liberty

Romanticizing the State

Timothy Sandefur, an old sparring partner of mine, offers qualified praise for the state:

Cato Unbound has an excellent essay by Mark S. Weiner arguing that whatever its shortcomings, the state as a political entity is better than its likely alternative: clan rule. I remember having similar thoughts when Christina and I got married. As atheists, we occasionally face various forms of discrimination (fortunately only rarely, and typically minor) but we were still able to get married because we could obtain a civil marriage through the state. Lucky us. In centuries past, that alternative might not have been open to us. In this way, the state provided us with a service that in other times and places has not been available: secular marriage.

It’s a mystery to me why Sandefur and his spouse, both of them declared atheists and libertarians, want their marriage to be authorized by the state. Surely, they know that they could have entered into a cohabitation contract without the approval of the state. That contract could have included many provisions, including an agreement to submit their differences to binding, private arbitration.

Did they seek state approval to indicate that their marriage is just as legitimate as marriages sanctioned by churches? This strikes me as out of character for atheists and libertarians. If one doesn’t believe in God and is generally opposed to the workings of the state (beyond some minimal level of defense, perhaps), why would one unnecessarily emulate believers and acknowledge the state’s legitimacy in a sphere where its involvement is unnecessary?

All of that aside, I am bemused by Sandefur’s laudatory reference to Weiner’s essay, which begins with this:

Many conservatives argue as a basic tenet of their political thought that individual liberty thrives when the state is limited and weak. “As government expands, liberty contracts,” explained President Ronald Reagan in his farewell address, calling the principle “as neat and predictable as a law of physics.” This view is especially pronounced among libertarians, and for libertarians of an anarchist perspective, the opposition between the individual and the state is fundamental and irreconcilable.

I believe this view is significantly mistaken. From the perspective of comparative law and legal history, it represents a dangerous illusion characteristic of citizens who already enjoy the benefits of modern liberal government. Although the state can be an instrument of tyranny, robust government capable of vindicating the public interest is vital for individual autonomy.

As I argue in my recent book The Rule of the Clan, among its important benefits, a strong central state provides the most effective means to ensure that persons are treated as individuals, not merely as cousins. In its absence, people are forced to look to other institutions to address their social and legal problems, and the most enduring such organization in human history is the extended family, the clan—for which group loyalty trumps individual rights.

Because the rule of the clan provides many vital goods that liberal societies deliver less effectively, and because it is based on the natural fact of genetic affinity, it represents an ever-present gravitational force in human affairs.

One of the objects of modern liberal government is to resist this gravitational pull.

The fatal flaw in Weiner’s argument is his passing admission that “the state can be an instrument of tyranny.” The state not only can be an instrument of tyranny; it is an instrument of tyranny. When it comes to tyranny, the clan has nothing on the state.

Weiner writes as if the state were a kind of mechanical contrivance, free of human impulses and capable of a dispassionate defense of individualism. Would that it were so, but it is not so. The state — as a human institution — is powered by the operation of clannish institutions. As Daniel McCarthy writes in response to Weiner,

It’s not only the case that a strong central government—today’s “state” or the ancient empire—can safeguard the individual from being subsumed into a constraining group identity, but it’s also the case that the active component of liberty, the exercise of self-government, has tended to be a matter of group expression.

In republican Rome, the good (self-government) was inextricably mixed with the bad (rule by clannish elites). But this is the story of self-government everywhere. The House of Commons in England, for example, did not begin as an institution to represent all commoners; it began as a forum to represent the wealthiest towns and localities….

Reform of the boroughs, broadening of the franchise, and the introduction of the secret ballot were great struggles; at times they seemed almost revolutionary to Britain’s landed class. These struggles were fought and won not by individuals but by groups that were more than a little clannish and coercive. Clannishness was characteristic of the Catholic and Dissenting Protestant groups that also fought at this time—sometimes literally in streets—for their civil liberties. And in America, too, clannish groups, from racial minorities to religious and sexual ones, have had to battle for freedom. This was not at all an individualistic activity, either in its origins or its methods. The liberties we as individuals cherish today were largely won by clannish groups.

Such struggles, even when they are outlawed and cannot be conducted at the ballot box, are a kind of participation in power, as one institution of power—not the state, but the clan—compels another to recognize its demands and accede to at least some of them for the sake of peace. Even in ordinary politics at the level of Republicans and Democrats, clannishness rather than individualism is the rule, with religious, ethnic, and cultural blocs pursuing group objectives. Individualists tend to be blind to this reality; they are often at a loss to explain politics when, judged as a purely individual activity, even the act of voting is irrational. But it’s not an individual activity—it’s a clan ritual, one that bears some relation to the actual acquisition of power for the group.

Without groups, there is no participation in power—not outside of the tiniest direct democracy, at any rate. The ever present possibility of clan organization, well noted by Weiner, is a natural building block for group participation in ruling. As Weiner warns, the admixture of kinshp and government can lead to “clannism,” in which a kin group dominates the state and uses its machinery of power for selfish ends. Yet without strong clans, participation in power, for defensive as well as aggressive purposes, is forestalled. The result is Caesarism—the condition of the early Roman Empire, in which the citizen may have certain individual legal rights, but he has hardly any way of participating in government to safeguard or extend those rights….

The paradox of rule is that to secure one’s rights, one must participate in government, but participation in government means wielding power that can—and inevitably will—be used to oppress others. Participation in government necessarily has an illiberal dimension, even though it is also indispensable for securing liberty.

I call it the interest-group paradox:

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

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

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

You may believe that a particular program is worth what it costs — given that you probably have little idea of its direct costs and no idea of its indirect costs. The problem is millions of your fellow Americans believe the same thing about each of their favorite programs. Because there are thousands of government programs (federal, State, and local), each intended to help a particular class of citizens at the expense of others, the net result is that almost no one in this fair land enjoys a “free lunch.” …

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

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

Sandefur’s “free lunch” is the state’s recognition and authorization of his marriage. Now, it’s true that the state was already in the business of recognizing and authorizing marriage, so Sandefur’s “free lunch” probably didn’t impose additional costs on the rest of us. But by beseeching the state for a favor, he joins millions of others in validating a panoply of state powers that, on the whole, suppress rather than uphold liberty.

Sandefur would argue that his right to be married wasn’t the state’s to grant. Rather, rights exist independently, and the state sometimes recognizes and enforces them. The state, in other words, is really in the business of bestowing benefits. But because of the interest-group paradox there’s always a price to be paid — in dollars or liberty — for those benefits. The price is often justified by referring to “the greater good,” “the people,” “the nation,” or “society” (to list but a few such shibboleths).

What does that have to do with individualism? Nothing. How does it differ from clannism? It doesn’t; it is simply clannism with a bigger army.

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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
The Pool of Liberty and “Me” Libertarianism
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”
The Pseudo-Libertarian Temperament
Parsing Political Philosophy (II)
Getting Liberty Wrong
Left-Libertarianism in a Nutshell

Getting Liberty Wrong

Like most libertarians, Jeffrey Tucker doesn’t understand liberty. He writes:

Liberty allows peaceful human cooperation. It inspires the creative service of others. It keeps violence at bay. It allows for capital formation and prosperity. It protects human rights of all against invasion. It allows human associations of all sorts to flourish on their own terms. It socializes people with rewards toward getting along rather than tearing each other apart, and leads to a world in which people are valued as ends in themselves rather than fodder in the central plan. (“Against Libertarian Brutalism,” The Freeman, March 12, 2014)

What’s wrong with Tucker’s formulation? In a word: reification. Liberty does nothing, absolutely nothing. Liberty is a result of human striving, not the mysterious causal force of Tucker’s imagining.

Liberty is what people enjoy when they coexist peacefully and cooperatively, when they recognize property rights, when they allow freedom of association, and when they observe both of the complementary sub-rules of the Golden Rule:

  • 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.

None of this is possible unless there is agreement as to what constitutes harm — agreement which is embedded in and preserved by social norms that have evolved through eons of trial and error. Above all, there must be mutual trust and respect. Liberty is therefore likely to prevail only in a polity that is bound by genetic kinship.

Getting back to Tucker’s effusion: It’s just another example of left-libertarian whinging. Liberty is all right, say left-libertarians, as long as it yields certain results. What are those results? Combine the treacly, goody-two-shoes mentality of Romper Room, Captain Kangaroo, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, and Sesame Street; throw in laws and regulations to suppress non-conforming behavior; form identically shaped, identically colored, identically mindless citizens; and bake in the heat of elite-manufactured opinion.

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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
The Pool of Liberty and “Me” Libertarianism
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”
The Pseudo-Libertarian Temperament
Parsing Political Philosophy (II)

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 Social Animal and the “Social Contract”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*     *     *

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

The Culture War

“Culture war” is a familiar term, but one that I hadn’t thought deeply about until a few days ago. I read something about abortion in which “culture war” occurred. The fog lifted, and I grasped what should have been obvious to me all along: The “culture war” isn’t about “culture,” it’s about morality and liberty.

Rod Dreher, in the course of a premature paean to Barack Obama’s “diplomatic” approach to ideological strife, gets it right:

The source of our culture war is conflicting visions of what it means to be free and what it means to be an American – and even what it means to be fully human. More concretely, as Princeton’s Robert George has written, they have to do mainly “with sexuality, the transmitting and taking of human life, and the place of religion and religiously informed moral judgment in public life.”

Because the cultural left and cultural right hold to irreconcilable orthodoxies on these questions, we find scant cultural consensus. That’s life in America. Unless we become a homogenous country, we will continue to struggle to live together, staying true to our deepest beliefs while respecting the liberty of others to stay true to their own.

But we do not live in a libertarian Utopia. We can’t have it all. If, for example, courts constitutionalized same-sex marriage, as gay activists seek, that would have a ground-shaking effect on religious liberty, public schooling and other aspects of American life. Without question, it would intensify the culture war, as partisans of the left and right fight for what each considers a sacred principle.

What irritates conservatives is the liberals’ groundless conceit that they fight from a values-neutral position, while the right seeks to impose its norms on others. Nonsense. Marriage was a settled issue until liberals began using courts to impose their moral vision on (so far) an unwilling majority. Who fired the first shot there? (“Obama Won’t End the Culture Wars,” RealClearPolitics, February 16, 2009)

And it doesn’t matter whether the unwilling are a majority or a minority. Just about everyone is a loser in the war against morality and liberty.

When social norms — long-established rules of behavior — are sundered willy-nilly the result is a breakdown of the voluntary order known as civil society.

The liberty to live a peaceful, happy, and even prosperous life depends on civil society: the daily observance of person X’s negative rights by persons W, Y, and Z — and vice versa. That is so because it is impossible and — more importantly — undesirable for the state 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, which the state ought to protect, but instead usurps and destroys. Usurping is one of the state’s primary (and illegitimate) functions. The state establishes 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.

Worse, however, is the way in which the state destroys the social norms that foster social harmony — mutual respect and trust — without which a people cannot flourish.  As I observed some years ago, in connection with same-sex “marriage”:

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. 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.)

“Thanks” to the signals sent by the state — many of them in the form of legislative, executive, an judicial dictates — we now have not just easy divorce, subsidized illegitimacy, and legions of non-mothering mothers, but also abortion, concerted (and deluded) efforts to defeminize females and to neuter or feminize males, forced association (with accompanying destruction of property and employment rights), suppression of religion, absolution of pornography, and the encouragement of “alternative lifestyles” that feature disease, promiscuity, and familial instability.

The state, of course, doesn’t act of its own volition. It acts at the behest of special interests — interests with a “cultural” agenda. Dreher calls them liberals. I call them left-statists. They are bent on the eradication of civil society — nothing less — in favor of a state-directed Rousseauvian dystopia from which morality and liberty will have vanished, except in Orwellian doublespeak.

*     *     *

Related reading:
Trevor Thomas, “The Laughable Liberal ‘Moral Imperative’,” American Thinker, December 1, 2013
Deborah C. Tyler, “Morality, Anti-Morality, and Socialism,” American Thinker, December 1, 2013

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

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

Defending Liberty against (Pseudo) Libertarians

(Pseudo) libertarians like to demonstrate their bogus commitment to liberty by proclaiming loudly their support for unfettered immigration, unfettered speech, unfettered abortion, unfettered same-sex coupling (and legal recognition thereof as “marriage’), and unfettered you-name-it.. In the minds of these moral relativists, liberty is a dream world where anything goes — anything of which they approve, that is.

The aim of today’s sermon is to embellish what I’ve said previously in many of the posts listed at the bottom of this one on the subject of (pseudo) libertarians and (pseudo) libertarianism. I begin with Bryan Caplan.

My disdain for Caplan’s (pseudo) libertarian, pacifistic, one-worldishness is amply documented: here, here, here, here, here, and here (second item). Caplan has been at it again, in recent posts about immigration (as in opening the floodgates thereto).

Consider this post, for example, where Caplan tries (in vain) to employ Swiftian hyperbole in defense of unfettered immigration. In the following block quotation, each of Caplan’s “witty” proposals is followed by my observations (in brackets and bold type):

Libertarians’ odd openness to using immigration restrictions to protect American freedom has me thinking.  There are many statist policies that could indirectly lead to more libertarian policy.  If you’re open to one, you should logically be open to all.

Here are just a few candidates:

1. Make public schools teach libertarianism.  Sure, public education should be abolished.  But as long as public education exists, wouldn’t it be better if the schools taught children about the value of freedom and the wonder of markets?

[Well, yes, our course it would. But public schools don’t do that — and won’t do that — because they were long ago taken over by leftist “educators.” Next stupid idea…]

2. Discourage fertility of less libertarian groups.  If you really think that Muslims or Hispanics are unusually statist, their high birth rates should worry you.  Indeed, any birth rate above zero should worry you.  A moderate step would be to offer members of these groups extra subsidies for birth control.  From there, it’s just a hop, skip, and a jump to subsidized sterilization, tax penalties, or a selective One Child Policy.

[But why allow the immigration of statist-leaning groups in the first place? In fact, it would be a good idea to encourage them — and others — to leave. If the encouragement were financial, it would be a good investment.]

3. Censor statist ideas.  Sure, Paul Krugman has a right to free speech.  But the rest of us have a right to not be ruled by people swayed by Krugman.  It’s childish to deny the trade-off, no?

[It is childish to deny the trade-off. That’s why idiots like Caplan deny it. They believe that theft is wrong, but they don’t believe in preventing (or reducing) the amount of theft committed by government because statist ideas have been and are allowed to flourish. See below for more on this point.]

4. Subsidize vacations for less libertarian groups on election day.  Suppose the government gave members of unlibertarian groups free trips to Cancun that conveniently coincided with election day.  While some of the eligible would file an absentee ballot, there is little doubt that this would heavily depress turnout.  So why not?

[Better yet — and far less expensive — establish meaningful eligibility standards for voting; for example, being at least 30 years of age, owning one’s home, and being able to read and write at the 12th-grade level. This might empower more “liberals” than conservatives, give the tendency of educated persons to adhere to statism. But their power would be constrained by the sensible prohibition of speech that advocates theft in the name of the state.]

The first link in the block quotation is to an earlier post by Caplan, in which, for practical purposes, he joins with Don Boudreaux in proclaiming (psuedo) libertarian absolutism on such other matters as freedom of speech. As Boudreaux puts it,

Freedom may well destroy itself.  That’s a risk I’m willing to take, especially if the proposed means of saving freedom is to restrict it.

This reminds me of “it was necessary to destroy the village in order to save it.” It’s a position that defies logic; thus:

  1. Freedom is not merely literal freedom from captivity; it is the enjoyment of that freedom through the peaceful pursuit of happiness. (Freedom, as a general condition, is possible only if everyone’s pursuit of happiness is peaceful with respect to other persons and their property.)
  2. It is wrong to deny any person his freedom, regardless of his demonstrated enmity toward freedom as defined in 1. (This is Boudreaux’s stated position, which — taken literally — precludes the imprisonment of convicted murderers, rapists, thieves, and others whose acts deny to others the peaceful pursuit of happiness.)
  3. Freedom, therefore, consists only of literal freedom. (This conclusion, which contradicts the full definition of freedom given in 1, is the logical consequence of Boudreaux’s position. And yet, Boudreaux would be the last person to accept this limited definition of freedom.)

It doesn’t matter whether the person whose demonstrated hostility toward freedom (properly defined) is a thief or a socialist. One is the same as the other when it comes to the defense of freedom (properly defined). Boudreaux and his ilk would be consistent (though wrong) if they were to say that thieves shouldn’t be imprisoned, but I doubt that they would say such a thing because they are staunch defenders of property rights. Why then, do they defend the right of statists to spread the gospel of government control over our lives and livelihoods, which is nothing but government-sponsored theft and demonstrably more damaging than garden-variety theft?

As I say at the end of this post,

Liberty is lost when the law allows “freedom of speech, and of the press” to undermine the civil and state institutions that enable liberty.

There is a very good case for the view that the First Amendment sought to protect only those liberties necessary for the preservation of republican government. The present statist regime is a long way from the kind of republican government envisioned by the Framers.

Another staple of (pseudo) libertarian thought is a slavish devotion to privacy — when that devotion supports a (pseudo) libertarian position. Economists like Caplan and Boudreaux are cagy about abortion. But other (pseudo) libertarians are less so; for example:

I got into a long conversation yesterday with a [Ron] Paul supporter who took me to task for my criticisms of Paul’s positions. For one thing, he insisted, Paul’s position on abortion wasn’t as bad as I made it out, because Paul just thinks abortion is a matter for the states. I pointed out that in my book, saying that states can violate the rights of women [emphasis added] is no more libertarian than saying that the federal government can violate the rights of women.

Whence the “right” to abort an unborn child? Here, according to the same writer:

I do believe that abortion is a liberty protected by the Fourteenth Amendment….

This train of “logic” is in accord with the U.S. Supreme Court’s manufactured “right” to an abortion under the Fourteenth (or was it the Ninth?) Amendment, which I have discussed in various places, including here. All in the name of “privacy.”

Here, again, we see devotion to a value for its own sake, regardless of the implications for liberty. As I say here,

if privacy were an absolute right, it would be possible to get away with murder in one’s home simply by committing murder there. In fact, if there are any absolute rights, privacy certainly isn’t one of them.

(Psuedo) libertarians choose not to characterize abortion as murder. They prefer to think of it as a form of control over one’s own body. But an unborn child is not “one’s own body” — it is its own body, created (in the overwhelming majority of cases) by consensual sex between the mother and a male person. Abortion is nothing more than a murderous flight from personal responsibility, which is a trait highly praised (in the abstract) by (pseudo) libertarians. And it is a long step down a very slippery eugenic slope.

It is no wonder that many (pseudo) libertarians like to call themselves liberaltarians. It is hard to distinguish (pseudo) libertarians from “liberals,” given their shared penchant for decrying and destroying freedom of association and evolved social norms. It is these which underlie the conditions of mutual respect, mutual trust, and forbearance that enable human beings to coexist peacefully and cooperatively. That is to say, in liberty.

Related posts:
Law, Liberty, and Abortion
Abortion and the Slippery Slope
Privacy: Variations on the Theme of Liberty
An Immigration Roundup
Illogic from the Pro-Immigration Camp
On Liberty
Illegal Immigration: A Note to Libertarian Purists
Inside-Outside
A Moralist’s Moral Blindness
Pseudo-Libertarian Sophistry vs. True Libertarianism
The Folly of Pacifism
Positivism, “Natural Rights,” and Libertarianism
What Are “Natural Rights”?
The Golden Rule and the State
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
Rethinking the Constitution: Freedom of Speech and of the Press
The Golden Rule as Beneficial Learning
Why I Am Not an Extreme Libertarian
Facets of Liberty
Burkean Libertarianism
Rights: Source, Applicability, How Held
The Folly of Pacifism, Again
What Is Libertarianism?
True Libertarianism, One More Time
Human Nature, Liberty, and Rationalism
Utilitarianism and Psychopathy
Privacy Is Not Sacred
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
Cato, the Kochs, and a Fluke
Conservatives vs. “Liberals”
Not-So-Random Thoughts (II)
Why Conservatism Works
The Pool of Liberty and “Me” Libertarianism
Bleeding-Heart Libertarians = Left-Statists
Enough with the Bleeding Hearts, Already
Not Guilty of Libertarian Purism
Liberty and Society
The Eclipse of “Old America”
Genetic Kinship and Society
Liberty as a Social Construct: Moral Relativism?

Not-So-Random Thoughts (VI)

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

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

I read Adam Smith as approving of social pressure….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

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

LIberty as a Social Construct: Moral Relativism?

This is the fourth installment of a series that explores the true nature of liberty, how liberty depends on society, how society (properly understood) has been eclipsed by statism and its artifacts, and how society — and therefore liberty — might re-emerge in the United States. In this installment, I take up the second of several possible objections to my model of a society’s essence and workings. This series will close with a blueprint for the restoration of society and liberty in America.

If you have not read the first three installments, “Liberty and Society,” “The Eclipse of ‘Old America’,” and “Genetic Kinship and Society,” I recommend that you do so before you continue. This post addresses the following question: Am I Endorsing Moral Relativism?

In “Liberty and Society,” I argue that

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.

Liberty, in other words, 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.)

Before you accuse me of moral relativism, consider the following. I am not endorsing a particular social construct, merely describing reality. The ugly reality is that in some societies there are barbarous acts which are considered to be moral, or to be justified because they are committed to enforce a moral code. One need look no further than certain Islamic sects, which endorse acts of terror against infidels, the stoning to death of adulterous women, and the imprisonment of homosexuals just because they are homosexuals. Are those acts justified by their broad acceptance within the Islamic sects that preach and practice them? Not in my view, certainly. But abhorrence of such acts does not negate the fact that they are accepted as normal within certain societies.

These facts will not dissuade moral absolutists, among whose number are deontological libertarians. Such libertarians like to believe that there is a “correct” moral code, and that it is known to them. This is a rather priestly pretension for a sect whose ranks are populated mainly by atheists. Persons who come to moral absolutism through religious conviction have the advantage of intellectual consistency.

By the deontological account, every human being is endowed with certain inalienable rights — “natural rights.”  What are those rights? One might assume that deontologists agree unanimously about them, inasmuch as deontologists accept the non-aggression principle and self-ownership as axiomatic. But the devil, as always, is in the details. Does the non-aggression principle preclude abortion? Some deontologists say that it does; others, that it does not. Does the non-aggression principle preclude a preemptive strike when it is evident that an enemy is about to attack? Again, it depends on which deontologist answers the question. I could go on, but that should be enough to tell you that deontology is no guarantee of moral certainty. In fact, deontology is nothing more than Mill’s harm principle in fancy dress And it has the same fatal flaw: It is a general statement into which one may pour a variety of specific meanings. (See “Liberty and Society.”) Efforts by deontologists to ground “natural rights” in evolutionary biology are equally fatuous. (See “Evolution, Human Nature, and ‘Natural Rights’,” and “More Thoughts about Evolutionary Teleology.”)

Then there are consequentialist libertarians, who claim that a regime of negative rights is best because it yields the greatest good for the greatest number. But the problem with that stance is its utilitarianism, that is, its presumption that the welfare of one person can be weighed against that of another person. (See “Enough of Social Welfare.”)

What about “progressives,” who are like deontological libertarians in the certainty with which they proclaim “natural rights,” which they (“progressives”) like to call “universal rights” and “human rights.” Unsurprisingly, “progressive” conceptions of rights are unlike those of most libertarians, who recognize only negative rights (“bleeding hearts” excepted). “Progressives” are champions of positive rights, that is, claims against the produce and property of others.

Who is to say that the “progressives” are wrong and hard-core libertarians are right? In other words, if there is a moral high ground, who decides who is standing on it? If a group of “progressives” were to form a cohesive society in which certain positive rights were agreed and accepted by all, without resort to coercion, would that not be a legitimate state of affairs? I have to admit that it would be.

That said, there is among “progressives” broad resistance to a pure share-and-share-alike ethos. In fact, “progressives” adhere to a share-this-much-but-no-more ethos. Though the “sharing” is not true sharing but redistribution by government edict. And the proper amount of “sharing” is always an idiosyncratic product of “progressive” attitudes du jour.

If you seek a good example of moral relativism, you can always find it in “progressivism,” with its ad hoc morality. Consequentialist libertarianism is no better, in principle, though when it comes to policy, consequentialists tend to be indistinguishable from deontologists. The latter, if they are nothing else, are demi-paragons of moral absolutism. If they were paragons, they would all discover the same operational code — one that goes deeper than an invocation of “natural rights.”

But I have wandered from the main point, which is whether variations in moral codes necessarily denote significant differences as to the nature of morality. Moral codes have two types of component: core values and instrumental values. Core values usually are expressed as absolutes: You shall not kill; you shall not steal; and so on. And those values may be held in common by many societies, even though those societies may have markedly different instrumental values.

The Amish, for example, subscribe to the core values that are enunciated in the Ten Commandments. But their instrumental values vary from sect to sect; thus:

Amish lifestyle is dictated by the Ordnung (German, meaning: order), which differs slightly from community to community, and, within a community, from district to district. What is acceptable in one community may not be acceptable in another. No summary of Amish lifestyle and culture can be totally adequate, because there are few generalities that are true for all Amish. Groups may separate over matters such as the width of a hat-brim, the color of buggies, or other issues.

The last sentence of the quotation will cause “sophisticates” to smirk, though secular “sophisticates” are loathe to associate with persons who hold “mistaken” views about abortion, child-rearing, capital punishment, and the proper role of government — to name but a few examples. And yet, those same “sophisticates” will agree with their ideological enemies that murder, theft, and several other acts are wrong. The devil, as I say, is in the details.

Instrumental values may be as trivial (to the non-Amish) as the width of a hat-brim, or as consequential (to a large number of persons on the left and right) as the proper punishment for premeditated murder (i.e., whether it should be incarceration, perhaps with a rehabilitative aim, or execution).

Why are instrumental values so important? And do differences about instrumental values preclude common cause with respect to core values?

A society is much more than its core values, As I have said,

[a] society coheres around genetic kinship, and is defined by its common culture, which includes its moral code. The culture is developed, transmitted through, and enforced by the voluntary institutions of society (civil society). The culture is the product of trial and error, where those elements that become part of received culture serve societal coherence and — in the best case — help it to thrive. Coherence and success depend also on the maintenance of mutual respect, trust, and forbearance among society’s members. Those traits arise in part from the sharing of a common culture (which is an artifact of societal interaction) and from genetic kinship, which is indispensable to societal coherence.

(On the importance of genetic kinship, see Genetic Kinship and Society.”)

But genetic kinship stretches only so far as a bonding material. When a person — even a person of the “right” race and ethnicity — flouts a society’s instrumental values, he signals disrespect for all of that society values, not just disrespect for the instrumental values in question. Take the predominantly white, flag-burning, rampaging, long-haired, bearded war-protestors of the 1960s and early 1970s, for example. Even though the United States is not a society and never has been one, it cohered in Old America because of commonalities among the societies of which it was composed. To be long-haired and bearded in the 1960s and early 1970s was (rightly) taken not just as a sign of one’s anti-war views but as a sign of one’s rejection of the values common to the societies of Old America. And so it was that to wear one’s hair long and to sport a beard (especially if the hair and beard were unkempt) was to risk a beating at the hands of white “good old boys.” (That the “good old boys” later adopted long hair and shaggy beards only underscores the role of signaling in social solidarity.)

It is nevertheless possible for societies that differ in their instrumental values to find common cause — as long as the differences are not too great:

Old America‘s core constituents, undeniably, were white, and they had much else in common: observance of the Judeo-Christian tradition; British and north-central European roots; hard work and self-reliance as badges of honor; family, church, and club as cultural transmitters, social anchors, and focal points for voluntary mutual aid. The inhabitants of Old America were against “entitlements” (charity was real and not accepted lightly); for punishment (as opposed to excuses about poverty, etc.); overtly religious or respectful of religion (and, in either case, generally respectful of the Ten Commandments, especially the last six of them); personally responsible (stuff happens, and it is rarely someone else’s fault); polite, respectful, and helpful to strangers (who are polite and respectful); patriotic (the U.S. was better than other countries and not beholden to international organizations, wars were fought to victory); and anti-statist (even if communitarian in a voluntary way). Living on the dole, weirdness for its own sake, open hostility to religion, habitual criminality, “shacking up,” and homosexuality were disgraceful aberrations, not “lifestyles” to be tolerated, celebrated, or privileged.

Old America was a large and richly diverse nation, united as much as it could be — and as much as it needed to be for mutual self-defense. Much of that unity has been undone by the purveyors of “diversity” (i.e., state-imposed preferences), who are also the purveyors of “equality” (i.e., unearned entitlements). Those same purveyors are moral relativists who cannot bring themselves to keep Americans safe from violent sub-cultures, at home and abroad.

Which brings me to my criteria for judging moral codes:

1. A code must be socially evolved, not imposed by the state. (Though the state may enforce a moral code that reflects social norms.)

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

3. Those who dissent from the code must be able to voice their dissent; otherwise, the code ceases to be socially evolved. (Dissent does not encompass treason.)

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

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.

6. That polity is illegitimate if it honors inimical moral codes, either overtly or by making acts of obeisance to them. (A case in point: Obama’s support for uprisings in the Middle East — uprisings led by Muslim extremists, as Obama must surely have known.)

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.)

In closing, it is true that liberty is a social construct. But that 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. 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.

Related posts:
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
Why Conservatism Works
Reclaiming Liberty throughout the Land
Rush to Judgment
Secession, Anyone?
Race and Reason: The Achievement Gap — Causes and Implications
Liberty and Society
The Eclipse of “Old America”
Genetic Kinship and Society

Genetic Kinship and Society

UPDATED (08/18/12) BELOW

This is the third installment of a series that explores the true nature of liberty, how liberty depends on society, how society (properly understood) has been eclipsed by statism and its artifacts, and how society — and therefore liberty — might re-emerge in the United States. In this installment, I take up the second of several possible objections to my model of a society’s essence and workings. This series will close with a blueprint for the restoration of society and liberty in America.

If you have not read the first two installments, “Liberty and Society” and “The Eclipse of ‘Old America’,” I recommend that you do so before you continue. This post addresses the following question: Is Genetic Kinship an Indispensable Aspect of Society?

In “Liberty and Society,” I define society as “an enduring and cooperating social group whose members have developed organized patterns of relationships through interaction with one another.” Near the end of the post, I say this:

A society coheres around genetic kinship, and is defined by its common culture, which includes its moral code. The culture is developed, transmitted through, and enforced by the voluntary institutions of society (civil society). The culture is the product of trial and error, where those elements that become part of received culture serve societal coherence and — in the best case — help it to thrive. Coherence and success depend also on the maintenance of mutual respect, trust, and forbearance among society’s members. Those traits arise in part from the sharing of a common culture (which is an artifact of societal interaction) and from genetic kinship, which is indispensable to societal coherence. If the foregoing description is correct, there is one aspect of society — and one only — that a society cannot “manufacture” through its social processes. That aspect is genetic-cultural kinship.

In the sequel, “The Eclipse of ‘Old America’,” there is this:

The United States, for a very long time, was a polity whose disparate parts cohered, regionally if not nationally, because the experience of living in the kind of small community sketched above was a common one. Long after the majority of Americans came to live in urban complexes, a large fraction of the residents of those complexes had grown up in small communities.

This was Old America — and it was predominant for almost 200 years after America won its independence from Britain. Old America‘s core constituents, undeniably, were white, and they had much else in common: observance of the Judeo-Christian tradition; British and north-central European roots; hard work and self-reliance as badges of honor; family, church, and club as cultural transmitters, social anchors, and focal points for voluntary mutual aid.

The focus of this post is the indispensable contribution of genetic kinship to society. Before I continue, I want to make it clear that I do not use “society” in the loose way that politicians do, that  is, as a feel-good word for “nation.” The United States, as a nation, may comprise societies of the kind defined above, but the United States is not a society. It is a political convenience, held together by force, not by mutual trust, respect, and forbearance — which are the operational characteristics of a society.

Mutual trust, respect, and forbearance arise from the emotional force of genetic kinship. They may be mimicked in arrangements of convenience, such as economic ones. But those arrangements last only as long as they are profitable to all parties.

Arrangements of convenience may be facilitated by social bonding, but they cannot replace social bonding. For example, disparate peoples may trade with each other, to their mutual advantage, but they are not bound to each other emotionally. History is replete with examples of peoples who have turned against each other, despite their economic ties. Diplomatic ties are even less binding, because of their superficiality.

Whence the emotional bonds of genetic kinship? Are they found only in the nuclear family? (No.) Do they encompass the extended family? (Yes.) Are they enhanced by social relationships (e.g., church and club)? (Yes.) Do they extend to broad racial-ethnic groupings? (Yes.)

Emotional bonds may be reinforced (or not) by familial and social relationships, but they begin with racial-ethnic (genetic) kinship:

[S]tudies have demonstrated that relatedness is often important for human altruism in that humans are inclined to behave more altruistically toward kin than toward unrelated individuals.[22] Many people choose to live near relatives, exchange sizable gifts with relatives, and favor relatives in wills in proportion to their relatedness.[22]

A study interviewed several hundred women in Los Angeles to study patterns of helping between kin versus non-kin. While non-kin friends were willing to help one another, their assistance was far more likely to be reciprocal. The largest amounts of non-reciprocal help, however, were reportedly provided by kin. Additionally, more closely related kin were considered more likely sources of assistance than distant kin.[23] Similarly, several surveys of American college students found that individuals were more likely to incur the cost of assisting kin when a high probability that relatedness and benefit would be greater than cost existed. Participants’ feelings of helpfulness were stronger toward family members than non-kin. Additionally, participants were found to be most willing to help those individuals most closely related to them. Interpersonal relationships between kin in general were more supportive and less Machiavellian than those between non-kin.[24]….

A study of food-sharing practices on the West Caroline islets of Ifaluk determined that food-sharing was more common among people from the same islet, possibly because the degree of relatedness between inhabitants of the same islet would be higher than relatedness between inhabitants of different islets. When food was shared between islets, the distance the sharer was required to travel correlated with the relatedness of the recipient—a greater distance meant that the recipient needed to be a closer relative. The relatedness of the individual and the potential inclusive fitness benefit needed to outweigh the energy cost of transporting the food over distance.[26]

Humans may use the inheritance of material goods and wealth to maximize their inclusive fitness. By providing close kin with inherited wealth, an individual may improve his or her kin’s reproductive opportunities and thus increase his or her own inclusive fitness even after death. A study of a thousand wills found that the beneficiaries who received the most inheritance were generally those most closely related to the will’s writer. Distant kin received proportionally less inheritance, with the least amount of inheritance going to non-kin.[27]

A study of childcare practices among Canadian women found that respondents with children provide childcare reciprocally with non-kin. The cost of caring for non-kin was balanced by the benefit a woman received—having her own offspring cared for in return. However, respondents without children were significantly more likely to offer childcare to kin. For individuals without their own offspring, the inclusive fitness benefits of providing care to closely related children might outweigh the time and energy costs of childcare.[28]

Family investment in offspring among black South African households also appears consistent with an inclusive fitness model.[29] A higher degree of relatedness between children and their caregivers frequently correlated with a higher degree of investment in the children, with more food, health care, and clothing being provided. Relatedness between the child and the rest of the household also positively associated with the regularity of a child’s visits to local medical practitioners and with the highest grade the child had completed in school. Additionally, relatedness negatively associated with a child’s being behind in school for his or her age.

Observation of the Dolgan hunter-gatherers of northern Russia suggested that, while reciprocal food-sharing occurs between both kin and non-kin, there are larger and more frequent asymmetrical transfers of food to kin. Kin are also more likely to be welcomed to non-reciprocal meals, while non-kin are discouraged from attending. Finally, even when reciprocal food-sharing occurs between families, these families are often very closely related, and the primary beneficiaries are the offspring.[30]

Other research indicates that violence in families is more likely to occur when step-parents are present and that “genetic relationship is associated with a softening of conflict, and people’s evident valuations of themselves and of others are systematically related to the parties’ reproductive values”.[31]

Numerous other studies pertaining to kin selection exist, suggesting how inclusive fitness may work amongst peoples from the Ye’kwana of southern Venezuela to the Gypsies of Hungary to even the doomed Donner Party of the United States.[32][33][34] Various secondary sources provide compilations of kin selection studies.[35][36] [from Wikipedia, “Kin selection,” as of 08/14/12]

*   *   *

[E.O.] Wilson used sociobiology and evolutionary principles to explain the behavior of the social insects and then to understand the social behavior of other animals, including humans, thus established sociobiology as a new scientific field. He argued that all animal behavior, including that of humans, is the product of heredity, environmental stimuli, and past experiences, and that free will is an illusion. He has referred to the biological basis of behaviour as the “genetic leash.”[17] The sociobiological view is that all animal social behavior is governed by epigenetic rules worked out by the laws of evolution. This theory and research proved to be seminal, controversial, and influential.[18]

The controversy of sociobiological research is in how it applies to humans. The theory established a scientific argument for rejecting the common doctrine of tabula rasa, which holds that human beings are born without any innate mental content and that culture functions to increase human knowledge and aid in survival and success. In the final chapter of the book Sociobiology and in the full text of his Pulitzer Prize-winning On Human Nature, Wilson argues that the human mind is shaped as much by genetic inheritance as it is by culture (if not more). There are limits on just how much influence social and environmental factors can have in altering human behavior….

Wilson has argued that the unit of selection is a gene, the basic element of heredity. The target of selection is normally the individual who carries an ensemble of genes of certain kinds.” With regard to the use of kin selection in explaining the behavior of eusocial insects, Wilson said to Discover magazine, the “new view that I’m proposing is that it was group selection all along, an idea first roughly formulated by Darwin.”[22] [from Wikipedia, “E.O. Wilson,” as of 08/14/12]

*   *   *

Wilson suggests the equation for Hamilton’s rule:[19]

rb > c

(where b represents the benefit to the recipient of altruism, c the cost to the altruist, and r their degree of relatedness) should be replaced by the more general equation

(rbk + be) > c

in which bk is the benefit to kin (b in the original equation) and be is the benefit accruing to the group as a whole. He then argues that, in the present state of the evidence in relation to social insects, it appears that be>rbk, so that altruism needs to be explained in terms of selection at the colony level rather than at the kin level. However, it is well understood in social evolution theory that kin selection and group selection are not distinct processes, and that the effects of multi-level selection are already fully accounted for in Hamilton’s original rule, rb>c.[20] [from Wikipedia, “Group selection,” as 0f 08/14/12]

The idea that social bonding has a deep, genetic basis is beyond the ken of leftists and pseudo-libertarian rationalists. Both prefer to deny reality, though for different reasons. Leftists like to depict the state as society. Pseudo-libertarian rationalists seem to believe that social bonding is irrelevant to cooperative, mutually beneficial behavior; life, to them, is an economic arrangement.

Leftists and libertarians like to slander the mutual attraction of genetic kin by calling it “tribalism.” On that subject, the author of Foseti writes:

People are – in general – tribal. Let’s take it for granted that we all wish that this were not so. Further, let’s take it for granted that some individual people are much more tribal than others.

The fact remains, however, that people are tribal. It’s one thing to suggest that people should not be tribal in their daily dealings with others. Let’s stipulate that this is moral. It does not, however, follow that it would be moral to organize society around the principle the people will in fact act anti-tribally….

Lots of progressives (especially those of the libertarian sort) are fond of saying that restricting immigration is tribal. They simply can’t support immigration restrictions because they oppose tribalism.

There is no better way of demonstrating your high-status in today’s society than proclaiming your anti-tribalism. You should therefore be skeptical of these proclamations. However, many people are indeed not particularly tribal.

Your humble blogger is not a tribal person. There is no sort of person that I see on the street and say to myself, “wow, I bet he and I have a lot in common – we should look out for each other.” Temperamentally, I’m very much an individualist type. But it’s wishful thinking to generalize from my personal preferences to population-wide-shoulds.

Tribalism is, has always been, and likely always will be a feature of human societies.

Occasionally, we get not-so-gentle reminders that people are tribal. We would do well to learn. Here’s a more light-hearted example. Here’s a reminder that democratic politics is always tribal.

You’re free, of course, to consider yourself above tribalism. However, if you do so, you’ll be an idiot when you try to describe geopolitics, local politics, national politics, and public policies in general. By all means, bury your head in the sand, just don’t preach while you’re down there.

James_G makes a nice analogy in this post. He likens anti-tribal beliefs to communist beliefs. It’s true that some groups of humans can function reasonably well under communistic conditions. It’s similarly true that many human beings are not particularly tribal. However, it’s dangerously immoral to generalize from these exceptions to the general conclusions that communism works on a large scale or that all countries should be rainbow nations…. [from “The immorality of anti-tribalism,” July 25, 2012]

In America, the pursuit of happiness in the form of money has sundered many a tribal community. (See “The Eclipse of ‘Old America’,” especially the 11th and 12th paragraphs.) But tribalism nevertheless remains a potent force in America:


Source: Census.gov, Ancestry: 2000 — Census 2000 Brief, Figure 3. (Right-click to open in a new tab, then click to enlarge.)

I venture to say that the “Americans” who predominate in large swaths of the South are the descendants of the English and Scots-Irish settlers of the colonial and early post-colonial era. They are “Americans” because their ancestors were (for the most part) the Americans of yore.

Not represented in the graph, because it is based on county-level statistics, are the high concentrations of Jews in many urban areas (especially in and around New York City and Miami), the coalescence of Arabs in the Detroit area, and the numerous ethnic enclaves (e.g., Chinese, Czech, Greek, Korean, Polish, Swedish, and Thai) — urban, semi-rural, and rural — that persist long after the original waves of immigration that led to their formation.

If genetic kinship is such a binding force, why is the closest kind of genetic kinship — the nuclear family — so often dysfunctional? Nuclear families are notoriously prone to strife, or so it would seem if one were to count novels and screenplays in evidence. Novels and screenplays are not dispositive, of course, because they emphasize strife for dramatic purposes. That said, there is a lot of evidence to suggest that the American nuclear family is a less binding force than it used to be. But that is to be expected, given the interventions by the state that have eased divorce and lured women out of the home (e.g., affirmative action, subsidies for day care, mandated coverages for employer-provided health insurance).

There are other reasons to reject the (exaggerated) dysfunctionality of the nuclear family as evidence against the importance of genetic kinship to social bonding:

1. Strife is inevitable where humans interact, and family life affords a disproportionate number of opportunities for interaction. (For example, conflicts between the members of a nuclear family — parent vs. child, sibling vs. sibling — often begin during the childhood or adolescence of one or all parties to the conflict.)

2. Blood ties have a way of overcoming “bad blood” when a family member is in need of help. (Thus, for example, children of middle-age and older often are supportive of needful siblings and aged parents out of duty, not love.)

3. Many a person compensates for tense or distant relations with parents and siblings by maintaining close ties to grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins.

This is not to say that the bonds of genetic kinship in America are everywhere as strong as in years past. The state’s interventions, the search for greener pastures, and the inexorable force of cross-racial and cross-ethnic sexual attraction have led to a more homogenized America.

But genetic kinship will always be a strong binding force, even where the kinship is primarily racial. Racial kinship boundaries, by the way, are not always and necessarily the broad ones suggested by the classic trichotomy of Caucasoid, Mongoloid, Negroid. (If you want to read for yourself about the long, convoluted, diffuse, and still controversial evolutionary chains that eventuated in the sub-species homo sapiens sapiens, to which all humans are assigned arbitrarily, without regard for their distinctive differences, begin here, here, here, and here.)

The obverse of of genetic kinship is “diversity,” which often is touted as a good thing by anti-tribalist social engineers. But “diversity” is not a good thing when it comes to social bonding. Michael Jonas reports on 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….

After releasing the initial results in 2001, Putnam says he spent time “kicking the tires really hard” to be sure the study had it right. Putnam realized, for instance, that more diverse communities tended to be larger, have greater income ranges, higher crime rates, and more mobility among their residents — all factors that could depress social capital independent of any impact ethnic diversity might have.

“People would say, ‘I bet you forgot about X,'” Putnam says of the string of suggestions from colleagues. “There were 20 or 30 X’s.”

But even after statistically taking them all into account, the connection remained strong: Higher diversity meant lower social capital. 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….

In a recent study, [Harvard economist Edward] Glaeser and colleague Alberto Alesina demonstrated that roughly half the difference in social welfare spending between the US and Europe — Europe spends far more — can be attributed to the greater ethnic diversity of the US population. Glaeser says lower national social welfare spending in the US is a “macro” version of the decreased civic engagement Putnam found in more diverse communities within the country.

Economists Matthew Kahn of UCLA and Dora Costa of MIT reviewed 15 recent studies in a 2003 paper, all of which linked diversity with lower levels of social capital. Greater ethnic diversity was linked, for example, to lower school funding, census response rates, and trust in others. Kahn and Costa’s own research documented higher desertion rates in the Civil War among Union Army soldiers serving in companies whose soldiers varied more by age, occupation, and birthplace.

Birds of different feathers may sometimes flock together, but they are also less likely to look out for one another. “Everyone is a little self-conscious that this is not politically correct stuff,” says Kahn….

In his paper, Putnam cites the work done by Page and others, and uses it to help frame his conclusion that increasing diversity in America is not only inevitable, but ultimately valuable and enriching. As for smoothing over the divisions that hinder civic engagement, Putnam argues that Americans can help that process along through targeted efforts. He suggests expanding support for English-language instruction and investing in community centers and other places that allow for “meaningful interaction across ethnic lines.”

Some critics have found his prescriptions underwhelming. And in offering ideas for mitigating his findings, Putnam has drawn scorn for stepping out of the role of dispassionate researcher. “You’re just supposed to tell your peers what you found,” says John Leo, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank…. [from “The downside of diversity,” The Boston Globe (boston.com), August 5, 2007]

Putnam’s reluctance about releasing the study and his attempt to soften its implications say much about the relationship that anti-tribalist social engineers (like Putnam) have with truth. Here is more from John Leo:

Putnam’s study reveals that immigration and diversity not only reduce social capital between ethnic groups, but also within the groups themselves. Trust, even for members of one’s own race, is lower, altruism and community cooperation rarer, friendships fewer. The problem isn’t ethnic conflict or troubled racial relations, but withdrawal and isolation. Putnam writes: “In colloquial language, people living in ethnically diverse settings appear to ‘hunker down’—that is, to pull in like a turtle.”…

Neither age nor disparities of wealth explain this result. “Americans raised in the 1970s,” he writes, “seem fully as unnerved by diversity as those raised in the 1920s.” And the “hunkering down” occurred no matter whether the communities were relatively egalitarian or showed great differences in personal income. Even when communities are equally poor or rich, equally safe or crime-ridden, diversity correlates with less trust of neighbors, lower confidence in local politicians and news media, less charitable giving and volunteering, fewer close friends, and less happiness….

Putnam has long been aware that his findings could have a big effect on the immigration debate. Last October, he told the Financial Times that “he had delayed publishing his research until he could develop proposals to compensate for the negative effects of diversity.” He said it “would have been irresponsible to publish without that,” a quote that should raise eyebrows. Academics aren’t supposed to withhold negative data until they can suggest antidotes to their findings…

Though Putnam is wary of what right-wing politicians might do with his findings, the data might give pause to those on the left, and in the center as well. If he’s right, heavy immigration will inflict social deterioration for decades to come, harming immigrants as well as the native-born. Putnam is hopeful that eventually America will forge a new solidarity based on a “new, broader sense of we.” The problem is how to do that in an era of multiculturalism and disdain for assimilation…. [from “Bowling with Our Own,” City Journal, June 25, 2007]

*   *   *

UPDATE (08/18/12):

I can do no better at this point than inject some passages from Byron M. Roth’s The Perils of Diversity: Immigration and Human Nature. The following observations, taken from Chapter I, are supported by the rich detail that Roth delivers in the following several hundred pages of the book:

…Multiculturalists … ignore the historical record that suggests that social harmony among different ethnic and language groups is at best rare, and where it exists, tenuous. The history of Europe, whatever else it is, is one long tale of religious and ethnic conflict, almost ceaseless war, and the slaughter and the destruction it entails. The enlightenment, and the scientific advances it engendered, did nothing to mitigate this tale of horrific and bloody conflict, with the twentieth century exhibiting the most lethal and unsparing carnage in European history. In addition, in the twentieth century, class conflict was raised to a level in Europe and Asia never seen before. Communist rulers in Europe and Asia effectively divided their societies along economic lines and managed over the century to slaughter even more people than the ethnically based World Wars I and II.

The breakup of the British Empire led to bloody civil strife throughout the former colonies among the disparate peoples held together by British force of arms. The civil war that led to the partition of India and Pakistan left an estimated one million dead in its wake. Similar terrible and murderous turmoil in Southeast Asia, in for example Cambodia and Vietnam, followed the withdrawal of the European Colonial powers. Among the former European colonies in Africa, even today, civil strife is rampant.

In the wake of the fall of Communism those multiethnic societies that had been held together by authoritarian dictators quickly fell asunder. Czechoslovakia divided in a peaceful and largely amiable way. Yugoslavia, on the other hand, was torn by vicious civil war and genocidal ethnic cleansing. Iraq, after the fall of Saddam Hussein, presents a similar case. The ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a different and bloody example of the difficulties of establishing harmony among groups of differing cultures and religions. Even Belgium, (the seat of the European Union Parliament) is in danger of splitting into its Dutch-speaking and French-speaking halves.8 Canadians of French and English ancestry are grappling with similar problems. In addition, there is a fundamental inconsistency at the base of the multiculturalist program, in that it applauds ethnic minorities who maintain their cultural traditions, but looks askance at majority populations who wish to do the same. Political elites in all Western societies take a negative view of those who wish to preserve their traditional values and patterns of living and question whether those patterns can be sustained in the face of large numbers of newcomers who do not share those values or are actually hostile to them….

…[T]he social science evidence that a harmonious society composed of identifiable ethnic groups with different cultural and religious backgrounds can be arranged is, almost without exception, negative. Has some new type of social engineering appeared which would allow this historic pattern to be broken? Has some new sort of human being been born who will not repeat the follies of his ancestors? Will the world find a way to emulate the example of the Swiss? Policy makers should be trying to understand how the Swiss have managed to preserve their experiment in multicultural harmony for so long, when so many others have failed so utterly. Perhaps Switzerland can be a model for the new multicultural societies? On the other hand, maybe Switzerland is a special case that cannot be copied. Switzerland, for all its ethnic harmony, is, in effect, a confederation of separate but closely related European ethnicities who reside in different cantons, who speak their own languages (French, German, Italian, and Native Swiss), and maintain their ethnic customs and tastes. It would be reasonable to ask if such an arrangement could be widely duplicated in very different settings, but few in the multicultural camp appear interested in such a question.

Similarly, the assimilationists who support mass immigration seem equally nonchalant about the evidence for their position. Clearly, the history of immigration to the United States has been fortunate and largely successful. But in the past virtually all successful immigration was from European cultures very similar to that of the original English settlers. In addition, those settlers usually came with similar skills and abilities, often better than those of the earlier settlers, and generally had little difficulty in competing with them. Once in America, they could easily blend in, there being few physical or social features which set them apart. Usually they came in small numbers over an extended period of time and were forced to acquire the language of their host country if they expected to thrive. This was because (except for German and French speakers in some areas) no one group could sustain communities sufficiently large as to be economically independent and thereby sustain their native language for general commerce. As a counterexample, the French community in Quebec did possess sufficient size and was therefore able to maintain its language as well as its ethnic identity.

The United States was so vast and the opportunities it offered so generous that group conflict was generally muted. Conflict among immigrant Europeans was generally limited to the crowded multiethnic coastal cities, and those who wished to avoid those conflicts could migrate to the interior, often gravitating to ethnic enclaves. Even in those less crowded settings, however, conflict was not uncommon, though it usually took the form of political differences over the place of religion in society and the nature of education. Is this an immigration pattern that could be replicated today in modern societies when the immigrant groups come in large numbers from vastly different cultural and ethnic backgrounds compared to the residents of their host countries? Can this model work in crowded Western Europe where land for housing is limited and where unemployment remains at chronically high levels? In other words, is the American immigration experience prior to 1965 an exceptional one? Can it be the model for future immigration cycles or are the conditions today so different as to make the model inapplicable? These are questions that need to asked, but rarely are.

A clear implication of Roth’s analysis is that conflict — political, if not violent — is bound to result from racial-ethnic-cultural commingling — unless the disparate groups are geographically separated and politically autonomous in all respects (except, perhaps, that they each bear a “fair share” of the cost of a common defense).

*   *   *

The idea that society– properly defined and understood — requires genetic kinship is nevertheless anathema to anti-tribalist social tinkerers of Putnam’s ilk. It is ironic (but not surprising) that anti-tribalists often seek connections with “kindred” souls. The leftist groves of academe are notorious for their exclusion of libertarians and conservatives, but an academic mistakes his like-minded colleagues for altruistic kinsmen at his own peril. (I speak from the experience of years in a quasi-academic think-tank, and as a former “friend” in many a work-based “friendship.”)

Libertarians, who are notoriously individualistic and aloof, also seek to bond with like-minded persons. Libertarians are responsible for the less-than-successful Free State Project and for seasteading (formally neutral in its ideology, but mainly attractive to libertarians). I expect such experiments in coexistence, if they get off the ground, to be as inconsequential as their anti-libertarian equivalent: the commune. Communes have been around for a while, of course, though none of them has lasted long or attracted many adherents. They are, after all, nothing more than economic arrangements with some “Kumbaya” thrown in.

So, yes, genetic kinship is indispensable to society, where society is properly understood as “an enduring and cooperating social group whose members have developed organized patterns of relationships through interaction with one another.” But, as I discuss here, not all societies based on genetic kinship are created equal. Trying to make them equal is a fool’s errand.

The fourth installment is here.

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

The Eclipse of “Old America”

This is the second installment of a series that explores the true nature of liberty, how liberty depends on society, how society (properly understood) has been eclipsed by statism and its artifacts, and how society — and therefore liberty — might re-emerge in the United States. In this installment, I take up the first of several possible objections to my model of a society’s essence and workings. This series will close with a blueprint for the restoration of society and liberty.

If you have not read the first installment, “Liberty and Society,” I recommend that you do so before you continue. This post addresses the following question: Is Society, as I define It, Impossible? Or, Isn’t This All Rather Romantic?

The answers are “no” and “no.” All that the existence of a society requires is the general observance of the Golden Rule. This is not difficult in relatively small communities.

You will have known such a community if you have ever lived or spent much time in a rural or semi-rural village, or in an urban enclave consisting of persons bound by ethnic or religious affiliation. Everyone may not know everyone else in such a community, but the circles formed by common bonds (family, church, etc.) are interlocking. (And a lot of the community’s members will “know of” almost everyone in the community.)

One result of this kind of living is less anti-social behavior and outright crime, but without a lot of formal rules and regulations or more than a token police presence. (Anonymity not only fosters crime but also rudeness, as is evident in comment threads, e-mail exchanges, and behavior on the highway.) Another result is genuine charity, based on direct knowledge of persons who are in need, or a sense of community with them.

Do such communities know unkindness, conflict, and crime? Of course, but to suggest or demand otherwise is to be deluded or to demand impossible perfection. It should be good enough that such communities — where they still exist — are better places in which to live than the mostly anonymous urban complexes that now dominate America.

The United States, for a very long time, was a polity whose disparate parts cohered, regionally if not nationally, because the experience of living in the kind of small community sketched above was a common one. Long after the majority of Americans came to live in urban complexes, a large fraction of the residents of those complexes had grown up in small communities.

This was Old America — and it was predominant for almost 200 years after America won its independence from Britain. Old America‘s core constituents, undeniably, were white, and they had much else in common: observance of the Judeo-Christian tradition; British and north-central European roots; hard work and self-reliance as badges of honor; family, church, and club as cultural transmitters, social anchors, and focal points for voluntary mutual aid. The inhabitants of Old America were against “entitlements” (charity was real and not accepted lightly); for punishment (as opposed to excuses about poverty, etc.); overtly religious or respectful of religion (and, in either case, generally respectful of the Ten Commandments, especially the last six of them); personally responsible (stuff happens, and it is rarely someone else’s fault); polite, respectful, and helpful to strangers (who are polite and respectful); patriotic (the U.S. was better than other countries and not beholden to international organizations, wars were fought to victory); and anti-statist (even if communitarian in a voluntary way). Living on the dole, weirdness for its own sake, open hostility to religion, habitual criminality, “shacking up,” and homosexuality were disgraceful aberrations, not “lifestyles” to be tolerated, celebrated, or privileged.

It is now de rigeur to deride the culture of Old America, and to call its constituents greedy, insensitive, hidebound, culturally retrograde, and — above all — intolerant.  But what does that make the proponents and practitioners of the counter-culture of the ’60s and ’70s (many of whom have long-since risen to positions of prominence and power), of the LGBT counter-culture that is now so active and adamant about its “rights,” and of recently imported cultures that seek dominance rather than assimilation (certain Latins and Muslims, I am looking at you)?

These various counter-culturalists and incomers have not been content to establish their own communities; rather, they have sought to overthrow Old America. Intolerance is their essence. They are not merely reacting to the intolerance that may be directed at them. No, they are intolerant, and militantly so. They seek to destroy what is left of Old America. — and they have enlisted the power of the state in that effort.

Has Old America receded just because its enemies have enlisted the power of the state? Not entirely. There was (and is) also a collective-action phenomenon at work, and it began while Old America was dominant. Americans prospered with the rise of industrialization after the Civil War. But industrialization led to greater productivity in agriculture (thus fewer farm workers per unit of output) while demanding more workers in factories, and thus putting in motion America’s long march toward urban anonymity and away from rural and semi-rural communities. That march led to the New America, where governmental power, geographic displacement, and cultural intermarriage have diluted (and often destroyed) the social norms that bound Old America.

These changes, once put in motion, were bound to continue (unless interrupted by a shock or massive social change) because of path dependence: decisions made in the present are constrained by decisions made in the past. Quite simply, the possibility of quitting the urban scene for rural splendor — however attractive in theory — was closed to most Americans by economic reality, that is, the necessity of making a living and the perceived necessity of doing as well as the urban Joneses. And, worse, the values of Old America simply could not (and cannot) be replicated in New America, given its reliance on governmental power and widespread rejection of the values of Old America.

On that point, I interject a personal note: I have, in my adult life, lived in semi-rural splendor. And I can tell you that it has much to commend it as a way of life, especially as a way of life for one’s children. And I can tell you, also, that living in semi-rural splendor — despite the generally lower cost of living — does require the acceptance of a lower standard of living than that enjoyed by the urban Joneses. Most Americans who recognize and pine for the virtues of rural and semi-rural life, cannot realize those virtues except vicariously on vacation trips or upon retirement, when small towns, small cities, and retirement enclaves beckon.

At any rate, the eclipse of Old America owes much to the bad guys — especially leftist “educators,” so-called intellectuals, and politicians who have conspired with intolerant minorities in the effort to overthrow Old America. But Americans who long for the Old America must also blame themselves and their forbears for its eclipse because of urbanization — a (mostly) voluntary movement. Nothing could demonstrate more starkly the saying that “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.”

All of the foregoing might lead you to think that I am incurably pessimistic about the possibility of a resurgence of Old America. I am not. For what I have said, up to this point, is merely prologue. For one thing, somewhere between 20 and 30 percent of Americans still live in rural and semi-rural places. (See the statistics and definitions on this page of Census.gov.) Nor has the core of Old America has shrunk; it is relatively smaller than it was in, say, 1900 — but it is absolutely larger. In fact, the number of persons living in a rural place (defined by the Census Bureau as having a population of less than 2,500), grew from 46 million in 1900 to 59 million in 2010. And in 2010, another 30 million persons lived in a so-called urban cluster (a place with a population of at least 2,500 and less than 50,000).

Of course, not all of the 59 to 89 million persons represent Old America. But surely a lot of them do; and a lot of urban dwellers long for Old America. Just look at the number of States that are Red and getting Redder, despite predictions of a permanent Democrat (i.e., leftist) majority. Have adherents of Old America been let down by Republicans? Of course they have. Have some adherents of Old America been tempted to join the statist brigade, and sometimes succumbed to temptation? Of course they have. But would Old America prevail, and attract new followers were those who preach its values to hold sway in Washington long enough and securely enough to stay true to those values? Of course it would.

Before I leave this topic, I must address the fallacy, propounded by “liberals” and libertarians, that a return to Old America would mean a return to the bad old days of Jim Crow and subservient women. Such a claim is nothing more than a smear on liberty-lovers. “Liberal” fascists have no shame and will resort to any distortion of truth and logic that might help them to retain their hold on power. Libertarians — I should say, pseudo-libertarians — have proved themselves no better. But they, at least, are powerless.

Would the resurgence of Old America transform America into a society? Of course not. A society, as I have described it, cannot be as extensive as a nation the size of the United States. But the resurgence of Old America would enable societies to flourish again in America, and those societies — with their many common values — would form the backbone of a nation that is far less fragmented and far freer than the America that arose in the 20th century.

The third installment is here; the fourth installment is here.

Related reading:
Arnold Kling, “Enrico Moretti on Mobility,” EconLog, July 28, 2012
Bill Vallicella, “Systematic Deracination,” Maverick Philosopher, August 5, 2012
Russell Nieli, “Religion as a Public-Bonding Fiction,” The Public Discourse, August 9, 2012
John Derbyshire, “Si Jeunesse Svait, Si Viellesse Pouvait,” Taki’s Magazine, August 9, 2012

Related posts:
On Liberty
Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and the Legitimate State
What Is Conservatism?
Zones of Liberty
Society and the State
I Want My Country Back
The Golden Rule and the State
Government vs. Community
Evolution, Human Nature, and “Natural Rights”
More about Conservative Governance
The Meaning of Liberty
Evolution and the Golden Rule
Understanding Hayek
The Golden Rule as Beneficial Learning
True Libertarianism, One More Time
Human Nature, Liberty, and Rationalism
Why Conservatism Works
Reclaiming Liberty throughout the Land
Rush to Judgment
Secession, Anyone?

Liberty and Society

This is the first installment of a series that explores the true nature of liberty, how liberty depends on society, how society (properly understood) has been eclipsed by statism and its artifacts, and how society — and therefore liberty — might re-emerge in the United States.

The typical libertarian — like the one who commented on my post “Not Guilty of Libertarian Purism” — will say something like this:

Liberty is simply defined as “do what you want, constrained only by the harm to others.”

This is just a restatement of John Stuart Mill’s “harm principle,” which first appears in Chapter I, paragraph 9, of Mill’s On Liberty:

[T]he only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.

Mill himself reveals the emptiness of his formulation in paragraphs 11 through 13:

[11] …I regard utility as the ultimate appeal on all ethical questions; but it must be utility in the largest sense, grounded on the permanent interests of man as a progressive being. Those interests, I contend, authorize the subjection of individual spontaneity to external control, only in respect to those actions of each, which concern the interest of other people. If any one does an act hurtful to others, there is a primâ facie case for punishing him, by law, or, where legal penalties are not safely applicable, by general disapprobation. There are also many positive acts for the benefit of others, which he may rightfully be compelled to perform; such as, to give evidence in a court of justice; to bear his fair share in the common defence, or in any other joint work necessary to the interest of the society of which he enjoys the protection; and to perform certain acts of individual beneficence, such as saving a fellow-creature’s life, or interposing to protect the defenceless against ill-usage, things which whenever it is obviously a man’s duty to do, he may rightfully be made responsible to society for not doing. A person may cause evil to others not only by his actions but by his inaction, and in either case he is justly accountable to them for the injury….

[12] But there is a sphere of action in which society, as distinguished from the individual, has, if any, only an indirect interest; comprehending all that portion of a person’s life and conduct which affects only himself, or if it also affects others, only with their free, voluntary, and undeceived consent and participation. When I say only himself, I mean directly, and in the first instance: for whatever affects himself, may affect others through himself; and the objection which may be grounded on this contingency, will receive consideration in the sequel. This, then, is the appropriate region of human liberty. It comprises, first, the inward domain of consciousness; demanding liberty of conscience, in the most comprehensive sense; liberty of thought and feeling; absolute freedom of opinion and sentiment on all subjects, practical or speculative, scientific, moral, or theological. The liberty of expressing and publishing opinions may seem to fall under a different principle, since it belongs to that part of the conduct of an individual which concerns other people; but, being almost of as much importance as the liberty of thought itself, and resting in great part on the same reasons, is practically inseparable from it. Secondly, the principle requires liberty of tastes and pursuits; of framing the plan of our life to suit our own character; of doing as we like, subject to such consequences as may follow: without impediment from our fellow-creatures, so long as what we do does not harm them, even though they should think our conduct foolish, perverse, or wrong. Thirdly, from this liberty of each individual, follows the liberty, within the same limits, of combination among individuals; freedom to unite, for any purpose not involving harm to others: the persons combining being supposed to be of full age, and not forced or deceived.

[13] No society in which these liberties are not, on the whole, respected, is free, whatever may be its form of government; and none is completely free in which they do not exist absolute and unqualified. The only freedom which deserves the name, is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it. Each is the proper guardian of his own health, whether bodily, or mental and spiritual. Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest.

The latter two paragraphs (12 and 13) would seem to satisfy the typical libertarian. But they are as empty of content as the bald statement of the harm principle in paragraph 9. What Mill does in paragraph 11 is to pour content into the harm principle — content that the typical libertarian would find abhorrent, for its statism if not for its utilitarianism. The discussion of liberty in paragraphs 12 and 13 cannot be understood without reference to Mill’s restrictive definition of harm in paragraph 11.

To put it another way, 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.

My goal in this post is to outline the social conditions that conduce to actual liberty, that is, a kind of liberty that could be found in the real world, given the nature of human beings as self-centered, quarrelsome, often aggressive individuals, as well as loving, cooperative, and generous ones. (Social behavior, in this context, includes what is usually called economic behavior, which is just a kind of social behavior.) I will try to be realistic (rather than pessimistic) about the degree to which liberty is attainable.

I begin with my definition of liberty, which is

peaceful, willing coexistence and its concomitant: beneficially cooperative behavior.

That may seem just as vague as the harm principle, but it is not. The harm principle is meaningless without an agreed definition of harm. My definition is operationally meaningful, in itself. It says that liberty is found wherever there is peaceful, willing coexistence and beneficially cooperative behavior. Why? Because a society which meets those conditions is a free society to its members, who (by definition) prefer it to alternative conditions of existence. Among other things, they must be agreed about what constitutes harm and how it should be treated.

It is now only(!) a matter of describing the kind of society in which there can be peaceful, willing coexistence and beneficially cooperative behavior. Going from broad characteristics to narrow ones, this is such a society:

1. “Society” has many meanings. This one rings truest:

an enduring and cooperating social group whose members have developed organized patterns of relationships through interaction with one another.

The “organized patterns of relationships” will include rules about behavior (a moral code). On the negative side, the rules will specify (if only tacitly) what is allowed, what is not allowed, how transgressions should be treated, and how certain mitigating circumstances figure into judgments about and the treatment of transgressions. On the positive side, the rules will specify (if only tacitly) expectations about how certain members of society should treat others (e.g., respect for elders, voluntary aid to those in need, mannerly behavior of certain kinds). A society, in other words, is inseparable from its moral code.

2. Mutual trust, respect, and forbearance allow differences within a society to be resolved through voluntary means, according to its moral code (1).

The means will include compromise; not every member of a society will agree with every rule, the way in which rules are enforced, or every resolution of differences, but every member of society will accept them. When a member of society can no longer compromise his preferences with the enactments of society, and has voiced his discontent to no avail, exit is his only option. Exit, at this stage, is exit from a society, as defined in 1. Unlike the situation that pertains when a person can no longer abide the rules imposed on him by a distant and unrepresentative government that controls a large geographic area, exit from a society need not require physical exile.

3. Mutual trust, respect, and forbearance (2) depend, in turn, on genetic kinship and cultural similarity.

Human beings are, at bottom, tribal creatures. This is a fact of life that cannot be erased by wishful thinking: “Why can’t we just all get along with each other?”

4.  The voluntary institutions of society (civil society) inculcate and enforce a society’s moral code (1), foster mutual trust and respect (2), and help to preserve cultural similarity (3).

The institutions of civil society include families, friendships, neighborhoods, churches, clubs, markets — and interconnected circles of them. Enforcement of the moral code, up to a point, is by voluntary observance (for fear of the social and physical consequences of non-observance. Where unacceptable behavior persists or is egregious, it is dealt with by civil institutions, including ad hoc groups organized for the purpose of controlling, confining, and punishing behavior is uncontrollable through the usual means. Those means include intra-familial punishment, physical retaliation, social signalling (ranging from expressions of approval and disapproval to ostracism, at the extreme). The means, themselves, are encompassed in the moral code.

5. A society’s moral code (1) and culture (3) evolve by trial and error, through the operation of the institutions of civil society (4).

The members of a society perceive that certain behaviors enable the society to thrive, and that others do not. Thriving is a matter of social and economic success, of the attainment of outcomes that the members of society find pleasing, and which they seek to promote by encouraging the behaviors that are consistent with pleasing outcomes and discouraging the behaviors that work against those outcomes. These signals — pro and con — are transmitted through the institutions of civil society (4) and thus become part of the society’s culture (3). Observance of the signals is essential to the maintenance of mutual trust and respect (2).

To summarize: A society coheres around genetic kinship, and is defined by its common culture, which includes its moral code. The culture is developed, transmitted through, and enforced by the voluntary institutions of society (civil society). The culture is the product of trial and error, where those elements that become part of received culture serve societal coherence and — in the best case — help it to thrive. Coherence and success depend also on the maintenance of mutual respect, trust, and forbearance among society’s members. Those traits arise in part from the sharing of a common culture (which is an artifact of societal interaction) and from genetic kinship, which is indispensable to societal coherence.

If the foregoing description is correct, there is one aspect of society — and one only — that a society cannot “manufacture” through its social processes. That aspect is genetic-cultural kinship. To put it another way, it is unlikely that a society’s membership can be drawn from more than one genetic grouping (or cluster), of which there may be dozens. Throw in cultural differences, originating in the geographic separation of otherwise genetically close populations, and the number of distinct genetic-cultural groupings must be very large indeed.

Though it is possible that an occasional outsider can be accepted into a society through acculturation and acceptance, because of bonds that develop between the outsider and insiders, it is far less likely that a society will welcome significant numbers of outsiders. This contention is borne out by the checkerboard and tipping models of voluntary racial segregation:

[E]ven when every agent prefers to live in a mixed-race neighborhood, almost complete segregation of neighborhoods emerges as individual decisions accumulate. In [Thomas Schelling’s]  “tipping model”, he demonstrated the effects which emerge when people have varying levels of perception as to acceptable levels for other ethnic groups in the neighborhood. The model shows that members of an ethnic group do not move out of a neighborhood as long as the proportion of other ethnic groups is relatively low, but if a critical level of other ethnicities is exceeded, the original residents may make rapid decisions and take action to leave. This tipping point is viewed as simply the end-result of domino effect originating when the threshold of the majority ethnicity members with the highest sensitivity to sameness is exceeded. If these people leave and are either not replaced or replaced by other ethnicities, then this in turn raises the level of mixing of neighbours, exceeding the departure threshold for additional people. Domino and tipping models were suggested to be explanatory factors for white flight in the 1960s US. Schelling also noted that in different societies, people have residential preferences, for factors other than ethnicity, such as age, gender, income levels.[41] In 2010 Junfu Zhang found support for both the checkerboard model of residential segregation as the only stable spatial arrangement (arrangement not subject to tipping effects), and for tipping effects, showing how these lead to integrated residential areas being irreversibly tipped into complete segregation.[40]

This is “wrong,” in the “liberal” and left-libertarian view of the world.  That view is not based on what can be, given the nature of human beings, but on what ought to be: a desirable but unattainable ideal (see nirvana fallacy).

I will next consider several possible objections to my model of a society’s essence and workings. This series will close with a blueprint for the restoration of society and liberty. The first sequel is “The Eclipse of ‘Old America’ “; the second is “Genetic Kinship and Society“; the third is “Liberty as a Social Construct: Moral Relativism?

Related posts:
On Liberty
Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and the Legitimate State
What Is Conservatism?
Zones of Liberty
Society and the State
I Want My Country Back
The Golden Rule and the State
Government vs. Community
Evolution, Human Nature, and “Natural Rights”
More about Conservative Governance
The Meaning of Liberty
Evolution and the Golden Rule
Understanding Hayek
The Golden Rule as Beneficial Learning
True Libertarianism, One More Time
Human Nature, Liberty, and Rationalism
Why Conservatism Works
Reclaiming Liberty throughout the Land
Rush to Judgment
Secession, Anyone?

Reclaiming Liberty throughout the Land

Proclaim LIBERTY throughout all the Land unto
all the Inhabitants thereof Lev. XXV X

Inscription on the Liberty Bell

The evident repudiation of “austerity” by the unwashed masses and “intellectuals” of France and Greece has set the stage for the final decline and fall of Europe. Socialism is the enemy of robust economic activity, and it seems that most Europeans favor the opiate of socialism over economic reality. Europe is therefore doomed to low (perhaps negative) economic growth and its concomitant, social unrest. The end will come with the arrival of men and women on white horses, promising an unattainable Nirvana and delivering enslavement to the dictates of the state. The tragedies of the Third Reich and the USSR will be replayed in somewhat less brutal fashion.

Given the trend of American history since the early 1900s, there is great danger that Americans will follow Europeans into abject submission to the state. If the trend is not reversed, and soon, Thomas Sowell will have been right to say that “the day may yet come when the only thing that can save this country is a military coup.”

Sowell remains at large, which leads me to believe that I might, with impunity, embellish on Sowell’s observation.

I take Sowell to mean something like this: Thanks to the coercive and propagandistic efforts of government officials, bureaucrats, journalists, educators, and intelligentsia (the vast, left-wing portion thereof) — and thanks to the venality, gullibility, and ignorance of voters — America is now so far from being a civil society based on limited government and personal responsibility that it cannot again become one through the electoral process. In short, the Constitution has been subverted.

Sowell is correct in his diagnosis of the state of the nation. And he may be right to suggest that limited government, and with it civil society, can be restored only by extra-constitutional means. A hypothetical alternative to that hypothetical option is outright rebellion.

As long as I am speaking hypothetically, let me speak of a third option: an underground society. An underground society would comprise persons and enterprises whose personal and business transactions are founded on mutual trust and respect, who rely on consensus to establish and enforce codes of behavior, and whose affairs have been arranged so as to escape the notice of established governments (except perhaps the notice of a sympathetic local authority). (For more, see this and this.)

My assessment of the three options:

  • Underground society. No underground society can become large enough to perform the functions of an aboveground society before it is targeted for suppression by established governments. An underground society is more likely to attract unarmed flower children/academics or armed loudmouths — all easily detected and suppressed — than it is to attract persons possessing sufficient wealth and guile to bankroll extensive underground enterprises. Such persons, on balance, will favor the existing order because uncertainty and disorder are threats to their wealth. But all it takes is a (relative) handful of good (and wealthy) liberty-lovers.
  • Coup. Military personnel (careerists, in particular) are disciplined, have direct access to the tools of power, and many of them are trained in clandestine operations. Therefore, a cadre of properly motivated careerists might possess the wherewithal necessary to seize power from a corrupt regime. But a plot to undertake a coup is easily betrayed. And a coup, if successful, might deliver us from a relatively benign despotism into a decidedly malign despotism. Though, on that point, I am willing to take my chances, given the political trajectory of the nation.
  • Revolution. We are a long way from the conditions of the 1770s, when it was possible for a relatively small portion of the populace — albeit an able, courageous, and determined one — to rebel overtly and successfully against the ruling regime. It was only 90 years later that a much larger portion of the populace — equally able, courageous, and determined (though fighting for the wrong cause) — failed to defeat the ruling regime. Another 150 years on, we find a ruling regime with too many adherents and too much power to be overturned by overt rebellion.

Those Americans with a grasp of the reality that looms face two realistic (if uncertain) routes toward liberty. One route is to continue fighting the war of ideas. That war is being fought by libertarian think-tanks, a relative handful of politicians and “public intellectuals,” and a pitifully small portion of the populace (consisting mostly of bloggers, it seems). The odds of success are low, but not zero. In any event, there can be no change for the better if no one is fighting (intellectually and politically) for that change.

The other realistic route — the one taken by those of our ancestors who came to America for its promise of liberty — is emigration. That may be a route toward greater liberty for those who are willing and able to make the necessary financial and psychological sacrifices to venture it. The question, then, is where to go. The most promising and plausible answers given by the Fraser Institute and Heritage Foundation are Australia, New Zealand, and Switzerland — none of which, I daresay, has the degree of liberty that once prevailed in the United States.

So — being too old for emigration and skeptical of its benefits — I have rededicated myself to the war of ideas. But if the war of ideas cannot be won, I favor an underground society, a military coup, or a revolution (in that order).

A Man for No Seasons

A Man for All Seasons, originally a play by Robert Bolt and later an acclaimed film, is about Sir Thomas More (or Saint Thomas More, if you prefer),

the 16th-century Chancellor of England, who refused to endorse King Henry VIII‘s wish to divorce his ageing wife Catherine of Aragon, who could not bear him a son, so that he could marry Anne Boleyn, the sister of his former mistress.

Thomas More

opposed Henry [VIII]’s separation from the Catholic Church [because it forbade divorce] and refused to accept the King as Supreme Head of the Church of England…. In 1535, [More] was tried for treason, convicted on perjured testimony and beheaded.

The title of the play

reflects … Bolt’s portrayal of More as the ultimate man of conscience. As one who remains true to himself and his beliefs under all circumstances and at all times, despite external pressure or influence, More represents “a man for all seasons”.

More’s constancy to principle stands in high relief against the amorality and immorality of normal political practices, past and present. These range from opportunism, flip-flopping, and log-rolling to deceit and lying to theft (disguised as “compassion”) and back-stabbing (both figurative and literal).

More’s constancy to principle also stands in high relief against the practice of tailoring one’s principles to fit the data at hand — or the data that one selects to justify one’s prejudices. I have found economists to be especially prone to such tailoring. For example, too many economists justify free markets on utilitarian grounds, that is, because free markets produce more (i.e., are more efficient) than regulated markets. This happens to be true, but free markets can and should be justified mainly because they are free, that is, because they allow individuals to pursue otherwise lawful aims through voluntary, mutually beneficial exchanges of products and services. Liberty is a principle, a deep value; economic efficiency is merely a byproduct of adherence to that value.

Economists are by no means the only practitioners of utilitarianism. It is rampant in the ranks of public intellectuals, and is exemplified in “Empiricism in politics: On opinions beyond the reach of data,” a piece by Will Wilkinson (hereinafter WW), which begins with this:

DAVID FRUM quotes the following passage of Charles Murray’s new book, “Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960 – 2010″, in the midst of a long, scathing review (about which I here enter no opinion):

Data can bear on policy issues, but many of our opinions about policy are grounded on premises about the nature of human life and human society that are beyond the reach of data. Try to think of any new data that would change your position on abortion, the death penalty, legalization of marijuana, same-sex marriage or the inheritance tax. If you cannot, you are not necessarily being unreasonable.

I found this exceedingly odd. I can easily imagine what evidence would cause me to change my position on any of these issues. How about you? It’s a fun exercise, let’s try.

I will address, in turn, WW’s views on abortion, the death penalty, legalization of marijuana, same-sex marriage, and the inheritance tax.

Abortion. This is far and away the hardest one. I favour legal abortion…. I would seriously weigh this moral benefit ]a “culture of life”, which pays off in terms of greater general humanity and diminished cruelty] against the moral cost of reducing women’s control over their bodies….

Clearly, WW is a man in search of a principle upon which to hang his preference to allow persons “control over their bodies.” This– as a principle — would justify many immoral acts. For if one’s use of one’s body is not to be interfered with, on what basis could WW condemn murder, for example? And yet he does condemn it, implicitly, when he quibbles about the death penalty as a punishment for murder.

WW (I strongly suspect) might respond that he is talking only about control over what one does to oneself, as in the use of marijuana (to which I will come). But WW is unconvincing with respect to abortion. He is willing to recognize “robust moral rights” for children at birth because that is “the convention.” But before the U.S. Supreme Court overturned long-standing State laws rooted in moral tradition, it was the convention (in most States) to recognize robust moral rights for children at conception. (By contrast, the convention of slavery, which was recognized and fostered by several States, stood on flimsy moral ground.)

The lack of a firm principle (e.g., abortion is murder) leads WW into sophistry and hair-splitting. These abound in the elided portions of the preceding quotation:

…I don’t think embryos or fetuses are persons, and I don’t think it’s wrong to kill them. I also don’t think infants are persons, but I do think laws that prohibit infanticide are wise. Birth is a metaphysically arbitrary line, but it’s a supremely salient socio-psychological one. A general abhorrence of the taking of human life is something any healthy culture will inculcate in its members. It’s easier to cultivate the appropriate moral sentiments within a society that has adopted the convention of conferring robust moral rights on infants upon birth than it would be in a society that had adopted the convention of conferring the same rights on children only after they’ve reached some significant developmental milestone, such as the onset of intelligible speech. The latter society, I suspect, would tend to be more generally cruel and less humane. This is just an empirical hunch, though I feel fairly confident about it. But I could be wrong. And I could be wrong in the other direction as well. If it were shown that societies which ban abortion, or which ban abortion beyond a certain point, exceed societies which don’t ban abortion in cultivating a “culture of life”, which pays off in terms of greater general humanity and diminished cruelty, I would seriously weigh this moral benefit against the moral cost of reducing women’s control over their bodies. Also, if it were shown that abortion tended to damage women’s mental and physical health more than forcing women to carry unwanted pregnancies to term, I would tend to look more favourably on restrictions on abortion, especially for minors.

Fetuses may not be persons, in WW’s view, but fetuses are human life. WW’s defense of abortion amounts to a defense of taking blameless, defenseless humans. He cannot bring himself to admit that, so he adopts the language of Roe v. Wade (a fetus is not “a person within the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment”). But, as WW acknowledges, there is no specific point at which a human being becomes a “person.” The fetus-person distinction is an entirely arbitrary one, concocted for the purpose of justifying abortion.

If WW is willing to accept birth as the point at which the taking of innocent life becomes unacceptable, why not seven or eight months into a pregnancy, when the chances of survival outside the womb are high, especially given the life-sustaining technologies that are now available? And if a fetus is “viable” at seven or eight months, it is “viable” at earlier stages of development, as long its life is not ended artificially. The “logic” of abortion based on “viability” is circular because a fetus is (almost always) “viable” unless it is aborted.

And why is it not even “easier to cultivate the appropriate moral sentiments within a society that has adopted the convention of conferring robust moral rights on infants” upon conception? Such a society, I believe, would tend to be less cruel and more humane than the one that allows abortion at every stage of fetal development.

WW’s next suggestion is fatuous in the extreme. It need not be shown that societies which ban abortion, or which ban abortion beyond a certain point, exceed societies which do not ban abortion in cultivating a “culture of life.” Societies that ban abortion, ceteris paribus, have a culture of life, by definition. By the same token, societies that encourage or acquiesce in atrocities against humanity on a par with abortion (e.g., the Third Reich) have a culture of death. One very good reason for resisting the practice of abortion is to avert the next steps down the slippery slope toward that culture.

Looking unfavorably upon abortion if it tended to damage women’s mental and physical health is putting a possible side effect of abortion above its abhorrent moral status. But that should come as no surprise because, on this issue, WW clearly betrays a lack of moral sense.

This brings me to WW’s next moral test:

Death penalty. This is a lot easier. I oppose the death penalty. But if the death penalty were shown to be (1) a very effective deterrent of murder and violent crime, (2) non-prejudicially applied, and (3) very rarely applied to the innocent, I would support it in especially heinous cases of murder.

This is a lot easier for me, too. You are either for the death penalty as a matter of justice (taking its deterrent value as a bonus), or you are against it because, say, you cannot condone the taking of life by the state. WW, as an advocate of abortion, cannot take the latter position, so he dances around the death penalty — treating it entirely as an exercise in utilitarian calculation. In reality, he takes no position at all because he uses wiggle-words like “very effective,” “non-prejudicially,” “very rarely,” and “especially heinous.”

Thirdly:

Legalisation of marijuana. I support legal weed! If it were shown that marijuana is super-addictive, impossible to use responsibly, and that its users predictably harm others and/or egregiously harm themselves, I’d support something in the neighbourhood of status quo prohibition.

I have a strong suspicion that only a small fraction of the users of marijuana are detected and prosecuted for their use. That is to say, I view legalization as a bogus issue. But the purported harmlessness of marijuana allows libertarians to replay the pro-abortion theme: control over one’s body. However, WW (unlike most libertarians who write about drug use) seems willing to concede that the use of marijuana ought to be made illegal if it would “egregiously harm” the user. This suggests that control over one’s body is not sacrosanct.

But what is the deeper principle that determines where and when one has control over one’s body? I find no clue in WW’s article. There is no “moral there” there. Being pro-abortion, anti-death penalty, pro-marijuana, and pro-same-sex marriage are attitudes, the possession of which marks one as “liberal” and “open-minded.” But bottomless.

And so on:

Same-sex marriage. I’m so pro, I almost wish I were gay so I could have one. If compelling evidence were unearthed that showed that widespread same-sex marriage really would precipitate the unraveling of the traditional family and subsequently the stability of society and the ruin of us all, I suppose I’d settle for the right of same-sex couples to shack up.

“Compelling evidence” about the effects of same-sex “marriage” on society can be had only by the widespread legalization of same-sex “marriage” over a long period, by which time it would be impossible to undo the damage caused by same-sex “marriage.” Would it not be better to exercise one’s moral judgment about the effects of state action before that action is taken?

In the case of same-sex “marriage” the judgment goes like this: Marriage, as the union of a man and a woman, is a social-religious convention, which (until modern times) had a legitimacy and standing that did not depend on state action. State involvement in marriage — as in other social arrangements — undermines its significance as a deep and socially beneficial commitment. The undermining process began in earnest with state action that eased divorce. Widespread governmental recognition of same-sex “marriage” would accelerate the undermining process. The state would effectively convert marriage from a social-religious commitment to a licensed arrangement devoid of social-religious meaning. This would reinforce the trend toward cohabitation, with all that it implies: convenience rather than commitment, greater ease of breakup, temporary couplings where one partner (usually the man) has no stake in the proper upbringing of  the other partner’s children, psychologically and (all-too-often) physically damaged children who are more prone than their “traditional” counterparts to economically unproductive and socially destructive behaviors.

Why not think things through instead making a show of demanding “evidence” that can be obtained only when it is too late to do any good? Well, the answer to that question is obvious: WW wants same-sex “marriage” — the evidence be damned.

Finally:

Inheritance tax. I don’t have an especially strong opinion about this, other than that the “death tax” tends not to be very efficient and that large bequests aren’t an especially important source of inequality or the reproduction of class. So, I guess I’d need to learn that inheritance taxes don’t create a lot of wasteful, evasive resource shuffling, and do significantly contribute to class mobility if I were to develop a more favourable opinion of them.

That is about as clueless as it gets. Where is the right to do with one’s property as one likes, as long as the doing is not harmful to others? What a strange oversight by WW,  given his commitment to the control of one’s own body. If a person cannot control the legitimate produce of his bodily labors, he lacks effective control of his body.

If consequences were all, as they seem to be for WW, the ability to leave an inheritance is an incentive to do productive things, either directly or by making loans and investments that enable others to do productive things. For what earthly reason would anyone want to blunt or cancel that incentive? Out of a sense of “fairness”? What gives the likes of WW and Barack Obama the ability to reach into the minds and souls of millions of Americans and judge their relative worthiness to make and receive bequests? The inheritance tax is an exercise in social engineering that any self-respecting libertarian ought to reject categorically, not provisionally, as WW does.

WW often posts sensible things at his various outlets. But “Empiricism in politics” is a sign that WW should take a break from punditry, as he has said he might. On the basis of “Empiricism,” I would characterize WW as a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. He pays lip-service — but nothing more — to the value of social traditions. He stands ready to jettison them at the drop of a statistic. As I have said, he is far from the sole possessor of that trait. I single him out here because “Empiricism” is an exemplar of utilitarian amorality.

*   *   *

Related reading: Jay W. Richards, “Should Libertarians Be Conservatives?: The Tough Cases of Abortion and Marriage

Related posts (with many more linked therein):
Libertarian Twaddle about the Death Penalty
Law, Liberty, and Abortion
Clear Thinking about the Death Penalty
Another Argument for the Death Penalty
Crime, Explained
A Wrong-Headed Take on Abortion
“Family Values,” Liberty, and the State
Is There Such a Thing as Society
Greed, Cosmic Justice, and Social Welfare
Enough of “Social Welfare”
The Case of the Purblind Economist
Pseudo-Libertarian Sophistry vs. True Libertarianism
Positivism, “Natural Rights,” and Libertarianism
The Golden Rule and the State
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
Substantive Due Process and the Limits of Privacy
Positive Liberty vs. Liberty
On Self-Ownership and Desert
In Defense of Marriage
What Is Justice?
Myopic Moaning about the War on Drugs
Creative Destruction, Reification, and Social Welfare
Burkean Libertarianism
Crimes against Humanity
Abortion and Logic
What Is Libertarianism?
True Libertarianism, One More Time
Human Nature, Liberty, and Rationalism
Utilitarianism and Psychopathy
The Myth That Same-Sex “Marriage” Causes No Harm
The Libertarian-Conservative Fusion Is Alive and Well
Cato, the Kochs, and a Fluke
Why Conservatism Works
Abortion, Doublethink, and Left-Wing Blather

Liberty, Negative Rights, and Bleeding Hearts

Liberty rights are represented in the Founders’ trinity of “unalienable Rights“: “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” These really constitute a unitary right, which I simply call liberty. The liberty right is unitary because liberty (as a separate right) is meaningless without life, and liberty implies the latitude to pursue happiness.

Libertarians, for the most part, think of liberty as the enjoyment of the negative right to be left alone in one’s peaceful pursuits, that is, the right not to be robbed, attacked, murdered, and so on. But in a society or polity that values and enables liberty, the right to be left alone is only half the story.

The right to be left alone is the negative sub-rule of the Golden Rule, a good formulation of which is “One should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself.” That formulation implies a positive sub-rule, which could be stated as “Be kind and charitable to others, and they (or most of them) will be kind and charitable to you.”

The positive sub-rule is prudential, not mandatory. But that does not lessen its importance, for liberty cannot prevail absent widespread observance of the positive sub-rule. Such observance creates the conditions of mutual trust and respect that foster mutual forbearance, that is, leaving others alone in their peaceful pursuits. (For more in this vein, see Richard Epstein’s refutation of the view that libertarianism is all about “me” in “No ‘Sachs Appeal’,” Defining Ideas (a Hoover Institution journal), January 24, 2012.)

Let me be clear about the applicability of the Golden Rule in an ideal libertarian society or polity: Both sub-rules — negative and positive — are to be observed voluntarily. But one of them — the negative sub-rule — may be defended by force. Observance of the positive sub-rule may not be coerced, however, because that would violate the negative sub-rule.

The negative sub-rule must be defended because negative rights will not always be respected, human nature being what it is. On the issue of how to defend negative rights, libertarians split into two camps: anarchists and minarchists. These two camps differ about the necessity of the state, which is an independent entity and not an agent of particular members (or groups of members) of a society or polity.

Anarchistic libertarians maintain that negative rights can and should be defended without the intervention of a state. In the anarchistic view, individuals and groups of individuals can contract with each other about rules of interpersonal behavior, and can empower agents to enforce the rules.

Minarchistic libertarians (or this one, at least) maintain that the existence of agents who are empowered by various members of a society or polity is nothing more than warlordism, wherein might makes right. To say that no one would use force to do more than defend one’s negative rights is to make a patently false claim about human nature. (Anarchists, after all, acknowledge the necessity of self-defense.) Minarchists therefore believe that a state should be created and empowered specifically, and exclusively, for the purpose of defending negative rights. Such a state must be generally accountable to the populace, and it must have no power other than to protect the populace from harm. (For more about anarchists, minarchists, and the inevitability of the state, go here.)

Minarchists, nevertheless, tend toward a superficial view of the state’s minimal role, namely, that the job of the state is to see that everyone is left alone, as long as his pursuits are peaceful. That is, the job of the state is to enforce the negative sub-rule of the Golden Rule. So far, so good. Even an anarchist might go along with the idea of such a state.

But here is the rub. What are peaceful pursuits, that is, pursuits which do not harm others?  Who defines them? It cannot be everyone for himself; A’s peaceful pursuit may be a nuisance (or worse) to B.

In sum, harm cannot be defined willy-nilly by individuals, nor is it the abstraction that most libertarians make it out to be with their simplistic invocation of the “harm principle.” Rather, the definition of harm must reflect broad agreement about the rules of interpersonal behavior: social norms. Those norms are not mere abstractions; they are specific rules about permissible and impermissible acts. (Caution to readers: Do not mistake state-imposed rules for social norms, though some state-imposed rules may reflect social norms.)

Like it or not, evolved social norms constitute the foundation of a libertarian society based on mutual trust and respect. And if those evolved social norms specifically proscribe such “libertarian” causes as abortion and homosexual “marriage,” where does that leave the typical “libertarian”? It leaves him wanting to repudiate or overturn social norms, without regard for the effects of doing so on social comity. (See this and this, for example.)

But the ranks of “libertarians” also number a strange breed, often self-described as left-libertarian.  These “libertarians” actively root for the violation of negative rights in the cause of “social justice.” What is “social justice”? The short answer is that it is whatever anyone wants it to be, but it is never restricted to the enforcement of negative rights. The term “social justice” may be taken confidently as code for the enforcement of positive rights by a coercive state.

Left-libertarians will jump through hoops, turn somersaults, and stand on their heads to deny that they favor the enforcement of positive rights by a coercive state. But they do. A post by Kevin Vallier (one of the Bleeding Heart Libertarians) exemplifies their acrobatics:

Libertarians Great and Small (LGS): At some point in the future a group of committed libertarians establish a libertarian free zone called Libertarian Paradise. In LP, all property is acquired and transferred in line with traditional self-ownership political theory. Deviations from these norms are quickly corrected by private and non-profit legal organizations (call them the Cops).

…Due to LP’s unbridled capitalism, its economy booms, making its inhabitants spectacularly wealthy, so much so that charity easily provides for its poorest citizens.

However, through no one person or group’s deliberate action, prosperity ebbs. Perhaps because of resource depletion, climate change or natural disaster, a class of individuals becomes systematically deprived of basic resources (call them the Small). But while they are regularly hungry, they do not starve. And while they cannot secure many basic health resources, they do not die from easily preventable diseases. However, their poverty substantially sets back their well-being.

But the trouble in LP strikes the best-off as well (call them the Great). They too grow poorer, though they remain very well-off, more than wealthy enough to maintain a high standard of living. Yet they no longer feel secure enough to donate to charity. While the Great continue to donate to charity, LP’s charitable institutions no longer have sufficient resources to adequately provide for the Small….

At first the Small petition the Cops to require the Great to pay higher service fees and to use the proceeds to provide a social safety net. But the Cops reject the Small’s petitions for fear of offending their Great clientele.

Eventually the Small grow tired of petitions and begin to occupy local banks, demanding that a small portion of the fortunes of the Great be used to provide the Small with enough food and medical care to be able to get on with their lives. The Small do so non-aggressively, organizing a poor people’s campaign to nonviolently resist LP’s property regime.

But the Great are frustrated. After all, they still give to charity and they too have grown poorer. So the Great demand that the Cops coercively remove the Small from their local banks on the grounds that the Small are violating the self-ownership principle. The Cops comply.

The Small resent the coercion and complain that it is unjustified because they are merely trying to secure basic resources for them and their children. The Cops, acting on behalf of the Great, violently prevent the Small from securing a minimally decent future for themselves and their offspring.

Vallier maintains that

Traditional libertarianism solidly endorses the coercive actions of the Cops. The Cops and their Great clients may be insufficiently benevolent but they act justly.

But social justice libertarians (Strong BHLs) have a different reaction. On their view, the Small are not criminals. In fact, their demands are justified. First, the Small have only occupied local banks after petitioning the Cops to charge higher fees. Second, by occupying local banks, the Small are merely asking the Great to provide them with a very mild safety net that, if institutionalized, would in no way prevent the Great from leading excellent lives.

The social justice libertarian can go further and argue that the property claims of the Great are illegitimate. Their claims are illegitimate because the coercion required to maintain them cannot be justified to the Small given that their well-being is substantially set back by a lack of basic food and healthcare. On the social justice view, the Small’s complaints provide legitimate grounds to revise the property rights recognized in LP to permit (and perhaps require) the Cops to provide a safety net out of the proceeds of legal fees paid by the Great.

…In this case, I’m with the Small. How about you?

And, in an effort to seal his case, Vallier adds

Pre-emptive Remarks:

(1) Please don’t respond with “That will never happen.” The purpose of LGS is to draw out your intuitions about what makes coercion and property regimes morally legitimate. That is why it is a thought experiment.

(2) Please don’t respond with “You’re a statist.” Nothing in LGS assumes that a state controls LP or that the Small want a state. These disputes are possible in a market anarchist social order and can be remedied in the name of justice through polycentric legal organizations.

(3) Please don’t respond that the Small aren’t really being coerced. Many libertarians want to determine what counts as coercion entirely by whether property claims are made in line with the self-ownership principle. But that’s implausible. Even private police forces have to use coercion to protect legitimately held property. Just because a piece of property is rightfully yours doesn’t mean your security forces don’t use coercion to protect it.

(4) Please don’t respond with a slippery slope argument. I was extremely circumspect about the sort of justification the Small employ. They reject as unjustified the coercion used against them because it requires that they remain impoverished through no fault of their own when the Great can easily aid them without any significant risk to their life prospects. To side with the Small, you don’t have to adopt any strongly prioritarian or egalitarian distributive principle.

Remark (1) is unexceptionable; I take LGS as a thought experiment, though a failed one.

As for (2), Vallier should read what he has written. When the Small petition the Cops to force the Great to come across with more money for the Small, it is evident that the Small consider the Cops to have state-like power. That is, the Small want the Cops to act like agents of the state by taking up against their own “clients,” the Great. Further, it is clear that Vallier wants the Cops to assume state-like power when he says that “the Small’s complaints provide legitimate grounds to revise the property rights recognized in LP to permit (and perhaps require) the Cops to provide a safety net out of the proceeds of legal fees paid by the Great.”

Vallier resorts to doublespeak in (3) when he says that “the Cops coercively remove the Small from their local banks.” The Cops (as agents for the Great) are employing force in defense of property rights — rights that the Small had acknowledged by virtue of their membership in the Libertarian Paradise. If there is any coercion in the scenario painted by Vallier, it is committed by the Small, when they occupy the banks in an effort to compel the Great to cough up more money.  Vallier’s use of “coercively” is gratuitous and does not belong in the phrase quoted above.

Remark (4) is slipperiness itself. Having misapplied “coercively” to the Cops defensive actions (as agents for the Great), Vallier recycles it in the statement that the Small “reject as unjustified the coercion used against them.” (As Lenin said, “A lie told often enough becomes truth.”) The Small may “reject as unjustified” their removal from private property, but that does not make their removal unjustified. (See my comments about (3).) Moreover, it is clear that Vallier adopts some kind of “distributive principle,” other than the libertarian principle upon which LP was founded, when he writes that the Small will “remain impoverished through no fault of their own.” The implied principle is that those who are better off owe something to those who are worse off. How much they owe, and under what circumstances is, of course, determined arbitrarily by “social justice” libertarians like Vallier and out-and-out statist redistributionists like Barack Obama. Their principles are the same, they just articulate them differently.

It is understandable the Vallier roots for the “little guy,” most people do; but the “little guy” is not necessarily the “good guy.” In any event, a libertarian society is impossible if the fundamental tenets of libertarianism can be overthrown simply because the “little guy” wants more than the “big guy” is willing to give. It is not as if the Greats have insisted on a narrow, “leave me alone,” kind of libertarianism; their embrace of the positive sub-rule of the Golden Rule is evident (and realistic). Vallier — like any statist — simply wants to enforce his preconceived notion of how the positive sub-rule should be applied. But the enforcement of any such notion, however well intended, is incompatible with liberty. Moreover, as I have shown, the end result of confiscation through taxation and regulation is general impoverishment; the “have nots” suffer, along with the “haves.”

Left-libertarianism is not libertarianism. And its unintended consequences are dire because slippery slopes are real. State power erodes the societal bonds upon which liberty depends, because — as subjects of the state — individual develop the habit of looking to the state for guidance about proper behavior, instead of consulting their consciences and their fellow men. One misuse of state power leads to another, eventually destroying the fragile bonds of mutual respect and forbearance that undergird liberty. (Regarding the reality of slippery slopes, consider how much the contemporary interpretation of the Constitution diverges from its real, original meaning because of accretion of wrongful interpretations; see especially “Our Perfect, Perfect Constitution,” by Michael Stokes Paulsen, University of St. Thomas School of Law.)

For proof of this, one need look no farther than America. America’s slide into statism began in earnest with with Teddy Roosevelt’s “Square Deal,” accelerated with Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal,” and has been compounded since through the steady accretion of power by the central government.

All in the name of “social justice.”

Related posts:
On Liberty
Greed, Cosmic Justice, and Social Welfare
Positive Rights and Cosmic Justice
The Interest-Group Paradox
Parsing Political Philosophy
Is Statism Inevitable?
Inventing “Liberalism”
Civil Society and Homosexual “Marriage”
The Price of Government
What Is Conservatism?
Utilitarianism, “Liberalism,” and Omniscience
The Real Burden of Government
Utilitarianism vs. Liberty
The Principles of Actionable Harm
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 Price of Government Redux
The Near-Victory of Communism
The Mega-Depression
Abortion and Crime
Tocqueville’s Prescience
Discounting and Libertarian Paternalism
The Mind of a Paternalist
The State of the Union: 2010
The Shape of Things to Come
Accountants of the Soul
Invoking Hitler
The Unreality of Objectivism
Toward a Risk-Free Economy
Rawls Meets Bentham
The Rahn Curve at Work
Is Liberty Possible?
The Left
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
The Illusion of Prosperity and Stability
Society and the State
I Want My Country Back
Estimating the Rahn Curve: Or, How Government Inhibits Economic Growth
The Deficit Commission’s Deficit of Understanding
Undermining the Free Society
Our Enemy, the State
Pseudo-Libertarian Sophistry vs. True Libertarianism
The Bowles-Simpson Report
Positivism, “Natural Rights,” and Libertarianism
The Bowles-Simpson Band-Aid
What Are “Natural Rights”?
The Golden Rule and the State
Government vs. Community
Libertarian Conservative or Conservative Libertarian?
Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: Part I
The Stagnation Thesis
Bounded Liberty: A Thought Experiment
Evolution, Human Nature, and “Natural Rights”
Government Failure: An Example
The Evil That Is Done with Good Intentions
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
About Democracy
What Is Libertarianism?
Nature Is Unfair
True Libertarianism, One More Time
Human Nature, Liberty, and Rationalism
Utilitarianism and Psychopathy
Externalities and Statism
“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?
Don’t Just Stand There, “Do Something”
The Morality of Occupying Private Property
Society and the State
Estimating the Rahn Curve: A Sequel
In Defense of the 1%
Prohibition, Abortion, and “Progressivism”

More about Merit Goods

This is a follow-up to “Merit Goods, Positive Rights, and Cosmic Justice.” That post was inspired by a post at Austin Frakt’s blog, The Incidental Economist, about which John Goodman had this to say:

Austin, on first reading, I thought you were saying that I (as a taxpayer) should help pay for your daughter’s asthma medication — even though you agree that you can afford to pay for it yourself. Disbelief overcame me, so I read your post a second time. Then I read it a third. Each time, the message was as incomprehensible as on the previous reading.

Is there a persuasive reason why I owe the Frakt household something? If so, it’s not in this post.

Frakt’s response to Goodman:

You owe me nothing. Follow the link to value-based insurance design or find the V-BID center at U Mich. I think you’re looking for trouble where none should exist.

Well, I followed the link, and came away unconvinced that Frakt wants nothing from Goodman or anyone else. Accordingly, I posted this comment (paragraph breaks and emphasis added):

Your post about value-based insurance — to which you refer John Goodman — suggests that by reducing the co-pay on asthma drugs, trips to the ER would be averted, thus reducing the insurance company’s total costs and (possibly) the premiums it must charge its policy holders. If I have that right, it explains your reply to Goodman that “You owe me nothing.” I suspect that what he reacted to — and I would have reacted to similarly — is your assertion that “breathing [is] a merit good, something we all have a right to enjoy.” That assertion is unnecessary to the discussion of value-based insurance. And your use of the term “merit good” strongly suggests that your statement “Asthma medication is exactly the type of health product that should be free, or nearly so, especially for low-income families” is not just a statement about the presumed efficacy of value-based insurance, but advocacy for income redistribution.

In that case, a modified version of Goodman’s reaction is entirely in order, and I subscribe to it: “Is there a persuasive reason why I owe other households something, and what qualifies you (or anyone else) to make that judgment?” The excuse that I might otherwise end up paying for ER services through my taxes or insurance premiums relies on the assumption that ER services are a merit good that ought to be covered by tax subsidies and/or mandated insurance coverage. There is no end to the number of things that can be called merit goods, but calling them merit goods does not disguise the fact that doing so is an excuse for imposing one person’s or group’s preferences and burdens on others.

Those impositions have led to the present state of affairs, in which myriad interest groups pick each others’ pockets — and the pockets of the unfortunate who are not well-represented by an interest group. One truly unfortunate result of that state of affairs — aside from the gross diminution of liberty — is the diversion of resources from uses that would foster greater economic growth and alleviate much of the poverty that provides an excuse, in the first place, for special pleading about merit goods.

Merit Goods, Positive Rights, and Cosmic Justice

A merit good is said to be something that

an individual or society should have on the basis of some concept of need, rather than ability and willingness to pay…. [T]he concept … lies behind many economic actions by governments…. Examples include the provision of food stamps to support nutrition, the delivery of health services to improve quality of life and reduce morbidity, subsidized housing and arguably education….

Sometimes, merit … goods are simply seen as an extension of the idea of externalities. A merit good may be described as a good that has positive externalities associated with it. Thus, an inoculation against a contagious disease may be seen as a merit good. This is because others who may not now catch the disease from the inoculated person also benefit.

[M]erit … goods can be defined in a different way…. The essence of merit … goods is [has] do with … information failure…. This arises because consumer[s] do not perceive quite how good or bad the good is for them: either they do not have the right information or lack relevant information…. [A]merit good is [a] good that is better for a person than the person … realizes.

Other possible rationales for treating some commodities as merit … goods include public-goods aspects of a commodity…

A merit good, in short, is something that someone believes that the state should cause to be given to certain individuals, as a “positive right,” for various reasons: perceived need, externalities, and market failure among them.

But the “right” to something that is not earned or freely given is not a right, as the term is properly understood. It is an extortion by force or the threat of force, either directly (as in the case of outright theft) or though the coercive power of the state. Only a fool or a dishonest person can say that something obtained through extortion is obtained by right, unless that person believes that the victims of extortion are less deserving — less human — than the intended beneficiaries of extortion.

If a right is anything, it is something that all members of a polity can enjoy equally. If some members of a polity are placed above others through force or the threat of force, then the polity has no system of rights; it has a system of arbitrary privileges, dispensed by the state according to the whims of the faction then in power.

Given that a right must be something that all can enjoy equally, a right can only be negative:

  • the right not to have one’s life taken if one is peaceful toward others
  • the right not to be deprived of liberty if one is peaceful toward others
  • the right to the peaceful enjoyment and use of one’s property in the pursuit of one’s life and livelihood.

These negative rights come down to this: the right to be left alone as one leaves others alone.

If “obligations” accompany the right to be left alone, they do so only in the context of voluntary social (and economic) relationships, wherein acts of kindness and charity flow readily among persons who trust and care for each other and do so, in good part, because they observe the right of others to be left alone. These “obligations” are incurred and honored voluntarily, not because a person or group invested with the power of the state decrees them.

Merit goods (“positive rights”), by contrast, are the products of presumption — judgments about who is “needy” and “deserving” — and they are bestowed on some by coercing others. These coercions extend not only to the seizure of income and wealth but also to denials of employment (e.g., affirmative action), free speech (e.g., campaign-finance “reform”), freedom of contract (e.g., mandatory recognition of unions), freedom of association (e.g., forced admission of certain groups to private organizations), freedom of conscience (e.g., forced participation in abortions), and on and on.

The list of “merit goods” that forms the basis for the many and various forms of state-sponsored coercion may not be infinite, but it is exceedingly long. And its length is limited only by the perverse ingenuity of the seekers of “cosmic justice.” What is cosmic justice? I like this example from Thomas Sowell’s speech, “The Quest for Cosmic Justice“:

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

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

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

To be a practitioner of cosmic justice, a person must set himself up as a judge of the merit of other persons, without really possessing more than superficial information about those other persons (e.g., that they are “rich” or “poor” by some standard). As I once said of two founders of modern “liberalism,” T.H. Green and L.T. Hobhouse, they are

accountants of the soul….

…(presumably) intelligent persons who believe that their intelligence enables them to peer into the souls of others, and to raise them up [or put them down] through the blunt instrument that is the state.

This is done on in the service of concepts that do not bear close examination, such as externalities, public goods, market failure, and social justice, social welfare, and positive rights. I will not repeat my asseessments of those concepts, but refer you to some of them instead:

Greed, Cosmic Justice, and Social Welfare
Positive Rights and Cosmic Justice
A Short Course in Economics
Social Justice
The Meaning of Liberty
Positive Liberty vs. Liberty
More Social Justice
On Self-Ownership and Desert
Luck-Egalitarianism and Moral Luck
Externalities and Statism

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

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.