liberalism

“Liberalism” and Personal Responsibility

As usual, I enclose “liberal” and its variants in quotation marks because such words refer to persons and movements whose statist policies are in fact destructive of liberty, that is, illiberal.

The unacknowledged core value of “liberalism” is its repudiation of personal responsibility. There is ample evidence of this; for example:

  • the treatment of material inequality as inequity, as if differences in intelligence, skills, ambition, and work habits are irrelevant
  • unblinking support for the redistribution of income and wealth, thus encouraging sloth and punishing intelligence, skill, ambition, and hard work
  • a preference for rehabilitation and second, third, and fourth chances, as opposed to sure, swift, and harsh punishment for criminal acts
  • the unsupported view that terrorism arises from poverty and is therefore “understandable,” and isn’t an act of war but merely a crime whose perpetrators must be accorded due process in American courts
  • the promotion of abortion, which is a way of escaping the consequences of imprudent sexual behavior — after-the-fact birth control, as it were
  • the disparagement and destruction of familial responsibility, through welfare programs, easy divorce, the advancement of gay “marriage,” and the subsidization of women’s work outside the home
  • a general disinclination to hold persons responsible for the consequences of their actions: various addictions are “diseases”; those who acquire lung cancer by smoking are “victims” of tobacco companies; those who engage in risky sex acts are “victims” of AIDS; those who borrow money and don’t repay it; and on and on
  • the treatment of straight, white males as”privileged,” to justify the indiscriminate bestowal of favors on “protected groups” (those who aren’t straight, white males) because all members of such groups are discriminated against,” “disadvantaged,” and “oppressed,” by definition.

Anthony Daniels (Theodore Dalyrmple) captures the essence of the “liberal” mindset:

In the United States, the National Institute on Drug Abuse defines addiction quite baldly as a chronic relapsing brain disease—and nothing else. I hesitate to say it, but this seems to me straightforwardly a lie, told to willing dupes in order to raise funds from the federal government.

Be that as it may, the impression has been assiduously created and peddled among the addicts that they are the helpless victims of something that is beyond their own control, which means that they need the technical assistance of what amounts to a substantial bureaucratic apparatus in order to overcome it. When heroin addicts just sentenced to imprisonment arrived, they said to me, “I would give up, doctor, if only I had the help.” What they meant by this was that they would give up heroin if some cure existed that could be administered to them that would by itself, without any resolution on their part, change their behavior. In this desire they appeared sincere—but at the same time they knew that such a cure did not exist, nor would most of them have agreed to take it if it did exist….

[A]ll the bases upon which heroin addiction is treated as if it is something that happens to people rather than something that people do are false, and easily shown to be false. This is so whatever the latest neuro-scientific research may supposedly show….

Dishonest passivity and dependence combined with harmful activity becomes a pattern of life, and not just among drug addicts. I remember going into a single mother’s house one day. The house was owned by the local council; her rent was paid, and virtually everything that she owned, or that she and her children consumed, was paid for from public funds. I noticed that her back garden, which could have been pretty had she cared for it, was like a noxious rubbish heap. Why, I asked her, do you not clear it up for your children to play in? “I’ve asked the council many times to do it,” she replied. The council owned the property; it was therefore its duty to clear up the rubbish that she, the tenant, had allowed to accumulate there—and this despite what she knew to be the case, that the council would never do so! Better the rubbish should remain there than that she do what she considered to be the council’s duty. At the same time she knew perfectly well that she was capable of clearing the rubbish and had ample time to do so. This is surely a very curious but destructive state of mind, and one that some politicians have unfortunately made it their interest to promote by promising secular salvation from relative poverty by means of redistribution….

[T]he notions of dependence and independence have changed. I remember a population that was terrified of falling into dependence on the state, because such dependence, apart from being unpleasant in itself, signified personal failure and humiliation. But there has been an astonishing gestalt switch in my lifetime. Independence has now come to mean independence of the people to whom one is related and dependence on the state. (“The Worldview That Makes the Underclass,” Imprimis, May/June 2014)

The deeper tragedy is that the denial of personal responsibility leads inevitably to the erosion of liberty. When the state becomes the arbiter of our morals, it becomes perforce the arbiter of our actions.

*     *     *

Related posts:
Diversity
The Cost of Affirmative Action
It Can Happen Here: Eugenics, Abortion, Euthanasia, and Mental Screening
Affirmative Action: A Modest Proposal
Affirmative Action: Two Views from the Academy
Affirmative Action, One More Time
A Contrarian View of Segregation
The Consequences of Roe v. Wade
The Old Eugenics in a New Guise
The Left, Abortion, and Adolescence
After the Bell Curve
A Footnote . . .
Schelling and Segregation
“Equal Protection” and Homosexual Marriage
Law, Liberty, and Abortion
Same-Sex Marriage
“Equal Protection” and Homosexual Marriage
Law, Liberty, and Abortion
Abortion and the Slippery Slope
An Argument Against Abortion
Singer Said It
A “Person” or a “Life”?
The Case against Genetic Engineering
Affirmative Action: Two Views from the Academy, Revisited
A Wrong-Headed Take on Abortion
“Family Values,” Liberty, and the State
On Liberty
Negative Rights, Social Norms, and the Constitution
Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and the Legitimate State
Perry v. Schwarzenegger, Due Process, and Equal Protection
Rationalism, Social Norms, and Same-Sex “Marriage”
Our Enemy, the State
Pseudo-Libertarian Sophistry vs. True Libertarianism
Positivism, “Natural Rights,” and Libertarianism
What Are “Natural Rights”?
The Golden Rule and the State
Libertarian Conservative or Conservative Libertarian?
Evolution, Human Nature, and “Natural Rights”
More Pseudo-Libertarianism
More about Conservative Governance
The Meaning of Liberty
In Defense of Marriage
Understanding Hayek
Burkean Libertarianism
Rights: Source, Applicability, How Held
True Libertarianism, One More Time
Human Nature, Liberty, and Rationalism
Utilitarianism and Psychopathy
Abortion and Logic
The Myth That Same-Sex “Marriage” Causes No Harm
Society and the State
Are You in the Bubble?
Liberty, Negative Rights, and Bleeding Hearts
Conservatives vs. “Liberals”
Why Conservatism Works
Abortion, Doublethink, and Left-Wing Blather
Race and Reason: The Victims of Affirmative Action
Abortion, “Gay Rights,” and Liberty
Race and Reason: The Achievement Gap — Causes and Implications
Liberty and Society
The Eclipse of “Old America”
Genetic Kinship and Society
Liberty as a Social Construct: Moral Relativism?
Defending Liberty against (Pseudo) Libertarians
“Conversing” about Race
Defining Liberty
Conservatism as Right-Minarchism
“We the People” and Big Government
Evolution and Race
The Culture War
The Pseudo-Libertarian Temperament
Parsing Political Philosophy (II)
Getting Liberty Wrong
Surrender? Hell No!
Governmental Perversity
Libertarianism and the State

Modern Liberalism as Wishful Thinking

TheFreedictionary.com defines wishful thinking as “the erroneous belief that one’s wishes are in accordance with reality.” There’s a lot of wishful thinking going on, and it’s harmful to liberty and prosperity. I’m referring to the wishful thinking that characterizes modern liberalism, which is more properly called left-statism verging on despotism.

The dysfunctional manifestations of left-statism are too many to enumerate, let alone to detail in a single post. Obamacare is merely a current dysfunctional manifestation. It has many predecessors and will have many successors, unless constitutional government can somehow be restored in the United States. Some of the manifestations take the form of laws, executive decrees, and judicial holdings. Others reflect “big ideas” that give rise to illogical and ill-founded laws, decrees, and holdings.

Without further ado …

REGULATION WORKS

I wrote an entire post about “Regulation as Wishful Thinking.” The underlying theme is that regulators (and those who support regulation) believe that they can fine-tune economic and social behavior to achieve optimal (or at least better) outcomes than the one produced by free markets. If one paragraph sums up the effects of regulation, it’s this one:

Regulation is counterproductive for several reasons. First, it curtails positive externalities [the satisfaction of consumers’ wants that is forgone due to regulatory restraints on market activity]…. The other reasons, on which I expand below, are that regulation cannot be contained to “good causes,” nor can it be tailored to do good without doing harm. These objections might be dismissed as trivial if regulatory overkill were rare and relatively costless, but it is pervasive, extremely costly its own right, and a major contributor to the economic devastation that has been wrought by the regulatory-welfare state.

Read the whole thing for the details of the argument and the evidence of the devastation. For a jarring example, see John Goodman, “FDA Regulations Kill,” John Goodman’s Health Policy Blog, February 18, 2014.

Wish: Regulation improves social and economic outcomes.

Reality: Regulation restricts the ability of people to pursue their lawful interests, and thereby harms them socially and economically.

Bottom line: Regulation is harmful, because it substitutes the judgments of “technocrats” for the decentralized knowledge of millions of citizens. Its economic cost is more than 10 percent of GDP — and it leads to unnecessary loss of life.

TAXES ARE GOOD

Consider the intuitive and also well-documented relationship between taxes and economic activity. See, for example, Christina D. and David H. Romer, “The Macroeconomic Effects of Tax Changes: Estimates Based on a New Measure of Fiscal Shocks,”  Working Paper 13264, National Bureau of Economic Research, July 2007; and William McBride, “What Is the Evidence on Taxes and Growth?,” Tax Foundation, December 18, 2012. One must bend over backward to concoct a theory which says that a rise in taxes will not reduce the rate of economic output or the growth of that rate. But such theories are propounded because their proponents favor higher taxes for two closely related reasons: more taxes enable more government spending, and more government spending usually means “social” spending. (One reason that “liberals” are against defense spending — or more of it — is that it absorbs money that could go into “social” programs.)

Wish: Higher taxes don’t reduce GDP or the rate of economic growth.

Reality: Higher taxes do reduce GDP and the rate of economic growth.

Bottom line: Higher taxes (and more government) actually harm the poor (among others) by reducing economic activity and, thereby, reducing employment. As it turns out, the effect is substantial.

THE MINIMUM WAGE HELPS LOW-SKILL WORKERS

There are economists who support the minimum wage, not necessarily because of the economic soundness of the minimum wage, but because they just like the idea that (some) low-wage workers will make more because of it. Some of those economists have even produced studies which purport to show that a minimum wage has a “small” effect on the employment of low-wage workers. As if “small” were of no consequence to those who are unable to find and keep low-wage jobs because of the minimum wage. Well, the minimum wage — and its more overtly political twin, the “living wage” — do harm low-wage workers. And that’s that. See Linda Gorman, “Minimum Wages,” The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics at The Library of Economics and Liberty. For the latest, see James Pethokoukis, “CBO: The $10.10 Minimum Wage Would Cost 500,000 Jobs, With Most Benefits Going to Non-Poor,” AEIdeas, February 18, 2014.

Wish: Government can help low-skill workers by forcing employers to pay them more.

Reality: Minimum wages and “living wages” result in less employment among low-wage workers.

Bottom line: Those who are in most need of employment, and for whom the private sector would provide employment (other things being the same), are deprived of employment by well-meaning but economically wrong-headed minimum-wage and “living wage” laws.

CAPITAL PUNISHMENT DOESN’T DETER MURDER

What about capital punishment? A paper from 1973, just a year after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Furman v. Georgia effectively outlawed capital punishment, offers an exhaustive statistical analysis of the deterrent effect of capital punishment. See Isaac Ehrlich, “The Deterrent Effect of Capital Punishment: A Question of Life and Death,” Working Paper No. 18, Center for Economic Analysis of Human Institutions, National Bureau of Economic Analysis, November 1973. The author’s conclusion:

[A]n additional execution per year over the period in question [1933-1969] may have resulted, on average, in 7 or 8 fewer murders.

Later:

Previous investigations … have developed evidence used to unequivocally deny the existence of any deterrent or preventive effects of capital punishment. This evidence stems by and large from what amounts to informal tests of the sign of the simple correlation between the legal status of the death penalty and the murder rate across states and over time in a few states. Studies performing these tests have not considered systematically the actual enforcement of the death penalty, which may be a far more important factor affecting offenders’ behavior than the legal status of the penalty. Moreover, these studies have generally ignored other parameters characterizing law enforcement activity against murder, such as the probabilities o± apprehension and conviction, which appear to be systematically related to the probability of punishment by execution.

In my words:

Capital punishment is the capstone of a system of justice that used to work quite well in this country because it was certain and harsh. There must be a hierarchy of certain penalties for crime, and that hierarchy must culminate in the ultimate penalty if criminals and potential criminals are to believe that crime will be punished.

Since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976 (Gregg v. Georgia), with restrictions, capital punishment has become less swift and less sure than it had been. There were 1,359 executions in 1976-2013, an average of 36 a year, as against 4,863 in 1930-1972, an average of 113 a year. That is, the rate of executions has dropped by two-thirds from its pre-Furman rate. The drop in the execution rate notwithstanding, the deterrent effect of capital punishment remained strong, at least through 2000. See Hashem Dezhbaksh, Paul Robin, and Joanna Shepherd, “Does capital punishment have a deterrent effect? New evidence from post-moratorium panel data,” American Law and Economics Review 5(2): 344–376 (available in pdf format here. The authors argue that each execution deters eighteen murders, a number that reflects the larger population of the U.S. during the period covered by their analysis. It’s hard to read the two papers cited here and believe that capital punishment doesn’t deter homicide — unless you want to believe it.

Altogether, the more “humane” treatment of murderers since 1976 has cost 600 to 1,400 lives every year, or 23,000 to 53,000 lives in the past 38 years.

Wish: Capital-punishment is nothing more than murder by the state, and (non sequitur) it doesn’t deter murder, anyway.

Reality: Capital punishment is punishment, and when it is administered surely and swiftly it does deter murder.

Bottom line: Perhaps more than 50,000 murders would have been prevented if the rate of executions hadn’t been slowed drastically following the 1972-1976 moratorium on capital punishment.

MORE GUNS MEAN MORE CRIME

There’s a twisted consistency between opposition to capital punishment and support of stringent measures to control the availability of firearms. Both positions tip the scales in favor of predators and away from peaceful citizens.

To favor gun control is to engage in wishful thinking at its best (or worst). Why? Because to favor gun control is to favor the criminal over the law-abiding citizen. But according to wishful thinkers, stringent gun control would lead to a reduction violent crimes. As with the other kinds of wishful thinking addressed here, it just ain’t so.

John Lott‘s More Guns, Less Crime is the elephant in the room, and can’t be ignored. In that book, the article on which it’s based, and other books, Lott argues that allowing adults to own or carry guns leads to a significant reduction in crime. Lott’s work was controversial — some called it incendiary. Not surprisingly, many academics opened fire on it, picking and poking at Lott’s data and methods. I say not surprisingly because — in case it has escaped your attention — academics tend to be (wishful-thinking) leftists.

To save time and space, I fast-forward to a paper by Don B. Kates and Gary Mauser, “Would Banning Firearms Reduce Murder and Suicide?,” first published in Harvard’s Journal of Public Law and Policy (Vol. 30, No. 2, 2007, pp. 649-694). Here are some relevant excerpts:

There are now 40 states where qualified citizens can obtain such a handgun permit.28 As a result, the number of U.S. citizens allowed to carry concealed handguns in shopping malls, on the street, and in their cars has grown to 3.5 million men and women.29 Economists John Lott and David Mustard have suggested that these new laws contributed to the drop in homicide and violent crime rates. Based on 25 years of correlated statistics from all of the more than 3,000 American counties, Lott and Mustard conclude that adoption of these statutes has deterred criminals from confrontation crime and caused murder and violent crime to fall faster in states that adopted this policy than in states that did not.30 (op. cit., p. 658)

Footnote 30 reads, in relevant part:

This conclusion is vehemently rejected by antigun advocates and academics who oppose armed self‐defense. See, e.g., Albert W. Alschuler, Two Guns, Four Guns, Six Guns, More Guns: Does Arming the Public Reduce Crime?, 31 VAL. U. L. REV. 365, 366 (1997); Ian Ayres & John J. Donohue III, Shooting Down the ‘More Guns, Less Crime’ Hypothesis, 55 STAN. L. REV. 1193, 1197 (2003); Dan A. Black & Daniel S. Nagin, Do Right‐to‐Carry Laws Deter Violent Crime?, 27 J. LEGAL STUD. 209, 209 (1998); Franklin Zimring & Gordon Hawkins, Concealed Handguns: The Counterfeit Deterrent, RESPONSIVE COMMUNITY, Spring 1997, at 46; Daniel W. Webster, The Claims That Right‐to‐Carry Laws Reduce Violent Crime Are Unsubstantiated (Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, 1997). Several critics have now replicated Lott’s work using additional or different data, additional control variables, or new or different statistical techniques they deem superior to those Lott used. Interestingly, the replications all confirm Lott’s general conclusions; some even find that Lott underestimated the crime‐reductive effects of allowing good citizens to carry concealed guns. See Jeffrey A. Miron, Violence, Guns, and Drugs: A Cross‐Country Analysis, 44 J.L. & ECON. 615 (2001); David B. Mustard, The Impact of Gun Laws on Police Deaths, 44 J.L. & ECON. 635 (2001); John R. Lott, Jr. & John E. Whitley, Safe‐Storage Gun Laws: Accidental Deaths, Suicides, and Crime, 44 J.L. & ECON. 659 (2001); Thomas B. Marvell, The Impact of Banning Juvenile Gun Possession, 44 J.L. & ECON. 691 (2001); Jeffrey S. Parker, Guns, Crime, and Academics: Some Reflections on the Gun Control Debate, 44 J.L. & ECON. 715 (2001); Bruce L. Benson & Brent D. Mast, Privately Produced General Deterrence, 44 J.L. & ECON. 725 (2001); David E. Olson & Michael D. Maltz, Right‐to‐Carry Concealed Weapon Laws and Homicide in Large U.S. Counties: The Effect on Weapon Types, Victim Characteristics, and Victim‐Offender Relationships, 44 J.L. & ECON. 747 (2001); Florenz Plassmann & T. Nicolaus Tideman, Does the Right to Carry Concealed Handguns Deter Countable Crimes? Only a Count Analysis Can Say, 44 J.L. & ECON. 771 (2001); Carlisle E. Moody, Testing for the Effects of Concealed Weapons Laws: Specification Errors and Robustness, 44 J.L. & ECON. 799 (2001); see also Florenz Plassman & John Whitley, Confirming ‘More Guns, Less Crime,’ 55 STAN. L. REV. 1313, 1316 (2003). In 2003, Lott reiterated and extended his findings, which were subsequently endorsed by three Nobel laureates. See JOHN R. LOTT, JR., THE BIAS AGAINST GUNS (2003). (op. cit., pp. 658-9, emphasis added)

There are so many gems in the article that it is hard to stop quoting it. I should say “read the whole thing,” but I’ll succumb to temptation and quote a few choice passages here, and many more in the note at the bottom of this post (footnote numbers omitted for ease of reading):

[A study by Hans Toch and Alan J. Lizotte shows that] “data on firearms ownership by constabulary area in England,” like data from the United States, show “a negative correlation,” that is, “where firearms are most dense violent crime rates are lowest, and where guns are least dense violent crime rates are highest.” (p. 653)

A second misconception about the relationship between firearms and violence attributes Europe’s generally low homicide rates to stringent gun control. That attribution cannot be accurate since murder in Europe was at an all‐time low before the gun controls were introduced. (p. 653-4)

[T]wo recent studies are pertinent. In 2004, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences released its evaluation from a review of 253 journal articles, 99 books, 43 government publications, and some original empirical research. It failed to identify any gun control that had reduced violent crime, suicide, or gun accidents. The same conclusion was reached in 2003 by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control’s review of then extant studies. (p. 654)

In the late 1990s, England moved from stringent controls to a complete ban of all handguns and many types of long guns. Hundreds of thousands of guns were confiscated from those owners law‐abiding enough to turn them in to authorities. Without suggesting this caused violence, the ban’s ineffectiveness was such that by the year 2000 violent crime had so increased that England and Wales had Europe’s highest violent crime rate, far surpassing even the United States. (p. 655)

[A]doption of state laws permitting millions of qualified citizens to carry guns has not resulted in more murder or violent crime in these states. Rather, adoption of these statutes has been followed by very significant reductions in murder and violence in these states. (p. 659)

[T]he determinants of murder and suicide are basic social, economic, and cultural factors, not the prevalence of some form of deadly mechanism. In this connection, recall that the American jurisdictions which have the highest violent crime rates are precisely those with the most stringent gun controls. (p. 663)

More than 100 million handguns are owned in the United States84 primarily for self‐defense, and 3.5 million people have permits to carry concealed handguns for protection. Recent analysis reveals “a great deal of self‐defensive use of firearms” in the United States, “in fact, more defensive gun uses [by victims] than crimes committed with firearms.” It is little wonder that the

National Institute of Justice surveys among prison inmates find that large percentages report that their fear that a victim might be armed deterred them from confrontation crimes. “[T]he felons most frightened ‘about confronting an armed victim’ were those from states with the greatest relative number of privately owned firearms.” Conversely, robbery
is highest in states that most restrict gun ownership.

Concomitantly, a series of studies by John Lott and his coauthor David Mustard conclude that the issuance of millions of permits to carry concealed handguns is associated with drastic declines in American homicide rates. (p. 671)

Per capita, African‐American murder rates are much higher than the murder rate for whites. If more guns equal more death, and fewer guns equal less, one might assume gun ownership is higher among African‐ Americans than among whites, but in fact African‐ American gun ownership is markedly lower than white gun ownership. (p. 676)

The reason fewer guns among ordinary African‐Americans does not lead to fewer murders is because that paucity does not translate to fewer guns for the aberrant minority who do murder. The correlation of very high murder rates with low gun ownership in African‐American communities simply does not bear out the notion that disarming the populace as a whole will disarm and prevent murder by potential murderers. (p. 678)

In sum, the data for the decades since the end of World War II also fails to bear out the more guns equal more death mantra. The per capita accumulated stock of guns has increased, yet there has been no correspondingly consistent increase in either total violence or gun violence. The evidence is consistent with the hypothesis that gun possession levels have little impact on violence rates. (p. 685)

Wish: Gun-control (or confiscation) will reduce violent crime.

Reality: More guns, no more crime. Crime is a product of underlying social and economic factors that vary from nation to nation, region to region, and socio-economic group to socio-economic group.

Bottom line: The desire to limit or eliminate private ownership of firearms reflects a distaste for weapons and an irrational reaction to relatively rare but horrific instances of gun violence. But the effect of limiting or eliminating private ownership is to disarm law-abiding citizens and encourage crime against them.

THE LIST GOES ON …

If the list of leftist delusions isn’t infinite, it’s certainly very long. For example, there’s wishful thinking about peace, about gender discrimination, about racial equality, about crime, about income inequality, about society, about social welfare, and about the pseudo-scientific religion of global warming.

Why so many delusions? To those who believe — despite the evidence — that persons of the “liberal” (i.e., left-statist) persuasion are smarter or more rational than persons of the right, I commend my own best-selling post, “Intelligence, Personality, Politics, and Happiness,” and two articles by James Lindgren, “Who Fears Science?“and “Who Believes That Astrology Is Scientific?” (The answers may surprise you, though they shouldn’t, now that you’ve read this far.)

To wrap up this long post, I simply urge you to peruse some of my “Favorite Posts,” especially the posts under these headings:

It’s best to start with the newer posts at the bottom of each section, and work up to earlier ones, which often are referenced or incorporated in later posts.

__________
More quotations from “Would Banning Firearms Reduce Murder and Suicide?.”

Since at least 1965, the false assertion that the United States has the industrialized world’s highest murder rate has been an artifact of politically motivated Soviet minimization designed to hide the true homicide rates. Since well before that date, the Soviet Union possessed extremely stringent gun controls that were effectuated by a police state apparatus providing stringent enforcement. So successful was that regime that few Russian civilians now have firearms and very few murders involve them. Yet, manifest success in keeping its people disarmed did not prevent the Soviet Union from having far and away the highest murder rate in the developed world.6 (pp. 650-1)

Luxembourg, where handguns are totally banned and ownership of any kind of gun is minimal, had a murder rate nine times higher than Germany [with 30 guns per 100 persons] in 2002. (p. 652)

[D]espite constant and substantially increasing gun ownership, the United States saw progressive and dramatic reductions in criminal violence in the 1990s. On the other hand, the same time period in the United Kingdom saw a constant and dramatic increase in violent crime to which England’s response was ever‐more drastic gun control including, eventually, banning and confiscating all handguns and many types of long guns. Nevertheless, criminal violence rampantly increased so that by 2000 England surpassed the United States to become one of the developed world’s most violence‐ridden nations. (p. 656)

[V]iolent crime, and homicide in particular, has plummeted in the United States over the past 15 years. The fall in the American crime rate is even more impressive when compared with the rest of the world. In 18 of the 25 countries surveyed by the British Home Office, violent crime increased during the 1990s. This contrast should induce thoughtful people to wonder what happened in those nations, and to question policies based on the notion that introducing increasingly more restrictive firearm ownership laws reduces violent crime. (p. 660)

The “more guns equal more death” mantra seems plausible only when viewed through the rubric that murders mostly involve ordinary people who kill because they have access to a firearm when they get angry. If this were true, murder might well increase where people have ready access to firearms, but the available data provides no such correlation. Nations and areas with more guns per capita do not have higher murder rates than those with fewer guns per capita. (pp. 665-6)

[R]educing gun ownership by the law‐abiding citizenry— the only ones who obey gun laws—does not reduce violence or murder. The result is that high crime nations that ban guns to reduce crime end up having both high crime and stringent gun laws, while it appears that low crime nations that do not significantly restrict guns continue to have low violence rates. (p. 672)

A recent study of all counties in the United States has again demonstrated the lack of relationship between the prevalence of firearms and homicide. (p. 686)

Parsing Political Philosophy (II)

This is a work in progress. The first version is here. This version expands the range of political stances by adding Despotism to Anarchism, Minarchism, and Statism. Also, this version goes into more detail about the differences between various stances. I’m leaving the first version in place because I’ve linked to it and quoted from it often, and because some of the descriptive material complements this post.

INTRODUCTION

The aim of this post and its predecessor is to find more precise political labels than Democrat, Republican, left, right, center, liberal, conservative, and libertarian. I want to show, for example, the dimensions of agreement and disagreement between a so-called liberal who wants government to dictate certain aspects of human affairs, and a so-called conservative who wants government to dictate certain other aspects of human affairs. Are they not both statists who merely have different agendas, or are there deeper differences between them? And what about the so-called libertarian who espouses some views that are anathema to many on the left (e.g., free markets) and other views that are anathema to many on the right (e.g., legalization of marijuana and harder drugs)? Are such views coherent or merely provocative?

Any one person’s political philosophy — if he may be said to have one — is likely to consist of a set of attitudes, many of them logically irreconcilable. This, I believe, is due mainly to the influence of temperament on one’s political views. It is a rare human being who does not interpret the world through the lens of his preferences, and those preferences seem to be more a matter of temperament than of knowledge and reason. Even highly intelligent persons are capable of believing in the most outlandish things because they want to believe those things.

I therefore admit that my search for more precise political labels may be — and probably is — both quixotic and reductionist. But it can, at least, shed some light on real differences — and real similarities — among various lines of political thought.

THE ESSENCE OF POLITICS

Political views, and their essential differences, cannot be organized into a taxonomy without first defining politics and its essential issues.

Politics is the means by which human beings regulate their behavior, which usually (but unnecessarily) is divided into social and economic components. The purpose of regulating behavior — whether the regulation is explicit or implicit, imposed or voluntary — is to sustain or change the modes of human interaction, and the outcomes that derive from human interaction. Some political stances are incoherent because their principles cannot yield the preferred outcomes (e.g., redistribution, a favored policy of left-statists, actually makes the poor worse off because it stifles economic growth). But incoherence does not prevent a political stance from becoming popular, or even dominant.

THE BASELINE POSITION: TRADITIONAL CONSERVATISM

The following sections of this post culminate in a taxonomy of political philosophies, which is given in a table at the end of the post. In that table, I take as a baseline a political stance that I call Right-Minarchism. It represents traditional conservatism, as it would have played out in practice under the kind of true federalism represented in the Articles of Confederation.

What is the traditional conservative position? I begin with a redaction of Russell Kirk’s “Six Canons of Conservative Thought“:

1. An understanding that political problems, at bottom, are moral problems.

2. A preference for tradition — which incorporates beneficial change — over the shackles of statism and the chaos that must ensue from anarchy.

3. Recognition that change is not the same thing as change for the better (reform), which emerges from tradition and is not imposed upon it.

4. An understanding that a flourishing civil society requires order, without which freedom is available only to despots and predators.

5. Faith in traditional mores and reliance upon them, in the main, to maintain a regimen of order that enables freedom — ordered liberty, in other words. Traditional mores are supplemented but not supplanted by the rule of law, impartially administered and no more intrusive than is required for ordered liberty.

6. Knowledge that property and liberty are inseparably connected, and that economic leveling is not economic progress.

For an elaboration on the role of government, I turn to Michael Oakeshott:

Government, … as the conservative in this matter understands it, does not begin with a vision of another, different and better world, but with the observation of the self-government practised even by men of passion in the conduct of their enterprises; it begins in the informal adjustments of interests to one another which are designed to release those who are apt to collide from the mutual frustration of a collision. Sometimes these adjustments are no more than agreements between two parties to keep out of each other’s way; sometimes they are of wider application and more durable character, such as the International Rules for for the prevention of collisions at sea. In short, the intimations of government are to be found in ritual, not in religion or philosophy; in the enjoyment of orderly and peaceable behaviour, not in the search for truth or perfection…. To govern, then, as the conservative understands it, is to provide a vinculum juris for those manners of conduct which, in the circumstances, are least likely to result in a frustrating collision of interests; to provide redress and means of compensation for those who suffer from others behaving in a contrary manners; sometimes to provide punishment for those who pursue their own interests regardless of the rules; and, of course, to provide a sufficient force to maintain the authority of an arbiter of this kind. Thus, governing is recognized as a specific and limited activity; not the management of an enterprise, but the rule of those engaged in a great diversity of self-chosen enterprises. It is not concerned with concrete persons, but with activities; and with activities only in respect of their propensity to collide with one another. It is not concerned with moral right and wrong, it is not designed to make men good or even better; it is not indispensable on account of ‘the natural depravity of mankind’ but merely because of their current disposition to be extravagant; its business is to keep its subjects at peace with one another in the activities in which they have chosen to seek their happiness. And if there is any general idea entailed in this view, it is, perhaps, that a government which does not sustain the loyalty of its subjects is worthless; and that while one which (in the old puritan phrase) ‘commands the truth’ is incapable of doing so (because some of its subjects will believe its ‘truth’ to be in error), one which is indifferent to ‘truth’ and ‘error’ alike, and merely pursues peace, presents no obstacle to the necessary loyalty.

…[A]s the conservative understands it, modification of the rules should always reflect, and never impose, a change in the activities and beliefs of those who are subject to them, and should never on any occasion be so great as to destroy the ensemble. Consequently, the conservative will have nothing to do with innovations designed to meet merely hypothetical situations; he will prefer to enforce a rule he has got rather than invent a new one; he will think it appropriate to delay a modification of the rules until it is clear that the change of circumstances it is designed to reflect has come to stay for a while; he will be suspicious of proposals for change in excess of what the situation calls for, of rulers who demand extra-ordinary powers in order to make great changes and whose utterances re tied to generalities like ‘the public good’ or social justice’, and of Saviours of Society who buckle on armour and seek dragons to slay; he will think it proper to consider the occasion of the innovation with care; in short, he will be disposed to regard politics as an activity in which a valuable set of tools is renovated from time to time and kept in trim rather than as an opportunity for perpetual re-equipment. (Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays, New and Expanded Edition, pp. 427-31)

In what follows, I synthesize Kirk and Oakeshott, and call the result Right-Minarchism.

A TAXONOMY OF PHILOSOPHIES

I begin with a rough sorting of political philosophies:

  • Anarchism is a fairly coherent (if implausible) philosophy of non-government, propounded by persons who usually call themselves anarcho-capitalists (probably because it seems a more respectable label than “anarchist”).
  • Minarchism is a somewhat more diffuse but still coherent philosophy of minimal government, propounded by persons who usually call themselves libertarians, over the objection of anarchists, who claim to be the only true libertarians.
  • Anarchists and minarchists dwell in the big tent of libertarianism.  Where anarchists are fairly monolithic in their views (government is evil because it must always be based on coercion), minarchists are of varied stripes, which I delineate below. My analyses of anarchism and minarchism span the range of libertarian ideas, so there is nothing more for me to say in this post about libertarianism as a political philosophy.
  • Statism comprises a broad set of attitudes about government’s role, propounded by “types” ranging from redneck yahoos to campus radicals, each type proclaiming itself benign (for some, if not for others). But each type would — in thought and word, if not deed — set loose the dogs of the state upon its political opponents and the vast, hapless majority. Statism, because it is so powerful and pervasive a force, merits further analysis — more aptly, dissection — into its main types.
  • Despotism is perhaps the inevitable outcome of statism. Despotism may be “hard,” as with the USSR under Stalin and Germany under Hitler, or “soft,” as with innumerable “social democrat” regimes, including the controlling regime of the United States. Under despotic rule there is no dividing line between the state’s power and individual liberty. The state can — and will — dictate to its subjects about anything.

Thus the four broad philosophies that I parse in this post are anarchism, minarchism, statism, and despotism. Here is more about each of them:

Anarchism

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

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

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

Minarchism

The Central Tenet: Limited Government

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

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

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

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

The Protection of Negative Rights

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

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

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

More about Property Rights

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

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

The Role of Civil Society

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

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

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

A Note about Left-Minarchism

This branch of minarchism attracts pseudo-libertarians who proclaim their dedication to liberty from one side of the mouth while supporting statist restrictions on liberty from the other side. The hypocrisy of left-minarchism is discussed in the table below, and by Bill McMorris in “Conservatives Will Embrace Libertarians When Libertarians Stop Embracing Government” (The Federalist, February 26, 2014).

Statism

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

The Essence of Statism: Control

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

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

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

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

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

Feeble Excuses for Statism

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

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

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

The Bottom Line about Statism

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

Despotism

In “democratic” nations, despotism arrives as an outgrowth of statism. It arrives by stealth, as the state’s power becomes so pervasive and so entrenched in statutes, regulations, and judicial decrees that liberty becomes a hollow word. Every sphere of existence — religious, social, economic — is subject to interference and control by the state. The state may not exercise full control in every instance, but it has the power to do so, rhetoric about liberty to the contrary notwithstanding.

America’s despotism is “soft,” compared with the despotism of the USSR and Nazi Germany, but it is despotism, nonetheless. If you think it hyperbolic to call the America a despotism, think again, and again, and again, and again, and again. The dividing line between statism and despotism is a thin one, and if you will follow the links in the two preceding sentences, you will find many reasons to believe that America has crossed over into despotism. “Soft” verges on “hard” when myriad organs of the state — from the IRS to local zoning departments — can persecute and prosecute citizens on almost any pretext. The only saving grace is that the victims of America’s “soft” despotism still have recourse to the courts and sometimes find relief there.

REFINING THE TAXONOMY

These statements implicate several political issues:

1. Toward what social and economic outcomes ought human endeavor be aimed? The “aiming” need not be deliberate but, rather, the natural result of voluntary, cooperative action in accord with social norms.

2. Who should determine social norms, and how?

3. What behaviors should obtain?

4. How should norms be enforced?

5. What is the proper role of the state?

6. When the norms and actions of the people and the state are in conflict, how should the conflict be resolved?

7. Who benefits from the imposition of norms by the state, and who is harmed by those impositions?

8. Who should pay for functions of the state?

9. What should happen when the state exceeds its authority?

10. With respect to the foregoing matters, how should dissent acknowledged and accommodated?

The answers to those questions lead to a taxonomy in which Minarchism is divided into Right-Minarchism (the traditional conservative stance, fleshed out with its implications for governance), and Left-Minarchism. Statism is divided into Left-Statism and Right-Statism. I leave Despotism and Anarchism intact. Both stances have nuances, but both are baleful enough without being proliferated.

The following table delineates each of the six philosophies in terms of the ten questions listed above. I have placed Anarchism last, not only for convenience but also because it is the least probably of the six options.

Taxonomy of political philosophies

*     *     *

Related posts (mainly about America’s slide into statism and despotism, and the consequences thereof):
Unintended Irony from a Few Framers
Freedom of Contract and the Rise of Judicial Tyranny
The Constitution in Exile
What Is the Living Constitution?
True Federalism
FDR and Fascism
The Ruinous Despotism of Democracy
The Ruinous Despotism of Democracy
The People’s Romance
Intellectuals and Capitalism
Fascism
What Happened to Personal Responsibility?
Democracy and Liberty
The Interest-Group Paradox
Utilitarianism vs. Liberty
Fascism and the Future of America
The Real Constitution and Civil Disobedience
The Near-Victory of Communism
Tocqueville’s Prescience
Accountants of the Soul
Invoking Hitler
The Left
The Constitution: Original Meaning, Corruption, and Restoration
The Divine Right of the Majority
Our Enemy, the State
Does the Power to Tax Give Congress Unlimited Power?
“Intellectuals and Society”: A Review
Does Congress Have the Power to Regulate Inactivity?
The Left’s Agenda
The Meaning of Liberty
Understanding Hayek
The Left and Its Delusions
A Declaration of Civil Disobedience
Crimes against Humanity
Abortion and Logic
The Myth That Same-Sex “Marriage” Causes No Harm
The Spoiled Children of Capitalism
Politics, Sophistry, and the Academy
Some Thoughts and Questions about Preemptive War
Society and the State
Defense as an Investment in Liberty and Prosperity
Our Perfect, Perfect Constitution
Abortion, Doublethink, and Left-Wing Blather
Reclaiming Liberty throughout the Land
Abortion, “Gay Rights,” and Liberty
Don’t Use the “S” Word When the “F” Word Will Do
Liberty and Society
The Eclipse of “Old America”
The Capitalist Paradox Meets the Interest-Group Paradox
Genetic Kinship and Society
Liberty as a Social Construct: Moral Relativism?
Is Taxation Slavery?
A Contrarian View of Universal Suffrage
Well-Founded Pessimism
Restoring Constitutional Government: The Way Ahead
Estimating the Rahn Curve: Or, How Government Spending Inhibits Economic Growth
America’s Financial Crisis Is Now
Defining Liberty
Conservatism as Right-Minarchism
The World Turned Upside Down
Secession Made Easy
More about “Secession Made Easy”
A Better Constitution
Progressive Taxation Is Alive and Well in the U.S. of A.
“Social Insurance” Isn’t Insurance — Nor Is Obamacare
“We the People” and Big Government
The Culture War
Defense Spending: One More Time
The Pseudo-Libertarian Temperament (see also the links at the bottom)

Life in Austin (2)

Life in Austin (1)” introduces some of the themes on which I will here elaborate. But there is more to say about Austin than greenness for its own sake, growth to stoke the egos of elected officials and other smug Austinites, the horrendous traffic that ensues, and the diversion of precious road space to Austin’s powerful (though minuscule) cadre of bicyclists.

The last-mentioned are not content to stay in their lanes. When they are not riding abreast and riding the white line to force drivers to swerve around them, they are waiting for lights to change (when they do wait, that is) by parking themselves square in the middle of traffic. The purpose of this maneuver, of course, is an ill-advised attempt to irritate drivers. Ill-advised because many drivers, who have a distinct weight advantage, make it a point to harass cyclists. I would not be surprised to learn that the occasional cyclist who is picked off by a never-discovered driver was a casualty of a poorly calculated near miss.

Austin’s self-designated status as the “Live Music Capital of the World,” to which I adverted in part one, is a matter of misguided opinion. How does one determine the “most musical” city and, more fundamentally, what counts as music? My idea of music isn’t a lot of twenty-somethings making a lot of noise that is heard mostly by other twenty-somethings. (Nor is it the corny trash for thirty-to-ninety somethings that seems to be Nashville’s staple.) Give me a first-rate symphony orchestra that plays (mostly) music composed before 1900 and a bevy of chamber ensembles that do the same. By that (correct) standard, there are dozens of cities that could claim the title of “Live Music Capital of the World,” but Austin wouldn’t be among them.

You may also have heard that Austin is a “beautiful” city. And that would be true, if only its parks and tonier residential areas are considered. But most of Austin — that part of it which hasn’t been paved over in a vain attempt to move traffic — is flat, brown much of the year (because of a continuing drought), and occupied by ugly houses and commercial buildings. Austin’s downtown area, which once was dominated by the beautiful Capitol of Texas, is now dominated by the random and graceless spires of high-rise buildings, to which the more affluent denizens of Austin have fled so that they have a place to park when they are conducting business in downtown Austin.

Getting back to Austin’s drivers, I can only say that they are, on the whole, the worst that I have encountered in my 56 years behind the wheel. Without further ado, I give you my essay on “Driving in Austin”:

It begins with (1) driving in the middle of unstriped, residential streets, even as other vehicles approache. This practice might be excused as a precautionary because (2) Austinites often exit parked cars by opening doors and stepping out, heedless of traffic. But middle-of-the-road driving occurs spontaneously and is of a piece with the following self-centered habits.

(3) Waiting until the last split-second to turn onto a street.  This practice — which prevails along Florida’s Gulf Coast because of the age of the population there — is indulged in by drivers of all ages in Austin. It is closely related to (4) the habit of ignoring stop signs, not just by failing to stop at them but also (and quite typically) failing to look before not stopping. Ditto — and more dangerously — (5) red lights.

Not quite as dangerous, but mightily annoying, is the Austin habit of (6) turning abruptly without giving a signal. And when the turn is to the right, it often is accompanied by (7) a loop to the left, which thoroughly confuses the driver of the following vehicle and can cause him to veer into danger.

Loopy driving reaches new heights when an Austiner (8) changes lanes or crosses lanes of traffic without looking. A signal, rarely given, occurs after the driver has made his or her move, and it means “I’m changing/crossing lanes because it’s my God-given right to do so whenever I feel like it, and it’s up to other drivers to avoid hitting my vehicle.”

The imperial prerogative — I drive where I please — also manifests itself in the form of (9) crossing the center line while taking a curve. That this is done by drivers of all types of vehicle, from itsy-bitsy cars to hulking SUVs, indicates that the problem is sloppy driving habits, not unresponsive steering mechanisms. Other, closely related practices are (10) taking a corner by cutting across the oncoming lane of traffic and (11) zipping through a parking lot as if no child, other pedestrian, or vehicle might suddenly appear in the driving lane.

At the other end of the spectrum, but just as indicative of thoughtlessness is the practice of (12) yielding the right of way when it’s yours. This perverse courtesy only confuses the driver who doesn’t have the right of way and causes traffic to back up (needlessly) behind the yielding driver.

Then there is (13) the seeming inability of most Austiners to park approximately in the middle of a head-in parking space and parallel to the stripes that delineate it.  The ranks of the parking-challenged seem to be filled with yuppie women in small BMWs, Infinitis, and Lexi; older women in almost any kind of vehicle; and (worst of all) drivers of SUVs –(14) of which “green” Austin has far more than its share on its antiquated street grid. It should go without saying that most of Austin’s SUV drivers are (15) obnoxious, tail-gating jerks when they are on the road.

Contributing to the preceding practices — and compounding the dangers of the many dangerous ones — is (16) the evidently inalienable right of an Austinite to talk on a cell phone while driving, everywhere and (it seems) always. Yuppie women in SUVs are the worst offenders, and the most dangerous of the lot because of their self-absorption and the number of tons they wield with consummate lack of skill. Austin, it should also go without saying, has more than its share of yuppie women.

None of the above is unique to Austin. But inconsiderate and dangerous driving habits seem much more prevalent in Austin than in other places where I have driven — even including the D.C. area, where I spent 37 years.

My theory is that the prevalence of bad-driving behavior in Austin — where liberalism dominates — reflects the essentially anti-social character of liberalism Despite the lip-service that liberals give to such things as compassion, community, and society, they worship the state and use its power to do their will — without thought or care for the lives and livelihoods thus twisted and damaged.

It should be unnecessary to add that the 16 egregious practices described above are especially prevalent among Austin’s self-important, SUV-driving, guilt-trip-Democrat-voting yuppies.

What is the cost of living in Austin’s smug, raucous, clogged, irritating, and (mostly) ugly environs? It isn’t cheap, because Austin levies the highest sales-tax rate permitted by Texas (8.25%), and routinely raises property assessments by 10% a year (the maximum allowable by law), while also raising property-tax rates (just enough to evade approval at the ballot box).

So, if you’re thinking of living in (or near) Austin, consider yourself warned.

As for me, I’m out of here as soon as my 90-something in-laws see fit to quit their earthly abode.

People with Special Needs

That phrase occurs in a news story that I read yesterday. The story itself is irrelevant here. What struck me is that the phrase was used without an explanation of those special needs. A lot is left to the reader’s imagination. The special needs could be fast cars, wild women, and kinky sex for all I know.

Of course, that’s not what the phrase is intended to convey. It is yet another euphemism that applies to persons with mental and physical handicaps. Persons (not people) with special needs are, most likely, mentally retarded or crippled in some way.

To refer to such persons as having “special needs” is on a par with references to the “differently abled” and the “_____-challenged” (insert the appropriate adverb). All of this euphemistic blather arises from the liberal conceit that handicapped persons are just as capable as persons without handicaps. And they may well be the same, in many ways, but they are also different, in significant ways. Simply put, they are less capable, physically or mentally, and therefore unable to perform in ways that “normal” people can perform.

It is this liberal refusal to face facts — or, rather, to distort them — that underlies affirmative action and “diversity” programs. When these are mandatory, the result is that persons who are brighter or more physically able are shoved aside — in the workplace, in the academy, on police forces, in the armed forces, and so on — so that the less bright and less physically able may take their place.

It is this liberal refusal to face facts that leads to the toleration of crime and criminals — especially if they are from “disadvantaged” groups. How many innocent persons have suffered at the hands of criminals who were not executed or kept behind bars for murder, rape, and child molestation? Who knows for sure? The liberal press certainly will not tell us.

“Special needs” may be an amusing example of the liberal penchant for sugar-coating reality. But that penchant has many un-amusing consequences.

Liberals are “people with special needs” — well, one special need: to be mugged by reality.

Driving and Politics (1)

Among the many reasons for my hatred of flying is that I am usually seated behind someone who fails to heed the notice to return his or her seat-back to the upright position. This is a mild annoyance, compared with the severe annoyances and outright dangers that go with driving in Austin. Austiners (a moniker that I prefer to the pretentiousness of “Austinites”) exhibit a variety of egregious driving habits, the number of which exceeds the number of Willie (The Actor) Sutton‘s convictions for bank robbery.

Without further ado, I give you driving in Austin:

First on the list, because I see it so often in my neck of Austin, is (1) driving in the middle of unstriped, residential streets, even as another vehicle approaches. This practice might be excused as a precautionary because (2) Austiners often exit parked cars by opening doors and stepping out, heedless of traffic. But middle-of-the-road driving occurs spontaneously and is of a piece with the following self-centered habits.

(3) Waiting until the last split-second to turn onto a street.  This practice — which prevails along Florida’s Gulf Coast because of the age of the population there — is indulged in by drivers of all ages in Austin. It is closely related to (4) the habit of ignoring stop signs, not just by failing to stop at them but also (and quite typically) failing to look before not stopping. Ditto — and more dangerously — (5) red lights.

Not quite as dangerous, but mightily annoying, is the Austin habit of (6) turning abruptly without giving a signal. And when the turn is to the right, it often is accompanied by (7) a loop to the left, which thoroughly confuses the driver of the following vehicle and can cause him to veer into danger.

Loopy driving reaches new heights when an Austiner (8) changes lanes or crosses lanes of traffic without looking. A signal, rarely given, occurs after the driver has made his or her move, and it means “I’m changing/crossing lanes because it’s my God-given right to do so whenever I feel like it, and it’s up to other drivers to avoid hitting my vehicle.”

The imperial prerogative — I drive where I please — also manifests itself in the form of (9) crossing the center line while taking a curve. That this is done by drivers of all types of vehicle, from itsy-bitsy cars to hulking SUVs, indicates that the problem is sloppy driving habits, not unresponsive steering mechanisms. Other, closely related practices are (10) taking a corner by cutting across the oncoming lane of traffic and (11) zipping through a parking lot as if no child, other pedestrian, or vehicle might suddenly appear in the driving lane.

At the other end of the spectrum, but just as indicative of thoughtlessness is the practice of (12) yielding the right of way when it’s yours. This perverse courtesy only confuses the driver who doesn’t have the right of way and causes traffic to back up (needlessly) behind the yielding driver.

Then there is (13) the seeming inability of most Austiners to park approximately in the middle of a head-in parking space and parallel to the stripes that delineate it.  The ranks of the parking-challenged seem to be filled with yuppie women in small BMWs, Infinitis, and Lexi; older women in almost any kind of vehicle; and (worst of all) drivers of SUVs –(14) of which “green” Austin has far more than its share on its antiquated street grid. It should go without saying that most of Austin’s SUV drivers are (15) obnoxious, tail-gating jerks when they are on the road.

Contributing to the preceding practices — and compounding the dangers of the many dangerous ones — is (16) the evidently inalienable right of an Austiner to talk on a cell phone while driving, everywhere and (it seems) always. Yuppie women in SUVs are the worst offenders, and the most dangerous of the lot because of their self-absorption and the number of tons they wield with consummate lack of skill. Austin, it should also go without saying, has more than its share of yuppie women.

None of the above is unique to Austin. But inconsiderate and dangerous driving habits seem much more prevalent in Austin than in other places where I have driven — even including the D.C. area, where I spent 37 years.

My theory is that the prevalence of bad-driving behavior in Austin — where “liberalism” is hard-left and dominant — reflects the essentially anti-social character of “liberalism.” Despite the lip-service that “liberals” give to such things as compassion, community, and society, they worship the state and use its power to do their will — without thought or care for the lives and livelihoods thus twisted and damaged.

Related posts (about “liberalism” and its consequences):
Rich Voter, Poor Voter, and Academic Liberalism
Government’s Role in Social Decline
Democrats: The Anti-People People
Rich Voter, Poor Voter: Revisited
The People’s Romance
Economic Growth since WWII
The Price of Government
Does the Minimum Wage Increase Unemployment?
The Commandeered Economy
The Perils of Nannyism: The Case of Obamacare
The Price of Government Redux
More about the Perils of Obamacare
Health-Care Reform: The Short of It
The Mega-Depression
As Goes Greece
The State of the Union: 2010
The Shape of Things to Come
The Real Burden of Government
Toward a Risk-Free Economy
The Rahn Curve at Work
A Moral Dilemma
The Illusion of Prosperity and Stability
Society and the State
I Want My Country Back
The “Forthcoming Financial Collapse”
Estimating the Rahn Curve: Or, How Government Inhibits Economic Growth
The Deficit Commission’s Deficit of Understanding
Undermining the Free Society
The Bowles-Simpson Report
The Bowles-Simpson Band-Aid
“Intellectuals and Society”: A Review
Build It and They Will Pay
Government vs. Community
The Stagnation Thesis
The Left’s Agenda
The Public-School Swindle
The Evil That Is Done with Good Intentions
America’s Financial Crisis Is Now
Transnationalism and National Defense
Intellectuals and Capitalism
The Left and Its Delusions
The Destruction of Society in the Name of “Society”
Saving the Innocent
The Ideal as a False and Dangerous Standard
Abortion and Logic
The “Jobs Speech” That Obama Should Have Given
Elizabeth Warren Is All Wet
Why Stop at the Death Penalty?
The State of Morality
Utilitarianism and Psychopathy
Regulation as Wishful Thinking
The Myth That Same-Sex “Marriage” Causes No Harm
Externalities and Statism
Obamacare: Neither Necessary nor Proper
“Occupy Wall Street” and Religion
Taxes: Theft or Duty?
Religion on the Left
Privacy Is Not Sacred

Facets of Liberty

Liberty is not a “thing” or a kind of Platonic ideal; it is a modus vivendi. Roger Scruton captures its essence in this pithy paragraph:

People are bound by moral laws, which articulate the idea of a community of rational beings, living in mutual respect, and resolving their disputes by negotiation and agreement. (An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Philosophy, p. 112)

Fittingly, Scruton’s observation comes at the beginning of the chapter on “Morality.” I say fittingly because liberty depends on morality — properly understood as a canon of ethical behavior — and morality, as I argue below, depends very much on religion.

Where is libertarianism in all of this? Read on:


LIBERTY: ITS MEANING AND PREREQUISITES

Liberty can be thought of as freedom, when freedom is understood as permission to act within agreed limits on behavior.

Liberty, in other words, is not the absence of constraints on action. In a political context (i.e., where two or more persons coexist), there are always constraints on the behavior of at least one person, even in the absence of coercion or force. Coexistence requires compromise because (I daresay) no two humans are alike in their abilities, tastes, and preferences. And compromise necessitates constraints on behavior; compromise means that the parties involved do not do what they would do if they were isolated from each other or of a like mind about everything. Compromise is found in marriage, in friendships, in social circles, in neighborhoods, in workplaces, as well as the formal institutions (e.g., Congress) that one usually thinks of as “political.”

Where there is liberty, social norms are not shaped by the power of the state (though they may be enforced by the state). Rather, where there is liberty, social norms consist solely of the ever-evolving constellation of the voluntary compromises that arise from “non-political” institutions (i.e., marriage, etc.). It is the observance of social norms that enables a people to enjoy liberty: peaceful, willing coexistence and beneficially cooperative behavior.

Self-styled libertarians (about whom, more below) seem to reject this reasonable definition of liberty, and its antecedent conditions. They can do so, however, only by envisioning a Utopian polity that comprises like-minded persons who are for abortion, same-sex “marriage,” and open borders, and against war (except, possibly, as a last-ditch defense against invading hoards). They are practically indistinguishable from “liberals,” except in their adamant defense of property rights and free markets. (And some of them are lukewarm about property rights, if the enforcement of those rights allows discrimination based on personal characteristics.)

In summary, only where voluntarily evolved social norms are untrammeled by the state can individuals possibly live in peaceful, willing coexistence and engage in beneficially cooperative behavior — that is to say, live according to the Golden Rule.

What are the key attributes of those norms? Jennifer Roback Morse says, in “Marriage and the Limits of Contract” (Policy Review, No. 130, April 1, 2005):

[l]ibertarians recognize that a free market needs a culture of law-abidingness, promise-keeping, and respect for contracts…. 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.

But whence “a culture of law-abidingness, promise-keeping, and respect for contracts”? Friedrich Hayek knew the answer to that question. According to Edward Feser (“The Trouble with Libertarianism,” TCS Daily, July 20, 2004), Hayek was firmly committed

to the proposition that market society has certain moral presuppositions that can only be preserved through the power of social stigma. In his later work especially, he made it clear that these presuppositions concern the sanctity of property and of the family, protected by traditional moral rules which restrain our natural impulses and tell us that “you must neither wish to possess any woman you see, nor wish to possess any material goods you see.”[1]

“[T]he great moral conflict… which has been taking place over the last hundred years or even the last three hundred years,” according to Hayek, “is essentially a conflict between the defenders of property and the family and the critics of property and the family,”[2] with the latter comprising an alliance of socialists and libertines committed to “a planned economy with a just distribution, a freeing of ourselves from repressions and conventional morals, of permissive education as a way to freedom, and the replacement of the market by a rational arrangement of a body with coercive powers.”[3] The former, by contrast, comprise an alliance of those committed to the more conservative form of classical liberalism represented by writers like Smith and Hayek himself with those committed to traditional forms of religious belief. Among the benefits of such religious belief in Hayek’s view is its “strengthening [of] respect for marriage,” its enforcement of “stricter observance of rules of sexual morality among both married and unmarried,” and its creation of a socially beneficial “taboo” against the taking of another’s property.[4] Indeed, though he was personally an agnostic, Hayek held that the value of religion for shoring up the moral presuppositions of a free society cannot be overestimated:

“We owe it partly to mystical and religious beliefs, and, I believe, particularly to the main monotheistic ones, that beneficial traditions have been preserved and transmitted… If we bear these things in mind, we can better understand and appreciate those clerics who are said to have become somewhat sceptical of the validity of some of their teachings and who yet continued to teach them because they feared that a loss of faith would lead to a decline in morals. No doubt they were right…”[5]


LIBERTY IN TODAY’S WORLD

Social norms and socializing influences (like religion) are essential to self-governance, but self-governance by mutual consent and mutual restraint — by adherence to the Golden Rule — is possible only for a group of about 25 to 150 persons: the size of a hunter-gatherer band or Hutterite colony. It seems that self-governance breaks down when a group is larger than 150 persons. Why should that happen? Because mutual trust, mutual restraint, and mutual aid — the things implied in the Golden Rule — depend very much on personal connections. A person who is loath to say a harsh word to an acquaintance, friend, or family member — even when provoked — often waxes abusive toward strangers, especially in this era of e-mail and comment threads, where face-to-face encounters are not involved.

More generally, there is a human tendency to treat friends differently than acquaintances, acquaintances differently than strangers, and so on. The closer one is to a person, the more likely one is to accord that person trust, cooperation, and kindness. Why? Because there usually is a difference between the consequences of behavior that is directed toward strangers and the consequences of behavior that is directed toward persons one knows, lives among, and depends upon for restraint, cooperation, and help. The allure of  doing harm without penalty (“getting away with something”) or receiving without giving (“getting something for nothing”)  becomes harder to resist as one’s social distance from others increases.

When self-governance breaks down, it becomes necessary to spin off a new group or establish a central power (a state), which codifies and enforces rules of behavior (negative and positive). The problem, of course, is that those vested with the power of the state quickly learn to use it to advance their own preferences and interests, and to perpetuate their power by granting favors to those who can keep them in office. It is a rare state that is created for the sole purpose of protecting its citizens from one another and from outsiders, and rarer still is the state that remains true to such purposes.

In sum, the Golden Rule — as a uniting way of life — is quite unlikely to survive the passage of a group from community to state. Nor does the Golden Rule as a uniting way of life have much chance of revival or survival where the state already dominates. The Golden Rule may have limited effect within well-defined groups (e.g., parishes, clubs, urban enclaves, rural communities), by regulating the interactions among the members of such groups. It may have a vestigial effect on face-to-face interactions between stranger and stranger, but that effect arises mainly from the fear that offense or harm will be met with the same, not from a communal bond.

In any event, the dominance of the state distorts behavior. For example, the state may enable and encourage acts (e.g., abortion, homosexuality) that had been discouraged as harmful by group norms, and the ability of members of the group to bestow charity on one another may be diminished by the loss of income to taxes and discouraged by the establishment of state-run schemes that mimic the effects of charity (e.g., Social Security).


LIBERTY VS. “LIBERALISM”

The dominance of the state is the essential creed of modern “liberalism,” which has been diagnosed, quite rightly, as superficially benign fascism.

What about the “liberal” agenda, which proclaims the virtues of social liberty even as it destroys economic liberty. This is a convenient fiction; the two are indivisible. There is no economic liberty without social liberty, and vice versa:

[W]hen 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.

If markets are not free neither are people free to act within the bounds of voluntarily evolved social norms.


LIBERTARIANS AND LIBERTY

Although most of today’s libertarians (rightly) pay homage to Hayek’s penetrating dismissal of big government, his cultural views (noted earlier) are beneath their notice. And no wonder, for it is hard these days to find a self-styled libertarian who shares Hayek’s cultural views. What now passes for libertarianism, as I see it, is strictly secular and even stridently atheistic. As Feser puts it in “The Trouble with Libertarianism,” these

versions of libertarianism … do not treat conservative views as truly moral views at all; they treat them instead as mere prejudices: at best matters of taste, like one’s preference for this or that flavor of ice cream, and at worst rank superstitions that pose a constant danger of leading those holding them to try to restrict the freedoms of those practicing non-traditional lifestyles. Libertarians of the contractarian, utilitarian, or “economistic” bent must therefore treat the conservative the way the egalitarian liberal treats the racist, i.e. as someone who can be permitted to hold and practice his views, but only provided he and his views are widely regarded as of the crackpot variety….

[T]here are also bound to be differences in the public policy recommendations made by the different versions of libertarianism. Take, for example, the issue of abortion. Those whose libertarianism is grounded in … Hayekian thinking are far more likely to take a conservative line on the matter. To be sure, there are plenty of “pro-choice” libertarians influenced by Hayek. But by far most of these libertarians are (certainly in my experience anyway) inclined to accept Hayek’s economic views while soft-pedaling or even dismissing the Burkean traditionalist foundations he gave for his overall social theory. Those who endorse the latter, however, are going to be hard-pressed not to be at least suspicious of the standard moral and legal arguments offered in defense of abortion….

By contrast, libertarians influenced by contractarianism are very unlikely to oppose abortion, because fetuses cannot plausibly be counted as parties to the social contract that could provide the only grounds for a prohibition on killing them. Utilitarianism and “economism” too would provide no plausible grounds for a prohibition on abortion, since fetuses would seem to have no preferences or desires which could be factored into our calculations of how best to maximize preference- or desire-satisfaction.

There are also bound to be differences over the question of “same-sex marriage.”… [A] Hayekian analysis of social institutions fail to imply anything but skepticism about the case for same-sex marriage. Hayek’s position was that traditional moral rules, especially when connected to institutions as fundamental as the family and found nearly universally in human cultures, should be tampered with only with the most extreme caution. The burden of proof is always on the innovator rather than the traditionalist, whether or not the traditionalist can justify his conservatism to the innovator’s satisfaction; and change can be justified only by showing that the rule the innovator wants to abandon is in outright contradiction to some other fundamental traditional rule. But that there is any contradiction in this case is simply implausible, especially when one considers the traditional natural law understanding of marriage sketched above.

On the other hand, it is easy to see how contractarianism, utilitarianism, and “economism” might be thought to justify same-sex marriage. If the actual desires or preferences of individuals are all that matter, and some of those individuals desire or prefer to set up a partnership with someone of the same sex and call it “marriage,” then there can be no moral objection to their doing so.

I do not mean to belabor the issues of abortion and same-sex “marriage,” about which I have written at length (e.g., here and here). But, like war, they are “wedge” issues among libertarians. And most (perhaps all) libertarians whose writings I encounter on the internet — Feser’s contractarian, utilitarian, and economistic types — are on the libertine side of the issues: pro-abortion and pro-same-sex “marriage.” A contractarian, utilitarian, economistic libertarian will condone practices that even “liberals” would not (e.g., blackmail).


RELIGION AND LIBERTY

The libertine stance of “mainstream” libertarians points to moral rootlessness. Such libertarians like to say that libertarianism is a moral code, when — as Feser rightly argues — it is destructive of the kind of morality that binds a people in mutual trust and mutual forbearance. These depend on the observance of actual codes of conduct, not the rote repetition of John Stuart Mill’s empty “harm principle.”

It is my view that libertarians who behave morally toward others do so not because they are libertarians but because their cultural inheritance includes traces of Judeo-Christian ethics. For example, the non-aggression principle — a foundation of libertarian philosophy — is but a dim reflection of the Ten Commandments.

As Roback Morse and Hayek rightly argue, a libertarian order can be sustained only if it is built on deeply ingrained morality. But that morality can only operate if it is not circumscribed and undermined by the edicts of the state. The less intrusive the state, the more essential are social norms to the conditions of liberty. If those norms wither away, the results — more rapaciousness, heedlessness, and indolence — invite the the growth of the state and its adoption of repressive policies.

The flimsy morality of today’s libertarianism will not do. Neither the minimal state of “mainstream” libertarians nor the stateless Utopia of extreme libertarians can ensure a moral society, that is, one in which there is mutual trust, mutual forbearance, and promise-keeping.

Where, then, is moral education to be had? In the public schools, whose unionized teachers preach the virtues of moral relativism, big government, income redistribution, and non-judgmentalism (i.e., lack of personal responsibility)? I hardly think so.

That leaves religion, especially religion in the Judeo-Christian tradition. As the Catholic Encyclopedia puts it:

The precepts [of the last six of the Commandments] are meant to protect man in his natural rights against the injustice of his fellows.

  • His life is the object of the Fifth;
  • the honour of his body as well as the source of life, of the Sixth;
  • his lawful possessions, of the Seventh;
  • his good name, of the Eighth;
  • And in order to make him still more secure in the enjoyment of his rights, it is declared an offense against God to desire to wrong him, in his family rights by the Ninth;
  • and in his property rights by the Tenth.

Though I am a deist, and neither a person of faith nor a natural-rights libertarian, I would gladly live in a society in which the majority of my fellow citizens believed in and adhered to the Ten Commandments, especially the last six of them. I reject the currently fashionable notion that religion per se breeds violence. In fact, a scholarly, non-sectarian meta-study, “Religion and its effects on crime and delinquency” (Medical Science Monitor, 2003; 9(8):SR79-82), offers good evidence that religiosity leads to good behavior:

[N]early all [reports] found that that there was a significant negative correlation between religiosity and delinquency. This was further substantiated by studies using longitudinal and operationally reliable definitions. Of the early reports which were either inconclusive or found no statistical correlation, not one utilized a multidimensional definition or any sort of reliability factor. We maintain that the cause of this difference in findings stemmed from methodological factors as well as different and perhaps flawed research strategies that were employed by early sociological and criminological researchers.The studies that we reviewed were of high research caliber and showed that the inverse relationship [between religiosity and delinquency] does in fact exist. It therefore appears that religion is both a short term and long term mitigat[o]r of delinquency.

But a society in which behavior is guided by the Ten Commandments seems to be receding into the past. Consider the following statistics, from the 2011 Statistical Abstract, Table 75. Self-Described Religious Identification of Adult Population: 1990, 2001 and 2008.
Between 1990 and 2008

  • the percentage of American adults claiming to be Christian dropped from 86 to 76,
  • the percentage of American adults claiming to be Jewish dropped from 1.8 to 1.2 percent, and
  • the percentage of American adults professing no religion rose from 8 to 15 percent.

What is noteworthy about those figures is the degree of slippage in a span of 18 years. And the degree of religious belief probably is overstated because respondents tend to say the “right” thing, which (oddly enough) continues to be a profession of religious faith.

Moreover, claiming adherence to a religion and receiving religious “booster shots” through regular church attendance are two entirely different things. Consider this excerpt of “In Search of the Spiritual” (Newsweek, August 28, 2005):

…Of 1,004 respondents to the NEWSWEEK/Beliefnet Poll, 45 percent said they attend worship services weekly, virtually identical to the figure (44 percent) in a Gallup poll cited by Time in 1966. Then as now, however, there is probably a fair amount of wishful thinking in those figures; researchers who have done actual head counts in churches think the figure is probably more like 20 percent. There has been a particular falloff in attendance by African-Americans, for whom the church is no longer the only respectable avenue of social advancement, according to Darren Sherkat, a sociologist at Southern Illinois University. The fastest-growing category on surveys that ask people to give their religious affiliation, says Patricia O’Connell Killen of Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Wash., is “none.” But “spirituality,” the impulse to seek communion with the Divine, is thriving. The NEWSWEEK/Beliefnet Poll found that more Americans, especially those younger than 60, described themselves as “spiritual” (79 percent) than “religious” (64 percent). Almost two thirds of Americans say they pray every day, and nearly a third meditate.

But what does “spirituality” have to do with morality? Prayer and meditation may be useful and even necessary to religion, but they do not teach morality. Substituting “spirituality” for Judeo-Christian religiosity is like watching golf matches on TV instead of playing golf; a watcher can talk a good game but cannot play the game very well, if at all.

Historian Niall Ferguson, a Briton, writes about the importance of religiosity in “Heaven knows how we’ll rekindle our religion, but I believe we must” (July 31, 2005):

I am not sure British people are necessarily afraid of religion, but they are certainly not much interested in it these days. Indeed, the decline of Christianity — not just in Britain but across Europe — stands out as one of the most remarkable phenomena of our times.

There was a time when Europe would justly refer to itself as “Christendom.” Europeans built the Continent’s loveliest edifices to accommodate their acts of worship. They quarreled bitterly over the distinction between transubstantiation and consubstantiation. As pilgrims, missionaries and conquistadors, they sailed to the four corners of the Earth, intent on converting the heathen to the true faith.

Now it is Europeans who are the heathens. . . .

The exceptionally low level of British religiosity was perhaps the most striking revelation of a recent … poll. One in five Britons claim to “attend an organized religious service regularly,” less than half the American figure. [In light of the relationship between claimed and actual church attendance, discussed above, the actual figure for Britons is probably about 10 percent: ED.] Little more than a quarter say that they pray regularly, compared with two-thirds of Americans and 95 percent of Nigerians. And barely one in 10 Britons would be willing to die for our God or our beliefs, compared with 71 percent of Americans. . . .

Chesterton feared that if Christianity declined, “superstition” would “drown all your old rationalism and skepticism.” When educated friends tell me that they have invited a shaman to investigate their new house for bad juju, I see what Chesterton meant. Yet it is not the spread of such mumbo-jumbo that concerns me as much as the moral vacuum that de-Christianization has created. Sure, sermons are sometimes dull and congregations often sing out of tune. But, if nothing else, a weekly dose of Christian doctrine helps to provide an ethical framework for life. And it is not clear where else such a thing is available in modern Europe.

…Britons have heard a great deal from Tony Blair and others about the threat posed to their “way of life” by Muslim extremists such as Muktar Said Ibrahim. But how far has their own loss of religious faith turned Britain into a soft target — not so much for the superstition Chesterton feared, but for the fanaticism of others?

Yes, what “way of life” is being threatened — and is therefore deemed worth defending — when people do not share a strong moral bond?

I cannot resist adding one more quotation in the same vein as those from Hayek and Ferguson. This comes from Theodore Dalrymple (Anthony Daniels), a no-nonsense psychiatrist who, among his many intellectual accomplishments, has thoroughly skewered John Stuart Mill’s fatuous essay, On Liberty. Without further ado, here is Dalrymple on religion:

I remember the day I stopped believing in God. I was ten years old and it was in school assembly. It was generally acknowledged that if you opened your eyes while praying, God flew out of the nearest window. That was why it was so important that everyone should shut his eyes. If I opened my eyes suddenly, I thought, I might just be quick enough to catch a glimpse of the departing deity….

Over the years, my attitude to religion has changed, without my having recovered any kind of belief in God. The best and most devoted people I have ever met were Catholic nuns. Religious belief is seldom accompanied by the inflamed egotism that is so marked and deeply unattractive a phenomenon in our post-religious society. Although the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions are said to have given man a more accurate appreciation of his true place in nature, in fact they have rendered him not so much anthropocentric as individually self-centred….

[T]he religious idea of compassion is greatly superior, both morally and practically, to the secular one. The secular person believes that compassion is due to the victim by virtue of what he has suffered; the religious person believes that compassion is due to everyone, by virtue of his humanity. For the secular person, man is born good and is made bad by his circumstances. The religious person believes man is born with original sin, and is therefore imperfectible on this earth; he can nevertheless strive for the good by obedience to God.

The secularist divides humanity into two: the victims and the victimisers. The religious person sees mankind as fundamentally one.

And why not? If this life is all that you have, why let anything stand in the way of its enjoyment? Most of us self-importantly imagine that the world and all its contrivances were made expressly for us and our convenience….

The secularist de-moralises the world, thus increasing the vulnerability of potential victims and, not coincidentally, their need for a professional apparatus of protection, which is and always will be ineffective, and is therefore fundamentally corrupt and corrupting.

If a person is not a victim pure and simple, the secularist feels he is owed no compassion. A person who is to blame for his own situation should not darken the secularist’s door again: therefore, the secularist is obliged to pretend, with all the rationalisation available to modern intellectuals, that people who get themselves into a terrible mess – for example, drug addicts – are not to blame for their situation. But this does them no good at all; in fact it is a great disservice to them.

The religious person, by contrast, is unembarrassed by the moral failings that lead people to act self-destructively because that is precisely what he knows man has been like since the expulsion from Eden. Because he knows that man is weak, and has no need to disguise his failings, either from himself or from others, he can be honest in a way that the secularist finds impossible.

Though I am not religious, I have come to the conclusion that it is impossible for us to live decently without the aid of religion. That is the ambiguity of the Enlightenment. (“Why Religion Is Good for Us,” NewStatesman, April 21, 2003)

The weakening of the Judeo-Christian tradition in America is owed to enemies within (established religions trying in vain to be “relevant”) and to enemies without (leftists and nihilistic libertarians who seek every opportunity to denigrate religion). Thus the opponents of religiosity seized on the homosexual scandals in the Catholic Church not to attack homosexuality (which would go against the attackers’ party line) but to attack the Church, which teaches the immorality of the acts that were in fact committed by a relatively small number of priests. (See “Priests, Abuse, and the Meltdown of a Culture,” National Review Online, May 19, 2011.)

Then there is the relentless depiction of Catholicism as an accomplice to Hitler’s brutality, about which my son writes in his review of Rabbi David G. Dalin’s The Myth of Hitler’s Pope: How Pius XII Rescued Jews from the Nazis:

Despite the misleading nature of the controversy — one which Dalin questions from the outset — the first critics of the wartime papacy were not Jews. Among the worst attacks were those of leftist non-Jews, such as Carlo Falconi (author of The Silence of Pius XII), not to mention German liberal Rolf Hochhuth, whose 1963 play, The Deputy, set the tone for subsequent derogatory media portrayals of wartime Catholicism. By contrast, says Dalin, Pope Pius XII “was widely praised [during his lifetime] for having saved hundreds of thousands of Jewish lives during the Holocaust.” He provides an impressive list of Jews who testified on the pope’s behalf, including Albert Einstein, Golda Meir and Chaim Weizmann. Dalin believes that to “deny and delegitimize their collective memory and experience of the Holocaust,” as some have done, “is to engage in a subtle yet profound form of Holocaust denial.”

The most obvious source of the black legend about the papacy emanated from Communist Russia, a point noted by the author. There were others with an axe to grind. As revealed in a recent issue of Sandro Magister’s Chiesa, liberal French Catholic Emmanuel Mounier began implicating Pius XII in “racist” politics as early as 1939. Subsequent detractors have made the same charge, working (presumably) from the same bias.

While the immediate accusations against Pius XII lie at the heart of Dalin’s book, he takes his analysis a step further. The vilification of the pope can only be understood in terms of a political agenda — the “liberal culture war against tradition.” . . .

Rabbi Dalin sums it up best for all people of traditional moral and political beliefs when he urges us to recall the challenges that faced Pius XII in which the “fundamental threats to Jews came not from devoted Christians — they were the prime rescuers of Jewish lives in the Holocaust — but from anti-Catholic Nazis, atheistic Communists, and… Hitler’s mufti in Jerusalem.”

I believe that the incessant attacks on religion have helped to push people — especially young adults — away from religion, to the detriment of liberty. It is not surprising that “liberals”  tend to be anti-religious, for — as Dalrymple points out — they disdain the tenets of personal responsibility and liberty that are contained in the last six of the Ten Commandments. It is disheartening, however, when libertarians join the anti-religious chorus. They know not what they do when they join the left in tearing down a bulwark of civil society, without which liberty cannot prevail.

Humans need no education in aggression and meddling; those come to us naturally. But we do need to learn to take responsibility for our actions and to leave others alone — and we need to learn those things when we are young. Such things will not be taught in public schools. They could be taught in homes, but are less likely to be taught there as Americans drift further from their religious roots.

Am I being hypcritical because I am unchurched and my children were not taken to church? Perhaps, but my religious upbringing imbued in me a strong sense of morality, which I tried — successfully, I think — to convey to my children. But as time passes the moral lessons we older Americans learned through religion will attenuate unless those lessons are taught, anew, to younger generations.

Rather than join the left in attacking religion and striving to eradicate all traces of it from public discourse, libertarians ought to accommodate themselves to it and even encourage its acceptance — for liberty’s sake.

Related posts:
Hobbesian Libertarianism
Atheism, Religion, and Science
The Limits of Science
Beware of Irrational Atheism
Judeo-Christian Values and Liberty
Religion and Personal Responsibility
Conservatism, Libertarianism, and Public Morality
Evolution and Religion
Moral Issues
Words of Caution for Scientific Dogmatists
Science, Logic, and God
Debunking “Scientific Objectivity”
Science’s Anti-Scientific Bent
The Nexus of Conservatism and Libertarianism
The Big Bang and Atheism
A Critique of Extreme Libertarianism
Atheism, Religion, and Science Redux
Religion as Beneficial Evolutionary Adaptation
Anarchistic Balderdash
The Political Case for Traditional Morality
Pascal’s Wager, Morality, and the State
Anarchy, Minarchy, and Liberty
A Non-Believer Defends Religion
The Greatest Mystery
Objectivism: Tautologies in Search of Reality
What Happened to Personal Responsibility?
Morality and Consequentialism
Science, Evolution, Religion, and Liberty
On Liberty
Parsing Political Philosophy
Utilitarianism, “Liberalism,” and Omniscience
Utilitarianism vs. Liberty
Law and Liberty
Negative Rights
Negative Rights, Social Norms, and the Constitution
Tocqueville’s Prescience
Accountants of the Soul
Invoking Hitler
The Unreality of Objectivism
Rationalism, Social Norms, and Same-Sex “Marriage”
Line-Drawing and Liberty
“Natural Rights” and Consequentialism
The Left and Its Delusions
Rawls Meets Bentham
The Divine Right of the Majority
Our Enemy, the State
Pseudo-Libertarian Sophistry vs. True Libertarianism
Positivism, “Natural Rights,” and Libertarianism
What Are “Natural Rights”?
The Golden Rule and the State
Libertarian Conservative or Conservative Libertarian?
Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: Part I
Social Justice
Bounded Liberty: A Thought Experiment
Evolution, Human Nature, and “Natural Rights”
More Pseudo-Libertarianism
More about Conservative Governance
The Meaning of Liberty
A Digression about Probability and Existence
Positive Liberty vs. Liberty
More Social Justice
More about Probability and Existence
Existence and Creation
In Defense of Marriage
Luck-Egalitarianism and Moral Luck
Understanding Hayek
We, the Children of the Enlightenment
Probability, Existence, and Creation
The Destruction of Society in the Name of “Society”
The Golden Rule as Beneficial Learning
America, Love It or Leave It?
Why I Am Not an Extreme Libertarian

Experts and the Economy

In “Socialist Calculation and the Turing Test,” I wrote about the

suggestion … that one can emulate the outcomes that would be produced by competitive markets — if not something “better” — by writing rules that, if followed, would mimic the behavior of competitive markets.The problem with that suggestion … is that someone outside the system must make the rules to be followed by those inside the system.

And that’s precisely where socialist planning and regulation always fail. At some point not very far down the road, the rules will not yield the outcomes that spontaneous behavior would yield. Why? Because better rules cannot emerge spontaneously from rule-driven behavior….

Where, for instance, is there room in the socialist or regulatory calculus for a rule that allows for unregulated monopoly? Yet such an “undesirable” phenomenon can yield desirable results by creating “exorbitant” profits that invite competition (sometimes from substitutes) and entice innovation. (By “unregulated” I don’t mean that a monopoly should be immune from laws against force and fraud, which must apply to all economic actors.)

I suppose exogenous rules are all right if you want economic outcomes that accord with those rules. But such rules aren’t all right if you want economic outcomes that actually reflect the wants of consumers….

Of course, the whole point of socialist planning is to produce outcomes that are desired by planners. Those desires reflect planners’ preferences, as influenced by their perceptions of the outcomes desired by certain subsets of the populace. The immediate result may be to make some of those subsets happier, but at a great cost to everyone else and, in the end, to the favored subsets as well. A hampered economy produces less for everyone.

Socialism — a.k.a. “liberalism” — is all about reliance on experts. As Don Boudreaux says,

modern “liberalism’s” ideas are about replacing an unimaginably large multitude of diverse and competing ideas – each one individually chosen, practiced, assessed, and modified in light of what F.A. Hayek called “the particular circumstances of time and place” – with a relatively paltry set of ‘Big Ideas’ that are politically selected, centrally imposed, and enforced not by the natural give, take, and compromise of the everyday interactions of millions of people but, rather, by guns wielded by those whose overriding ‘idea’ is among the most simple-minded and antediluvian notions in history, namely, that those with the power of the sword are anointed to lord it over the rest of us.

Megan McArdle puts it this way:

So we get [from central planning] what most interests wordsmiths:  a succession of enormous plans (health care exchanges! privatize social security!), most of which fail….
But all this makes me very skeptical of handing elites more power, particularly when they are given that power in order to reduce the autonomy of some other group.  (And somehow, that usually is what it’s for–you haven’t seen much lobbying for better regulation of university professor quality, even though a bad idea is probably more dangerous than a bad apple.)
J.M. Keynes — the experts’ expert — said that “Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.” Keynes is the quintessential defunct economist, and mindless politicians (among others) are his slaves.

The Death of the Democrat Party?

Democracy is incompatible with liberty. But democracy is nevertheless considered a “good thing.” To call a political party “Democratic” imparts to that party an unwarranted veneer of beneficence. I refuse to lend this blog to that bit of moral confusion. Thus, on these pages, the “Democratic Party” is and always will be the “Democrat Party. End of mini-rant.

“Liberalism,” “progressivism,” and their variants are incompatible with liberty and progress. That is why I always enclose those terms in quotation marks.

If you see opposition to same-sex marriage as anti-libertarian, I suggest that you re-think your position, beginning with this.

James Taranto, of WSJ‘s Opinion Journal, opines:

If the Ninth Circuit upholds Walker’s decision [for same-sex marriage, in Perry v. Schwarzenegger], the Supreme Court would almost certainly agree to hear an appeal….

…When the Supreme Court takes up Perry v. Schwarzenegger … the justices will rule 5-4, in a decision written by Justice Kennedy, that there is a constitutional right to same-sex marriage.

This accepts the conventional assumption that the court’s “liberal” and “conservative” wings will split predictably, 4-4. Yet while Kennedy cannot be pigeonholed in terms of “ideology,” on this specific topic, he has been consistent in taking a very broad view of the rights of homosexuals. He not only voted with the majority but wrote the majority opinions in two crucial cases: Romer v. Evans (1996) and Lawrence v. Texas (2003).

Romer struck down an amendment to the Colorado Constitution that nullified state or local ordinances barring discrimination on the basis of “homosexual, lesbian or bisexual orientation, conduct, practices or relationships.” This provision, adopted by ballot initiative, violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, Justice Kennedy wrote for the court….

In Lawrence, the court overturned a 1986 ruling and held that state laws criminalizing consensual homosexual sodomy violated the constitutional right of privacy….

Proposition 8 was adopted in “liberal” California by a margin of 52-48.  This is the same California that has preferred the Democrat candidate over his Republican opponent in the last five presidential elections, culminating in an Obama-slide of 61 percent vs. 39 percent for McCain and assorted wing-nuts.

Clearly, same-sex marriage is not beloved by all Democrats, or even an overwhelming majority of them. Voters in 31 States have blocked same-sex marriage in their States by rejecting proposals to allow it or (in most cases) approving constitutional amendments banning it. Only five States and the District of Columbia recognizes same-sex marriage. Needless to say, the deeds were done in those six jurisdictions by legislative or judicial fiat, and not by consulting voters about one of the rare issues that merits “democratic” consultation because it impinges directly on deep-rooted social norms.

If/when Judge Vaughn Walker’s judicial abomination is upheld by Justice Kennedy, voters will know where the blame lies: with the left wing of the Democrat Party and the gay-rights lobby, which is one of the Democrat Party’s favored constituencies. The resulting backlash among not-so-leftish Democrats would spell electoral disaster for the Democrat Party. Party leaders would then have two options:

  • Overtly move the party back from the extreme edge of American political opinion, in the hope that enough voters are taken in by such a cynical ploy to avert long-term disaster for the party.
  • Remain on the left edge of American political opinion, in the hope and belief that voters will (before too long) slide toward that edge.

My money is on the second option, because the leaders of the Democrat Party are deeply committed, in thought and word, to the “progressive” agenda: the cultivation of radical ideas and constituencies. (Why? Read this exquisite rant by Tom Smith.) And that, in the face of growing discontent about the power and cost of government, is a recipe for political suicide.

One can only hope.

Related posts:
Civil Society and Homosexual “Marriage”
Perry v. Schwarzenegger, Due Process, and Equal Protection

The Left

The “left” of the title refers, specifically, to left-statists or (usually) leftists.

I describe statism in “Parsing Political Philosophy“:

Statism boils down to one thing: the use of government’s power to direct resources and people toward outcomes dictated by government….

The particular set of outcomes toward which government should strive depends on the statist…. But all of them are essentially alike in their desire to control the destiny of others….

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

  • government grants of particular positive rights, either to the statist, to an entity or group to which he is beholden, or to a group with which he sympathizes
  • government interventions in business and personal affairs, in the belief that government can do certain things better than private actors, or simply should do [certain] things….

I continue by saying that left-statists (L-S)

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

L-S tend toward leniency and forgiveness of criminals (unless the L-S or those close to him are the victims)…. On defense, L-S act as if they prefer Chamberlain to Churchill, their protestations to the contrary….

L-S have no room in their minds for civil society; government is their idea of “community.”…

It is no wonder that most “liberals” (L) and “progressives” (P) try to evade the “leftist” label. (I enclose “liberal,” “progressive,” and forms thereof in quotation marks because L are anything but liberal, in the core meaning of the word, and the policies favored by P are regressive in their effects on economic and social liberty.) L and P usually succeed in their evasion because the center of American politics has shifted so far to the left that Franklin Roosevelt — a leftist by any reasonable standard — would stand at the center of today’s political spectrum.

Indeed, the growing dominance of leftism can be seen in the history of the U.S. presidency. It all started with Crazy Teddy Roosevelt, the first president to dedicate himself to the use of state power to advance his cause du jour. (I do not credit the anti-Lincoln zealotry of  the Ludwig von Mises Institute.) TR’s leftism was evident in his “activist” approach to the presidency. No issue, it seems, was beneath TR’s notice or beyond the reach of the extra-constitutional powers he arrogated to himself. TR, in other words, was the role model for Woodrow Wilson, Herbert Hoover (yes, Hoover the “do nothing” whose post-Crash activism helped to bring on the Great Depression), Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama. (For more about American presidents and their predilections, see this, this, and this.) Countless members of Congress and State and local officials have been, and are, “activists” in the image of TR.

In sum, the problem with America — and it boils down to a single problem — is the left’s success in advancing its agenda. What is that agenda, and how does the left advance it?

The left advances its agenda in many ways, for example, by demonizing its opponents (small-government opponents are simply “mean”), appealing to envy (various forms of redistribution), sanctifying an ever-growing list of “victimized” groups (various protected “minorities”), making a virtue of mediocrity (various kinds of risk-avoiding regulations), and taking a slice at a time (e.g., Social Security set the stage for Medicare which set for Obamacare).

The left’s essential agenda  is the repudiation of ordered liberty of the kind that arises from evolved social norms, and the replacement of that liberty by sugar-coated oppression. The bread and circuses of imperial Rome have nothing on Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, Obamacare, and the many other forms of personal and corporate welfare that are draining America of its wealth and élan. All of that “welfare” has been bought at the price of economic and social liberty (which are indivisible). (For a broad enumeration, see this post.)

Leftists like to say that there is a difference between opposition and disloyalty. But, in the case of the left, opposition arises from a fundamental kind of disloyalty. For, at bottom, the left pursues its agenda because  it hates the idea of what America used to stand for: liberty with responsibility, strength against foreign and domestic enemies.

Most leftists are simply shallow-minded trend-followers, who believe in the power of government to do things that are “good,” “fair,” or “compassionate,” with no regard for the costs and consequences of those things. Shallow leftists know not what they do. But they do it. And their shallowness does not excuse them for having been accessories to the diminution of  America. A rabid dog may not know that it is rabid, but its bite is no less lethal for that.

The leaders of the left — the office-holders, pundits, and intelligentsia — usually pay lip-service to “goodness,” “fairness,” and “compassion.” But their lip-service fails to conceal their brutal betrayal of liberty. Their subtle and not-so-subtle treason is despicable almost beyond words. But not quite…

Related posts:
The State of the Union: 2010
The Shape of Things to Come

On Liberty
Parsing Political Philosophy
The Indivisibility of Economic and Social Liberty
Greed, Cosmic Justice, and Social Welfare
Positive Rights and Cosmic Justice
Fascism and the Future of America
Inventing “Liberalism”
Utilitarianism, “Liberalism,” and Omniscience
Utilitarianism vs. Liberty
Beware of Libertarian Paternalists
Negative Rights, Social Norms, and the Constitution
Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and the Legitimate State
The Mind of a Paternalist
Accountants of the Soul
Rawls Meets Bentham
Is Liberty Possible?

The Commandeered Economy
The Price of Government
The Mega-Depression
Does the CPI Understate Inflation?
Ricardian Equivalence Reconsidered
The Real Burden of Government
The Rahn Curve at Work

Rawls Meets Bentham

Steven Landsburg writes:

Paul Krugman is at it again, casting aspersions on everyone who opposes extended unemployment benefits while offering absolutely no positive argument for those benefits. Let me explain what would count, to an economist, as a positive argument.

There’s no question that extending benefits would be good for the currently unemployed, and no question that it would be bad for those who are called on to foot the bill. Economists usually deal with that kind of conflict is by asking what policy you’d prefer if you had amnesia, and and didn’t know your own employment status…. The amnesiac is an impartial judge who is forced to care about everyone, because he/she might be anyone.

I have no wish to defend the indefensible Paul Krugman, but Landsburg’s attack is equally indefensible, combining — as it does — John Rawls’s “veil of ignorance” and the utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham and his philosophical progeny. The “veil of ignorance,” according to Wikipedia, requires you to

imagine that societal roles were completely re-fashioned and redistributed, and that from behind your veil of ignorance you do not know what role you will be reassigned. Only then can you truly consider the morality of an issue.

This is just another way of pretending to omniscience. Try as you might to imagine your “self” away, you cannot do it. Your position about a moral issue will be your position, not that of someone else. Moreover, it will not truly be your position unless you put it into practice. Talk — like happiness research — is cheap.

Pretended omniscience is the essence of utilitarianism, which is captured in the phrase “the greatest good for the greatest number” or, more precisely “the greatest amount of happiness altogether.” From this facile philosophy grew the patently ludicrous idea that it might be possible to quantify each person’s happiness, sum those values, and arrive at an aggregate measure of total happiness for everyone.

But there is no realistic worldview in which A’s greater happiness cancels B’s greater unhappiness; never the twain shall meet.  The only way to “know” that A’s happiness cancels B’s unhappiness is to put oneself in the place of an omniscient deity — to become, in other words, an accountant of the soul.

Landsburg, in the space of a single post, has put himself in company with “liberals” like Krugman, who arrogate to themselves the ability to judge the worthiness of others. A pox on both their houses.

Related posts:
On Liberty
Greed, Cosmic Justice, and Social Welfare
Positive Rights and Cosmic Justice
Inventing “Liberalism”
Utilitarianism, “Liberalism,” and Omniscience
Utilitarianism vs. Liberty
Beware of Libertarian Paternalists
Negative Rights, Social Norms, and the Constitution
Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and the Legitimate State
The Mind of a Paternalist
Accountants of the Soul

The Psychologist Who Played God

UPDATED 02/12/14 (related reading and related posts added)

There’s a story at Slate titled “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.” Here are some key passages:

In the late 1950s, psychologist Milton Rokeach was gripped by an eccentric plan. He gathered three psychiatric patients, each with the delusion that they were Jesus Christ, to live together for two years in Ypsilanti State Hospital to see if their beliefs would change….

…Rokeach wanted to probe the limits of identity. He had been intrigued by stories of Secret Service agents who felt they had lost contact with their original identities, and wondered if a man’s sense of self might be challenged in a controlled setting…. This … led Rokeach to orchestrate his meeting of the Messiahs and document their encounter in the extraordinary (and out-of-print) book from 1964, The Three Christs of Ypsilanti….

[T]he book makes for starkly uncomfortable reading as it recounts how the researchers blithely and unethically manipulated the lives of Leon, Joseph, and Clyde in the service of academic curiosity….

In hindsight, the Three Christs study looks less like a promising experiment than the absurd plan of a psychologist who suffered the triumph of passion over good sense. The men’s delusions barely shifted over the two years, and from an academic perspective, Rokeach did not make any grand discoveries concerning the psychology of identity and belief. Instead, his conclusions revolve around the personal lives of three particular (and particularly unfortunate) men. He falls back—rather meekly, perhaps—on the Freudian suggestion that their delusions were sparked by confusion over sexual identity, and attempts to end on a flourish by noting that we all “seek ways to live with one another in peace,” even in the face of the most fundamental disagreements. As for the ethics of the study, Rokeach eventually realized its manipulative nature and apologized in an afterword to the 1984 edition: “I really had no right, even in the name of science, to play God and interfere round the clock with their daily lives.”

Rokeach — the psychologist who played God — belonged to a coterie of left-wing psychologists who strove to portray conservatism as aberrant, and to equate it with authoritarianism. This thesis emerged in The Authoritarian Personality (1950). Here is how Alan Wolfe, who seems sympathetic to the thesis of The Authoritarian Personality, describes its principal author:

Theodor Adorno … was a member of the influential Frankfurt school of “critical theory,” a Marxist-inspired effort to diagnose the cultural deformities of late capitalism.

I was first exposed to Adorno’s conservatism-as-authoritarianism thesis in a psychology course taught by Rokeach around the time he was polishing a complementary tome, The Open and Closed Mind: Investigations into the Nature of Belief Systems and Personality Systems (related links). The bankruptcy of the Adorno-Rokeach thesis has been amply documented. (See this and this, for example.) The question is why academic leftists like Adorno and Rokeach would go to such pains to concoct an unflattering portrait of conservatives.

Keep in mind, always, that modern “liberals” are anything but liberal, in the classical sense. (See this and this, and be sure to consult Jonah Goldberg’s former blog, Liberal Fascism.) Modern “liberals” are authoritarian to the core, as is evident in the state to which they have brought us. They nevertheless persist in believing — and proclaiming — themselves to be friends of liberty, even as they seek to dictate how others should live their lives. They deny what they are because they know, deep down, that they are what they profess to abhor: authoritarians.

A classic way to resolve a deep psychological conflict of that kind is to project one’s own undesired traits onto others, especially onto one’s social and political enemies. That, I maintain, is precisely what Adorno, Rokeach, and their ilk have done in The Authoritarian Personality, The Open and Closed Mind, and similar tracts. And that, I maintain, is precisely what “liberals” do when they accuse conservatives of base motivations, such as racism and lack of empathy. Nothing is more racist than “liberal” condescension toward blacks; nothing is more lacking in empathy than “liberal” schemes that deprive blameless individuals of jobs (affirmative action) and prevent hard-working farmers and business-owners from passing their farms and businesses intact to their heirs (the estate tax). Nothing is more authoritarian than modern “liberalism.”

Milton Rokeach, rest his soul, acknowledged his penchant for authoritarianism, at least  in the case of the “Three Christs.” If only the “liberals” who govern us — and the “liberals” who cheer them on — would examine their souls, find the authoritarianism within, and root it out.

That will be a cold day in hell.

*     *     *

Related reading:
James Lindgren, “Who Fears Science?,” March 2012
John J. Ray, “A Counterblast to ‘Authoritarianism’,” Dissecting Leftism, December 20, 2013
James Lindgren, “Who Believes That Astrology Is Scientific?,” February 2014

Related posts:
Conservatism, Libertarianism, and the “Authoritarian Personality”
The F Scale, Revisited

Accountants of the Soul

In a post about two of the founders of modern “liberalism,” T.H. Green, and L.T. Hobhouse, I say

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

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

It is hard to distinguish the mindset of the “liberal” from that of the “libertarian” paternalist, who does not cavil at the prospect of using the power of the state to “nudge” lesser mortals toward “choices” that he deems in their best interest. “Liberals” and “libertarian” paternalists are alike in their abstract love of mankind and particular disdain for individuals.

Related posts (broken links have been fixed):
Greed, Cosmic Justice, and Social Welfare
Positive Rights and Cosmic Justice
Fascism and the Future of America
Negative Rights, Social Norms, and the Constitution
Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and the Legitimate State
Tocqueville’s Prescience
State of the Union: 2010
The Shape of Things to Come

Utilitarianism, “Liberalism,” and Omniscience

Utilitarianism is sort of under debate in the blogosphere (see here). But all the hifalutin’ philosophising misses the main point about utilitarianism: Those who practice it are arrogant pretenders to omniscience.

The appeal of utilitarianism rests on two mistaken beliefs:

  • There is such a thing as social welfare.
  • Transferring income and wealth from the richer to the poorer enhances social welfare because redistribution helps the poorer more than it hurts the richer.

Having disposed elsewhere of the second belief, I here address the first one.

The notion of a social welfare function arises from John Stuart Mill’s utilitarianism, which is best captured in the phrase “the greatest good for the greatest number” or, more precisely “the greatest amount of happiness altogether.” From this facile philosophy grew the patently ludicrous idea that it might be possible to quantify each person’s happiness, sum those values, and arrive at an aggregate measure of total happiness for everyone.

Utilitarianism, as a philosophy, has gone the way of Communism: It is discredited, but many people still cling to it under other names — “social welfare” and “social justice” being perennial favorites among the “liberal” intelligentsia.

How can supposedly rational “liberals” imagine that the benefits accruing to some persons (unionized employees of GM and Chrysler, urban developers, etc.) cancel the losses of other persons (taxpayers, property owners, etc.)? There is no realistic worldview in which A’s greater happiness cancels B’s greater unhappiness; never the twain shall meet.  The only way to “know” that A’s happiness cancels B’s unhappiness is to put oneself in the place of an omniscient deity — to become, in other words, an accountant of the soul.

It seems to me that “liberals” (most of them, anyway) reject God because to acknowledge Him would be to admit their own puniness and venality.

Inventing “Liberalism”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thus are the wages of “liberalism.”

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

Parsing Political Philosophy

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

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

TWO BASIC POLITICAL ISSUES

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

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

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

THREE BASIC PHILOSOPHIES OF POLITICS

I begin with a rough sorting of political preferences:

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

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

Anarchism

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

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

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

Minarchism

The Central Tenet: Limited Government

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

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

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

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

The Protection of Negative Rights

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

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

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

More about Property Rights

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

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

The Role of Civil Society

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

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

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

Statism

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

The Essence of Statism: Control

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

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

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

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

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

Feeble Excuses for Statism

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

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

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

The Bottom Line

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

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

REFINING THE TRIPARTITE TAXONOMY

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

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

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

1. Need for Government

Anarchists

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

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

Minarchists and Statists

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

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

2. Government Control of the Affairs of Citizens

Minarchists

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Statists

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. How to Choose Government

The question of choosing government subsumes two issues:

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. How to Control Government

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A SUMMARY OF THE REFINED TAXONOMY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Statist (S):

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

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

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

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

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

R-R-M

R-M

R-S

L-M

A-M/A

L-S

T-L-S/T-R-S

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

Liberalism and Sovereignty

Don Boudreaux of Cafe Hayek writes about liberalism:

One of the great tenets of liberalism — the true sort of liberalism, not the dirigiste ignorance that today, in English-speaking countries, flatters itself unjustifiably with that term — is that no human being is less worthy just because he or she is outside of a particular group.  Any randomly chosen stranger from Cairo or Cancun has as much claim on my sympathies and my respect and my regard as does any randomly chosen person from Charlottesville or Chicago.

Boudreaux is correct in his view of liberalism. That is to say, what is now called liberalism is not liberalism; it is a virulent strain of statism.

Boudreaux also states a (truly) liberal value, namely, that respect for others should not depend on where they happen to live. Boudreaux embellishes that theme in the the next several paragraphs of his post; for example:

[L]iberalism rejects the notion that there is anything much special or compelling about political relationships.  It is tribalistic, atavistic, to regard those who look more like you to be more worthy of your regard than are those who look less like you.  It is tribalistic, atavistic, to regard those who speak your native tongue to be more worthy of your affection and concern than are those whose native tongues differ from yours.

For the true liberal, the human race is the human race.  The struggle is to cast off as much as possible primitive sentiments about “us” being different from “them.”

The problem with such sentiments — correct as they may be — is the implication that we have nothing more to fear from people of foreign lands than we have to fear from our own friends and neighbors. Yet, as Boudreaux himself acknowledges,

[t]he liberal is fully aware that such sentiments [about “us” being different from “them”] are rooted in humans’ evolved psychology, and so are not easily cast off.  But the liberal does his or her best to rise above those atavistic sentiments,

Yes, the liberal does strive to rise above such sentiments, but not everyone else makes the same effort, as Boudreaux admits. Therein lies the problem.

Americans — as a mostly undifferentiated mass — are disdained and hated by many foreigners (and by many an American “liberal”). The disdain and hatred arise from a variety of imperatives, ranging from pseudo-intellectual snobbery to nationalistic rivalry to anti-Western fanaticism. When those imperative lead to aggression (threatened or actual), that aggression is aimed at all of us: liberal, “liberal,” conservative, libertarian, bellicose, pacifistic, rational, and irrational.

Having grasped that reality, the Framers “did ordain and establish” the Constitution “in Order to . . . provide for the common defence” (among other things). That is to say, the Framers recognized the importance of establishing the United States as a sovereign state for limited and specified purposes, while preserving the sovereignty of its constituent States and their inhabitants for all other purposes.

If Americans do not mutually defend themselves through the sovereign state which was established for that purpose, who will? That is the question which liberals (both true and false) often fail to ask. Instead, they tend to propound internationalism for its own sake. It is a mindless internationalism, one that often disdains America’s sovereignty, and the defense thereof.

Mindless internationalism equates sovereignty with  jingoism, protectionism, militarism, and other deplorable “isms.” It ignores or denies the hard reality that Americans and their legitimate overseas interests are threatened by nationalistic rivalries and anti-Western fanaticism.

In the real world of powerful rivals and determined, resourceful fanatics, the benefits afforded Americans by our (somewhat eroded) constitutional contract — most notably the enjoyment of civil liberties, the blessings of  free markets and free trade, and the protections of a common defense — are inseparable from and dependent upon the sovereign power of the United States.  To cede that sovereignty for the sake of mindless internationalism is to risk the complete loss of the benefits promised by the Constitution.

UPDATE

Under the heading of mindless internationalism belongs “transnationalism.” As Ed Whelan of Bench Memos puts it:

“Transnationalism” challenges the traditional American understanding that (in the summary, which I slightly adapt, of Duke law professor Curtis A. Bradley) “international and domestic law are distinct, [the United States] determines for itself [through its political branches] when and to what extent international law is incorporated into its legal system, and the status of international law in the domestic system is determined by domestic law.”Transnationalists aim in particular to use American courts to import international law to override the policies adopted through the processes of representative government.

Follow the link for more. Then read the second entry in a projected series of posts on the topic of “transnationalism” and Harold Koh, a proponent of same, who is Obama’s choice for legal adviser to the State Department.

Positive Rights and Cosmic Justice

POSITIVE RIGHTS

An understanding of positive rights begins with negative rights. The classic formulation of negative rights is given in the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Life, liberty, and happiness are negative rights, to the extent that each of us does nothing in our pursuit and enjoyment of them to impinge on the life, liberty, and happiness of others. That my life, liberty, and happiness might make you unhappy because you are hateful, spiteful, or envious is your doing, not mine. Negative rights, therefore, are those which each of us can enjoy without imposing costs on others.

Yes, a tax-funded state must exist for the protection of negative rights — for reasons that I will address in future posts. But as long as the state protects negative rights evenhandedly, and imposes the costs of doing so evenhandedly, its citizens are better off than they would be if there were no state to protect their negative rights.

Positive rights arise when the state goes beyond the protection of negative rights; that is, when it grants benefits to some citizens — benefits that must, inevitably, come at the expense of other citizens. Affirmative action is one example of a positive right. Through affirmative action, some persons obtain jobs and promotions at the expense of other, better-qualified persons and, therefore, to the detriment of employers and consumers. There are so many positive rights that an exhaustive list of them would run to hundreds of pages. A short, alphabetical list of examples will have to do:

  • Agricultural subsidies
  • Bailouts for auto makers
  • “Fair housing” laws
  • Funding for the “arts”
  • Legalization of strikes
  • Licensing to restrict entry into certain occupations and businesses
  • Medicaid
  • Medicare
  • Minimum wage
  • Social Security
  • Tax-exempt status for certain organizations
  • Tax-supported stadiums

It is ironic, but predictable, that many positive rights have negative consequences for their intended beneficiaries, in addition to the negative consequences they have for the rest of us. Given the plethora of positive rights, perhaps we all suffer their consequences equally, but that those consequences are negative ones I have no doubt.

COSMIC JUSTICE

Believers in positive rights seek “cosmic justice” (though they may not realize it). What is cosmic justice? I like this example from Thomas Sowell’s speech, “The Quest for Cosmic Justice“:

A fight in which both boxers observe the Marquis of Queensberry rules would be a fair fight, according to traditional standards of fairness, irrespective of whether the contestants were of equal skill, strength, experience or other factors likely to affect the outcome– and irrespective of whether that outcome was a hard-fought draw or a completely one-sided beating.

This would not, however, be a fair fight within the framework of those seeking “social justice,” if the competing fighters came into the ring with very different prospects of success — especially if these differences were due to factors beyond their control….

In a sense, proponents of “social justice” are unduly modest. What they are seeking to correct are not merely the deficiencies of society, but of the cosmos. What they call social justice encompasses far more than any given society is causally responsible for. Crusaders for social justice seek to correct not merely the sins of man but the oversights of God or the accidents of history. What they are really seeking is a universe tailor-made to their vision of equality. They are seeking cosmic justice.

In an earlier post, I say:

The seekers of cosmic justice are not content to allow individuals to accomplish what they can, given their genes, their acquired traits, their parents’ wealth (or lack of it), where they were born, when they live, and so on. Rather, those who seek cosmic justice cling to the Rawlsian notion that no one “deserves” better “luck” than anyone else. But “deserves” and “luck” (like “greed”) are emotive, value-laden terms. Those terms suggest (as they are meant to) that there is some kind of great lottery in the sky, in which each of us participates, and that some of us hold winning tickets — which equally “deserving” others might just have well held, were it not for “luck.”

This is not what happens, of course. Humankind simply is varied in its genetic composition, personality traits, accumulated wealth, geographic distribution, etc. Consider a person who is born in the United States of brilliant, wealthy parents — and who inherits their brilliance, cultivates his inheritance (genetic and financial), and goes on to live a life of accomplishment and wealth, while doing no harm and great good to others. Such a person is neither “lucky” nor less “deserving” than anyone else. He merely is who he is, and he does what he does. There is no question of desert or luck.

As Anthony de Jasay writes in “Risk, Value, and Externality,”

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

There is the view, acknowledged by de Jasay, that the better-off are better off merely because of luck. But, as he points out,

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

Most seekers of cosmic justice simply claim that they want only what is “fair” for those who “deserve better.” They overlook or simply choose to ignore the evidence that the quest for cosmic justice harms those whom it is intended to benefit. I address that matter in the section “Does Redistribution Work?.”

Then there are those who claim that redistribution can be made to work because it is possible to calibrate well-being across individuals, thereby maximizing “social welfare.” I address that claim in the section “The Roots of Redistribution: Class Warfare and Arrogance.”

But, first, some  arguments for and against positive rights.

POSITIVE RIGHTS, ROUND ONE

Philosopher and Mill scholar Joe Miller (formerly of Bellum et Mores) supports positive rights:

…I still hold on to one core insight of liberalism: respect for autonomy means more than just non-interference. I can have all sorts of freedoms from various things, but those freedoms don’t mean a damn thing if I’m too cold/sick/hungry/stupid/isolated to exercise them. And I remain convinced that, at least for right now, the only way to ensure that everyone has the shelter, medicine, food, education, and access needed to enjoy his/her freedom is through some form of redistribution. Insisting that you redistribute part of your wealth is no more a violation of your autonomy than is insisting that you refrain from hitting me in the nose. Both hitting me in the nose and refusing to help those too poor to exercise their freedoms are violations of autonomy.

Joe is far from alone in his views, of course. His co-believers are legion. Consider, for example, George Lakoff (about whom I have written here). Lakoff, too, is a proponent of positive rights, which he propounds in Whose Freedom?: The Battle over America’s Most Important Idea. Anthony Dick, writing at NRO Online, reviews Lakoff’s book:

“Freedom is being able to achieve purposes,” [Lakoff] writes, “either because nothing is stopping you or because you have the requisite capacities, or both.” He elaborates with a barrage of italics: “Freedom is the freedom to go as far as you can in life, to get what you want in life, or to achieve what you can in life.” This, he explains, means that freedom has a significant positive component: “Freedom requires not just the absence of impediments to motion but also the presence of access….Freedom may thus require creating access, which may involve building.” What Lakoff is describing, in other words, is a type of “positive freedom,” in the sense that it requires the provision of certain goods and services to citizens to ensure that they have the capacity to achieve their goals. On this view, you aren’t “free” unless you have been provided with what you need in order to be successful….

Lakoff’s conception of freedom is thus in direct conflict with that of the Founders. When government seeks to provide entitlements for some in the name of “positive freedom,” it must necessarily interfere in the lives of others. This is because all government action is predicated on taxation and coercion, which by definition entail infringements on liberty. The state can’t give a welfare check to one person without taking money from someone else; it can’t fund a Social Security system without forcing people to pay into it.

People who don’t have food or health care or education have not been deprived of freedom. What they lack is not freedom but material goods and services. This is a matter of vocabulary, not ideology. The court of common word usage simply rejects Lakoff’s claim that being free means having the capacity to achieve one’s aims.

Roger Scruton, in the “Philosophical Appendix” of his The Meaning of Conservatism, says this:

What, then, is meant by the ‘freedom of the individual’? I shall distinguish two kinds of liberal answer to this question, which I shall call, respectively, ‘desire based’ and ‘autonomy based’ liberalism. The first argues that people are free to the extent that they can satisfy thier desires. The modality of ths ‘can’ is, of course, a major problem. More importantly, however, such an answer implies nothing about the value of freedom, and to take it as the basis for political theory is to risk the most absurd conclusions. By this criterion the citizens of Huxley’s Brave New World offer a paradigm of freedom: for they live in a world designed expressly for the gratification of their every wish. A desire-based liberalism could justify the most abject slavery — provided only that the slaves are induced, by whatever method, to desire their own condition.

Joe Miller’s defense of positive rights could be dismissed simply by noting — as does Anthony Dick — the contradiction inherent in the concept of positive rights. It is simply illogical to say that “Insisting that you redistribute part of your wealth is no…violation of your autonomy.” Such insistence, at the behest of the state, can be nothing other than a violation of “your autonomy,” that is, the autonomy of the person whose wealth (or income) is being redistributed. Joe’s formulation also could be dismissed simply by noting — as Roger Scruton suggests — that an agenda of positive rights means that the state can enslave (or at least enthrall) its subjects by dictating the conditions of their existence.

POSITIVE RIGHTS, ROUND TWO

In response, Joe Miller essays another defense of positive freedom:

I might even go so far as to hold that positive freedom is more important than theoretical (or, in philosopher-speak, negative) freedom. This is not to say that I don’t value negative freedom; rather, positive freedom entails negative freedom. After all, I can have X as a member of the set of things I can actually do if and only if no one is using a gun (whether figurative or literal) to prevent me from doing X.

Why positive freedom rather than negative? Or rather, why positive freedom rather than only negative? I’m not sure that I’ve anything more than a deep-seated intuition. It strikes me as somehow empty and hollow to walk up to someone wasting away from disease and say, “Hey, you know, you’re free to do anything you’d like.”…

As with any sort of fundamental disagreement over basic terms, this one has serious implications. One of those implications is that liberals and libertarians often talk past one another. In academic philosophy, for example, the term “autonomy” is used to refer to positive freedom. Libertarians, however, frequently use the term, “autonomy” as a synonym for negative freedom. Because we use the term in different ways, liberals and libertarians often end up with the frustrating feeling of having beaten their respective heads against the wall when they interact.

When I say, “Of course redistribution is consistent with autonomy,” I mean that it’s consistent with a notion of positive freedom. Forcing you to give your money to someone else is no different from forcing you to stop hitting the person. Failure to provide certain of his basic needs is exactly as wrong as clubbing him over the head. Both violate his autonomy.

To which the libertarian responds, “Redistribution is obviously a violation of autonomy. After all, you’re using a gun to force someone to give up his money. How could that not be a violation of his autonomy.”

The fact is, both claims are right. But they are both right only because the interlocuters are, in effect, equivocating on the word “autonomy”. If the term means positive freedom, then the liberal is right. If autonomy means only negative freedom, then the libertarian is right.

Joe doesn’t really advance a new argument. Rather, he restates his old one, but in a way that better exposes its flaws. Here is Joe’s argument, with all of its assumptions made explicit:

1. Autonomy is necessary in order to do as one will toward one’s ends, though one may not do harm to others in the service of those ends.

2. Autonomy is not possible unless one possesses some minimal degree of health, wealth, income, etc. “Minimal” must be defined by someone, of course, and liberals stand ready to do the job.

3. But autonomy is not served by having too much wealth or income — or the things they can buy, such as health. “Too much” must be defined by someone, of course, and liberals stand ready to do that job, as well. (This is how liberals, in general, square their lip service to the harm principle with the actual doing of harm in the name of autonomy — which is done by taking wealth and income from some persons and giving it to others.)

4. Liberals’ arrogant willingness to play at being gods — by defining “minimal” and “too much,” and by ignoring the harm done to some for the benefit of others — rests on these deeper (and usually unacknowledged) assumptions:

  • One person’s well-being can be measured against another person’s well-being through interpersonal comparisons of utility.
  • There is a kind of cosmic justice — or social welfare function — that is advanced by harming some persons for the benefit of other persons. That is, a benefit cancels a harm — at least when the benefit and harm are decided by liberals.
  • Taking wealth and income from those who have “too much” does not, on balance, harm those who have “too little” by dampening economic growth and voluntary charity. (That it does do those things is a point I will address in a later part of this series.)

(The first and second assumptions enable Joe to assert that “positive freedom entails negative freedom.” To Joe, there is one big “welfare pie” in sky, in which we all somehow share — despite the obvious fact that A is made worse off when some of his wealth or income is confiscated and given to B.)

5. Given the foregoing, liberals see it as necessary and desirable to redistribute wealth and income from persons who have “too much” to persons who have “too little” — or “too little” of the things that wealth and income can buy. Otherwise, those who have “too little” wealth or income (or the things they can buy) would enjoy only “theoretical” freedom. But the use of the word “theoretical” is a rhetorical trick, a bit of verbal sleight-of-hand. It implies, without proof, that anyone who does not enjoy a certain “minimal” state of health, wealth, etc. — as “minimal” is defined by a liberal — simply lacks the wherewithal to strive toward ends that he or she values. And that brings us back to point 1.

The liberal argument for redistribution, therefore, is really a circular argument intended to justify liberals’ particular sense of fitting outcomes. Liberalism is paternalism run rampant, with these implications and consequences:

  • Everyone is both a potential beneficiary of and contributor to positive freedom. Whether one becomes a beneficiary or contributor depends on liberals’ arbitrary and capricious criteria for deservingness.
  • Liberal control of the apparatus of the state therefore results in myriad abuses of state power in the name of “compassion” — cheap compassion paid for by taxpayers, to be sure.
  • On the whole and over the long run — the effect of liberalism is to harm rather than help its intended beneficiaries.

DOES REDISTRIBUTION WORK?

The redistribution of income (and thus of wealth) is an integral function of the regulatory-welfare state (i.e., big government). Redistribution not only harms those who are taxed for that purpose but it also does not lastingly help its intended beneficiaries. In fact, it works to their detriment in the long run.

Liberals are unable to grasp that reality because they, more than most Americans, suffer from economic ignorance. Because of economic ignorance, liberals are unable to grasp the subtle, corrosive effects of big government on those things that drive economic progress: invention, innovation, entrepreneurship, the saving that funds those activities, and the hard work that enables the rest.

We Americans are far better off materially than our antecedents of a century ago — but very few of us (especially liberals) understand how much better off we would in the absence of big government. In this post, for example, I assessed how much worse off Americans will be a generation hence because of big government. The bottom line (all GDP estimates are in year 2000 dollars):

  • Had the economy continued to grow after 1907 at the 1790-1907 rate, real GDP in 2006 would have been $32 trillion, vice the actual value of $11 trillion.
  • Thus my earlier work, linked above, vastly understates the deadweight loss owed to big government: I had estimated that loss at 40 percent of potential GDP; it was, in fact, about two-thirds of potential GDP.
  • Had the economy continued to grow after 1907 at the 1790-1907 rate, real GDP in 2035 (a generation hence) would be $108 trillion (in year 2000 dollars).
  • If the economy continues to grow at the 1970-2006 rate, real GDP in 2035 will be $30 trillion (in year 2000 dollars).
  • However, growth is very likely to be less than 3.1% annually, given the advent of a new New Deal-Great Society under a new, anti-business, pro-regulation Democrat regime.
  • Thus the average American will “enjoy” (at best) about 28 percent of the income that would be his absent the advent of the regulatory-welfare state.

In sum, redistribution does not work. As part of liberalism’s “package deal” (tax, regulate, spend, and elect) it harms those whom it is supposed to help by undermining economic growth and thus depriving Joe Miller’s “cold/sick/hungry/stupid/isolated” of jobs and (for those who simply cannot support themselves) vast amounts of voluntary charity.

THE ROOTS OF REDISTRIBUTION: CLASS WARFARE AND ARROGANCE

Liberals wage class warfare on behalf of the “cold/sick/hungry/stupid/isolated” and any “oppressed” or “disadvantaged” group (i.e., one that is not white, male, employed without benefit of affirmative action, law-abiding, and heterosexual). It is a wonder that Jews remain, for the most part, in the liberal camp, but that habitual tendency may arise from liberal guilt (see below).

Liberal politicians are abetted in their cause by the votes that they attract from those groups on whose behalf they wage class warfare. Liberals and their constituencies, for the most part, do not understand the undesirable economic consequences of redistribution. There are many, of course, who simply choose not to understand — choosing class warfare over reason.

It is strange that liberals can claim to believe in the benefits of intellectual liberty (the competition of ideas) but not in the benefits of economic liberty. Liberals’ token adherence to intellectual liberty often is hypocritical. (Consider campus speech codes, for example.) In any event:

  • Liberals prize talk (especially when it is their kind of talk). But talk is cheap. Economic achievement requires action, not talk. The liberal imagination cannot value that which it does not understand.
  • Rich liberals either don’t understand how they came to be rich (if they did so on their own) and/or they feel guilty about their wealth. They are therefore quite willing to infringe the autonomy of others (through taxation) in the service of their ignorance and their consciences.
  • Liberals, who claim to prize autonomy, are nevertheless quite willing to tell others how to lead their lives. Witness the decades of regulation and taxation imposed upon Americans by “compassionate” liberals.
  • Liberals are quite willing to decide precisely who is deserving of “compassion” and who is not. That is, they (and only they) are fit to decide where to draw the dividing lines between those who are “too cold/sick/hungry/stupid/isolated” and those who are not.

In other words, liberals are strong believers in positive rights and, therefore, dispensers of cosmic justice. It is liberals who empower the state to dictate the redistribution of income, even though redistribution is a violation of the very autonomy that liberals claim to value. Liberals are willing and ready to draw arbitrary lines between those who (in their view) deserve more income and those who deserve less of it. And liberals are more than willing and ready to use the power of the state to enforce their arbitrariness.

By the same token, liberals are unwilling to allow free institutions to determine who fares well and who fares poorly. And their unwillingness to do so undermines the ability of those free institutions to enable the “cold/sick/hungry/stupid/isolated” to better their lot by their own efforts, and to care for those who are unable to do so.

Some proponents of positive rights (e.g., Joe Miller) nevertheless defend their position by asserting that they are not drawing arbitrary lines between those who deserve more and those who deserve less. For it is possible (according to Joe, among others) to make valid interpersonal comparisons of utility (hereafter interpersonal utility comparisons, or IUCs). The implication is that the ability to make valid IUCs enables someone (them? bureaucrats? politicians?) to make valid judgments about how to redistribute income so as to foster the maximization of a social welfare function (SWF), that is, to exact cosmic justice. (Joe does not refer to the SWF, but there is no point in making IUCs unless it is for the purpose of increasing the value of the SWF.)

The validity of the SWF, then, depends on these assumptions:

  • It is possible to make interpersonal utility comparisons (IUCs), that is, to determine whether and when it hurts X less than it benefits Y when the state takes a dollar from X and gives it to Y.
  • Having done that, the seekers of cosmic justice are able to conclude that the Xs should be forced to give certain amounts of their income to the Ys.
  • Making the Xs worse off doesn’t, in the longer run, also make the Ys worse off than they would have been absent redistribution. (This critical assumption is flat wrong, as discussed above.)

All of this is arrogant moonshine. Yes, one may safely assume that Y will be made happier if you give him more money or the things that money can buy. So what? Almost everyone is happier with more money or the things it can buy. (I except the exceptional: monks and the like.) And those who don’t want the money or the things it can buy can make themselves happier by giving it away.

What one cannot know and can never measure is how much happier more money makes Y and how much less happy less money makes X. Some proponents of IUCs point to the possibility of measuring brain activity, as if such measurement could or should be made — and made in “real time” — and as if such measurements could somehow be quantified. We know that brains differ in systematic ways (as between men and women, for instance), and we know a lot about the ways in which they are different, but we do not know (and cannot know) precisely how much happier or less happy a person is made — or would be made — by a change in his income or wealth. Happiness is a feeling. It varies from person to person, and for a particular person it varies from moment to moment and day to day, even for a given stimulus. (For more about the impossibility of making IUCs, see these posts by Glen Whitman of Agoraphilia. For more about measuring happiness, see these posts by Arnold Kling of EconLog.)

One answer to such objections is that an individual’s utility must diminish at the margin. (After all, diminishing marginal utility, DMU, is a key postulate of microeconomic theory.) Therefore, the Xs of the world must be “sated” by having “so much” money, whereas the Ys remain relatively “unsated.”

If that were true, why would Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, and partners in Wall Street investment banks (not to mention most of you who are reading this) seek to make more money and amass more wealth? Perhaps the likes of Gates and Buffet do so because they want to engage in philanthropy on a grand scale. But their happiness is being served by making others happy through philanthropy; the wealthier they are, the happier they can make others and themselves.*

Most of us, I suspect, simply become happier as we accrue wealth because. But how much wealth is “enough” for one person? I cannot answer that question for you; you cannot answer it for me. (I may have a DMU for automobiles, cashew nuts, and movies, but not for wealth, in and of itself.) And that’s the bottom line: However much we humans may have in common, each of is happy (or unhappy) in his own way and for his own peculiar reasons.

In any event, even if individual utilities (states of happiness) could be measured, there is no such thing as the social welfare function: X’s and Y’s utilities are not interchangeable. Taking income from X makes X less happy. Giving some of X’s income to Y may make Y happier (in the short run), but it does not make X happier. It is the height of arrogance for anyone — liberal, fascist, communist, or whatever — to assert that making X less happy is worth it if it makes Y happier.

CONCLUSION

There is a liberal urge to exact cosmic justice through positive rights — primarily redistribution in various forms. But redistribution harms those whom it is intended to help because it curtails economic growth and discourages work.

The urge to exact cosmic justice arises from arrogance, that is, from a penchant for dictating economic outcomes (and social relationships) that cannot be justified by pseudo-scientific appeals to interpersonal utility comparisons or the social welfare function.

If there is anything unjust or unfair in this world, it is the effort to exact cosmic justice. Robert Nozick put it this way in Anarchy, State, and Utopia:

We are not in the position of children who have been given portions of pie by someone who now makes last-minute adjustments to rectify careless cutting. There is no central distribution, no person or group entitled to control all the resources, jointly deciding how they are to be doled out. What each person gets, he gets from others who give to him in exchange for something, or as a gift. In a free society, diverse persons control different resources, and new holdings arise out of the voluntary exchanges and actions of persons. (Quoted by Gregory Mankiw in “Fair Taxes? Depends on What You Mean by Fair,” The New York Times, July 15, 2007.)

On Liberty

This inaugural post is in two parts: “What Liberty Is Not” and “What Liberty Is.” This post is a springboard for future posts, which will explore politics, economics, and their interplay from a libertarian-conservative perspective.

WHAT LIBERTY IS NOT

Who can doubt that many people have forgotten, for very obvious reasons, Mill’s qualifications of personal sovereignty, namely that it applies to conduct that “merely concerns himself”?

Theodore Dalrymple, In Praise of Prejudice:
The Necessity of Preconceived Ideas

Liberty is not license, as the saying goes, for what should be an obvious reason: Unrestrained behavior is bound, at some point, to intrude on those who do not wish to partake of it, or its consequences. The intrusion may be direct, as in the case of a wild party that devolves into a brawl and thence to the destruction of property. Or the intrusion may be indirect, as in the gradual weakening of social norms that had contained (if not stifled) licentious behavior and, therefore, its consequences.

Nor is liberty found in anarchy, which is an open invitation to thuggery. This is true even in free-market anarchism, a Utopian scheme in which the state is replaced by private institutions offering police protection, justice, and other defense services. There is nothing in free-market anarchism to prevent contractual bargains of the vilest sort: murder by the low bidder, for example. Who could stand in the way of such a contract and its execution if the parties to it can summon more force than any objector?

John Stuart Mill, in On Liberty (1869), preaches neither license nor anarchy, or so it seems. He offers a deceptively benign description of liberty:

It comprises, first, the inward domain of consciousness; demanding liberty of conscience, in the most comprehensive sense; liberty of thought and feeling; absolute freedom of opinion and sentiment on all subjects, practical or speculative, scientific, moral, or theological. The liberty of expressing and publishing opinions may seem to fall under a different principle, since it belongs to that part of the conduct of an individual which concerns other people; but, being almost of as much importance as the liberty of thought itself, and resting in great part on the same reasons, is practically inseparable from it. Secondly, the principle requires liberty of tastes and pursuits; of framing the plan of our life to suit our own character; of doing as we like, subject to such consequences as may follow: without impediment from our fellow-creatures, so long as what we do does not harm them, even though they should think our conduct foolish, perverse, or wrong. Thirdly, from this liberty of each individual, follows the liberty, within the same limits, of combination among individuals; freedom to unite, for any purpose not involving harm to others: the persons combining being supposed to be of full age, and not forced or deceived.[1]

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

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

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

Libertarians and liberals, even those who claim to reject license and anarchy, embrace the harm principle, for all of its simple-mindedness. Theodore Dalrymple writes:

It has long been an objection to Mill that, except for the anchorite in the Syrian desert who subsists on honey and locusts, no man is an island (and even an anchorite may have a mother who is disappointed by her son’s choice of career); and therefore that the smallest of his acts may have some impact or consequences for others. If one amends the [harm] principle to take that part of a man’s conduct that concerns principally himself, rather than only himself, one will be left with endless and insoluble disputes as to which part of his conduct that is….

But, as the great historian Lord Acton said, “Ideas have a radiation and development, an ancestry and posterity of their own, in which men play the part of godfathers and godmothers more than that of legitimate parents.” Who can doubt that many people have forgotten, for very obvious reasons, Mill’s qualifications of personal sovereignty, namely that it applies to conduct that “merely concerns himself”?[4]

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

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

Thus Mill rejects the enforcement of social norms, “except [in] a few of the most obvious cases,”[6] by either the state or “society.” Lest anyone mistake Mill’s position, he expands on it a few paragraphs later:

These are good reasons for remonstrating with [a person who acts contrary to social custom], or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil [including social censure] in case he do otherwise. To justify that, the conduct from which it is desired to deter him, must be calculated to produce evil to some one else. The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.[7]

In Mill’s usage, “calculated” means “intended.”[8] By that logic, which is implicit throughout On Liberty, an individual is except in “a few of the most obvious cases” a law unto himself, and may do as he pleases as long as he believes (or claims to believe) that his conduct is not harmful to others.

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

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

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

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

WHAT LIBERTY IS

A man at liberty is a person neither in chains, under confinement, nor intimidated like a slave by the fear of punishment…. [T]o consider inability of soaring to the clouds like the eagle, of living under the water like the whale, of making ourselves king or pope, as a want of liberty, would be ridiculous.

Claude Adrien Helvétius, Essays on the Mind and Its Several Faculties

License and anarchy, even in John Stuart Mill’s deceptive packaging of them, are antithetical to liberty. For it is the general observance of social norms that enables a people to enjoy liberty, which is:

peaceful, willing coexistence and its concomitant: beneficially cooperative behavior

That, simply stated, is liberty or something as close to it as can be found on Earth. It encompasses the Founders’ three desiderata “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” thusly:

Liberty is impossible without life, or where one lives in constant fear of one’s life.

Liberty therefore requires peaceful coexistence with one’s fellows, even if it must be ensured by force of arms.

Liberty is meaningless unless all are able to pursue happiness, that is, to cooperate (as they will) in mutually beneficial undertakings.

True liberty must be “ordered liberty,” in that it cannot arise from license or anarchy, as prescribed by Mill or his more radical progeny (e.g. Murray Rothbard). Nor can liberty arise from modern liberalism, which has been diagnosed, quite rightly, as a superficially benign kind of fascism.[10]

Mill’s prescription for the attainment of liberty the harm principle focuses on what the individual may do. Anarchists and Objectivists seize on Mill’s prescription because they are preoccupied with individualism, as opposed to liberty, a concept they invoke ritually without understanding it. Liberals pay lip service to Mill’s prescription because it seems to justify unfettered pursuit of their personal preferences (whatever those might be). Liberals then demonstrate their lack of principle by contradictorily and unabashedly using the state to impose their preferences on others, especially for the adolescent thrill of subverting social norms. (I include big-government and national-greatness “conservatives” in that indictment; they are nothing but liberals with a different agenda.)

A valid prescription for the attainment of liberty focuses on what liberty is, and the proper role of the state in securing it. Liberty, as I describe it, requires four things:

  • the general observance of social norms and, accordingly, their enforcement through social censure;
  • an accountable, minimal state, dedicated to the protection of its citizens;
  • voice, the opportunity for dissent from social norms and laws (though not the right to have one’s dissent honored); and
  • exit, the right to leave one’s neighborhood, city, State, or country without prejudice.

I will have more to say about those four points in future posts. Here, I will say a bit more about the role of the state, which is important to the effectiveness of my prescription for liberty The state’s proper role is negative, in the main. The state may not:

  • tax citizens more than is necessary to protect them from enemies, foreign and domestic;[11]
  • enable predatory or parasitic behavior among the populace;[12]

  • compel anyone to observe social norms, except those that the state enforces for the protection of all citizens;
  • interfere in the voluntary evolution or operation of social norms, except as those might impinge on voice or exit;
  • bar exit or impose a cost on it, except as necessary to execute justice and defend the nation; or
  • consistently overstep its rightful authority.

Consistent violation of rightful authority exposes the state to overthrow by political action or rebellion, as necessary.

If that prescription seems familiar, it is because of its provenance in the Declaration of Independence and United States Constitution.

It is true that the power of the state is prone to abuse. And the state must sometimes act against the preferences of some citizens (even a majority of them), for not everyone can agree at all times about the proper and necessary scope of state action in matters of justice and defense. But the state is a necessary bulwark against anarchy. The relevant issue is not whether to empower a state but how much power to give it and how to contain that power.

Reflexive opposition to the idea of the state is not libertarian; it is Utopian. The issue is not whether to have a state, but how to harness it in the service of liberty.


[1] On Liberty (1869), Chapter I, paragraph 12. (All citations of On Liberty refer to the version at Bartleby.com: http://www.bartelby.com/130/index.html.)

[2] On Liberty (1869), Chapter I, paragraph 9.

[3] As I show below, I am not misreading the quoted passage.

[4] In Praise of Prejudice: The Necessity of Preconceived Ideas (2007), pp. 44-5.

[5] On Liberty, Chapter I, paragraph 5. See also Chapter IV: On the Limits to the Authority of Society over the Individual, paragraph 3.

[6] On Liberty. Chapter I, paragraph 6.

[7] On Liberty, Chapter I, paragraph 9.

[8] See, for example, Mill’s use of “calculated” in Chapter IV, paragraph 19.

[9] In Praise of Prejudice, pp. 57-8.

[10] See, for example, Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism (2007).

[11] This allows a few (and only a few) positive acts on the part of the state: the maintenance and use of national-defense forces, the administration of justice through police and courts.

[12] There are predators other than murderers, thieves, etc. There are, for example, those who would use the coercive power of the state (e.g., legal bans on smoking in private establishments, licensing laws) to deny liberty to others, sometimes on behalf of parasites. Parasites benefit from coercive power state power, and depend on it instead of depending on their own efforts. Parasites, who can be classes of individuals or corporations, benefit from such things as affirmative action, income redistribution and regulatory protection from competitors.

[13] Voice does not include such acts as subornation, incitation, or treason, which undermine defense and justice. And no one, not even members of the press, should be shielded from prosecution for such acts.