Month: February 2011

The Free State Project

A reader asks what I think of the Free State Project. If you haven’t heard of it, here are some key points (taken from the FSP web site):

The main goal of the Free State Project is to recruit 20,000 liberty-friendly Americans to move to New Hampshire over the next several years. The purpose of this cooperative migration is to create a freer, better society through the electoral process and cultural change. Those of us who believe government in the U.S. is far too involved in our daily lives and far too removed from the control and influence of ordinary people represent a substantial minority in the U.S., but a minority nonetheless. In all our political efforts to date, we have been thwarted by powerful special interests in D.C., by the ignorance or apathy of many Americans, and by the self-interest of politicians themselves. The idea behind the Free State Project, therefore, is that by concentrating pro-freedom resources in a single, friendly state we will leverage our influence more effectively while also enjoying immediately the benefits of a freer state culture.

So much is clear. But why 20,000? What is the logic behind this number? There is certainly nothing magical about it. When the FSP started, 20,000 signatures seemed like an attainable goal, and one that would mean something. Further research showed that 20,000 people could significantly influence several states, assuming that they were all active in politics or civil society, not just passive onlookers. This essay expands on that research to consider exactly what 20,000 Free Staters could accomplish in the state we’ve chosen, New Hampshire….

…[P]urely by the numbers, well organized Free Staters could have a significant effect on state-level politics in New Hampshire even if they numbered just eight, ten, or twelve thousand. However, this purely statistical analysis also does not take into account the specific circumstances of our state. Many of the advantages of New Hampshire for freedom-seeking Americans are well known features that sold the state to thousands of FSP members, but I intend to take the well-known lists of “desirable features” to induce a more general picture of the state, a “Theory of New Hampshire” if you will.

I class New Hampshire’s advantages in two categories, cultural and institutional. Cultural aspects of New Hampshire relate to the friendliness of Granite Staters to our ideas….

…[N[o state sales or income tax, the lowest state and local tax burden in the continental U.S., no adult seatbelt law, no helmet law, very few gun laws, a governor and many state legislators who’ve been explicitly welcoming, a large percentage of political independents, extremely low dependence on federal subsidies, low government employment, and so forth….

…The town meeting system allowed citizens to keep their government officials close enough to “grab them by the scruff of their necks” if they overstepped their power….

Economically, New Hampshire has the advantage of a dynamic economy centered around knowledge-based and service industries. Such industries tend to favor the global economy and a leaner scale of government that makes rapid adaptation possible. New Hampshire’s high per capita income also means that residents pay much more to the federal government in taxes than they receive in expenditures. New Hampshire is thus quite different from neighboring Vermont and Maine, which have struggled economically….

Socially, New Hampshire has always ranked as one of the more tolerant states in the country….

New Hampshire thus combines the best of all worlds and ends up with an ideal socioeconomic and cultural mix. Most of the states that are socially tolerant and economically advanced tend to be heavily urbanized and leftist, while most of the states that are not heavily urbanized tend to be poor or too rightist. New Hampshire is the only state in the country that I can identify that is tolerant, advanced, not federally dependent, not too urbanized, and historically libertarian-oriented. If a libertarian movement were to succeed anywhere in the country, maybe in the world, it would be in New Hampshire.

As of this writing — ten years after the founding of the FSP — the movement has acquired fewer than 11,000 members, as against the goal of 20,000. In the meantime, from 2000 to 2008, a majority of New Hampshire’s new voters (young voters and in-comers) identified themselves as Democrats. New Hampshire’s swing to the left led to the election of Democrats to both of the State’s U.S. House seats in 2006. They remained in office until the nation-wide resurgence of the GOP in 2010, when New Hampshire’s voters replaced them with Republicans, while also turning the Senate seat of Judd Gregg (a retiring RINO) over to Kelly Ayotte, a  conservative Republican. None of this bodes well for the kind of libertarian sought by the Free State Project.

So this is my advice to that kind of libertarian. If you think you can make a difference in New Hampshire, don’t wait, move there now. But think long and hard before you make the move. You are unlikely to have much effect on New Hampshire’s policies, especially because that State — like all 50 of them — is bound by onerous national policies that are founded on expansive and erroneous readings of the U.S. Constitution.

As for what New Hampshire has to offer — aside from long, hard winters and short, cool summers — I give you this, from the latest edition of Freedom in the 50 States: An Index of Personal and Economic Freedom (Mercatus Center, George Mason University, February 2009):

New Hampshire is by our count the freest state in the country. Depending on weights, however, it really shares the first, second and third slots with Colorado and South Dakota. New Hampshire does much better on economic (#2) than personal freedom (#13). Taxes and spending are among the lowest in the country, but the tax regime is highly skewed. New Hampshire has the third highest property and corporate income taxes in the United States. These should be high priorities for cutting. On the spending side, the likeliest suspect for cutting is transportation, which is higher than average once one controls for federal grants and population density (less dense states spend more on roads). Once state population is controlled for, New Hampshire is one of the most fiscally decentralized states in the country. Local governments also must raise two-thirds of what they spend with their own taxes. Gun laws are among the most liberal in the country, but the state has a weak “peaceable journey” regime (carrying a firearm in a car requires a concealed carry permit). Its alcohol regime is relatively free. Despite state control of retail distribution of wine and spirits, the effective tax rates on these products are zero, according to the Tax Foundation. Marijuana laws are middling; low-level possession could be decriminalized like Maine, while low-level cultivation could be made a misdemeanor like both Maine and Vermont. New Hampshire is the only state in the country with no seat-belt law for adults. It lacks a motorcycle helmet law but does have a bicycle helmet law and authorizes sobriety checkpoints. New Hampshire is one of three states that permit self-insurance for auto liability. Gambling is relatively controlled: Most gaming must take place under a charitable license, social gaming is prohibited, and aggravated gambling is a felony. State approval is required to open a private school. Home school laws are about average on the whole, but the standardized testing and recordkeeping requirements are more onerous than most states. Labor laws are generally market-friendly, but it is not a right-to-work state. Occupational licensing is worse than average. Both eminent domain and asset forfeiture have been thoroughly reformed. The state’s liability system is one of the best, but campaign finance regulations are quite strict. As of 2006, smoking bans allowed many exemptions, but a thoroughgoing ban has since passed (not captured by our index).

Frankly, moving to New Hampshire is probably a waste of money and energy. The real battle for liberty is a national one. In that regard, the turnaround in 2010 bodes well for true libertarianism: laissez-faire economic policies combined with a social conservatism rooted in traditional social norms (pro-life, heterosexual marriage, etc.).

Related posts:
On Liberty
Greed, Cosmic Justice, and Social Welfare
Positive Rights and Cosmic Justice
Parsing Political Philosophy
The Price of Government
Fascism and the Future of America
Negative Rights
Negative Rights, Social Norms, and the Constitution
The Commandeered Economy
Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and the Legitimate State
The Price of Government Redux
Landsburg Is Half-Right
The Mega-Depression
The Unreality of Objectivism
The Real Burden of Government
“Natural Rights” and Consequentialism
More about Consequentialism
Modeling, Science, and Physics Envy
Atheism, Agnosticism, and Science
Line-Drawing and Liberty
Estimating the Rahn Curve: Or, How Government Inhibits Economic Growth
Our Enemy, the State
Pseudo-Libertarian Sophistry vs. True Libertarianism
Positivism, “Natural Rights,” and Libertarianism
What Are “Natural Rights”?
The Golden Rule and the State
Libertarian Conservative or Conservative Libertarian?
Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: Part I
Social Justice
Bounded Liberty: A Thought Experiment
Society and Culture
Government Failure: An Example
More Pseudo-Libertarianism
How Many Fallacies?

Evolution, Human Nature, and “Natural Rights” — Updated

The length of “Evolution, Human Nature, and ‘Natural Rights’” seems to have discouraged readers. In the hope of enticing you to venture below the fold, I have annotated the outline that appears above the fold. Also, there is now a direct link to the 31 related posts that are listed and linked to at the bottom of “Evolution, Human Nature, and ‘Natural Rights’.”

How Many Fallacies?

How many fallacies can you find in this Facebook post by a firefighter in a small Colorado town?

I’m a public employee. I am NOT the problem. The rich who created this crisis are putting middle class families against each other. Teachers, police officers, paramedics, firefighters, road workers etc. are NOT the enemy. If you’re jealous of our benefits, FIGHT FOR YOUR OWN, not against ours! We live here, pay taxes, work hard & try ……to support our families too.

Here’s my tally:

1. I assume that “this crisis” is the Great Recession, which has led to reductions in tax revenues, thus pushing some governments into the red. Well the Great Recession wasn’t created by “the rich.” It followed from the housing bubble, which was created by the Fed’s loose-money policy and lax mortgage-lending policies pushed by Democrat politicians and their pet agencies: Fannie & Freddie. Moreover, as far as “this crisis” has made it harder for governments to pay their bills, it is because (in part) they have had open-handed policies toward the compensation of government employees.

2. “The rich” aren’t pitting families against each other. Public employees are doing it by their greedy insistence on being paid above-market compensation at the expense of other workers.

3. “Teachers, police officers,” etc. ARE the enemy of taxpayers because they are able to extract above-market compensation from taxpayers with the help of politicians who are, in fact, counting on those teachers, etc., for votes.

4. Jealousy is not the issue. The issue is that teachers, etc., are extracting above-market compensation from taxpayers at the point of a gun, that is, through the government-run system of tax, spend, and elect. In other words, theft is the issue.

5. Public employees aren’t the only ones who work hard to support their families. Taxpayers also work hard to support their families — and to support public employees and their families.

More Pseudo-Libertarianism

I am often gobsmacked by left-libertarian obtuseness, several examples of which I proffer in “Pseudo-Libertarian Sophistry vs. True Libertarianism.” As I say in that post,

[a] left-libertarian wants “liberty,” but only if it yields outcomes favorable to certain groups, and to hell with the liberty and property rights of others. Theirs is a dangerous flirtation with political correctness (PCness), which includes unblinking support of open borders, head-in-the-sand opposition to defense spending, “gay rights,” and premature infanticide.

I have, in the past few days, encountered some left-libertarian “reasoning” that compels comment. I begin with an old “favorite,” Bryan Caplan, whose post “The Libertarian Penumbra” at EconLog offers these bits of “wisdom”:

[L]ibertarians have many beliefs in common that have little to do with the consequences of liberty.  They’re just part of our vibrant, iconoclastic intellectual subculture.  A few examples:

  • Most libertarians accept the validity of IQ testing.  A perfectly good libertarian could reject IQ tests as “culturally biased,” but few do.
  • Libertarians have favorable views of home schooling – even though conventional private schooling is equally consistent with libertarian principles.
  • Libertarianism implies opposition to government population control, but it doesn’t imply another view common among libertarians: that population growth has major economic benefits because people are “the ultimate resource.”  Notice: A statist who took this idea seriously could easily argue for government intervention to raise the birth rate.

Why should one reject IQ tests as “culturally biased,” and under what conditions? I have no doubt that there is some degree of cultural bias in IQ tests, but so what? As an employer, I may want employees who are not only capable of carrying out certain kinds of mental tasks but who also are attuned to the culture in which I operate my business. If that rules out, say, inner-city blacks who prefer rap to Bach, who wear outré clothing, and who speak a language other than standard English, so be it. Thanks to the kind of PCness that has been foisted upon American business by leftists (libertarian and otherwise), it is difficult for private employers to be selective about whom they hire, and therefore to serve consumers and shareholders as well as they should. There is no hope at all for governments and universities, where the rule of PCness gobbles up tax dollars and inures to the benefit of third-rate minds.

Caplan’s second item — about home-schooling — puzzles me. Is one supposed to have a less-than-favorable view of home-schooling just because “conventional private schooling is equally consistent with libertarian principles”? Perhaps he is unable to fathom the (libertarian) tenet of subjective value. Some persons prefer home-schooling for their own, perfectly legitimate, reasons (e.g., greater control over the content of what their children are taught). If Caplan has a point, it is on the top of his head.

Caplan’s third point — about population control and growth — is a marvelous non sequitur. Libertarians oppose government population control because it is anti-libertarian. The fact that population growth has economic benefits should be of no consequence to a libertarian qua libertarian.

Another “libertarian” economist, Scott Sumner, weighs in with a comment about Caplan’s post. Sumner offers a list of “libertarian tendencies that make [him] cringe.” One of them is “global warming denial.” First, I object to his use of “denial”; “skepticism” is the operative word. A reasonable basis of skepticism — aside from the fact that there is no “settled science” about global warming — is that the proponents of anthropogenic global warming would use it as an excuse to reshape economic activity along lines that they prefer. That is to say, the proponents of AGW have a strong, unconcealed dictatorial agenda. Any libertarian worthy of the name should “cringe” at that, not at skepticism about AGW.

Sumner also “cringes” at “distrust of democracy.” Does he not understand the history of American politics in the twentieth century? It can be summarized, quite accurately, as follows: promise, elect, spend, tax, regulate, promise, elect, spend, tax, regulate, etc., etc., etc.

The rest of Sumner’s list is even worse, so…

I turn to Will Wilkinson’s defense of unions in “Libertarian unionism” at The Economist‘s Democracy in America column. I will not bother to recite and refute all of Wilkinson’s claims with respect to unions, when it will suffice to strike at the heart of his argument:

The right of workers to band together to improve their bargaining position relative to employers is a straightforward implication of freedom of association, and the sort of voluntary association that results is the beating heart of the classical liberal vision of civil society. I unreservedly endorse what I’ll call the “unionism of free association”.

Freedom of association is all well and good, but a union is not a social club. It is an organization formed for the purpose of collective bargaining, backed by the threat and use of the labor strike. Accordingly, Wilkinson’s glib defense of unionism omits several of its anti-libertarian features:

  • Workers who prefer to bargain for themselves are not allowed to do so; that is, they are deprived of their economic liberty. (If you believe that a union would refrain from intimidating “scabs,” you must believe in the tooth fairy.)
  • The ability of an employer to hire whom he sees fit to hire is therefore compromised; that is, he is deprived of his economic liberty.
  • By the same token, the employer is deprived of the right to use his property as he sees fit, in the lawful pursuit of profit.

These objections hold even where the employer is a corporation. Corporate status is not a “gift” of the state, Wilkinson’s implication to the contrary notwithstanding. The essential features of incorporation — the pooling of assets and limited liability — are available through private, contractual arrangements involving insurance pools. The belief that corporations owe their existence to the beneficence of the state is due to the use of the corporation to advance state interests in the era of mercantilism.

I can only shake my head in amazement at the delusions of left-libertarians. I must come up with a new name for them, inasmuch as they are not libertarians.

Government Failure: An Example

John Goodman’s post about “Government Failure” is chock-full of wisdom. Among other things, Goodman nails the model of “market failure” used by some economists and many politicians:

When economists talk about “market failure” they begin with a model in which consumer welfare is maximized. “Market failure” arises when imperfections cause outcomes that fall short of the ideal.  If we were to do the same thing in politics, we would begin with a model in which the political system produced ideal outcomes and then consider factors that take us away from the ideal.

The model “in which consumer welfare is maximized” — perfect competition — is unattainable in most of the real world, given constant shifts in tastes, preferences, technologies, the availability of factors of production. “Market failure” is nothing more than a label that a left-wing economist or politician pins out market a outcome of which he or his constituents (e.g., labor unions) happen to disapprove. (The long version of my case against “market failure” is here.)

Goodman continues:

[W]hereas in economics, “market failure” is considered an exception to the norm, in politics, “government failure” is the norm.  In general, there is no model of political decision making that can reliably produce ideal outcomes.

I offer an example of a not-unusual kind of government failure: the scam perpetrated by Dennis Montgomery on intelligence officials, and the subsequent effort to cover up the gullibility of those officials. This is from “Hiding Details of Dubious Deal, U.S. Invokes National Security” (The New York Times, February 19, 2011):

For eight years, government officials turned to Dennis Montgomery, a California computer programmer, for eye-popping technology that he said could catch terrorists. Now, federal officials want nothing to do with him and are going to extraordinary lengths to ensure that his dealings with Washington stay secret.

The Justice Department, which in the last few months has gotten protective orders from two federal judges keeping details of the technology out of court, says it is guarding state secrets that would threaten national security if disclosed. But others involved in the case say that what the government is trying to avoid is public embarrassment over evidence that Mr. Montgomery bamboozled federal officials….

Interviews with more than two dozen current and former officials and business associates and a review of documents show that Mr. Montgomery and his associates received more than $20 million in government contracts by claiming that software he had developed could help stop Al Qaeda’s next attack on the United States. But the technology appears to have been a hoax, and a series of government agencies, including the Central Intelligence Agency and the Air Force, repeatedly missed the warning signs, the records and interviews show.

Mr. Montgomery’s former lawyer, Michael Flynn — who now describes Mr. Montgomery as a “con man” — says he believes that the administration has been shutting off scrutiny of Mr. Montgomery’s business for fear of revealing that the government has been duped.

“The Justice Department is trying to cover this up,” Mr. Flynn said. “If this unravels, all of the evidence, all of the phony terror alerts and all the embarrassment comes up publicly, too. The government knew this technology was bogus, but these guys got paid millions for it.”

Similar cases abound in the unrecorded history of government contracting. Most of them don’t involve outright scams, but they do involve vain, gullible, and pressured government officials who tolerate — and even encourage — shoddy work on the part of contractors. Why? Because (a) they have money to spend, (b) they’re expected to spend it, and (c) there’s no bottom-line accountability.

If the flaws in government programs and systems are detected, it’s usually years or decades after their inception, by which time the responsible individuals have gone on (usually) to better jobs or cushy pensions. And when the flaws are detected, the usual response of the politicians, officials, and bureaucrats with a stake in a program is to throw more money at it. It’s not their money, so what do they care?

I offer an illustrative example from my long-ago days as a defense analyst. There was an ambitious rear admiral (as they all are) whose “shop” in the Pentagon was responsible for preparing the Navy’s long-range plan for the development and acquisition of new ships, aircraft, long-range detections systems, missiles, and so on.

The admiral — like many of his contemporaries in the officer corps of the armed forces — had been indoctrinated in the RAND-McNamara tradition of quantitative analysis. Which is to say that most of them were either naïve or opportunistic believers in the reductionism of cost-effectiveness analysis.

By that time (this was in the early 1980s) I had long outgrown my own naïveté about the power of quantification. (An account of my conversion is here.) But I was still naïve about admirals and their motivations. Having been asked by the admiral for a simple, quantitative model with which he could compare the effectiveness of alternative future weapon systems, I marched into his office with a presentation that was meant to convince him of his folly. (This post contains the essence of my presentation.)

For my pains, I was banished forever from the admiral’s presence and given a new assignment. (I was working for a non-profit advisory organization with fixed funding, so my employment wasn’t at stake.) The admiral wanted to know how to do what he had made up his mind to do, not why he had chosen to do something that couldn’t be done except by committing intellectual fraud.

Multiply this kind of government-contractor relationship by a million, throw in the usual kind of contractor who is willing to sell the client what the client wants — feasible or not — and you have a general picture of the kind of failure that pervades government contracting. Adapt that picture to inter-governmental relationships, where the primary job of each bureaucracy (and its political patrons) is to preserve its funding, without regard for the (questionable) value of its services to taxpayers, and you have a general picture of what drives government spending.

In sum, what drives government spending is not the welfare of the American public. It is cupidity, ego, power-lust, ignorance, stupidity, and — above all — lack of real accountability. Private enterprises pay for their mistakes because, in the end, they are held accountable by consumers. Governments, by contrast, hold consumers accountable (as taxpayers).

Perhaps — just perhaps — the era of governmental non-accountability is coming to an end. We shall see.

A Tribute to Home-Schooling

My daughter-in-law and son home-school their children, with excellent results, as far as I am able to tell from occasional visits to their home 1500 miles away. It takes loving dedication and vast outlays of time  and energy  to educate several children in subjects ranging from the “three Rs” to French, German, and Latin, while also arranging extramural music lessons and other educational activities and transporting the children to and from those activities. The effort will have continued, without pause, for about three decades by the time the youngest child has completed the equivalent of 12 grades of schooling. To put it simply, I am in awe of my daughter-in-law and son for what they are doing to ensure that their children are thoroughly and roundly educated.

I was prompted to write this  by a couple of posts at EconLog by David Henderson. In “Home Schooling and Socialization,” Henderson writes:

We should become modern abolitionists, like the abolitionists of the nineteenth century who demanded the end of slavery, and for similar reasons. Abolition brings an end to the government’s role in schools, which means four things: the end of compulsory attendance; the end of government control of content; the end of government control of who teaches; and the end of the government’s practice of taxing some people to pay for other people’s children to go to school. With the end of government’s role, learning would flourish. I can’t tell you how. No one can. I can tell you what I think is unlikely: classes every day in big buildings from 8:30 to 3:00, or, in the case of our local government middle school, from 8:13 to 2:40. The beauty and the power of freedom is that different people use their freedom differently to produce all kinds of results, results that they themselves, and certainly the rest of us, can’t predict.

He follows up with some horror stories about the goings on in the public schools of his youth. They remind me, too much, of the public schools of my own youth. I would have given anything to have been placed in an environment where the emphasis was on learning, not on suffering through hours, days, months, and years of classes with packs of pre-adolescent and adolescent animals.

That is the reality of public schools for most American children, who don’t attend the idealized schools of Hollywood teen movies, where the bullies are well-groomed, drive sports cars, and are put down by beautiful blonds with hearts of gold who prefer nerds to jocks. Nor do most American children attend exclusive private schools (and their “public” counterparts), which are mainly the preserves of the children of the upper professional classes, high government officials, well-paid senior civil servants, and public-school teachers.

Evolution, Human Nature, and “Natural Rights”

This post is so long that I have put the main text below the fold. The following annotated outline may tempt you to read on or prompt you to move along:

I. Why This Post: Background and Issues

Do humans have natural ends that have arisen through evolution? If so, does this somehow imply the necessity of negative “natural rights”?

II. Natural Teleology –> Negative “Natural Rights”?

A. Evolution as God-Substitute

A supernatural explanation of “natural rights” will not do for skeptics and atheists, who find that such rights inhere in humans as products of evolution, and nothing more. Pardon a momentary lapse into cynicism, but this strikes me as a way of taking God out of the picture while preserving the “inalienable rights” of Locke and Jefferson.

B. Teleology as Tautology

Survival is the ultimate end of animate beings. Everything that survives has characteristics that helped to ensure its survival. What could be more obvious or more trivial?

C. Whence the Tautology?

Evolutionary teleology boils down to “what happened as a result of breeding, random mutation, geophysical processes, and survival of the fittest and/or luckiest, as the  case may be.” The term “natural selection” is inappropriate because — unless there is such a thing as Intelligent Design — no one (or no thing) is selecting anything.

III. Persisting in the Search for Negative “Natural Rights” in Human Nature

A. Pro: Evolution Breeds Morality

“Darwin saw that social animals are naturally inclined to cooperate with one another for mutual benefit. Human social and moral order arises as an extension of this natural tendency to social cooperation based on kinship, mutuality, and reciprocity. Modern Darwinian study of the evolution of cooperation shows that such cooperation is a positive-sum game…”

B. Con: Human Nature Is Too Complex and Contradictory to Support Biologically Determined Rights

The account of human nature drawn from evolutionary psychology suggests that there is much in human nature which conflicts with negative rights in general (whether or not they are “natural”). And who needs a treatise on evolutionary psychology to understand the depth of that conflict? All it takes is a quick perusal of a newspaper, a few minutes of exposure to broadcast news, or a drive on a crowded interstate highway.

IV. A Truly Natural Explanation of Negative Rights

A. The Explanation

The Golden Rule represents a social compromise that reconciles the various natural imperatives of human behavior (envy, combativeness, meddlesomeness, etc.). To the extent that negative rights prevail, it is as part and parcel of the “bargain” that is embedded in the Golden Rule; that is, they are honored not because of their innateness in humans but because of their beneficial consequences.

B. The Role of Government

Government can provide “protective cover” for persons who try to live by the Golden Rule. This is especially important in a large and diverse political entity because the Golden Rule — as a code of self-governance — is possible only for a group of about 25 to 150 persons.

V. What Difference Does It Make?

The assertion that there are “natural rights” (“inalienable rights”) makes for resounding rhetoric, but (a) it is often misused in the service of positive rights and (b) it makes no practical difference in a world where power routinely accrues to those who make the something-for-nothing promises of positive rights.

VI. Related Posts

See especially:
Negative Rights
Negative Rights, Social Norms, and the Constitution
Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and the Legitimate State
“Natural Rights” and Consequentialism
More about Consequentialism
Positivism, “Natural Rights,” and Libertarianism
What Are “Natural Rights”?
The Golden Rule and the State

* * *


Society and Culture

In “Social Justice,” I say:

A true society or community is one in which persons are bound by more than merely residing in the same nation, state, city, or other geographic entity. A true society is one whose members voluntarily commit acts of kindness and charity toward one another, as part of the social “bargain” that is known as the Golden Rule.

This is but a superficial introduction to the concept of society. Deeper insights, as always, come from Roger Scruton, an English philosopher. I have just finished reading Scruton’s An Intelligent Persons Guide to Modern Culture (a birthday gift from my son), which — as always with Scruton — is densely packed with ideas and insights. Early in the book, Scruton makes these trenchant observations:

[Culture] is the life-blood of a people, the flow of moral energy that holds society intact….

…The ‘common culture’ of a tribe is a sign of its inner cohesion. But tribes are vanishing from the modern world, as are all forms of traditional society. Customs, practices, festivals, rituals an beliefs have acquired a fluid and half-hearted quality which reflects our nomadic and rootless existences…. Despite this … modern city-dwellers are as much social beings as were traditional tribesmen. They are unable to live in peace until furnished with a social identity, an outward garb which, by prepresenting them to others, gives them confidence in themselves. This search for ‘identity’ pervades modern life.  Althought it is a fluid thing, and may change direction several times in a lifetime, or even twice in a year, it has much in common with the tribesman’s attachment to a common culture….

It goes without saying that a common culture binds a society together. But it does so in a special way. The unity of a great society can be achieved by terror, by confronting people with a common danger or an ‘enemy within’ — by variously playing with the threat of death, in the manner of modern dictators. A common culture is an altogether more peaceful method, which unites the present members by dedicating them to the past and future of the community. Death is not a terror, but the benign catalyst of the social order, the transition which ensures that all of us, in time, will join the community of ancestors and become sacred and transfigured as they are….

…Modern people long for membership, but membership exists only among people who do not long for it, who have no real conception of it, who are so utterly immersed in it that they find it inscribed on the face of nature itself. Such people have immediate access, through common culture, to the ethical vision of man.

If you have to proclaim that a nation or other geopolitical entity is a “society,” then it isn’t one.

The Left’s Agenda

A post at Bookworm Room caught my eye:

Andy McCarthy writes about the elephant in the liberal living room; namely, Islamic attitudes towards rape:  Women are almost always asking for it, especially Western women, and, once having forced an innocent man to give in to his base animal nature, they deserve to be beaten, arguably to death.

That analysis, of course, must get paired with CBS’s muted and delayed reporting of the horrific rape that its reporter, Lara Logan, suffered at the hands of an Islamic mob.  CBS tries to spin it as a normal tale of a mob that’s gotten out of control, but people paying attention to the Islamic world understand that, while Western mobs attack cars and shops, Islamic mobs attack women.

Why have American leftists so eagerly embraced Islam, with all of its ugly features, while rejecting pro-Western Israel? What is the left’s agenda with respect to Islam and Israel? What is the left’s agenda, period?

Don’t expect to understand the left by looking for rational explanations of leftist beliefs and behavior. The left is in an arrested state of adolescent rebellion: “If it’s ‘bad’ or dangerous, I want it, just to be ‘different’ (well, not different from my peers, whose approval I seek) and to express my ‘independence’ (as long as ‘Daddy government’ gives me an allowance, birthday presents, cell phones, etc.).”

To put it bluntly — and this is entirely consistent with my experience — persons of the left are like unthinking, selfish adolescents who want what they want, regardless of the consequences for themselves or others.

It seems natural for adolescents and young adults to flirt with leftism. The persistence of leftism beyond one’s twenties is a sign of arrested emotional development. (By the way, I would say the same thing about doctrinaire libertarian extremists, the kind who believe in fairy tales about stateless societies.)

Related posts:
The Left
Intelligence, Personality, Politics, and Happiness
Bounded Liberty: A Thought Experiment

Bounded Liberty: A Thought Experiment

Imagine an anarcho-capitalist enclave in which membership and all interpersonal transactions are voluntary. (Assume, for the sake of simplicity, that the enclave is populated only by sane adults.) Disputes that cannot be resolved by the parties are resolved through arbitration, to which all members of the enclave subscribe as a condition of membership. As a further condition of membership, contractual obligations and adherence to the decisions of arbitrators are enforced by a  private agent, which is appointed for the sole purpose of such enforcement by the unanimous consent of the members of the enclave. In the alternative, individuals or groups of individuals would hire their own private agents to negotiate disputes. (That the agent or agents might assume state-like power or act like warlords are possibilities too realistic to be admitted by anarcho-capitalists.)

The libertarian spirit which reigns in this Anarcho-topia implies, among other things, absolute freedom of speech. There wouldn’t be laws against aggressive speech — slander, libel, harassment, and threats, for example. In fact, there wouldn’t be laws against (or about) anything because laws arbitrarily constrain the voluntary actions of consenting parties. In the absence of laws, aggrieved parties would seek relief and/or restitution through arbitration. At the direction of an arbitrator, an offending party would be expected to grant relief and/or restitution voluntarily. Failure to do so would be grounds for action by the enforcement agency, which has every person’s prior consent to act. Arbitration and enforcement would yield precedents, of course, but precedents would be informational rather than binding.

Now, suppose that a persuasive orator — one who commits no slander, harasses no one, and threatens no one — is able to convince a majority of the enclave’s denizens that the older members of the enclave should be supported by the younger members, all of whom must “contribute” to the support of the elders, like it or not. It’s true that the orator is proposing a course of action that is tantamount to aggression. But it’s entirely possible that an arbitrator would allow speech that isn’t directly aggressive, on the ground that to do so might set a dangerous, anti-libertarian precedent.

Suppose further that the majority forthwith hires a powerful agent — one even more powerful than the one designated as the enforcer of arbitration decisions — to force everyone to “contribute” to the support of elders. (Such an outcome, which effectively destroys liberty in Anarcho-topia, is roughly parallel to the demise of America’s relatively libertarian economic order because of the anti-constitutional regulatory and welfare schemes that have been enacted since the onset of the Progressive Era.)

Perhaps, in hindsight,  Anarcho-topians should have adopted and enforced a restraint on liberty for the sake of preserving it. The restraint might have been that no one could advocate or conspire in the coercion of the populace for any purpose other than the defense of Anarcho-topians.

Why an exception for defense? Imagine the long-term consequences for the enclave if it were to dither as a marauding band approached, or if too few members of the society were to volunteer the resources needed to defeat the marauding band. What’s the good of a commitment to liberty if it leads to the demise of liberty?

Here, then, is the paradox for libertarians: Some aspects of liberty must be circumscribed in order to preserve most aspects of liberty. As always, the question is where to draw the line.

Related reading: As I was polishing this post, which is a remake of “A Paradox for Libertarians” (2005), I happened upon “Libertarianism and Asteroid Defense,” by Ilya Somin at The Volokh Conspiracy. Somin’s post hits the same theme: the foolishness of rights-absolutism.

Related posts:
On Liberty
Parsing Political Philosophy
First Principles
The State of the Union: 2010
The Shape of Things to Come
I Want My Country Back

The Constitution: Original Meaning, Corruption, and Restoration
A Conversation with Uncle Sam
Does the Power to Tax Give Congress Unlimited Power?
Does Congress Have the Power to Regulate Inactivity?
Is the Constitution True?
Is the Constitution True? An Addendum

The Indivisibility of Economic and Social Liberty
Law and Liberty
The Devolution of American Politics from Wisdom to Opportunism
Tocqueville’s Prescience
Line-Drawing and Liberty
The Divine Right of the Majority

Cato’s Usual Casuistry on Matters of War and Peace
The Media, the Left, and War
The “Predator War” and Self-Defense
The National Psyche and Foreign Wars
Delusions of Preparedness
A Moralist’s Moral Blindness
The Folly of Pacifism

Economic Growth since WWII
The Price of Government
The Commandeered Economy
The Price of Government Redux
The Mega-Depression
The Real Burden of Government
Toward a Risk-Free Economy
The Rahn Curve at Work
The Illusion of Prosperity and Stability
Estimating the Rahn Curve: Or, How Government Inhibits Economic Growth

Modernism and the Arts

Robert Blumen, writing at Mises Economics Blog, asks “Why Do We Hate Modern Classical Music?” Blumen opens with this:

Modern classical music is primarily a project of the classical music industry’s managerial elites which has no basis in consumer demand. Despite decades of proof that audiences do not like this music, the managerial elites continue to push this agenda. When questioned, their response is to blame the classical music audience for not liking the music.

It’s not only the managerial élites who are to blame:

In the early decades of the twentieth century, the visual, auditory, and verbal arts became an “inside game.” Painters, sculptors, composers (of “serious” music), choreographers, and writers of fiction began to create works not for the enjoyment of audiences but for the sake of exploring “new” forms. Given that the various arts had been perfected by the early 1900s, the only way to explore “new” forms was to regress toward primitive ones — toward a lack of structure…. Aside from its baneful influence on many true artists, the regression toward the primitive has enabled persons of inferior talent (and none) to call themselves “artists.” Thus modernism is banal when it is not ugly.

Painters, sculptors, etc., have been encouraged in their efforts to explore “new” forms by critics, by advocates of change and rebellion for its own sake (e.g., “liberals” and “bohemians”), and by undiscriminating patrons, anxious to be au courant. Critics have a special stake in modernism because they are needed to “explain” its incomprehensibility and ugliness to the unwashed.

The unwashed have nevertheless rebelled against modernism, and so its practitioners and defenders have responded with condescension, one form of which is the challenge to be “open minded” (i.e., to tolerate the second-rate and nonsensical). A good example of condescension is heard on Composers Datebook, a syndicated feature that runs on some NPR stations. Every Composers Datebook program closes by “reminding you that all music was once new.” As if to lump Arnold Schoenberg and John Cage with Johann Sebastian Bach and Ludwig van Beethoven.

All music, painting, sculpture, dance, and literature was once new, but not all of it is good. Much (most?) of what has been produced since 1900 is inferior, self-indulgent crap.

In other words, if you can’t readily do better than your predecessors, you take the easy way out by doing something different — ugly as it may be. And you call it “progress.”

My observation of the “arts” in the modern age leads me to the following conclusions:

  • Taste is not dictated by élite opinion, which is more about exclusiveness than excellence.
  • Therefore, that which élite opinion designates as “art” is not necessarily art — and is likely to be its opposite.
  • In fact, most of the works of modern “artists” are mere artifacts, having no more relation to beauty than rusty tools, derelict boxcars, and abandoned buildings.

Social Justice

Despite a recent outburst, the proximate cause of this post is a column of Nicholas Kristof’s (“Equality, a True Soul Food“, The New York Times, January 1, 2011), in which Kristof pleads for less income inequality in the United States. His plea is based, in part, on the premise that persons of low status suffer because they envy persons of higher status (an assertion that’s based on research about monkeys). Don Boudreaux, Tom Maguire, and Max Borders have weighed in with insightful reactions. Will Wilkinson addressed the status-envy issue in 2006 (here and here), and has addressed it more recently (e.g., see this and follow the links therein). The Heritage Foundation offers a useful (if somewhat out-of-date) statistical analysis of income distribution (misleading word) in the U.S. I have written on the subject so many times that I can only refer you to lists of posts (here, here, here, here, and here) that include many relevant ones.

There is no theoretical or factual argument for income redistribution that cannot be met by a superior theoretical or factual argument against it. In the end, the case for (somehow) reducing income inequality turns on an emotional appeal for “social justice,” that is, for reshaping the world in a way that pleases the pleader. As if the pleader — in his or her pure, misguided arrogance — has superior wisdom about how the world should be shaped.

In fact, “social justice” usually (but not always) is code for redistributing income, either directly (through the taxing and spending power of government) or indirectly (through the power of government to require favoritism toward certain groups of persons). Make no mistake, there is no justice in “social justice,” which is nothing more than a euphemism for coercion by the state.

Social justice is possible only where there is a true society, not the bogus “society”  or “community” to which bleeding hearts and statists refer when they mean the United States or most of its political subdivisions — which have become nothing more than geopolitical prisons.

A true society or community is one in which persons are bound by more than merely residing in the same nation, state, city, or other geographic entity. A true society is one whose members voluntarily commit acts of kindness and charity toward one another, as part of the social “bargain” that is known as the Golden Rule.

That “bargain” amounts to a delicate balance of self-interested and voluntarily beneficial behavior. The self-interested aspect of behavior is mutual forbearance — leaving others alone so that they will leave you alone. The voluntarily beneficial aspect is the commission of acts of kindness and charity. It is the latter that enables the former, because acts of kindness and charity help to build a true feeling of community by creating an atmosphere of mutual respect and trust.

Purveyors of “social justice” say that the voluntary arrangements of true communities are inadequate for the purpose of meeting this or that desideratum. Whence the desiderata? From the preconceptions of the purveyors of “social justice,” of course. They would substitute their “wisdom” for the wisdom that it embedded in voluntary social and economic arrangements. And they usually succeed because their arrogance incorporates a good measure of power-lust.

In sum, true social justice  is possible only in a voluntary community that is founded on mutual forbearance, respect, and trust. It cannot be found in the kind of forcible leveling that is favored by advocates of “social justice.” There is nothing just about coercion.

Related posts:
Greed, Cosmic Justice, and Social Welfare
Positive Rights and Cosmic Justice
The Interest-Group Paradox
Parsing Political Philosophy
Is Statism Inevitable?
Inventing “Liberalism”
Law and Liberty
Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and the Legitimate State
An Encounter with a Marxist
Our Enemy, the State
The Golden Rule and the State
A Not-So-Fine Whine

Affirmative Action for Conservatives and Libertarians?

John Tierney’s recent column in The New York Times, “Social Scientist Sees Bias Within,” points to a new variation on an old theme. The old theme is this:

Democrats typically outnumber Republicans at elite universities by at least six to one among the general faculty, and by higher ratios in the humanities and social sciences.

The new variation is played by Prof. Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at the University of Virginia, who

polled his audience [at the Society for Personality and Social Psychology’s conference] at the San Antonio Convention Center, starting by asking how many considered themselves politically liberal. A sea of hands appeared, and Dr. Haidt estimated that liberals made up 80 percent of the 1,000 psychologists in the ballroom. When he asked for centrists and libertarians, he spotted fewer than three dozen hands. And then, when he asked for conservatives, he counted a grand total of three.

“This is a statistically impossible lack of diversity,” Dr. Haidt concluded, noting polls showing that 40 percent of Americans are conservative and 20 percent are liberal. In his speech and in an interview, Dr. Haidt argued that social psychologists are a “tribal-moral community” united by “sacred values” that hinder research and damage their credibility — and blind them to the hostile climate they’ve created for non-liberals.

“Anywhere in the world that social psychologists see women or minorities underrepresented by a factor of two or three, our minds jump to discrimination as the explanation,” said Dr. Haidt, who called himself a longtime liberal turned centrist. “But when we find out that conservatives are underrepresented among us by a factor of more than 100, suddenly everyone finds it quite easy to generate alternate explanations.”

The alternate explanations include the canard that “liberals” are smarter than libertarians and conservatives, and that libertarians and conservatives tend to “select out” of academia mainly because they are doers rather than teachers. In fact, Tierney addresses this issue in 2004, in “Republicans Outnumbered in Academia, Studies Find,” where he quotes Daniel Klein:

“Screened out, expelled or self-sorted, [nonleftists] tend to land outside of academia because the crucial decisions – awarding tenure and promotions, choosing which papers get published – are made by colleagues hostile to their political views,” said Professor Klein, who classifies himself as a libertarian.

In any event, Haidt’s observations are hardly new. Tierney points to other evidence in his recent column, where he mentions Klein in passing. Klein merits more than passing mention, for he has written extensively on the subject of the left-wing bias in academia. (His C.V. is here.) This is from the Summary section of “Narrow Tent Democrats and Fringe Others: The Policy Views of Social Science Professors” (2004), co-authored by Charlotta Stern:

  • Democrats dominate the social sciences. Anthropology and sociology are the most lopsided, with D-to-R ratios upwards of 20 to 1, and economics is the least lopsided, about 3 to 1. Among professors up through age 70, the overall Democrat-to-Republican ratio is probably about 8 to 1.
  • The Democratic domination has increased significantly since 1970. Republicans are being eliminated….
  • The Democrats not only dominate, but they have a narrow tent. Whereas the Republicans usually have diversity on an issue, the Democrats very often have a party line. It is clear that there is significantly more diversity under the Republican tent….
  • We find strong evidence that Republican scholars are more likely to be sorted out of academia.
  • Voting D is significantly correlated with having Democratic parents, being employed in academia, being an anthropologist or sociologist, having statist policy views, and having a more recent degree….
  • Simple measures show that the libertarians are quite exceptional. The minimum of the dissimilarities between them and any other group is greater than the maximum of dissimilarity between any pair of other groups.

The “liberal versus conservative” formulation of American politics omits the libertarians from the landscape, yet the libertarian and conservative groups appear to be equal in size in the social disciplines (each cluster-group consisted of 35 individuals). If freedom is a core political value, then there is something very wrong with a formulation that omits the ideology most aligned with that value.

Well, freedom is not a core political value for most of today’s social-science academics, as Klein and Stern amply demonstrate. They underscore that point in a later paper, “Is There a Free-Market Economist in the House? The Policy Views of American Economics Association Members” (2007). It begins with this:

Political economists are in general quite suspicious of governmental intervention. They see in it inconveniences of all kinds–a diminution of individual liberty, energy, prudence, and experience, which constitute the most precious resources of any society. Hence, it often happens that they oppose this intervention.

Frederic Bastiat (1848)

IN 1848, BASTIAT’S STATEMENTS were probably true. Nowadays they are not. Here we present evidence from a survey of American Economic Association (AEA) members showing that a large majority of economists are either generally favorable to or mixed on government intervention, and hence cannot be regarded as supporters of free-market principles. Based on our finding, we suggest that about 8 percent of AEA members can be considered supporters of free-market principles, and that less than 3 percent may be called strong supporters.


IN MARCH AND APRIL 2003, 1,000 U.S. members of the American Economists Association were surveyed using a randomly generated list of members. The original survey and supporting documents are available online at a homepage devoted to the survey. (2) The AEA members returned 264 (nonblank) surveys….

In addition to the 18 specific public policy questions, there was the following question about voting behavior:

To which political party have the candidates you’ve voted for in the past ten years mostly belonged?

    []       []        []          []        --
Democratic  Green  Libertarian  Republican  other

Among the 264 respondents, 153 (58 percent) reported voting Democratic, and 61 (23 percent) reported voting Republican. The other 50 respondents either checked Green (2), Libertarian (7), gave miscellaneous responses (17), (4) or declined to answer the question (24). Since 90.9 percent of the respondents answered the question, we are confident about the partisanship information derived from this question. The data yields a Democrat to Republican ratio of about 2.5 to 1….

THE FORMAT OF THE 18 policy questions was in the form of a statement to which the respondents were asked to indicate their view. The question on tariffs can be used as an example:

Tariffs on imported goods to protect American industries and jobs:

  []        []        []         []       []        []
support   support  have mixed  oppose   oppose   Have no
strongly  mildly    feelings   mildly  strongly  opinion
  1         2          3         4        5

The numbers 1-5 did not appear in the survey. They show how we weighted each response when creating a mean response. The “5″ value corresponds to strong support of free-market principles….

THE CUTPOINT FOR BEING a free-market supporter is 4.0 (“oppose mildly”)….

To be a free-market supporter is to take positions like those taken by Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, Ronald Coase, George Stigler, James Buchanan, and Vernon Smith….

Economists as a group have a mean score of 2.64. That is, on average, over 18 forms of government activism that any real free-market person would tend to lean against, usually strongly, economists lean slightly in support of government activism. Even among the Republicans, the mean score is 3.20, indicating that the average Republican economist is “middle of the road” on concrete examples of government activism. The average Democratic economist tends to be mildly supportive of government activism. As we saw, Democrats outnumber Republicans 2.5 to 1. Thus, a large majority of AEA members are either interventionist or middle-of-the-road Democrats, and most of the residual are middle-of-the-road Republicans….

My score, which will come as no surprise to readers of this blog, is 4.67. Where did I go “wrong” — why not a perfect score of 5.0? With regard to question 16, which asks about “tighter rather than looser controls on immigration,” I strongly oppose unselective immigration on economic and social grounds, for reasons detailed here. Also, the answer to question 17, which asks about “military aid or presence abroad to promote democracy and the rule of law,” must take into account whether (in particular cases) such actions serve Americans’ long-run interests.

Klein and Stern offer an alternative analysis, in which they drop two questions that seem unrelated to free-market principles: the one about military aid or presence abroad, and one about monetary policy. Dropping those two questions has little effect on the results of their results; the average score barely rises, from 2.64 to 2.66. (My score drops from 4.67 to 4.44.) For the 16 issues, the mean score for self-identified Democrats was 2.34, as against 3.30 for self-identified Republicans. Although Republicans are, on average, “middle of the road” (according to Klein and Stern), the distribution of scores highlights the marked difference between Democrat and Republican economists:

Klein and Stern propose several answers to the question “Why so few free-market economists?” — none of which I find compelling. I offer two answers. First, relatively few academic economists self-identify as libertarians; the average score of those who did was 4.30. Second, libertarians aside, most persons who garner a Ph.D. in economics (i.e., most members of the AEA) go through a “hazing ritual,” which Arnold Kling describes:

One of the best incumbent-protection rackets going today is for mathematical theorists in economics departments. The top departments will not certify someone as being qualified to have an advanced degree without first subjecting the student to the most rigorous mathematical economic theory. The rationale for this is reminiscent of fraternity hazing. “We went through it, so should they.”

Mathematical hazing persists even though there are signs that the prestige of math is on the decline within the profession. The important Clark Medal, awarded to the most accomplished American economist under the age of 40, has not gone to a mathematical theorist since 1989.

One of the consequences of indoctrination in mathematical economics is that its practitioners come to believe, wrongly, in their understanding of and ability to predict economic phenomena. That leads them to the consequent belief that — if only they or like-minded persons were “in charge” — the economy could be fine-tuned, in the large and in the small. Fine-tuning in the small means, among other things, preventing or correcting so-called market failures, which are those market outcomes of which self-deluding “omniscient” economists disapprove.

This belief is, in fact, nothing more than a rationalization for a point of view that is prevalent on the left, and especially among “intellectuals.” In A Conflict of Visions, Thomas Sowell characterizes it as the “unconstrained vision.” Adherents of the unconstrained vision (the left) are wedded to the rhetoric of “ought to be” and its close relation, the Nirvana fallacy. They judge existing arrangements against unattainable standards of perfection (invented by themselves), and proclaim themselves to be on the side of all that is good because they would, by legal fiat, command the attainment of the good, despite its unattainaibility. Unsurprisingly, adherents of the unconstrained vision dominate academia, where it is de rigeur (especially among social scientists) to tailor the “truth” to fit one’s preconceptions about what ought to be.

One of the things that ought to be, of course, is equality of outcomes, regardless of the facts about racial and sexual disparities with respect to aptitudes. As Haidt says, “Anywhere in the world that social psychologists see women or minorities underrepresented by a factor of two or three, our minds jump to discrimination as the explanation.”

Which brings us to the question of affirmative action for conservatives (and here I include libertarians who are thought of as right-wingers by leftists). Greg Mankiw, in a post from 2007 about diversity in academia, observes:

If right-wingers are underrepresented in universities relative to the population and discriminated against by the left-wing majority, as Larry [Summers] suggests, should there be affirmative action for right-leaning academics? It seems that, on principle, those on the left (who favor affirmative action to promote diversity and correct past injustice) should endorse such a university policy, and those on the right (who more often oppose affirmative action) would be against.

Ilya Somin comments:

…In this excellent Econlog post, economist Bryan Caplan explained why ideological discrimination is more likely to flourish in academia than in most other employment markets. Even aside from discrimination, the ideological homogeneity of much of academia causes a variety of problems, such as reducing the diversity of ideas reflected in research, skewing teaching agendas, and generating the sorts of “groupthink” pathologies to which ideologically homogenous groups are prone.

However, whether or not [ideological] discrimination is the cause of the problem, affirmative action for conservative academics (or libertarian ones) is a poor solution. Among other things, it would require universities to define who counts as a “conservative” for affirmative action purpose, a task that they aren’t likely to do well. Affirmative action for conservatives would also give job candidates an incentive to engage in deception about their views in the hopes of gaining professional advancement. Moreover, conservative professors hired on an affirmative basis despite inferior qualifications would find it difficult to get their ideas taken seriously by colleagues and students. They might therefore be unable to make a meaningful contribution to academic debate – the very reason why we want to promote ideological diversity in hiring to begin with.

In other words, two wrongs don’t make a right.

Related posts:
“Intellectuals and Society”: A Review
Asymmetrical (Ideological) Warfare
The Left
Intelligence, Personality, Politics, and Happiness
Libertarian Conservative or Conservative Libertarian?
Greed, Cosmic Justice, and Social Welfare
Positive Rights and Cosmic Justice
Utilitarianism, “Liberalism,” and Omniscience
Utilitarianism vs. Liberty
The Cost of Affirmative Action
Affirmative Action: A Modest Proposal
Race, Intelligence, and Affirmative Action
Affirmative Action: Two Views from the Academy
Affirmative Action, One More Time
Affirmative Action: Two Views from the Academy, Revisited
How to Combat Beauty-ism
Modeling Is Not Science
Physics Envy

Reality Strikes Again

Ross Douthat writes in  today’s NYT (“Obama the Realist“):

On the campaign trail in 2008, Barack Obama played to two very different foreign policy constituencies. Often he presented himself as the tribune of the anti-war left — the only candidate who had opposed the invasion of Iraq from the beginning, the man who could be trusted to civilize the global war on terror, and the perfect figure to smooth the transition to a post-American world order. To more bipartisan audiences, though, he cast himself as a cold-eyed realist — the rightful heir to George H. W. Bush, if not Henry Kissinger, who would pursue America’s interests without pretending (as the younger President Bush often did) that they matched up perfectly with America’s democratic ideals….

From the war on terror to the current unrest in Egypt, [Obama's] foreign policy has owed far more to conservative realpolitik than to any left-wing vision of international affairs….

On nearly every anti-terror front, from detainee policy to drone strikes, the Obama administration has been what The Washington Times’s Eli Lake calls a “9/14 presidency,” maintaining or even expanding the powers that George W. Bush claimed in the aftermath of 9/11. (Dick Cheney himself admitted as much last month, effectively retracting his 2009 claim that Obama’s terrorism policies were undermining national security.) Time and again, this president has proved himself a careful custodian of both American and presidential prerogatives — and the most perceptive critics of his policies, tellingly, have been civil libertarians rather than Republican partisans.

Obama’s adoption of realpolitik is unsurprising to me. In the heat of the 2004 election, when Kerry had pulled even with Bush in the polls and it seemed that Kerry the anti-warrior might become president, I wrote this:

Assuming the best on the domestic front — that is, deadlock — what about the war on terror? All wouldn’t be lost if Kerry were to win the White House. He says dangerous multilateralist things about defense policy. But, in these times of clear and present danger, even a Democrat president will put defense above the trappings of internationalism. A massive failure to defend the homeland or to secure vital overseas interests would ensure a rout in the mid-term elections and a one-term presidency, if not impeachment.

It is good to know that Obama seems to take seriously his role as commander-in-chief. But I do wonder whether his new-found “realism” arises from a sense of responsibility or fear of impeachment.  I would not rule out the latter.

The Stagnation Thesis

There’s a rather strange debate in progress about Tyler Cowen’s new book, The Great Stagnation: How America Ate All The Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History, Got Sick, and Will (Eventually) Feel Better. I say “strange” because the debate seems to be about whether Americans (for the most part) are more prosperous, in real terms, now than in the early 1970s. The fact is that Americans (for the most part) are better off now, but not nearly as prosperous as they could be. The reason is that governmental interventions — spending and regulation — have stifled innovative activity by depriving it of funds, restricting its scope, and reducing its potential profitability. And it is innovative activity that drives economic growth.

Of the economist-bloggers I read, only Don Boudreaux seems to have cottoned to this fundamental fact. The others — including Cowen — seem to be arguing about trivialities and irrelevancies (e.g., here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here). The entire discussion, beginning with Cowen’s thesis, diverts the reader’s attention from government’s economic destructiveness to the (futile) search for a price index that properly accounts for temporal changes in the kinds and quality of products and services.

My assessments of government’s destructiveness are given in these posts:

Economic Growth since WWII
The Price of Government
The Commandeered Economy
The Price of Government Redux
The Mega-Depression
The Real Burden of Government
Toward a Risk-Free Economy
The Rahn Curve at Work
The Illusion of Prosperity and Stability
Estimating the Rahn Curve: Or, How Government Inhibits Economic Growth

The last four decades, of which Cowen writes, are simply a continuation of a government-caused Mega-Depression, which began in the early 1900s. Here’s the bottom line:

Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: Part I

I recently discovered James Fitzjames Stephen’s long essay, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. Stephen (1829-94) was an uncle of Virginia Woolf, whose mush-minded feminism was antithetical to her uncle’s rigorous cast of mind.

I am working my way through Stephen’s essay. As I proceed I will post and comment on especially trenchant passages. In this first installment, I offer some excerpts of the Foreword by Stuart Warner, editor of the Liberty Fund edition (linked above). My comments are in bold type; everything else is a direct quotation from the Liberty Fund edition.


James Fitzjames Stephen’s Liberty, Equality, Fraternity figured prominently in the mid- to late nineteenth century Victorian debates on two concepts at the heart of politics in the modern world—liberty and equality. Understanding himself to be a defender of an older English Liberalism that he thought to be under assault and weakening at an ever-quickening pace, Stephen attempted in Liberty, Equality, Fraternity to offer a corrective to what he believed were the mistaken views of liberty, equality, and fraternity that were leading the charge. He found these views most fully and powerfully expressed in three of John Stuart Mill’s works: On Liberty, The Subjection of Women, and Utilitarianism. Stephen thus subjected Mill’s political philosophy to intense criticism in Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. Yet Stephen was no mere polemicist, and throughout Liberty, Equality, Fraternity we find Stephen’s own understanding of liberty—as ordered liberty—equality—as equality under law—and fraternity—as a value incompatible with a free society—braided around his critique of Mill. And it is this understanding that is the most important feature of Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, and is eminently worthy of the attention of anyone concerned with the character of a free society….

The French Revolution gave birth to the creed “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”; however, this creed outlasted the Revolution, finding expression in the nineteenth century, both on the continent and in England. In offering a powerful polemic against this creed in Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, Stephen is most emphatically not presenting himself as a defender of, as he puts it, “Slavery, Caste, and Hatred.” But he believed that many exponents of the creed of liberty, equality, and fraternity exaggerated the advantages and ignored the disadvantages of the political arrangements intended by this famed triptych of values, thereby distorting a proper understanding of liberty, equality, and fraternity along the way. In Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, Stephen makes a point of revealing the character of these disadvantages….

…Stephen recognizes liberty to be an instrumental value, not a value in and of itself; and the ultimate value that liberty principally serves is the well-being of society. We should be careful not to misunderstand this feature of Stephen’s thought—as a common understanding of Stephen would have us do—as portraying either a disregard for liberty or an authoritarian bent, for Liberty, Equality, Fraternity does not support such a reading. Not to value liberty as an end in itself is not to treat it lightly or to shy away from its endorsement as central to a civilized world. It is rather, as Stephen would see it, an admission that liberty, along with all of the other social elements of human life, has its advantages and disadvantages; and, if we are primarily concerned with the well-being of society, then we should not blindly support any given liberty in those circumstances in which its disadvantages outweigh its advantages.

The second feature of Stephen’s conception of liberty is that liberty is fundamentally a negative concept. Stephen understands liberty at its core to be an absence of restraint; however, liberty cannot be understood to involve an absence of all restraint; for Stephen, like Hobbes, recognizes that it is impossible for a society and, therefore, liberty to exist in the absence of all restraint. Restraints are required if there is to be any society at all, if only because the human condition is one in which the actions of some frequently and inevitably conflict with the actions of others. This understanding of the role of restraint in society is the basis for Stephen’s distinguishing between liberty and license, and it encourages him to understand liberty as an “absence of injurious restraint.”In this conception of liberty, morality, law, and religion are understood to restrain an individual’s actions, but not injuriously, and hence do not constitute an infringement of his liberty. In fact, in the deepest sense, it is these restraints that make liberty of action possible. And since these restraints constitute a realm of power, Stephen can maintain that, “Liberty, from the very nature of things, is dependent upon power….”…

Stephen is promoting an understanding of ordered liberty or liberty under morality and law. Part of the value of liberty lies in its allowing individuals to pursue their own choices or, more exactly, a certain set of choices rather than others, for this contributes to the well-being of society. Importantly, some sets of choices must be excluded. Genuine options are possible for human beings only within the context of a web of restraint provided by the moral, political, legal, and religious institutions that form the social arrangements in which individuals can pursue their own ends in concert with one another. Therefore, on Stephen’s analysis, the character and value of liberty reside in the restraints that frame it: there is no liberty outside of restraint.

Morality is foremost among the restraints that shape society generally and a free society in particular. For Stephen, morality is constituted in some measure by the fear of disapprobation, the fear of the opinion of others, the fear of being ostracized. Thus, Stephen remarks that “the custom of looking upon certain courses of conduct with aversion is the essence of morality.” And this aversion or disapprobation Stephen understands as being coercive. Although morality on this account might therefore be considered a system of force, the force in question is the pressure imposed by others and not punishment (or the threat of punishment) inflicted by government. Here we must underscore the idea that, as Stephen sees it, the restraints imposed by morality are vastly more extensive and important than those of law in establishing the web of restraint in which liberty is formed and has value:

Criminal legislation proper may be regarded as an engine of prohibition unimportant in comparison with morals and the forms of morality sanctioned by theology. For one act from which one person is restrained by the fear of the law of the land, many persons are restrained from innumerable acts by the fear of the disapprobation of their neighbors, which is the moral sanction; or by the fear of punishment in a future state of existence, which is the religious sanction; or by the fear of their own disapprobation, which may be called the conscientious sanction….

Given that liberty is of instrumental value for Stephen, it is easy to understand why he rejects any categorical, simple principle of liberty, one that would specify exactly which liberties should be protected, and where and when. “We must,” Stephen writes, “proceed in a far more cautious way, and confine ourselves to such remarks as experience suggests about the advantages and disadvantages of compulsion and liberty respectively in particular cases.” However, there are certain liberties that Stephen highlights in Liberty, Equality, Fraternity and in other of his writings that he believes to be of paramount importance to civilized life. The first is property: “Of all items of liberty, none is either so important or so universally recognized as the liberty of acquiring property.”  The second liberty of great importance to Stephen, perhaps surprisingly, is privacy: “Legislation and public opinion ought in all cases whatever scrupulously to respect privacy…. To try to regulate the internal affairs of a family, the relations of love or friendship, or many other things of the same sort, by law or by the coercion of public opinion, is like trying to pull an eyelash out of a man’s eye with a pair of tongs. They may put out the eye, but they will never get hold of the eyelash.”

Essential to protecting these liberties and others is the rule of law. And so closely linked is the rule of law to various liberties that Stephen suggests the rule of law is itself a liberty; for in a significant way, the procedures afforded to individuals by the rule of law specify the liberties that an individual has.

For Stephen, the rule of law is a remarkable moral conquest, a monumental achievement over despotism and the desires of some to enslave others for their own purposes. The rule of law both constitutes and vouchsafes liberties that Stephen, although holding them to be instrumentally valuable, embraces and understands to be of paramount importance to the civilized world he deeply valued….

Legislate how you will, establish universal suffrage, if you think proper, as a law which can never be broken. You are still as far as ever from equality. Political power has changed its shape but not its nature. The result of cutting it up into little bits is simply that the man who can sweep the greatest number of them into one heap will govern the rest….

Whatever may be the benefits of democracy, it also levies severe costs that render it a languid business. For the “wirepullers” need only satisfy an ignorant multitude, and this, Stephen feared, would ultimately lead to a debased and mediocre culture, one predicated on sordidness and vulgarity. In order to satisfy the unenlightened, these new rulers would extend government into the deepest recesses of the lives of individuals, willingly abandoning certain liberties along the way.

The final paragraph is a diamond, in a field of precious stones.

I have written so many posts which touch on the themes sketched by Warner that I can only refer you to a sample of them:
The Paradox of Libertarianism
On Liberty
Democracy and Liberty
The Interest-Group Paradox
Inventing “Liberalism”
What Is Conservatism?
Utilitarianism, “Liberalism,” and Omniscience
Utilitarianism vs. Liberty
Law and Liberty
Negative Rights, Social Norms, and the Constitution
Line-Drawing and Liberty
The Divine Right of the Majority
Our Enemy, the State
Pseudo-Libertarian Sophistry vs. True Libertarianism
Positivism, “Natural Rights,” and Libertarianism
What Are “Natural Rights”?
The Golden Rule and the State
Libertarian Conservative or Conservative Libertarian?

Subjective Value: A Proof by Example

The theory of subjective value, which is a cornerstone of microeconomics, says that

value is not inherent in things. There may be objective proxy-measures of value—like market value—but these depend primarily on the subjectivity of the individuals who make the choices. The prices of things, in other words, result from people’s subjective valuations of things.

When a 92-year old survivor of the Great Depression says something like “no car is worth $30,000,” he thinks that he’s stating an objective truth. In fact, he’s only saying something about the amount that he’s willing to pay for an automobile, which is somewhere south (probably way south) of $30,000.

Here’s a homely proof by example of the theory of subjective value. I’m wearing a pair of warm crew socks on this cold morning. I’ll be wearing those socks when I drive to the post office to mail a letter. (It’s an important letter, and I don’t want to wait for our mail carrier to pick it up at our curbside mail box.)

I won’t have to stand in line to mail my letter, but there will be a line of people who are waiting for window service. If I walk up to the line and ask everyone in it if they’d like to buy my crew socks, most of them will think I’m nuts and ignore me. If a sporting soul were to ask me how much I want for the pair, I’d say $20. That’s a lot more than I’d have to pay for a replacement pair, but I’d have to remove my shoes, remove my socks, don my shoes, walk out into the cold minus the  comfort of warm crew socks, and go to the trouble (sooner rather than later) of buying a replacement pair.

The sporting soul, on the other hand, would probably laugh and say “no thanks.” He’s probably already wearing socks, and doesn’t need a pair at the moment. Even if he didn’t mind handling socks that I’ve been wearing, he’d have to be an unusual person to pay $20 — or even $1 — for a pair of used socks that he doesn’t need at the moment.

That’s subjective value for you. Each of us has a “price schedule” that depends on our constantly changing tastes, preferences, and circumstances. Nothing has a “correct” price. For everything that changes hands at a particular price because buyers and sellers happen to be willing to transact at that price, there are many, many things that don’t change hands because of differences in the valuations placed on them by buyers and sellers.

Things I’m Not Doing Today

There are a lot of things I’m not doing today, even though the Demo-critters in Congress and their regulatory kin believe that they’re good for me or promote the “general welfare”:

Preventive health care is actually more costly than the vigilant treatment of symptoms, so I’m not going to a doctor for a “cost saving” checkup.

I refuse to take statins — today and every other day — despite the official belief that statins will cut my cholesterol. Statins don’t mix with alcohol, and I’d rather be a moderate drinker, and a happier person for it, than a miserably abstemious person with higher risk of stroke or heart disease.

Speaking of health, I’m not reading the labels on packaged foods, because the labels won’t tell me if there’s any poison in the products.

My car is now two years old, which means that it probably emits more CO2 than it did when it was new. But I’m not going to buy a new car.

It’s cold today, so I’m running the furnace and emitting more CO2. I know that I should freeze to death before adding to the CO2 level in the atmosphere, but I choose not to freeze to death. Come to think of it, I’ll also light my gas fireplace later, while I’m watching a movie. Or I may listen to music and read a book, while basking in the glow of a 200-watt incandescent bulb.

It happens that I need some more light bulbs, but I’m not going to replace them with CFLs. In fact, I’m going to buy a lifetime supply of incandescent bulbs while they’re still available.

Finally, I’m not spending any money today, despite the fact that my failure to spend will have affect interstate commerce (as Demo-critters define commerce).