Thomas Woods and War

Thomas Woods, who earned a bit of blogospheric notoriety for his book, The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History (which I own and have read), later endorsedNeoconned and Neoconned Again, two new collections of essays that make just about every argument you can think of against the war in Iraq.” Woods’s endorsement of the Neoconned books is unsurprising, given his indiscriminate embrace of the non-aggression principle, so beloved of paleo-libertarians.

I am not here to rehash the non-aggression principle, having thoroughly dismissed it in several earlier posts. (See this, this, this, this, and this.) Suffice it to say that Woods adheres to the principle with deranged fervor. (In addition to Politically Incorrect, read his oeuvre at LewRockwell.com.) Woods’s embrace of the fatuous, suicidal, non-aggression principle fatally undermines his credibility as a critic of the war in Iraq. A review of Politically Incorrect at History News Network concludes with this:

Woods condemns Roosevelt, with much justice, for his concessions to Stalin at the Tehran and Yalta Conferences. He seems to be aware that not only did Soviet domination of Eastern Europe create unspeakable misery for its inhabitants, but that it was not in American interests. But a Europe run by Prussian militarists or the SS? That’’s something we could have happily coexisted with, apparently.

Conversely, he praises Reagan for having “challenged the Soviet Union to tear down the Berlin Wall and defeated Communism, while hardly firing a shot.” Reagan didn’t have to fire a shot because he had challenged the USSR by more meaningful measures than his plea to Gorbachev to tear down the Wall. Among other things, in a provocative, interventionist act roundly condemned by Paleos and Liberals alike, he placed intermediate-range missiles in Europe.

Politically-correct history is offensive not because it seeks to celebrate the accomplishments of privileged groups, but because, in ignoring or denigrating the accomplishments of others and exaggerating or inventing their crimes, it does violence to the historical record. Particularly in his discussion of events in Europe in the 20th century, Woods’s contempt for the evidence is as thoroughgoing as that of any p.c.-textbook-writing hack. It does students no service to expose one set of myths if you’re going to substitute another.

The conclusion of a review of Politically Incorrect at reason sums it up:

Woods is a bad ally for libertarians, though his message may appeal to those who can’’t distinguish the flaws of America from those of outright despotisms. Decentralization is an important libertarian value, but surely our first principle is individual liberty; and nothing is more inimical to liberty than slavery or totalitarianism. The Civil War may not have begun as a war for abolition, but it nonetheless led to the end of slavery and to fuller enfranchisement of blacks in the North. And U.S. intervention in World War II and the Cold War may have been vital to defeating totalitarianism. On those two crucial battles, Woods is wrong.

I enjoyed Politically Incorrect for its irreverence and feistiness, but Woods’s deep cynicism about the wars America has fought had become tiresome and whiny by the time he reached World War II. (As for the Civil War, about which Woods is unhinged, read this.)

Given the reality of German, Japanese, Soviet, North Korean, Chinese, Iraqi, and Islamist aggression, it is simple-minded sophistry to paint America as a war-crazed, militaristic, imperialist, aggressor. America’s presidents and Congresses haven’t always been right in their decisions to go to war, but it’s better to be wrong at times than to be foolishly, consistently, against war when liberty is at stake — as it always is in a world crawling with real aggressors.

Selected bibliography:

Incorrect History (a review of Politically Incorrect by Max Boot, posted at The Weekly Standard, 02/15/05)
The Purgatory of an Inadvertent Public Intellectual (an article by Woods, posted at the Ludwig von Mises Institute website, 03/16/05)
Final Thoughts on Thomas Woods and His Critics (a post by “william” at Southern Appeal, 03/21/05)
A Factually Correct Guide for Max Boot (an article by Woods that ran in the 03/28/05 issue of The American Conservative)
Response to My Critics (an article by Woods, posted at LewRockwell.com, 04/12/05)
Behind the Jeffersonian Veneer (a review of Politically Incorrect by Cathy Young, which ran in the June 2005 issue of reason)
Political Correctness in The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History (a review of Politically Incorrect by Jeff Lipkes, posted at the website of George Mason University’s History News Network, 06/06/05)
The Case Against This Monstrous War (Woods’s review of Neoconned and Neoconned Again, posted at Lew Rockwell.com, 11/09/05)

Related posts:

Defense, Anarcho-Capitalist Style
But Wouldn’t Warlords Take Over?
My View of Warlordism, Seconded
The Fatal Naïveté of Anarcho-Libertarianism
Anarcho-Libertarian “Stretching”
More Final (?) Words about Preemption and the Constitution
QandO Saved Me the Trouble
Comrade Gorbachev, Sore Loser
What If We Lose?

A Footnote about "Eavesdropping"

My rather long post about “Privacy: Variations on the Theme of Liberty” includes a reading list that I update from time to time. Here’s the current version:

President had legal authority to OK taps (Chicago Tribune)
Our domestic intelligence crisis (Richard A. Posner)
Many posts by Tom Smith of The Right Coast (start with “Thank You New York Times” on 12/16/05 and work your way to the present)
Eavesdropping Ins and Outs (Mark R. Levin, writing at National Review Online)
The FISA Act And The Definition Of ‘US Persons’ (Ed Morrissey of Captain’s Quarters)
A Colloquy with the Times (John Hinderaker of Power Line)
September 10 America (editorial at National Review Online)
A Patriot Acts (Ben Stein, writing at The American Spectator)
More on the NSA Wiretaps (Dale Franks of QandO)
The President’s War Power Includes Surveillance (John Eastman, writing at The Remedy)
Warrantless Intelligence Gathering, Redux (UPDATED) (Jeff Goldstein, writing at Protein Wisdom)
FISA Court Obstructionism Since 9/11 (Ed Morrissey of Captain’s Quarters)
FISA vs. the Constitution (Robert F. Turner, writing at OpinionJournal)
Wisdom in Wiretaps (an editorial from OpinionJournal)
Under Clinton, NY Times Called Surveillance a Necessity (William Tate, writing at The American Thinker)
LEGAL AUTHORITIES SUPPORTING THE ACTIVITIES OF THE
NATIONAL SECURITY AGENCY DESCRIBED BY THE PRESIDENT
(U.S. Department of Justice)
Terrorists on Tap (Victoria Toensing, writing at OpinionJournal)
Letter from Chairman, Senate Intelligence Committee, to Chairman and Ranking Member of Senate Judiciary Committee
Letter from H. Bryan Cunningham to Chairman and Ranking Member of Senate Judiciary Committee
Has The New York Times Violated the Espionage Act? (article in Commentary by Gabriel Schoenfeld)
Point of No Return (Thomas Sowell, writing at RealClearPolitics)
Letter from John C. Eastman to Chairman of House Judiciary Committee
FISA Chief Judge Speaks Out, Bamford Misinforms (a post at The Strata-Sphere)
DoJ Responds to Congressional FISA Questions (another post at The Strata-Sphere)

To that list I now add two posts at Power Line, in which John Hinderaker and Scott Johnson assess the testimony of five former judges of the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Court who testified recently before the Senate Judiciary Committee. From the transcript (as quoted in Hinderaker’s post):

Chairman Specter: I think the thrust of what you are saying is the President is bound by statute like everyone else unless it impinges on his constitutional authority, and a statute cannot take away the President’s constitutional authority. Anybody disagree with that?

[No response.]

Chairman Specter: Everybody agrees with that.

The president’s inherent constitutional authority includes the use of surveillance against foreign nationals — even if a U.S. citizen in the U.S. happens to be on the other end of the phone line or e-mail exchange. That point is reinforced by this passage from Johnson’s post:

Senator Hatch . . . pursued a series of hypothetical questions that he posed to Judge Kornblum regarding the admissibility in criminal trials of evidence obtained indirectly from the NSA surveillance program:

Judge Kornblum: To be admissible, the evidence would have had to have been lawfully seized or lawfully obtained and the standard that the district judge would use is that, depending upon where this is, is the law in his circuit. In most of the circuits, the law is clear that the President has the authority to do warrantless surveillance if it is to collect foreign intelligence and it is targeting foreign powers or agents. If the facts support that, then the district judge could make that finding and admit the evidence, just as they did in Truong-Humphrey.

(Emphasis added.) Judge Kornblum’s reference to Truong-Humphrey is to the federal appellate cases that acknowledge[s] [a] president’s inherent authority to order warrantless foreign intelligence surveillance, previously discussed by John here.

So, let’s knock off this nonsense about “illegal wiretaps” and get on with finding the bad guys. Actually, I’m sure that’s precisely what Bush and company are trying to do, in spite of the ankle-biters in the media and Congress.

Brian Leiter, Academic Thug

That’s the appropriate title of this blog, which has moved to a new location. Proprietor Keith Burgess-Jackson explains:

As if to prove that he is a thug (should anyone have doubted it), Brian Leiter has threatened PowerBlogs with a lawsuit if it doesn’t change the URL of my blog devoted to exposing his abusiveness. I don’t care what the URL is, and I don’t want PowerBlogs to risk liability, so I changed it. Here is the new address. Please reset your shortcut, bookmark, or favorite, and spread the word. This thug—Leiter—needs to be shown that he can’t control others.

My take on Leiter (thus far) is at these posts:

Brian Leiter Is an Idiot
Through the Looking Glass with Leiter
The Illogical Left, via Leiter

P.S. Here’s the threatening letter from Leiter — as reprinted at Brian Leiter, Academic Thug — which prompted Burgess-Jackson to change the URL of Brian Leiter, Academic Thug:

Dear Mr. Landsown [sic]:

I am writing to put you and your company, American Powerblogs Inc., on notice that a user of your service, Powerblogs, has engaged in tortious misappropriation of my name in order to advertise and draw attention to his web site. Keith Burgess-Jackson, who runs the site in question (www.brianleiter.powerblogs.com), has not received my permission to register my name, or any variation of my name, or to otherwise utilize my name, or any variation of my name, in order to promote or otherwise identify his site. Please close down that particular URL immediately. Thank you for your prompt attention to this matter.

Very truly yours,
Brian Leiter
Joseph D. Jamail Centennial Chair in Law,
Professor of Philosophy, and Director of the Law & Philosophy Program
The University of Texas at Austin

It’s the sort of sissiness one would expect of an “intellectual” bully whose stock in trade is abuse, not logic and facts. Leiter’s abusiveness is probably an attempt on his part (subconscious or otherwise) to compensate for a felt inferiority. Here’s Leiter:


Source: B. Leiter’s homepage.

A True Libertarian Speaks

In an article at LewRockwell.com, David Gordon replies to Edward Feser’s recent series of posts at Right Reason about paleoconservatism and the war in Iraq. Feser, posting again at Right Reason (“Rothbardians [anarcho-capitalists: ED] and Iraq: A Reply to David Gordon“), observes that

libertarians, including most Rothbardians and probably also including the Nozick of part III of Anarchy, State, and Utopia, would allow that it is in principle possible for a community to develop on a purely voluntary basis that prohibited all sorts of consensual activity among its members. For instance, they would allow that a Puritan commonwealth might require, by law, all of its members to refrain from fornication, drug use, reading of anti-Puritan tracts, etc., and that if everyone who joins this commonwealth does so voluntarily then no one has a right to complain. We can imagine that such a commonwealth eventually grows into a large city or even country, that all non-Puritans who decide to settle within it are required as part of the deal to abide by its “blue laws,” and that all the children raised in it might also be required to abide by those laws and will have to emigrate if they refuse to do so. The result would be a society that to most people would seem radically “un-libertarian,” but which would in fact be perfectly acceptable from the point of view of a Rothbardian anarcho-capitalist or maybe even a Nozickian.

Since this sort of paternalist society seems perfectly possible even on a Rothbardian or Nozickian view, and since the specific position I developed in the article cited by Gordon [link added: ED] still rests on the idea of self-ownership, at the time I wrote the article I thought it was reasonable to characterize it as a broadly “libertarian” position. It seemed to me then that I was not moving that far beyond what many libertarians would already accept as in principle possible within a libertarian society. To be sure, I would now no longer characterize my view as libertarian, but part of the reason I wouldn’t is that I now think the arguments I have presented, both in the article Gordon cites and elsewhere, show that “libertarianism” just isn’t anywhere near as determinate, straightforward, or even coherent a view as its advocates assume it to be.

My only quibble with Feser’s position is this: He should continue to characterize himself as a libertarian for the very reason that libertarianism isn’t “anywhere near as determinate, straightforward, or even coherent a view as most of its advocates assume it to be.” As I argue in “The Meaning of Liberty,”

liberty and happiness cannot be found in the abstract; they must be found in the real world, among real people (or totally apart from them, if you’re inclined to reclusiveness). Finding an acceptable degree of liberty and happiness in the real world means contending with many subsets of humankind, each with different sets of social norms. It is unlikely that any of those sets of social norms affords perfect liberty for any one person. So, in the end, one picks the place that suits one best, imperfect as it may be, and makes the most of it. Sometimes one even tries to change it, but change doesn’t always go in the direction one might prefer.

Think of the constrasting visions of liberty and happiness represented in a hippie commune and a monastic order. The adherents of each — to the extent that they are free to leave — can be happy, each in his and her own way. The adherents of each are bound to, and liberated by, the norms of the community, which set the bounds of permissible interaction among the adherents. Happiness is not found in the simplistic “harm principle” of John Stuart Mill; happiness is not found in a particular way of life; happiness is found in the ability to choose (and exit) a way of life that, on balance, serves a person’s conception of happiness.

In sum, there is no escaping the fact that the attainment of something like liberty and happiness requires the acceptance of — and compliance with — some social norms that one may find personally distasteful if not oppressive. But it is possible — in a large and diverse nation where each social group is free to establish and enforce its own norms — to find a place that comes closest to suiting one’s conception of liberty and happiness. The critical qualfication is that each social group must free to establish and enforce its own norms, as long as those norms include voice and exit. . . .

Contrary to libertarian purists, the path to liberty is not found in Mill’s simplistic “harm principle,” which is a formula for atomism. The path to liberty winds tortuously through the complexity of human nature, which shapes — and is shaped by — a society’s mutual striving to survive and prosper. To give a stark but apt example: If you will kill an unborn child for your convenience, why should I trust you not to kill me for your convenience when I am old? And if I cannot trust you, why should I subscribe to the defense of your life, property, and pursuits?

Edward Feser is a libertarian, even if he chooses not to call himself one. That is, he is dedicated to the practical pursuit of liberty, as opposed to the impractical pursuit of ideological purity that evinces itself in anarcho-capitalism. Feser is absolutely right to find parallels between Rothbardism and Marxism, as he does here:

One of the many striking things about this [Rothbardian] worldview is how closely it parallels Marxism. . . . Marxist and Rothbardian alike regard human history as a long nightmare of oppression from which we are only now awakening thanks to the advent of a sound economic theory, the application of which is our only hope for liberation.

Indeed, Rothbard and his followers seem in other ways too to ape standard Marxist themes. Despite their fervent adherence to capitalism, they regularly denounce large corporations (Halliburton, big oil, big media, etc.) as government’s partners-in-crime, manipulating its officials to their own ends and beholden to its favors; they speak and think in capitalized abstractions, substituting “The State” for “Capital” and endlessly analyzing “its” motives and actions; they divide society into inherently hostile classes, the exploiters (government officials and recipients of governmental benefits) and the exploited (taxpayers and those subject to governmental regulations); they have a tendency to reduce all social and political problems to economic ones; they believe that when a “stateless society” is finally achieved, many of the social problems previous generations regarded as an inevitable part of the human condition will disappear, having in reality been generated by state oppression; they constantly attribute selfish financial interests and other hidden motives to those expressing dissent from the Rothbardian line and/or support for American policy; and they often evince a greater sympathy for what the Marxist would refer to as the “objective allies” of their cause than for those who might seem notionally closer to them. Hence, just as certain Stalinists were quite happy to ally with Hitler against the capitalist West while vilifying Trotskyites and other heretical communists, so too are Rothbardians constantly excusing or minimizing the crimes of various dictators as long as they oppose the United States, while excoriating less extreme libertarians and free-marketers for “selling out” to “The State” and its officials. (See here for discussion of several examples.)

Related posts:

A Political Compass
Defense, Anarcho-Capitalist Style
But Wouldn’t Warlords Take Over?
My View of Warlordism, Seconded
Anarcho-Libertarian Stretching
QandO Saved Me the Trouble
The Meaning of Liberty

Today’s Recommended Web Reading

At LegalAffairs Debate Club, John Robertson and Barbara Katz Rodman debate “Choosing Your Child’s Sex?” The question for debate: Should it be unlawful for parents to select an infant’s sex through abortion or in vitro techniques and, if so, under what circumstances should it be legal? Robertson offers the usual liberal cant (“we prize individual autonomy and reproductive choice”) and tries to cajole fellow liberal Katz Rodman into going along with him. She won’t:

In this “more choice is better” argument, the children that are never created (whether as fetuses aborted or embryos unselected or sperm washed away) can hardly be said to be harmed by the fact of their non-being. So then there are the children who are “chosen,” the selected ones, chosen for their sex. I think there really is the potential for harm there—any time we give parents reason to think they can control the kind of people their children are, I think we are doing damage to the child, the parent, the relationship. . . .

A woman with one or two daughters will face more, not less pressure to produce a son if sex selection becomes part of ordinary practice. The new “choice” will probably pretty quickly become an obligation.

And as to whether “family balance” will inevitably lead to sex selection in the first place: you know the “slippery slope” argument? Think greased chute.

Russell Roberts at Cafe Hayek explains once more (this time in “Mental Experiment“) why international trade isn’t a zero-sum game or a threat to the well-being of Americans:

A lot of people are worried about China as an economic threat to the United States. I’m not. China’s economic success is good for Americans. When Americans buy toys and clothes and iPods made in China it means that we have more people and capital available to make other things.

A variation on the Chinese threat is that someday, if they keep growing, they’ll pass us. This is the view that economics is like the Olympics. If you don’t finish first, you’re stuck with the bronze or silver medal or worse, you don’t even get to the medal stand. But economic success is not like the Olympics. It’s not a zero sum game. . . .

What if you woke up one more morning and discovered . . . . [that the] Chinese had mismeasured their national income information and it turned out that the Chinese, in fact, had a per capita income many times that of the United States. . . . . How would it change your well-being? Would it make any difference whatsoever?

Maxwell Goss at Right Reason points to a story about

Dutch MP Sharon Dijksma [who] proposes fining women with college degrees who choose to stay at home instead of entering the paid workforce. Dijksma explains: “A highly-educated woman who chooses to stay at home and not to work — that is destruction of capital. If you receive the benefit of an expensive education at the cost of society, you should not be allowed to throw away that knowledge unpunished.”

The first mistake, of course, is the subsidization of education, which encourages persons who will not use it (or use it well) to partake of it at taxpayers’ expense. The second mistake is to assume that it is a “waste” to educate women who choose not work outside the home. Mothers are the main civilizing influence in society — or they were before they went “to work” in droves. It makes a lot more sense to have college-educated mothers than it does to have college-educated pharmaceutical salesmen (to take but one of many examples of “wasted” education).

The Federal Election Commission has decided — more or less — to go along with the First Amendment. Tongue Tied reports:

The very idea of rules for the internet is anathema to me but America’s FEC does not seem to think so. The rules they have just handed down have no terrors for bloggers at the moment but as sure as night follows day, more and more regulations will follow.

The Tongue Tied post then links to a story that includes a recap of some of the main points of interest to bloggers:

Feds’ Internet rules

The FEC’s final Internet regulations adopted on Monday are less onerous than an earlier version. Here’s what they say:

• Paid political advertising appearing on someone else’s Web site would have to be reported, regardless of how little or how much it costs. But that responsibility would lie with the candidate, political party or committee backing the ad–not a Web site accepting the ads.

• All ads that expressly advocate the election or defeat of a candidate or solicit donations would have to carry disclaimers.

• Bloggers and other individual commentators wouldn’t have to disclose payments received from candidates, political parties or campaign committees–but those groups would have to report payments to bloggers.

• No one except registered political committees would be required to put disclaimers on political e-mailings or Web sites. The e-mail requirement would kick in only if the committee sent out more than 500 substantially similar unsolicited messages at a time.

• The media exemption enjoyed by traditional news outlets would be extended to “any Internet or electronic publication,” which could include everything from online presences of major media companies to individual bloggers.

Thanks to the FEC — for nothing.

Bare Ruined Choirs

Yesterday’s post about “Red-Brick Buildings” reminds me of “Memories of a Catholic Boyhood,” Chapter One of Garry Wills’s Bare Ruined Choirs.* There, Wills could be writing about my boyhood. I hasten to add that I don’t agree with Wills’s politics or his juvenile attitude toward the Church, the many traces of which I have excised from the following excerpts of his “Memories.”

We grew up different. There were some places we went; and others did not — into the confessional box, for instance. . . .

We “born Catholics,” even when we leave or lose our own church rarely feel at home in any other. The habits of childhood are tenacious, and Catholicism was first experienced by us as a vast set of intermeshed childhood habits — prayers offered, heads ducked in unison, crossings, chants, christenings, grace at meals, beads, altar, incense, candles . . . churches lit and darkened, clothed and stripped, to the rhythm of liturgical recurrences . . . .

One lived, then, in contact with something outside time — grace, sin, confession, communion, one’s own little moral wheel kept turning in the large wheel of seasons that moved endlessly, sameness in change and change in sameness, so was it ever, so would it always be . . . .

We came in winter, out of the dark into vestibule semidark, where peeled-off galoshes spread a slush across the floor. We took off gloves and scarves, hands still too cold to dip them in the holy water font. Already the children’s lunches, left to steam on the bare radiator, emanated smells of painted metal, of heated bananas, of bolgna and mayonnaise. . . .

Or midnight Mass — the first time one has been out so late . . . . The crib is dimmed-blue, suggesting Christmas night, and banked evergreen trees give off a rare outdoors odor inside the church . . . .

The bigger churches, with windows of a richly muddied color — fine gloom up behind the altar . . . .

Bells at the consecration . . . .

Certain things are not communicable. One cannot explain to others, or even to oneself, how burnt stuff rubbed on on the forehead could be balm for the mind. . . .

All these things were shared, part of community life, not a rare isolated joy, like reading poems. These moments belonged to a people, not to oneself. It was a ghetto, undeniably. But not a bad ghetto to grow up in.

Amen.
St. Stephen Church, where I was a parishoner in the late 1940s and early 1950s, occupied an entire block in my home town. Behind the church and rectory (left and right) was the school where I took catechism lessons on Saturday mornings.
__________
* Wills takes his title from a phrase in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73:

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west;
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed, whereon it must expire,
Consumed with that which it was nourish’d by.
This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well, which thou must leave ere long.

Red-Brick Buildings

I went to these (barely) post-Civil War schools for grades K-5:
And I was a parishoner of these churches in the 1940s and early 1950s:

The first two of the schools were razed more than 50 years ago; the third was converted to an apartment building about 50 years ago. The second of the two churches was razed more than 40 years ago. They just don’t make them like they used to.

(All photos courtesy of Port Huron in Pictures, from the Port Huron Museum Collection.)

More Anti-Black Bigotry from the Left

In a recent post, “A Black Bigot Speaks,” I noted the tendency of Leftists (even black ones) to denigrate black Republicans and conservatives. The Leftists say, in so many words, that

black conservatives are too “dumb” to know that conservatism is bad for them. And/or they’re just power-seeking Uncle Toms and Aunt Jemimas who suck up to powerful whites in return for access to power and the perks of high office. [The Left] is unwilling to credit . . . black conservatives with having a principled attachment to conservatism.

Now comes today’s New York Times Magazine, with a story about black Republican Michael Steele. Steele, who is Maryland’s lieutenant governer, is running for the U.S. Senate. The headline of the story:

Why Is Michael Steele a Republican Candidate?

I need say no more, except that it’s long past time for blacks to tell the Left where to put its condescenscion.

(Hat tip to Betsy’s Page.)

The Meaning of Liberty

This is a compilation of six related posts at Liberty Corner: “The Paradox of Libertarianism,” Liberty as a Social Compact,” “Social Norms and Liberty,” “A Footnote about Liberty and the Social Compact,” “Liberty and Federalism,” and “Finding Liberty.” It complements an earlier series of posts, “Practical Libertarianism for Americans,” which should be read first. “The earlier series makes the case for consequentialist libertarianism; the present series considers more deeply the meaning of liberty in the real world of real people.

INTRODUCTION

It is easy to invoke “liberty” — I do it often, as do most bloggers with a political agenda: libertarians of all kinds; Burkeans and neoconservatives; and, most perversely, big-government liberals and ardent Leftists. But to invoke liberty as a bloodless abstraction is to skirt the essential fact that liberty and its concomitant, the pursuit of happiness, are intensely personal concepts. There is no one-size-fits-all liberty; there are as many kinds of liberty as there are groups of consenting adults who subcribe voluntarily to common sets of social norms.

The purposes of this essay, therefore, are to explore the deeper, personal meaning of liberty; to explain what liberty means in the real world of real people; and to explain why federalism — in something like its original form — is the surest route to liberty.

What do I mean by the real world of real people? I mean the mundane world in which most people live their lives: working alongside people from a wide variety of backgrounds, making a home, raising children, having friends, taking care of elderly parents, practicing a religion, paying taxes, seeking entertainment, being a neighbor, belonging to social organizations, and on and on. That is the world in which liberty must be found, not the imaginary world of ideas where liberty seems as simple as leaving other people alone as they wish to be left alone.

Liberty cannot be that simple because humans, as social creatures, must “go along to get along” — as the saying goes. What one person may find harmless, many others may not. The “odd person” out may have to acquiesce in the group’s norms in order to derive the benefits that come from socialization: love, friendship, mutual help, mutual defense, and the like. The pursuit of happiness, in other words, is multi-dimensional and replete with trade-offs. That is the real world of real people. Now let us explore the meaning of liberty in such a world.

This essay is, in part, an extended critique of simplistic libertarianism. That brand of libertarianism, which is rampant on the Web, simply bears almost no relation to human nature. It seems to flow from a kind of introverted intellectualism that conflates autonomy and liberty, but which takes no account of the inescapable complexities of human nature. Autonomy and liberty are not the same, and therein lies the paradox of libertarianism.

THE PARADOX OF LIBERTARIANISM

Chris Matthew Sciabarra touts his entry about libertarianism in the International Encyclopedia of Economic Sociology. The entry leads off with this:

Libertarianism is the political ideology of voluntarism, a commitment to voluntary action in a social context, where no individual or group of individuals can initiate the use of force against others.

Sciabarra’s rendition emphasizes the non-aggression principle and has nothing to say about government, as one would expect of a person who blogs at an anarcho-capitalist site. My version has a somewhat different emphasis and allows for a minimal state:

If you are doing no harm to anyone, no one should harm you physically, coerce you, defraud or deceive you, steal from you, or tell you how to live your life. “No one” includes government, except to the extent that government is empowered — by the people — to defend life, liberty, and property through the circumscribed use of police, courts, and armed forces.

The first sentence of my version is operationally equivalent to the quotation I pulled from Sciabarra’s entry. To put it more simply:

The core of libertarianism is liberty: briefly, the negative right to be left alone — in one’s person, pursuits, and property — as long as one leaves others alone.

The problem with all such formulations, however, is that they gloss over two important questions:

  • What is harm and who defines it?
  • How does one ensure that one is “left alone” in a world where there are predators and parasites who will not subscribe voluntarily to a pact of mutual restraint?

The paradox of libertarianism lies in the answers to those two questions, which I’ll answer in reverse order.

Here is how one ensure that one is “left alone”:

  • All members of a group agree as to what specifically constitutes harm.
  • All members of the group agree to honor the obligation to leave other members alone, as long as those other members do not commit acts that are recognized as harmful.
  • By the same token, all members of the honor the obligation to defend a fellow member or members against predators (renegades within the group, or outsiders).

The “catch” is point 1, which requires an answer to the question “What is harm and who defines it?”

To be a member of the group and to merit its protection (through mutual restraint and mutual defense) requires acceptance of a common, specific definition of harm. Various members might prefer different definitions. (For example, some might view abortion as harmless; some might view it as the murder of a prospective member of the group; and others might view it as an act that will inevitably lead to harm because it invites, say, euthanasia.) But unless each member subscribes to the same, specific definition of harm there can be no basis for mutual restraint — or for mutual defense. Where some see harm — from other members of the group or from outsiders — others may see no harm.

In summary: Liberty rests on an agreed definition of harm, and on an accompanying agreement to act with mutual restraint and in mutual defense. Given the variety of human wants and preferences, the price of mutual restraint and mutual defense is necessarily some loss of liberty. That is, each person must accept, and abide by, a definition of harm that is not the definition by which he would abide were he able to do so. But, in return for mutual restraint and mutual defense, he must abide by that compromise definition.

That insight carries important implications for anarchists and pseudo-anarchists. Real liberty is necessarily ordered liberty. It is not “anything goes” or “do your own thing.” It is not even the more respectable variant of those things, a variant known as anarchism. For anarchism is based on self-governance by a voluntary group. Self-governance implies the acceptance of and adherence to a compromise definition of harm, in return for mutual restraint and mutual defense. Therefore, as I wrote here, anarchy is an empty concept.

LIBERTY AS A SOCIAL COMPACT

There are two main views of the source of liberty:

  • Liberty is innate in humans.
  • Liberty arises from a social compact.

I am of the second view: Liberty arises from a social compact, it is not in our genes and does not flow from heaven like manna. The social compact — in its simplest terms — is this: Each of us may do as he or she pleases as long as what we do does not bring harm to others. But that formula (essentially John Stuart Mill’s “harm principle“) is misleadingly simple.

Liberty requires a consensus about harms and the boundaries of mutual restraint — the one being the complement of the other. Agreed harms are to be avoided mainly through self-restraint. Societal consensus and mutual restraint must, therefore, go hand in hand.

Looked at in that way, it becomes obvious that liberty is embedded in society and preserved through order. There may be societally forbidden acts that, to an outsider, would seem not to cause harm but which, if permitted within a society, would unravel the mutual restraint upon which ordered liberty depends.

The inculcation of mutual restraint depends mainly on the existence of viable families — families in which the parents are present and at least one of them (traditionally the mother) spends a great deal of time inculcating in children the value of self-restraint (also known as the Golden Rule).

Honesty is a corollary of self-restraint, and is implicit in the Golden Rule. Honesty is essential to liberty because the security of one’s livelihood and property depends primarily on voluntary adherence to contracts, formal and informal.

A third familial value essential to liberty is mutual aid — the practice of mutual assistance and defense. The teaching of mutual aid at home spills over into the community. As I wrote here,

the willingness of humans to come to each other’s defense has emotional and practical roots:

1. An individual is most willing to defend those who are emotionally closest to him because of love and empathy. (Obvious examples are the parent who risks life in an effort to save a child, and the soldier who throws himself on a grenade to protect his comrades.)

2. An individual is next most willing to defend those who are geographically closest to him because those persons, in turn, are the individual’s nearest allies. (This proposition is illustrated by the Union and the Confederacy in the American Civil War, and by the spirit of “we’re all in this together” that prevailed in the U.S. during World War I and World War II. This proposition is related to but does not depend on the notion that patriotism has evolutionary origins.)

3. If an individual is not willing to defend those who are emotionally or geographically closest to him, he cannot count on their willingness to defend him. In fact, he may be able to count on their enmity. (A case in point is Southerners’ antagonism toward the North for many decades after the Civil War, which arose from Southerners’ resentment toward the “War of Northern Aggresssion” and Reconstruction.)

What happens to self-restraint, honesty, and mutual aid outside the emotional and social bonds of family, friendship, community, church, and club can be seen quite readily in the ways in which we treat one another when we are nameless or faceless to each other. Thus we become rude (and worse) as drivers, e-mailers, bloggers, spectators, movie-goers, mass-transit commuters, shoppers, diners-out, and so on. Which is why, in a society much larger than a clan, we must resort to the empowerment of governmental agencies to enforce mutual restraint, mutual defense, and honesty within the society — as well as to protect society from external enemies.

But liberty begins at home. Without the civilizing influence of traditional families, friendships, and social organizations, police and courts would be overwhelmed by chaos. Liberty would be a hollower word than it has become, largely because of the existence of other governmental units that have come to specialize in the imposition of harms on the general public in the pursuit of power and in the service of special interests (which enables the pursuit of power). Those harms have been accomplished in large part by the intrusion of government into matters that had been the province of families, voluntary social organizations, and close-knit communities. As Hans-Hermann Hoppe writes in “The Rise and Fall of the City,”

[a]fter the race and the class cards have been played and done their devastating work, the government turns to the sex and gender card, and “racial justice” and “social justice” are complemented by “gender justice.” The establishment of a government — a judicial monopoly — not only implies that formerly separated jurisdictions (as within ethnically or racially segregated districts, for instance) are forcibly integrated; it implies at the same time that formerly fully integrated jurisdictions (as within households and families) will be forcibly broken down or even dissolved.

Rather than regarding intra-family or -household matters . . . as no one else’s business to be judged and arbitrated within the family by the head of the household or family members, once a judicial monopoly has been established, its agents — the government — also become and will naturally strive to expand their role as judge and arbitrator of last resort in all family matters. To gain popular support for its role the government (besides playing one tribe, race, or social class against another) will likewise promote divisiveness within the family: between the sexes — husbands and wives — and the generations — parents and children. Once again, this will be particularly noticeable in the big cities.

Every form of government welfare — the compulsory wealth or income transfer from “haves” to “have nots” lowers the value of a person’s membership in an extended family-household system as a social system of mutual cooperation and help and assistance. Marriage loses value. For parents the value and importance of a “good” upbringing (education) of their own children is reduced. Correspondingly, for children less value will be attached and less respect paid to their own parents. Owing to the high concentration of welfare recipients, in the big cities family disintegration is already well advanced. In appealing to gender and generation (age) as a source of political support and promoting and enacting sex (gender) and family legislation, invariably the authority of heads of families and households and the “natural” intergenerational hierarchy within families is weakened and the value of a multi-generational family as the basic unit of human society diminished.

Indeed, as should be clear, as soon as the government’s law and legislation supersedes family law and legislation (including interfamily arrangements in conjunction with marriages, joint-family offspring, inheritance, etc.), the value and importance of the institution of a family can only be systematically eroded. For what is a family if it cannot even find and provide for its own internal law and order! At the same time, as should be clear as well but has not been sufficiently noted, from the point of view of the government’s rulers, their ability to interfere in internal family matters must be regarded as the ultimate prize and the pinnacle of their own power.

To exploit tribal or racial resentments or class envy to one’s personal advantage is one thing. It is quite another accomplishment to use the quarrels arising within families to break up the entire — generally harmonious — system of autonomous families: to uproot individuals from their families to isolate and atomize them, thereby increasing the state’s power over them. Accordingly, as the government’s family policy is implemented, divorce, singledom, single parenting, and illegitimacy, incidents of parent-, spouse-, and child-neglect or -abuse, and the variety and frequency of “nontraditional” lifestyles increase as well. . . .

It is [in the big cities] that the dissolution of families is most advanced, that the greatest concentration of welfare recipients exists, that the process of genetic pauperization has progressed furthest, and that tribal and racial tensions as the outcome of forced integration are most virulent. Rather than centers of civilization, cities have become centers of social disintegration, corruption, brutishness, and crime.

To be sure, history is ultimately determined by ideas, and ideas can, at least in principle, change almost instantly. But in order for ideas to change it is not sufficient for people to see that something is wrong. At least a significant number must also be intelligent enough to recognize what it is that is wrong. That is, they must understand the basic principles upon which society — human cooperation — rests: the very principles explained here. And they must have sufficient will power to act according to this insight.

The state — a judicial monopoly — must be recognized as the source of de-civilization: states do not create law and order; they destroy it. Families and households must be recognized as the source of civilization. It is essential that the heads of families and households reassert their ultimate authority as judge in all internal family affairs. Households must be declared extraterritorial territory, like foreign embassies. Free association and spatial exclusion must be recognized as not bad but good things that facilitate peaceful cooperation between different ethnic and racial groups. Welfare must be recognized as a matter exclusively of families and voluntary charity and state welfare as nothing but the subsidization of irresponsibility.

In sum, liberty is not an abstract ideal. Liberty cannot be sustained without the benefit of widely accepted — and enforced — social norms. A society that revolves around norms established within families and close-knit social groups is most likely to serve liberty.

Related posts:

The State of Nature
Some Thoughts about Liberty

SOCIAL NORMS AND LIBERTY

The Wisdom Embedded in Social Norms

Social norms can and do evolve. Moreover, in a society with voice and exit they will evolve toward greater liberty, rather than less, if exit is not mooted by legislative and judicial imposition of common norms across all segments of society. I will discuss, in a future post, how liberty is thwarted by governmentally imposed norms. Here I want to expand on the concept of socially evolved norms and their critical importance to ordered liberty. I begin by quoting from a post by John Kekes at Right Reason:

Traditions do not stand alone: they overlap, and the problems of one are often resolved in terms of another. Most traditions have legal, moral, political, aesthetic, stylistic, managerial, and multitude of other aspects. Furthermore, people participating in a tradition bring with them beliefs, values, and practices from other traditions in which they also participate. Changes in one tradition, therefore, are likely to produce changes in others; they are like waves that reverberate throughout the other traditions of a society. Since many of these changes are complex and have consequences that grow more unpredictable the more distant they are, conservatives are cautious about changes. They want them to be incremental and no greater than necessary for correcting some specific defect. They are opposed to experimental, general, or large changes because of their uncertain effects on good lives.

Traditions, of course, may be defective. Conservatives need a way of distinguishing between defective and non-defective traditions. A non-defective tradition has stood the test of time. It has endured for a long period, measured in decades, rather than months; people adhere to it voluntarily; and it forms part of their conception of a good life. It may happen that a tradition has endured because of coercion, that people have adhered to it because of indoctrination, or that the lives of which it formed a part were bad rather than good. Those who suspect a tradition of these defects must provide a reason for it, and defenders of the tradition must consider this reason. If the reason is good, the tradition should be changed. But if there is no reason to change, then there is reason not to change. That reason is that the tradition has stood the test of time. Conservatism, therefore, is not the mindless and indiscriminate defense of all traditions, but only of those that have passed this test.

Social norms may evolve beneficially, but they are overthrown by legislators and judges to the detriment of society. As Edward Feser explains in “Hayek and Tradition,”

[t]radition, being nothing other than the distillation of centuries of human experience, itself provides the surest guide to determining the most rational course of action. Far from being opposed to reason, reason is inseparable from tradition, and blind without it. The so-called enlightened mind thrusts tradition aside, hoping to find something more solid on which to make its stand, but there is nothing else, no alternative to the hard earth of human experience, and the enlightened thinker soon finds himself in mid-air. . . . But then, was it ever truly a love of reason that was in the driver’s seat in the first place? Or was it, rather, a hatred of tradition? Might the latter have been the cause of the former, rather than, as the enlightened pose would have it, the other way around?)

The rationality of tradition and the irrationality of hostility to it were themes of Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. But it is possible that the work of F.A. Hayek (which was largely inspired by Burke [see here: ED]) presents the most fully developed and compelling account of these matters, an account presented in terms the post-Darwin enlightened modernist must find difficult to dismiss out of hand, viz., a theory of cultural evolution by means of a kind of natural selection. The aim of the present essay is to articulate and defend Hayek’s position—defend it against the objections of Hayek’s detractors, of course, but also against the misunderstandings of many of his admirers. Some of these admirers are keen indeed on the “evolution” part of his views, but, being less keen on the “tradition” part, make him out to be an advocate of constant change, of “dynamism” over “stasis.”

But he was not that at all, at least, not in the sense these would-be Hayekians imagine. Technological advance, market innovation, and the like were things of which he was a great defender, but those are not the things at issue here. Where fundamental moral institutions are concerned, Hayek was very much in line with the Burkean conservative tradition, a tradition wary of tampering with those institutions (including the specific moral institutions underlying the free market order rightly valued by libertarians). Of course, Hayek did not rule out all change to these institutions in an absolute way, but then, neither do conservatives. At issue is where the default position lies, with who gets the benefit of the doubt in the debate between the traditionalist and the moral innovator. And in this dispute, Hayek is indisputably on the side of the conservative. . . .

Hayek’s view is that the specific content of a traditional practice is indeed often important. It isn’t just a matter of its happening to be traditional; rather, its being traditional is taken by Hayek to be evidence that it has some independent intrinsic value. It is vital to keep this in mind, for Hayek’s position is sometimes mistakenly taken to entail a kind of relativism—as if the traditional practices prevailing in one society must be the best for that society, and the ones prevailing in another are the best for it, with there being no fact of the matter about which society’s traditions are superior. But Hayek believes nothing of the sort; indeed, he insists on the objective superiority of some traditions over others. This sort of relativism could be defended only with regard to traditions (like traveling specifically to grandmother’s house every Christmas) the value of which lies solely in the fact that they are traditional. Hayek is not primarily interested in that sort of tradition.

Hayek’s work clearly expresses ideas that resonate with this conception of tradition as the gradual, internal working out of the implications of a system of thought or practice. This is most evident in Rules and Order, wherein he examines the evolution of rules of practice—as embodied in systems of morality, and especially within the common law—as a process whereby often inexplicit or tacit rules gradually become articulated and their implications drawn out as new situations arise. Law and morality, in his conception, form an organic and evolving structure rather than an artificial closed system created by fiat—a spontaneous order which, in the nature of the case, cannot be fully articulated all at once, but only progressively, and even then not in any finalized way, for there is no limit in principle either to new circumstances or to the system’s inherent but unknown implications. This is part of the reason socialism is impossible, in Hayek’s view: Systems of law—including the laws by which a scheme of “just distribution” of wealth would have to be implemented—are simply too complex for human beings consciously to design, for the circumstances the law has to cover are, like the economic information a socialist planner would need in order to do his job, complex, fragmented, and dispersed, unknowable to any single mind. A workable system of law must, at the most basic level anyway, evolve spontaneously, with conscious human design involved at most in refining it, tinkering around its edges.

Liberty in the Real World

Social norms may be consistent with the abstract idea of liberty — that one may be left alone if one leaves others alone — but they necessarily go beyond that generality to set specific limits on acceptable behavior. Behavior that strays beyond those limits is that which may lead to the subversion of liberty, either through the direct harms it may cause or through its subversive effects on social cohesion. (Such prospects underlie much of the opposition to legislatively or judicially imposed abortion rights and same-sex marriage, for example.*)

Think of life in a small town where “eveyone knows everyone else’s business.” The sense of being “watched” actually tends to foster liberty, in that it discourages crime. As a result, one’s life and property generally are safer in small towns than in large cities. By the same token, the sense of being “watched” can seem oppressive; one feels less free to do things that might draw social opprobrium, even if those things do no more than offend others’ sensibilities.

Why should everyone in a small town have to put up with small-town mores for the sake of a safer, saner life, you may ask? Well, if you don’t like small-town mores, fine, pack up and go to the big city, but don’t forget to take your handgun (if you’re allowed to have one in the big city), and keep your life and homeowner’s insurance paid up. (Alternatively, you can stay in the small town and try, through example and persuasion, to change its mores so that there is greater tolerance of social diversity.)

The point is that liberty and happiness cannot be found in the abstract; they must be found in the real world, among real people (or totally apart from them, if you’re inclined to reclusiveness). Finding an acceptable degree of liberty and happiness in the real world means contending with many subsets of humankind, each with different sets of social norms.** It is unlikely that any of those sets of social norms affords perfect liberty for any one person. So, in the end, one picks the place that suits one best, imperfect as it may be, and makes the most of it. Sometimes one even tries to change it, but change doesn’t always go in the direction one might prefer.

Think of the constrasting visions of liberty and happiness represented in a hippie commune and a monastic order. The adherents of each — to the extent that they are free to leave — can be happy, each in his and her own way. The adherents of each are bound to, and liberated by, the norms of the community, which set the bounds of permissible interaction among the adherents. Happiness is not found in the simplistic “harm principle” of John Stuart Mill; happiness is not found in a particular way of life; happiness is found in the ability to choose (and exit) a way of life that, on balance, serves a person’s conception of happiness.

In sum, there is no escaping the fact that the attainment of something like liberty and happiness requires the acceptance of — and compliance with — some social norms that one may find personally distasteful if not oppressive. But it is possible — in a large and diverse nation where each social group is free to establish and enforce its own norms — to find a place that comes closest to suiting one’s conception of liberty and happiness. The critical qualfication is that each social group must free to establish and enforce its own norms, as long as those norms include voice and exit.
__________
* The knee-jerk libertarian (and “liberal”) will say, for example, that abortion and same-sex marriage are consistent with and required by liberty. But they are not, as I have argued in the several posts linked here. They are steps down a slippery slope toward the further loss of liberty, just as the “progressivism” of the Roosevelts nudged and pushed us down a slippery slope toward the regulatory-welfare state in which we are now enmeshed.

What few libertarians seem willing to credit is the possibility that abortion is of a piece with selective breeding and involuntary euthanasia, wherein the state fosters eugenic practices that aren’t far removed from those of the Third Reich. And when those practices become the norm, what and who will be next? Libertarians, of all people, should be alert to such possibilities. Instead of reflexively embracing “choice” they should be asking whether “choice” will end with fetuses.

The same principle applies to same-sex marriage; it will have consequences that most libertarians are unwilling to consider. Although it’s true that traditional, heterosexual unions have their problems, those problems have been made worse, not better, by the intercession of the state. (The loosening of divorce laws, for example, signaled that marriage was to be taken less seriously, and so it has been.) Nevertheless, the state — in its usual perverse wisdom — may create new problems for society by legitimating same-sex marriage, thus signaling that traditional marriage is just another contractual arrangement in which any combination of persons may participate. Heterosexual marriage — as Jennifer Roback Morse explains — is a primary and irreplicable civilizing force. The recognition of homosexual marriage by the state will undermine that civilizing force. The state will be saying, in effect, “Anything goes. Do your thing. The courts, the welfare system, and the taxpayer — above all — will “pick up the pieces.” And so it will go.

** There is a kind of pseudo-anarcho-libertarian who asserts that he can pick and choose his associates, so that his interactions with others need consist only of voluntary transactions. Very few people can do that, and to the extent they can do it, they are able to do it because they live in a polity that is made orderly by the existence of the state (like it or not). In other words, anarcho-libertarian attitudes are bought on the cheap, at the expense of one’s fellow citizens. But most people cannot and do not wish to escape the influence of groups. Think of the many kinds of groups to which we belong — even fleetingly — because our membership in them yields net benefits, even though we must sometimes make compromises in order to meet the expectations of the other members of the group. For example, most of us reside in a neighborhood where there usually are minimal expectations about how one keeps up one’s property, even if one avoids the neighbors. Working in a factory, office, or store is certainly a matter of group membership that requires one to make all sorts of compromises. Then, there are athletic activities (sports teams, gym workouts) which usually involve the observance of certain niceties. The list could go on for a long time.

A FOOTNOTE ABOUT LIBERTY AND THE SOCIAL COMPACT

This is an appendix to the two preceding sections, where I first made the case that

liberty is not an abstract ideal. Liberty cannot be sustained without the benefit of widely accepted — and enforced — social norms. A society that revolves around norms established within families and close-knit social groups is most likely to serve liberty.

From which it follows that

the attainment of something like liberty and happiness requires the acceptance of — and compliance with — some social norms that one may find personally distasteful if not oppressive. But it is possible — in a large and diverse nation where each social group is free to establish and enforce its own norms — to find a place that comes closest to suiting one’s conception of liberty and happiness. The critical qualfication is that each social group must free to establish and enforce its own norms, as long as those norms include voice and exit.

The validity of these observations depends critically on the source of rights. As I have argued at length,

[r]ights — though they can exist without the sanction of government and the protection of a state — are political. That is, although rights may arise from human nature, they have no essence until they are recognized through interpersonal bargaining (politics), in the service of self-interest. It is bargaining that determines whether we recognize only the negative right of liberty, or the positive right of privilege as well. The preference of human beings — revealed over eons of coexistence — is to recognize both liberty (usually constrained to some degree) and privilege (which necessitates constraints on liberty).

The liberty I alluded to there was the “pure” liberty of John Stuart Mill’s “harm principle” (see footnote), which can be summarized as the negative right to be left alone — in one’s person, pursuits, and property — as long as one leaves others alone. “Pure” liberty is a mere abstraction. Actual liberty must necessarily involve compromises (constraints), which are inevitable in a society of varied personalities that exists in a particular time and place.

In support of the argument that rights are political, I quoted from Denis Dutton’s review of Paul H. Rubin’s Darwinian Politics: The Evolutionary Origin of Freedom; Alan Fiske’s essay, “The Inherent Sociability of Homo Sapiens“; David Stephens’s “Impulsive behavior may be relict of hunter-gatherer past“; and a summary of J. Philippe Rushton’s article, “Genetic and environmental contributions to prosocial attitudes: A twin study of social responsibility.”

The full implication of those studies is that what we call “rights” — the kinds of behaviors in which we may engage with impunity — must be consistent with morality — the kinds of behaviors that society recognizes as “right.” The kinds of behaviors that society recognizes as “right” must, in turn, foster the survival and success of society. Robin Allott explains, in “Objective Morality“:

No society is healthy or creative or strong unless that society has a set of common values that give meaning and purpose to group life. . . . Empathy is seen both as the foundation of the unity of feeling which forms an aggregation of individuals into a coherent group and as the source of the effectiveness of the group’s code of behavior, the group morality. . . .

One can list various types of motivation which do, or may, lead individuals to accept and seek to observe the morality of their group. There may be childhood imprinting of the moral rules of the family or group, leading to a prerational application of the code, operating rather like post-hypnotic suggestion — automatic moral responses to predetermined situations. A variant or support of this takes the form of religious endorsement of moral principles — religious sanctions reinforcing introjected moral reflexes. Or morality may be rationalized as the pursuit of happiness, pleasure or utility — high level ethical theories perhaps, rather than practical motivations. Or moral behavior may result from prudence or superstition — following the rules for fear of something worse. . . . More generally, moral behavior may flow from a desire for a worthwhile, productive life, a rational desire of the individual to survive and avoid bodily or mental damage. This may be associated with empathetic identification with the group, its survival and prosperity. . . .

The objective necessity of morality has been demonstrated by life over many generations. However it is not open to immediate rational demonstration. Morality is concerned with remote consequences. The problem is that we have no easy way of seeing the long-term or otherwise distant consequences of following or not following moral rules or showing the consequences for ourselves, for our family or for the group to which we belong. What can we say to the immoralist who claims total moral freedom, who asks: Why not lies? Why not intemperance? Why not promiscuity? Why not theft or fraud? Why not murder? Why not cruelty?

One answer may be: In the absence of morality, you are in a world of powerful, clever, unpredictable animals. Only by understanding others can you protect yourself. Others in the group will only be predictable to the extent that they follow the same moral rules and are moved by the same emotions. A group’s morality is concerned not only with how an individual should judge his own action but with how other members of the group, and the group collectively will judge the individual’s actions and respond to them. Judge your own action so that you are not judged by others. Others will do unto you what you do unto them. So do not do unto them what you would not want them to do unto you. An individual who rejects the morality of the group rejects empathetic membership of the group and empathetic recognition by others of his membership of the group. The individual becomes a moral parasite living on the morality of the group which he does not observe. To him a different level of morality will apply — the more primitive kind of morality applied to those not members of the group, to outlaws and outcasts. By asserting your unlimited moral freedom, you risk losing your own freedom.

We ignore, at our peril, the lessons of the ages. Contrary to libertarian purists, the path to liberty is not found in Mill’s simplistic “harm principle,” which is a formula for atomism. The path to liberty winds tortuously through the complexity of human nature, which shapes — and is shaped by — a society’s mutual striving to survive and prosper. To give a stark but apt example: If you will kill an unborn child for your convenience, why should I trust you not to kill me for your convenience when I am old? And if I cannot trust you, why should I subscribe to the defense of your life, property, and pursuits?
__________
The “harm principle,” from Chapter 1 of On Liberty:

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. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil, 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.

LIBERTY AND FEDERALISM

The Centralization of Social Norms Undermines Liberty

Liberty can never be perfect in the real world of emotions, prejudices, stupidity, and ignorance. But liberty is most attainable when societies and polities must compete with one another for the allegiance of members and prospective members.

Legislation and judge-made laws are especially destructive of liberty when they emanate from a central government because they dilute the effectiveness of “exit” — the ability to vote with one’s feet. Local and regional differences become hard to detect when the central government encroaches into issues ranging from elementary education to working hours to speed limits, not to mention abortion. When all places become subject to the same set of imposed norms they tend to become almost uniformly unattractive. The forceful imposition of norms compounds the risk to liberty, for people are less likely to value and defend that which is not of their own making.

There is a “race to the top” — toward liberty, that is — when societies or polities must compete for adherents, based on the attractiveness of the norms of those societies and polities. For example, the Freedom Forum offers this relevant bit of history:

Although early Americans built on their English heritage when developing rights in the new land, many colonies before 1689 had laws that far exceeded the scope of the English Bill of Rights. Rhode Island, established in 1636, was the first American colony to recognize freedom of conscience. In 1641, Massachusetts Bay enacted the Massachusetts Body of Liberties, the first detailed protection of rights in America. Maryland was founded as a haven for Catholics, but its citizens extended the right of religious toleration (1649) to other Christians as well.

In June 1776, Virginia adopted a new constitution, prefaced by a declaration of rights including many that would later appear in the U.S. Bill of Rights. The Virginia Declaration of Rights, served as a model for eight of the 12 other states that adopted new constitutions during the revolutionary period.

While the new state governments protected individual rights, the Articles of Confederation, the first constitution of the United States, did not. The weak national government under the Articles of Confederation created many problems. In 1787, these problems finally led to a convention to draft a new charter for the national government, the Constitution of the United States. Lack of a bill of rights became the main reason many people opposed the Constitution.

The Framers understood that the decentralization of governmental power is essential to liberty. They wanted to leave the bulk of governmental power in the hands of the States. (A reasonable prospect at the time; the average population of a State in 1790 was about 1/25 the average population of a State today.) And the Framers saw the multiplicity of States as a bulwark against tyranny in the nation as a whole. Here, for example, are excerpts of James Madison’s entries in The Federalist Papers:

The influence of factious leaders may kindle a flame within their particular States, but will be unable to spread a general conflagration through the other States. A religious sect may degenerate into a political faction in a part of the Confederacy; but the variety of sects dispersed over the entire face of it must secure the national councils against any danger from that source. A rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project, will be less apt to pervade the whole body of the Union than a particular member of it; in the same proportion as such a malady is more likely to taint a particular county or district, than an entire State. (Federalist No. 10)

* * *

The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State governments are numerous and indefinite. The former will be exercised principally on external objects, as war, peace, negotiation, and foreign commerce; with which last the power of taxation will, for the most part, be connected.

The powers reserved to the several States will extend to all the objects which, in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties, and properties of the people, and the internal order, improvement, and prosperity of the State. The operations of the federal government will be most extensive and important in times of war and danger; those of the State governments, in times of peace and security. As the former periods will probably bear a small proportion to the latter, the State governments will here enjoy another advantage over the federal government. The more adequate, indeed, the federal powers may be rendered to the national defense, the less frequent will be those scenes of danger which might favor their ascendancy over the governments of the particular States. If the new Constitution be examined with accuracy and candor, it will be found that the change which it proposes consists much less in the addition of NEW POWERS to the Union, than in the invigoration of its ORIGINAL POWERS. The regulation of commerce, it is true, is a new power; but that seems to be an addition which few oppose, and from which no apprehensions are entertained. . . . (Federalist No. 45)

* * *

. . . If an act of a particular State, though unfriendly to the national government, be generally popular in that State and should not too grossly violate the oaths of the State officers, it is executed immediately and, of course, by means on the spot and depending on the State alone. The opposition of the federal government, or the interposition of federal officers, would but inflame the zeal of all parties on the side of the State, and the evil could not be prevented or repaired, if at all, without the employment of means which must always be resorted to with reluctance and difficulty.

On the other hand, should an unwarrantable measure of the federal government be unpopular in particular States, which would seldom fail to be the case, or even a warrantable measure be so, which may sometimes be the case, the means of opposition to it are powerful and at hand. The disquietude of the people; their repugnance and, perhaps, refusal to co-operate with the officers of the Union; the frowns of the executive magistracy of the State; the embarrassments created by legislative devices, which would often be added on such occasions, would oppose, in any State, difficulties not to be despised; would form, in a large State, very serious impediments; and where the sentiments of several adjoining States happened to be in unison, would present obstructions which the federal government would hardly be willing to encounter. But ambitious encroachments of the federal government, on the authority of the State governments, would not excite the opposition of a single State, or of a few States only. They would be signals of general alarm. Every government would espouse the common cause. A correspondence would be opened. Plans of resistance would be concerted. One spirit would animate and conduct the whole. The same combinations, in short, would result from an apprehension of the federal, as was produced by the dread of a foreign, yoke; and unless the projected innovations should be voluntarily renounced, the same appeal to a trial of force would be made in the one case as was made in the other. But what degree of madness could ever drive the federal government to such an extremity. In the contest with Great Britain, one part of the empire was employed against the other. The more numerous part invaded the rights of the less numerous part. The attempt was unjust and unwise; but it was not in speculation absolutely chimerical. But what would be the contest in the case we are supposing? Who would be the parties? A few representatives of the people would be opposed to the people themselves; or rather one set of representatives would be contending against thirteen sets of representatives, with the whole body of their common constituents on the side of the latter. (Federalist No. 46)

Ironically — and tragically — the Commerce Clause, touted by Madison in Federalist No. 45, has been the foundation for much of the undoing of the Framers’ plan. In fact, it is hard to imagine a facet of social and economic life that is no longer touched by the central government, as the Supreme Court and Congress have acted, especially since the 1930s, to nationalize and homogenize Americans’ mores. David F. Forte offers a leading example of this in his article about the Commerce Clause in The Heritage Guide to the Constitution (pp. 101-7):

. . . By 1941, in United States v. Darby, it was clear that the new majority [of the Supreme Court] had embraced a very expansive [view of the Commerce Clause] and, as events were to show, these Justices were able to find that any local activity, taken either separately or in the aggregate, Wichard v. Filburn (1942), always had a sufficiently substantial effect on interstate commerce to justify congressional legislation. By these means, the Court turned the commerce power into the equivalent of a general regulatory power and undid the Framers’ original structure of limited and delegated powers . . . .

The Framers’ Fatal Error

The Framers underestimated the will to power that animates office-holders. The Constitution’s wonderful design — horizontal and vertical separation of powers — which worked rather well until the late 1800s, cracked under the strain of populism, as the central government began to impose national economic regulation at the behest of muckrakers and do-gooders. The Framers’ design then broke under the burden of the Great Depression, as the Supreme Court of the 1930s (and since) has enabled the central government to impose its will at will. The Framers’ fundamental error can be found in Madison’s Federalist No. 51. Madison was correct in this:

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

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

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

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

Madison then went on to contradict what he said in Federalist No. 46 about the States being a bulwark of liberty:

It can be little doubted that if the State of Rhode Island was separated from the Confederacy and left to itself, the insecurity of rights under the popular form of government within such narrow limits would be displayed by such reiterated oppressions of factious majorities that some power altogether independent of the people would soon be called for by the voice of the very factions whose misrule had proved the necessity of it. In the extended republic of the United States, and among the great variety of interests, parties, and sects which it embraces, a coalition of a majority of the whole society could seldom take place on any other principles than those of justice and the general good; whilst there being thus less danger to a minor from the will of a major party, there must be less pretext, also, to provide for the security of the former, by introducing into the government a will not dependent on the latter, or, in other words, a will independent of the society itself. It is no less certain than it is important, notwithstanding the contrary opinions which have been entertained, that the larger the society, provided it lie within a practical sphere, the more duly capable it will be of self-government. And happily for the REPUBLICAN CAUSE, the practicable sphere may be carried to a very great extent, by a judicious modification and mixture of the FEDERAL PRINCIPLE.

Madison understood that a majority can tyrranize a minority. He understood that the States are better able to prevent the rise of tyranny if the powers of the central government are circumscribed. But he then assumed — in spite of the race to the top that I noted above — that the States themselves could not resist tyranny within their own borders. Madison overlooked the importance of exit as the ultimate check on tyranny. He assumed (or asserted) that, in creating a new central government with powers greatly exceeding those of the Confederacy, a majority of States would not tyrannize the minority and that minorities with overlapping interests would not concert to tyrannize the majority. Madison was so anxious to see the Constitution ratified that he oversold himself (possibly) and the States’ ratifiying conventions (certainly) on the ability of the central government to hold itself in check. Thus the Constitution was lamentably silent on nullification and secession.

What has been done by presidents, Congresses, and courts will be very hard to undo. Too many interests are vested in the regulatory-welfare state that has usurped the Framers’ noble vision. Democracy (that is, vote-selling) and log-rolling are more powerful than words on paper. Even a Supreme Court majority of “strict constructionists” probably would decline to roll back the New Deal and most of what has come in its wake.

FINDING LIBERTY

Exit Is the Key

Exit — the ability to flee a highly taxed and regulated State (that is, one of the United States) for a somewhat less taxed and regulated State — remains an option, and those who avail themselves of it are sending a message that is lost in the tumult and shouting of electoral politics. Despite the erosion of local and regional differences in governance — owing to the centralization of power in Washington and the general expansion of government power at all subordinate levels — there is net migration from the Northeast and Midwest toward the “sun belt” States of the South and West (excluding California), which generally have lower tax rates and less unionism than the Northeast and Midwest. (Summary statistics on internal migration are here, at Table H on page 14. An index of economic freedom, by State, is here.)

It is therefore no coincidence that the mean population center of the U.S. has since 1940 moved smartly southwestward, from southern Illinois into south central Missouri. Incentives matter; that which enhances economic liberty also enhances personal liberty, for the two are indivisible. The urge for liberty drives people out of high-tax States and toward (relatively) low-tax States, as illustrated by this graphic from “Revolution on Wheels” (Barron’s Online, February 13, 2006):

The lesson here is simple: As long as there is meaningful exit there can be a race to the top. Exit serves liberty because it enables each person to find that place whose values come closest to his or her preferred way of life. Places deemed among the most attractive will grow in numbers and prosper; places deemed less attractive will wither, economically if not in terms of population. Under the right conditions (to which I will come), the balance will tilt toward liberty, that is, toward a modus vivendi that seems, for most people, to offer happiness. That is the essence of federalism, as it was envisioned by the Framers.

But, today, the 50 States (and their constituent municipalities) are incompatible with the kind of federalism envisioned by the Framers. Today’s State and municipal governments are too bureaucratic and too beholden to special interests; they have become smaller versions of the federal government. A devolution of power to the States would advance liberty in some States, but it would fall well short of reversing the depradations of liberty that began in earnest with the New Deal. For, in today’s populous States and municipalities, coalitions of minority interests are able to tyrannize the populace. (The average State today controls the destinies of 25 times as many persons as did the average State of 1790.) Those Americans who “vote with their feet” do not escape to regimes of liberty so much as they escape to regimes that are less tyrannical than the ones in which they had been living.

The kind of federalism envisioned by the Framers — and the kind of federalism necessary to liberty — would require the devolution to small communities and neighborhoods of all but a few powers: war-making, the conduct of foreign affairs, and the regulation of inter-community commerce for the sole purpose of ensuring against the erection of barriers to trade. With that kind of federalism, the free markets of ideas and commerce would enable individuals to live in those communities and neighborhoods that best serve their particular conceptions of liberty. (To grasp this critical point, please read or re-read the preceding installments of this series: here, here, here, and here.)

A “Modest” Proposal for an Experiment in Liberty

Unfortunately, most proponents of federalism remain fixated on the State as the common denominator. Consider the Free State Project,

an agreement among 20,000 pro-liberty activists to move to New Hampshire, where they will exert the fullest practical effort toward the creation of a society in which the maximum role of government is the protection of life, liberty, and property. The success of the Project would likely entail reductions in taxation and regulation, reforms at all levels of government to expand individual rights and free markets, and a restoration of constitutional federalism, demonstrating the benefits of liberty to the rest of the nation and the world.

Why New Hampshire?

After obtaining 5,000 committed members, the FSP membership voted and chose New Hampshire. The vote was conducted in accordance with the Participation Guidelines; detailed results of the vote may be found here. The FSP membership selected New Hampshire because of its many political, economic, and cultural advantages, which can be seen in our NH Info page. In addition, New Hampshire’s low population ensures that each individual can have an effect on the political system.

Why not Missouri, which has an excellent index of economic freedom, celebrates an early tax freedom day, and generally has better weather than New Hampshire (except for skiing). Better yet, why not a county or city in a State like Missouri? Best yet, why not convince the federal government and a State to perform an experiment by allowing the establishment of a “zone of liberty” within a State — an experiment in liberty, if you will. If it succeeds, others will flock to it or demand the establishment of similar zones of liberty. If it fails . . . well, that seems unlikely.

What do I have in mind? A zone of liberty would be something like a “new city” — with a big difference. Uninhabited land would be acquired by a wealthy lover (or lovers) of liberty (call him or them the “developer”). The zone would be populated initially by immigrants, who would buy parcels of land from the developer, and who would be allowed to build the home or business of their choosing on the land that they buy. Sub-developers would be allowed to acquire large parcels, subdivide those parcels, and attach perpetual covenants to the use of the subdivided parcels — covenants that initial and subsequent buyers would knowingly accept. Absentee ownership would be prohibited.

Infrastructure would be provided by competing vendors of telecommunications and transportation services. Rights-of-way would be created through negotiations between vendors and property owners. Any resident homeowner or businessperson could import or export any article from or to any place, including another country; there would be no import controls, duties, or tarrifs; the only restrictions on commerce would be those that are imposed by outside governments.

A zone’s government would comprise an elected council, a police force, and a court (all paid for by assessments based on the last sale price of each property in the zone). The police force would be empowered to keep the peace among the residents of the zone, and to protect the residents from outsiders who come into the zone without permission from a resident and/or who breach the peace. Breaches of the peace would be defined by the development of a common law through the court. The elected council (whose members would serve single, four-year terms) would oversee the police force and court, and would impose the assessments necessary to defray the costs of government. The council would have no other powers, and it would be able to exercise its limited powers only by agreement among three-fourths of the members of the council. The members, who would not be salaried, would annually submit a proposed budget to the electorate, which would have to approve the budget by a three-fourths majority. The electorate would consist of every resident who is an owner or joint owner of a residence or business (not undeveloped land), and who has attained the age of 30.

A zone of liberty would not be bound by federal, State, or local statutes, except that the federal government could impose a per-capita tax on residents of the zone that is sufficient to defray the zone’s per-capita share of the national budget for defense and foreign affairs. The actions of the zone’s government would be reviewable only by the U.S. Supreme Court, and then only following the passage of a bill of particulars by two-thirds of the number of U.S. Senators and Representatives, which must be signed by the President. (A zone could be abolished only with the approval of four-fifths of both houses of Congress and the President.)

Absent such an experiment, I fear that organized minorities will continue to constrain liberty, mooting even the modest degree of inter-State migration that now prevails. Our only hope for liberty — albeit a slim one — would then rest in the hands of the Supreme Court.

I am being realistic in my assessment of what it would take to attain something like liberty in the United States: either an upheaval of the Supreme Court or the creation of something like zones of liberty. Politics as usual will only take us further down the road to serfdom. Frankly, I see little chance of averting serfdom. All I can do is propose an alternative — unlikely as it is — and pray.

The Moral of the Story

The bottom line of this series:

  • Liberty suffers when a central government does more than make war, conduct of foreign affairs, and regulate inter-State commerce for the sole purpose of ensuring against the erection of barriers to trade.
  • Liberty suffers when a central government imposes rules on all at the instigation of the majority or coalitions of minorities.
  • Liberty thrives when the rules that govern relations among the members of a group are agreed among the members of the group — even if those rules vary from group to group. One group’s liberty may be another group’s strait-jacket, and vice versa.

It is easy to say that liberty consists of doing what we please as long as what we do does not bring harm to others. It is very hard to say what will and will not do harm. Socially evolved norms offer the best guide. We ignore and summarily reject those norms at great peril to liberty.

The simplistic definition of liberty — do as you please but do no harm to others — is superficially appealing. But it glides over the definition of harm, which may vary widely from group to group. Those who advocate abortion and same-sex marriage, for instance, may see those practices as harmless, but they fail to take into account the downstream effects of those practices on civility, without which life would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

Those who wish to live the simplistic libertarian life of “do no harm to others” are welcome to it, if they can find it in a group of like-minded persons. There is no such thing as a neutral or objective definition of “harm.” Simplistic libertarians merely have a particular conception of “no harm” that they should not be able to impose on others who disagree with that conception. I, for example, do not wish to be bound by the simplistic libertarians’ blind adherence to the non-aggression principle, which is both fatuous and suicidal. (See this, this, this, this, and this.)

That is why it is so important to devolve most governmental power to small groups. Doing so enables exit and makes it more likely that leaving will be rewarded by finding membership in a more congenial group. (For that reason I would constrain the size and membership of each zone of liberty, creating more of them instead of allowing any one of them to grow beyond the size of a small town (perhaps not exceeding a population of 150).

In conclusion, true liberty can be found in these four rules:

  • A group’s behavior must be governed by norms that have evolved among its members, rather than being forced on them through executive, legislative, or judicial edict. (Though legislation, if backed by a super-majority of the populace, may reflect evolved norms.)
  • The norms must be susceptible of further, unforced change.
  • Dissidents must be free to state their dissent openly, without fear of coming to physical harm at the hands of society or the state. (One must accept the possibility of disapproval, and even ostracism, but disapproval and ostracism are much less likely if one begins as an accepted member of a social group.)
  • Dissidents must be free to leave, without paying any penalty other than the cost of leaving.

APPENDIX: NOTES ON HUMAN NATURE

The essential fallacy of simplistic libertarianism is that it does not account for the deeply embedded human impulses that we often call “human nature”:

Man evolved in cooperating groups united by common cultural and genetic ties, and it is only in such a setting that the individual can feel truly free, and truly protected. . . .The meaning of liberty is inseparable from the founding anthropology of man, an individual sharing a common history and common culture in a common community.

Alain de Benoist, “Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft: A sociological view of the decay of modern society” (originally published in The Mankind Quarterly, Vol. 34, No. 3, pp. 263-270).

* * *

The scene of evolution is the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness, the EEA, essentially the Pleistocene, the whole, long period lasting from 1.6 million years ago up until the shift to the Holocene with the invention of agriculture and large settlements 10,000 years ago. Our present intellectual constitution was achieved by about 50,000 years ago. . . . [T]here were 80,000 generations of humans and proto-humans in the Pleistocene, while there have been a mere 500 generations since agriculture and the first cities. It was in the earlier, much longer period that selective pressures created genetically modern humans. . . .

. . . Libertarianism was not a viable strategy for the EEA. The actions of individuals produce by-products to affect whole communities, and [according to Paul H. Rubin, author of Darwinian Politics] “we have evolved preferences to control these actions.” We are genetically predisposed, it seems, “to interfere in the behavior of others,” even where the behavior has little demonstrable adverse effect on a community: we want to control recreational drug use, when people can gamble or drink, where they can smoke, and whether they can engage in private sex acts. We succumb to periodic moral panics about youth — the music they listen to or their hairstyles, their language, and so forth. We set up laws to regulate all aspects of behavior. We are fundamentally meddlesome creatures.

Rubin speculates that this impulse to control our fellows, even in matters that have little or no material effect on living standards or resource allocation, is an adaptation designed to increase group solidarity. In fact, he even suggests that a group in the EEA that put into practice libertarian values would likely be less able to survive than one that more tightly controlled social behavior: I have a picture of laid-back, freedom-loving Pleistocene libertarians being massacred by a nearby tribe of Pleistocene fascists. What makes the fascists successful is the enforcement of specified beliefs and rituals, “our” culture. Punish­ing defectors keeps the group strong. The result is a marked human taste for paternalism, for interfering in private behavior in the name of morality.

Denis Dutton, in a review of Rubin’s Darwinian Politics: The Evolutionary Origin of Freedom

Finding Liberty

This is the concluding installment of a series. The other entries are “Liberty as a Social Compact,” “Social Norms and Liberty,” “A Footnote about Liberty and the Social Compact,” and “Liberty and Federalism.” The series is an elaboration of an earlier post, “The Paradox of Libertarianism,” which could be read as an introduction. The entire series can be read as a single post, here.

Exit Is the Key

Exit — the ability to flee a highly taxed and regulated State (that is, one of the United States) for a somewhat less taxed and regulated State — remains an option, and those who avail themselves of it are sending a message that is lost in the tumult and shouting of electoral politics. Despite the erosion of local and regional differences in governance — owing to the centralization of power in Washington and the general expansion of government power at all subordinate levels — there is net migration from the Northeast and Midwest toward the “sun belt” States of the South and West (excluding California), which generally have lower tax rates and less unionism than the Northeast and Midwest. (Summary statistics on internal migration are here, at Table H on page 14. An index of economic freedom, by State, is here.)

It is therefore no coincidence that the mean population center of the U.S. has since 1960 moved smartly southwestward, from southern Illinois into south central Missouri. Incentives matter; that which enhances economic liberty also enhances personal liberty, for the two are indivisible. The urge for liberty drives people out of high-tax States and toward (relatively) low-tax States, as illustrated by this graphic from “Revolution on Wheels” (Barron’s Online, February 13, 2006):

The lesson here is simple: As long as there is meaningful exit there can be a race to the top. Exit serves liberty because it enables each person to find that place whose values come closest to his or her preferred way of life. Places deemed among the most attractive will grow in numbers and prosper; places deemed less attractive will wither, economically if not in terms of population. Under the right conditions (to which I will come), the balance will tilt toward liberty, that is, toward a modus vivendi that seems, for most people, to offer happiness. That is the essence of federalism, as it was envisioned by the Framers.

But, today, the 50 States (and their constituent municipalities) are incompatible with the kind of federalism envisioned by the Framers. Today’s State and municipal governments are too bureaucratic and too beholden to special interests; they have become smaller versions of the federal government. A devolution of power to the States would advance liberty in some States, but it would fall well short of reversing the depradations of liberty that began in earnest with the New Deal. For, in today’s populous States and municipalities, coalitions of minority interests are able to tyrannize the populace. (The average State today controls the destinies of 25 times as many persons as did the average State of 1790.) Those Americans who “vote with their feet” do not escape to regimes of liberty so much as they escape to regimes that are less tyrannical than the ones in which they had been living.

The kind of federalism envisioned by the Framers — and the kind of federalism necessary to liberty — would require the devolution to small communities and neighborhoods of all but a few powers: war-making, the conduct of foreign affairs, and the regulation of inter-community commerce for the sole purpose of ensuring against the erection of barriers to trade. With that kind of federalism, the free markets of ideas and commerce would enable individuals to live in those communities and neighborhoods that best serve their particular conceptions of liberty. (To grasp this critical point, please read or re-read the preceding installments of this series: here, here, here, and here.)

A “Modest” Proposal for an Experiment in Liberty

Unfortunately, most proponents of federalism remain fixated on the State as the common denominator. Consider the Free State Project,

an agreement among 20,000 pro-liberty activists to move to New Hampshire, where they will exert the fullest practical effort toward the creation of a society in which the maximum role of government is the protection of life, liberty, and property. The success of the Project would likely entail reductions in taxation and regulation, reforms at all levels of government to expand individual rights and free markets, and a restoration of constitutional federalism, demonstrating the benefits of liberty to the rest of the nation and the world.

Why New Hampshire?

After obtaining 5,000 committed members, the FSP membership voted and chose New Hampshire. The vote was conducted in accordance with the Participation Guidelines; detailed results of the vote may be found here. The FSP membership selected New Hampshire because of its many political, economic, and cultural advantages, which can be seen in our NH Info page. In addition, New Hampshire’s low population ensures that each individual can have an effect on the political system.

Why not Missouri, which has an excellent index of economic freedom, celebrates an early tax freedom day, and generally has better weather than New Hampshire (except for skiing). Better yet, why not a county or city in a State like Missouri? Best yet, why not convince the federal government and a State to perform an experiment by allowing the establishment of a “zone of liberty” within a State — an experiment in liberty, if you will. If it succeeds, others will flock to it or demand the establishment of similar zones of liberty. If it fails . . . well, that seems unlikely.

What do I have in mind? A zone of liberty would be something like a “new city” — with a big difference. Uninhabited land would be acquired by a wealthy lover (or lovers) of liberty (call him or them the “developer”). The zone would be populated initially by immigrants, who would buy parcels of land from the developer, and who would be allowed to build the home or business of their choosing on the land that they buy. Sub-developers would be allowed to acquire large parcels, subdivide those parcels, and attach perpetual covenants to the use of the subdivided parcels — covenants that initial and subsequent buyers would knowingly accept. Absentee ownership would be prohibited.

Infrastructure would be provided by competing vendors of telecommunications and transportation services. Rights-of-way would be created through negotiations between vendors and property owners. Any resident homeowner or businessperson could import or export any article from or to any place, including another country; there would be no import controls, duties, or tarrifs; the only restrictions on commerce would be those that are imposed by outside governments.

A zone’s government would comprise an elected council, a police force, and a court (all paid for by assessments based on the last sale price of each property in the zone). The police force would be empowered to keep the peace among the residents of the zone, and to protect the residents from outsiders who come into the zone without permission from a resident and/or who breach the peace. Breaches of the peace would be defined by the development of a common law through the court. The elected council (whose members would serve single, four-year terms) would oversee the police force and court, and would impose the assessments necessary to defray the costs of government. The council would have no other powers, and it would be able to exercise its limited powers only by agreement among three-fourths of the members of the council. The members, who would not be salaried, would annually submit a proposed budget to the electorate, which would have to approve the budget by a three-fourths majority. The electorate would consist of every resident who is an owner or joint owner of a residence or business (not undeveloped land), and who has attained the age of 30.

A zone of liberty would not be bound by federal, State, or local statutes, except that the federal government could impose a per-capita tax on residents of the zone that is sufficient to defray the zone’s per-capita share of the national budget for defense and foreign affairs. The actions of the zone’s government would be reviewable only by the U.S. Supreme Court, and then only following the passage of a bill of particulars by two-thirds of the number of U.S. Senators and Representatives, which must be signed by the President. (A zone could be abolished only with the approval of four-fifths of both houses of Congress and the President.)

Absent such an experiment, I fear that organized minorities will continue to constrain liberty, mooting even the modest degree of inter-State migration that now prevails. Our only hope for liberty — albeit a slim one — would then rest in the hands of the Supreme Court.

I am being realistic in my assessment of what it would take to attain something like liberty in the United States: either an upheaval of the Supreme Court or the creation of something like zones of liberty. Politics as usual will only take us further down the road to serfdom. Frankly, I see little chance of averting serfdom. All I can do is propose an alternative — unlikely as it is — and pray.

The Moral of the Story

The bottom line of this series:

  • Liberty suffers when a central government does more than make war, conduct foreign affairs, and regulate inter-State commerce for the sole purpose of ensuring against the erection of barriers to trade.
  • Liberty suffers when a central government imposes rules on all at the instigation of the majority or coalitions of minorities.
  • Liberty thrives when the rules that govern relations among the members of a group are agreed among the members of the group — even if those rules vary from group to group. One group’s liberty may be another group’s strait-jacket, and vice versa.

It is easy to say that liberty consists of doing what we please as long as what we do does not bring harm to others. It is very hard to say what will and will not do harm. Socially evolved norms offer the best guide. We ignore and summarily reject those norms at great peril to liberty.

The simplistic definition of liberty — do as you please but do no harm to others — is superficially appealing. But it glides over the definition of harm, which may vary widely from group to group. Those who advocate abortion and same-sex marriage, for instance, may see those practices as harmless, but they fail to take into account the downstream effects of those practices on civility, without which life would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

Those who wish to live the simplistic libertarian life of “do no harm to others” are welcome to it, if they can find it in a group of like-minded persons. There is no such thing as a neutral or objective definition of “harm.” Simplistic libertarians merely have a particular conception of “no harm” that they should not be able to impose on others who disagree with that conception. I, for example, do not wish to be bound by the simplistic libertarians’ blind adherence to the non-aggression principle, which is both fatuous and suicidal. (See this, this, this, this, and this.)

That is why it is so important to devolve most governmental power to small groups. Doing so enables exit and makes it more likely that leaving will be rewarded by finding membership in a more congenial group. (For that reason I would constrain the size and membership of each zone of liberty, creating more of them instead of allowing any one of them to grow beyond the size of a small village — perhaps not exceeding a population of 150.)

In conclusion, true liberty can be found in these four rules:

  1. A group’s behavior must be governed by norms that have evolved among its members, rather than being forced on them through executive, legislative, or judicial edict. (Though legislation, if backed by a super-majority of the populace, may reflect evolved norms.)
  2. The norms must be susceptible of further, unforced change.
  3. Dissidents must be free to state their dissent openly, without fear of coming to physical harm at the hands of society or the state. (One must accept the possibility of disapproval, and even ostracism, but disapproval and ostracism are much less likely if one begins as an accepted member of a social group.)
  4. Dissidents must be free to leave, without paying any penalty other than the cost of leaving.

A Political Compass

From a post that is almost two years old, but still on-target:

The left-right, liberal-conservative taxonomies of the political spectrum fail because they are linear and lacking in subtlety. My alternative is a . . . taxonomy with these four major points arrayed on a circular continuum:

• Anarchy — “might makes right” without an effective state to referee the fight

• Libertarianism — the minimal state for the protection of life, property, and liberty

• Communitiarianism — the regulation of private institutions to produce “desirable” outcomes in such realms as income distribution, health, safety, education, and the environment

• Statism — outright state control of most institutions, reached either as an extension of communitarianism or via post-statist anarchy or near-anarchy, as in Stalin’s Russia, Hitler’s Germany, and Mao’s China.

Think of anarchy, libertarianism, communitarianism, and statism as the North, East, South, and West of a compass. The needle swings mostly from anarchy to statism to communitarianism, and occasionally from communitarianism toward libertarianism, but never very far in that direction. . . .

The communitarian state is simply too seductive. It co-opts its citizens through progressive corruption: higher spending to curry favor with voting blocs, higher taxes to fund higher spending and to perpetuate the mechanisms of the state, still higher spending, and so on. Each voting bloc insists on sustaining its benefits — and increasing them at every opportunity — for one of two reasons. Many voters actually believe that largesse of the communitarian state is free to them, and some of them are right. Other voters know better, but they grab what they can get because others will grab it if they don’t.

I remembered that post as I ruminated on the naïveté of anarchism, which is only a way-station to statism. Anarchy is an inherently unstable régime, favored by naïfs who probably wouldn’t last more than a few days in it. As for modern “liberalism,” it has become nothing more than statism.

Related posts:

Calling a Nazi a Nazi

Defense, Anarcho-Capitalist Style
But Wouldn’t Warlords Take Over?
My View of Warlordism, Seconded
Anarcho-Libertarian Stretching
QandO Saved Me the Trouble
Liberty as a Social Compact
Social Norms and Liberty
A Footnote about Liberty and the Social Compact
Liberty and Federalism

Panic Attacks

I wasn’t panicking about bird flu, but many were. Now, there’s this (from Scientific American.com):

Bird Flu Resides Deep in Lungs, Preventing Human-to-Human Transmission

I predict that bird flu will go the way of man-made global warming: two (among many) instances of premature panic owed to the scientific-media herd mentality.

The tendency to panic about every dire possibility causes undue anxiety and plays into the hands of those who seek expensive and burdensome government “solutions” to problems. Will we ever learn? Probably not.

Euthanasia in Asia

Reuters reports:

North Korea has no people with physical disabilities because they are killed almost as soon as they are born, a physician who defected from the communist state said on Wednesday.

Ri Kwang-chol, who fled to the South last year, told a forum of rights activists that the practice of killing newborns was widespread but denied he himself took part in it.

“There are no people with physical defects in North Korea,” Ri told members of the New Right Union, which groups local activists and North Korean refugees.

He said babies born with physical disabilities were killed in infancy in hospitals or in homes and were quickly buried.

Here, we call it partial-birth abortion.

The Residue of Choice

The saying goes: Luck is the residue of design. My version: The life one leads is — in the main, for most persons — the residue of choice.

There is a kind of person: one who drinks too much, who drives too fast, who spends money that he or she doesn’t have (or has little prospect of acquiring) on gadgets instead of useful things, who will not accept or hold onto a menial job because it is “beneath” him or her, who selects a mate for superficial reasons. Such a person is likely to lead a chaotic life — one filled with tension, frustration, and failure. Such a person is not deserving of charity because he or she is likely to squander it. And yet, the welfare state squanders tax-supported “charity” on such persons, thus encouraging their self-destructive behavior.

The road to hell is paved with unintended — but foreseeable — consequences.

What If We Lose?

Today’s featured article at OpinionJournal is “What if We Lose? The consequences of U.S. defeat in Iraq.” It’s a good reminder that those who clamor for withdrawal from Iraq haven’t thought through the consequences of their position. They want the “benefits” — no more American casualties (though the Americans are volunteers), a smaller defense budget, and the “good will” of “allies” like France — but they fail to address the costs. The OpinionJournal piece does a pretty good job of addressing the costs.

Whiny Kids

There’s a dubious study which claims to show (according to a journalist) that

the whiny, insecure kid in nursery school, the one who always thought everyone was out to get him, and was always running to the teacher with complaints . . . grew up to be a conservative.

There’s no need to rely on an ill-designed study to identify the ideological leanings of whiners. Just watch the news and surf the web and you will find them in abundance — mainly on the Left. For more, read this, and follow the links therein.

P.S. Republicans Happier than Democrats, Independents

P.P.S. One of Michelle Malkin’s readers adds this thought:

It would seem that there is a limited amount of whiny childishness that each person expends in a lifetime. Conservatives use theirs up as children while liberals get older and then become whiny children.

P.P.P.S. Malkin has more.

American History Since 1900

I have completed Part One of “American History Since 1900.” I am writing the series for my grandchildren, as an alternative to the standard history texts, which extol the virtues of big government and ooze political correctness.

Part One, which is about the Presidents of the United States in the 20th and 21st centuries, is organized chronologically. It discusses the major events during each President’s time in office. Part Two will give more details about major world events that have affected the United States, and will then focus on major political, social and economic trends in the United States. Part Three will discuss the major technological advances that enable Americans of today to live much better than Americans of 1900. Part Four will explain how the growth of government power since 1900 has made Americans much worse off than they should be.

A major theme of this history is the role of government in the lives of Americans. The increasing role of government has been the major development in American history since 1900. Many Americans today take for granted a degree of government involvement in their lives that would have shocked Americans of 1900. There are other important themes in this history, but the growth of government power overshadows everything else. Why is that? It is because the growth of government power means that Americans have less freedom than they used to have, which is far less freedom than envisioned by the founding generation that fought for America’s independence and wrote its Constitution.

The Gist of It

A good portion of my post on “Trade, Government Spending, and Economic Growth” is about the meaning of the trade deficit. This post, by Donald Boudreaux of Cafe Hayek, gives the gist of my argument:

My friend Jack Wenders, Emeritus Professor of Economics at the University of Idaho, notes this passage in a recent AP report:

The U.S. must borrow more than $2 billion per day from foreigners to finance its huge trade deficits.

Jack’s reaction to this typical way of framing the so-called ‘trade deficit’ is noteworthy:

Maybe a better way of putting this would be to say: “Foreigners must sell the U. S. more than $2 billion per day in goods and services to finance their huge purchases of U.S. assets.”

Exactly correct.

Exactly.

A Black Bigot Speaks

If anything exemplifies Leftists’ condescenscion to blacks it’s this op-ed piece* in the L.A. Times by Erin Aubry Kaplan (right). The op-ed is about former White House staffer (and black Republican) Claude Allen, who recently was charged with theft. The most telling bits:

I don’t support conservatism in its current iteration, and I support black conservatives even less . . . .

Here is a man who, like most black conservatives, has had to do an awful lot of personal and political rationalizing to pay dues . . . .

In so many words, Allen and other black conservatives are too “dumb” to know that conservatism is bad for them. And/or they’re just power-seeking Uncle Toms and Aunt Jemimas who suck up to powerful whites in return for access to power and the perks of high office. Kaplan (like her compatriots on the Left) is unwilling to credit Allen and other black conservatives with having a principled attachment to conservatism.

Kaplan’s own blackness doesn’t excuse her profound bigotry. It merely underscores her status as a “house black” at the Left-wing L.A. Times, where she spouts the party line in the hope of keeping blacks “in line” — that is, voting for Democrats in order to perpetuate the regulatory-welfare state that has done so much, for so long, to undermine black families and stifle the initiative of young blacks.
__________
* Free registration required. Try latimes@fastchevy.com as a username and password as a password.