civil society

The Social Animal and the “Social Contract”

Here we go again, into “all men are brothers” territory:

“Morality can do things it did not evolve (biologically) to do,” says [Joshua] Greene [author of Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap between Us and Them]. How can it do this? By switching from the intuitive “automatic mode” that underpins our gut reactions to the calculating, rational “manual mode”. This, for Greene, means embracing utilitarianism, “the native philosophy of the manual mode”. Utilitarianism takes the idea that “happiness is what matters, and everyone’s happiness counts the same”, generating the simple three-word maxim, “maximise happiness impartially”.

Greene is not the first to think that he has found “a universal moral philosophy that members of all human tribes can share” and that those who disagree are simply not being rational enough. Many a philosopher will raise an eyebrow at his claim that “the only truly compelling objection to utilitarianism is that it gets the intuitively wrong answers in certain cases”.

At least one strong objection is suggested by what Greene himself says. He knows full well that the kind of absolutely impartial perspective demanded by utilitarianism – in which the interests of your own child, partner or friends count for no more than any others – “is simply incompatible with the life for which our brains were designed”. Greene takes this as a flaw of human beings, not his preferred moral theory. But when someone, for example, dedicates a book to his wife, as Greene does, this does not reflect a failure to be appropriately objective. A world in which people showed no such preferences would be an inhuman, not an ideal, one. A morality that values human flourishing, as Greene thinks it should, should put our particular attachments at its core, not view them as “species-typical moral limitations” to be overcome.

That’s an excerpt of Julian Baggiani’s commendable review of Greene’s book and two others (“The Social Animal,” FT.com, January 3, 2014).

Greene makes two errors. First, he assumes that it’s wrong to prefer those who are closest to one, geographically and by kinship, to those who are farther away. Second, he assumes that happiness can be added, and that what should matter to a person is not his happiness but the sum of all the happiness in the world. The errors are so obvious that I won’t dwell on them here. If you want to read more about them, start with “Liberalism and Sovereignty,” “Inside-Outside,” “Modern Utilitarianism,” “The Social Welfare Function,” and “Utilitarianism vs. Liberty.” And by all means read “The Fallacy of Human Progress,” which addresses Steven Pinker’s rationalistic thesis about overcoming human nature (The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined).

Yes, human beings are social animals, but human beings are not “brothers under the skin,” and there is no use in pretending that we are. Trying to make us so, by governmental fiat, isn’t only futile but also wasteful and harmful. The futility of forced socialization is as true of the United States — a vast and varied collection of races, ethnicities, religions, and cultures — as it is of the world.

Despite the blatant reality of America’s irreconcilable diversity, American increasingly are being forced to lead their lives according to the dictates of the central government. Some apologists for this state of affairs will refer to the “common good,” which is a fiction that I address in the third, fourth, and fifth of the above-linked posts. Other apologists like to invoke the “social contract,” another fiction that Michael Huemer disposes of quite nicely:

[I]t is often said that the government derives its powers from a “social contract,” whereby the people have granted these special powers to the government. The only problem with this theory is that it is factually false—I have not in fact agreed to have a government, to pay taxes, or to obey the government’s laws.

A number of suggestions have been made as to how, despite my protestations to the contrary, I really have agreed to all those things. Here I will just mention one, because it is the one most often heard in conversation. This is the suggestion that I have “implicitly” agreed to have a government merely by residing in the government’s territory. (“If you don’t want a government, simply move to Antarctica!”) Very briefly, the problem with this suggestion is that it presupposes that the state owns all the territory over which it claims jurisdiction, or that for some other reason it has the right to exclude people from that area. But there is no way to establish such a right on the part of the state, unless one has already shown that the state has legitimate authority. This therefore cannot be presupposed in an argument designed to establish the state’s authority. In this case, the statist’s claim seems analogous to the leader of a protection racket claiming that his victims have voluntarily agreed to pay him protection money, merely by living in their own houses. There are other ways in which social contract enthusiasts claim that we have accepted the social contract, but as I explain in the book, each of them falls to equally serious objections, which show that the social contract does not come close to satisfying the generally accepted principles of real, valid contracts.

Another popular suggestion is that, in democratic nations (about half the world today), the democratic process confers authority on the government. The motivation behind this view is initially puzzling. Recall that the problem is to explain why the state may undertake actions that would be considered rights violations if anyone else were to perform them. Typically, if some type of action violates someone’s rights—for instance, theft, kidnapping, or murder—the action will not be converted into an ethically permissible, non-rights-violating one if a larger number of people support the action than oppose it. If you’re in a group of friends, and five of them decide they want to rob you, while only three oppose robbing you, this does not make it ethically permissible to rob you. Similarly, even if every law were directly authorized by a popular referendum of everyone affected by the law, it is unclear why this would render legitimate a law that would otherwise have been a rights violation. Matters are only more problematic in a society in which a minority of people vote, and they vote merely to select representatives who may or may not keep their promises, and may or may not do what their supporters wanted.

But doesn’t the government have to coerce us in the ways that it does in order to maintain itself in existence, so that it can provide law and order? And without government, wouldn’t society degenerate into a constant war of everyone against everyone? The first thing to note about this argument is that it could at most justify a tiny minority of all the powers claimed by any modern state. Perhaps the government must make laws against violence and theft and provide a court system to adjudicate disputes, in order to prevent a Hobbesian war of all against all. But why must the government control what drugs you may put into your body, what wages you may pay your employees, how much wheat you may grow on your farm, and whether you buy health insurance? Why must they subsidize agribusiness, send rockets to Mars, fund the arts, provide college loans, and run their own school system? The question is not, “Why are those programs beneficial?” The question is, “How are those programs justified by the threat of the Hobbesian war that would supposedly result from anarchy?”

Granted, sometimes it is necessary to use coercion to prevent some disaster from occurring. But having done so, one is not then ethically permitted to continue using coercion beyond the minimal amount necessary to prevent that disaster. If we really stand in danger of some sort of all-out Hobbesian war, then the state would be justified in employing the minimum coercion necessary to prevent the state of war from occurring. This would not justify their continuing to employ coercion whenever it strikes their fancy, or whenever they think they can achieve some benefit by doing so. (“The Problem of Authority,” Cato Unbound, March 4, 2013)

A point that Huemer doesn’t make in his essay is to compare Americans with the “boiling frog“:

The premise is that if a frog is placed in boiling water, it will jump out, but if it is placed in cold water that is slowly heated, it will not perceive the danger and will be cooked to death. The story is often used as a metaphor for the inability or unwillingness of people to react to significant changes that occur gradually.

The metaphor is apt. Americans — or a very large fraction of Americans — have been “boiled” stealthily:

Power has been passing to Washington for more than 100 years, in defiance of the Constitution, because of … the Nirvana fallacy, unrepresentative government, logjams and log-rolling, fiefdoms and egos, and the ratchet effect and interest-group paradox. Thus Washington is able to exert its power on the entire country, bringing big government to places that don’t want it….

[G]overnmental acts and decrees have stealthily expanded and centralized government’s power, and in the process have usurped social norms. The expansion and centralization of power occurred in spite of the specific limits placed on the central government by the original Constitution and the Tenth Amendment. These encroachments on liberty are morally illegitimate because their piecemeal adoption has robbed Americans of voice and mooted the exit option. And so, liberty-loving Americans have discovered — too late, like the proverbial frog in the pot of water — that they are impotent captives in their own land.

Voice is now so muted by “settled law” (e.g., “entitlements,” privileged treatment for some, almost-absolute control of commerce) that there a vanishingly small possibility of restoring constitutional government without violence. Exit is now mainly an option for the extremely wealthy among us. (More power to them.) For the rest of us, there is no realistic escape from illegitimate government-made law, given that the rest of the world (with a few distant exceptions) is similarly corrupt. (“‘We the People’ and Big Government,” Politics & Prosperity, November 16, 2013)

And, no, “we” — that is all of “us” — don’t want it to be that way:

If there is an “American psyche,” it has multiple-personality disorder.

What do you think when a snobbish European generalizes about Americans — a bunch of crude, gun-toting, money-grubbers? Do you think that such generalizations are correct? You probably don’t. And if you don’t, why would you think (or speak and write) as if Americans are like ants, that is, of one mind and collectively responsible for the actions of government? …

There’s no need to look abroad for inapplicable generalizations about America…. [C]onservatives and liberals have been separating themselves from each other. Only a cock-eyed optimist — the kind of person who believes that living in the same (very large) geographic requires unity — would call this a bad thing. As if proximity yields comity. It doesn’t work for a lot of families; it doesn’t work for most blacks and whites; it doesn’t work for upper-income and lower-income groups. Why should it work for most conservatives and liberals? …

But aren’t “we all in this together,” as proponents of big and bigger government are wont to proclaim? Not at all. The notion that “we are all in this together” is just a slogan, which really means “I want big and bigger government” to “solve” this or that problem — usually at the expense of persons who have done nothing to create the “problem.” “We are all in this together” is a call for action by government, not proof of a mythical “national will.” If “we” were “all in this together,” we wouldn’t need to be reminded of it. Like a good sports team or military unit, we would simply act that way. (Op. cit.)

It’s true that most human beings crave some kind of social connection. But the gap between that craving and the faux connectedness of one-size-fits-all big government can’t be bridged by ringing phrases (“We the People”), by appeals to patriotism, or by force.

Government can take my money, and it can make me do things the way “technocrats” want them done — and it can do the same to millions of other Americans. But government can’t make me (or those other millions) love the recipients of my money or feel happier because I’m doing things the “right” way. It can only make my (and those other millions) despise the recipients and detest forced conformity. Only divisiveness can prevent the complete destruction of liberty in the name of “society.”

Social unity is found not in government but in genetic kinship:

[G]enetic kinship is indispensable to society, where society is properly understood as “an enduring and cooperating social group whose members have developed organized patterns of relationships through interaction with one another.” (“Genetic Kinship and Society,” Politics & Prosperity, August 16, 2012)

It takes overeducated dunderheads like Joshua Greene to denigrate the bonds of genetic kinship, even while openly prizing them.

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Other related posts:
On Liberty
Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and the Legitimate State
Tocqueville’s Prescience
What Is Conservatism?
Zones of Liberty
Society and the State
I Want My Country Back
The Golden Rule and the State
Government vs. Community
Evolution, Human Nature, and “Natural Rights”
More about Conservative Governance
The Meaning of Liberty
Evolution and the Golden Rule
Understanding Hayek
The Golden Rule as Beneficial Learning
True Libertarianism, One More Time
Human Nature, Liberty, and Rationalism
Utilitarianism and Psychopathy
Why Conservatism Works
Reclaiming Liberty throughout the Land
Rush to Judgment
Secession, Anyone?
Race and Reason: The Achievement Gap — Causes and Implications
Liberty and Society
The Eclipse of “Old America”

Not-So-Random Thoughts (IX)

Demystifying Science

In a post with that title, I wrote:

“Science” is an unnecessarily daunting concept to the uninitiated, which is to say, almost everyone. Because scientific illiteracy is rampant, advocates of policy positions — scientists and non-scientists alike — often are able to invoke “science” wantonly, thus lending unwarranted authority to their positions.

Just how unwarranted is the “authority” that is lent by publication in a scientific journal?

Academic scientists readily acknowledge that they often get things wrong. But they also hold fast to the idea that these errors get corrected over time as other scientists try to take the work further. Evidence that many more dodgy results are published than are subsequently corrected or withdrawn calls that much-vaunted capacity for self-correction into question. There are errors in a lot more of the scientific papers being published, written about and acted on than anyone would normally suppose, or like to think. . . .

In 2005 John Ioannidis, an epidemiologist from Stanford University, caused a stir with a paper showing why, as a matter of statistical logic, the idea that only one . . . paper in 20 gives a false-positive result was hugely optimistic. Instead, he argued, “most published research findings are probably false.” As he told the quadrennial International Congress on Peer Review and Biomedical Publication, held this September [2013] in Chicago, the problem has not gone away. (The Economist, “Trouble at the Lab,” October 19, 2013)

Tell me again about anthropogenic global warming.

The “Little Ice Age” Redux?

Speaking of AGW, remember the “Little Ice Age” of the 1970s?

George Will does. As do I.

One Sunday morning in January or February of 1977, when I lived in western New York State, I drove to the news stand to pick up my Sunday Times. I had to drive my business van because my car wouldn’t start. (Odd, I thought.) I arrived at the stand around 8:00 a.m. The temperature sign on the bank across the street then read -16 degrees (Fahrneheit). The proprietor informed me that when he opened his shop at 6:00 a.m. the reading was -36 degrees.

That was the nadir of the coldest winter I can remember. The village reservoir froze in January and stayed frozen until March. (The fire department had to pump water from the Genesee River to the village’s water-treatment plant.) Water mains were freezing solid, even though they were 6 feet below the surface. Many homeowners had to keep their faucets open a trickle to ensure that their pipes didn’t freeze. And, for the reasons cited in Will’s article, many scientists — and many Americans — thought that a “little ice age” had arrived and would be with us for a while.

But science is often inconclusive and just as often slanted to serve a political agenda. (Also, see this.) That’s why I’m not ready to sacrifice economic growth and a good portion of humanity on the altar of global warming and other environmental fads.

Well, the “Little Ice Age” may return, soon:

[A] paper published today in Advances in Space Research predicts that if the current lull in solar activity “endures in the 21st century the Sun shall enter a Dalton-like grand minimum. It was a period of global cooling.” (Anthony Watts, “Study Predicts the Sun Is Headed for a Dalton-like Solar Minimum around 2050,” Watts Up With That?, December 2, 2013)

The Dalton Minimum, named after English astronomer John Dalton, lasted from 1790 to 1830.

Bring in your pets and plants, cover your pipes, and dress warmly.

Madison’s Fatal Error

Timothy Gordon writes:

After reading Montesquieu’s most important admonitions in Spirit of the Laws, Madison decided that he could outsmart him. The Montesquieuan admonitions were actually limitations on what a well-functioning republic could allow, and thus, be. And Madison got greedy, not wanting to abide by those limitations.

First, Montesquieu required republican governments to maintain limited geographic scale. Second, Montesquieu required republican governments to preside over a univocal people of one creed and one mind on most matters. A “res publica” is a public thing valued by each citizen, after all. “How could this work when a republic is peopled diversely?” the faithful Montesquieuan asks. (Nowadays in America, for example, half the public values liberty and the other half values equality, its eternal opposite.) Thirdly—and most important—Montesquieu mandated that the three branches of government were to hold three distinct, separate types of power, without overlap.

Before showing just how correct Montesquieu was—and thus, how incorrect Madison was—it must be articulated that in the great ratification contest of 1787-1788, there operated only one faithful band of Montesquieu devotees: the Antifederalists. They publicly pointed out how superficial and misleading were the Federalist appropriations of Montesquieu within the new Constitution and its partisan defenses.

The first two of these Montesquieuan admonitions went together logically: a) limiting a republic’s size to a small confederacy, b) populated by a people of one mind. In his third letter, Antifederalist Cato made the case best:

“whoever seriously considers the immense extent of territory within the limits of the United States, together with the variety of its climates, productions, and number of inhabitants in all; the dissimilitude of interest, morals, and policies, will receive it as an intuitive truth, that a consolidated republican form of government therein, can never form a perfect union.”

Then, to bulwark his claim, Cato goes on to quote two sacred sources of inestimable worth: the Bible… and Montesquieu. Attempting to fit so many creeds and beliefs into such a vast territory, Cato says, would be “like a house divided against itself.” That is, it would not be a res publica, oriented at sameness. Then Cato goes on: “It is natural, says Montesquieu, to a republic to have only a small territory, otherwise it cannot long subsist.”

The teaching Cato references is simple: big countries of diverse peoples cannot be governed locally, qua republics, but rather require a nerve center like Washington D.C. wherefrom all the decisions shall be made. The American Revolution, Cato reminded his contemporaries, was fought over the principle of local rule.

To be fair, Madison honestly—if wrongly—figured that he had dialed up the answer, such that the United States could be both vast and pluralistic, without the consequent troubles forecast by Montesquieu. He viewed the chief danger of this combination to lie in factionalization. One can either “remove the cause [of the problem] or control its effects,” Madison famously prescribed in “Federalist 10″.

The former solution (“remove the cause”) suggests the Montesquieuan way: i.e. remove the plurality of opinion and the vastness of geography. Keep American confederacies small and tightly knit. After all, victory in the War of Independence left the thirteen colonies thirteen small, separate countries, contrary to President Lincoln’s rhetoric four score later. Union, although one possible option, was not logically necessary.

But Madison opted for the latter solution (“control the effects”), viewing union as vitally indispensable and thus, Montesquieu’s teaching as regrettably dispensable: allow size, diversity, and the consequent factionalization. Do so, he suggested, by reducing them to nothing…with hyper-pluralism. Madison deserves credit: for all its oddity, the idea actually seemed to work… for a time. . . . (“James Madison’s Nonsense-Coup Against Montesqieu (and the Classics Too),” The Imaginative Conservative, December 2013)

The rot began with the advent of the Progressive Era in the late 1800s, and it became irreversible with the advent of the New Deal, in the 1930s. As I wrote here, Madison’s

fundamental error can be found in . . . Federalist No. 51. Madison was correct in this:

. . . It is of great importance in a republic not only to guard the society against the oppression of its rulers, but to guard one part of the society against the injustice of the other part. Different interests necessarily exist in different classes of citizens. If a majority be united by a common interest, the rights of the minority will be insecure. . . .

But Madison then made the error of assuming that, under a central government, liberty is guarded by a diversity of interests:

[One method] of providing against this evil [is] . . . by comprehending in the society so many separate descriptions of citizens as will render an unjust combination of a majority of the whole very improbable, if not impracticable. . . . [This] method will be exemplified in the federal republic of the United States. Whilst all authority in it will be derived from and dependent on the society, the society itself will be broken into so many parts, interests, and classes of citizens, that the rights of individuals, or of the minority, will be in little danger from interested combinations of the majority.

In a free government the security for civil rights must be the same as that for religious rights. It consists in the one case in the multiplicity of interests, and in the other in the multiplicity of sects. The degree of security in both cases will depend on the number of interests and sects; and this may be presumed to depend on the extent of country and number of people comprehended under the same government. This view of the subject must particularly recommend a proper federal system to all the sincere and considerate friends of republican government, since it shows that in exact proportion as the territory of the Union may be formed into more circumscribed Confederacies, or States oppressive combinations of a majority will be facilitated: the best security, under the republican forms, for the rights of every class of citizens, will be diminished: and consequently the stability and independence of some member of the government, the only other security, must be proportionately increased. . . .

In fact, as Montesqieu predicted, diversity — in the contemporary meaning of the word, is inimical to civil society and thus to ordered liberty. Exhibit A is a story by Michael Jonas about a study by Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam, “E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-first Century“:

It has become increasingly popular to speak of racial and ethnic diversity as a civic strength. From multicultural festivals to pronouncements from political leaders, the message is the same: our differences make us stronger.

But a massive new study, based on detailed interviews of nearly 30,000 people across America, has concluded just the opposite. Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam — famous for “Bowling Alone,” his 2000 book on declining civic engagement — has found that the greater the diversity in a community, the fewer people vote and the less they volunteer, the less they give to charity and work on community projects. In the most diverse communities, neighbors trust one another about half as much as they do in the most homogenous settings. The study, the largest ever on civic engagement in America, found that virtually all measures of civic health are lower in more diverse settings. . . .

. . . Putnam’s work adds to a growing body of research indicating that more diverse populations seem to extend themselves less on behalf of collective needs and goals.

His findings on the downsides of diversity have also posed a challenge for Putnam, a liberal academic whose own values put him squarely in the pro-diversity camp. Suddenly finding himself the bearer of bad news, Putnam has struggled with how to present his work. He gathered the initial raw data in 2000 and issued a press release the following year outlining the results. He then spent several years testing other possible explanations.

When he finally published a detailed scholarly analysis in June in the journal Scandinavian Political Studies, he faced criticism for straying from data into advocacy. His paper argues strongly that the negative effects of diversity can be remedied, and says history suggests that ethnic diversity may eventually fade as a sharp line of social demarcation.

“Having aligned himself with the central planners intent on sustaining such social engineering, Putnam concludes the facts with a stern pep talk,” wrote conservative commentator Ilana Mercer, in a recent Orange County Register op-ed titled “Greater diversity equals more misery.”. . .

The results of his new study come from a survey Putnam directed among residents in 41 US communities, including Boston. Residents were sorted into the four principal categories used by the US Census: black, white, Hispanic, and Asian. They were asked how much they trusted their neighbors and those of each racial category, and questioned about a long list of civic attitudes and practices, including their views on local government, their involvement in community projects, and their friendships. What emerged in more diverse communities was a bleak picture of civic desolation, affecting everything from political engagement to the state of social ties. . . .

. . . In his findings, Putnam writes that those in more diverse communities tend to “distrust their neighbors, regardless of the color of their skin, to withdraw even from close friends, to expect the worst from their community and its leaders, to volunteer less, give less to charity and work on community projects less often, to register to vote less, to agitate for social reform more but have less faith that they can actually make a difference, and to huddle unhappily in front of the television.”“People living in ethnically diverse settings appear to ‘hunker down’ — that is, to pull in like a turtle,” Putnam writes. . . . (“The Downside of Diversity,” The Boston Globe (boston.com), August 5, 2007)

See also my posts, “Liberty and Society,” “The Eclipse of ‘Old America’,” and “Genetic Kinship and Society.” And these: “Caste, Crime, and the Rise of Post-Yankee America” (Theden, November 12, 2013) and “The New Tax Collectors for the Welfare State,” (Handle’s Haus, November 13, 2013).

Libertarian Statism

Finally, I refer you to David Friedman’s “Libertarian Arguments for Income Redistribution” (Ideas, December 6, 2013). Friedman notes that “Matt Zwolinski has recently posted some possible arguments in favor of a guaranteed basic income or something similar.” Friedman then dissects Zwolinski’s arguments.

Been there, done that. See my posts, “Bleeding-Heart Libertarians = Left-Statists” and “Not Guilty of Libertarian Purism,” wherein I tackle the statism of Zwolinski and some of his co-bloggers at Bleeding Heart Libertarians. In the second-linked post, I say that

I was wrong to imply that BHLs [Bleeding Heart Libertarians] are connivers; they (or too many of them) are just arrogant in their judgments about “social justice” and naive when they presume that the state can enact it. It follows that (most) BHLs are not witting left-statists; they are (too often) just unwitting accomplices of left-statism.

Accordingly, if I were to re-title [“Bleeding-Heart Libertarians = Left-Statists”] I would call it “Bleeding-Heart Libertarians: Crypto-Statists or Dupes for Statism?”.

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Other posts in this series: I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII

“We the People” and Big Government

This post incorporates three earlier installments and completes the series.

When the Framers of the Constitution began the preamble with “We the People” and spoke as if the Constitution had been submitted to “the People” for ratification, they were indulging in rhetorical flourishes (at best) and misleading collectivization (at worst). The Founders may have been brave and honorable men, and their work — as long as it lasted — served liberty-loving Americans well. But do not forget that the Framers were politicians eager to sell a new framework of government. They were not gods or even demi-gods. They served liberty ill when they invoked the idea of a national will — expressed through government. Their coinage lends undeserved credence and emotional support to the rhetoric of statist demagogues, a breed of which Barack Obama is exemplary.

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I make two basic points in this very long post:

1. It is a logical and factual error to apply the collective “we” to Americans, except when referring generally to the citizens of the United States. Other instances of “we” (e.g., “we” won World War II, “we” elected Barack Obama) are fatuous and presumptuous. In the first instance, only a small fraction of Americans still living had a hand in the winning of World War II. In the second instance, Barack Obama was elected by amassing the votes of fewer than 25 percent of the number of Americans living in 2008 and 2012. “We the People” — that stirring phrase from the Constitution’s preamble — was never more hollow than it is today.

2. Further, the logical and factual error supports the unwarranted view that the growth of government somehow reflects a “national will” or consensus of Americans. Thus, appearances to the contrary (e.g., the adoption and expansion of national “social insurance” schemes, the proliferation of cabinet departments, the growth of the administrative state) a sizable fraction of Americans (perhaps a majority) did not want government to grow to its present size and degree of intrusiveness. And a sizable fraction (perhaps a majority) would still prefer that it shrink in both dimensions. In fact, The growth of government is an artifact of formal and informal arrangements that, in effect, flout the wishes of many (most?) Americans. The growth of government was not and is not the will of “we Americans,” “Americans on the whole,” “Americans in the aggregate,” or any other mythical consensus.

Continued below the fold. (more…)

Not-So-Random Thoughts (VI)

Arnold Kling reprises and expands on a point that I have made in “Liberty and Society” (among other posts, linked therein):

My inclination is to approve of organizations that promote group objectives and attempt to limit individual choices, as long as participation in these organizations is voluntary….

I read Adam Smith as approving of social pressure….

In Smith’s psychology, we imagine ourselves being regarded by others, and this imaginative exercise strongly influences our self-regard. Smith seems to me to suggest that this is good for mankind as a whole, because it encourages moral behavior.

Along these lines, there is a tradition within libertarian thought that champions the institutions of civil society as an alternative to statism….

In Hayek’s view, social norms are not the product of one person’s design; rather, they are the outcome of an evolutionary process….

Social norms, like the market, embody knowledge that is beyond the capability of any one individual to possess. I believe that for Hayek, trying to arrive at moral decisions solely on the basis of objective reasoning would be as futile a project as attempting to centrally plan an economy. Either project discards too much useful information to be successful….

I believe that modern research offers support for the views of Smith and Hayek on the nature of human psychology. For example, Jonathan Haidt, in The Righteous Mind, says that we have evolved to care about our status within groups. An important way to achieve status within a group is to adhere to and defend its norms.

One view is that systems of social norms are a necessary ingredient in human progress. For example, Haidt writes,

Moral systems are interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, technologies, and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate self-interest and make cooperative societies possible.

…[W]e live in a world that demands enormous levels of trust among strangers. We want to be able to use credit cards in remote villages in underdeveloped countries, to be able to buy and sell used goods on eBay, to hire contractors and service workers on Craigslist, and so on. We could not live the way we do if our trust circles were limited to something like a Dunbar number (the 150 or so people we can know well enough personally)….

What I am saying is that we should not become wedded to the view that the world we want is one in which irrational group attachments have been completely eradicated from the human psyche. Yes, this capacity for group attachment is manifest in state-worship that we find troubling. But group norms are a fundamental component of human nature. We probably owe a debt of gratitude to the part of human behavior that becomes irrationally attached to groups and to group norm enforcement.

It may be that the role of libertarians is to point out that political demagogues are exploiting the tribal loyalty instincts of citizens against their better interests, as is typically the case. But it may be neither realistic nor desirable to “educate” people in order that they should lose all sense of group attachment, including attachment to the state. (“Libertarians and Group Norms,” Library of Economics and Liberty)

Kling’s academic even-handedness aside, he is on exactly the right track. Liberty is a social construct, not a Platonic ideal.

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Call it selection bias, if you will, but The Hockey Schtick posts a seemingly endless stream of academic papers that refute “warmism” and support natural explanations of the brief period of warming during the final quarter of the 20th century. Go there, and then go to “Anthropogenic Global Warming Is Dead, Just Not Buried Yet, ” and follow the links therein.

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Theodore Dalrymple addresses Britain’s National Health Service and rationing:

Traditionally, the NHS has been inexpensive compared with most health-care systems, Britain spending less on its health care per head and as a proportion of GDP than any other developed country. But this reality is changing quickly. The NHS was inexpensive because it rationed care by means of long waiting lists; it also neglected to spend money on new hospitals and equipment. I once had a patient who had been waiting seven years for his hernia operation. The surgery was repeatedly postponed so that a more urgent one might be performed. When he wrote to complain, he was told to wait his turn.

Such rationing has become increasingly unacceptable to the population, aware that it does not occur elsewhere in the developed world. This was the ostensible reason for the Labour government’s doubling of health-care spending between 1997 and 2007. To achieve this end, the government used borrowed money and thereby helped bring about our current economic crisis. Waiting times for operations and other procedures fell, but they will probably rise again as economic necessity forces the government to retrench.

But the principal damage that the NHS inflicts is intangible. Like any centralized health-care system, it spreads the notion of entitlement, a powerful solvent of human solidarity. Moreover, the entitlement mentality has a tendency to spread over the whole of human life, creating a substantial number of disgruntled ingrates.

And while the British government long refrained from interfering too strongly in the affairs of the medical profession, no government can forever resist the temptation to exercise its latent powers. Eventually, it will dictate—because that is what governments and their associated bureaucracies, left to their own devices, and of whatever political complexion, do. The government’s hold over medical practice in Britain is becoming ever firmer; it now dictates conditions of work and employment, the number of hours worked, the drugs and other treatments that may be prescribed, the way in which doctors must be trained, and even what should be contained in applicants’ references for jobs. Doctors are less and less members of a profession; instead, they are production workers under strict bureaucratic control, paid not so much by result as by degree of conformity to directives. (“Universal Mediocrity,” City Journal, Summer 2012)

Rationing? It can’t happen here, right? Wrong. For more, see my “Rationing and Health Care.” “The Perils of Nannyism: The Case of Obamacare,” “More about the Perils of Obamacare.” and “The Rationing Fallacy.”

*   *   *

Cato’s loony libertarians (on matters of defense) once again trot out Herr Doktor Professor John Mueller. He writes:

We have calculated that, for the 12-year period from 1999 through 2010 (which includes 9/11, of course), there was one chance in 22 million that an airplane flight would be hijacked or otherwise attacked by terrorists. (“Serial Innumeracy on Homeland Security,” Cato@Liberty, July 24, 2012)

Mueller’s “calculation” consists of an recitation of known terrorist attacks pre-Benghazi and speculation about the status of Al-Qaeda. Note to Mueller: It is the unknown unknowns that kill you. I refer Herr Doktor Professor to “Riots, Culture, and the Final Showdown” and “Mission Not Accomplished.”

The State as Jailer

A triangle, as you probably know, is a stabilizing element in structures. Civil society is s stabilizing element in the affairs of citizens. Left alone by government (except as protector), the institutions of civil society establish and enforce the “rules of the game” that allow people to engage in voluntary, mutually beneficial behavior. The primary institutions of civil society — its triangular superstructure — are work, community, and family. (Community includes church, club, friendships, and the like; it does not include the kind of government-forced “community” beloved of leftists.). Absent interference by government, there is freedom within the three corners of civil society’s institutions; thus:

What happens when government goes beyond its protective role to encroach on the institutions of civil society? Aside from weakening those institutions and creating dependence on government, the main effect is to restrain freedom of action — contrary to the stated beliefs of the proponents of encroachment; thus:
The diamond-shaped space is attractive because it has been created, over the decades, by promising more freedom but, in fact, delivering less. Despite that failure, the promises are repeated ad nauseam and drummed into the minds gullible citizens, even as their freedom is being stripped away.

Related posts:
Civil Society and Homosexual “Marriage”
Law and Liberty
Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and the Legitimate State
Down with “We”
Our Enemy, the State
Government vs. Community
The Destruction of Society in the Name of “Society”
The Golden Rule as Beneficial Learning
The Myth That Same-Sex “Marriage” Causes No Harm
Liberty and Society
The Eclipse of “Old America”
Genetic Kinship and Society
Liberty as a Social Construct: Moral Relativism?

The Myth That Same-Sex “Marriage” Causes No Harm

Stephen J. Heaney writes at Public Discourse, in “Abortion, Divorce and “Same-Sex Marriage”: No Blood, No Foul?“:

Human beings are both rational and social creatures. We live not in herds but in ordered societies. We do this because it is good for us: the order of society that is necessary for us to live well is preserved by government and laws. If our government and laws do not help us to flourish (or if they actually assault our well-being), it is impossible to justify living under that government or those laws.

If government exists to support us in our flourishing, then it is obligated, in the deepest sense, to function in accordance with the truth of what is fitting for us. It is obligated to try to protect us from harm, and to support us in what is good for us….

The cause du jour, the primary contest over human flourishing, is the debate over the meaning of marriage.

The truth of marriage is that it can only exist between one man and one woman, for the sake of the children who may come as a result of their sexual union. Thus government is obligated to recognize the truth of marriage; to protect and support that project of bringing children into the world and caring for them; to recognize all and only actual marriages; and to discourage sexual acts in other contexts.

Proponents of same-sex marriage might well note here that my argument about the harm I undergo makes sense only if one agrees with my understanding of sex and marriage. This is, of course, true. With a different understanding of marriage, one might argue that same-sex couples are harmed by the lack of marital status because they believe it is owed to them.

The simple fact that no one in the entire history of humanity has ever thought it even possible for two people of the same sex to marry should give us pause. If it does not, then arguments about the nature of marriage should. I have argued previously in Public Discourse that marriage exists only as the union of one man and one woman, declared before the community, because the community has a stake in the outcome of their sexual union, i.e., children. If it were not the case that sex leads naturally (though not in every case) to children, the community would have no interest in the relationship, any more than in any other relationship of friendship or amusement. Indeed, it is impossible to imagine how anyone would have thought up the idea in the first place.

On the other hand, those who support same-sex “marriage” do so with an argument that looks something like this: “Nobody talks that way anymore. Nobody acts that way anymore. Therefore marriage has changed.” They look around at a society that, at least in practice, behaves as if sex and marriage mean nothing more than whatever the people who enter into a relationship want it to mean.

We may note that the conclusion of the above argument does not follow from the premises. The fact that many people think and act differently these days about marriage does not change the nature of marriage, any more than the nature of a cat would change if we decided to treat it like a rosebush.

If marriage is what they say it is, however, then marriage is nothing more than a contract. And if it is merely a contract, then the proper response of government and law is not to legalize same-sex marriage; it is to get out of the marriage business entirely. Law’s function, then, would be merely to help settle disputes between people who claim contracts have been violated. Any harm involved would be entirely a function of the terms of the contract, not the nature or circumstances of the people involved.

If, however, the nature of marriage is what I have argued for here, then two people who are literally incapable of marrying one another are not suffering a harm, or even a loss, when the society refuses to call their relationships a marriage. There is a difference between suffering a loss and simply not getting what one wants.

My wife, my children, and I are harmed when the government turns its back on the truth of marriage, and thus turns its back on its citizens’ flourishing. The government may force me to send my children to schools that mandate the celebration of same-sex relationships, thus violating my rights as a parent. It may prosecute me for hate crimes for the very expression of my views, thus violating my freedom of conscience and speech. I hope not. These harms are not a logically necessary outcome of the recognition of same-sex marriage, so perhaps that threat will dissipate. But the other harms that I have spelled out above are indeed necessary and harmful consequences of the adoption of same-sex marriage. The proper response of society to the widespread abuse of sex and marriage is not to multiply the harm by abandoning the truth. Rather, it is to get back on the right track.

My own view of same-sex “marriage” is remarkably similar to Heaney’s, even though my view has a different provenance than Heaney’s religious-philosophical one; for example:

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 the slippery slope of societal disintegration. The disintegration began in earnest in the 1930s, when Americans began to place their trust in chimerical, one-size-fits-all “solutions” offered by power-hungry, economically illiterate politicians and their “intellectual” enablers and apologists. In this instance, the state will recognize homosexual “marriage,” then bestow equal  benefits on homosexual “partners,”  and then require private entities (businesses, churches, etc.) to grant equal benefits to homosexual “partnerships.” Individuals and businesses who demur will be brought to heel through the use of affirmative action and hate-crime legislation to penalize those who dare to speak against homosexual “marriage,” the privileges that flow from it, and the economic damage wrought by those privileges.

It should be evident to anyone who has watched American politics that even-handedness is not a matter of observing constitutional limits on government’s reach, regardless of who asks for an exception; it is, rather, a matter of expanding the privileges bestowed by government so that no one is excluded. It follows that the recognition and punitive enforcement of same-sex “marriage” would be followed by the recognition and bestowal of benefits on other arrangements, including transient “partnerships” of convenience. 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….

Given the signals being sent by the state, the rate of formation of traditional, heterosexual marriages will continue to decline. (According to the Census Bureau, the percentage of adult males who are married dropped steadily from 71.1 percent in the 1960 census to 58.6 percent in the 2000 census; for females, the percentage dropped from 67.4 to 54.6. (The latest available figures, for 2009, show no significant change since 2000.) About half of each drop is explained by a rise in the percentage of adults who never marry, the other half by a rise in the percentage of divorced adults. Those statistics are what one should expect when the state signals — as it began to do increasingly after 1960 — that traditional marriage is no special thing by making it easier for couples to divorce, by subsidizing single mothers, and by encouraging women to work outside the home.

The well-known effects of such policies include higher rates of crime and lower levels of educational and economic achievement. (See this and this, for example.) Same-sex marriage would multiply these effects for the sake of mollifying a small minority of the populace.

There is plenty of harm to be done by the state’s recognition of same-sex “marriage.” Heaney is right to warn against that harm.

For a deeper examination of the effects of state action on morality, see Francis J. Beckwith’s “Government Forms (or Deforms) Souls.”

Related posts:
I Missed This One
A Century of Progress?
The Marriage Contract
Feminist Balderdash
Libertarianism, Marriage, and the True Meaning of Family Values
Consider the Children
Marriage and Children
Same-Sex Marriage
“Equal Protection” and Homosexual Marriage
Parenting, Religion, Culture, and Liberty
“Family Values,” Liberty, and the State
On Liberty
Civil Society and Homosexual “Marriage”
Perry v. Schwarzenegger, Due Process, and Equal Protection
Rationalism, Social Norms, and Same-Sex “Marriage”
Pseudo-Libertarian Sophistry vs. True Libertarianism
Libertarian Conservative or Conservative Libertarian?
Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: Part I
Bounded Liberty: A Thought Experiment
More Pseudo-Libertarianism
The Meaning of Liberty
Positive Liberty vs. Liberty
In Defense of Marriage

The Golden Rule as Beneficial Learning

I have argued that cooperative behavior and mutual restraint — the bulwarks of civil society and liberty — arise from observance of the Golden Rule. (See this, this, and this, for example.)  There is some new evidence for the importance of the Golden Rule as a regulatory mechanism:

Despite the fact that cooperation in one-shot interactions is viewed as both biologically maladaptive and economically irrational, it is nonetheless behaviorally widespread in our species. This apparent anomaly has posed a challenge to well-established theories in biology and economics, and it has motivated the development of a diverse array of alternatives—alternatives that seem to either conflict with known selection pressures or sensitively depend on extensive sets of untested assumptions.

These alternatives all assume that one-shot cooperation is an anomaly that cannot be explained by the existence of cooperative architectures that evolved for direct reciprocity. Our main results show that this assumption is false: organisms undergoing nothing but a selective regime for direct reciprocity typically evolved to cooperate even in the presence of strong evidence that they were in one-shot interactions. Indeed, our simulated organisms can form explicit beliefs that their interactions are one-shot and, nonetheless, be very likely to cooperate. By explicitly modeling the informational ecology of cooperation, the decision-making steps involved in operating in this ecology, and selection for efficiently balancing the asymmetric costs of different decision errors, we show that one-shot cooperation is the expected expression of evolutionarily well-engineered decision-making circuitry specialized for effective reciprocity.

This cooperation-elevating effect is strong across broad regions of parameter space. Although it is difficult to precisely map parameters in simplified models to real-world conditions, we suspect that selection producing one-shot generosity is likely
to be especially strong for our species. The human social world—ancestrally and currently—involves an abundance of high-iteration repeat interactions and high-benefit exchanges. Indeed, when repeated interactions are at least moderately long, even modest returns to cooperation seem to select for decision architectures designed to cooperate even when they believe that their interaction will be one-shot. We think that this effect would be even stronger had our model included the effects of forming reputations among third parties. If defection damages one’s reputation among third parties, thereby precluding cooperation with others aside from one’s current partner, defection would be selected against far more strongly (44). Therefore, it is noteworthy that cooperation given a one-shot belief evolves even in the simple case where selection for reputation enhancement cannot help it along. It is also worth noting that a related selection pressure—defecting when you believe your partner will not observe you—should be subject to analogous selection pressures. Uncertainty and error attach to judgments that one’s actions will not be observed, and the asymmetric consequences of false positives and misses should shape the attractiveness of defection in this domain as well.

In short, the conditions that promote the evolution of reciprocity—numerous repeat interactions and high-benefit exchanges—tend to promote one-shot generosity as well. Consequently, one-shot generosity should commonly coevolve with reciprocity. This statement is not a claim that direct reciprocity is the only force shaping human cooperation—only that if reciprocity is selected for (as it obviously was in humans), its existence casts a halo of generosity across a broad
variety of circumstances.

According to this analysis, generosity evolves because, at the ultimate level, it is a high-return cooperative strategy. Yet to implement this strategy at the proximate level, motivational and representational systems may have been selected to cause generosity even in the absence of any apparent potential for gain.Human generosity, far from being a thin veneer of cultural conditioning atop a Machiavellian core, may turn out to be a bedrock feature of human nature. (Andrew W. Delton, Max M. Krasnow, Leda Cosmides, and John Tooby, “Evolution of direct reciprocity under uncertainty can
explain human generosity in one-shot encounters
,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, Early Edition, July 25, 2011.)

The authors assume but offer no evidence that one-shot cooperation is an evolutionarily acquired trait. A stronger position  is that one-shot cooperation is a culturally transmitted trait. In any event, the authors’ findings underscore the importance of the Golden Rule to liberty. As I say in ““Evolution, Human Nature, and ‘Natural Rights,”

the Golden Rule represents a social compromise that reconciles the various natural imperatives of human behavior (envy, combativeness, meddlesomeness, etc.). Even though human beings have truly natural proclivities, those proclivities do not dictate the existence of “natural rights.” They certainly do not dictate “natural rights” that are solely the negative rights of libertarian doctrine. 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.

Liberty Is Dead, Just Not Buried Yet

UPDATED 07/13/11

Quoted in “DC Park Police Gestapo Violate First Amendment

“On June 22, 2011, I attended a meeting of the D.C. Taxi Commission for a story I’m currently working on about a proposed medallion system in the district. About half-an-hour into the meeting, I witnessed journalist Pete Tucker snap a still photo of the proceedings on his camera phone. A few minutes later, two police officers arrested Tucker. I filmed Tucker’s arrest and the audience’s subsequent outrage using my iphone.

A few minutes later, as I was attempting to leave the building, I overheard the female officer who had arrested Tucker promise a woman, who I presumed to be an employee of the Taxi Commission, that she would confiscate my phone. Reason intern Kyle Blaine, overheard her say, “Do you want his phone? I can get his phone.” (The woman who was given assurances by the officer that she could have my phone can be seen at the end of the video telling me, “You do not have permission to record this!”)

As I tried to leave, I was told by the same blond female officer to “stay put.” I told her I was leaving and attempted to exit the building. I was then surrounded by officers, and told to remain still or I would be arrested. I didn’t move, but I tried to get the attention of a group of cab drivers who were standing nearby. At this point I was arrested. I spent the remainder of the day in a cell in the basement of the building. I was released at about 4PM.”

Items from “Are We Seeing More Moves to Muzzle Free Speech in America?

  • A woman was kicked off a U.S. Airways flight after being deemed a “security risk,” purportedly because she took a photograph of the name tag of an airline employee she felt was being rude.  (Did the employee or the airline really expect this “muzzling” incident to go away quietly?)
  • Drivers in Tennessee must now be extra cautious about the content of their bumper stickers. According to WKRN in Nashville, “Drivers caught with obscene or patently offensive bumper stickers, window signs or other markings on their vehicle visible to other drivers face an automatic $50 fine.”  And exactly who will be the judge regarding what stupid couplet is “patently offensive”? (And what do the offended do? Tail the tasteless offenders so closely—just so all the words/images are properly catalogued or photographed—that an accident ensues?)
  • One can‘t be completely sure what political camp was more pleased by MSNBC’s decision to indefinitely suspend Time editor Mark Halperin for calling President Obama a nasty name during a broadcast of “Morning Joe”—-left-wingers upset at the insult…or right-wingers upset by the word choice itself. Wherever you stand on that continuum, the incident should stoke free-speech debate and get at the heart of whether or not the cable network is muzzling one of its own, rightly or wrongly.

Quoted in “A Permanent Threat to Religious Freedom“:

Same-sex marriage does not simply include more people in the definition of civil marriage; it labels the natural understanding of marriage as a form of irrational prejudice, ignorance, bigotry, and even hatred. In other words, same-sex-marriage laws teach the public that people who view marriage in the natural way are morally equivalent to racists.

Once this idea is embedded in the law, there will be enormous pressure to take it to its logical conclusion by marginalizing and penalizing people who continue to think marriage is one man and one woman. Some of this pressure will come from state sources and some will come from private sources, but in both cases it will find ways through whatever cracks might exist in protections for religious and moral conscience.

These stories just happened to catch my eye today. I’ve been seeing a lot of stories like theme of late — and with increasing frequency, it seems to me.

What does it all mean? It means that the delicate balance between liberty and order may have tipped decisively in the direction of order. But it is not the voluntary order that arises from civil society’s observance of shared norms. It is the oppressive order that comes when the state usurps the role of civil society, and the minions of the state are licensed to impose their will on the details of our lives.

UPDATE: The readiness of “do gooders” to propose new impositions testifies to the state’s vast power:

As the Western world gets fatter and fatter, the solutions to slimming it down get ever more draconian. In Britain yesterday, the government issued guidelines saying “children under the age of 5, including babies who can’t walk yet, should exercise every day.” Today, in the States, a pair of Harvard scholars writing in the Journal of the American Medical Association advocate stripping away the custody rights of parents of super obese children. They’re for real!

Related posts:
The State of the Union: 2010
The Shape of Things to Come
I Want My Country Back
Society and the State
Undermining the Free Society
The Destruction of Society in the Name of “Society”

The Destruction of Society in the Name of “Society”

Society cannot exist where the state interferes with and usurps societal functions.

What is society? In an earlier post, I quoted Roger Scruton’s An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Culture:

…Ferdinand Tönnies … formulated a distinction between two kinds of society — Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft — the first based in affection, kinship and historic attachment, the second in division of labour, self-interest and free association by contract and exchange. Traditional societies, he argued, are of the first kind, and construe obligations and loyalties in terms of a non-negotiable destiny. Modern societies are of the second kind, and therefore regard all institutions and practices as provisional, to be revised in the light of our changing requirements. The transition from Gemeinschaft to Gesellschaft is part of what happened at the Enlightenment, and one explanation for the vast cultural changes, as people learned to view their obligations in contractual terms, and so envisage a way to escape them.

Max Weber wrote, in the same connection, of a transition from traditional to “legal-rational” forms of authority, the first sanctioned by immemorial usage, the second by impartial law. To these two distinctions can be added yet another, du to Ser Henry Maine, who described the transition from traditional to modern societies as a shift from status to contract — i.e., a shift from inherited social position, to a position conferred by, and earned through, consent. (p. 24)

Note the important qualifiers that attach to modern, contractarian societies:  free association by contract and exchange; impartial law. What we have in the United States — and in most Western nations — is not society, not even Gesellschaft. That is because

Religion, community, and common culture have been displaced by the regulatory-welfare state, anthropogenic global warming, feminism, “choice,” and myriad other totems, beliefs, “movements,” and “leaders,” both religious and secular.

Freedom of association and impartial law, to the extent that they once existed in the United States, have been in decline for more than a century. Yes, yes, I know about the better lot of blacks and women, but those have been achieved to a large extent by forced association and partial law, which — in the long run — do more harm than good because they break the bonds of mutual trust and respect upon which civil society depends for self-enforcing, mutually beneficial behavior. Even a contractarian society cannot function effectively without bonds of trust and respect, lacking as it does the bonds of religion, community, and common culture.

Despite the almost complete destruction of society by the state, there are those who believe that society survives because it is embodied in the state. For such believers, society is not a network of personal associations built upon religion, community, and common culture. Rather, it is an abstraction of their imagining, and it consists of classes of individuals toward whom something is “owed”: the aged, the infirm, persons of color, Latinos, women, homosexuals, and — above all — the “poor,” who are always with us because poverty (in the mind of the “socially conscious”) is a relative thing.

It is this very urge to burden everyone with responsibility for everyone else that led to the growth of the state and the virtual destruction of society. The urge manifests itself, time and again, when the political classes (in and out of government) — claiming to act on behalf of “society’s victims” — invoke “social justice” as they make the case for the expansion of the state. The ultimate irony is that the expansion of the state commits injustice, undermines society, and creates more victims for whom the political classes can shed more crocodile tears.

Related posts:
Civil Society and Homosexual “Marriage”
Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and the Legitimate State
Society and the State
Undermining the Free Society
“Intellectuals and Society”: A Review
The Golden Rule and the State
Social Justice
More Social Justice
Evolution and the Golden Rule
We, the Children of the Enlightenment

Government vs. Community

Tibor Machan reminds us that, contra Paul Krugman, government is not community:

Finally Paul Krugman, Princeton University Nobel Laureate in economic science and columnist for The New York Times, has come clean about his “moral” position (TNYT, January 14, 2011). He has admitted that he doesn’t believe that when you earn something, you own it….

If my life doesn’t belong to me–if the norm the Declaration of Independence identifies as universal, namely, that every human being has a right to his or her life, is false–then what is true? Does my life belong to the government? If we recall that government is a group of individuals to whom a certain social role has been delegated–namely, the role of securing the rights of the citizenry–the claim that government owns our lives and resources means nothing else but that these individuals in government own our lives and resources.

But that is very odd–why would those people be in the privileged position of owning us and what to all appearances belongs to us while we, also human beings and with equal rights, do not own our lives and resources? This makes no sense….

The idea that we belong to government is obscene and harks back to an age when Caesars, monarchs, tsars, Pharaohs and such were believed to have been given their realm by God and everything within that realm, including all the human beings, therefore belonged to them. Later these slaves and serfs began to be called subjects, implying that they were all subject to the will of the government. This is were serfdom and even taxation have their origin….

An essential aspect of any bona fide moral position is that it must be practiced voluntarily, not because someone–e. g., government–holds a gun to one’s head and coerces one to do what is right. That doesn’t count as doing the right thing, so any such policy is literally demoralizing. It robs people of the opportunity to be morally good (or bad, of course).

A society that’s fit for human habitation must not have policies that prevent citizens from exercising moral judgment. So, OK, assume for a moment that we should devote ourselves entirely to serving other people, to serving the public good. If, however, all of this is accomplished through governmental coercion like taxation, regulation, regimentation, and so forth, there can’t be anything moral about it. So Dr. Krugman’s so called moral stance isn’t one at all. It leaves no room for morality because it makes all purportedly moral conduct involuntary, imposed by rulers and not a matter of one’s own free will.

Sharing at the point of a gun is not sharing, it is theft. When government forces “sharing,” it removes opportunities for true acts of kindness and charity. It is such acts that help to foster a sense of community. And a sense of community is essential to civility.

Government interventions in economic affairs are therefore destructive of the social bonds that inhibit anti-social and criminal conduct. It follows that government interventions in economic affairs lead to increasingly expensive and oppressive efforts by government to regulate social conduct.

Related posts:
Enough of Krugman
Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and the Legitimate State
An Encounter with a Marxist
The Golden Rule and the State

Our Enemy, the State

I have written much about the economic and social damage wrought by state action. In this post, I step back from particular instances of state action to explain, in general terms, how it damages the economic and social infrastructure that it is supposed to protect, in a so-called free nation.

I begin with tutorials about economic and social behavior and their intertwining. When I have laid that groundwork, I explain the destructiveness of state action when it goes beyond the protection of life, liberty, and property.

ECONOMIC BEHAVIOR AND “ECONOMICS”

There is more to economic behavior than production and exchange, at arm’s length. But it is those aspects of economic behavior that usually come to mind when one refers to “economics.” In the narrow view, economic behavior has five facets:

  • Buyers allocate their disposable (after-tax) incomes among various goods (products and services, including forms of saving), according to their individual tastes and preferences, which are influenced by many things (e.g., socioeconomic status, family status, and cultural heritage).
  • Sellers choose the quantities and prices of goods that they offer to buyers, given the factors that affect their production costs and possibilities (e.g., resource prices, innovation, government intervention).
  • Buyers and sellers act — through the mechanism known as “the market,” which usually is not a physical place — to determine the mix of goods that changes hands.
  • The mix of goods exchanged varies across time, as tastes and preferences change; goods change because of  invention, innovation, and variations in resource prices; and government intervention varies in type and intensity (usually waxing rather than waning).
  • The general level of goods exchanged — as measured roughly by their aggregate monetary value — is affected by the foregoing.

All of these actions occur simultaneously and dynamically.

Aggregation has no validity unless it is grounded in an understanding and valid description of the disaggregated behavior of buyers and sellers. Even then, aggregation fails to depict the totality of economic activity because (a) much of it is unmeasured (e.g., so-called household production); (b) not all activity moves in the same direction at the same time; (c) tastes, preferences, and production possibilities are constantly changing; and, most importantly, (d) there is no valid way of aggregating the satisfaction, pleasure, happiness, or utility (call it what you will) that the fruits of economic activity impart to the unique individuals who partake of it.

In any event, the underlying characteristic of economic behavior is its transactional nature. Two or more parties agree to exchange things (goods, money, other stores of value) in an effort by each party to gain satisfaction, pleasure, happiness, or utility (call it what you will). Transactional behavior is a manifestation of social behavior, in that it is cooperative.

ECONOMIC BEHAVIOR AS SOCIAL BEHAVIOR

The kinds of economic behavior listed above typically are studied as “economics,” which — until recent decades — was limited mainly to the explicit exchange of goods for goods or goods for money. But such transactions are not the whole of economic behavior, and are far from the whole of social behavior.

Some kinds of transactional behavior are considered deeply personal — and they are deeply personal — but they involve exchange, nonetheless. One such behavior is friendship; another is sex; a third is loyalty:

  • Friendship is mutual, so its economic nature should need no explanation.
  • So is sex mutual, when it is consensual. It may be given for many reasons other than monetary gain, but its essential character is transactional: parties giving each other pleasure.
  • Loyalty arises from a kind of tacit exchange; that is, loyalty-inducing acts yield loyalty, which can be drawn upon (or not) at the behest of the person who commits loyalty-inducing acts. Loyalty may accompany friendship, but it also may exist apart from friendship.

These and other kinds of “personal” acts are not usually considered to be economic in nature, for three reasons: (a) the medium of exchange is far removed from money (or anything like it); (b) the transactions are so idiosyncratic as to defy the usual statistical-mathematical reductionism of economics; and (c) the transactions are far removed in character from, say, the buying and selling of potatoes.

The distinction between economic and social behavior has almost vanished in recent decades, with the rise of behavioral economics. This brand of economics focuses on the psychological determinants of economic behavior. There is much research and speculation about how and why individuals choose as they do, not only in the spending of money but also it other, more “personal,” types of social interaction.

Formal economics aside, the essential character of economic behavior is, as I have said, transactional. Economic transactions — even those that are deeply personal — are cooperative. But not all social behavior is transactional. In that subtle distinction lies the difference between economic behavior and “pure” social behavior.

“PURE” SOCIAL BEHAVIOR

What is “pure” social behavior? A good example can be found in religion. Certainly, religion has transactional aspects, as in the “giving” of one’s belief in the hope of a heavenly afterlife. But religion, for billions of persons, is much more than that. So is sex in a loving marriage. So friendship can be.

What is this deeper aspect of “pure,” non-transactional (non-economic) social behavior? It is rooted in the capacity of humans for self-generated emotional satisfaction. This can manifest itself as a uni-directional attachment to another person or being, an attachment that does not depend on the actions of its subject. A mundane but not all-encompassing term for it is “unconditional love.” A perhaps more apt term is “needing to belong” to someone or something.

A uni-directional attachment becomes a “pure” social relationship when individuals join to celebrate an attachment in common. To offer a short list of examples, the attachment may be to a family (nuclear or extended) as a family, apart from mutual attachments between individuals; religion; club; patriotic organization; or even a neighborhood, where the attachment is to the neighborhood itself, instead of or in addition to neighborly friendships. Membership in such organizations — the feeling of belonging to something “bigger” than oneself — can complement and heighten the underlying uni-directional attachment felt by each member.

POLITICS

Politics, as I use the term here, is simply an aspect of social behavior. It is the working out of the rules (signals, customs, taboos) and roles that individuals will follow and adopt in transactional and “pure” social relationships. Some rules may be confined to particular relationships; others may spread widely through emulation and necessity. Necessity arises when there is a network of transactional and “pure” social relationships that comprises disparate local sub-groups. Common rules, in such a case, help to ensure that members are recognized, and that their behavior is consistent with the purpose of the social network.

Rules range from the use of secret handshakes (to signal membership in a particular organization) to shunning (as a signal that the target has been ejected from a particular social organization). In between, there are things like the religious symbolism (e.g., the way in which the Sign of the Cross is made), deportment (stiff upper lip, and all that), the use of drugs (or not), and myriad other tokens of membership in the overlapping social groupings that comprise humanity. Such groupings include the fraternity of individualists, who despite their individualism, share an allegiance to it and variations on themes that justify it.

Roles denote one’s standing in a social group. Roles are determined by rules and signaled by the observance of certain of them. The role of a wife in many cultures, for example, was (and remains) overt subservience to the edicts of the husband. Subservience is signaled by the observance of rules that include, for example, standing while the husband eats his meal, and eating only when he has finished. The extent to which a particular wife is truly subservient to her husband — bowing to his political judgments or, alternatively, influencing them — is a political matter that lies between them and depends very much on the individuals involved.

Here, I must digress about the difference between voluntarily evolved social distinctions and dominance by force. Busybodies are quick to adopt the view that outward signs of subservience — and similar social phenomena that seem to create classes of individuals — indicate the forceful imposition of rules and roles. Busybodies, in other words, cannot (or do not wish to) tell the difference between something as abhorrent as slavery and a time-honored rule or role that, by facilitating social behavior, saves time and effort and reduces the likelihood of conflict. The role of a busybody is to question and challenge everything that is not done the way he would do it; a busybody, in other words, is a person of limited empathy and imagination. (For more about the proper role of the state with respect to social behavior, see “The Principles of Actionable Harm.”)

THE INDIVISIBILITY OF SOCIAL AND ECONOMIC BEHAVIOR

Everything I have discussed to this point involves real politics: transactions for mutual benefit, within a framework of voluntarily evolved rules and roles, without the imposition or threat of force by the state.

For example, the dietary laws of Judaism, when observed strictly (as they are in certain sects) affect the kinds of foodstuffs that observant Jews will grow, raise, or buy. Those of us who are old enough to remember when the three top-selling makes of automobile in the U.S. were Ford, Chevrolet, and Plymouth will also remember that the choice of which to buy was (in certain socioeconomic circles and age groups) a sign of membership in a loose affiliation of kindred auto owners. More generally, the demand for certain kinds of clothing, electronic equipment, beverages, automobiles, and so on is determined to some extent by socioeconomic status and group membership. Outsiders may mimic insiders in an effort to increase their standing with peers, to signal an aspiration to belong to a certain group, or as a sign of membership in an auxiliary group (e.g., a fan club, or whatever it is called now).

Thus we have real politics as the lubricant of social behavior. And we have economic behavior as an aspect of social behavior.

There is nevertheless a widely held view that economic behavior is distinct from social behavior. But when the state taxes or regulates “economic” activity, it shapes and channels related “social” activity. For example, the family that pays 25 percent of its income in taxes is that much less able to join and support organizations of its choice, to own and exhibit tokens of its socioeconomic status, to afford better education for its children, and so on. The immediate rejoinder will be that nothing has been changed if everyone is affected equally. But because of the complexity of tax laws and regulations, everyone is not affected equally. Moreover, even if everyone were deprived equally of the same kind of thing — a superior education, say — everyone would be that much worse off by having been deprived of opportunities to acquire remunerative knowledge and skills, productive relationships, and mental stimulation. Similarly, everyone would be that much worse off by being less well clothed, less well housed, and so on. Taxes and regulations, even if they could be applied in some absolutely neutral way (which they can’t be), have an inevitably deleterious effect on individuals.

In sum, there is no dividing line between economic and social behavior. What we call social and economic behavior are indivisible aspects of human striving to fulfill wants, both material and spiritual. The attempt to isolate and restrict one type of behavior is futile. It is all social behavior.

“POWER POLITICS”: OR, ENTER THE STATE

The activity that we usually call “politics” is not politics at all. Real politics, as I have said, is the voluntary working out of rules and roles, in the context of social behavior, which encompasses so-called economic behavior. With voice and exit, those who are unhappy with their lot can try to persuade the other members of their voluntary association to adopt different rules. If they fail, they can choose a more congenial social set (if one is available to them), which may involve moving to a different place. The ability to “vote with one’s feet” is an instrument of persuasion, as well, for it signals the group that one leaves (or credibly threatens to leave) of a defect that may cause others to leave, thus endangering the attainment  of the group’s common objective.

What we usually call “politics” is entirely different from true politics. I call it “power politics.” It amounts to this:

  • A state is established, either by force alone or through a combination of consent, by limited to certain social and/or interest groups, and force, imposed on dissenting and uninvolved persons.
  • The state enjoys a monopoly of force, which it may — in the beginning, at least — apply to limited purposes, usually the defense of its citizens from aggression, intimidation, fraud, and theft.
  • There is a constant struggle for control of the state, either by force or by the kind of “politics” endemic to the state. The “politics” amounts to non-violent contests between and among various social and/or interest groups. The contests are conducted according to formal rules established under the aegis of the state,  not a working-out of a modus vivendi in the normal course of real politics.
  • Control of the state enables the winners to override the rules that arise voluntarily through social cooperation. Rules imposed by the state come in the form of statutes, regulations, executive orders, judicial decrees, and administrative decisions (which may take a life of their own).
  • The effects of the various statutes, etc., are long-lasting because they often are not repealed when power changes hands. Instead, they remain in place, with the result that state power accrues and expands, while — as a result — the scope of social behavior shrinks and becomes less potent.

In other words, power in the hands of the state — and those who control it — is anti-social. Acts of the state are not acts of “society” or “community.” Those terms properly refer to consenting relationships among individuals — relationships that are shaped by real politics.

The state, in its ideal form, upholds and defends “society” and “community.” But when it oversteps its legitimate bounds, it commits the very acts of aggression, intimidation, fraud, and theft that it is supposed to deter and prevent. Moreover, it undoes the fabric of “society” and “community” by unraveling the voluntarily evolved social rules that bind them and guide them in peaceful cooperation.

Down with “We”

Whenever a politician says “we,” I reach for my wallet to be sure his hand isn’t already in it.

Count me out of the “we.” I don’t expect the state to force others to take care of me, I don’t want the state to force me to take care of others. I’ll decide who is worthy of my help, thank you very much, and I will give them as much help as I can afford while taking care of myself and my immediate family.

Yes, there is a nation called the United States, which comprises the States and their political subdivisions. But none of those political entities is a family, a community (in the sense of a voluntary association of individuals with voice and exit), or a society bound by shared cultural traditions. Whatever their origins in history, the United States and its components are now nothing more than mere political contrivances, whose governments have usurped the functions of family, community, and society.

If there ever was a “we the people,” it was long ago and in a different America.

Related posts:
Is There Such a Thing as Society?
Negative Rights, Social Norms, and the Constitution
Rights, Liberty, The Golden Rule, and the Legitimate State
Law and Liberty
The Real Constitution and Civil Disobedience
A Declaration of Independence
Is Liberty Possible?
The National Psyche and Foreign Wars

More about Consequentialism

In “‘Natural Rights’ and Consquentialism” I attacked (with logic) the concept of natural rights, and observed that

rights — when properly understood as man-made bargains — are consequentialist to their core, arising as they do (in part) from empathy and (in part) from self-interestedness.

This observation squares with something I said in “Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and the Legitimate State“:

Liberty — rightly understood as the universal application of negative rights — is possible only when the Golden Rule is, in fact, the rule. The Golden Rule, which is the quintessential social norm, encapsulates a lesson learned over the eons of human coexistence. That lesson? If I desist from harming others, they (for the most part) will desist from harming me.

It seems that these observations, which I have made in one way or another in many posts, put me in good company. Don Boudreaux of Cafe Hayek, notes that

Adam Smith … [i]n The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) … wrote that “Our continual observations upon the conduct of others insensibly lead us to form to ourselves certain general rules concerning what is fit and proper either to be done or to be avoided.”

Just as workable economic arrangements are not, and cannot be, designed and imposed by a higher power, so too, Smith explained, workable morality itself is the product not of any grand design but of the everyday actions, reactions, observations, and practical assessments of ordinary people going about their daily business.

Which is not to say that I am necessarily right just because I am on the same wavelength as Adam Smith (in this and other respects). For, as The New Rambler says,

we have a chicken-and-egg problem. We must measure consequentialism against some value outside itself to see if the results we get are what we want. At the same time, any ideal must be tested by everyday experience to see if it is worth pursuing or in what way we can best attain it.

I admit that when I argue in favor of consequentialism, I am arguing for it (in part) because I believe — with justification (e.g., here, here, and here) — that the consequences of ordered liberty are superior to those of its alternatives: statism (even the statism of our supposedly benign “soft despotism”) and anarchy (which necessarily devolves into something worse than “soft despotism”). But, at the same time, liberty is a value unto itself (an ideal), which can be attained only under a political system with the following characteristics:

  • the general observance of evolved and evolving social norms and, accordingly, their enforcement through social censure
  • an accountable, minimal state, dedicated to the protection of its citizens and the enforcement of those social norms — and only those norms — that rise to the level of statutory law (e.g., acts that are generally recognized as fraudulent, coercive, and aggressive)
  • voice, the opportunity for dissent from social norms and laws (though not the right to have one’s dissent honored)
  • exit, the right to leave without penalty.

Those, of course, are the characteristics of civil society operating freely under the aegis of a minimal state, which is what I mean by ordered liberty. Whether rights are pre-existing entities or social bargains unshaped by the state (but sometimes enforced by it), they will emerge and flourish under ordered liberty.

In sum, The New Rambler‘s “chicken and egg” comment has led me to a reconciliation of natural rights and consequentialism. Liberty is to be sought for its own sake and because of its consequences, among which is the emergence of rights — whatever their source — whose exercise redounds to the benefit of the people who share in those rights.

Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and the Legitimate State

A right, as opposed to a privilege, is capable of universal application within a polity. The only true rights, therefore, are liberty rights, which are negative rights. So-called positive rights are privileges, not rights.

Liberty rights are represented in the Founders’ trinity of “unalienable Rights“: “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” These really constitute a unitary right, which I simply call liberty. The liberty right is unitary because liberty (as a separate right) is meaningless without life and the ability to pursue happiness. Thus we have this: rights ≡ liberty (rights and liberty are identical). The identity of rights and liberty is consistent with this definition of liberty:

3. A right or immunity to engage in certain actions without control or interference.

In essence, liberty consists of negative rights (the right not be attacked, robbed, etc.). Negative rights are true rights because they are capable of universal application: Leaving others alone (the essence of negative rights) costs each of us nothing and yields liberty for all.

Positive rights (the right to welfare benefits, a job based on one’s color or gender, etc.) are not rights, properly understood, because they are not capable of universal application: Taking from others (the requisite of positive rights) costs some of us something without an offsetting return. (Think, for example, of the redistributional effects of various taxes.) Positive rights cannot be had without engaging in actions that control or interfere with others. Positive rights are anti-libertarian privileges.

Liberty — rightly understood as the universal application of negative rights — is possible only when the Golden Rule is, in fact, the rule. The Golden Rule, which is the quintessential social norm, encapsulates a lesson learned over the eons of human coexistence. That lesson? If I desist from harming others, they (for the most part) will desist from harming me.

In civil society, exceptional behavior is dealt with by criticism and punishment (which may include ostracism). The exceptions usually are dealt with by codifying the myriad instances of the Golden Rule (e.g., do not steal, do not kill) and then enforcing those instances through communal action (i.e., justice and defense).

The exceptions that cannot be dealt with by civil society are the proper concern of the minimal state — one that is dedicated to the defense of its citizens from predators. But the state becomes illegitimate the moment it crosses the line from the enforcement of the Golden Rule (negative rights) to the granting of privileges (positive rights). For when the state does that, it is no longer dedicated to liberty.

Related posts:
Fascism with a “Friendly” Face
Democracy and Liberty
Inventing “Liberalism”
Parsing Political Philosophy
The Interest-Group Paradox
Utilitarianism vs. Liberty
The Principles of Actionable Harm
Law and Liberty
Negative Rights
Negative Rights, Social Norms, and the Constitution
A New (Cold) Civil War or Secession?
Civil War, Close Elections, and Voters’ Remorse
The Devolution of American Politics from Wisdom to Opportunism

Law and Liberty

Law comprises the rules which circumscribe human behavior. Law in the United States is mainly an amalgam of two things:

  • widely observed social norms that have not yet been undermined by government
  • governmental decrees that shape behavior because they (a) happen to reflect social norms or (b) are backed by a credible threat of enforcement.

Law — whether socially evolved or government-imposed — is morally legitimate only when it conduces to liberty; that is, when

  • it applies equally to all persons in a given social group or legal jurisdiction
  • an objector may freely try to influence law (voice)
  • an objector may freely leave a jurisdiction whose law offends him (exit).

Unequal treatment means the denial of negative rights on some arbitrary basis (e.g., color, gender, income). As long as negative rights are not denied, then a norm of voluntary discrimination (on whatever basis) is a legitimate exercise of the negative right to associate with persons of one’s choosing, whether as a matter of personal or commercial preference (the two cannot be separated). True liberty encompasses social distinctions, which are just as much the province of “minorities” and “protected groups” as they are of the beleaguered white male of European descent, whose main sin seems to have been the creation of liberty and prosperity in this country.

Law is not morally legitimate where equal treatment, voice, or exit are denied or suppressed by force or the threat of force. Nor is law morally legitimate where incremental actions of government (e.g., precedential judicial rulings) effectively deny voice and foreclose exit as a viable option.

If government-made law ever had moral legitimacy in the United States, the zenith of its legitimacy came in 1905:

[T]he majority opinion in [Lochner v. New York] came as close as the Supreme Court ever has to protecting a general right to liberty under the Fourteenth Amendment. In his opinion for the Court, Justice Rufus Peckham affirmed that the Constitution protected “the right of the individual to his personal liberty, or to enter into those contracts in relation to labor which may seem to him appropriate or necessary for the support of himself and his family.” (Randy Barnett,  “Is the Constitution Libertarian?,” p. 5)

But:

Beginning in the 1930s, the Supreme Court reversed its approach in Lochner and adopted a presumption of constitutionality whenever a statute restricted unenumerated liberty rights. [See O’Gorman & Young, Inc. v. Hartford Fire Ins. Co. (1931).] In the 1950s it made this presumption effectively irrebuttable. [See Williamson v. Lee Optical of Oklahoma (1955).] Now it will only protect those liberties that are listed, or a very few unenumerated rights such as the right of privacy. But such an approach violates the Ninth Amendment’s injunction against using the fact that some rights are enumerated to deny or disparage others because they are not. (Barnett, op. cit, pp. 17-18)

This bare outline summarizes the governmental acts and decrees that stealthily expanded and centralized government’s power and usurped social norms. The expansion and centralization of power occurred in spite of the specific limits placed on the central government by the original Constitution and the Tenth Amendment, and in spite of the Fourteenth Amendment. These encroachments on liberty are morally illegitimate because their piecemeal character has robbed Americans of voice and mooted the exit option. And so, we have discovered — too late — that we are impotent captives in our own land.

Voice is now so circumscribed by “settled law” that there is a null possibility of restoring Lochner and its ilk. Exit is now mainly an option for the extremely wealthy among us. (More power to them.) For the rest of us, there is no realistic escape from illegitimate government-made law, given that the rest of the world (with a few distant exceptions) is similarly corrupt.

As Thomas Jefferson observed in 1774,

Single acts of tyranny may be ascribed to the accidental opinion of a day; but a series of oppressions, begun at a distinguished period and pursued unalterably through every change of ministers, too plainly prove a deliberate, systematic plan of reducing [a people] to slavery.

Having been subjected to a superficially benign form of slavery by our central government, we must look to civil society and civil disobedience for morally legitimate law. Civil society, as I have written, consists of

the daily observance of person X’s negative rights by persons W, Y, and Z — and vice versa…. [Civil society is necessary to liberty] 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 … 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.

When government fails to protect civil society — and especially when government destroys it — civil disobedience is in order. If civil disobedience fails, more drastic measures are called for:

When I see the worsening degeneracy in our politicians, our media, our educators, and our intelligentsia, I can’t help wondering if the day may yet come when the only thing that can save this country is a military coup. (Thomas Sowell, writing at National Review Online, May 1, 2007)

In Jefferson’s version,

when wrongs are pressed because it is believed they will be borne, resistance becomes morality.

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.