rights

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)

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

Rights: Source, Applicability, How Held

Rights are behavioral norms that circumscribe the actions that may (or should) be taken with respect to a person, his property, and his pursuits.* Other behavioral norms are customs that an individual may or may not observe, and the non-observance of which may have social repercussions.

The precise scope of an individual’s rights and ability to exercise them depends on

  • whence they derive (source)
  • whether they apply universally or to specific groups of persons (applicability)
  • whether they are held by the persons to whom they apply or are granted by others (how held)
  • the effects of state action of the exercise of rights that would (or would not) be recognized by common consent.

There are certain predictable patters of belief about relationships among the first three attributes of rights: source, applicability, and how held. That is to say, where beliefs about rights are unforced by state action, persons who believe in God-given rights tend to think of them as universal and innate in the persons to whom they apply; persons who believe in rights as “things” with an existence of their own (Platonic ideals) tend to think of them as universal and innate in the persons to whom they apply; and so on, as outlined in the table below. As indicated, the state can (and does) shape and apply rights differently than would be the case if they were described and defined by like-minded persons.

Extreme libertarians — who tend to be both atheists and absolutists — often view rights as Platonic essences. Those who understand that they have subscribed to a supernatural explanation of rights then turn to biological evolution, which is their God-substitute.

For my own part, I take the indefiniteness of rights as evidence that they are the products of social evolution — or would be if it were not for interference by the state. Rights, 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. These observations apply to socially evolved rights, not to the rights that arise (or are denied) by the intervention of the state and persons or groups (e.g., warlords) with state-like power.
__________
* This definition implies that rights are negative. As I say here,

rights can’t be rights if they can’t be held universally, without cost to others. The right not to be murdered is such a right; the right to live on the public dole is not. We can, in theory, forbear from murdering each other, but we cannot all be on the public dole except (possibly) at different times. And even then we must impose on others (including those who would prefer to be on the public dole at the same time).

All of this is a way of stating  the doctrine of negative rights, which is the basis of libertarianism. But negative rights can’t be applied universally if there are some holdouts who want others to give to them without having to give to others….

Positive rights — the “right” to be on the dole, etc. — are, in this day, state-created rights. Positive rights, under the state, require compulsion.

There can be positive rights by common consent, but that is possible only in relatively small communities. As I say here,

self-governance by mutual consent and mutual restraint — by adherence to the Golden Rule — is possible only for a group of about 25 to 150 persons: the size of a hunter-gatherer band or Hutterite colony. It seems that self-governance breaks down when a group is larger than 150 persons.

Adherence to the Golden Rules implies voluntary aid to others, not only out of love and empathy but also in the self-interested expectation of reciprocal treatment. But the Golden Rule can be a rule of coexistence — rather than a mere admonition — only for relatively small groups.

*   *   *

Related posts:
On Liberty
Greed, Cosmic Justice, and Social Welfare
Positive Rights and Cosmic Justice
Parsing Political Philosophy
Negative Rights
Negative Rights, Social Norms, and the Constitution
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?
Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: Part I
Evolution, Human Nature, and “Natural Rights”
Social Justice
More Pseudo-Libertarianism
The Meaning of Liberty
Positive Liberty vs. Liberty
More Social Justice
On Self-Ownership and Desert
Luck-Egalitarianism and Moral Luck
Understanding Hayek
The Left and Its Delusions
The Golden Rule as Beneficial Learning
Facets of Liberty
Burkean Libertarianism
Crimes against Humanity

Defining Treasonous Speech

Eugene Volokh, writing in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision in Holder v. Humanitarian Aid Project, digs into his archive for a list of five alternative ways of defining treasonous speech. The alternatives range from restrictive (#1) to lenient (#5).

My archive includes a five-year-old post in which I comment on Volokh’s five alternatives. In that post, I state a preference for this option:

2. Speech is unprotected only when the speaker has the purpose of aiding the enemy, and is paid for such speech. This, though, would be an odd distinction in U.S. constitutional law, given that speech is routinely protected despite being done for money. Most writers, filmmakers, journalists, and other speakers are paid for their speech.

Now, five years later, I lean toward Volokh’s least lenient alternative:

1. Speech is unprotected whenever the speaker has the purpose of aiding the enemy (and perhaps there’s some evidence that the speech is indeed likely to provide some at least modest aid). That seemed to be the court’s view in Gillars: “The First Amendment does not protect one from accountability for words as such. It depends upon their use. It protects the free expression of thought and belief as a part of the liberty of the individual as a human personality. But words which reasonably viewed constitute acts in furtherance of a program of an enemy to which the speaker adheres and to which he gives aid with intent to betray his own country, are not rid of criminal character merely because they are words.” This exception would justify punishing any speech that falls within the statutory and constitutional definition of “treason.”

How can I be so hard on speech that aids a foreign enemy and yet so supportive of free speech in the context of domestic affairs (e.g., see this post)? The terms “foreign enemy” and “domestic affairs” ought to be a clue. As I say here, in the context of illegal immigration, “the United States exists primarily for the purpose of protecting its citizens and their liberty rights.”

We must not give foreign enemies the same rights as American citizens. If we do, we run the grave risk of losing our own rights.

Parsing Political Philosophy

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

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

TWO BASIC POLITICAL ISSUES

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

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

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

THREE BASIC PHILOSOPHIES OF POLITICS

I begin with a rough sorting of political preferences:

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

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

Anarchism

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

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

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

Minarchism

The Central Tenet: Limited Government

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

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

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

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

The Protection of Negative Rights

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

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

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

More about Property Rights

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

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

The Role of Civil Society

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

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

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

Statism

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

The Essence of Statism: Control

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

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

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

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

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

Feeble Excuses for Statism

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

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

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

The Bottom Line

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

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

REFINING THE TRIPARTITE TAXONOMY

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

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

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

1. Need for Government

Anarchists

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

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

Minarchists and Statists

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

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

2. Government Control of the Affairs of Citizens

Minarchists

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Statists

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. How to Choose Government

The question of choosing government subsumes two issues:

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. How to Control Government

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A SUMMARY OF THE REFINED TAXONOMY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Statist (S):

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

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

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

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

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

R-R-M

R-M

R-S

L-M

A-M/A

L-S

T-L-S/T-R-S

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

Positive Rights and Cosmic Justice

POSITIVE RIGHTS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

COSMIC JUSTICE

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

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

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

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

In an earlier post, I say:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

POSITIVE RIGHTS, ROUND ONE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

POSITIVE RIGHTS, ROUND TWO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DOES REDISTRIBUTION WORK?

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

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

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

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

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

THE ROOTS OF REDISTRIBUTION: CLASS WARFARE AND ARROGANCE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CONCLUSION

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

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

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

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