Month: January 2014

Speaking in Foreign Tongues

Have you wondered why it’s so hard to learn to speak a foreign language, especially as one gets older. (“Older” includes persons of high-school and college age, as opposed to toddlers.) I have some thoughts on the matter, which I’ll get to after a relevant detour into a pair of well-known English and American accents.

You’re probably familiar with the “posh” English accent, also known as Received Pronunciation (RP):

RP is defined in the Concise Oxford English Dictionary as “the standard accent of English as spoken in the south of England,”although it can be heard from native speakers throughout England and Wales…. Although there is nothing intrinsic about RP that marks it as superior to any other variety, sociolinguistic factors have given Received Pronunciation particular prestige in parts of Britain.It has thus been the accent of those with power, money and influence since the early to mid 20th century….

The modern style of RP is an accent often taught to non-native speakers learning British English…. RP is used as the standard for English in most books on general phonology and phonetics, and is represented in the pronunciation schemes of most dictionaries published in the United Kingdom.

[A] notable British phonetician, has identified the following people as RP speakers:

(More here about RP.)

If you’re unfamiliar with the speech of the Royal Family, etc., think of the Crawleys of Downton Abbey —  Elizabeth McGovern’s character excepted, of course.

RP has an American equivalent, General American (GA):

The General American accent is most closely related to a generalized Midwestern accent and is spoken particularly by many newscasters. It is thought to have evolved from the English spoken by colonials in the Mid-Atlantic states, evolved and moved west. Walter Cronkite is a good example of a broadcaster using this accent. This has led the accent to sometimes be referred to as a “newscaster accent” or “television English”. General American is sometimes promoted as preferable to other regional accents. In the United States, classes promising “accent reduction”,”accent modification” and “accent neutralization” generally attempt to teach speech patterns similar to this accent…. General American is also the accent typically taught to people learning English as a second language in the United States, as well as outside the country to anyone who wishes to learn “American English.”

Where does GA come from?

The Telsur Project … examines a number of phonetic properties by which regional accents of the U.S. may be identified. The area with Midwestern regional properties is indicated on the map: eastern Nebraska (including Omaha and Lincoln); northwestern, southern, and central Iowa (including Des Moines, Sioux City and the Iowa-side Quad Cities), with an adjacent narrow strip of northern Missouri; and western Illinois (including Peoria and the Illinois-side Quad Cities. Notably, this section of Illinois does not include the Chicago area).

Note that GA doesn’t encompass the entire Midwest, which contains a variety of distinct accents, even though most Midwesterners, seem to believe (wrongly) that they’re accent-free. For example, the Chicago accent, as I’ve heard it, has a “big city” shading — a more “aggressive” sound than the softer tones one associates with the rural and semi-urban areas of the Midwest. Many Chicagoans (e.g., the late Mayor Richard Daley) have been known to substitute “dese” and “dem” for “these” and “them.”  The accents of the Upper Midwest — Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota — are also distinctive and easily mocked. (Think of the Minnesotan played by Frances McDormand in Fargo.)

GA, of course, sounds nothing like RP, nor is it considered “posh.” But, like RP, it is easily understood by other speakers of English.

Why? I think it’s because GA is a straightforward way of speaking, absent the vocal gymnastics that accompany other regional accents; for example:

  • The “a” sound is “ay”; it’s not drawn out into a nasal whine (“a-a-uh”), as it is in Upstate New York and parts of the Upper Midwest.
  • The letter “r” is pronounced “are,” not only at the beginning of a word but also in the middle and at the end. Thus words that end in “r” (or with the “r” sound) are instantly understandable to any American, even those who say “ah” for “are,” “heah” for “hear” and “hear,” “waw” and “wo-ah” for “war,” or “Cuber” for “Cuba” — to give but a few of many possible examples. (It doesn’t work the other way around. Years ago, before I became “worldly,” I had to ask a native of New York City to repeat “Clahk Milluh” three time before I — a native Midwesterner — understood that he was referring to a person named Clark Miller.)
  • The “t” is pronounced, except in words where it has long been suppressed (e.g., “often” = “offen”). Thus GA speakers say “plentiful,” not the “pleniful” of some Eastern accents.
  • The long “i” is “eye,” not the “ah” of “rahfle” (rifle) and “tahr’ (tire) that’s heard in some parts of the South.
  • Also in contrast to many Southern accents, words are pronounced crisply, not stretched; for example: “building” is “bil-ding,” not “bee-i-l-ding”; “fish” is just that, not “fee-ush.”

I could go on and on. But what I’m leading up to is this: It’s true that GA is an accent, but the simplicity of GA makes it easy to mimic. (That’s why it’s taught to non-English speakers.) British actors who try to “do” an American accent usually succeed only when they “do” GA. (British actors’ imitations of Southern accents usually seem hilarious to Southerners, as do most imitations essayed by non-Southern American actors.)

What does all of this have to do with the difficulty of mastering the pronunciation of a foreign language? My amateur guess is that two things keep most people (older than toddlers) from learning how to speak a foreign language as its native speakers do: (1) embarrassment and (2) embedded  habits of pronunciation. The two impediments are related. If you’ve grown up pronouncing vowels, consonants, diphthongs and other particles of speech in certain ways, you’re likely to feel self-conscious about pronouncing them in new ways, especially in the presence of your peers. And you’ll find it hard to pronounce particles of speech in new ways if doing so requires you to make sounds that you’re unaccustomed to making.

If, for example, you want to pronounce the “r” in garçon (boy or young man) as a French person does, you have to throw in a silent gargle, so that the “r” is almost suppressed. Then you get to “çon,” which starts out somewhere between “sone” and “sawn,” but ends with an open, nasal sound — the “n” is hinted at but not enunciated. Further, you have to resist the temptation to emphasize the first syllable, and put equal emphasis on both syllables.

See how hard it is? And that’s just a small sample of the vocal gymnastics required to speak one foreign tongue passably well. (Also required: some mastery of vocabulary and grammar, the latter of which is often more complex than in English.)

So, even if an American gets over the embarrassment of making “weird” sounds, he or she still faces the obstacle of making those sounds correctly. The same goes for non-English speakers who want to master British or American English. But if they aim to master RP or GA, their task is made easier by the relative simplicity of those two accents.

Parsing Political Philosophy (II)

This is a work in progress. The first version is here. This version expands the range of political stances by adding Despotism to Anarchism, Minarchism, and Statism. Also, this version goes into more detail about the differences between various stances. I’m leaving the first version in place because I’ve linked to it and quoted from it often, and because some of the descriptive material complements this post.


The aim of this post and its predecessor is to find more precise political labels than Democrat, Republican, left, right, center, liberal, conservative, and libertarian. I want to show, for example, the dimensions of agreement and disagreement between a so-called liberal who wants government to dictate certain aspects of human affairs, and a so-called conservative who wants government to dictate certain other aspects of human affairs. Are they not both statists who merely have different agendas, or are there deeper differences between them? And what about the so-called libertarian who espouses some views that are anathema to many on the left (e.g., free markets) and other views that are anathema to many on the right (e.g., legalization of marijuana and harder drugs)? Are such views coherent or merely provocative?

Any one person’s political philosophy — if he may be said to have one — is likely to consist of a set of attitudes, many of them logically irreconcilable. This, I believe, is due mainly to the influence of temperament on one’s political views. It is a rare human being who does not interpret the world through the lens of his preferences, and those preferences seem to be more a matter of temperament than of knowledge and reason. Even highly intelligent persons are capable of believing in the most outlandish things because they want to believe those things.

I therefore admit that my search for more precise political labels may be — and probably is — both quixotic and reductionist. But it can, at least, shed some light on real differences — and real similarities — among various lines of political thought.


Political views, and their essential differences, cannot be organized into a taxonomy without first defining politics and its essential issues.

Politics is the means by which human beings regulate their behavior, which usually (but unnecessarily) is divided into social and economic components. The purpose of regulating behavior — whether the regulation is explicit or implicit, imposed or voluntary — is to sustain or change the modes of human interaction, and the outcomes that derive from human interaction. Some political stances are incoherent because their principles cannot yield the preferred outcomes (e.g., redistribution, a favored policy of left-statists, actually makes the poor worse off because it stifles economic growth). But incoherence does not prevent a political stance from becoming popular, or even dominant.


The following sections of this post culminate in a taxonomy of political philosophies, which is given in a table at the end of the post. In that table, I take as a baseline a political stance that I call Right-Minarchism. It represents traditional conservatism, as it would have played out in practice under the kind of true federalism represented in the Articles of Confederation.

What is the traditional conservative position? I begin with a redaction of Russell Kirk’s “Six Canons of Conservative Thought“:

1. An understanding that political problems, at bottom, are moral problems.

2. A preference for tradition — which incorporates beneficial change — over the shackles of statism and the chaos that must ensue from anarchy.

3. Recognition that change is not the same thing as change for the better (reform), which emerges from tradition and is not imposed upon it.

4. An understanding that a flourishing civil society requires order, without which freedom is available only to despots and predators.

5. Faith in traditional mores and reliance upon them, in the main, to maintain a regimen of order that enables freedom — ordered liberty, in other words. Traditional mores are supplemented but not supplanted by the rule of law, impartially administered and no more intrusive than is required for ordered liberty.

6. Knowledge that property and liberty are inseparably connected, and that economic leveling is not economic progress.

For an elaboration on the role of government, I turn to Michael Oakeshott:

Government, … as the conservative in this matter understands it, does not begin with a vision of another, different and better world, but with the observation of the self-government practised even by men of passion in the conduct of their enterprises; it begins in the informal adjustments of interests to one another which are designed to release those who are apt to collide from the mutual frustration of a collision. Sometimes these adjustments are no more than agreements between two parties to keep out of each other’s way; sometimes they are of wider application and more durable character, such as the International Rules for for the prevention of collisions at sea. In short, the intimations of government are to be found in ritual, not in religion or philosophy; in the enjoyment of orderly and peaceable behaviour, not in the search for truth or perfection…. To govern, then, as the conservative understands it, is to provide a vinculum juris for those manners of conduct which, in the circumstances, are least likely to result in a frustrating collision of interests; to provide redress and means of compensation for those who suffer from others behaving in a contrary manners; sometimes to provide punishment for those who pursue their own interests regardless of the rules; and, of course, to provide a sufficient force to maintain the authority of an arbiter of this kind. Thus, governing is recognized as a specific and limited activity; not the management of an enterprise, but the rule of those engaged in a great diversity of self-chosen enterprises. It is not concerned with concrete persons, but with activities; and with activities only in respect of their propensity to collide with one another. It is not concerned with moral right and wrong, it is not designed to make men good or even better; it is not indispensable on account of ‘the natural depravity of mankind’ but merely because of their current disposition to be extravagant; its business is to keep its subjects at peace with one another in the activities in which they have chosen to seek their happiness. And if there is any general idea entailed in this view, it is, perhaps, that a government which does not sustain the loyalty of its subjects is worthless; and that while one which (in the old puritan phrase) ‘commands the truth’ is incapable of doing so (because some of its subjects will believe its ‘truth’ to be in error), one which is indifferent to ‘truth’ and ‘error’ alike, and merely pursues peace, presents no obstacle to the necessary loyalty.

…[A]s the conservative understands it, modification of the rules should always reflect, and never impose, a change in the activities and beliefs of those who are subject to them, and should never on any occasion be so great as to destroy the ensemble. Consequently, the conservative will have nothing to do with innovations designed to meet merely hypothetical situations; he will prefer to enforce a rule he has got rather than invent a new one; he will think it appropriate to delay a modification of the rules until it is clear that the change of circumstances it is designed to reflect has come to stay for a while; he will be suspicious of proposals for change in excess of what the situation calls for, of rulers who demand extra-ordinary powers in order to make great changes and whose utterances re tied to generalities like ‘the public good’ or social justice’, and of Saviours of Society who buckle on armour and seek dragons to slay; he will think it proper to consider the occasion of the innovation with care; in short, he will be disposed to regard politics as an activity in which a valuable set of tools is renovated from time to time and kept in trim rather than as an opportunity for perpetual re-equipment. (Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays, New and Expanded Edition, pp. 427-31)

In what follows, I synthesize Kirk and Oakeshott, and call the result Right-Minarchism.


I begin with a rough sorting of political philosophies:

  • Anarchism is a fairly coherent (if implausible) philosophy of non-government, propounded by persons who usually call themselves anarcho-capitalists (probably because it seems a more respectable label than “anarchist”).
  • Minarchism is a somewhat more diffuse but still coherent philosophy of minimal government, propounded by persons who usually call themselves libertarians, over the objection of anarchists, who claim to be the only true libertarians.
  • Anarchists and minarchists dwell in the big tent of libertarianism.  Where anarchists are fairly monolithic in their views (government is evil because it must always be based on coercion), minarchists are of varied stripes, which I delineate below. My analyses of anarchism and minarchism span the range of libertarian ideas, so there is nothing more for me to say in this post about libertarianism as a political philosophy.
  • Statism comprises a broad set of attitudes about government’s role, propounded by “types” ranging from redneck yahoos to campus radicals, each type proclaiming itself benign (for some, if not for others). But each type would — in thought and word, if not deed — set loose the dogs of the state upon its political opponents and the vast, hapless majority. Statism, because it is so powerful and pervasive a force, merits further analysis — more aptly, dissection — into its main types.
  • Despotism is perhaps the inevitable outcome of statism. Despotism may be “hard,” as with the USSR under Stalin and Germany under Hitler, or “soft,” as with innumerable “social democrat” regimes, including the controlling regime of the United States. Under despotic rule there is no dividing line between the state’s power and individual liberty. The state can — and will — dictate to its subjects about anything.

Thus the four broad philosophies that I parse in this post are anarchism, minarchism, statism, and despotism. Here is more about each of them:


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

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

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


The Central Tenet: Limited Government

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

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

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

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

The Protection of Negative Rights

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

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

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

More about Property Rights

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

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

The Role of Civil Society

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

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

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

A Note about Left-Minarchism

This branch of minarchism attracts pseudo-libertarians who proclaim their dedication to liberty from one side of the mouth while supporting statist restrictions on liberty from the other side. The hypocrisy of left-minarchism is discussed in the table below, and by Bill McMorris in “Conservatives Will Embrace Libertarians When Libertarians Stop Embracing Government” (The Federalist, February 26, 2014).


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

The Essence of Statism: Control

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

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

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

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

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

Feeble Excuses for Statism

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

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

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

The Bottom Line about Statism

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


In “democratic” nations, despotism arrives as an outgrowth of statism. It arrives by stealth, as the state’s power becomes so pervasive and so entrenched in statutes, regulations, and judicial decrees that liberty becomes a hollow word. Every sphere of existence — religious, social, economic — is subject to interference and control by the state. The state may not exercise full control in every instance, but it has the power to do so, rhetoric about liberty to the contrary notwithstanding.

America’s despotism is “soft,” compared with the despotism of the USSR and Nazi Germany, but it is despotism, nonetheless. If you think it hyperbolic to call the America a despotism, think again, and again, and again, and again, and again. The dividing line between statism and despotism is a thin one, and if you will follow the links in the two preceding sentences, you will find many reasons to believe that America has crossed over into despotism. “Soft” verges on “hard” when myriad organs of the state — from the IRS to local zoning departments — can persecute and prosecute citizens on almost any pretext. The only saving grace is that the victims of America’s “soft” despotism still have recourse to the courts and sometimes find relief there.


These statements implicate several political issues:

1. Toward what social and economic outcomes ought human endeavor be aimed? The “aiming” need not be deliberate but, rather, the natural result of voluntary, cooperative action in accord with social norms.

2. Who should determine social norms, and how?

3. What behaviors should obtain?

4. How should norms be enforced?

5. What is the proper role of the state?

6. When the norms and actions of the people and the state are in conflict, how should the conflict be resolved?

7. Who benefits from the imposition of norms by the state, and who is harmed by those impositions?

8. Who should pay for functions of the state?

9. What should happen when the state exceeds its authority?

10. With respect to the foregoing matters, how should dissent acknowledged and accommodated?

The answers to those questions lead to a taxonomy in which Minarchism is divided into Right-Minarchism (the traditional conservative stance, fleshed out with its implications for governance), and Left-Minarchism. Statism is divided into Left-Statism and Right-Statism. I leave Despotism and Anarchism intact. Both stances have nuances, but both are baleful enough without being proliferated.

The following table delineates each of the six philosophies in terms of the ten questions listed above. I have placed Anarchism last, not only for convenience but also because it is the least probable of the six options.

Taxonomy of political philosophies

*     *     *

Related posts (mainly about America’s slide into statism and despotism, and the consequences thereof):
Unintended Irony from a Few Framers
Freedom of Contract and the Rise of Judicial Tyranny
The Constitution in Exile
What Is the Living Constitution?
True Federalism
FDR and Fascism
The Ruinous Despotism of Democracy
The Ruinous Despotism of Democracy
The People’s Romance
Intellectuals and Capitalism
What Happened to Personal Responsibility?
Democracy and Liberty
The Interest-Group Paradox
Utilitarianism vs. Liberty
Fascism and the Future of America
The Real Constitution and Civil Disobedience
The Near-Victory of Communism
Tocqueville’s Prescience
Accountants of the Soul
Invoking Hitler
The Left
The Constitution: Original Meaning, Corruption, and Restoration
The Divine Right of the Majority
Our Enemy, the State
Does the Power to Tax Give Congress Unlimited Power?
“Intellectuals and Society”: A Review
Does Congress Have the Power to Regulate Inactivity?
The Left’s Agenda
The Meaning of Liberty
Understanding Hayek
The Left and Its Delusions
A Declaration of Civil Disobedience
Crimes against Humanity
Abortion and Logic
The Myth That Same-Sex “Marriage” Causes No Harm
The Spoiled Children of Capitalism
Politics, Sophistry, and the Academy
Some Thoughts and Questions about Preemptive War
Society and the State
Defense as an Investment in Liberty and Prosperity
Our Perfect, Perfect Constitution
Abortion, Doublethink, and Left-Wing Blather
Reclaiming Liberty throughout the Land
Abortion, “Gay Rights,” and Liberty
Don’t Use the “S” Word When the “F” Word Will Do
Liberty and Society
The Eclipse of “Old America”
The Capitalist Paradox Meets the Interest-Group Paradox
Genetic Kinship and Society
Liberty as a Social Construct: Moral Relativism?
Is Taxation Slavery?
A Contrarian View of Universal Suffrage
Well-Founded Pessimism
Restoring Constitutional Government: The Way Ahead
Estimating the Rahn Curve: Or, How Government Spending Inhibits Economic Growth
America’s Financial Crisis Is Now
Defining Liberty
Conservatism as Right-Minarchism
The World Turned Upside Down
Secession Made Easy
More about “Secession Made Easy”
A Better Constitution
Progressive Taxation Is Alive and Well in the U.S. of A.
“Social Insurance” Isn’t Insurance — Nor Is Obamacare
“We the People” and Big Government
The Culture War
Defense Spending: One More Time
The Pseudo-Libertarian Temperament (see also the links at the bottom)

The Pseudo-Libertarian Temperament

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


[They] have no use for what they see as the strictures of civil society; they wish only to be left alone. In their introverted myopia they fail to see that the liberty to live a peaceful, happy, and even prosperous life depends on civil society….

And here:

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

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


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

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

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

Sorkin’s Left-Wing Propaganda Machine

Thanks (?) to Netflix streaming video, I’m watching episodes of The West Wing that I had missed the first time around. I missed the episodes because I had an inkling that The West Wing portrayed do-good Democrat meddlers in a favorable light. Several seasons into the show, I finally relented to my wife’s pleas to watch it. And so I became a regular viewer.

I endured The West Wing for its snappy dialogue and semi-accurate though cartoonish, depictions of inside politics. But by the end of the series, I had tired of the show’s incessant propagandizing for leftist causes.

Then, along came Roku and streaming video, and the opportunity to see the earlier seasons that we had missed because of my recalcitrance. My wife insisted, so here I am again, watching the same snappy dialogue and semi-engaging stories unfold in the service of bigger government. And, of course, bigger is better because Aaron Sorkin makes it look that way: a wise president, crammed full of encyclopedic knowledge; staffers whose IQs must qualify them for the Triple Nine Society, and whose wit crackles like lightning in an Oklahoma thunderstorm; evil Republicans whose goal in life is to stand in the way of technocratic progress (national bankruptcy and the loss of individual freedom don’t rate a mention); and a plethora of “worthy” causes that the West-Wingers seek to advance, without regard for national bankruptcy and individual freedom.

Thus far, I’ve watched the first thirteen episodes of the first season. What have I “learned”? Here’s a sample:

When persons of the Christian right refer to “New Yorkers” they mean “Jews.” This suggests excessive sensitivity on Mr. Sorkin’s part, not to mention a tin ear. In fact, there is ample evidence that a “New Yorker” is a pushy, obnoxious person, regardless of ethnicity. But Sorkin couldn’t waste an opportunity to paint persons of the Christian right as anti-Semitic bigots.

When an American military transport is shot down by a Syrian missile, the only choices presented to President Bartlett (the all-wise, all-knowing one) are a token retaliatory strike and a massive retaliatory strike that would kill thousands of civilians. Hmm… A lot of middle ground is omitted, including a decapitation strike, which at the time (1999) would have been timely and popular in the U.S. Well, the all-wise, all-knowing (AWAK) president somehow doesn’t come up with a middle-ground plan, so he wimps out and orders the token strike. An obvious defense of Clinton’s abject wimpiness in the wake of the bombings of two U.S. embassies in 1998.

It’s okay to use sampling in the decennial census because the Constitution doesn’t say how the census should be conducted. Well, that’s the line taken by Toby Ziegler — the irritating “New Yorker” who serves as the AWAK president’s chief speech writer. However, Mr. Z fails to quote the Constitution correctly when lecturing the evil Republicans whom he summons to the White House for the purpose of delivering Mr. Sorkin’s misleading version of the Constitution’s language about the census. Mr. Z conveniently omits the word “enumeration,” which clearly implies a count, not an estimate, and which occurs twice in the clause about the census (Article I, Section 2, clause 3). Mr. Z further makes a big deal about the part of that clause which (in the original Constitution) counts a slave as three-fifths of a person. He conveniently omits to mention that (a) the three-fifths rule was mooted by the ratification of Amendment XIV in 1866, and (b) the three-fifths rule was a political compromise that favored the non-slave North, not a statement about the worthiness or unworthiness of slaves as persons. All of this finagling is in the service of the not-very-subliminal message that anyone who opposes statistical estimation of the population must be a racist. (A prescient line, which is now recycled as “everyone who opposes Obama’s policies must be a racist.”)

Then there’s the WASP-y nominee for the Supreme Court whose name must be withdrawn by the AWAK president, who (unaccountably) doesn’t know that the nominee holds views similar to those of Robert Bork about the source of rights. A strange nomination for an AWAK liberal. But the undoing of it enables the same AWAK liberal to nominate a humble judge of Hispanic ethnicity, and to show the door to the WASP-y Bork-like creep. The fact that the WASP-y nominee was represents the true minority group goes unmentioned during the closing moments of the episode. Those are given to an unseemly demonstration by members of the White House staff as the Hispanic nominee-to-be is paraded from the Oval Office through the warren of staff offices (an unlikely route), to the obvious delight of a token Hispanic staff member.

Finally, for now, there is a Matthew Shepard-like victim whose murder (like the real one) justifies the passage of thought-crime legislation. (The motive for the killing of Matthew Shepard probably wasn’t his homosexuality, though his homosexuality proved convenient to the purveyors of thought-criminalization.) In a twist that’s meant to shame critics of homosexuality, the victim’s father turns out to be a staunch defender of his late son’s “lifestyle.” This gives the father a chance to mouth off about the AWAK president’s namby-pamby approach to “gay rights” issues, such as the nominal ban on homosexuals in the armed forces. (A slam at Clinton’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.) Well, leave it to a “New Yorker” like Sorkin to glorify the practitioners of disgusting physical acts that serve to spread AIDS and other dread diseases, and which bear no relation to the evolutionary purposes served by male organs and orifices. (Evolution is okay with lefties, as long as it doesn’t get in the way of debauchery or lead to disparities in intelligence.)

But the dialogue is snappy.

The Futile Search for “Natural Rights”

Timothy Sandefur has begun a guest-blogging stint at The Volokh Conspiracy, whence he will regale us with theses from his book, The Conscience of the Constitution: The Declaration of Independence and the Right to Liberty. Sandefur’s first post is “The Conscience of the Constitution: An Introduction.” In it, he writes:

The theme of my book is that the clash of these two conceptions of liberty—the right of the individual to be free, and the alleged right of some people to tell others how they may live—sets the background for understanding many of the most important conflicts in constitutional law. I argue that the central value of the U.S. Constitution is to protect individual liberty—the “sheep’s view” of freedom—and not, as the consensus of today’s lawyers, judges, and law professors seems to hold, the “wolfish” notion that people have a basic right to control the lives of others. I argue that the primacy of liberty was the basic premise of the classical liberalism that lies at the foundation of American constitutional system—that is articulated in the Declaration of Independence—and that ought to guide our interpretation of the nation’s fundamental law. I call this the “conscience” of the Constitution.’

The American founders held that people are inherently free—that is, no person has a basic entitlement to dictate how other people may lead their lives. Although today it’s common for intellectuals to dismiss the notion of natural rights as mysticism or emotionalism, it is actually a sound philosophical position. People are “created equal” in the sense that they possess their own selves (and can’t give them up; hence “inalienability”). Given that initial position of individual freedom, there must be some good reason for limiting freedom.

Let’s start with the easy part: the first sentence of the second-quoted paragraph. Did the founders really hold that people are inherently free? All founders, including slave owners? All people, including slaves? Or did the founders simply want to relocate the seat of power from London to the various State capitals, where local preferences (including anti-libertarian ones) could prevail? Wasn’t that what the Declaration of Independence and Articles of Confederation were mainly about? The Constitution simply moved some of the States’ power toward the national capital, and then mainly to establish uniformity in the conduct of foreign policy and war-making, to eliminate intra-State trade barriers, and to establish a uniform policy with respect to international trade.

On the whole, the original Constitution as amended quickly by the Bill of Rights was largely a “States’ rights” document. Certain individual rights were recognized by the central government, but it was left to the powers-that-be in each State to decide where to draw the line between individual rights and governmental powers. (As an aside I note that the Constitution remained a States’ rights document until the ratification of Amendment XIV. And then, over the decades — and through a combination of legislative, executive, and judicial actions — it became a central-government-powers document, from which much anti-libertarian mischief has emanated.)

In sum, Sandefur’s premise is wrong. The Declaration and Constitution are not libertarian manifestos — as Sandefur, in effect, characterizes them. Despite the rhetoric about “We the People,” “inalienable rights,” “liberty,” and the rest of it, the Declaration and Constitution are about who governs, and about the division of rights and powers between “the people” and government..

The essential problem with Sandefur’s analysis lies in his Manichean approach to rights. In his view, they are either inherent in individual persons or they are granted by government. (He denies the second possibility, of course.) There is a third way, which doesn’t figure in Sandefur’s post (though perhaps he addresses it in the book). The third way is hinted at in the paper by Randy Barnett, “A Law Professor’s Guide to Natural Law and Natural Rights,” to which Sandefur links: “natural rights…. describe how others ought to act towards rights-holders.”

In other words, the thing (for want of a better word) that arises from human nature is not a set of rights that each person “owns”; rather, it is an inclination or imperative to treat others as if they have rights. This idea of being inclined (or compelled) to “act toward” is more plausible than idea that “natural rights” inhere in their holders. It is so because “act toward” suggests that we (most of us) learn that it is a good thing to leave others alone as long as they do no harm to us or mean no harm to us. That is a much more plausible explanation of rights than the claim that rights inhere in individuals as rights-holders.

Given the more plausible view that rights are a matter of “acting toward” others, it should be evident — to all but romanticists of Sandefur’s ilk — that rights are not a priori (“inherent”) but arise from interpersonal bargaining (at best) and governmental edicts (at worst). It cannot be otherwise, for even if human beings are wired to leave others alone as they are left alone, it is evident that they are not wired exclusively in that way. Thus claims about “natural rights” are not only foolish but futile. Rights, inescapably, are a matter of persuasion (at best) and power (at worst, unless the power happens to be on the “right” side).

That said, as Sandefur observes in “Teleology without God,” he and I “agree on the qualities of … rights once their existence is granted.” Specifically, we seem to agree that negative rights are the only rights worthy of the name because only negative rights can be held universally.

Among those of us who agree about the proper scope of rights, should the provenance of those rights matter? I think not. The assertion that there are “natural rights” (“inalienable rights”) makes for resounding rhetoric, but (a) it is often misused in the service of positive rights and (b) it makes no practical difference in a world where power routinely accrues to those who make something-for-nothing promises of positive rights.

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Note: Much of the foregoing is borrowed from “Evolution, Human Nature, and ‘Natural Rights’,” my last entry in an exchange of posts with Sandefur on the subject of rights. He has not, as far as I know, issued a rejoinder.

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Related posts:

These are some of the many posts at this blog which bear on the origins, nature, suppression, and restoration of negative rights:

On Liberty
Greed, Cosmic Justice, and Social Welfare
Positive Rights and Cosmic Justice
Negative Rights
Negative Rights, Social Norms, and the Constitution
Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and the Legitimate State
The Unreality of Objectivism
“Natural Rights” and Consequentialism
More about Consequentialism
Atheism, Agnosticism, and Science
Line-Drawing and Liberty
Pseudo-Libertarian Sophistry vs. True Libertarianism
Positivism, “Natural Rights,” and Libertarianism
What Are “Natural Rights”?
The Golden Rule and the State
Libertarian Conservative or Conservative Libertarian?
Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: Part I
Social Justice
Evolution, Human Nature, and “Natural Rights”
Burkean Libertarianism
Rights: Source, Applicability, How Held
What Is Libertarianism?
Nature Is Unfair
True Libertarianism, One More Time
Human Nature, Liberty, and Rationalism
Libertarianism and Morality
Libertarianism and Morality: A Footnote
Merit Goods, Positive Rights, and Cosmic Justice
More about Merit Goods
Liberty, Negative Rights, and Bleeding Hearts
Why Conservatism Works
The Pool of Liberty and “Me” Libertarianism
Liberty and Society
The Eclipse of “Old America”
Genetic Kinship and Society
Liberty as a Social Construct: Moral Relativism?
Defending Liberty against (Pseudo) Libertarians
Defining Liberty
“We the People” and Big Government
The Social Animal and the “Social Contract”

The Social Animal and the “Social Contract”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Hall of Fame and Morality

Jonathan Mahler, in the course of an incoherent article about baseball, makes this observation:

This year, not a single contemporary player was voted into the Hall of Fame because so many eligible players were suspected of steroid use. Never mind that Cooperstown has its share of racists, wife beaters and even a drug dealer. (To say nothing of the spitballers.)

Those few sentences typify the confusion rampant in Mahler’s offering. The use of steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs calls into question the legitimacy of the users’ accomplishments on the field. Racism, wife-beating, and drug-dealing — deplorable as they are — do not cast a shadow on the perpetrators’ performance as baseball players. As for the spitball, it was legal in baseball until 1920, and when it was outlawed its avowed practitioners were allowed to continue using it. (Some modern pitchers have been accused of using it from time to time, but I can’t think of one who used it so much that his career is considered a sham.)

Election to the Hall of Fame isn’t (or shouldn’t be) a moral judgment. If it were, I suspect that the Hall of Fame would be a rather empty place, especially if serial adultery and alcohol abuse were grounds for disqualification.

At the risk of being called a moral agnostic, which I am not, I say this: Election to the Hall of Fame (as a player) should reflect the integrity and excellence of on-field performance. Period.

I do have strong views about the proper qualifications for election to the Hall of Fame (as a player). You can read them here, here, and here. I’ve also analyzed the statistical evidence for indications of the use of performance-enhancing drugs by a few notable players: Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire (both guilty) and Roger Clemens (unproved).

The True Multiplier

I ended “The Keynesian Multiplier: Phony Math” on this note:

If there is a multiplier on government spending, it’s bound to be negative. Stay tuned for more about the effect of government spending on economic output.

Before I get to my estimate of the true multiplier — the one that does lasting damage to the economy — I must say more about the multiplier of Keynesian mythology.

As shown in “The Keynesian Multiplier: Phony Math,” the Keynesian multiplier rests on a mathematical illusion. It is nevertheless possible that an exogenous increase in spending really does yield a short-term, temporary increase in GDP.

How would it work? The following example goes beyond the bare theory of the Keynesian multiplier, and addresses several practical and theoretical reservations about it (some which I discuss in “A Keynesian Fantasy Land” and “The Keynesian Fallacy and Regime Uncertainty“):

  1. Annualized real GDP, denoted as Y, drops from $16.5 trillion a year to $14 trillion a year because of the unemployment of resources. (How that happens is a different subject.)
  2. Government spending (G) is temporarily and quickly increased by an annual rate of $500 billion; that is, ∆G = $0.5 trillion. The idea is to restore Y to $16 trillion, given a multiplier of 5 (In standard multiplier math: ∆Y = (k)(∆G), where k = 1/(1 – MPC); k = 5, where MPC = 0.8.)
  3. The ∆G is financed in a way that doesn’t reduce private-sector spending. (This is almost impossible, given Ricardian equivalence — the tendency of private actors to take into account the long-term, crowding-out effects of government spending as they make their own spending decisions. The closest approximation to neutrality can be attained by financing additional G through money creation, rather than additional taxes or borrowing that crowds out the financing of private-sector consumption and investment spending.)
  4. To have the greatest leverage, ∆G must be directed so that it employs only those resources that are idle, which then acquire purchasing power that they didn’t have before. (This, too, is almost impossible, given the clumsiness of government.)
  5. A fraction of the new purchasing power flows, through consumption spending (C), to the employment of other idle resources. That fraction is called the marginal propensity to consume (MPC), which is the rate at which the owners of idle resources spend additional income on so-called consumption goods. (As many economists have pointed out, the effect could also occur as a result of investment spending. A dollar spent is a dollar spent, and investment  spending has the advantage of laying the groundwork for economic growth, unlike consumption spending.)
  6. A remainder goes to saving (S) and is therefore available for investment (I) in future production capacity. But S and I are ignored in the multiplier equation: One story goes like this: S doesn’t elicit I because savers hoard cash and investment is discouraged by the bleak economic outlook. This is probably closer to the mark: The multiplier would be infinite (and therefore embarrassingly inexplicable) if S generated an equivalent amount of I, because the marginal propensity to spend (MPS) would be equal to 1, and the multiplier equation would look like this: k = 1/(1 – MPS) = ∞, where MPS = 1.
  7. In any event, the initial increment of C (∆C) brings forth a new “round” of production, which yields another increment of C, and so on, ad infinitum. If MPC = 0.8, then assuming away “leakage” to taxes and imports, the multiplier = k = 1/(1 – MPC), or k = 5 in this example.  (The multiplier rises with MPC and reaches infinity if MPC = 1. This suggests that a very high MPC is economically beneficial, even though a very high MPC implies a very low rate of saving and therefore a very low rate of growth-producing investment.)
  8. Given k = 5,  ∆G = $0.5T would cause an eventual increase in real output of $2.5 trillion (assuming no “leakage” or offsetting reductions in private consumption and investment); that is, ∆Y = [k][∆G]= $2.5 trillion. However, because G and Y usually refer to annual rates, this result is mathematically incoherent; ∆G = $0.5 trillion does not restore Y to $16.5 trillion.
  9. In any event, the increase in Y isn’t permanent; the multiplier effect disappears after the “rounds” resulting from ∆G have played out. If the theoretical multiplier is 5, and if transactional velocity is 4 (i.e., 4 “rounds” of spending in a year), more than half of the multiplier effect would be felt within a year from each injection of spending, and about two-thirds would be felt within two years of each injection. It seems unlikely, however, that the multiplier effect would be felt for much longer, because of changing conditions (e.g., an exogenous boost in private investment, private reemployment of resources, discouraged workers leaving the labor force, shifts in expectations about inflation and returns on investment).
  10. All of this ignores that fact that the likely cause of the drop in Y is not insufficient “aggregate demand,” but a “credit crunch” (Michael D. Bordo and Joseph G. Haubrich in “Credit Crises, Money, and Contractions: A Historical View,” Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, Working Paper 09-08, September 2009), “Aggregate demand” doesn’t exist, except as an after-the-fact measurement of the money value of goods and services comprised in Y. “Aggregate demand,” in other words, is merely the sum of millions of individual transactions, the rate and total money value of which decline for specific reasons, “credit crunch” being chief among them. Given that, an exogenous increase in G is likely to yield a real increase in Y only if the increase in G leads to an increase in the money supply (as it is bound to do when the Fed, in effect, prints money to finance it). But because of cash hoarding and a bleak investment outlook, the increase in the money supply is unlikely to generate much additional economic activity.

To top it off, a somewhat more realistic version of multiplier math — as opposed to the version addressed in “The Keynesian Multiplier: Phony Math” — yields a maximum value of k = 1:

More rigorous derivation of Keynesian multiplier

How did I do that? In step 3, I made C a function of P (private-sector GDP) instead of Y (usually taken as the independent variable). Why? For the years 1929-2012 (excluding 1941-46, when the massive war effort and its aftermath drastically reduced C), C was more closely linked to P than to Y. (The true consumption function turns out to be C = – $148 trillion in 2012 $ + 0.838P.)

Math trickery aside, there is evidence that the Keynesian multiplier is less than 1. Robert J. Barro of Harvard University opens an article in The Wall Street Journal with the statement that “economists have not come up with explanations … for multipliers above one.”[1]

Barro continues:

A much more plausible starting point is a multiplier of zero. In this case, the GDP is given, and a rise in government purchases requires an equal fall in the total of other parts of GDP — consumption, investment and net exports….

What do the data show about multipliers? Because it is not easy to separate movements in government purchases from overall business fluctuations, the best evidence comes from large changes in military purchases that are driven by shifts in war and peace. A particularly good experiment is the massive expansion of U.S. defense expenditures during World War II. The usual Keynesian view is that the World War II fiscal expansion provided the stimulus that finally got us out of the Great Depression. Thus, I think that most macroeconomists would regard this case as a fair one for seeing whether a large multiplier ever exists.

I have estimated that World War II raised U.S. defense expenditures by $540 billion (1996 dollars) per year at the peak in 1943-44, amounting to 44% of real GDP. I also estimated that the war raised real GDP by $430 billion per year in 1943-44. Thus, the multiplier was 0.8 (430/540). The other way to put this is that the war lowered components of GDP aside from military purchases. The main declines were in private investment, nonmilitary parts of government purchases, and net exports — personal consumer expenditure changed little. Wartime production siphoned off resources from other economic uses — there was a dampener, rather than a multiplier….

There are reasons to believe that the war-based multiplier of 0.8 substantially overstates the multiplier that applies to peacetime government purchases. For one thing, people would expect the added wartime outlays to be partly temporary (so that consumer demand would not fall a lot). Second, the use of the military draft in wartime has a direct, coercive effect on total employment. Finally, the U.S. economy was already growing rapidly after 1933 (aside from the 1938 recession), and it is probably unfair to ascribe all of the rapid GDP growth from 1941 to 1945 to the added military outlays. (“Government Spending Is No Free Lunch,” The Wall Street Journal (, January 22, 2009)

This is from Valerie A. Ramsey of  the University of California-San Diego and the National Bureau of Economic Research:

…[I]t appears that a rise in government spending does not stimulate private spending; most estimates suggest that it significantly lowers private spending. These results imply that the government spending multiplier is below unity. Adjusting the implied multiplier for increases in tax rates has only a small effect. The results imply a multiplier on total GDP of around 0.5. (“Government Spending and Private Activity,” January 2012)

The price of the demonstrably small Keynesian multiplier is a “temporary” increase in G — an increase that is likely to be permanent and therefore harmful to economic growth.

If that is the case, whence the continuing clamor for “temporary” increases in government spending? It’s because the Keynesian multiplier isn’t just a phony theory; it’s a “religious” tenet shared by economists, pundits, and policy-makers who are true believers in big government. True believers aren’t swayed by such considerations as slower growth and the loss of freedom that accompanies government interventions in private affairs. True believers — Paul Krugman, Brad DeLong, Joseph Stiglitz, and their ilk — always claim that government should spend more, not just in recessionary times. Their preachings bolster the pro-government-spending biases of most pundits and a large fraction of politicians.

As for “temporary” increases in government spending, they usually are as temporary as the infamous “temporary government buildings” in Washington, D.C. Consider this:

GDP and government spending since WWII
Sources: See footnote 3.

Look at defense spending, which actually fluctuates noticeably. Then look at the two lines for government spending, especially the top line. What do you see? An almost unbroken rise in total government spending (including transfer payments). There’s no give-back of any significance. When government officials latch onto your money, they find a way to keep it. If a reduction in defense spending seems to be in order, the money is shifted to other government programs. If there’s a cut in government programs that don’t provide “social insurance,” the money is shifted to government programs that do provide “social insurance” (mainly Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid). In other words, our rulers consider our money to be their money, and they find ways to keep it, and to grab more and more of it. That’s why the private sector’s share of GDP — the gap between GDP and top-line government spending — shrank almost steadily from 1947 (the first year of full demobilization after World War II) through 2012.

Let’s now talk about the true multiplier on government spending, which I denote as K. Before I spring some equations on you, I want to take a brief tour of the economy’s performance since World War II. Consider the long, upward trend in government spending (G)[2] as a fraction of GDP:

G-GDP since WWII
Sources: See footnote 3.

The decline of G/GDP in the 1990s can be attributed to the “peace dividend” — the accelerated reduction of defense spending following the end of the Cold War and the Gulf War — and to the overrated “Clinton boom.” (This so-called boom featured a real growth rate of 3.4 percent from 1993 to 2001, which is unimpressive by historical standards. For example, the overall rate of growth from the first quarter of 1947 to the first quarter of 1993 — recessions and all — was 3.4 percent.)

In any event, the cumulative effect of rising G/GDP on the rate of growth is evident here:

Year-over-year changes in real GDP, 1948-2013
Derived from a spreadsheet published by the Bureau of Economic Analysis, Current Dollar and “Real” Gross Domestic Product.

This graph tells the same story in a different way:

Annualized rate of real growth_bottom of recession to onset of next recession
Derived from the same source as the preceding graph. My definition of a recession is given here.

Putting it all together, for the period 1947-2012 I estimated[3] the year-over-year percentage change in GDP (denoted as Y%) as a function of G/GDP (denoted as G/Y):

Y% = 0.09 – 0.17(G/Y)

Solving for Y% = 0 yields G/Y = 0.53; that is, Y% will drop to zero if G/Y rises to 0.53 (or thereabouts)[4]. At the present level of G/Y (about 0.4), Y% will hover just above 2 percent, as it has done in recent years. (See the graph immediately above.)

If G/Y had remained at 0.234, its value in 1947:

  • Real growth would have been about 5 percent a year, instead of 3.2 percent (the actual value for 1947-2012).
  • The total value of Y for 1947-2012 would have been higher by $500 trillion (98 percent).
  • The total value of G would have been lower by $61 trillion (34 percent).

The last two points, taken together, imply a cumulative government-spending multiplier (K) for 1947-2012 of about -8. That is, aggregate output in 1947-2012 declined by 8 dollars for every dollar of government spending above the amount represented by G/Y = 0.234.

But -8 is only an average value for 1947-2012. It gets worse. The reduction in Y is cumulative; that is, every extra dollar of G reduces the amount of Y that is available for growth-producing investment, which leads to a further reduction in Y, which leads to a further reduction in growth-producing investment, and on and on. (Think of the phenomenon as negative compounding; take a dollar from your savings account today, and the value of the savings account years from now will be lower than it would have been by a multiple of that dollar: [1 + interest rate] raised to nth power, where n = number of years.) Because of this cumulative effect, the effective value of K in 2012 was about -14.

For this, the U.S. government should “stimulate” the economy with a burst of “temporary” spending? Think again.

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Related posts:
The Price of Government
The Price of Government Redux
The Mega-Depression
Ricardian Equivalence Reconsidered
The Real Burden of Government
The Illusion of Prosperity and Stability
The Stagnation Thesis
Taxing the Rich
More about Taxing the Rich
A Keynesian Fantasy Land
The Keynesian Fallacy and Regime Uncertainty
Regime Uncertainty and the Great Recession
The Commandeered Economy
Lay My (Regulatory) Burden Down
The Burden of Government
Economic Growth Since World War II
The Obama Effect: Disguised Unemployment
Economics: A Survey (also here)
Why Are Interest Rates So Low?
Vulgar Keynesianism and Capitalism
Estimating the Rahn Curve: Or, How Government Spending Inhibits Economic Growth
America’s Financial Crisis Is Now
“Social Insurance” Isn’t Insurance — Nor Is Obamacare
The Keynesian Multiplier: Phony Math

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[1] Theoretical estimates of the Keynesian multiplier [k = 1/(1 – b)] are always greater than 1. How much greater depends only on the value assigned to b, the marginal propensity to consume. The story about “rounds” of additional consumption spending, the sum of which asymptotically approach the value of the multiplier, is just that — a story, a rationalization of phony multiplier math:

The phony math and phony story led Keynes’s intellectual heirs and their followers to believe that the multiplier is greater than 1 — significantly greater, in the minds of true believers. And when people believe in something, it’s easy to find numbers to support the belief. This is especially true of macroeconomic aggregates, which reflect the influence of so many variables that it’s hard to pinpoint what causes what.

Why is 1 the true upper limit of the Keynesian multiplier? I offer the following explanation by way of a thought experiment.

Consider a simple economy with two producers who trade with each other. One (the baker) makes bread; the other (the dairyman) makes butter. With fixed capital, which is kept in repair but never improved or expanded, the output and consumption of bread and butter will change for any or all of four reasons: (1) changes in the tastes and preferences of the producers (as consumers); (2) changes in the availability of resources because of ambient conditions (e.g., a flood that disruptions production, weather conditions that affect the yield of wheat, the health of the baker and the dairyman); (3) innovations that lead to an increase the quality or quantity of output, without requiring additional inputs; and (4) a disruption of credit.

None of these conditions can be remedied at zero cost, that is, simply by printing money in the hope of re-employing the unemployed resources. The fourth condition warrants elaboration. Suppose that the baker had been relying on advances of butter from the dairyman. Then the dairyman cuts off those advances — perhaps because his churn is being repaired., or because he has less tolerance for risk. The baker’s resulting loss of energy causes him to produce less bread, which reduces the rate at which the baker and dairyman exchange bread and butter, which exacerbates the baker’s loss of energy and initiates a decline in the dairyman’s energy, and so on. (You should recognize this as an analog of the process by which an economy is thought to fall into recession or depression. The pervasiveness of the “credit crunch” as a cause of or major factor in recessions and depressions is documented by Michael D. Bordo and Joseph G. Haubrich in “Credit Crises, Money, and Contractions: A Historical View,” Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, Working Paper 09-08, September 2009.) No amount of “stimulus” will cause the dairyman to restore credit to the baker, unless and until the dairyman is convinced of the baker’s creditworthiness. (We’re in a barter economy, so throwing money at the baker won’t make him any more credit-worthy or lead to a rise in real output; it will just spread the pain. Nor does throwing money around do much to help in a money-based economy; it doesn’t (a) fix the underlying problem (e.g., a badly managed business in a highly competitive industry) or (b) yield a one-for-one increase in output, inasmuch as the thrown money is inevitably misdirected and must therefore cause some degree of price inflation instead of spurring real output.)

In the absence of any of the kinds of change discussed above, the simple baker-dairyman economy can be characterized as a static circular flow: the same inputs yield the same kinds of outputs, which are consumed at the same rate, year after year. Specifically, the baker keeps some of his output and trades some of it for butter; the dairyman keeps some of his output and trades some of it for bread. The two producers, acting as consumers, use all of the bread and butter that they produce. As a result, they produce the same amount of bread and butter in the next year, which they consume. And so on.

A heretofore unemployed third party enters: a maker of jam, who also wants to consume bread and butter. Where did he come from? Perhaps he’s a son of the baker or the dairyman who has just become old enough to strike out on his own. In any event, his production of jam doesn’t reduce the output of bread and butter; he is drawing on heretofore unused resources that the baker and dairyman couldn’t employ because they are fully engaged in their respective activities.

The producers of bread, butter, and jam decide to engage in three-way trade, so that every one of them becomes a consumer of all three items. The producers of bread and butter willingly consume less bread and butter than before in order to have jam. The producer of jam, of course, trades some of his output for some bread and butter.  As a result of these voluntary trades, all three producers are better off than they were before. (If they weren’t, they wouldn’t trade with each other.)

Because the employment of previously unemployed resources makes everyone better off, those previously unemployed resources will continue to be employed, barring changes of the kind discussed above. That is, the circular flow will continue, but at a higher level of output and consumption. But it won’t expand beyond the level attained when the jam-maker entered the scene and entered into three-way trade with the baker and dairyman.

In sum, the initial “burst” of new employment and output, represented by the jam-maker’s production, doesn’t cause a “ripple effect” that leads to further expansion of output and consumption. Any further expansion would have to be caused by (and limited to) the employment of yet another heretofore unemployed resource; that is, yet another shot of “stimulus.”

Conclusion: The maximum multiplier on the employment of a previously unemployed resource is 1. But it can be (and probably will be) less than 1 if a fourth party (government) tries to entice additional output by issuing directives (spending money) without perfect knowledge of current economic variables (including, but not limited to, knowledge of tastes and preferences, states of health, and producers’ and consumers’ plans and expectations). A good example of government failure: directing (issuing money to) the fully employed baker and dairyman to produce more bread and butter,  while failing to direct (issue money to) the jam-maker to make enough jam to fully employ himself.

[2] G, as I use it here, stands for all government spending, including so-called transfer payments. A transfer payment (usually “social insurance“) is just another way of moving claims on resources from those who earned such claims to those who didn’t earn them. In this respect, transfer payments are no different than other government programs, which involve the coercion of taxpayers to compensate government employees and contractors who do unproductive and counterproductive work (e.g., writing and enforcing regulations). Transfer payments, like other government programs, require administration by vast, costly bureaucracies. In sum, there is no substantive difference between transfer payments and other kinds of government spending; transfer payments are therefore properly considered government spending, arbitrary national-income accounting flim-flam to the contrary notwithstanding.

[3] This equation is based on estimates of GDP and government spending  for 1946-2012. The equation, the intercept, and the coefficient on G/GDP are significant at the 0.05 level and better. The standard error of the estimate is 0.024 percentage points; there is a 95-percent probability that the zero growth point lies between G/Y = 0.41 and 0.75. To derive the equation, I obtained current-dollar estimates of GDP and G from the Bureau of Economic Analysis, GDP and the National Income and Product Accounts (NIPA) Historical Tables, 1.1.5 Gross Domestic Product, line 1, and 3.1 Government Current Receipts and Expenditures, lines 33 and 34. I deflated the current-dollar values using the GDP deflator published at

[4] This is is remarkably close to the zero-growth estimate of 0.55 that I derived in “Estimating the Rahn Curve: Or How Government Inhibits Economic Growth.” The equation given in that post is based on a longer view of the effects of government spending on growth. In retrospect, that longer view gives too much weight to the bygone era of low government spending, an era that ended with the Great Depression. I stand by the equation in this post as indicative of reality in the post-World War II era of rampant growth in government spending.