libertarianism

Libertarianism and the State

The version of libertarianism that I address here is minarchism: the belief that the state — whether necessary or inevitable — is legitimate only if its functions are limited to the defense of its citizens from foreign and domestic predators. Anarchism — an extreme form of libertarianism — is a pipe dream, for reasons I detail in several posts; e.g., here.

Under minarchism, the order that is necessary to liberty — peaceful, willing coexistence and its concomitant: beneficially cooperative behavior — is fostered by the institutions of civil society: family, church, club, and the like. Those institutions inculcate morality and enforce it through “social pressure.” The state (ideally) deals only with those persons who violate fundamental canons of behavior toward other persons (e.g., the last six of the Ten Commandments), and also defends the populace from foreign enemies.

Though America is a long way from minarchism, something like it was possible under the Articles of Confederation and in the early decades under the Constitution, when the central government was relatively unobtrusive and most legal constraints on human action were levied by State and local governments. In those conditions, Americans could rid themselves of unwanted social and legal strictures by leaving one State for another or venturing into the relatively ungoverned frontier territories.

Having defined libertarianism (for the purpose of this post), I will now state the surprising conclusion to which I have come: Its adherents are unwitting statists.

Obviously, you will expect — and get — an explanation of that startling statement. I’ll begin with the central tenet of mainstream libertarianism: Individual persons may not be coerced by anyone — state or society — except as their actions may cause harm to others.

That seems like a reasonable position, until you ask what “harm” means. Here’s the author of the harm principle, John Stuart Mill:

[N]either one person, nor any number of persons, is warranted in saying to another human creature of ripe years, that he shall not do with his life for his own benefit what he chooses to do with it. He is the person most interested in his own well-being: the interest which any other person, except in cases of strong personal attachment, can have in it, is trifling, compared with that which he himself has; the interest which society has in him individually (except as to his conduct to others) is fractional, and altogether indirect: while, with respect to his own feelings and circumstances, the most ordinary man or woman has means of knowledge immeasurably surpassing those that can be possessed by any one else. The interference of society to overrule his judgment and purposes in what only regards himself, must be grounded on general presumptions; which may be altogether wrong, and even if right, are as likely as not to be misapplied to individual cases, by persons no better acquainted with the circumstances of such cases than those are who look at them merely from without. In this department, therefore, of human affairs, Individuality has its proper field of action. In the conduct of human beings towards one another, it is necessary that general rules should for the most part be observed, in order that people may know what they have to expect; but in each person’s own concerns, his individual spontaneity is entitled to free exercise….

I fully admit that the mischief which a person does to himself may seriously affect, both through their sympathies and their interests, those nearly connected with him, and in a minor degree, society at large…. No person ought to be punished simply for being drunk; but a soldier or a policeman should be punished for being drunk on duty. Whenever, in short, there is a definite damage, or a definite risk of damage, either to an individual or to the public, the case is taken out of the province of liberty, and placed in that of morality or law.

But with regard to the merely contingent, or, as it may be called, constructive injury which a person causes to society, by conduct which neither violates any specific duty to the public, nor occasions perceptible hurt to any assignable individual except himself; the inconvenience is one which society can afford to bear, for the sake of the greater good of human freedom…. (On Liberty, Chapter IV)

To begin at the end of the quotation, Mill arbitrarily places a higher value on freedom, as an abstract ideal, than he does on the harms that can occur in its name. This kind of mindless devotion to the abstract ideal of freedom, without regard for costs or consequences, is common among libertarians. But freedom means nothing if it can’t be described without reference to the real-world conditions of human existence. To appeal to freedom as an abstract desideratum — superior to whatever alternative is being rejected in its name — is to commit the fallacy of misplaced concreteness and, simultaneously, the nirvana fallacy. Freedom, as philosopher Jamie Whyte would say, is a “hooray word”: “Declare you are in favor of” freedom “and everyone will cheer his agreement, even if he disagrees with you in every particular question of what” freedom means (Bad Thoughts, p. 61).

What about the harms that Mill (and his followers unto this day) dismiss as “neither violat[ing] any specific duty … nor occasion[ing] perceptible hurt to any assignable individual except himself”? Who is fit to make the judgment as to whether a particular action constitutes a “hurt,” the members of the society whose norms have been violated or “rational” observers, like Mill? Society — properly understood — is a tightly woven fabric, individual strands of which can’t be plucked without damaging the whole. Rationalists and “reformers” tend to focus on the parts of society that they want to change, without considering the effects of change on the well-being of society. (I will come to a salient example, below.)

Friedrich Hayek sees through Mill’s rationalism:

[T]rue individualism … began its modern development with John Locke, and particularly with Bernard Mandeville and David Hume, and achieved full stature for the first time in the work of Josiah Tucker, Adam Ferguson, and Adam Smith and in that of their great contemporary, Edmund Burke–the man whom Smith described as the only person he ever knew who thought on economic subjects exactly as he did without any previous communication having passed between them. In the nineteenth century I find it represented most perfectly in the work of two of its greatest historians and political philosophers: Alexis de Tocqueville and Lord Acton…. [T]he classical economists of the nineteenth century, or at least the Benthamites or philosophical radicals among them, came increasingly under the influence of another kind of individualism of different origin.

This second and altogether different strand of thought, also known as individualism, is represented mainly by French and other Continental writers–a fact due, I believe, to the dominant role which Cartesian rationalism plays in its composition…. [T]his rationalistic individualism always tends to develop into the opposite of individualism, namely, socialism or collectivism. It is because only the first kind of individualism is consistent that I claim for it the name of true individualism, while the second kind must probably be regarded as a source of modern socialism as important as the properly collectivist theories….

What, then, are the essential characteristics of true individualism? The first thing that should be said is that it is primarily a theory of society, an attempt to understand the forces which determine the social life of man, and only in the second instance a set of political maxims derived from this view of society. This fact should by itself be sufficient to refute the silliest of the common misunderstandings: the belief that individualism postulates (or bases its arguments on the assumption of) the existence of isolated or self-contained individuals, instead of starting from men whose whole nature and character is determined by their existence in society. If that were true, it would indeed have nothing to contribute to our understanding of society. But its basic contention is quite a different one; it is that there is no other way toward an understanding of social phenomena but through our understanding of individual actions directed toward other people and guided by their expected behavior. This argument is directed primarily against the properly collectivist theories of society which pretend to be able directly to comprehend social wholes like society, etc., as entities sui generis which exist independently of the individuals which compose them….

Quite as important for the functioning of an individualist society … are the traditions and conventions which evolve in a free society and which, without being enforceable, establish flexible but normally observed rules that make the behavior of other people predictable in a high degree. The willingness to submit to such rules, not merely so long as one understands the reason for them but so long as one has no definite reasons to the contrary, is an essential condition for the gradual evolution and improvement of rules of social intercourse… That the existence of common conventions and traditions among a group of people will enable them to work together smoothly and efficiently with much less formal organization and compulsion than a group without such common background, is, of course, a commonplace….

This brings me to … the necessity, in any complex society in which the effects of anyone’s action reach far beyond his possible range of vision, of the individual submitting to the anonymous and seemingly irrational forces of society–a submission which must include not only the acceptance of rules of behavior as valid without examining what depends in the particular instance on their being observed but also a readiness to adjust himself to changes which may profoundly affect his fortunes and opportunities and the causes of which may be altogether unintelligible to him. It is against these that modern man tends to revolt unless their necessity can be shown to rest upon “reason made clear and demonstrable to every individual.”

Yet it is just here that the understandable craving for intelligibility produces illusory demands which no system can satisfy….

The unwillingness to tolerate or respect any social forces which are not recognizable as the product of intelligent design, which is so important a cause of the present desire for comprehensive economic planning, is indeed only one aspect of a more general movement…. The belief that only a synthetic system of morals, an artificial language, or even an artificial society can be justified in an age of science, as well as the increasing unwillingness to bow before any moral rules whose utility is not rationally demonstrated, or to conform with conventions whose rationale is not known, are all manifestations of the same basic view which wants all social activity to be recognizably part of a single coherent plan… They are the results of that same rationalistic “individualism” which wants to see in everything the product of conscious individual reason. They are certainly not, however, a result of true individualism and may even make the working of a free and truly individualistic system difficult or impossible….

This cult of the distinct and different individuality has, of course, deep roots in the German intellectual tradition and, through the influence of some of its greatest exponents, especially Goethe and Wilhelm von Humboldt, has made itself felt far beyond Germany and is clearly seen in J. S. Mill’s [On] Liberty. This sort of “individualism” not only has nothing to do with true individualism but may indeed prove a grave obstacle to the smooth working of an individualist system…. [I]f people are too “individualistic” in the false sense, if they are too unwilling voluntarily to conform to traditions and conventions, and if they refuse to recognize anything which is not consciously designed or which cannot be demonstrated as rational to every individual. It is at least understandable that the prevalence of this kind of “individualism” has often made people of good will despair of the possibility of achieving order in a free society and even made them ask for a- dictatorial government with the power to impose on society the order which it will not produce itself. (Individualism and Economic Order, Chapter I)

Consider Mill’s defense of the drunkard. Mill speaks of “punishment” as if that were the only alternative, and he sets up dereliction of duty as the only kind of act stemming from drunkenness that ought to be punished. But an habitual drunk does great damage to those around him, by failing to provide properly for his wife and children, by performing his job to less than his ability, by causing accidents that can harm others as well as himself, and so on. When there was such a thing as society — before it was constructively eradicated by the state’s usurpation and suppression of traditional functions of civil society (e.g., education, charity, religious expression) — a drunkard would have been an object of scorn and opprobrium. Whether or not a particular drunkard would have changed his ways because of scorn and opprobrium, observant fellows would have seen in his treatment an object lesson.

In any event, social justice of the true kind — the reaction of society to those who offend against its norms — serves a civilizing function that the state simply cannot duplicate. The state is a rule-bound, reactive institution, unlike the kind of living institution that is found in true society: an enduring and cooperating social group whose members have developed organized patterns of relationships through interaction with one another.

This brings me to the example that I promised earlier: abortion. At the time of the founding of the United States, abortion was widely prohibited under common law. Statutory prohibitions followed throughout the 19th century. Before Roe v. Wade (1973), only four States allowed abortions without restrictions; 16 States allowed abortions in cases of rape, incest, danger to the mother’s health, or fetal damage; abortion was simply not allowed in the other 30 States. The prevailing restrictions are consistent with the historical condemnation of abortion (at some stage of fetal development) by most religions. (It is irrelevant to this discussion that some faiths and denominations have, in the years since Roe v. Wade, changed their dogmas in an attempt to be “relevant.”)

In sum, the widespread proscription of abortion in the United States enjoyed broad and deep support for almost two centuries. One could reasonably call condemnation of abortion a social norm. Special pleading in favor of abortion, which led to the pro-abortion ruling in Roe v. Wade, contributed greatly to the division of America that runs along the fault lines of the culture war and the proper role of government.

Did the social engineers who foisted legalized abortion on America mean to weaken the already strained bonds of trust among Americans? Probably not, but neither is it likely that they gave the prospect of social division much thought, or if they did they probably didn’t care about it. (I have no doubt about the equally reckless and insouciant attitudes of the social engineers who put the full force of law behind reverse racism, and who are now trying to do the same for homosexual “marriage.”)

This is what happens when social norms are overturned by do-gooders. Which brings me to the do-gooders who call themselves libertarians. They claim to be against the intrusion of the state into social arrangements — except when those social arrangements don’t suit them. They are the false individualists of whom Hayek writes.

The widespread prohibition of abortion, by law, reflected a deep-seated social norm. The desire of most whites to avoid forced association with blacks reflected (and reflects) valid observations about differences in culture, behavior, and intelligence. The desire of most heterosexuals to preserve the traditional definition of marriage reflected (and still reflects) their rightful abhorrence of a perverse “lifestyle” and visceral understanding that redefining marriage will weaken it, and thus weaken its civilizing influence. But such truths matter not to a false individualist, who cannot see the forest of society for the trees of their individual whims.

And so, when a libertarian (really a pseudo-libertarian) wants to enact his particular anti-social social agenda, where does he turn? He turns to the state and implores it to intervene in social matters, without thinking of or caring about the consequences. Because the (psuedo) libertarian — like Mill — is bedazzled by “freedom” from social restraints. In that respect, it’s hard to tell a (pseudo) libertarian from a “liberal; both want to strike down social restraints that they dislike, in favor of state-imposed restraints that are to their liking.

Thus do (pseudo) libertarians (and “liberal”) shred the bonds of trust that enable a people to live in liberty, which is not the same thing as “freedom” from social restraints. As Hayek puts it:

[T]he existence of common conventions and traditions among a group of people … enable them to work together smoothly and efficiently with much less formal organization and compulsion than a group without such common background.

Or, as I have said, liberty is a state of peaceful, willing coexistence and its concomitant: beneficially cooperative behavior. Such a state is unattainable where the “conventions and traditions” that underlie mutual trust are demolished willy-nilly in the name of “freedom.”

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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!

Left-Libertarianism in a Nutshell

If I have a least-favorite political philosophy, it is the one that I call left-minarchism (a.k.a., left-libertarianism). I say a lot about it in “Parsing Political Philosophy (II).” In a nutshell, here’s how it stacks up against right-minarchism (libertarian conservatism) and left-statism (the reigning philosophy in the United States):

Left-minarchism in a nutshell

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Related post: The Pseudo-Libertarian Temperament (see also the links at the bottom)

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)

The Pseudo-Libertarian Temperament

Todd Zywicki at The Volokh Conspiracy discusses Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion:

So what’s Haidt’s argument? His basic idea is twofold. First, that people do not rationally choose their ideologies. You do not come into the political arena as a blank slate and then just examine all the moral and consequential arguments for different policies and pick the one that is most “correct.” Instead, you come into the political arena with subconscious, largely unexamined psychological beliefs….

The second part of Haidt’s argument is that once you have subconsciously chosen your ideology (you don’t rationally choose what the important factors are) you also do not rationally and objectively weigh the evidence as to whether your ideological views are “correct.” Instead, people tend to subconsciously sift the information that they take in: you tend to overvalue evidence that supports your predispositions and dismiss evidence that is inconsistent with it. As a result, “evidence” becomes self-justifying.

My decades-long migration from knee-jerk liberalism to doctrinaire libertarianism to a libertarian brand of conservatism certainly reflects the “inner me,” the son of socially conservative, Midwestern parents. It also reflects the maturity that comes with age, marriage, parenthood, home ownership, financial responsibility, and jobs that didn’t shelter me from the realities of human nature.

The migration from doctrinaire libertarian to libertarian-conservative took place in the last decade, that is, since I began blogging in 2004. Why did my political world-view shift at so late an age? Because I came to realize, without the benefit of familiarity with Haidt’s work, that one’s political views tend to be driven by one’s temperament. That struck me as an irrational way of choosing a political stance, so — despite my own “libertarian” temperament — I came around to a libertarian brand of conservatism, one that I have sometimes called Burkean-Hayekian libertarianism (or conservatism).

The typical “libertarian” — the kind of pseudo-libertarian that I refuse to be — is stridently against religion, for “open” borders, for same-sex “marriage,” for abortion, and against war (except possibly when, too late, he sees the whites of his enemy’s eyes). Mutually beneficial coexistence based on trust and respect deriving from the common observance of traditional, voluntarily evolved social norms? Are you kidding? Only “libertarians” know how their inferiors (the “masses”) should live their lives, and they don’t blink at the use of state power to make it so. How “liberal” of them.

What temperament is typical of the pseudo-libertarian? Here’s Zywicki again:

Haidt finds that [pseudo] libertarians place a much higher emphasis on rationality and logical reasoning than do other ideologies. But that doesn’t mean that [pseudo] libertarian beliefs are less-motivated by unexamined psychological predispositions than other ideologies. Again, take the idea that [pseudo] libertarians believe that “consistency” is a relevant variable for measuring the moral worth or persuasiveness of an ideology. But that is not a self-justifying claim: one still must ask why “consistency” maters or should matter. So while [pseudo] libertarians may place a higher stated value on rational argumentation, that does not mean that [pseudo] libertarian premises are any less built upon subjective psychological foundations.

Zywicki links to an article by Haidt and others, “Understanding Libertarian Morality: The Psychological Dispositions of Self-Identified Libertarians” (PLoS ONE 7(8): e42366. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0042366), which arrives at this diagnosis of the pseudo-libertarian condition:

[They] have a unique moral-psychological profile, endorsing the principle of liberty as an end and devaluing many of the moral concerns typically endorsed by liberals or conservatives. Although causal conclusions remain beyond our current reach, our findings indicate a robust relationship between [pseudo] libertarian morality, a dispositional lack of emotionality, and a preference for weaker, less-binding social relationships [emphasis added].

That’s an uncomfortable but accurate description of my temperamental leanings, which reflect my almost-off-the-chart introversion. As the old saying goes, it takes one to know one. Thus, as I have written,

[p]seudo-libertarian rationalists seem to believe that social bonding is irrelevant to cooperative, mutually beneficial behavior; life, to them, is an economic arrangement.

Elsewhere:

[They] 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….

And here:

Pseudo-libertarianism …. posits a sterile, abstract standard of conduct — one that has nothing to do with the workaday world of humanity….

That is not libertarianism. It is sophomoric dream-spinning.

Finally:

[P]seudo-libertarianism [is a] contrivance[], based … on … an unrealistic, anti-social view of humans as arms-length negotiators…. Pseudo-libertarianism can be dismissed as nothing more than a pipe-dream….

To the doctrinaire pseudo-libertarian, a perfect world would be full of cold-blooded rationalists. Well, perfect until he actually had to live in such a world.

*     *     *

Related posts:
On Liberty
Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and the Legitimate State
The Unreality of Objectivism
“Natural Rights” and Consequentialism
More about Consequentialism
Line-Drawing and Liberty
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 about Conservative GovernanceWhy I Am Not an Extreme Libertarian
Facets of Liberty
Burkean Libertarianism
Understanding Hayek
Rights: Source, Applicability, How Held
What Is Libertarianism?
True Libertarianism, One More Time
Human Nature, Liberty, and Rationalism
Libertarianism and Morality
Libertarianism and Morality: A Footnote
Society and the State
Why Conservatism Works
Not Guilty of Libertarian Purism
Liberty and Society
The Eclipse of “Old America”
Genetic Kinship and Society
Liberty as a Social Construct: Moral Relativism?
Defending Liberty against (Pseudo) Libertarians
Defining Liberty
Conservatism as Right-Minarchism
“We the People” and Big Government
The Social Animal and the “Social Contract”
The Futile Search for “Natural Rights”

Not-So-Random Thoughts (IX)

Demystifying Science

In a post with that title, I wrote:

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

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

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

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

Tell me again about anthropogenic global warming.

The “Little Ice Age” Redux?

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

George Will does. As do I.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Madison’s Fatal Error

Timothy Gordon writes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Libertarian Statism

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

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

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

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

*     *     *

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

Getting It Almost Right

Philosopher Matt Zwolinski writes:

…Libertarians do not deny the importance of community any more than they deny the importance of moral virtue. What they deny is the necessity or appropriateness of centralized state coercion in bringing about either.

The libertarian vision of a society is one of free and responsible individuals, cooperating on their own terms for purposes of mutual benefit. It is a vision that draws its support from a wide variety of moral and empirical beliefs with deep roots in the public political culture. And it is one that contemporary critics of the market would do well to take much more seriously.

Here’s the rub: Zwolinkski seems to assume that just any old moral beliefs will support a “society … of free and responsible, individuals, cooperating on their own terms for purposes of mutual benefit.” But there are moral beliefs that do not support such a society. Where do we find such beliefs? Right here in the U.S. of A., among many places.

There are whole cultures that foment disrespect for and violence toward others, even fellow adherents of the culture. There are whole cultures that disparage responsibility and tear down those who venture to practice it. And instead of acting to diminish the influence of those cultures, the government of the United States, abetted by its leftist adjuncts, has sheltered them from criticism and, instead, turned against the nominally dominant culture that fosters responsibility, respect, and civility.

A while ago, I listed some criteria for a moral code that supports liberty. The list follows, with comments added in boldface:

1. A code must be socially evolved, not imposed by the state. (Though the state may enforce a moral code that reflects social norms.) Norms in the U.S. have been subverted by state sponsorship of easy divorce, abortion, illegitimacy, and pornography — to name some.

2. A code that fosters beneficent behavior must conform to the Ten Commandments, or to the last six of them, at least. See #1.

3. Those who dissent from the code must be able to voice their dissent; otherwise, the code ceases to be socially evolved…. The voices of dissent have been muffled by campus speech codes and dominant left wing of the media. Dissent is characterized as “extremist” and “loony.” Leading politicians are cheerleaders for the stifling of dissent, and have succeeded in penalizing many who think “wrong” thoughts (“hate” crimes) and too openly express their opposition to state-sponsored social change (prosecutions under the “equal rights” mantra).

4. Those who cannot abide the code must be able to exit society’s jurisdiction, without penalty. See #7.

There is more, if a society is part of a larger polity.

5. That polity is illegitimate if it overrides the otherwise legitimate moral codes of its constituent societies. See #3.

6. That polity is illegitimate if it honors inimical moral codes, either overtly or by making acts of obeisance to them…. See #3.

7. That polity is illegitimate if, in overriding those moral codes, it effectively negates voice and exit. (This has happened in America, where we are hostages in our own land.) See this post for more.

Zwolinski admits that libertarianism, as envisioned by most libertarians, is a hollow shell. What he fails to admit is that the hollow shell can be filled with moral precepts — both evolved and state-imposed — that suppress liberty. One need not look beyond these shores to find such suppression.

*     *     *

Related posts:
Refuting Rousseau and His Progeny
Libertarianism, Marriage, and the True Meaning of Family Values
The Consequences of Roe v. Wade
The Old Eugenics in a New Guise
The Left, Abortion, and Adolescence
Moral Luck
Consider the Children
Same-Sex Marriage
“Equal Protection” and Homosexual Marriage
Law, Liberty, and Abortion
Equal Time: The Sequel
Marriage and Children
Abortion and the Slippery Slope
More on Abortion and Crime
Peter Singer’s Agenda
Parenting, Religion, Culture, and Liberty
Singer Said It
A “Person” or a “Life”?
A Wrong-Headed Take on Abortion
Crime, Explained
“Family Values,” Liberty, and the State
Intellectuals and Capitalism
Civil Society and Homosexual “Marriage”
Rawls Meets Bentham
The Left
Perry v. Schwarzenegger, Due Process, and Equal Protection
Rationalism, Social Norms, and Same-Sex “Marriage”
“Intellectuals and Society”: A Review
Our Enemy, the State
Pseudo-Libertarian Sophistry vs. True Libertarianism
The Left’s Agenda
More Pseudo-Libertarianism
More about Conservative Governance
The Meaning of Liberty
Positive Liberty vs. Liberty
On Self-Ownership and Desert
In Defense of Marriage
The Left and Its Delusions
Burkean Libertarianism
Crimes against Humanity
Abortion and Logic
True Libertarianism, One More Time
Human Nature, Liberty, and Rationalism
Utilitarianism and Psychopathy
The Myth That Same-Sex “Marriage” Causes No Harm
The Spoiled Children of Capitalism
Politics, Sophistry, and the Academy
Subsidizing the Enemies of Liberty
Libertarianism and Morality
Libertarianism and Morality: A Footnote
Society and the State
Are You in the Bubble?
Legislating Morality
Legislating Morality (II)
Abortion, Doublethink, and Left-Wing Blather
Abortion, “Gay Rights,” and Liberty
Race and Reason: The Achievement Gap — Causes and Implications
Liberty and Society
Tolerance on the Left
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
“We the People” and Big Government
The Culture War

Defining Liberty

When philosophers get together, you can be sure of one thing: A lot of words will be spilled to little or no effect. This proposition is amply demonstrated by a virtual symposium on “The System of Liberty” at The Online Library of Liberty.

Thousands of words leave the reader in search of a useful definition of liberty — any definition of it, for that matter. This is as good as it gets:

[I]n conventional English, the words “liberty” and “freedom” appear to be used to refer to variety of related but not identical things. My view is that “freedom” and “liberty” are not in the first instance philosophical concepts, unlike, say, “epistemic justification” or “social contract.” Instead, these are conventional concepts in natural language, though they are concepts that philosophers appropriately take great interest in. Thus, there is a default presumption that philosophers should yield to common usage when discussing what “liberty” really means….

In closing, I think there are three main questions about liberty:

1. What is it? …

There’s a lot of hooey about Hobbes and Locke, and so on, but it’s all to no avail.

Well, what is liberty? Bereft as I am of indoctrination in the mumbo-jumbo of philosophy, I am especially qualified to tell you. It is a social construct that cannot be defined by a priori philosophizing.

Thus:

liberty — “do what you want, constrained only by the harm to others” — is an empty concept unless it rests on a specific definition of harm. Why? Because harm is not a fixed thing — like the number 1 or your house — it is a vague concept that has meaning only when it refers to specific types of act, which then may be judged as harmful by some and unharmful by others. But until harm is defined and agreed through mutual consent (explicit or implicit), liberty lacks real meaning.

Therefore:

Liberty … is a social construct, without a fixed meaning. Further, harm is not a single thing; it is many things, each of which is socially defined. Each harm refers to a right; the right not to be killed without (specified) cause, for example. The collection of rights (anti-harms) defines the scope of liberty in a particular society. Liberty is therefore divisible, to some extent; that is, a person might enjoy most of his socially agreed rights, but not all of them, because of this action by government or that action by a compatriot or enemy. (It is wrong, however, to assume that one can divide rights between social and economic categories; what is called economic activity is nothing more than a particular aspect of social activity, and the denial of certain economic rights is also a denial of social rights.)

However, when I say that

liberty is a social construct …. is a realistic position, not a morally relativistic one. I am quite prepared to be judgmental of societies and polities. There is a “best” morality. It was widely practiced in Old America [see this]. Though it is still practiced in the remnants of Old America, it is vanishing from the United States, mainly because government has sundered social bonds and usurped the role of  society as the arbiter of morality. The government of the United States and the governments of most of its political subdivisions are illegitimate because their legal impositions are, for the most part, rooted in envy and power-lust — and not in Judeo-Christian morality.

I am in danger of philosophizing, so I’ll leave you with a specific definition of liberty:

peaceful, willing coexistence and its concomitant: beneficially cooperative behavior

To sum up:

The problem with [the usual definitions of liberty] should … be obvious. Those definitions focus on the individual, whereas the relevant definition of liberty is a social one. That is to say, one cannot address social justice and its connection to liberty unless liberty is viewed as a modus vivendi for a group of individuals. There is no such thing as the ability to do as one pleases — the dominant motif of [the usual definitions] — unless

  • one lives in complete isolation from others, or
  • one lives in the company of others who are of identical minds, or
  • one rules others.

The first condition is irrelevant to the matter of social justice. The second is implausible. The third takes the point of view of a dictator, and omits the point of view of his subjects.

If you prefer to read thousands of words, go here:
On Liberty
Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and the Legitimate State
What Is Conservatism?
Law and Liberty
Zones of Liberty
Society and the State
I Want My Country Back
The Golden Rule and the State
Government vs. Community
Evolution, Human Nature, and “Natural Rights”
More about Conservative Governance
The Meaning of Liberty
Evolution and the Golden Rule
Understanding Hayek
The Golden Rule as Beneficial Learning
Facets of Liberty
True Libertarianism, One More Time
Human Nature, Liberty, and Rationalism
Libertarianism and Morality
Libertarianism and Morality: A Footnote
Legislating Morality
Legislating Morality (II)
Why Conservatism Works
Reclaiming Liberty throughout the Land
Liberty and Society
The Eclipse of “Old America”
Genetic Kinship and Society

Enough with the Bleeding Hearts, Already

Regular readers will know of my disdain for the “bleeding heart” variety of so-called libertarianism. I not only find bleeding-heart libertarians (BHLs) to be unnecessarily apologetic about libertarianism, but also all too willing to impose their views about “social justice” through state action. (On the latter point, see my post “Bleeding Heart Libertarians = Left-Statists,” and this from a BHL who clearly advocates state action on utilitarian grounds.)

A recent post by Aaron Ross Powell at Libertarianism.org reminds me that not all useful “libertarian” idiots are housed at the Bleeding Heart Libertarians blog. Powell’s post, “Libertarian Caring,” makes some good points; for example, Powell ends the post with this:

Liberty does not come at the exclusion of all other concerns. Rather, liberty is the best way to maximize all other concerns. Yes there are libertarians who want nothing more than “to be left alone.” But that feeling doesn’t carry with it Haidt’s implied “and screw all the rest of you.” Instead, “left alone” means freed from officious government so we can better go about making the world a happier, healthier, richer, and more caring place.

Very well said, except that earlier in the post insists that his heart is in the right place not because he is a libertarian but because he “cares”; for example:

Of course libertarians value liberty. But a great many of us, myself included, value caring very highly too. In fact, the reason I shifted from being a progressive to a libertarian was not because my moral foundations changed but because I came to realize that genuine caring means making an effort to actually help people—and that government programs intended to help have a rather poor track record.

Which means that Powell does not value liberty, or thinks of it as a secondary value. In his heart he is still a “progressive” — just one who is looking for the best way to maximize the mythical social-welfare function. Powell is right about the fruits of liberty, but it seems that if he were convinced that liberty did not have beneficial consequences he would revert to statism.

I do not care why anyone is a libertarian, just as long as he is not a left-statist in libertarian clothing.

On that point I turn to David Henderson (with whom I sometimes disagree).  Henderson makes an excellent point in the video embedded here. Free markets (i.e., libertarian institutions) foster ethical behavior because producers compete by striving to do things that benefit consumers. The same is not true of governments and NGOs.

The teaching of ethical behavior is not to be scorned. But scoundrels will always be with us, in all walks of life. There is nothing about business that attracts or breeds a disproportionate number of scoundrels. In fact, I would say that politics and bureaucracies attract and breed more than their share of scoundrels. But even if that is not the case, the scoundrels who are drawn to  “public service” are less constrained in their behavior toward others than the scoundrels who are drawn to business.

Related posts:
On Liberty
Greed, Cosmic Justice, and Social Welfare
Positive Rights and Cosmic Justice
Fascism with a “Friendly” Face
Democracy and Liberty
The Interest-Group Paradox
Parsing Political Philosophy
Is Statism Inevitable?
Inventing “Liberalism”
What Is Conservatism?
Utilitarianism, “Liberalism,” and Omniscience
Utilitarianism vs. Liberty
Fascism and the Future of America
The Indivisibility of Economic and Social Liberty
Beware of Libertarian Paternalists
Law and Liberty
Negative Rights
Negative Rights, Social Norms, and the Constitution
Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and the Legitimate State
The Near-Victory of Communism
Tocqueville’s Prescience
The Mind of a Paternalist
Accountants of the Soul
Rawls Meets Bentham
Is Liberty Possible?
The Left
Line-Drawing and Liberty
The Divine Right of the Majority
Our Enemy, the State
Pseudo-Libertarian Sophistry vs. True Libertarianism
Positivism, “Natural Rights,” and Libertarianism
What Are “Natural Rights”?
The Golden Rule and the State
Libertarian Conservative or Conservative Libertarian?
Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: Part I
Bounded Liberty: A Thought Experiment
Evolution, Human Nature, and “Natural Rights”
More Pseudo-Libertarianism
More about Conservative Governance
The Meaning of Liberty
Positive Liberty vs. Liberty
On Self-Ownership and Desert
Understanding Hayek
The Golden Rule as Beneficial Learning
Facets of Liberty
Burkean Libertarianism
Rights: Source, Applicability, How Held
What Is Libertarianism?
Nature Is Unfair
True Libertarianism, One More Time
Human Nature, Liberty, and Rationalism
Utilitarianism and Psychopathy
“Occupy Wall Street” and Religion
A Declaration and Defense of My Prejudices about Governance
The Libertarian-Conservative Fusion Is Alive and Well
Libertarianism and Morality
Libertarianism and Morality: A Footnote
Merit Goods, Positive Rights, and Cosmic Justice
More about Merit Goods
What Is Bleeding-Heart Libertarianism?
The Morality of Occupying Private Property
In Defense of the 1%
Liberty, Negative Rights, and Bleeding Hearts
Conservatives vs. “Liberals”
Why Conservatism Works
The Pool of Liberty and “Me” Libertarianism
Bleeding Heart Libertarians = Left-Statists

The Pool of Liberty and “Me” Libertarianism

Ted Levy makes some excellent points in “Is the Pool of Liberty Drying Up?“:

…[A] few years ago [David Boaz, executive vice president of Cato Institute] made a well received but, I think, incomplete analysis of liberty….

Boaz’s thoughts were well articulated in a 2010 piece, found here on Reason.com: Up From Slavery: There’s No Such Thing As A Golden Age of Lost Liberty.

… Boaz notes Cato pamphlets used to include as the Institute’s raison d’être, “Since [the American] revolution, civil and economic liberties have been eroded.” And then, Boaz notes, a visiting Clarence Thomas, prior to his ascension to the Supreme Court, pointed out black people didn’t look at matters quite that way.

And not only black people, of course, though the awfulness of slavery is hard to trump. But the political liberties, or lack thereof, of Jews, gays, and women were also not proud applications of individual liberty in America’s past.

Then there’s Brink Lindsey’s argument, quoted by Boaz, from Lindsey’s The Age of Abundance (2007): Looking at liberty’s gains in the last half-century, Lindsey writes: “Compare conditions now to how they were at the outset of the 1960s. Official governmental discrimination against blacks no longer exists. Censorship has beaten a wholesale retreat. The rights of the accused enjoy much better protection. Abortion, birth control, interracial marriage, and gay sex are legal. Divorce laws have been liberalized and rape laws strengthened. Pervasive price and entry controls in the transportation, energy, communications, and financial sectors are gone. Top income tax rates have been slashed. The pretensions of macroeconomic fine-tuning have been abandoned. Barriers to international trade are much lower. Unionization of the private sector work force has collapsed. …cultural expression, personal lifestyle choices, entrepreneurship, and the play of market forces all now enjoy much wider freedom of maneuver.”

Lindsey’s is a hopeful message, and makes points similar to those made by Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch in their 2011 book The Declaration of Independents. Gillespie and Welch note that in all areas of life not touched by the mailed fist of government, things have improved dramatically in much less than a century. Save for the areas government controls–our educational system, our health care, our retirement plans–things are quite rosy.

But of course our educational system, health care, and retirement needs are not de minimis aspects of our lives…. The financial sector has undergone massive re-regulation since Lindsey wrote, and there is a resurgence of opposition to both international free trade and simple rules to limit the political power of public-sector unions. Finally, “the pretensions of macroeconomic fine tuning” have hardly, in the days of Obama, been “abandoned,” and Gingrich, Santorum, and Romney disagree only with Obama’s choices, not the principle of fine-tuning the economy from Washington.

…Things are better for blacks, for women, for a diverse and important subset of Americans. But this captures only part of the dynamic. We now, all of us, have our rights recognized equally. And we now, all of us, equally, have less rights than some of us did before. Is this a gain from a libertarian perspective?

Liberty is like the water in a swimming pool. You can dive in, and be surrounded by freedom. In the past, the pool was large and deep. Those who could dive in were engulfed in liberty. It was everywhere. There was so much liberty you could drown in it if you were not careful, but people exposed to liberty were buoyant, and liberty lifted you.

And entry into the pool, for many, was their birthright. It could not be taken away. The lifeguard at the pool was like a night watchman, seldom needed, helpful in emergencies.

Sadly, though, and wrongly, the pool was restricted. No blacks allowed, with only token exceptions. No Jews. No gays. No women. Property owners preferred. Yet despite all this, the pool and the opportunity to dive into it attracted millions from all over the world.

Over time, two things happened, one good, one bad. Rules were changed to allow more people to enter the pool. Over time first blacks, then Asians, Jews, women–now, though not yet fully, even gays–have been allowed to join the club and enter the pool. Sadly, at the same time, the pool has been shrinking. Once the pool was gigantic in size. As James Wilson might have said, “Measure the size of the pool? I am sure, sirs, that no gentleman in the late Convention would have attempted such a thing.”…

Blacks can now enter the pool. Women can now get their toes wet. Gays are now free to wear the most outrageous swimsuits poolside. But no one–white or black; gay or straight; male or female; young or old–NO ONE can now do high dives into the deep end. It is too shallow. It would be dangerous. It is prohibited for our own safety. The waters of liberty now engulf no one, equally….

We do, clearly, today have more liberty in the sense it is available to more people. More people are allowed into the pool. But it is hard to appreciate how much the pool has shrunk. The shrinkage takes place over time, and on any given day the shrinkage may be difficult to notice….

When we watch a race where some runners are shackled, we recognize it as unfair. We see the liberty of the shackled runners restricted if they are weighted down by the force of law. When we call out for greater equality, should we be satisfied if the laws are changed so as to shackle all runners equally, or should we remain unsatisfied until shackles are removed, and no one is weighted down?

On the March 8th episode of his eponymous Fox Business Network (FBN) show, John Stossel provided the second in a series on the huge expansion of laws under which we suffer in America, “Is Everything Illegal in America Today?” He noted in the last year alone the Federal government has generated 160,000 pages of NEW laws and regulations, restrictions on freedom, excuses to imprison citizens. These are not further descriptions and elaborations of rape and murder, robbery and home invasion. Stossel tells of the man who was imprisoned for SIX YEARS because he sold seafood in the wrong containers, lobsters that, while not mislabeled to consumers, were nonetheless smaller than the legal salable size. Opening a lemonade stand in your front yard requires, in NYC, preliminary attendance at a 15 hour Food Protection class, and filling out many legal forms….

We are now, in the words of Proudhon, watched, inspected, spied upon, directed, law-driven, numbered, regulated, enrolled, indoctrinated, preached at, controlled, checked, estimated, valued, censured, commanded. We are all in the pool now. And our feet are all equally barely wet. And while there was no Golden Age of Liberty, Americans today seem oblivious to a real and tragic loss, seem unaware they can no longer immerse themselves in liberty, can no longer swim unimpeded. Can no longer be everywhere surrounded by freedom.

Contrast Levy’s analysis with that of Jim Peron, writing in “The Disaster of Me Libertarianism.” Peron begins by repeating some “critiques of libertarianism”:

Libertarians are just conservatives who like drugs!

Libertarians are only concerned about themselves!

Libertarians don’t care what happens to other people?

Libertarians are selfish!

He then piles on:

I just spent a couple days at a libertarian conference. It was an experience that I find increasingly dismaying and disappointing because there has been a clear rightward shift in the libertarian movement….

But, what is interesting is listening to libertarians dismiss issues that are important to people who aren’t like them. Let us be truthful: the typical libertarian, and certainly the typical attendee at this conference, is a middle-aged, white, straight male. And, they seem utterly incapable of seeing freedom through the eyes of anyone who isn’t the same.

Mention equal marriage rights for gay people and they simply dismiss it as unimportant. If they aren’t actively opposed—and some were—they see it as inconsequential. If you talk about guns they often are interested since so many of them own firearms. If you talk about pornography they are interested. But when it comes to the barriers to immigration they don’t give a damn since they aren’t immigrants. They hate tax laws, but then they pay taxes. [Ed. note: The last is a fatuous observation. Of course they pay taxes, given the alternative of imprisonment and/or hefty fines.]

They really are libertarians who only see liberty as an issue as it applies to white, middle-aged, straight men (WMASM).

David Boaz wrote about the same thing by implication….

The piece by Boaz is the one mentioned by Levy. But Peron, unlike Levy, seems unaware that the pool of liberty is drying up, so focused is Peron on those “libertarians” who (according to him) do not share his (verbal) compassion for all creatures great and small. He recites some examples of un-libertarian attitudes, and summarizes them in this way:

All of this is what I call “me” libertarianism. That is the tendency of individual libertarians to interpret political trends only through their own experiences, without caring what the broader reality happens to be.

What is that “broader reality”?

We have millions of our fellow citizens who are freer today than they would have been had they lived in the golden age of liberty—whenever you think that might be. We have to be aware of their concerns as well. “Me” libertarianism references liberty only as it effects [sic] the speaker, without consideration of the freedom of others. It does send the message that libertarianism is selfish and about protecting privilege for white males only.

Others, who were not so privileged in the past, have trouble seeing how liberty will help them because so many advocates of liberty simply don’t care about how others are oppressed today. These libertarians do care about the issues that impact their own lives, but everyone else is inconsequential. Is it any wonder that so many African-Americans don’t see libertarians as interested in them? Is it really a surprise that libertarian meetings are so overwhelmingly male? Why is anyone surprised when the LBGT community ignores libertarianism, after libertarians have spent decades ignoring them?

The “libertarians” to whom Peron refers bear no resemblance to the libertarians who dominate the blogosphere. The latter are — almost to a white, middle-aged, straight man — very much pro-black, pro-illegal immigration, pro-LBGT (especially pro-homosexual “marriage”), pro “choice,” and so on.

But that contradiction is not the most serious flaw in Peron’s rant. This is:

[W]e should … fight for issues like marriage equality, the rights of immigrants, and reproductive rights for women…. We need to listen to people who are not like us.

In other words, Peron believes that liberty can be attained by destroying marriage (the bulwark of civil society); allowing illegal immigrants to pick the pockets of working Americans and vote for Democrats (world-class pickpockets themselves); and enabling state-sponsored murder, which encourages other eugenic practices.

Peron seems not to have noticed that the gains made by blacks, by women (in the workplace), by immigrants, and by homosexuals often have been proximate causes of the shrinkage of the pool of liberty. Those gains have been made by mainly through the agency of the state, by such techniques as restricting freedom of speech, punishing “incorrect” thoughts, redistributing income,, denying property rights, suppressing freedom of conscience, forbidding freedom of association, and granting admissions, jobs, and promotions to favored groups. (I must note that Levy slides by these specifics when he gives his reasons for the shrinkage of the pool of liberty.)

Finally, Peron wants us to believe that “freedom is indivisible.” Actually, it is divisible, as a mere glance at the outside world would tell hm. Some enjoy a lot of freedom; others enjoy less, very little, or none. But it is not libertarian to take freedom away from those who enjoy it, for the sake of “liberating” others — especially when those acts of “liberation” cause the pool of liberty to shrink.

I am all for the expansion of freedom, but not if it comes at the expense of my freedom. If that is “me” libertarianism, so be it.

Related posts:
Greed, Cosmic Justice, and Social Welfare
Positive Rights and Cosmic Justice
The Interest-Group Paradox
Parsing Political Philosophy
Is Statism Inevitable?
Inventing “Liberalism”
Law and Liberty
Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and the Legitimate State
An Encounter with a Marxist
Pseudo-Libertarian Sophistry vs. True Libertarianism
Positivism, “Natural Rights,” and Libertarianism
Our Enemy, the State
The Golden Rule and the State
A Not-So-Fine Whine
Social Justice
Evolution, Human Nature, and “Natural Rights”
More Pseudo-Libertarianism
More about Conservative Governance
The Meaning of Liberty
Positive Liberty vs. Liberty
More Social Justice
Facets of Liberty
Burkean Libertarianism
Rights: Source, Applicability, How Held
What Is Libertarianism?
Nature Is Unfair
True Libertarianism, One More Time
Human Nature, Liberty, and Rationalism
A Declaration and Defense of My Prejudices about Governance
The Libertarian-Conservative Fusion Is Alive and Well
Libertarianism and Morality
Libertarianism and Morality: A Footnote
Merit Goods, Positive Rights, and Cosmic Justice
More about Merit Goods
What Is Bleeding-Heart Libertarianism?
Prohibition, Abortion, and “Progressivism”
Liberty, Negative Rights, and Bleeding Hearts
Conservatives vs. “Liberals”
Why Conservatism Works

Constitutional Confusion

Will Wilkinson’s “The individual mandate: A taxing distinction” is rife with confusion about the Constitution:

…Suppose I sell a novel to a publisher. If the publisher cuts a check to my agent, and my agent cuts a check to me, did I really not do business with the publisher? Of course I did. The middle man is irrelevant to whether or not business has been done between the publisher and I. Likewise, if I cut a check to the government and the government cuts a check to Raytheon, I did business with Raytheon.

…If forcing me to hand a dollar to Raytheon and taking a dollar by force and handing it Raytheon are two materially equivalent ways of making me do business with Raytheon, and they are, then the undisputed power of Congress to tax and spend was a power to force me to do business with private companies all along.

One principled libertarian line on this question is that government has the power to tax only for the purpose of spending on the provision of those public goods, such as the common defence, which voluntary exchange on the free market cannot be relied on to provide…. A ruling to the effect that government may not force citizens to do business with private entities could be useful to a libertarian legal activist precisely because there really is no sound distinction between mediated and unmediated transactions….

The “libertarian line,” principled or not, is irrelevant to the meaning of the Constitution, which is not a libertarian document but a political one. The issue at hand — the constitutionality of the individual mandate — cannot be resolved by invoking libertarian principles; it must be resolved by invoking constitutional principles.

The Constitution gives the federal government the power to raise and employ armed forces in the defense of the nation. The taxing power is used legitimately (in constitutional terms) when it enables the exercise of that power. When Wilkinson is taxed to help defray the cost of national defense, he is not being forced to do business with Raytheon. He is being forced (legitimately, under the Constitution) to support the national defense, which happens to involve purchases from Raytheon (among many things).

One need not get into the messy business of defining public goods to find fault with the individual mandate, as a constitutional matter.  The mandate is constitutionally wrong because there is no constitutional writ for such a thing. Obamacare, of which the mandate is an integral element, is nothing less than an attempt on the part of the federal government to commandeer and direct all economic activity that is conceivably related to a fictional entity called the “market for health care.” The mandate is an attempt to further that scheme by forcing individuals to engage in commerce — a power that can be read into the Constitution only by those who would prefer to have a federal government of unlimited power.

Finally, it is hogwash to say that “there really is no sound distinction between mediated and unmediated transactions.” I am not “doing business with Raytheon” because some of my tax dollars go to Raytheon. I am doing business with the federal government as a (constitutionally legitimate) provider of national defense. But if the federal government forces me to buy health insurance (or pay a hefty penalty), I am doing business with an insurance company, not with the federal government.

Related posts:
Unintended Irony from a Few Framers
Freedom of Contract and the Rise of Judicial Tyranny
Social Security Is Unconstitutional
The Constitution in Exile
What Is the Living Constitution?
Blame It on the Commerce Clause
The Slippery Slope of Constitutional Revisionism
The Real Constitution and Civil Disobedience
The Constitution: Original Meaning, Corruption, and Restoration
The Unconstitutionality of the Individual Mandate
Does the Power to Tax Give Congress Unlimited Power?
Does Congress Have the Power to Regulate Inactivity?
Obamacare: Neither Necessary Nor Proper

The Equal-Protection Scam and Same-Sex Marriage

Steven Horwitz, writing at Bleeding Heart Libertarians, opines that

In the world that exists, where the state is involved in marriage, I believe that….

Libertarianism requires  [federal recognition of same-sex marriage], as we often forget that the classical liberal tradition was built on two pillars: the rights of the individual against the state and equality before the law. The state may not discriminate. If it offers a benefit to some, it must offer it to all who are equally situated….

Suppose we had a Social Security system in which all residents of the US paid FICA but only white ones received the benefits. Would you argue that the libertarian position is to continue to deny people of color access to Social Security benefits on the grounds that giving the benefits to them would “extend federal power?” Would you continue to insist that the only libertarian position is to argue for the elimination of Social Security even though it continues to benefit only whites?

Double hogwash!

First, homosexuals are not “equally situated” with respect to heterosexuals. They want to call “marriage” something that cannot be marriage, as marriage has been understood for thousands of years: the union of a man and a woman in a lifelong commitment to each other. Homosexuals may choose to enter into private relationships that they call “marriage” — and no one can stop them — but those relationships are not manifestations of the time-honored social institution known as marriage.

Second, the analogy with Social Security is inapt. The recognition of marriage by the state is not a “benefit” in the same way as Social Security; that is, it is not a form of remuneration based on “contributions” to a (fictional) insurance pool. Social Security benefits are a quid pro quo; the recognition of marriage is a grant of status, in the same way that naturalization is a grant of status — the status of citizen. The state may make and change the qualifications for citizenship, because the power to do so is inherently a function of the state. But the state may not make and change the essential nature of marriage, which is a social phenomenon.

Where the state chooses to call a homosexual “marriage” a marriage, it simply indulges in legal fiction. But it is not harmless legal fiction — a crucial point that eludes “libertarians” like Horwitz; thus:

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

It should be evident to anyone who has watched American politics that even-handedness is not a matter of observing constitutional limits on government’s reach, regardless of who asks for an exception; it is, rather, a matter of expanding the privileges bestowed by government so that no one is excluded. It follows that the recognition and punitive enforcement of same-sex “marriage” would be followed by the recognition and bestowal of benefits on other arrangements, including transient “partnerships” of convenience. And that surely will weaken heterosexual marriage, which is the axis around which the family revolves. The state will be saying, in effect, “Anything goes. Do your thing. The courts, the welfare system, and the taxpayer — above all — will pick up the pieces.” And so it will go….

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

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

A “libertarian” like Horwitz will assert that all such considerations are beside the point — as if the only point of liberty is “self-actualization” or similar clap-trap. I do wish that these self-styled “libertarians” would grow up and shut up.

Related posts:
Libertarianism, Marriage, and the True Meaning of Family Values
Same-Sex Marriage
“Equal Protection” and Homosexual Marriage
“Family Values,” Liberty, and the State
On Liberty
Civil Society and Homosexual “Marriage”
Perry v. Schwarzenegger, Due Process, and Equal Protection
Rationalism, Social Norms, and Same-Sex “Marriage”
Pseudo-Libertarian Sophistry vs. True Libertarianism
Libertarian Conservative or Conservative Libertarian?
Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: Part I
Bounded Liberty: A Thought Experiment
More Pseudo-Libertarianism
The Meaning of Liberty
Positive Liberty vs. Liberty
In Defense of Marriage
Burkean Libertarianism
Rights: Source, Applicability, How Held
What Is Libertarianism?
True Libertarianism, One More Time
Human Nature, Liberty, and Rationalism
The Myth That Same-Sex Marriage Causes No Harm
The Libertarian-Conservative Fusion Is Alive and Well
What Is Bleeding-Heart Libertarianism?

Libertarianism and Morality: A Footnote

There is a key passage in Jan Narveson’s The Libertarian Idea that I did not quote in “Libertarianism and Morality.” In the version of Narveson’s book that is available online, the passage goes like this:

[I]f morality is an artificial construct, a rational convention, [which is a main point of Naveson's book and my post] then those who have refused to make any deals acceptable to others are in the condition of rulelessness — in the Hobbesian “state of nature”. Hobbes himself characterizes this condition in an unfortunate way: that everyone has a “right of nature” to do whatever he or she thinks best, no matter what it is…. [T]hat is a useless, nonsensical employment of the term ‘right’ and should be dropped. Much less misleading to say that in the Hobbesian state of nature, nobody has any rights, period. And therefore nobody has the protections inherent in a moral system, where people accept rules which limit what they may do to others. These are rules which those others have reason to accept only if they likewise extend benefits to them. And whoever has not made the deal is someone with respect to whom no bets are on, no limitations authorized; and therefore people may do whatever they wish with them. Note that the ‘may’ here is normative. The person who signs no agreements is a person such that anyone else, willing to sign an agreement of mutual advantage, does have a moral right to deal with that person as he may. No one may blame him for doing so.

Whether one would deal harshly with a person who stands outside the agreed rules is another matter. For, as I note in “Libertarianism and Morality,” we humans are ruled not only by self-interest but also by empathy.

Be that as it may, the passage quoted above boils down to this:

Most people do have the desire he imputes to them of willingness to cooperate with others as a means to best advance one’s own interests. Those who do not can be overpowered. There are very few of them; and, as they will not agree with the rest of society, on what moral basis can they complain over the way others treat them? (from David Gordon’s review of The Libertarian Idea in Reason Papers, Spring 1989, pp. 169-177)

Whether there are “very few” of “them” is a questionable proposition in this day (or even 22 years ago, when Gordon’s review was published). An inordinately large share of the populace seems to have opted out of or simply rejected the “deal” that is represented in the Golden Rule. A key element of that “deal” is the mutual observance and enforcement 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).

[Negative] 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 [negative] rights. (from “The Protection of Negative Rights,” in the section on “Minarchism” in “Parsing Political Philosophy“)

Now, as in 1989, the “deal” for too many Americans is to grab what one can at the expense of others. (The futility of this “new deal” is a tale that I have told in “The Interest-Group Paradox.”)

In any event, Narveson’s attitude toward those who stand outside the rules is parallel to mine. This is from an early post, about “The Origin and Essence of Rights“:

…Fundamentalist libertarianism [Narveson's "intuitionism"] reduces liberty to a matter of faith. If libertarianism cannot stand on more than faith, what makes it any better than, say, socialism or the divine right of kings?

The virtue of libertarianism … is not that it must be taken on faith but that, in practice, it yields superior consequences. Superior consequences for whom, you may ask. And I will answer: for all but those who don’t wish to play by the rules of libertarianism; that is, for all but predators and parasites. (emphasis added)

Later, in “‘Natural Rights’ and Consquentialism,” I put it this way:

What if A and B agree, honorably, not to kill each other, whereas C “leaves his options open”? It then behooves A and B to reach a further agreement, which is that they will defend each other against C…. A and B therefore agree to live in liberty (the liberty of self-restraint and mutual defense), whereas C stands outside that agreement. He has forfeited the liberty of self-restraint and mutual self-defense. How so? A and B, knowing that C has “left his options open,” might honorably kill or imprison C when they have good reason to believe that C is planning to kill them or acquire the means to kill them. [a quotation from  "Anarchistic Balderdash"]

In sum, there can be no system makes everyone happy (unless you believe, foolishly, that everyone is of good will). Try to imagine, for example, a metric by which C’s happiness (if he succeeds in his predatory scheme) would offset A and B’s unhappiness (were C successful).

The problem now is that there are more than a “very few” Cs standing against the As and Bs. And it is the Cs who have seized the power of the state.

Libertarianism and Morality

I have come late to Jan Narveson‘s The Libertarian Idea, which is the subject of a series of posts at Libertarianism.org; thus far:

The Libertarian Idea: Setting the Scene (11/04/11)
The Libertarian Idea: Part One, part one (11/14/11)
Morality and Its Discontents (11/21/11)
Is Contractarianism Serious (Or Just Clever)? 11/21/11

So much libertarian theorizing, it seems to me, amounts to the search for an intellectual hook on which to hang an instinctive yearning to be left alone. The intellectualization of the yearning proceeds in stages. The first stage is an appeal to morality. But this cannot be the kind of morality that arises from social constructs (e.g. the Golden Rule); it must be a “higher morality.” This leads libertarian theorists — or most of them, in my reading — toward “natural rights” and “natural law.” But, as atheists (which most libertarian theorists seem to be), they cannot attribute “natural rights” or “natural law” to God, so they conjure super-human sources that lie somewhere between God and social convention. Narveson call this conjuring “intuitionism.”

One such source, which is no less supernatural than God, is Platonic in character: “natural rights” just are (and known, by some mysterious process, to the proponents of this view). The chief alternative to Platonism is evolution: “natural rights” as evolutionary adaptation (though how one knows which rights are “natural” remains a puzzle). I have said much about these intellectual misfires in several posts; for example:

“Natural Rights” and Consequentialism
More about Consequentialism
Positivism, “Natural Rights,” and Libertarianism
What Are “Natural Rights”?
The Golden Rule and the State
Evolution, Human Nature, and “Natural Rights”
More Thoughts about Evolutionary Teleology

Narveson, by contrast with other libertarian philosophers, is refreshingly clear-minded about the roots of libertarianism. The following is taken from a version of The Libertarian Idea that is available online (here).


Libertarians in general support their views by appeals to intuitions, especially intuitions about our “natural rights”. This is a method that has very wide currency in contemporary philosophy; it is by no means confined to libertarians. Libertarians who base their convictions on intuition are thus in good company. This, as we shall see, is ironic, for the other members of that company have widely varying views about these matters. The burning issue thus becomes, whose intuitions are the right ones? But adoption of the intuitional method virtually precludes rational decision of that burning issue; it simply continues to burn. (from “The Options,” in Chapter 9)

*   *   *

By “Metaphysical” intuitionism I mean the view that there exist some sort of “ethical entities” which are denoted by such words as ‘good’ or ‘right’ or ‘just’ (as the case may be); and that ethical knowledge is acquired by the mind’s “apprehending” or, as we may say, “spotting” one or more of those at the appropriate points. On this view, when we say that an act is Right, we mean that it has one of these properties — namely “That one!”…

The shortcomings of this “metaphysical” type of intuitionism are legion, and it is not surprising that as an option it is virtually extinct among current philosophers. (I say ‘virtually’, because no theory I can think of is totally extinct among current philosophers….) (from “Metaphysical Intuitionism” in Chapter 10)

*   *   *

Especially in this scientifically-oriented era, the appeal to what seem mysterious entities and faculties is likely to elicit impatience, and perhaps a certain amount of irritation. To those of us who don’t seem to have one of the special faculties required for detecting these strange items, this explanation isn’t going to be much help… (from “Mysteriousness” in Chapter 10)

*   *   *

In the past few decades, long after Metaphysical intuitionism was relegated to the philosophical dust-bins, a presumably quite different use of “intuitions” in moral philosophy was elevated to the status of theoretical respectability — not a new one, to be sure, since philosophers have been doing it, to a greater or lesser extent, since Plato. In this version, we supposedly make no assumptions about the fundamental meanings of moral terms or the sort of things they may refer to. Rather, we employ intuitions as a sort of data, and construct a theory to “explain” them. The fact is that people have tendencies to affirm of certain things that they are right, others that they are wrong, and so on; and the moral philosopher’s job is to find the principles which will account for these tendencies. Of course, this is moral philosophy, and so the output of our theorizing will be moral statements and not just statements about morality….

Now, consider what philosophers wish to do with their appeals to intuitions. They are discussing some controversial topic, ordinarily — nobody writes articles advocating the view that murder is wrong! But in a controversial area, we are going to have some people sincerely maintaining that something or other is right, and others that that very same thing is wrong. Abortion, for example, or capital punishment of repeat-murderers. Of what use is it to point out to people holding some view on these matters that a great many people think otherwise than they — or the same as they? Suppose some small minority thinks that a certain popular practice is quite wrong. Are they going to be impressed to hear that many people don’t think so?

It is here that this new sort of appeals to intuition gets into some of the very same problems that its less-respectable Metaphysical version has. When people have contrary intuitions, appeals to intuition are not likely to do much — except maybe irritate the people we’re trying to persuade.

In fact, appeals to intuition can hardly constitute reasons for the very attitudes that those intuitions express. The best they might do is provide a rather weak sort of evidence. We might say, “well, surely 90% of the people are unlikely to be wrong, are they?” Perhaps that is true. But the trouble is, it is also true that 90% of the people plainly can be wrong, about all sorts of things: why not about this, then? Especially when the effect of their opinion is to cram something down the craws of the remaining 10%. (from “Methodological Intuitionism” in Chapter 10)

*   *   *

My objection to appeal to intuitions in moral theory is, in brief, that when (not merely ‘if’!) intuitions conflict, we are bereft of conceptual tools for reaching reasoned agreement. Indeed, one must say that under those conditions, “reasoned” agreement is impossible. Surely it would be better, at any rate, if we could have a theory that was persuasive without presupposing anything like moral intuitions.  (from “The Need for Clarity about Morality” in Chapter 11)

*   *   *

We have a habit of talking as though moral principles were simply “truths”, like those of science: as though they were just “out there”, to be discovered, found out. But it’s not quite like that. Either you act in certain ways or you don’t. No mere external truth could make you do that. There are, certainly, “external truths” to which we must conform, willy-nilly: the Law of Gravity, for example. But the “must” here is so literal that “conform” is out of place. The gunman makes me conform, by threatening to shoot me if I do not. In some sense I can refuse to go along; if so, and he shoots me, I shall then literally have no choice but to die, if he’s a competent shot. We “conform” to the Law of Gravity in the same sense that we die if shot; it simply isn’t a matter of choice at all.

Moral principles and rules are just that: principles and rules for behavior, to which we can voluntarily conform or no….(from “Personal vs. Social Morality” in Chapter 11)

*   *   *

One apparent aim of the Libertarian is to provide a schedule of rights that is “hard”, so that in any given case we will always be able to identify the area of permissible action, precisely bounded by the relevant set of rights. Moreover, these are to be wholly “nonteleological” in one sense of that rather obscure term. That is, they are not to be founded upon considerations of the general good or general interest…. (from “The Compleat Deontologist” in Chapter 11)

*   *   *

[W]e tend to identify morality with what is taught us in our childhoods, say, or with what the people around us will react to in certain ways. Any given society will have a number of rules which are enforced in the various ways mentioned above. The fact that they are thus enforced provides, and of course is intended to provide, some motivation for doing what the enforcers are trying to get us to do. But is that the end of the story? Are we to say, simply, that what is right is what people will praise and reward you for doing, or blame and punish you for not doing? It is not, and we are not. For we are capable of reflecting on these demands, and of questioning them….

…The de facto rules of morality may be accounted conventional — by definition, indeed. And this in particular means that they are, at least to a degree, changeable. They are certainly changeable in some way, since they do change. Whether they are changeable by intention, like the law, which is made and unmade by certain intentional acts of certain people, the legislators, is quite another matter. And one would certainly have to be naïve to think that writing a tract or two is enough to do the job! It wouldn’t even if everyone would read the tract; which, in a society of millions, they certainly won’t.

There is thus a question of what to do, as it were, with any “philosophical” or “critical” morality we might come up with…. But there is also an answer: one can act on it oneself. One can start criticizing people in the light of these possibly novel principles you have found to be more reasonable than the ones actually reinforced in your current society….

One of the historic projects of philosophy is to try to find some or other rational foundations for morality, or at any rate for some morality, some set of overriding general guides to behavior which, even if it is not entirely reflected in current practice, has the solidest reasons for being so…. I shall shortly describe, again very briefly, what seems to be the best answer currently available. Like all answers judged to be so by philosophers, the judgment is guided by a certain sense that no other view could be right. This is philosophical hübris at work, no doubt: history has a way of suggesting that we have overlooked something when we make such claims. That’s a risk one simply has to take. (from “Conventional vs. Critical Morality” in Chapter 11)

*   *   *

That theory, I think, is Contractarianism. The general idea of this theory is that the principles of morality are (or should be) those principles for directing everyone’s conduct which are reasonable for everyone to accept. They are the rules which everyone has good reason for wanting everyone to act on, and thus to internalize in himself or herself, and thus to reinforce in the case of everyone.

In so saying, I am presenting a slanted view, so to say. As with every important philosophical theory, this one has many different versions with their own specific shades and twists, and the shades and twists are not trivial. Contractarianism can be made to seem arbitrary and silly: consider, for instance, the suggestion that long, long ago, our remote ancestors made this deal, see, and from that day to this everyone has had to go along with it! Plainly such a theory is not going to give us the rational motivation we need.

On the other hand, any ordinary contract, made in the full light of day between consenting adults, supplies motivation in just the required sense. The “required sense”, as will shortly be seen, is not so simple. But few will dispute that any theory that could attain the same degree of rational “bite” as actual contracts would be doing very well indeed.

The problem is that morality is obviously not the result of a literal contract; and indeed, it cannot be, among other things for the very good reason pointed out by David Hume, namely that “the observance of promises is itself one of the most considerable parts of justice; and we are not surely bound to keep our word because we have given our word to keep it.” To account for the obligation to keep promises on the basis of a general promise to do so seems, shall we say, unpromising Clearly the sense in which morality is founded upon or due to or represents an “agreement” is going to have to be less straightforward than that. (from the introductory section of Chapter 12)

*   *   *

What the philosopher would really like is a universal “contract” in the sense of an agreement which literally everyone would find it reasonable to accept. It is not clear that this can be done. Perhaps people are too different, or have interests that are fundamentally, irresolvably antagonistic. If so, it’s put paid for our project. It is so because our interests are indeed what we have to appeal to as the basis of the “social contract”.

But it should not be thought that this possibility puts paid to the theory in question. There are at least two reasons why not. In the first place, the truth about morality could be that it cannot be quite as universal as all that. The insistence that it must be may be just a philosopher’s prejudice, comparable to the Aristotelian idea that of course the earth must be the centre of the physical Universe.
But secondly, and more hearteningly, the possible nonuniversality we are worrying about may be nothing to worry about….

Let us suppose that morality is a kind of club — the “morality club”. Anyone can join — no problem. Those who join have certain responsibilities and certain rights, and we, the people who run this club, offer a package that we think no remotely reasonable person could really refuse; but nevertheless, some might. All we are saying is that our package is such that it must appeal to the widest set of people any set of principles could appeal to. Anyone who doesn’t buy our package wouldn’t buy any package compatible with living among his fellows on terms that they could possibly accept. (from “Universality?” in Chapter 12)

*   *   *

All this has been quite abstract. Let us now see how it works in more nearly real-world terms. One of the contractarians’ favorite real-world types is the philosopher Thomas Hobbes5 In the Hobbesian picture, at least as understood by me, the place to begin is a wild and unruly sort of place known as the “state of nature”. In this state — a highly artificial one, in truth, but we’ll worry about that a little later — there is no morality at all. Nobody acknowledges any restrictions whatever on his or her behavior vis-a-vis others, nobody blames or praises anyone else’s conduct, and it is quite literally everyone for him-or-herself. And what happens there? All sorts of horrible things, in brief. Since there are no rules at all, there are of course no rules against violence, which is freely employed whenever the person employing it thinks it will get him what he wants….

What is important to the argument here is that the cause of this condition is the absence of rules, rules having precisely the character we have attributed to Morality: namely, rules that can override the individual inclinations of any person to the contrary, and rules that are the same for all….

It is important to appreciate just what Hobbes’ argument does and what it does not presuppose about people. It does not, to begin with, presuppose that people are nasty or evil by nature….

Nor does it actually require that their interests are selfish or even strongly self-directed, though Hobbes evidently believed that they would normally be. But what matters is that they have conflicting ends, however the conflict may be engendered….

We now need to bring out a further feature about the sort of conflicts Hobbes is concerned about. From the point of view of each party to the conflict, the “warlike” solution may seem preferable to the “peaceful” one…. [T]here is a problem with mutual arrangements of all sorts, since in such cases, each party gives up something in return for something he wants more; yet given the opportunity, he’d presumably prefer to have both the gains from the deal and also not to have to pay the costs he has undertaken by his promise to pay.
This situation is known as Prisoner’s Dilemma….

Hobbes’ own view is in line with modern theorists: the rational individual will rat in such situations. And Hobbes’ “solution”, as we know, is the Policeman, otherwise known as the “Sovereign”. Gauthier’s solution is to take what many theorists regard as the heroic course of identifying rationality with the disposition to take the cooperative option. The one recommended here may perhaps be classified as intermediate between the two…. (from “Hobbes” in Chapter 12)

*   *   *

The Hobbesian solution may seem all well and good, perhaps. But there are two crucial shortcomings. The first is: how do we get a suitable Enforcer appointed? In our hypothetical state of nature, nobody already has the kind of power needed; that power must be “handed over” by those concerned. But you don’t just “hand over” power: instead, you make an agreement which gives someone the power. Terrific — but that agreement would have to be, genuinely, an agreement – the very sort of thing which can’t be done in the state of nature on Hobbes’ own reasoning. The second is that enforcers are costly. For one thing, they cost money, or the equivalent (in his State of Nature there was, of course, no money), viz., whatever sacrifices A and B have to make in order to make it worth C’s while to be Guardian. (Once C somehow got the power in question, of course, there is the further point that C will surely be inclined to use it to feather his own nest — a small incidental concern, in one sense, but in another, of course, one that has been a or even the main problem with Government, historically as well as theoretically.) (from “The Sovereign” in Chapter 12)

*   *   *

Here enters David Gauthier with his intriguing new solution.7 Gauthier insists that the rational agent, when acquainting himself with the facts of life in the form of Prisoner’s Dilemma (and related problems), will see that he must modify, or perhaps reinterpret, his theory of rationality. The rational man will not Defect in the Prisoner’s Dilemma game. Instead, he will adopt a disposition to cooperate, though not an unconditional disposition to take the cooperative option: he takes that option, provided those with whom he interacts are similarly inclined. This he calls “constrained maximization”, as opposed to the disposition to take the money and run, which he calls “straight” maximization….

Constrained maximizers will do better than defectors, for they will do as well as defectors when interacting with defectors, since their rule is to cooperate only with fellow constrained maximizers, and they will do better than defectors when interacting with constrained maximizers, since the defector’s policy is to defect when interacting with anybody. Gauthier’s argument is that it is therefore rational to adopt the constrained maximization disposition….

Now in the classic, one-shot Prisoner’s Dilemma, it is not true that our move is a response to the other person’s move. We and the other player are moving simultaneously, for instance, or at any rate moving in such a way that neither can know what the other player’s move is until after we have made our own. Real-life models of Prisoner’s Dilemma may be characterized in just that way. To create any real-life Prisoner’s Dilemma, we must take steps, if necessary intentionally rigging the situation so as to ensure that this condition holds. This ensures that our move will not be literally a “response” to the other player’s move. If it is a “response” at all in this literal sense of the term, then what could it be a response to?

It is when we contemplate this question that the force of Gauthier’s position asserts itself. For it seems that the only thing there is to respond to here is the disposition of the other player…. Each can know something about the other, and what they know will be largely information about character, derived of course more or less inductively from observation of past performance in particular cases. (from “Gauthier’s View” in Chapter 12)

*   *   *

Now let’s go back to the State of Nature and ask what to do. There are as yet no rules, and without them, life is miserable for everyone….

What we will do, in fact, is whatever we can to set Morality in motion: a social institution of reinforcing behavior. And which behavior? Plainly, cooperative behavior: that is, behavior which it is advantageous from the point of view of each one of us to have everyone, including ourselves, engaging in. This is the rational thing to do in social situations for a simple reason: it doesn’t cost very much by comparison with having a Sovereign (and anyway, we don’t have one yet — remember? And we can’t until we have enough morality to enable the Agreement to establish the sovereign to be viable), and the advantages of general performance much outweigh the disadvantages imposed by the necessity of having to comply oneself.

Generally speaking, then, the foundation of morality is the interests of those party to it, given the facts of social life. Morality is a set of requirements which will make us all better off if they are met by everyone — and which, accordingly, are liable to the problem of defection by some who will try to take the money and run. For examples, the murderer and the thief, who have been cheerfully collecting the benefits of social cooperation all along, and yet at the judicious moment will take advantage of the good dispositions of those they interact with by depriving them of their lives or property without a by-your-leave. (from “Morality, the Real World, and Prisoner’s Dilemma” in Chapter 12)

*   *   *

Why accept the contractarian view of morals? Because there is no other view that can serve the requirements: namely, of providing reasons to everyone for accepting it, no matter what their personal values or philosophy of life may be, and thus motivating this informal, yet society-wide “institution”. Without resort to any obfuscating intuitions, e.g., of “self-evident rights” and the like, the contractarian view offers an intelligible account both of why it is rational to want a morality and of what, broadly speaking, the essentials of that morality will consist in: namely, those general rules which are universally advantageous to rational agents. We each need morality, first because we are vulnerable to the depredations of others, and second because we can all benefit from cooperation with others. So we need protection, in the form of the ability to rely on our fellows not to engage in activities harmful to us; and we need to be able to rely on those with whom we deal. We each need this regardless of what else we need or want or value. (the introductory paragraph of Chapter 13)

*   *   *

Many philosophers, such as Aquinas and John Locke, have held that there is a “Natural Law”. This idea was not clarified by these philosophers, although that they had fairly explicit ideas about its content. Aquinas, for example, held that natural law (like all law) had to be for the “common good”. And Locke in particular held that the natural law forbids all men to refrain from injuring others in their “life, health, liberty, and possessions”. Their lack of articulation of the concept of natural law, however, has left them short of adherents among contemporary philosophers trained in the analytic tradition. Insofar as they simply appeal to natural law without further explication or defense, they are liable to all of the charges I have laid above to the door of intuitionism in all its forms.

But perhaps further reflection on the Prisoner’s Dilemma and other decision-theoretic problems can assist understanding here. To say that a law is “natural”, to begin with, obviously cannot mean that it is like the law of gravity, governing us independently of our wills. Were the content of Locke’s natural law operative on us in that manner, there would be no need of ethics as we know it. However, this doesn’t preclude a different way in which a “law” could be “natural”. It could, namely, be natural in being acknowledged, recognized, or employed implicitly as a canon of interpersonal criticism of behavior, without articulation, in the normal dealings of people with each other.

Even as so characterized, it is not clear that there is a “natural law”. But we can inject one further element. Locke and Aquinas both insisted that the natural law was “rational”, “apprehended by reason”, or words to that effect. What we can forthrightly say is that there are reasons, reasons that are natural rather than being in their turn artificial constructs, favoring informal reinforcement of certain rules for interpersonal situations. Prisoner’s Dilemma, concentrated on above, gives a beautiful example. Wherever the structure of preferences of the different parties is clear to both parties (and it is not always), we have a basis for a rule of precisely that kind: a natural basis for a moral rule, in fact. The claim that natural morality calls upon us to refrain from the things Locke lists, and more generally that it bids us cooperate in what would otherwise be prisoner’s dilemmas, may be accepted if understood along the lines just explicated. We should expect any groups of persons who were clear about the options which would otherwise render the situation a prisoner’s dilemma situation, and who were capable of communicating effectively with each other, to recognize as an interpersonally authoritative rule that people refrain from the “Defect” strategy, and to recognize this by verbal and other sorts of reinforcement. So understood, we may accept the idea of Natural Law nearly enough. What its relation to political structures may be is, of course, another question, and the main question dealt with in this book.

But it is apropos to note here that the moral factor is potentially substantial. James Buchanan observes that “.. it is essential to incorporate some treatment of the role that ethical precepts play in maintaining social stability. First … if there is no conflict … there is no need for law, as such. By the same token, however, there is no need for ethics … When conflict does emerge, however, .. the value of order suggests either some social contract, some system of formal law, or some generally accepted set of ethical-moral precepts. It is important to recognize that these are alternative means of securing order. To the extent that ethical precepts are widely shared, and influence individual behavior, there is less need for the more formal restrictiveness of legally imposed standards.” (from “The Natural Law” in Chapter 13)


Narveson echoes much what I have said in the posts linked above. So, I find myself in close agreement with Narveson because I find him in close agreement with me. The kind of “contract” that Narveson describes is found in the Golden Rule. This is from “Evolution, Human Nature, and ‘Natural Rights’“:

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

But is that all there is to it? Not at all. This is from “The Golden Rule and the State“:

I call the Golden Rule a natural law because it’s neither a logical construct … nor a state-imposed one. Its long history and widespread observance (if only vestigial) suggest that it embodies an understanding that arises from the similar experiences of human beings across time and place. The resulting behavioral convention, the ethic of reciprocity, arises from observations about the effects of one’s behavior on that of others and mutual agreement (tacit or otherwise) to reciprocate preferred behavior, in the service of self-interest and empathy. That is to say, the convention is a consequence of the observed and anticipated benefits of adhering to it.

The empathic source of the Golden Rule, which is just as important as the self-interested source, is (for me) the key point of Julian Sanchez’s critique of Narveson in “Morality and Its Discontents“:

In effect, [Narveson] wants to reduce morality to prudence, showing that people would have strictly self-interested reasons to constrain their own behavior even if they are not “reasonable” or concerned with the welfare and dignity of others except insofar as those others are able to aid or hinder their self interested pursuits….

…[A]ttempts to reduce morality to prudence generally assume that there’s something metaphysically unproblematic about the idea, not just that people do care about their long-term self-interest (as opposed to just their immediate short-term desires), but that they have reason to, whereas the claim that they have similar reasons to care about or respect the interests of others is some kind of “queer” claim standing in need of special explanation…. Theoretical, moral, and practical reasoning all ultimately depend on foundational axioms that can’t be established without circularity. In logic, it’s the familiar list of axioms and inference rules; in ethics, it’s the basic idea that other people are real, and that their happiness and suffering fundamentally matters in some way, just as much as your own. That all these forms of reasoning “hit bottom” at some point is, admittedly, intellectually unsatisfying. But it’s also a fact we’re stuck with, and trying to dismiss those foundational domain-specific axioms as mere intuition seems less like a road to progress than an attempt to change the subject.

Sanchez’s point — a good one — is that it matters not where empathy comes from. It may be a genetic quirk, or it may be a socialized habit of thought, or it may be both. But it is a fact of life, just as much as self-interest. And it takes both of them — in my view — to account for the morality of the Golden Rule.

That morality, however, leads to a different kind of libertarianism than the one to which most self-styled libertarians seem to subscribe. Returning to “The Golden Rule and the State“:

The Golden Rule can be expanded into two, complementary sub-rules:

  • Do no harm to others, lest they do harm to you.
  • Be kind and charitable to others, and they will be kind and charitable to you.

The first sub-rule — the negative one — is compatible with the idea of negative rights, but it doesn’t demand them. The second sub-rule — the positive one — doesn’t yield positive rights because it’s a counsel to kindness and charity, not a command….

An ardent individualist — particularly an anarcho-capitalist — might insist that social comity can be based on the negative sub-rule, which is represented by the first five items in the “core” list. I doubt it. There’s but a short psychological distance from mean-spiritedness — failing to be kind and charitable — to sociopathy, a preference for harmful acts. Ardent individualists will disagree with me because they view kindness and charity as their business, and no one else’s. They’re right about that, as far as I’m concerned, but I’m talking about proclivities, not rights. But kindness and charity are indispensable to the development of mutual trust among people who live in close proximity, without the protective cover of an external agency (e.g., the state). Without mutual trust, mutual restraint becomes problematic and co-existence becomes a matter of “getting the other guy before he gets you” — a convention that I hereby dub the Radioactive Rule.

Nevertheless, the positive sub-rule, which is represented by the final two items in the “core” list, can be optional for the occasional maverick. An extreme individualist (or introvert or grouch) could be a member in good standing of a society that lives by the Golden Rule. He would be a punctilious practitioner of the negative rule, and would not care that his unwillingness to offer kindness and charity resulted in coldness toward him. Coldness is all he would receive (and want) because, as a punctilious practitioner of the negative rule; his actions wouldn’t necessarily invite harm.

But too many extreme individualists would threaten the delicate balance of self-interested and voluntarily beneficial behavior that’s implied in the Golden Rule. Even if lives and livelihoods did not depend on acts of kindness and charity — and they probably would — mistrust would set it in. And from there, it would be a short distance to the Radioactive Rule.

This, of course, will not do for most libertarians, who want to manufacture a rigid list of negative rights from one of their mysterious sources. It even smacks of moral relativism. But I have answered both objections in “The Golden Rule and the State“:

I call the Golden Rule a natural law because it’s neither a logical construct … nor a state-imposed one. Its long history and widespread observance (if only vestigial) suggest that it embodies an understanding that arises from the similar experiences of human beings across time and place. The resulting behavioral convention, the ethic of reciprocity, arises from observations about the effects of one’s behavior on that of others and mutual agreement (tacit or otherwise) to reciprocate preferred behavior, in the service of self-interest and empathy. That is to say, the convention is a consequence of the observed and anticipated benefits of adhering to it….

Is the Golden Rule susceptible of varying interpretations across groups, and is it therefore a vehicle for moral relativism? I say “yes,” with qualifications. It’s true that groups vary in their conceptions of permissible behavior….

[But] [t]here is … a “core” Golden Rule that comes down to this:

  • Murder is wrong, except in self-defense. (Capital punishment is just that: punishment. It’s also a deterrent to murder. It isn’t “murder,” muddle-headed defenders of baby-murder to the contrary notwithstanding.)
  • Various kinds of unauthorized “taking” are wrong, including theft (outright and through deception). (This explains popular resistance to government “taking,” especially when it’s done on behalf of private parties. The view that it’s all right to borrow money from a bank and not repay it arises from the mistaken beliefs that (a) it’s not tantamount to theft and (b) it harms no one because banks can “afford it.”)
  • Libel and slander are wrong because they are “takings” by word instead of deed.
  • It is wrong to turn spouse against spouse, child against parent, or friend against friend. (And yet, such things are commonly portrayed in books, films, and plays as if they are normal occurrences, often desirable ones. And it seems to me that reality increasingly mimics “art.”)
  • It is right to be pleasant and kind to others, even under provocation, because “a mild answer breaks wrath: but a harsh word stirs up fury” (Proverbs 15:1).
  • Charity is a virtue, but it should begin at home, where the need is most certain and the good deed is most likely to have its intended effect.

But what I am talking about is true libertarianism, not the kind of “leave me alone” libertarianism that one usually encounters on the internet. As I say in “here,” true libertarianism

is really a kind of conservatism, which is why I call it Burkean libertarianism…. [T]he kind of “libertarianism” much in evidence on the internet … rests on the Nirvana fallacy and posits dangerously false ideals.

A “true” libertarian respects socially evolved norms because those norms evidence and sustain the mutual trust, respect, forbearance, and voluntary aid that — taken together — foster willing, peaceful coexistence and beneficially cooperative behavior. And what is liberty but willing peaceful coexistence and beneficially cooperative behavior?

Such are the fruits of morality — on the mortal plane, at least.

The Libertarian-Conservative Fusion Is Alive and Well

The evidentiary trail begins with Daniel B. Klein‘s “I Was Wrong, and So Are You” (Atlantic Magazine, December 2011). The article’s teaser proclaims: “A libertarian economist retracts a swipe at the left—after discovering that our political leanings leave us more biased than we think.” Perhaps.

In any event, here is some of what Klein has to say in the Atlantic piece:

Back in June 2010, I published a Wall Street Journal op-ed arguing that the American left was unenlightened, by and large, as to economic matters. Responding to a set of survey questions that tested people’s real-world understanding of basic economic principles, self-identified progressives and liberals did much worse than conservatives and libertarians, I reported. To sharpen the ax, The Journal titled the piece “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?”—the implication being that people on the left were not….

The Wall Street Journal piece was based on an article that Zeljka Buturovic and I had published in Econ Journal Watch, a journal that I edit….

But one year later, in May 2011, Buturovic and I published a new scholarly article reporting on a new survey. It turned out that I needed to retract the conclusions I’d trumpeted in The Wall Street Journal. The new results invalidated our original result: under the right circumstances, conservatives and libertarians were as likely as anyone on the left to give wrong answers to economic questions….

Writing up these results was, for me, a gloomy task—I expected critics to gloat and point fingers. In May, we published another paper in Econ Journal Watch, saying in the title that the new results “Vitiate Prior Evidence of the Left Being Worse.” More than 30 percent of my libertarian compatriots (and more than 40 percent of conservatives), for instance, disagreed with the statement “A dollar means more to a poor person than it does to a rich person”—c’mon, people!—versus just 4 percent among progressives. Seventy-eight percent of libertarians believed gun-control laws fail to reduce people’s access to guns. Overall, on the nine new items, the respondents on the left did much better than the conservatives and libertarians. Some of the new questions challenge (or falsely reassure) conservative and not libertarian positions, and vice versa. Consistently, the more a statement challenged a group’s position, the worse the group did.

The articles to which Klein refers are “Economic Enlightenment in Relation to College-going, Ideology, and Other Variables: A Zogby Survey of Americans” and “Economic Enlightenment Revisited: New Results Again Find Little Relationship Between Education and Economic Enlightenment but Vitiate Prior Evidence of the Left Being Worse.” (Those links lead to abstracts and links to the full text of each article, in .pdf format.) Both papers explain how answers were scored and how respondents identified their political leanings. The choices offered were progressive, liberal, moderate, conservative, very conservative, and libertarian.

The questions asked are listed below (in italics), with the “unenlightened” (or “incorrect”) answers in parentheses. My comments (in bold) are followed by the correct answers, from an enlightened libertarian perspective.

1. Restrictions on housing development make housing less affordable. (Unenlightened: Disagree)

Disagreement suggests a refusal to acknowledge reality and/or a preference for arrogantly imposing one’s aesthetic views on others. The enlightened answer is “agree.”

2. Mandatory licensing of professional services increases the prices of those services. (Unenlightened: Disagree)

Disagreement suggests a refusal to acknowledge reality and/or a strong streak of paternalistic arrogance. The enlightened answer is “agree.”

3. Overall, the standard of living is better today than it was 30 years ago. (Unenlightened: Disagree)

Disagreement suggests a refusal to acknowledge reality or indoctrination in the standard leftist view that most people are doing worse than they used to, which (in the left-wing view) justifies redistribution of income. The enlightened answer is “agree.”

4. Rent-control laws lead to housing shortages. (Unenlightened: Disagree)

Disagreement suggests a refusal to acknowledge reality and/or a value judgment that lower rents are preferable to more and better housing. The enlightened answer is “agree.”

5. A company that has the largest market share is a monopoly.  (Unenlightened: Agree)

Agreement suggests a presumption that “largest market share” means dominance of a market, and is grounds for government action. The enlightened answer is “disagree.”

6. Third-world workers working overseas for American companies are being exploited. (Unenlightened: Agree)

Agreement suggests a value judgement that third-world workers would be better off doing whatever it is they did before the arrival of American companies, even though they probably choose to work for American companies because it makes them better off. Agreement is driven by the knee-jerk left-wing disposition to favor “victims.” The unenlightened answer is “agree.”

7. Free trade leads to unemployment. (Unenlightened: Agree)

Free trade can lead to unemployment in certain industries and areas, at least temporarily, but not in the long run (unless welfare programs discourage job-seeking and relocation). And free trade benefits American consumers. Agreement indicates an unwillingness to concede that change is always in the air, and that the effects of international trade are no different in kind than the effects of changes in patterns of domestic trade. Agreement is driven by the knee-jerk left-wing disposition to favor “victims.” The enlightened answer is “disagree.”

8. Minimum wage laws raise unemployment. (Unenlightened: Disagree)

Disagreement suggests a refusal to acknowledge reality and/or a value judgment that higher wages for some offsets the loss of employment by others. (This is a typically arrogant left-wing view of the world, in keeping with left-wing positions on most of the preceding questions.) The unenlightened answer is “disagree.”

9. A dollar means more to a poor person than it does to a rich person. (Unenlightened: Disagree)

This, the first of the “new” questions is truly ambiguous and requires a judgment that no one is entitled to make. Does a dollar “mean more” in relative or absolute terms? And how can anyone know what a dollar “means” to someone else? As it happens, the marginal utility of a dollar need not decline. An additional dollar represents an opportunity to buy something new and different or add to one’s store of wealth. In the latter case, more is preferable to less over a very large range of additional dollars. The enlightened answer is “disagree.”

10. Making abortion illegal would increase the number of black-market abortions. (Unenlightened: Disagree)

This is almost certainly a true statement. Those who disagree with it make two implicit judgments: (1) Abortion is a moral abomination because it ends an innocent life and (2) the net effect of making abortion illegal would be to reduce the number of abortions. Disagreement is therefore rational. Disagreement signals a superior moral stance; the enlightened answer is “disagree.”

11. Legalizing drugs would give more wealth and power to street gangs and organized crime. (Unenlightened: Agree)

I must quote myself:

The legalization of drugs will make them affordable only by those persons who can afford to pay the inevitably inflated prices that will result from government licensing of vendors, restrictions on the number and location of vendors, and restrictions on the amount of drugs an individual may purchase in a given period. (Regulation and paternalism go hand in hand.)….

…[G]overnment restrictions would open the door to a black market, operated by the usual suspects. In the meantime, drug-users would continue to expose themselves to the same inhibition-loosing effects, and many of them would still resort to crime to underwrite their drug intake.

Legalization is a paper panacea. Agreement with the proposition indicates a healthy grasp of reality. The enlightened answer (with respect to the real issue) is “agree.”

12. Drug prohibition fails to reduce people’s access to drugs. (Unenlightened: Agree)

Those who agree with this statement probably make two implicit judgments: (1) Drug use has untoward social consequences (e.g., impoverishment of families and crime) and (2) the net effect of making it illegal would be to reduce the incidence of those consequences. Opposition to drug use is therefore rational. The unenlightened answer (with respect to the real issue) is “disagree.”

13. Gun-control laws fail to reduce people’s access to guns. (Unenlightened: Agree)

This is almost certainly a false statement. But those who agree with it are making the rational judgment that gun-control laws of the strict (confiscatory) kind favored by the left will do little or nothing to disarm criminals, while leaving law-abiding citizens without guns. The enlightened answer (with respect to the real issue) is “agree.”

14. By participating in the marketplace in the United States, immigrants reduce the economic well-being of American citizens. (Unenlightened: Agree)

“Immigrants” these days are mainly illegal ones. Leftists don’t care about that because anything that sticks it to “the man” is good, in their adolescent-rebellion worldview. Nor do they care much about the cost of subsidizing the housing, health-care, and education of illegal immigrants — and those costs probably nullify the gains from lower labor costs that accrue to well-to-do leftists who employ nannies, yard men, and other types of unskilled labor. The enlightened answer is “agree.”

15. When a country goes to war its citizens experience an improvement in economic well-being. (Unenlightened: Agree)

Agreement with this statement reflects  the myth that World War II rescued America from the Great Depression. It did, but not because the war brought with it full employment of labor; the war also brought widespread rationing, so that resources could be diverted to the war effort. The war ended the Great Depression indirectly, in two, related ways. There was a “saving glut,” which generated demand for products and services once the war had ended. And businesses were ready and willing to respond to that demand because the war and FDR’s death brought a (temporary) end to the anti-business, anti-growth policies of the New Deal. The enlightened answer is “disagree” because wars consume resources and usually don’t have the  after-effects of WWII.

16. When two people complete a voluntary transaction, they both necessarily come away better off. (Unenlightened: Agree)

Both parties to a voluntary transaction believe that it will make them better off, and they will be right in most cases. The “correct” answer (“disagree”) hinges on “necessarily” and plays into the leftist view of voluntary transactions between individuals and businesses, where businesses are seen (by leftists) as exploiters. “Agree” is the correct answer with respect to the expectations and motives that drive voluntary exchange; “disagree” is favored by those who wish to discredit voluntary exchange and replace it with paternalistic regulation. The enlightened answer is “agree.”

17. When two people complete a voluntary transaction, it is necessarily the case that everyone else is unaffected by their transaction (Unenlightened: Agree)

Here, again, we find the qualifier “necessarily.” As with question 16, it serves to deflect attention from the normal course of events to the outliers that (in the minds of leftists) justify government action. For if anyone is affected (or even offended) in the slightest by a voluntary transaction, the “externality” thus created is grounds from some kind of government action, in the left-wing view of the world. The importance and negative effects of externalities are vastly overrated. The enlightened answer is “agree.”

My interpretations are deliberately provocative. But my point is that, the 17-question survey can be seen as a libertarian Rorschach test. An enlightened libertarian would see through the questions, as stated, to the deeper issues and give what I call enlightened answers.

I used the enlightened answers to compare the positions of self-described leftists, conservatives, and libertarians with each other and with the positions that an enlightened libertarian would take. The next two paragraphs describe my method.

In tables 1 and 2 of “Economic Enlightenment Revisited,” Buturovic and Klein (B & V) give, for each question, the percentage of respondents offering answers that are “incorrect” (in their view), overall and by ideological category. I used the values given in tables 1 and 2 to obtain weighted percentages of “incorrect” answers for “leftist” participants, that is, persons who self-identified as progressive and liberal. Similarly, I obtained weighted percentages of “incorrect” for “conservative” participants, that is, persons who self-identified as conservative and very conservative. I took the percentages for self-identified libertarians straight from the tables.

I then had to account for the fact that an enlightened libertarian would have answered eight questions (9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 16, and 17) “incorrectly,” according to B & V. For example, 30.5 percent of self-described libertarians answered question 9 “incorrectly.” But B & V’s “incorrect” answer is, in fact, the correct one from the standpoint of an enlightened libertarian; therefore, 100 – 30.5 = 69.5 percent of libertarians answered question 9 incorrectly. I made similar adjustments for all eight of the wrongly graded questions, and did so for leftists and conservatives as well as libertarians.

Without further ado, here is a question-by-question comparison of the three ideological categories with respect to the answers that an enlightened libertarian would give:

This leads to two observations:

1. Persons responding to the survey who self-describe as leftists did better than self-described conservatives and libertarians on only two questions: 12 and 15. To put it another way, libertarians and conservatives generally come closer than leftists to enlightened libertarian positions.

2. More significantly, it is obvious that self-described libertarians and conservatives are closely aligned on 14 of the 17 questions. Further, that would be true even if I were to accept B & V’s version of the “correct” answers.

Klein’s retraction is misguided. Many of the answers that he considers correct are, in fact, consistent with the wrong-headed views of extreme libertarians — a vocal but unrepresentative minority of libertarians.

The survey results evidently reflect the views of sensible libertarians, who understand that true libertarianism is found in traditionalist conservatism. The closeness of their positions to those of conservatives is heartening evidence of a de facto libertarian-conservative fusion.

Regulation as Wishful Thinking

Paul Krugman is arguably a better advocate of regulation than a philosopher (unless the philosopher also has a Ph.D. in economics). But Krugman has met his match in Steven Landsburg, who slices and dices Krugman’s latest justification of the nanny state. Landsburg’s effort might render this post superfluous, but I began to write it before learning of the latest Krugman-Landsburg confrontation (the dénouement of an earlier one is here). There is more to be said and, unlike Landsburg, I am not a sucker for the concept that underpins regulation: the social welfare function (about which, see below).

IMPETUS

This post is inspired by Jason Brennan’s offering at the Bleeding Heart Libertarians blog, “A Simple Libertarian Argument for Environmental Regulation.” Brennan writes:

Libertarians are often very hostile to environmental regulation. Why? Reflecting on the argument below should help us understand their grounds and whether the grounds are any good.

1. Pollution and other kinds of environmental externalities impose costs upon others. A polluter forces others to bear the costs of his activities. Pollution tends to violate people’s property rights, as well as certain rights they have over themselves (such as the rights against having their health compromised against their will).

2. Government regulation of environmental issues is USUALLY/OFTEN/SOMETIMES effective, and is USUALLY/OFTEN/SOMETIMES more effective than using courts to defend the rights mentioned in premise 1. Courts are SOMETIMES/OFTEN/USUALLY ineffective in protecting these rights.

3. Therefore, government should have the right to issue environmental regulations in order to protect property rights, rights to life, and rights to health.

I don’t see how a libertarian could deny premise 1. So premise 2 does all the work. Premise 2 is an empirical premise. We can debate which word (“usually”, “often”, or “sometimes”) belongs in each sentence to make premise 2 true. However, unless the libertarian believes we should instead have “never” in the first sentence of premise 2, then it seems the libertarian has a strong case for favoring some government regulation of environmental issues….

Brennan is wrong to say that “premise 2 does all the work.” Premise 1 does just as much “work,” in a negative way, because it ignores positive externalities. Further, Brennan’s premise 2 omits to mention that regulation — however effectively it may address particular problems — is, on the whole, counterproductive. Brennan’s conclusion (#3) would be flawed, even if premises 1 and 2 were complete and correct, because it rests on the utilitarian presumption of a social welfare function.

In a follow-up post, “Objections to the Simple Libertarian Argument for Environmental Regulation,” Brennan writes:

[H]ere are some objections [to the earlier argument]:

A. The Mission Creep/Abuse Objection: Though 3 is true, if we give government the power to enforce the rights mentioned in 2 through environmental regulation, government will abuse and misuse this power. It will misuse/abuse it so much that it won’t be worth it. It’s better just to leave things to courts, and if that doesn’t work, just let people pollute.

B. The Cost-Benefit Objection: While government is sometimes effective at enforcing rights, cost-benefit analysis shows that the EPA and other such agencies, even when acting without abuse and in good faith, spend/cost far too much for every year of life saved. Against, it’s better just to leave things to courts or even just let people pollute.

C. Other Unintended Consequences Objection: Allowing government to try to solve the problem causes various other negative consequences, and isn’t worth the cost.

D. The Market Can Fix It Objection: There are some market-based (e.g., Coasean) means to solve these problems.

Having been thoroughly schooled in public choice and all the usual stuff, I see the point behind A-D. There’s significant truth behind each of these objections. However, if you’re one of those libertarians who believes the government should issue no environmental regulations (and many libertarians do believe this), you seem to me to be far too pessimistic about A-C and/or optimistic about D. Do the facts really turn out to imply that the optimal amount of government environmental regulation is none?

In the following sections, I expand on my statements about the premises (#1, #2) and conclusion (#3) of Brennan’s original post. Along the way, I address points A, B, C, and D of Brennan’s second post. I also address Brennan’s implicit assumption that regulators can arrive at an “optimal amount” of regulation. This is simply nonsense on stilts because, among other things, it contravenes “public choice,” in which Brennan claims to have been “thoroughly schooled.”

NOT ALL EXTERNALITIES ARE NEGATIVE

A polluter may be producing something that is of value not only to the purchasers of that product but also to others who derive benefits from the purchasers’ use of the product, benefits for which those others do not pay. In other words, negative externalities may be accompanied by positive externalities.

Consider electricity, which in the United States is generated mostly by fossil-fuel and nuclear-power plants. Coal-fired plants still generate about half of America’s electric power; nuclear plants account for another 20 percent. Both types of plants are perennial targets of environmental activists, who cavil at the emissions of coal-burning, the possibility of nuclear accidents, and the problem of containing or disposing of coal ash and radioactive waste. The stance of environmentalists — which is essentially the stance of the Environmental Protection Agency — is to reduce pollution and eliminate risk without regard for the positive externalities of power generation.

And those positive externalities are vast. The availability of electricity has made possible countless inventions and innovations, to the benefit of producers and consumers who did not pay a penny more to power companies for the benefits thus derived. Those inventions and innovations would not have been possible — and will not be possible — if not for the availability of electricity. To the extent that coal generation makes electricity cheaper and more widely available, it encourages beneficial inventions and innovations. One can say that a positive externality of coal-generated electricity has been a higher rate of economic growth — more jobs and greater prosperity — than would otherwise have been possible.

I have made a rough estimate of the value of the positive externalities of electrical power, as follows:

1. The tables for value added by industry at the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) website do not subdivide the utilities industry into categories (electric power, water, etc.). I therefore used the values given for the entire utilities industry as an upper bound of the value added by private electric-power companies. That value was 1.8 percent of GDP in 2008. Many governments (including the federal government) are in the power-generation business, but the value-added by government power utilities is not available, so I took as an upper bound the value added by government enterprises (federal, State, and local), which was 1.1 percent of GDP in 2008. Power-generating entities in the United States therefore add — at the very most — about 3 percent to the nation’s total economic output.

2. But the value added by power generation — something less than 3 percent of GDP, according to the BEA — fails to account for the fundamental importance of electric-power generation to America’s economy. It would not be a great exaggeration to say that the overnight loss of power-generating capacity would set the economy back to its status circa 1900. That was after factories had begun to use electricity but before it came into wide use in large cities. Real GDP per capita in 1900 was about 1/8 of the value it reached in 2008.

3. Try to think of an economic activity that does not depend on electricity. Given the pervasive dependence of all parts of the American economy on electricity, it would be difficult to deny that the power industry’s positive externality (its social return, if you will) is upwards of 7/8 of GDP, whereas the nominal value-added of electric power is less than 3 percent of GDP. That, my friends, is a positive externality to end all positive externalities.

REGULATION IS COUNTERPRODUCTIVE

Regulation is counterproductive for several reasons. First, it curtails positive externalities. Nothing more need be said on that score. 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.

Who Regulates the Regulators?

Regulators do not stop regulating when they (might) have done some good. Regulatory overreach is endemic to regulatory activity and cannot be separated from it. A lot of bad inevitably accompanies a bit of good. This happens because the regulatory agenda is driven by a combination of

  • activists” whose specific (and mostly aesthetic) objectives (kill the pipeline, don’t drill in ANWR, save the spotted owl, etc.) are intended to to limit economic activity and consumer choice;
  • scientists who are eager to join the consensus about the latest environmental craze, just to be part of the action and also to grab their share of government-funded research — which, not coincidentally, tends to lend credence to the scare-of-the-month that justifies regulation;
  • regulatory “capture,” through which incumbent firms “help” regulators in ways that favor incumbent firms and limit competition; and
  • politicians and bureaucrats who play to “activists,” incumbent firms with deep pockets, and the general public (by claiming to be pro-environment), while extending their reach and power — because that is what politicians and bureaucrats like to do.

Regulation as a Blunt Instrument

Regulation substitutes one-size-fits all “solutions” for the tailored outcomes of free markets (including Coesean bargaining) and civil litigation. The result is a consistent pattern of government failure, which is amply documented. (See, for example, the 144 issues of Regulation that have been published to date.) Regulation might be defensible (though not by me) if it were a matter of occasional failure, but it is not. Resorting to regulation to “solve a problem” is like playing Russian roulette with five bullets in a six-shooter.

At its best, regulation mimics the results that would have obtained anyway, as seems to have been the case with automobile safety regulations. These did no more than allow the continuation of a long-running trend toward safer autos and highways, but at the cost of making autos less affordable for low-income persons.

At its worst, regulation prevents consumers from obtaining life-saving products. This can happen indirectly, through the generally stultifying effect of regulation on economic activity (estimated below). And it can happen directly, as with the Food and Drug Administration’s notorious record of delaying the availability of health- and life-saving medicines. (For more on the high cost of regulation, see W. Kip Viscusi and Ted Gayer’s “Safety at Any Price?” in Regulation, Fall 2002. For a good example of government imposing a dangerous one-size-fits-all burden on the populace, see Kenneth Anderson’s post, “The Science Is Settled: You’re Just Too Stupid to Live,” at The Volokh Conspiracy.)

A pervasive form of regulation, which usually is not labelled as such, is the Fed’s manipulation of interest rates and the supply of money. How has that worked out? Business cycles have become more volatile since the creation of the Fed in 1913. The worst downturn in American history — the Great Depression — can be chalked up, in large part, to the Fed’s loosening of credit in the late 1920s, followed by its contraction of the money supply in the early 1930s. We owe the Great Recession, which lingers, to the “perfect storm” of low interest rates (thanks to the Fed) and the regulation of housing markets (to encourage home-ownership by low-income persons) via Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

Environmental regulation is no different than any other kind, resting as it does on aesthetic preferences, half-baked “scientific” theories (AGW being the latest and perhaps the most egregious of the lot), and the unholy alliance of “bootleggers and Baptists.” The “bootleggers” are incumbent firms; producers of “green” products and such-like; and politicians and bureaucrats, who stand to gain power and prestige from their “unselfish” efforts. The “Baptists” are smug do-gooders who just will not leave the rest of us alone to figure things out for ourselves.

The Interest-Group Paradox

Environmental regulation and regulation in general are integral to the vast and vastly destructive regulatory-welfare state that has rise up in America since the early 1900s. That growth is the result of a phenomenon which I call the interest-group paradox.

Pork-barrel legislation exemplifies the interest-group paradox in action, though the paradox involves more than pork-barrel legislation. There are myriad government programs that — like pork-barrel projects — are intended to favor particular classes of individuals. In the case of environmental regulation, the favored classes are “activists,” bureaucrats, incumbent firms, “green” enterprises, and the politicians who benefit from their symbiotic relationships with the aforementioned. The support for each program is “bought” at the expense of supporting other programs. Because there are thousands of government programs (federal, State, and local) — each intended to help a particular class of citizens (at the expense of others) — the net result is that almost no one in this fair land enjoys a “free lunch,” despite almost everyone’s efforts to do just that. This is the interest-group paradox.

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

If you want regulation, you must pay the political price by backing other programs, for which you will seek payment in the form of additional regulation, and so on, ad perpetuum.

The Final Tally

The direct cost of regulation is about 10 percent of GDP: $1.5 trillion in today’s dollars. The indirect cost of regulation cannot be separated from the cumulative burden of the regulatory-welfare state. But that burden would not be as large as it is were it not for the integral role of environmental regulation in the working of the interest-group paradox. I have estimated that the establishment and expansion of the regulatory-welfare state over the past century has reduced real GDP by about 70 percent from the level it would have attained if the state had not been expanded beyond a “night watchman” role.

The price tag is so large that everyone (“activists,” regulators, etc.) pays in one way or another, through fewer choices, fewer jobs, and lower real incomes. And it cannot be otherwise because, as noted above, the bad inevitably comes with the good. To believe or claim otherwise is to indulge in the Nirvana fallacy and wishful thinking.

FUNDAMENTAL FLAW: THE MYTH OF THE SOCIAL-WELFARE FUNCTION

Costs aside, regulation is based on an epistemological error. The urge to regulate presumes a social welfare function that can be maximized — or improved, at least — by limiting the negative externalities that flow from certain economic activities.

For example, an environmental regulation might cause the owner of a polluting factory to buy and operate some kind of equipment that reduces the factory’s emissions. When the owner complies, those who live near the factory are presumed to be better off. And perhaps the benefits extend farther afield. But, in any case, the factory owner’s higher costs are likely to have untoward effects, for example, fewer jobs for factory workers and higher prices for the purchasers of the factory’s products.

When a proponent of regulation is confronted with this reality, he is likely to shrug and say that the costs (fewer jobs, higher prices) are worth the benefits (less pollution). Whence the moral authority to make that kind of judgment? It implies the existence of a social-welfare function, to which the proponent of regulation is privy.

This is nothing less than utilitarianism in the modern garb of cost-benefit analysis. The theory of cost-benefit analysis is simple: If the expected benefits from a government project or regulation are greater than its expected costs, the project or regulation is economically justified.

But cost-benefit analysis has a fundamental flaw, which it shares with utilitarianism: One person’s benefit cannot be compared with another person’s cost. (This objection vanishes when parties are free to engage in Coasean bargaining, but regulation preempts that option.) Suppose, for example, that the City of Los Angeles were to conduct a cost-benefit analysis which “proved” that the cost of  constructing yet another freeway through the city would be more than offset (i.e., would yield a “net benefit”) because it would reduce the imputed cost of time spent in traffic by workers who drive into the city from the suburbs.

Yes, that is how cost-benefit analysis works. It assumes that the costs borne by one set of persons (taxpayers, consumers, unemployed factory workers, etc.) can be offset by the benefits that accrue to other persons (commuters, persons who live near factories, environmental “activists,”, etc.).  It is the creed of “the greatest amount of happiness altogether.”

A moment’s reflection will tell you that there is no such thing as “the greatest amount of happiness altogether.” If A steals from B, A is happier for having obtained money with little effort, while B is less happy because he has less money. Does A’s gain in happiness cancel B’s loss of happiness. If you say “yes,” welcome to the world of psychopathy.

And you do say “yes,” implicitly, if you believe in environmental regulation — or any kind of regulation that effectively redistributes income or wealth.

THE ALTERNATIVES TO REGULATION: MARKETS AND COMMON LAW

Given all that I have said in the preceding sections, it seems clear that the burden of proof is (or should be) on those who wish to substitute regulation for markets and common law. It is also clear that, despite Brennan’s wishful thinking, government is incapable of delivering an “optimal amount” of regulation — whatever that might be. Markets may be imperfect (from the standpoint of the non-existent omniscient arbiter), but they are less imperfect than government.

General Arguments for Markets and Common Law Instead of Regulation

Is it wishful thinking to suppose that markets and civil litigation can deal with pollution and other kinds of negative externalities? Not at all:

Free-market environmentalism can also be expected to grow. It is the proven private alternative to costly and ineffective command-and-control schemes for protecting endangered species and habitats. To avoid the tragedy of the commons, one can look to the creation of more private, voluntary arrangements for “property rights” over animals, fish, and ecologically sensitive lands—via auctions of cleverly designed contracts to limit kills and catches and via binding covenants to preserve natural lands in perpetuity. Conservation banks, first created in 1995, now number 70 and represent another approach to environmental protection for endangered birds and animals. (Reason Foundation, “Transforming Government through Privatization,” Annual Privatization Report, 2006)

Terry L. Anderson, executive director of the Property & Environment Research Center (PERC) gives many examples of free-market environmentalism at work in “Markets and the Environment: Friends of Foes?” For much more, see PERC’s large catalog of publications. And PERC is but one of the many organizations doing serious scholarly work in the field of free-market environmentalism.

If you are old enough to remember the Love Canal disaster, you will assume (as I did) that it was the fault of the chemical company that had been dumping waste in the abandoned canal. Not so, according to Richard L. Stroup:

[L]iability for pollution is a powerful motivator when a factory or other potentially polluting asset is privately owned. The case of the Love Canal, a notorious waste dump, illustrates this point. As long as Hooker Chemical Company owned the Love Canal waste site, it was designed, maintained, and operated (in the late 1940s and 1950s) in a way that met even the Environmental Protection Agency standards of 1980. The corporation wanted to avoid any damaging leaks, for which it would have to pay.

Only when the waste site was taken over by local government—under threat of eminent domain, for the cost of one dollar, and in spite of warnings by Hooker about the chemicals—was the site mistreated in ways that led to chemical leakage. The government decision makers lacked personal or corporate liability for their decisions. They built a school on part of the site, removed part of the protective clay cap to use as fill dirt for another school site, and sold off the remaining part of the Love Canal site to a developer without warning him of the dangers as Hooker had warned them. The local government also punched holes in the impermeable clay walls to build water lines and a highway. This allowed the toxic wastes to escape when rainwater, no longer kept out by the partially removed clay cap, washed them through the gaps created in the walls….

Nor does the government sector have the long-range view that property rights provide, which leads to protection of resources for the future. As long as … divestibility, is present, property rights provide long-term incentives for maximizing the value of property. If I mine my land and impair its future productivity or its groundwater, the reduction in the land’s value reduces my current wealth. That is because land’s current worth equals the present value of all future services. Fewer services or greater costs in the future mean lower value now. In fact, on the day an appraiser or potential buyer can first see that there will be problems in the future, my wealth declines. The reverse also is true: any new way to produce more value—preserving scenic value as I log my land, for example, to attract paying recreationists—is capitalized into the asset’s present value.

Because the owner’s wealth depends on good stewardship, even a shortsighted owner has the incentive to act as if he or she cares about the future usefulness of the resource. This is true even if an asset is owned by a corporation. Corporate officers may be concerned mainly about the short term, but as financial economists such as Harvard Business School’s Michael C. Jensen have noted, even they have to care about the future. If current actions are known to cause future problems, or if a current investment promises future benefits, the stock price rises or falls to reflect the change. Corporate officers are informed by (and are judged by) these stock price changes. (From “Free Market Environmentalism,” at the Library of Economics and Liberty.)

The Siren Song of Government Intervention

Stroup stumbles, however, by saying that

when many polluters and those who receive the pollution are involved, how can property rights force accountability? The nearest receivers may be hurt the most, and may be able to sue polluters—but not always. Consider an extreme case: the potential global warming impact of carbon dioxide produced by the burning of wood or fossil fuels. If climate change results, the effects are worldwide. Nearly everyone uses the energy from such fuels, and if the threat of global warming from a buildup of carbon dioxide turns out to be as serious as some claim, then those harmed by global warming will be hard-pressed to assert their property rights against all the energy producers or users of the world. The same is true for those exposed to pollutants produced by autos and industries in the Los Angeles air basin. Private, enforceable, and tradable property rights can work wonders, but they are not a cure-all.

If a cure-all is required, one ought to pray for miracles. Short of miracles, the question is whether it is better to rely on government action or voluntary action, supplemented by civil litigation. I say “or” precisely because government action precludes the alternatives. It is “better” to rely on government if one wants a dictated outcome, is willing to impose the costs of attaining that outcome on persons who are not involved in the situation at hand (e.g., distant taxpayers), and is indifferent to the unintended consequences of government action. It is better to rely on voluntary action, supplemented by civil litigation, if one cares about liberty and economic efficiency (as found in Coasean solutions to conflicts of interest).

Taking smog in the L.A. basin first: It belongs to that class of “problem” which includes choosing to live in areas that are prone to hurricanes, floods, and fires. The obvious voluntary solution — for those who find smog, etc., not worth whatever benefits may accrue to living with it (e.g., higher income) — is to quit the locale. Along comes government to impose one-size-fits-all solutions that also impose costs on persons who do not live in areas where there is smog, etc. The immediate results of government intervention are a disincentive to move and massive subsidization of those who choose not to move by persons who have their own problems to contend with. Further results are

  • disincentives to entrepreneurs who would come forward with ameliorative devices (e.g., air-filtration systems and catalytic converters);
  • disincentives to persons of a charitable bent who would take it upon themselves to help low-income persons afford ameliorative devices and even help to underwrite the development of such devices;
  • moral hazard, that is, putting the non-movers in a position to incur further losses that will be subsidized; and
  • the playing out of the interest-group paradox, wherein those who are subsidized agree (tacitly) to subsidize persons who seek subsidization or other favors from government.

Entrepreneurship is thought to be unlikely (in the circumstance) because of the free-rider problem, but the free-rider problem is overstated. Further, charity (giving without the expectation of more than psychic return) is one proof against the presumption of economic paralysis that is embedded in the statement of the free-rider problem.

Regardless of the arguments against regulation, most politicians and left-wingers would say that it is proper to respond “collectively” to pollution because, after all, that is the hallmark of a “just, caring society,” in which “we” take care of each other. Are disincentives to entrepreneurship, charity, moral hazard, cross-subsidization, and plain old theft by government really the hallmarks of a “just, caring society”? Not at all; they are the facts of life that politicians and leftists prefer to ignore because they prefer collective action (at the point of government’s gun) to effective action. The invocation of a “just, caring society” is a cheap political trick, played by leftists and politicians. In the case of politicians, it is a sign of  (cheap) compassion that helps them win elections, feed at the public trough, and slake their power-lust.

No “Problem” Is Too Big for Private Action

Stroup, despite his evident understanding of the power of markets to solve “problems,” seems to hold a viewpoint in common with knee-jerk advocates of government action: If a “problem” exists, it is only a “problem,” not an incidental, negative aspect of beneficial activity. And its “solution” cannot come at too high a price, that is, whatever price government imposes through regulation, inasmuch as “optimal regulation” is a pipe-dream.

Moreover, the “problem” may be so pervasive that only government can solve it. Why? Because those who suffer negative externalities are unable to bargain with or take legal action against the parties responsible for the externalities. Who are those parties? They are us! We — the users of electricity and the many other products and services whose creation results in the emission of  carbon dioxide — may be joined in an unwitting suicide pact, despite the warnings of  “seers” like Al Gore, James Hansen, Michael Mann, et al.. Those warnings (blatantly hypocritical in Gore’s case) amount to this: “We” (but not “they”) must surrender a large portion of the material gains that have been wrested from nature through ingenuity and industriousness; otherwise, there will be dire consequences for all. (Perhaps it would have been better if our distant ancestors had not learned how to make fire, with all of its dire consequences for humans and their possessions.)

I have written so much about the issue of AGW (e.g., here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here) that I will not bother to address its validity here. I will assume, merely for the sake of argument, that it is a possibility. But saying that it is a possibility does not mean that it is a dire emergency. Consider, for example, these excerpts of Nobel laureate Ivar Ginever’s letter of resignation from the American Physical Society:

In the APS it is ok to discuss whether the mass of the proton changes over time and how a multi-universe behaves, but the evidence of global warming is incontrovertible? The claim (how can you measure the average temperature of the whole earth for a whole year?) is that the temperature has changed from ~288.0 to ~288.8 degree Kelvin in about 150 years, which (if true) means to me is that the temperature has been amazingly stable, and both human health and happiness have definitely improved in this ‘warming’ period.

If AGW is truly a problem — and not just a “problem” that “demands” government action — it is evidently not an emergency that requires immediate, concerted action by a central authority. To the contrary, if it is a problem it can be addressed by a variety of voluntary actions. These include the gradual migration of heat-sensitive individuals and economic activities to cooler parts of the globe and the development and spread of ameliorative technologies for those persons and activities that cannot or will not migrate. All such adaptive behavior will become more possible and affordable if economic growth is not choked off by regulations that arbitrarily stifle economic activity by curbing the emission of so-called greenhouse gases. (That a large proportion of individuals and economic activities would thrive as their environment warms a bit seems to be lost on climate-change alarmists.)

If the possibility of AGW does not justify government action, what about a true global emergency? Imagine, for example, that reputable scientists around the globe detect a large asteroid that is almost certain to strike Earth in two years, and that the likely result of the strike is the end of human life on the planet. Would that not justify concerted government action?

Again, I say “no.” What it would justify — and encourage — is action by independent (but possibly cooperative) teams of scientists and engineers, underwritten by various groups of super-rich individuals and large corporations. Why should such individuals and corporations fund an effort that would benefit upward of seven billion free riders? Because the existence of those individuals and corporations would be at stake, and many of them would welcome the glory and/or increased sales that would undoubtedly accompany a successful anti-asteroid operation.

I refer you, again, to my earlier post about the free-rider problem, and the link that is embedded in the post. In both posts, I argue that defense and justice — among other so-called public goods — are nothing of the kind. They are goods that, in a relatively open polity like that of the United States, are better provided by an accountable state than entrusted to competing private entities. It should be obvious — and it is obvious to all but obdurate anarcho-capitalists — that such entities would be the equivalent of warlords. The law of the jungle would replace the rule of law. That possibility is the only excuse for the state’s monopolization of justice and defense. But nothing — not even “externalities” — excuses the state’s intrusion into economic activity that is peaceful and voluntary.

Related posts:
Fear of the Free Market — Part I
Fear of the Free Market — Part II
Fear of the Free Market — Part III
The Social Welfare Function
Risk and Regulation
A Short Course in Economics
The Interest-Group Paradox
Addendum to a Short Course in Economics
Utilitarianism, “Liberalism,” and Omniscience
Accountants of the Soul
Ricardian Equivalence Reconsidered
The Real Burden of Government
Utilitarianism vs. Liberty
Toward a Risk-Free Economy
Rawls Meets Bentham
The Rahn Curve at Work
The Case of the Purblind Economist
The Illusion of Prosperity and Stability
Estimating the Rahn Curve: Or, How Government Inhibits Economic Growth
Luck-Egalitariansim and Moral Luck
Understanding Hayek
The Destruction of Society in the Name of “Society”
What Free-Rider Problem?
Human Nature, Liberty, and Rationalism
Utilitarianism and Psychopathy

Human Nature, Liberty, and Rationalism

Michael Shermer writes about political philosophy and human nature in “Liberty and Science” at Cato Unbound:

In the Realistic Vision, human nature is relatively constrained by our biology and evolutionary history, and therefore social and political systems must be structured around these realities, accentuating the positive and attenuating the negative aspects of our natures. A Realistic Vision rejects the blank slate model that people are so malleable and responsive to social programs that governments can engineer their lives into a great society of its design, and instead believes that family, custom, law, and traditional institutions are the best sources for social harmony. The Realistic Vision recognizes the need for strict moral education through parents, family, friends, and community because people have a dual nature of being selfish and selfless, competitive and cooperative, greedy and generous, and so we need rules and guidelines and encouragement to do the right thing….

[T]he evidence from psychology, anthropology, economics, and especially evolutionary theory and its application to all three of these sciences supports the Realistic Vision of human nature….

6. The power of family ties and the depth of connectedness between blood relatives. Communities have tried and failed to break up the family and have children raised by others; these attempts provide counter evidence to the claim that “it takes a village” to raise a child. As well, the continued practice of nepotism further reinforces the practice that “blood is thicker than water.”

7. The principle of reciprocal altruism—I’ll scratch your back if you’ll scratch mine”—is universal; people do not by nature give generously unless they receive something in return, even if what they receive is social status.

8. The principle of moralistic punishment—I’ll punish you if you do not scratch my back after I have scratched yours—is universal; people do not long tolerate free riders who continually take but almost never give….

11. The almost universal nature of within-group amity and between-group enmity, wherein the rule-of-thumb heuristic is to trust in-group members until they prove otherwise to be distrustful, and to distrust out-group members until they prove otherwise to be trustful.

12. The almost universal desire of people to trade with one another, not for the selfless benefit of others or the society, but for the selfish benefit of one’s own kin and kind; it is an unintended consequence that trade establishes trust between strangers and lowers between-group enmity, as well as produces greater wealth for both trading partners and groups.

So far, so good. But Shermer then goes off track: “I believe that the Realistic Vision of human nature is best represented by the libertarian political philosophy….” He defines that philosophy earlier:

Libertarianism is grounded in the Principle of Equal Freedom: All people are free to think, believe, and act as they choose, so long as they do not infringe on the equal freedom of others. Of course, the devil is in the details of what constitutes “infringement”….

(See also the Harm Principle, which is a corollary of the Principle of Equal Freedom.)

Yes, the devil is in the details, as Will Wilkinson explains in “The Indeterminacy of Political Philosophy“:

[E]very conception of freedom or liberty when stated in broad outlines is relatively indeterminate. In order to arrive at a recognizably “libertarian” version of a conception of freedom requires filling out the conception in not-at-all obvious ways. This is true even of the classic libertarian conception of liberty as non-coercion. Generally, libertarians rely on a tendentiously loaded conception of coercion that simply stipulates that commonsense forms of emotional, psychological, and social coercion aren’t really coercive in the relevant sense.

Wilkinson goes too far when he indicts “emotional, psychological, and social coercion,” which he does at greater length here. It would not be far-fetched to say that Wilkinson finds coercion everywhere, even in the exercise of property rights, which are so well established that only a Marxist (I had thought) would consider them an instrument of coercion. It seems that Wilkinson — like most of the so-called libertarians who frequent the internet — yearns for super-human beings who are devoid of basic human traits and impulses.

The fact is that — psychopaths and dictators excepted — we are all “coerced,” not in Wilkinson’s sense of the word but in the sense that we must often constrain our behavior and make compromises with others (i.e., become “socialized”) if we are to live in liberty. This is a point that I made in my first post at this blog (“On Liberty“), and which I have repeated many times:

[T]he general observance of social norms … 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.

Peaceful, willing coexistence and beneficially cooperative behavior can occur only among actual human beings, with all of their inborn traits and impulses. Yes, peaceful coexistence requires human beings to curb those traits and impulses, to some degree, but those traits and impulses cannot be suppressed entirely. If they could, there would be no need for discussions of this kind: “When men are pure, laws are useless….” (Benjamin Disraeli).

And so, coexistence is shaped by human traits and impulses, just as spacetime is shaped by the masses of gravitational bodies. The conditions of coexistence are as inseparable from human nature as the curvature of spacetime is from its contents. If liberty is to be more than a slogan, it must account for human beings as they really are. That is to say, liberty must account for human beings as Michael Shermer describes them. Thus:

  • Liberty is a modus vivendi, not a mysterious essence with an independent, timeless existence (like a Platonic ideal).
  • Liberty arises from in-group solidarity, which is based on shared customs, beliefs (including religious ones), and a moral code that defines harmful acts and requires voluntary, peaceful cooperation among members of the group. (This means that there are many groups whose customs, beliefs, and moral codes are not libertarian, even though such groups may evince solidarity and cooperation.)
  • Liberty is possible (but problematic) where there are many such interconnected groups under the aegis of a minimal state — one that exacts justice for acts that all groups consider harmful (e.g., murder, theft, rape), keeps the peace among groups, and protects all groups from external predators. (The federalism of the original Constitution fostered liberty, but only to the extent that individual States enforced their Bills of Rights, enabled local governance, and forbade slavery.)
  • By virtue of geography, a state’s client groups may include some that are predatory, either economically and socially (seeking subsidies and other privileges) or criminally (acting violently toward other groups and their members). A minimal state that is dedicated to liberty will deny privileges and give no quarter to violence.
  • Resistance to trade and immigration across international boundaries — as social stances taken in full knowledge of the potential benefits of trade and immigration — are legitimate political positions, except when they are held by trade unionists and their political allies, who seek to deprive other Americans of the benefits of trade and immigration. (Economists who presume to lecture about the wisdom of trade and immigration are guilty of reducing what can be deep social issues to shallow economic ones.)
  • Because liberty is a manifestation of in-group solidarity, it is legitimate for groups that are comprised in a state to question and resist actions by the state that require the acceptance, on equal terms, of persons and groups (a) whose mores are not in keeping with those of extant groups and (b) whose influence could result in the enforcement by the state of anti-libertarian measures.
  • Liberty, in a phrase, begins “at home” (the state willing) and extends only as far as the social boundaries of a group that coheres in mutual trust, respect, forbearance, and aid. There is a slim possibility of state-fostered liberty, but it can realized only where the state exacts justice for acts that all groups consider harmful, keeps the peace among groups, and protects all groups from external predators. (In those respects, there is a promise of liberty — but a promise not kept — in the Constitution of the United States.)
  • But liberty is less likely to be found “at home” (or anywhere) because the social fabric has been sundered by the state’s impositions (e.g., usurping charitable functions and discouraging them by progressive taxation, the anti-religion trajectory of judicial holdings, the undermining of swift and sure justice by outlawing the death penalty and making it difficult to enforce, allowing abortion that borders on infanticide, mocking and undermining the institution of marriage).

Liberty, in other words, is a product of social intercourse, not of abstract principles, and certainly not of ratiocination. The last-mentioned, which often yields agreement between “liberals” and “libertarians” on such matters as abortion, defense, immigration, and homosexual “marriage,” also finds them deeply divided on such matters as property rights, regulation, and various forms of redistribution (Social Security, Medicare, humanitarian aid in the U.S. and overseas, and so on). Ratiocination, in other words, is unlikely to transcend the temperament of the ratiocinator. (Wilkinson essentially agrees, in “The Indeterminacy of Political Philosophy,” but seems not to heed himself.)

To put it another way, the desirability or undesirability of state action has nothing to do with the views of “liberals,” “libertarians,” or any set of pundits, “intellectuals,” “activists,” and seekers of “social justice.” As such, they have no moral standing, which one acquires only by being — and acting as — a member of a cohesive social group with a socially evolved moral code that reflects the lessons of long coexistence. The influence of “intellectuals,” etc., derives not from the quality of their thought or their moral standing but from the influence of their ideas on powerful operatives of the state.

In short, the only truly libertarian intellectual stance is anti-rationalism. As Michael Oakeshott explains, a rationalist

never doubts the power of his ‘reason … to determine the worth of a thing, the truth of an opinion or the propriety of an action. Moreover, he is fortified by a belief in a ‘reason’ common to all mankind, a common power of rational consideration….

… And having cut himself off from the traditional knowledge of his society, and denied the value of any education more extensive than a training in a technique of analysis, he is apt to attribute to mankind a necessary inexperience in all the critical moments of life, and if he were more self-critical he might begin to wonder how the race had ever succeeded in surviving. (“Rationalism in Politics,” pp. 5-7, as republished in Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays)

An anti-rationalist refuses to view life through the formalistic lens of  “rights, freedoms and personal empowerment,” to lift a phrase from Leon Kass’s “The Wisdom of Repugnance.” An anti-rationalist trusts the wisdom that is accrued in social norms, and thinks very carefully before trying to change those norms. As Kass puts it, in the context of cloning,

repugnance is the emotional expression of deep wisdom, beyond reason’s power fully to articulate it….

Repugnance … revolts against the excesses of human willfulness, warning us not to transgress what is unspeakably profound. Indeed, in this age in which everything is held to be permissible so long as it is freely done, in which our given human nature no longer commands respect, in which our bodies are regarded as mere instruments of our autonomous rational wills, repugnance may be the only voice left that speaks up to defend the central core of our humanity. Shallow are the souls that have forgotten how to shudder.

Related posts:
On Liberty
What Is Conservatism?
Utilitarianism, “Liberalism,” and Omniscience
Utilitarianism vs. Liberty
The Principles of Actionable Harm
The Indivisibility of Economic and Social Liberty
Negative Rights
Negative Rights, Social Norms, and the Constitution
Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and the Legitimate State
Accountants of the Soul
The Unreality of Objectivism
“Natural Rights” and Consequentialism
Rawls Meets Bentham
More about Consequentialism
Rationalism, Social Norms, and Same-Sex “Marriage”
Inside-Outside
A Moralist’s Moral Blindness
Society and the State
Undermining the Free Society
Pseudo-Libertarian Sophistry vs. True Libertarianism
Positivism, “Natural Rights,” and Libertarianism
“Intellectuals and Society”: A Review
What Are “Natural Rights”?
The Golden Rule and the State
Government vs. Community
Libertarian Conservative or Conservative Libertarian?
Bounded Liberty: A Thought Experiment
Evolution, Human Nature, and “Natural Rights”
More Pseudo-Libertarianism
More about Conservative Governance
The Meaning of Liberty
Positive Liberty vs. Liberty
On Self-Ownership and Desert
In Defense of Marriage
Understanding Hayek
The Destruction of Society in the Name of “Society”
The Golden Rule as Beneficial Learning
Facets of Liberty
Burkean Libertarianism
Rights: Source, Applicability, How Held
What Is Libertarianism?
Nature Is Unfair
True Libertarianism, One More Time

True Libertarianism, One More Time

I recently engaged a left-libertarian (oxymoron) in the comments section of “What Is Libertarianism.” The exchange prompts me to offer a condensed treatment of true libertarianism vs. pseudo-libertarianism. The former is really a kind of conservatism, which is why I call it Burkean libertarianism. The latter — which is the kind of “libertarianism” much in evidence on the internet — rests on the Nirvana fallacy and posits dangerously false ideals.

A “true” libertarian respects socially evolved norms because those norms evidence and sustain the mutual trust, respect, forbearance, and voluntary aid that — taken together — foster willing, peaceful coexistence and beneficially cooperative behavior. And what is liberty but willing peaceful coexistence and beneficially cooperative behavior?

If socially evolved norms include the condemnation of abortion (because it involves the murder of a living human being) and the rejection of same-sex “marriage” (because it mocks and undermines the institution through which children are born and raised by an adult of each gender, fate willing), the “true” libertarian will accept those norms as part and parcel of the larger social order — as long as it is a peaceful, voluntary order.

The “pseudo” libertarian — in my observation — will reject those norms because they interfere with the “natural rights” (or some such thing) of the individuals who want to abort fetuses and/or grant same-sex “marriage” the same status as heterosexual marriage. But to reject and reverse norms as fundamental as the condemnation of abortion and same-sex “marriage”  is to create strife and distrust, therefore undermining the conditions upon which liberty depends.

The pseudo-libertarian looks down upon society as a self-appointed judge, then swoops in to admonish society when its members do not embrace his particular views about rights. How a pseudo-libertarian, who is usually an atheist, can do this has long been a mystery to me. He cannot refer to Divine writ; his religion-substitute is “natural rights,” whose composition is known to him, but not to lesser beings. The source of his knowledge of “natural rights” is either innate in his superior intellect (how convenient) or else it arises from a strained interpretation of human evolution. The latter, somehow, has yielded up a set of inborn natural rights, the contours of which the pseudo-libertarian is privileged to perceive. (None of this is meant to denigrate Judeo-Christianity, the foundational tenets of which foster liberty.)

The pseudo-libertarian, in other words, is afraid to admit that the long evolution of rules of conduct by human beings who must coexist  might just be superior to the rules that he would arbitrarily impose, reflecting as they do his “superior” sensibilities. I say “arbitrarily” because pseudo-libertarians have not been notably critical of the judicial impositions that have legalized abortion and same-sex marriage, or of the legislative impositions that have corrupted property rights in the pursuit of “social justice.”

All in all, it seems that pseudo-libertarians believe in the possibility of separating the warp and woof of society without causing the disintegration of the social fabric. The pseudo-libertarian, in that respect, mimics the doctrinaire socialist who wants prosperity but rejects one of its foundation stones: property rights.

A true libertarian will eschew the temptation to prescribe the details of social conduct. He will, instead, take the following positions:

  • The role of the state is to protect individuals from deceit, coercion, and force.
  • The rules of social conduct are adopted voluntarily within that framework are legitimate and libertarian.

*   *   *

The foregoing is a terse summary of the detailed analysis of liberty and rights that I have offered in many posts, including these:

On Liberty
Greed, Cosmic Justice, and Social Welfare
Positive Rights and Cosmic Justice
Democracy and Liberty
Parsing Political Philosophy
Inventing “Liberalism”
Civil Society and Homosexual “Marriage”
What Is Conservatism?
Utilitarianism, “Liberalism,” and Omniscience
Utilitarianism vs. Liberty
The Principles of Actionable Harm
The Indivisibility of Economic and Social Liberty
Beware of Libertarian Paternalists
Law and Liberty
Negative Rights
Negative Rights, Social Norms, and the Constitution
Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and the Legitimate State
Tocqueville’s Prescience
The Mind of a Paternalist
Accountants of the Soul
The Unreality of Objectivism
“Natural Rights” and Consequentialism
Rawls Meets Bentham
More about Consequentialism
Perry v. Schwarzenegger, Due Process, and Equal Protection
Rationalism, Social Norms, and Same-Sex “Marriage”
Line-Drawing and Liberty
The Divine Right of the Majority
Our Enemy, the State
Pseudo-Libertarian Sophistry vs. True Libertarianism
Positivism, “Natural Rights,” and Libertarianism
What Are “Natural Rights”?
The Golden Rule and the State
Libertarian Conservative or Conservative Libertarian?
Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: Part I
Nature Is Unfair
Social Justice
Bounded Liberty: A Thought Experiment
The Left’s Agenda
Evolution, Human Nature, and “Natural Rights”
More Pseudo-Libertarianism
More about Conservative Governance
The Meaning of Liberty
Taxing the Rich
More about Taxing the Rich
Peter Presumes to Preach
Positive Liberty vs. Liberty
More Social Justice
On Self-Ownership and Desert
In Defense of Marriage
Luck-Egalitarianism and Moral Luck
Empathy Is Overrated
Understanding Hayek
Union-Busting
The Left and Its Delusions
Corporations, Union, and the State
The Golden Rule as Beneficial Learning
Why I Am Not an Extreme Libertarian
Facets of Liberty
Burkean Libertarianism
Crimes against Humanity
Rights: Source, Applicability, How Held
Blackmail, Anyone?
The Ideal as a False and Dangerous Standard
About Democracy
The Arrogance of (Some) Economists
What Is Libertarianism?

What Is Libertarianism?

Many definitions of libertarianism are available online. I like this one for its depth:

Although there is much disagreement about the details, libertarians are generally united by a rough agreement on a cluster of normative principles, empirical generalizations, and policy recommendations. Libertarians are committed to the belief that individuals, and not states or groups of any other kind, are both ontologically and normatively primary; that individuals have rights against certain kinds of forcible interference on the part of others; that liberty, understood as non-interference, is the only thing that can be legitimately demanded of others as a matter of legal or political right; that robust property rights and the economic liberty that follows from their consistent recognition are of central importance in respecting individual liberty; that social order is not at odds with but develops out of individual liberty; that the only proper use of coercion is defensive or to rectify an error; that governments are bound by essentially the same moral principles as individuals; and that most existing and historical governments have acted improperly insofar as they have utilized coercion for plunder, aggression, redistribution, and other purposes beyond the protection of individual liberty. (“Libertarianism,” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

Two aspects of this definition merit closer examination. The first is “that individuals have rights against certain kinds of forcible interference on the part of others.” Whence these rights, and how extensive are they? I say here that

[r]ights, as products of social evolution, are strictures on interpersonal behavior, not “essences” that emanate from individuals. Rights, therefore, are culturally variable in their precise contours, but certain constants of human nature (empathy, self-interest) lead most cultures in the direction of a modus vivendi like the Golden Rule.

Specifically:

There’s a mainstream interpretation of the Golden Rule — one that still holds in many places — which rules out certain kinds of behavior, except in extreme situations, and permits certain other kinds of behavior. There is, in other words, a “core” Golden Rule that comes down to this:

  • Murder is wrong, except in self-defense. (Capital punishment is just that: punishment. It’s also a deterrent to murder. It isn’t “murder,” muddle-headed defenders of baby-murder to the contrary notwithstanding.)
  • Various kinds of unauthorized “taking” are wrong, including theft (outright and through deception). (This explains popular resistance to government “taking,” especially when it’s done on behalf of private parties. The view that it’s all right to borrow money from a bank and not repay it arises from the mistaken beliefs that (a) it’s not tantamount to theft and (b) it harms no one because banks can “afford it.”)
  • Libel and slander are wrong because they are “takings” by word instead of deed.
  • It is wrong to turn spouse against spouse, child against parent, or friend against friend. (And yet, such things are commonly portrayed in books, films, and plays as if they are normal occurrences, often desirable ones. And it seems to me that reality increasingly mimics “art.”)
  • It is right to be pleasant and kind to others, even under provocation, because “a mild answer breaks wrath: but a harsh word stirs up fury” (Proverbs 15:1).
  • Charity is a virtue, but it should begin at home, where the need is most certain and the good deed is most likely to have its intended effect.

Adherence to the Golden Rule is vestigial because in the past century — since the advent of the regulatory-welfare state and the seizure of state power by social “activists” — eons of socially evolved behavioral norms have been distorted and swept aside. Thus the phenomena of broad support for abortion and growing support for same-sex “marriage” — both of which are due to the anti-social combination of “activism” and sponsorship by an anti-religious state.

This leads me to the second aspect of the definition of libertarianism that merits closer attention: “social order is not at odds with but develops out of individual liberty.” The ranks of self-styled libertarians abound with social engineers who would, if they could, override the social order with their own visions of how that order should look. These pseudo-libertarians do not hesitate to prescribe a social order aligned with their effete sensibilities.

To the many examples of pseudo-libertarianism that I have adduced in previous posts (e.g., here and here), I will add two. First comes Charles Johnson, one of the Bleeding Heart Libertarians, points with pride to his article, “The Many Monopolies” (Freeman, September 2011). Regulations, according to Johnson,

fundamentally restructure markets, inventing the class structures of ownership, ratcheted costs, and inhibited competition that produce wage labor, rent, and the corporate economy we face….

A fully freed market means liberating essential command posts in the economy from State control, to be reclaimed for market and social entrepreneurship. The market that would emerge would look profoundly different from anything we have now.

What it would look like — in Johnson’s dreams — is a kind  of leftist Utopia: “Independent contracting, co-ops, and worker-managed shops.” This, of course, is pure guesswork — and wishful thinking — about the effects of abolishing all regulations, whether they superficially favor labor, business, or consumers. (I have more to say about such guesswork in this post.)

The subtitle of Johnson’s analysis should be “Small is beautiful.” It reads like a nostalgic lament for pre-industrial America, as if large corporations are evil per se.

Then there is the reliably leftist libertarian, Will Wilkinson, who says that

there are other legitimate public goods beyond the police protection of property rights. The need to finance the provision of these goods can justifiably limit our property rights, just as a system of property can justifiably limit our right to free movement. The use of official coercion to collect necessary taxes is no more or less problematic than the use of official coercion to enforce claims to legitimate property. Of course, those who suffer most from the absence of adequate public goods are the poor and powerless. (“A Libertarian’s Lament: Why Ron Paul Is an Embarrassment to the Creed,” The New Republic, September 2, 2011)

What are those other “public goods” to which Wilkinson refers? One of them is public schooling. It may seem strange for a so-called libertarian to endorse public schooling, but — in Wilkinson’s view — the cause is just if it benefits “poor kids.” Well, then, why not tax “the rich” to put everyone in the lower half of the income distribution on the dole? Where does one draw the line? Where Wilkinson says to draw the line, I suppose. After all, one mustn’t allow social outcomes that displease Mr. Wilkinson.

The point of these examples is that they illustrate a decided antagonism to a “social order [that] develops out of individual liberty.” They are consistent with “positive liberty,” which — as I have written — is not liberty at all.

Libertarianism — true libertarianism — does not presume to prescribe the outcome of social activity, only its conditions: peaceful and voluntary. It is inevitable and unavoidable that peaceful, voluntary social activity will yield outcomes that are unequal — in terms of income, wealth, and social status — and even distasteful — in terms of inter-group antipathies and discriminatory behavior.  But unequal and distasteful outcomes are rooted in the reality of human nature, which Michael Schermer summarizes quite well in his essay, “Liberty and Science,” at Cato Unbound:

  1. The clear and quantitative physical differences among people in size, strength, speed, agility, coordination, and other physical attributes that translates into some being more successful than others, and that at least half of these differences are inherited.
  2. The clear and quantitative intellectual differences among people in memory, problem solving ability, cognitive speed, mathematical talent, spatial reasoning, verbal skills, emotional intelligence, and other mental attributes that translates into some being more successful than others, and that at least half of these differences are inherited.
  3. The evidence from behavior genetics and twin studies indicating that 40 to 50 percent of the variance among people in temperament, personality, and many political, economic, and social preferences are accounted for by genetics.
  4. The failed communist and socialist experiments around the world throughout the 20th century revealed that top-down draconian controls over economic and political systems do not work.
  5. The failed communes and utopian community experiments tried at various places throughout the world over the past 150 years demonstrated that people by nature do not adhere to the Marxian principle “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”
  6. The power of family ties and the depth of connectedness between blood relatives. Communities have tried and failed to break up the family and have children raised by others; these attempts provide counter evidence to the claim that “it takes a village” to raise a child. As well, the continued practice of nepotism further reinforces the practice that “blood is thicker than water.”
  7. The principle of reciprocal altruism—I’ll scratch your back if you’ll scratch mine”—is universal; people do not by nature give generously unless they receive something in return, even if what they receive is social status.
  8. The principle of moralistic punishment—I’ll punish you if you do not scratch my back after I have scratched yours—is universal; people do not long tolerate free riders who continually take but almost never give.
  9. The almost universal nature of hierarchical social structures—egalitarianism only works (barely) among tiny bands of hunter-gatherers in resource-poor environments where there is next to no private property, and when a precious game animal is hunted extensive rituals and religious ceremonies are required to insure equal sharing of the food.
  10. The almost universal nature of aggression, violence, and dominance, particularly on the part of young males seeking resources, women, and especially status, and how status-seeking in particular explains so many heretofore unexplained phenomena, such as high risk taking, costly gifts, excessive generosity beyond one’s means, and especially attention seeking.
  11. The almost universal nature of within-group amity and between-group enmity, wherein the rule-of-thumb heuristic is to trust in-group members until they prove otherwise to be distrustful, and to distrust out-group members until they prove otherwise to be trustful.
  12. The almost universal desire of people to trade with one another, not for the selfless benefit of others or the society, but for the selfish benefit of one’s own kin and kind; it is an unintended consequence that trade establishes trust between strangers and lowers between-group enmity, as well as produces greater wealth for both trading partners and groups.

Efforts to channel human nature in contrary directions — whether those efforts are “liberal” or “libertarian” –  can lead only in one direction: the stifling of liberty:

The recognition of the insuperable limits to his knowledge ought indeed to teach the student of society a lesson of humility which should guard him against becoming an accomplice in men’s fatal striving to control society – a striving which makes him not only a tyrant over his fellows, but which may well make him the destroyer of a civilization which no brain has designed but which has grown from the free efforts of millions of individuals. (Friedrich A. Hayek, “The Pretence of Knowledge,” Nobel Prize lecture, December 11, 1974)

Related posts:
Beware of Libertarian Paternalists
Columnist, Heal Thyself
The Mind of a Paternalist
Accountants of the Soul
Rawls Meets Bentham
Enough of “Social Welfare”
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
Positive Liberty vs. Liberty
In Defense of Marriage
Understanding Hayek
We, the Children of the Enlightenment
Why I Am Not an Extreme Libertarian
Facets of Liberty
Burkean Libertarianism
Crimes against Humanity
Rights: Source, Applicability, How Held
The Ideal as a False and Dangerous Standard
The Arrogance of (Some) Economists

Burkean Libertarianism

This post rounds off the preceding one and (possibly) puts and end to my discussion of conservatism and libertarianism. I have argued in many posts that true libertarianism is to be found in conservatism — Burkean conservatism, in particular. (The preceding post is a good case in point, as are many of the posts linked at the bottom of that post.)

Roger Scruton writes:

…A small dose of philosophy will persuade us that people have always been wrong to look to the future for the test of legitimacy, rather than to the past. For the future, unlike the past, is unknown and untried. A host of respectable modern thinkers were aware of this fact and tried (against the pressure of half-educated enthusiasm) to remind their contemporaries of it: Burke, for example…. The modernist adulation of the future should be seen as an expression of despair, not of hope… (An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Philosophy, p. 163)

That brief passage exposes “mainstream” libertarianism — contractarian, utilitarian, economistic — for the sham that it is. In its various forms, it assumes a world that ought to be and might be (if only people behaved like automata), instead of looking to a world that can be, as revealed by the past.

Where is libertarianism to be found? In conservatism, of all places, because it is a reality-based political philosophy.

But what does conservatism have to do with libertarianism? Instead of quoting myself, I yield to John Kekes, who toward the end of “What Is Conservatism?” says this:

The traditionalism of conservatives excludes both the view that political arrangements that foster individual autonomy should take precedence over those that foster social authority and the reverse view that favors arrangements that promote social authority at the expense of individual autonomy. Traditionalists acknowledge the importance of both autonomy and authority, but they regard them as inseparable, interdependent, and equally necessary. The legitimate claims of both may be satisfied by the participation of individuals in the various traditions of their society. Good political arrangements protect these traditions and the freedom to participate in them by limiting the government’s authority to interfere with either.

Therein lies true libertarianism — true because it is attainable.

It is fitting and proper to close this post with my version of Russel Kirk’s six “canons” of conservatism (summarized here):

  1. Belief that political problems, at bottom, are religious and moral problems.
  2. Affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of traditional life, as distinguished from the narrowing uniformity and egalitarian and utilitarian aims of most radical systems.
  3. Conviction that civilized society requires order.
  4. Persuasion that property and freedom are inseparably connected, and that economic leveling is not economic progress.
  5. Faith in traditional mores and distrust of “sophisters and calculators.” Tradition and sound prejudice provide checks upon man’s anarchic impulse.
  6. Recognition that change and reform are not identical.

I will now turn my attention to other matters.* High on my list of things to do is to contribute, in some small way, to the rejection of Obama and his party in next year’s election. They are all-but-declared enemies of a truly free society — one whose members shape their own rules by trial and error, in the process forging the social bonds that foster liberty, which is peaceful, willing coexistence and beneficially cooperative behavior.
__________
* My resolve weakens in the face of provocation. Thus “What Is Libertarianism?” (09/06/11), and probably more in that vein.

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.

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