s standpoint) is that R-S often seem oblivious to the principle that government shouldn’t be in the business of granting positive rights; the R-S position too often seems based on animus toward the groups favored by L-S. That said, many R-S oppose the granting of positive rights for the perfectly valid reason that they (among others) will bear the costs associated with such rights. (It is consoling to an R-M when an R-S votes against L-S candidates for office, whatever his reasons for doing so.)

L-S prefer government intervention in the economy, not only for the purpose of redistributing income but also to provide goods and services that can be provided more efficiently by the private sector, to regulate what remains of the private sector, and to engage aggressively in monetary and fiscal measure to maintain “full employment.” It should be evident that L-S have no respect for property rights, given their willingness to allow government to tax and regulate at will.

R-S oppose government interventions, unless they stand to benefit from them, or happen to view them through the lens of nationalism (e.g., “protecting American jobs”).

The best-known differences between L-S and R-S are found in their attitudes toward crime, defense, and abortion. L-S tend toward leniency and forgiveness of criminals (unless the L-S or those close to him are the victims); R-S tend toward swift and sure punishment. On defense, L-S act as if they prefer Chamberlain to Churchill, their protestations to the contrary; R-S prefer Churchill to Chamberlain, and make no bones about it. Abortion (and kindred issues involving life and death) find L-S siding with L-M and R-S siding with R-M.

L-S have no room in their minds for civil society; government is their idea of “community.” R-S defend civil society, and would push government to the background — except when they want government to do something. Their willingness to allow more than a minimal government, for certain purposes, leads R-S into the trap of arguing about what government should do instead of arguing that it should do no more than protect negative rights (including property rights) and civil society.

3. How to Choose Government

The question of choosing government subsumes two issues:

  • the breadth of the franchise (assuming that something like representative democracy is the preferred form of government)
  • whether those who govern should be chosen or should choose themselves.

On the first issue, L-M generally align with L-S; R-M, with R-S. The first pairing usually opposes efforts to restrict voting (e.g., by requiring photo ID) that might restrain voting by certain groups (mainly poor blacks and Latinos). The second pairing is more vigilant against voter fraud (usually because the fraud usually cuts against their interests).

There are R-M (like me) and R-S who are less worried by voting fraud than by the extent to which the franchise has been broadened. This has nothing to do with gender or race (except perhaps in the part of some R-S) and much to do with keeping government on the straight-and-narrow. A good way to do that is to restrict the franchise to those persons who have acquired sufficient maturity, and who have a vested interest in the protection of property rights (which are central to economic well-being). My own modest proposal is to raise the voting age 30, and to restrict voting to persons who own their principal residence.

All of the preceding variations on the issue of franchise are minor when compared with the stark truths surrounding the issue whether those who govern should be chosen or should choose themselves. There are S who prefer dictatorship, even if they don’t call it that. I am referring to those L-S who have become shrill in their insistence on regulating the minutiae of our lives and livelihoods (from smoking to banking), suppressing dissent about certain issues (e.g., global warming and gay rights), and suppressing religious expression in the (spurious) cause of separating church and state. These L-S prefer to exercise their will through regulators and judges, inasmuch as we have come to think of powerful regulatory agencies and law-making judges as manifestations of representative democracy. But these are not proper manifestations of representative democracy, and should not be thought of as such. Regulatory agencies and judges (not to mention those many elected officials who seem to hold office for life) are not chosen by voters; they are foisted upon voters. (There is a strong case to be made for appointed judges, but appointed judges who make law instead of applying it are on the side of statism.)

Unfortunately, it is only in rare instances (as in the case of I.F. Stone) that these L-S are revealed for what they really are: tyrants cloaked in the language of democracy and compassion. L-S of the kind I have been discussing (which, unfortunately seems to be most of them), belong in a category by themselves. I hereby dub them and their branch of political thought T-L-S (for totalitarian-left-statists and totalitarian-left-statism).

Certainly, there are some T-R-S to be found among the ranks of white nationalists and their ilk. But T-R-S constitute a platoon, as against a legion of T-L-S.

4. How to Control Government

This question overlaps the previous question in one respect, it involves the right to vote, namely, who has it. Two other issues are the degree to which power is centralized, and how the central government’s power is checked. Casual observation suggests that the expansion of the franchise, the centralization of government power, and the expansion of the central government’s power are closely related. The more “democratic” we are, the less liberty we enjoy, thanks in part to the interest-group paradox, which has been a major cause of the death spiral of liberty.

The views of most M and S about centralization and checks on power are unsurprising:

  • L-M prefer less centralization and weak government all around.
  • R-M prefer less centralization and generally weak government, except in the areas of justice and defense.
  • L-S and T-L-S prefer more centralization and strong government all around, excepting defense and justice — criminal justice, that is. The laws and regulations that cabin our lives warrant strong enforcement, these statists would aver.
  • R-S and T-L-S prefer less centralization and strong government only in certain areas (e.g., justice, defense, immigration).

With respect to centralization and power, most M have been reduced to hoping for miracles from the U.S. Supreme Court and the lower federal courts. But those miracles hinge on many things:

  • the election of Republican presidents (they do make a difference, when it comes to judges);
  • retirements of judges, especially Democrat appointees;
  • the ability of Republican presidents to select judges who would roll back the central government’s mandates and powers;
  • the willingness of the (usually) Democrat-controlled Senate to approve a Republican president’s nominees;
  • and the ability of those nominees (if they prove reliable) to make a difference, given the number of judges who seem to favor governmental power, of one kind or another, over private action.

That is a very high mountain of hope to climb. But there is another way, which involves the use of the Article V of the Constitution:

The Congress, whenever two thirds of both Houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose Amendments to this Constitution, or, on the Application of the Legislatures of two thirds of the several States, shall call a Convention for proposing Amendments, which, in either Case, shall be valid to all Intents and Purposes, as Part of this Constitution, when ratified by the Legislatures of three fourths of the several States, or by Conventions in three fourths thereof, as the one or the other Mode of Ratification may be proposed by the Congress….

When the damage inflicted by statists upon this nation finally reaches the point of being unbearable, even by many statists, it might become possible to amend the Constitution to ameliorate the damage. In my decade of reading blogs and the like I have encountered only two serious proposals for using Article V to undo the mess we are in. Both are by persons whom I consider to be R-M: Profesor Randy Barnett and me.

Barnett proposes a “federalism amendment.” I propose something even more radical: a new constitution that includes, among many things, an Article VIII, Conventions of the States, which opens with this:

Delegations of the States shall convene every four years for the purpose of considering revisions to and revocations of acts of the government established by this Constitution. Such conventions (hereinafter “Convention of the States”) may revise and/or revoke any act or acts and/or any holding or holdings, in the sole discretion of a majority of State delegations present and voting.

These proposals, I believe, qualify Barnett and me as radical-right-minarchists (R-R-M), where “radical” means favoring the restoration of the Constitution to its original meaning. What sets R-R-M apart from other types of M is their understanding that it is no longer possible to slay or tame Leviathan through electoral politics-as-usual, that the Constitution itself must be reinvigorated. (There are more radical alternatives, a military coup and <a href=”http://politicsandprosperity.wordpress.com/2009/04/17/secession/, neither of which has much chance of success, and both of which could backfire. Barnetts’s and my proposals would not, if adopted in the way outlined in the third through fifth paragraphs of Barnett’s article.)

A SUMMARY OF THE REFINED TAXONOMY

Regardless of the political label you apply to yourself, you probably are one of these:

Anarchist (A) – no government; justice and defense provided through contractual arrangements with private agencies, all other social and economic arrangements entirely consensual.

Minarchist (M) – limited government for the dispensation of justice and national defense, and the protection of negative rights (including property rights) and civil society; specifically:

Anarcho-minarchist (A-M) – a minarchist only because government seems inevitable; otherwise, a nay-saying anarchist.

Left-minarchist (L-M) – a quasi-anarchist on justice and defense; strong on negative rights and positive rights, but weak on civil society (leans toward “politically correct” statist views).

Right-minarchist (R-M) – strong on justice, defense, negative rights, property rights, and civil society.

Radical-right-minarchist (R-R-M) – same as a right-minarchist, but seeks a “constitutional revolution” to decentralize and weaken government.

Statist (S):

Left-statist (L-S) – weak on justice and defense, negative rights, property rights, and civil society.

Totalitarian-left-statist (T-L-S) – same as a left-statist, but prefers dictatorial ways of imposing his policy preferences.

Right-statist (R-S) – much like a right-minarchist in many respects, but over the top with respect to justice and defense and favors some positive rights and some degree of political repression (though never as much as a left- or totalitarian-left-statist).

Totalitarian-right statist (T-R-S) – the mirror image of T-L-S, but far fewer in numbers and relatively impotent, politically.

Which of the political philosophies represented by these types aligns most closely with liberty? Which is most inimical to liberty? I rank them as follows (the higher, the better):

R-R-M

R-M

R-S

L-M

A-M/A

L-S

T-L-S/T-R-S

R-R-M and R-M stand at the top of the class for their stalwart defense of liberty, up and down the line — from justice and defense to the protection of negative rights, property rights, and civil society. R-S rank above L-M because L-M, unlike R-S, disdain justice and defense — the bulwarks of liberty — though they might not neglect them altogether; both have their quirks when it comes to rights. M-M and A simply would leave us at the mercy of predators, which is a prescription for the opposite of liberty. But M-M and A are better than L-S and T-L-S because the former would not — in principle — subject others to the discipline of the state. L-S and especially T-L-S deserve a special place in my imaginary hell because their every political thought stands in opposition to liberty. Thankfully, T-R-S are impotent blowhards.

The Interest-Group Paradox

The interest-group paradox is a paradox of mass action (my own coinage). In this post, I illustrate the concept of mass-action paradox with two examples, then turn to the interest-group paradox.

The paradox of thrift is probably the best-known paradox of mass action. According to an article at Wikipedia, the paradox (propounded by John Maynard Keynes) states that if, in the face of an economic downturn, large numbers of individuals try to save more money, the attempt to do so will worsen the downturn. That, in turn, will cause reductions in the incomes of large numbers of individuals, who will then be able to save less, not more. (The article continues with an explanation of the mechanism behind the paradox. The criticisms summarized in the article are unconvincing.)

Another familiar paradox of mass action has to do with the behavior of panicked crowds. If someone shouts “fire” in a crowded theater, many members of the audience may rush madly toward the exits instead of walking calmly, in lines. The mad rush likely will cause pileups at the exits, leading to more panic and worse pileups. As a result, many (perhaps most) of the theater-goers will die, if not from fire and smoke inhalation, then from being trampled and suffocated in a pileup. The paradox here is that the (panicked) effort by members of the crowd to save themselves may well result in their deaths. I call this the paradox of panic.

The paradox of thrift and the paradox of panic are paradoxes of mass action because, in both instances, large numbers of individuals come to harm when each of them tries to do something that he believes to be in his best interest.

I now turn to the main subject of this post: the paradox of mass action that I call the interest-group paradox. Pork-barrel legislation exemplifies the interest-group paradox in action, though the paradox encompasses much more than pork-barrel legislation. There are myriad government programs that — like pork-barrel projects — are intended to favor particular classes of individuals. Here is a minute sample:

  • Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, for the benefit of the elderly (including the indigent elderly)
  • Tax credits and deductions, for the benefit of low-income families, charitable and other non-profit institutions, and home buyers (with mortgages)
  • Progressive income-tax rates, for the benefit of persons in the mid-to-low income brackets
  • Subsidies for various kinds of “essential” or “distressed” industries, such as agriculture and automobile manufacturing
  • Import quotas, tariffs, and other restrictions on trade, for the benefit of particular industries and/or labor unions
  • Pro-union laws (in many States), for the benefit of unions and unionized workers
  • Non-smoking ordinances, for the benefit of bar and restaurant employees and non-smoking patrons.

What do each of these examples have in common? Answer: Each comes with costs. There are direct costs (e.g., higher taxes for some persons, higher prices for imported goods), which the intended beneficiaries and their proponents hope to impose on non-beneficiaries. Just as importantly, there are indirect costs of various kinds (e.g., disincentives to work and save, disincentives to make investments that spur economic growth). (Exercise for the reader: Describe the indirect costs of each of the examples listed above.)

You may believe that a particular program is worth what it costs — given that you probably have little idea of its direct costs and no idea of its indirect costs. The problem is millions of your fellow Americans believe the same thing about each of their favorite programs. Because there are thousands of government programs (federal, State, and local), each intended to help a particular class of citizens at the expense of others, the net result is that almost no one in this fair land enjoys a “free lunch.” Even the relatively few persons who might seem to have obtained a “free lunch” — homeless persons taking advantage of a government-provided shelter — often are victims of the “free lunch” syndrome. Some homeless persons may be homeless because they have lost their jobs and can’t afford to own or rent housing. But they may have lost their jobs because of pro-union laws, minimum-wage laws, or progressive tax rates (which caused “the rich” to create fewer jobs through business start-ups and expansions).

The paradox that arises from the “free lunch” syndrome is much like the other two paradoxes discussed here. It is like the paradox of thrift, in that large numbers of individuals are trying to do something that makes certain classes of persons better off, but which in the final analysis makes those classes of persons worse off. It is like the paradox of panic, in that there is a  crowd of interest groups rushing toward a goal — a “pot of gold” — and (figuratively) crushing each other in the attempt to snatch the pot of gold before another group is able to grasp it. The gold that any group happens to snatch is a kind of fool’s gold: It passes from one fool to another in a game of beggar-thy-neighbor, and as it passes much of it falls into the maw of bureaucracy.

I call this third, insidious, paradox the interest-group paradox. It is the costliest of the three — by a long shot. It has dominated American politics since the advent of “progressivism” in the late 1800s. Today, most Americans are either “progressives” (whatever they may call themselves) or victims of “progressivism.” All too often they are both.

(Related concepts: tragedy of the commons, ratchet effect. Related post: “Slopes, Ratchets, and the Death Spiral of Liberty.”)