Theodore Dalrymple

Not-So-Random Thoughts (III)

Apropos Science

In the vein of “Something from Nothing?” there is this:

[Stephen] Meyer also argued [in a a recent talk at the University Club in D.C.] that biological evolutionary theory, which “attempts to explain how new forms of life evolved from simpler pre-existing forms,” faces formidable difficulties. In particular, the modern version of Darwin’s theory, neo-Darwinism, also has an information problem.

Mutations, or copying errors in the DNA, are analogous to copying errors in digital code, and they supposedly provide the grist for natural selection. But, Meyer said: “What we know from all codes and languages is that when specificity of sequence is a condition of function, random changes degrade function much faster than they come up with something new.”…

The problem is comparable to opening a big combination lock. He asked the audience to imagine a bike lock with ten dials and ten digits per dial. Such a lock would have 10 billion possibilities with only one that works. But the protein alphabet has 20 possibilities at each site, and the average protein has about 300 amino acids in sequence….

Remember: Not just any old jumble of amino acids makes a protein. Chimps typing at keyboards will have to type for a very long time before they get an error-free, meaningful sentence of 150 characters. “We have a small needle in a huge haystack.” Neo-Darwinism has not solved this problem, Meyer said. “There’s a mathematical rigor to this which has not been a part of the so-called evolution-creation debate.”…

“[L]eading U.S. biologists, including evolutionary biologists, are saying we need a new theory of evolution,” Meyer said. Many increasingly criticize Darwinism, even if they don’t accept design. One is the cell biologist James Shapiro of the University of Chicago. His new book is Evolution: A View From the 21st Century. He’s “looking for a new evolutionary theory.” David Depew (Iowa) and Bruce Weber (Cal State) recently wrote in Biological Theory that Darwinism “can no longer serve as a general framework for evolutionary theory.” Such criticisms have mounted in the technical literature. (Tom Bethell, “Intelligent Design at the University Club,” American Spectator, May 2012)

And this:

[I]t is startling to realize that the entire brief for demoting human beings, and organisms in general, to meaningless scraps of molecular machinery — a demotion that fuels the long-running science-religion wars and that, as “shocking” revelation, supposedly stands on a par with Copernicus’s heliocentric proposal — rests on the vague conjunction of two scarcely creditable concepts: the randomness of mutations and the fitness of organisms. And, strangely, this shocking revelation has been sold to us in the context of a descriptive biological literature that, from the molecular level on up, remains almost nothing buta documentation of the meaningfully organized, goal-directed stories of living creatures.

Here, then, is what the advocates of evolutionary mindlessness and meaninglessness would have us overlook. We must overlook, first of all, the fact that organisms are masterful participants in, and revisers of, their own genomes, taking a leading position in the most intricate, subtle, and intentional genomic “dance” one could possibly imagine. And then we must overlook the way the organism responds intelligently, and in accord with its own purposes, to whatever it encounters in its environment, including the environment of its own body, and including what we may prefer to view as “accidents.” Then, too, we are asked to ignore not only the living, reproducing creatures whose intensely directed lives provide the only basis we have ever known for the dynamic processes of evolution, but also all the meaning of the larger environment in which these creatures participate — an environment compounded of all the infinitely complex ecological interactions that play out in significant balances, imbalances, competition, cooperation, symbioses, and all the rest, yielding the marvelously varied and interwoven living communities we find in savannah and rainforest, desert and meadow, stream and ocean, mountain and valley. And then, finally, we must be sure to pay no heed to the fact that the fitness, against which we have assumed our notion of randomness could be defined, is one of the most obscure, ill-formed concepts in all of science.

Overlooking all this, we are supposed to see — somewhere — blind, mindless, random, purposeless automatisms at the ultimate explanatory root of all genetic variation leading to evolutionary change. (Stephen L. Talbott, “Evolution and the Illusion of Randomness,” The New Atlantis, Fall 2011)

My point is not to suggest that that the writers are correct in their conjectures. Rather, the force of their conjectures shows that supposedly “settled” science is (a) always far from settled (on big questions, at least) and (b) necessarily incomplete because it can never reach ultimate truths.

Trayvon, George, and Barack

Recent revelations about the case of Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman suggest the following:

  • Martin was acting suspiciously and smelled of marijuana.
  • Zimmerman was rightly concerned about Martin’s behavior, given the history of break-ins in Zimmerman’s neighborhood.
  • Martin attacked Zimmerman, had him on the ground, was punching his face, and had broken his nose.
  • Zimmerman shot Martin in self-defense.

Whether the encounter was “ultimately avoidable,” as a police report asserts, is beside the point.  Zimmerman acted in self-defense, and the case against him should be dismissed. The special prosecutor should be admonished by the court for having succumbed to media and mob pressure in bringing a charge of second-degree murder against Zimmerman.

What we have here is the same old story: Black “victim”–>media frenzy to blame whites (or a “white Hispanic”), without benefit of all relevant facts–>facts exonerate whites. To paraphrase Shakespeare: The first thing we should do after the revolution is kill all the pundits (along with the lawyers).

Obama famously said, “”If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon.” Given the thuggish similarity between Trayvon and Obama (small sample here), it is more accurate to say that if Obama had a son, he would be like Trayvon.

Creepy People

Exhibit A is Richard Thaler, a self-proclaimed libertarian who is nothing of the kind. Thaler defends the individual mandate that is at the heart of Obamacare (by implication, at least), when he attacks the “slippery slope” argument against it. Annon Simon nails Thaler:

Richard Thaler’s NYT piece from a few days ago, Slippery-Slope Logic, Applied to Health Care, takes conservatives to task for relying on a “slippery slope” fallacy to argue that Obamacare’s individual mandate should be invalidated. Thaler believes that the hypothetical broccoli mandate — used by opponents of Obamacare to show that upholding the mandate would require the Court to acknowledge congressional authority to do all sorts of other things — would never be adopted by Congress or upheld by a federal court. This simplistic view of the Obamacare litigation obscures legitimate concerns over the amount of power that the Obama administration is claiming for the federal government. It also ignores the way creative judges can use previous cases as building blocks to justify outcomes that were perhaps unimaginable when those building blocks were initially formed….

[N]ot all slippery-slope claims are fallacious. The Supreme Court’s decisions are often informed by precedent, and, as every law student learned when studying the Court’s privacy cases, a decision today could be used by a judge ten years from now to justify outcomes no one had in mind.

In 1965, the Supreme Court in Griswold v. Connecticut, referencing penumbras and emanations, recognized a right to privacy in marriage that mandated striking down an anti-contraception law.

Seven years later, in Eisenstadt v. Baird, this right expanded to individual privacy, because after all, a marriage is made of individuals, and “[i]f the right of privacy means anything, it is the right of the individual . . . to be free from unwarranted governmental intrusion into matters so fundamentally affecting a person as the decision whether to bear or beget a child.”

By 1973 in Roe v. Wade, this precedent, which had started out as a right recognized in marriage, had mutated into a right to abortion that no one could really trace to any specific textual provision in the Constitution. Slippery slope anyone?

This also happened in Lawrence v. Texas in 2003, where the Supreme Court struck down an anti-sodomy law. The Court explained that the case did not involve gay marriage, and Justice O’Connor’s concurrence went further, distinguishing gay marriage from the case at hand. Despite those pronouncements, later decisions enshrining gay marriage as a constitutionally protected right have relied upon Lawrence. For instance, Goodridge v. Department of Public Health (Mass. 2003) cited Lawrence 9 times, Varnum v. Brien (Iowa 2009) cited Lawrence 4 times, and Perry v. Brown (N.D. Cal, 2010) cited Lawrence 9 times.

However the Court ultimately rules, there is no question that this case will serve as a major inflection point in our nation’s debate about the size and scope of the federal government. I hope it serves to clarify the limits on congressional power, and not as another stepping stone on the path away from limited, constitutional government. (“The Supreme Court’s Slippery Slope,” National Review Online, May 17, 2012)

Simon could have mentioned Wickard v. Filburn (1942), in which the Supreme Court brought purely private, intrastate activity within the reach of Congress’s power to regulate interstate commerce. The downward slope from Wickard v. Filburn to today’s intrusive regulatory regime has been been not merely slippery but precipitous.

Then there is Brian Leiter, some of whose statist musings I have addressed in the past. It seems that Leiter has taken to defending the idiotic Elizabeth Warren for her convenient adoption of a Native American identity. Todd Zywicki tears a new one for Leiter:

I was out of town most of last week and I wasn’t planning on blogging any more on the increasingly bizarre saga of Elizabeth Warren’s claim to Native American ancestry, which as of the current moment appears to be entirely unsubstantiated.  But I was surprised to see Brian Leiter’s post doubling-down in his defense of Warren–and calling me a “Stalinist” to boot (although I confess it is not clear why or how he is using that term).  So I hope you will indulge me while I respond.

First, let me say again what I expressed at the outset–I have known from highly-credible sources for a decade that in the past Warren identified herself as a Native American in order to put herself in a position to benefit from hiring preferences (I am certain that Brian knows this now too).  She was quite outspoken about it at times in the past and, as her current defenses have suggested, she believed that she was entitled to claim it.  So there would have been no reason for her to not identify as such and in fact she was apparently quite unapologetic about it at the time….

Second, Brian seems to believe for some reason that the issue here is whether Warren actually benefited from a hiring preference.  Of course it is not (as my post makes eminently clear).  The issue I raised is whether Warren made assertions as part of the law school hiring process in order to put herself in a position to benefit from a hiring preference for which she had no foundation….

Third, regardless of why she did it, Warren herself actually had no verifiable basis for her self-identification as Native American.  At the very least her initial claim was grossly reckless and with no objective foundation–it appears that she herself has never had any foundation for the claim beyond “family lore” and her “high cheekbones.”… Now it turns out that the New England Historical Genealogical Society, which had been the source for the widely-reported claim that she might be 1/32 Cherokee, has rescinded its earlier conclusion and now says “We have no proof that Elizabeth Warren’s great great great grandmother O.C. Sarah Smith either is or is not of Cherokee descent.”  The story adds, “Their announcement came in the wake of an official report from an Oklahoma county clerk that said a document purporting to prove Warren’s Cherokee roots — her great great great grandmother’s marriage license application — does not exist.”  A Cherokee genealogist has similarly stated that she can find no evidence to support Warren’s claim.  At this point her claim appears to be entirely unsupported as an objective matter and it appears that she herself had no basis for it originally.

Fourth, Brian’s post also states the obvious–that there is plenty of bad blood between Elizabeth and myself.  But, of course, the only reason that this issue is interesting and relevant today is because Warren is running for the U.S. Senate and is the most prominent law professor in America at this moment.

So, I guess I’ll conclude by asking the obvious question: if a very prominent conservative law professor (say, for example, John Yoo) had misrepresented himself throughout his professorial career in the manner that Elizabeth Warren has would Brian still consider it to be “the non-issue du jour“?  Really?

I’m not sure what a “Stalinist” is.  But I would think that ignoring a prominent person’s misdeeds just because you like her politics, and attacking the messenger instead, just might fit the bill. (“New England Genealogical Historical Society Rescinds Conclusion that Elizabeth Warren Might Be Cherokee,” The Volokh Conspiracy, May 17, 2012)

For another insight into Leiter’s character, read this and weep not for him.

Tea Party Sell-Outs

Business as usual in Washington:

This week the Club for Growth released a study of votes cast in 2011 by the 87 Republicans elected to the House in November 2010. The Club found that “In many cases, the rhetoric of the so-called “Tea Party” freshmen simply didn’t match their records.” Particularly disconcerting is the fact that so many GOP newcomers cast votes against spending cuts.

The study comes on the heels of three telling votes taken last week in the House that should have been slam-dunks for members who possess the slightest regard for limited government and free markets. Alas, only 26 of the 87 members of the “Tea Party class” voted to defund both the Economic Development Administration and the president’s new Advanced Manufacturing Technology Consortia program (see my previous discussion of these votes here) and against reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank (see my colleague Sallie James’s excoriation of that vote here).

I assembled the following table, which shows how each of the 87 freshman voted. The 26 who voted for liberty in all three cases are highlighted. Only 49 percent voted to defund the EDA. Only 56 percent voted to defund a new corporate welfare program requested by the Obama administration. And only a dismal 44 percent voted against reauthorizing “Boeing’s bank.” That’s pathetic. (Tad DeHaven, “Freshman Republicans Switch from Tea to Kool-Aid,” Cato@Liberty, May 17, 2012)

Lesson: Never trust a politician who seeks a position of power, unless that person earns trust by divesting the position of power.

PCness

Just a few of the recent outbreaks of PCness that enraged me:

Michigan Mayor Calls Pro-Lifers ‘Forces of Darkness’” (reported by LifeNews.com on May 11, 2012)

US Class Suspended for Its View on Islam” (reported by CourierMail.com.au, May 11, 2012)

House Democrats Politicize Trayvon Martin” (posted at Powerline, May 8, 2012)

Chronicle of Higher Education Fires Blogger for Questioning Seriousness of Black Studies Depts.” (posted at Reason.com/hit & run, May 8, 2012)

Technocracy, Externalities, and Statism

From a review of Robert Frank’s The Darwin Economy:

In many ways, economics is the discipline best suited to the technocratic mindset. This has nothing to do with its traditional subject matter. It is not about debating how to produce goods and services or how to distribute them. Instead, it relates to how economics has emerged as an approach that distances itself from democratic politics and provides little room for human agency.

Anyone who has done a high-school course in economics is likely to have learned the basics of its technocratic approach from the start. Students have long been taught that economics is a ‘positive science’ – one based on facts rather than values. Politicians are entitled to their preferences, so the argument went, but economists are supposed to give them impartial advice based on an objective examination of the facts.

More recently this approach has been taken even further. The supposedly objective role of the technocrat-economist has become supreme, while the role of politics has been sidelined….

The starting point of The Darwin Economy is what economists call the collective action problem: the divergence between individual and collective interests. A simple example is a fishermen fishing in a lake. For each individual, it might be rational to catch as many fish as possible, but if all fishermen follow the same path the lake will eventually be empty. It is therefore deemed necessary to find ways to negotiate this tension between individual and group interests.

Those who have followed the discussion of behavioural economics will recognise that this is an alternative way of viewing humans as irrational. Behavioural economists focus on individuals behaving in supposedly irrational ways. For example, they argue that people often do not invest enough to secure themselves a reasonable pension. For Frank, in contrast, individuals may behave rationally but the net result of group behaviour can still be irrational….

…From Frank’s premises, any activity considered harmful by experts could be deemed illegitimate and subjected to punitive measures….

…[I]t is … wrong to assume that there is no more scope for economic growth to be beneficial. Even in the West, there is a long way to go before scarcity is limited. This is not just a question of individuals having as many consumer goods as they desire – although that has a role. It also means having the resources to provide as many airports, art galleries, hospitals, power stations, roads, schools, universities and other facilities as are needed. There is still ample scope for absolute improvements in living standards…. (Daniel Ben-ami, “Delving into the Mind of the Technocrat,” The Spiked Review of Books, February 2012)

There is much to disagree with in the review, but the quoted material is right on. It leads me to quote myself:

…[L]ife is full of externalities — positive and negative. They often emanate from the same event, and cannot be separated. State action that attempts to undo negative externalities usually results in the negation or curtailment of positive ones. In terms of the preceding example, state action often is aimed at forcing the attractive woman to be less attractive, thus depriving quietly appreciative men of a positive externality, rather than penalizing the crude man if his actions cross the line from mere rudeness to assault.

The main argument against externalities is that they somehow result in something other than a “social optimum.” This argument is pure, economistic hokum. It rests on the unsupportable belief in a social-welfare function, which requires the balancing (by an omniscient being, I suppose) of the happiness and unhappiness that results from every action that affects another person, either directly or indirectly….

A believer in externalities might respond by saying that they are of “economic” importance only as they are imposed on bystanders as a spillover from economic transactions, as in the case of emissions from a power plant that can cause lung damage in susceptible persons. Such a reply is of a kind that only an omniscient being could make with impunity. What privileges an economistic thinker to say that the line of demarcation between relevant and irrelevant acts should be drawn in a certain place? The authors of campus speech codes evidently prefer to draw the line in such a way as to penalize the behavior of the crude man in the above example. Who is the economistic thinker to say that the authors of campus speech codes have it wrong? And who is the legalistic thinker to say that speech should be regulated by deferring to the “feelings” that it arouses in persons who may hear or read it?

Despite the intricacies that I have sketched, negative externalities are singled out for attention and rectification, to the detriment of social and economic intercourse. Remove the negative externalities of electric-power generation and you make more costly (and even inaccessible) a (perhaps the) key factor in America’s economic growth in the past century. Try to limit the supposed negative externality of human activity known as “greenhouse gases” and you limit the ability of humans to cope with that externality (if it exists) through invention, innovation, and entrepreneurship. Limit the supposed negative externality of “offensive” speech and you quickly limit the range of ideas that may be expressed in political discourse. Limit the supposed externalities of suburban sprawl and you, in effect, sentence people to suffer the crime, filth, crowding, contentiousness, heat-island effects, and other externalities of urban living.

The real problem is not externalities but economistic and legalistic reactions to them….

The main result of rationalistic thinking — because it yields vote-worthy slogans and empty promises to fix this and that “problem” — is the aggrandizement of the state, to the detriment of civil society.

The fundamental error of rationalists is to believe that “problems” call for collective action, and to identify collective action with state action. They lack the insight and imagination to understand that the social beings whose voluntary, cooperative efforts are responsible for mankind’s vast material progress are perfectly capable of adapting to and solving “problems,” and that the intrusions of the state simply complicate matters, when not making them worse. True collective action is found in voluntary social and economic intercourse, the complex, information-rich content of which rationalists cannot fathom. They are as useless as a blind man who is shouting directions to an Indy 500 driver….

Theodore Dalrymple

If you do not know of Theodore Dalrymple, you should. His book, In Praise of Prejudice: The Necessity of Preconceived Ideas, inspired  “On Liberty,” the first post at this blog. Without further ado, I commend these recent items by and about Dalrymple:

Rotting from the Head Down” (an article by Dalrymple about the social collapse of Britain, City Journal, March 8, 2012)

Symposium: Why Do Progressives Love Criminals?” (Dalrymple and others, FrontPageMag.com, March 9, 2012)

Doctors Should Not Vote for Industrial Action,” a strike, in American parlance (a post by Dalrymple, The Social Affairs Unit, March 22, 2012)

The third item ends with this:

The fact is that there has never been, is never, and never will be any industrial action over the manifold failures of the public service to provide what it is supposed to provide. Whoever heard of teachers going on strike because a fifth of our children emerge from 11 years of compulsory education unable to read fluently, despite large increases in expenditure on education?

If the doctors vote for industrial action, they will enter a downward spiral of public mistrust of their motives. They should think twice before doing so.

Amen.

The Higher-Eduction Bubble

The title of a post at The Right Coast tells the tale: “Under 25 College Educated More Unemployed than Non-college Educated for First Time.” As I wrote here,

When I entered college [in 1958], I was among the 28 percent of high-school graduates then attending college. It was evident to me that about half of my college classmates didn’t belong in an institution of higher learning. Despite that, the college-enrollment rate among high-school graduates has since doubled.

(Also see this.)

American taxpayers should be up in arms over the subsidization of an industry that wastes their money on the useless education of masses of indeducable persons. Then there is the fact that taxpayers are forced to subsidize the enemies of liberty who populate university faculties.

The news about unemployment among college grads may hasten the bursting of the higher-ed bubble. It cannot happen too soon.

The Fire This Time

UPDATED 08/10/11

Riots in the UK — especially in London — are drawing much attention from the media. Why are there riots in the UK? It’s the welfare state, stupid. Take away a person’s self-reliance and dignity by putting him on the dole, and he has little in the way of inner resources and skills to draw on when you take him off the dole. (Michael Gove understands this; Harriet Harman does not.)

What about the less-publicized black-on-white “flash mob” attacks taking place in the U.S.? The same answer, with the added indignity of the job-killing minimum wage.

It is my fervent hope that American police forces be allowed to respond to “flash mobs” with force, and that American courts prosecute mobsters vigorously and mercilessly.

It is my fervent hope that American politicians will not throw money at the sector of the populace whence the mobs come, in the vain hope of quelling their anger. As a start on solving this “problem” — another instance of government failure — the minimum wage should be abolished and the rabble should be told to get off the streets and get jobs.

To the end of getting troublemakers off the streets, laws against loitering should be reinstated and enforced. It’s time to stop coddling people who truly aren’t paying their “fair share” of taxes.

UPDATE:

The always-excellent Theodore Dalrymple weighs in (link below); for example:

The riots are the apotheosis of the welfare state and popular culture in their British form. A population thinks (because it has often been told so by intellectuals and the political class) that it is entitled to a high standard of consumption, irrespective of its personal efforts; and therefore it regards the fact that it does not receive that high standard, by comparison with the rest of society, as a sign of injustice. It believes itself deprived (because it has often been told so by intellectuals and the political class), even though each member of it has received an education costing $80,000, toward which neither he nor—quite likely—any member of his family has made much of a contribution; indeed, he may well have lived his entire life at others’ expense, such that every mouthful of food he has ever eaten, every shirt he has ever worn, every television he has ever watched, has been provided by others. Even if he were to recognize this, he would not be grateful, for dependency does not promote gratitude. On the contrary, he would simply feel that the subventions were not sufficient to allow him to live as he would have liked.

At the same time, his expensive education will have equipped him for nothing. His labor, even supposing that he were inclined to work, would not be worth its cost to any employer—partly because of the social charges necessary to keep others such as he in a state of permanent idleness, and partly because of his own characteristics. And so unskilled labor is performed in England by foreigners, while an indigenous class of permanently unemployed is subsidized.

The culture of the person in this situation is not such as to elevate his behavior. One in which the late Amy Winehouse—the vulgar, semicriminal drug addict and alcoholic singer of songs whose lyrics effectively celebrated the most degenerate kind of life imaginable—could be raised to the status of heroine is not one that is likely to protect against bad behavior.

Finally, long experience of impunity has taught the rioters that they have nothing to fear from the law, which in England has become almost comically lax—except, that is, for the victims of crime. For the rioters, crime has become the default setting of their behavior; the surprising thing about the riots is not that they have occurred, but that they did not occur sooner and did not become chronic.

__________

Related reading:
Walter Russell Mead, “American Tinderbox
Bill Vallicella, “Flash Mobs
Victor Davis Hanson, “Paralytic American Society
Bruce McQuain, “London Rioting — Are We Seeing the End of the Welfare State?
Theodore Dalrymple, “British Degeneracy on Parade

Facets of Liberty

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

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

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

Where is libertarianism in all of this? Read on:


LIBERTY: ITS MEANING AND PREREQUISITES

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

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

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

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

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

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

[l]ibertarians recognize that a free market needs a culture of law-abidingness, promise-keeping, and respect for contracts…. A culture full of people who violate their contracts at every possible opportunity cannot be held together by legal institutions, as the experience of post-communist Russia plainly shows.

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

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

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

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


LIBERTY IN TODAY’S WORLD

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

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

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

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

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


LIBERTY VS. “LIBERALISM”

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

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

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

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

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


LIBERTARIANS AND LIBERTY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


RELIGION AND LIBERTY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Insane” Is Overused

Theodore Dalrymple on Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian mass-murderer:

It is always hazardous to pronounce on the mental state of someone one had not met, and about whom one knows only a little and third-hand. But all the same, one is tempted…

The first trap to avoid is to say person x did act y because [he] is or has z, and we know he is or has z because he did y. This is circular.

But there does seem to be evidence that Breivik was narcissistic, grandiose, paranoid, socially and sexually inept, and deeply resentful. This is a horrible mixture, though any explanation will always be incomplete and not pluck out the heart of his mystery.

I think it unlikely he is legally insane according to the M’Naghten rules that govern legal insanity in a lot of the English-speaking world. He knew the nature…[a]nd quality of his act and that [it] was (legally) wrong, to use the wording of the rules, and therefore would not be entitled to a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity. (Posted at The Skeptical Doctor on July 26, 2011.)

Hitler and Stalin often are called “madmen” and “insane” because of the utterly depraved acts that they ordered and condoned. But they were not insane. They were evil.

Evil should not be allowed to hide behind the cloak of insanity.

On Liberty

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

WHAT LIBERTY IS NOT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WHAT LIBERTY IS

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

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

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

peaceful, willing coexistence and its concomitant: beneficially cooperative behavior

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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