A Paradox for Liberals

Libertarianism is liberalism in the classic meaning of the term, given here by one Zack Beauchamp:

[L]iberalism refers to a school of thought that takes freedom, consent, and autonomy as foundational moral values. Liberals agree that it is generally wrong to coerce people, to seize control of their bodies or force them to act against their will….

Beauchamp, in the next paragraph, highlights the paradox inherent in liberalism:

Given that people will always disagree about politics, liberalism’s core aim is to create a generally acceptable mechanism for settling political disputes without undue coercion — to give everyone a say in government through fair procedures, so that citizens consent to the state’s authority even when they disagree with its decisions.

Which is to say that liberalism does entail coercion. Thus the paradox. (What is now called “liberalism” in America is so rife with coercion that only a person who is ignorant of the meaning of liberalism can call it that with a straight face.)

There is nothing new about this paradox, as far as I’m concerned. I wrote about it 14 years ago in “A Paradox for Libertarians“:

Libertarians, by definition, believe in the superiority of liberty: the negative right to be left alone — in one’s person, pursuits, and property — as long as one leaves others alone. Libertarians therefore believe in the illegitimacy of state-enforced values (e.g., income redistribution, censorship, punishment of “victimless” crimes) because they are inimical to liberty.

Some libertarians (minarchists, such as I) nevertheless believe in the necessity of a state, as long as the state’s role is restricted to the protection of liberty. Other libertarians (anarcho-capitalists) argue that the state itself is illegitimate because the existence of a state necessarily compromises liberty. I have dealt elsewhere with the anarcho-capitalist position, and have found it wanting. (See “But Wouldn’t Warlords Take Over?” and the posts linked to at the bottom of that post.)

Let’s nevertheless imagine a pure anarcho-capitalist society whose members agree voluntarily to leave each other alone. All social and economic transactions are voluntary. Contracts and disputes are enforced through arbitration, to which all parties agree to submit and by the results of which all parties agree to abide. A private agency enforces contractual obligations and adherence to the outcomes of arbitration. (You know that this anarcho-capitalist society is pure fantasy because a private agency with such power is a de facto state. And competing private agencies, each of which may represent a party to a dispute are de facto warlords. But I digress.)

Now, for the members of this fantasyland to enjoy liberty implies, among other things, absolute freedom of speech, except for speech that amounts to harassment, slander, or libel (which are forms of aggression that deprive others of liberty). But what about speech that would sunder the society into libertarian and non-libertarian factions? Suppose that a persuasive orator were to convince a potentially dominant faction of the society of the following proposition: The older members of society should be supported by the younger members, all of whom must “contribute” to the support of the elders, like it or not. Suppose further that the potentially dominant faction heeds the persuasive orator and forces everyone to “contribute” to the support of elders.

Note that our little society’s prior agreement to let everyone live in peace wouldn’t survive persuasive oratory (just as America’s relatively libertarian economic order didn’t survive FDR, the Constitution notwithstanding). Perhaps our little society should therefore adopt this restraint on liberty: No one may advocate or conspire in the coercion of the populace, for any end other than defense of the society.

Why an exception for defense? Imagine the long-term consequences for our little society if it were to dither as a marauding band approached, or if too few members of the society were to volunteer the resources needed to defeat the marauding band. What’s the good of the society’s commitment to liberty if it leads to the society’s demise?

Now, the restraint on speech and the exception for defense couldn’t be self-enforcing. There would have to a single agency empowered to enforce such things. That agency might as well be called the state.

Here, then, is the paradox for libertarians: Some aspects of liberty must be circumscribed in order to preserve most aspects of liberty.

The last word goes to Beauchamp, or rather to Carl Schmitt who is quoted by Beauchamp:

Even if Bolshevism is suppressed and Fascism held at bay, the crisis of contemporary parliamentarism would not be overcome in the least. For it has not appeared as a result of the appearance of those two opponents; it was there before them and will persist after them. Rather, the crisis springs from the consequences of modern mass democracy and in the final analysis from the contradiction of a liberal individualism burdened by moral pathos and a democratic sentiment governed essentially by political ideals. A century of historical alliance and common struggle against royal absolutism has obscured the awareness of this contradiction. But the crisis unfolds today ever more strikingly, and no cosmopolitan rhetoric can prevent or eliminate it. It is, in its depths, the inescapable contradiction of liberal individualism and democratic homogeneity [emphasis added].

The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy (1926),
translated by Ellen Kennedy

(See also “Inventing ‘Liberalism‘”, which about the advent of the modern abomination, and “Conservatism vs. ‘Libertarianism’ and Leftism on the Moral Dimension“, especially the footnote about “libertarianism”.)

Scott Adams on Guns

Scott Adams’s stock in trade is provocation. Dilbert, Adams’s long-running comic strip, is a case in point. Adams packages a lot of subtle provocation behind the strip’s main premise, which is the frustration caused level-headed, logical Dilbert by the incompetence and posturing of his boss.

But in ways subtle and obvious, Adams makes known — and concisely illustrates — many unfortunate aspects of the modern, bureaucratized workplace; for example: the idiocy of hiring to fill quotas, the time-wasting fads of management “science”, and the ability of a trouble-maker protected by a group identity to cause trouble and impede productive work. In sum, Adams strikes at political correctness and its implementation by government edicts. This stance is at odds with the views of various elites, ranging from politicians of both parties to corporate executives to most members of the academic-media-information-technology complex. Adams gets away with it because the strip is (usually) humorous and its targets are caricatures, not actual persons with whom some readers might sympathize.

But when Adams ventures beyond Dilbert, to expound views on current political issues, it’s another matter. For example, according to Adams’s blog entry for July 11, 2016,

Some of you watched with amusement as I endorsed Hillary Clinton for my personal safety. What you might not know is that I was completely serious. I was getting a lot of direct and indirect death threats for writing about Trump’s powers of persuasion, and I made all of that go away by endorsing Clinton. People don’t care why I am on their side. They only care that I am.

You might have found it funny that I endorsed Clinton for my personal safety. But it was only funny by coincidence. I did it for personal safety, and apparently it is working. Where I live, in California, it is not safe to be seen as supportive of anything Trump says or does. So I fixed that.

Again, I’m completely serious about the safety issue. Writing about Trump ended my speaking career, and has already reduced my income by about 40%, as far as I can tell. But I’m in less physical danger than I was.

Despite the claimed loss of income, Adams almost certainly is wealthy beyond the aspirations of most Americans. He can attack sacred cows with impunity, knowing that (a) his personal stands don’t seem to affect the popularity of Dilbert, and (b) even if they did, he would still be extremely wealthy.

But candor doesn’t mean correctness. If it did, then I would have to bow to the likes of Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Alexandria Occasio-Cortez, and the dozens of dim-wits like them who are cluttering the air waves and internet with proposals that, if adopted, would turn America into a fourth-world country.

I have — finally — set the stage for a discussion of Scott Adams and guns. In a blog post dated September 1, 2019, Adams says this:

You might find this hard to believe, but I’m about to give you the first opinion you have ever heard on the topic of gun ownership in the United States.

What? You say lots of people have opinions on that topic?

No, they don’t. Everyone in the United States except me has a half-pinion on the topic. I have the only full opinion. Here it is:

My opinion: I am willing to accept up to 20,000 gun deaths per year in the United States in order to preserve the 2nd Amendment right to own firearms.

For reference, the current rate of gun deaths is about double that number. In other words, I would be open to testing some gun ownership restrictions to see if we can get the number of gun deaths down.

A full opinion on any topic considers both the benefits and the costs. A half-pinion looks at only the costs or only the benefits in isolation. Ask yourself who else, besides me, has offered a full opinion on the topic of gun ownership. Answer: No one. You just saw the world’s first opinion on the topic.

So let’s stop pretending we have differences of opinion on gun ownership. What we have is exactly one citizen of the United States who has one opinion. Until someone disagrees with me with a full opinion of their own, there is no real debate, just blathering half-pinions.

This is hardly a “full opinion” because it doesn’t explain what measures might cut the rate of gun deaths in half. Nor does it address the costs of taking those measures, which include but aren’t limited to the ability of Americans to defend themselves and their property if the measures involve confiscation of guns.

Moreover, as Adams points out in a later post (discussed below), about half of the 40,000 gun deaths recorded annually are suicides. Actually, according to this source, suicides account for 24,000 of the 40,000 gun deaths, which is 60 percent of them. Suicide by gun, on that scale, can be reduced drastically only by confiscating all guns that can be found or turned in by law-abiding citizens, or by some kind of “red flag” law that would almost certainly ensnare not just suicidal and homicidal persons but thousands of persons who are neither. If those change could be effected, I daresay that the rate of gun deaths would drop by far more than half — though almost all of the remaining gun deaths would be killings of innocent persons by criminals.

Adams is being sloppy or slippery. But in either case, his “opinion”, which is hardly the only one on the subject, is practically worthless.

In a subsequent post, Adams assesses “dumb arguments” (pro and con) about gun control. I will address the more egregious of those assessments, beginning here:

Slippery slope

Slippery slope arguments are magical thinking. Everything in this world changes until it has a reason to stop. There is nothing special about being “on a slippery slope.” It is an empty idea. Society regulates all manner of products and activities, but we don’t worry about those other regulations becoming a slippery slope. We observe that change stops when the majority (or vocal minority) decide enough is enough. To put it another way, mowing the lawn does not lead to shaving your dog.

I take these assertions to be an attempt to rebut those who say that the enactment more restrictive laws about the ownership of guns would merely be a step toward confiscation. Adams, is entirely in the wrong here. First, “we” do worry about other regulations becoming a slippery slope. Regulations are in fact evidence of the slippery slope that leads to greater government control of things that government need not and should not control. The mere establishment of a regulatory agency is the first big step toward more and more regulation. Nor does it stop even when a vocal minority — consititutionalists, economists, and lovers of liberty in general — protest with all of the peaceful means at their disposal, including carefully argued legal and economic treatises that prove (to fair-minded audiences) the illegitimacy, inefficiency, and costliness of regulations. But the regulations keep on coming (even during the Reagan and Trump administrations) because it is almost impossible, politically, to do what needs to be done to stop them: (a) enforce the non-delegation doctrine so that Congress takes full and direct responsibility for its acts, and (b) abolish regulatory agencies right and left.

I will go further and say that the Antifederalists foresaw the slippery slope on which the Constitution placed the nation — a slope that unquestionably led to the creation and perpetuation of a vastly powerful central government. As “An Old Whig” put it in Antifederalist No. 46:

Where then is the restraint? How are Congress bound down to the powers expressly given? What is reserved, or can be reserved? Yet even this is not all. As if it were determined that no doubt should remain, by the sixth article of the Constitution it is declared that “this Constitution and the laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof, and all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shalt be the supreme law of the land, and the judges in every state shall be bound thereby, any thing in the Constitutions or laws of any State to the contrary notwithstanding.” The Congress are therefore vested with the supreme legislative power, without control. In giving such immense, such unlimited powers, was there no necessity of a Bill of Rights, to secure to the people their liberties?

Is it not evident that we are left wholly dependent on the wisdom and virtue of the men who shall from time to time be the members of Congress? And who shall be able to say seven years hence, the members of Congress will be wise and good men, or of the contrary character?

Indeed.

Despite the subsequent adoption of the Bill of Rights — and despite occasional resistance from the Supreme Court (in the midst of much acquiescence) — Congress (in league with the Executive) has for most of its 230 years been engaged in an unconstitutional power grab. And it was set in motion by the adoption of the Constitution, over the vocal objections of Antifederalists. Mr. Adams, please don’t lecture me about slippery slopes.

Next:

Criminals can always get guns

Criminals can always get guns if they try hard enough. But I’m more concerned about the 18-year old who has no criminal record but does have some mental illness. That kid is not as resourceful as career criminals. If that kid can’t get a firearm through the normal and legal process, the friction can be enough to reduce the odds of getting a weapon.

The 18-year-olds of Chicago and Baltimore don’t seem to find it difficult to get guns. Yes, it’s possible that the 18-year-old (or older) who is bent on committing mass murder at a school or workplace might be (emphasize “might”) be stopped by the application of a relevant law, but that would do almost nothing to the rate of gun deaths.

Which leads to this:

Gun deaths are not that high

About half of gun deaths are suicides. Lots of other gun deaths involve criminals shooting each other. If you subtract out those deaths, the number of gun deaths is low compared to other risks we routinely accept, such as the risk of auto accidents, overeating, sports, etc. If the current amount of gun violence seems worth the price to you, that would be a rational point of view. But it would not be rational to avoid testing some methods to reduce gun violence even further. Americans don’t stop trying to fix a problem just because only 10,000 people per year are dying from it. That’s still a lot. And if we can test new approaches in one city or state, why not?

I can’t think of a method to reduce gun violence by any significant amount that doesn’t involve confiscation, or something akin to it (e.g., extremely restrictive and vigorously enforced gun-ownership laws). The current amount of gun violence, balanced against the only effective alternative (confiscation), is “worth the price” to me and to millions of other persons who want to be able to defend themselves and their property from those who almost certainly wouldn’t comply with confiscatory laws.

Adams, clever fellow that he is, then tries to defuse that argument:

You are ignoring the lives saved by guns

No, I’m not. I’m looking at the net deaths by guns, which is what matters. If a new law improves the net death rate, that’s good enough, unless it causes some other problem.

Net deaths by guns isn’t what matters. What matters is whether the deaths are those of criminals or law-abiding citizens. I wouldn’t shed a tear if deaths rose because more citizens armed themselves and were allowed to carry guns in high-risk areas (i.e., “gun free” zones), if those additional deaths were the deaths of would-be killers or armed robbers.

I could go on and on, but that’s enough. Scott Adams is a provocative fellow who is sometimes entertaining. He is of that ilk: a celebrity who cashes in on his fame to advance ideas about matters that are beyond his ken — like Einstein the socialist.

There’s an oft-quoted line, “Shut up and sing”, which in Adams’s case (when it comes to guns, at least) should be “Shut up and draw”.

“Libertarianism”, the Autism Spectrum, and Ayn Rand

The “libertarians” at Reason.com (or one of them, at least) jump on the rightly reviled Nancy MacLean — author of Democracy in Chains — for having said that economist James M. Buchanan (a target of her book) and other early leaders of the limited-government movement “seem to be on the autism spectrum.”

A stopped watch is right twice a day. MacLean isn’t a stopped watch, but she’s right for once.

There’s something about so-called libertarians — at least the ones whose writings I’m familiar with — that led me once upon a time to say following in “The Pseudo-Libertarian Temperament” (block quotation format omitted for ease of reading):

[My] 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 [Todd] Zywicki [writing at The Volokh Conspiracy]:

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.

Elsewhere:

[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.

Finally:

[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.

End of quotation. (I especially like the phrase “introverted myopia”.)

What is my own “libertarian” temperament? This is from “Empathy Is Overrated” (block quotation format omitted again):

I scored 12 (out of 80) on a quiz that accompanies the article. My score, according to the key at the bottom, places me below persons with Asperger’s or low-functioning autism, who score about 20. My result is not a fluke; it is consistent with my MBTI type: Introverted-iNtuitive-Thinking-Judging (INTJ), and with my scores on the Big-five personality traits:

Extraversion — 4th percentile for males over the age of 21/11th percentile for males above the age of 60

Agreeableness — 4th percentile/4th percentile

Conscientiousness – 99th percentile/94th percentile

Emotional stability — 12th percentile/14th percentile

Openness — 93rd percentile/66th percentile

End of quotation.

I recite all of this background because I was reminded of my characterization of “libertarians” by Arnold Kling, who today quotes from a piece by Shanu Athiparambath, “Ayn Rand Had Asperger’s Syndrome“:

Ayn Rand, in all likelihood, knew nothing about the autism spectrum. But she could draw from her own life and experiences. The creator of Howard Roark worked obsessively, evening after evening. She rarely went out. Ayn Rand was extremely nervous before public functions, but there was a violent intensity about her. She observed, rightly, that boredom preserves the precarious dignity of people who love small talk. Her sensitivity to cruelty and injustice has largely escaped her readers. All her life, she collected things, and kept them in separate file folders. Her grandmother gifted her a chest of drawers to store her collections, and her mother complained about all the rubbish she collected. She loved ordering and categorizing things, something very fundamental to the autistic cognitive style. Ayn Rand ticks way too many boxes.

Kling, himself, wrote this ten years ago:

In Rand’s study…There were more than two hundred grocer’s cartons, each divided into sections and filled to the brim with colored stones Rand had collected and sorted.

This is from Anne C. Heller’s biography of Ayn Rand. Based on reading Tyler Cowen’s Create Your Own Economy, I would view this stone-sorting behavior as a symptom of someone who was somewhere on the autistic spectrum. Heller does not mention autism or Aspergers’, but there is much in her biography of Rand to lead one to speculate that Rand was a high-functioning individual with that sort of disorder.

I don’t believe for a second that Rand was unique among “libertarians”. On the contrary, I believe that she was normal (as “libertarians” go), and that her “introverted myopia” drove her political philosophy.

The Paradox That Is Western Civilization

The main weakness of Western civilization is a propensity to tolerate ideas and actions that would undermine it. The paradox is that the main strength of Western civilization is a propensity to tolerate ideas and actions that would strengthen it. The survival and improvement of Western civilization requires carefully balancing the two propensities. It has long been evident in continental Europe and the British Isles that the balance has swung toward destructive toleration. The United States is rapidly catching up to Europe. At the present rate the intricate network of social relationships and norms that has made America great will be destroyed within a decade. Israel, if it remains staunchly defensive of its heritage, will be the only Western nation still worthy of the name.

(See also “Conservatism, Society, and the End of America” and “Another Take on the State of America“.)

The Enlightenment’s Fatal Flaw

The fatal flaw is the reliance on reason. As Wikipedia puts it,

The Enlightenment included a range of ideas centered on reason as the primary source of knowledge….

Where reason is

the capacity of consciously making sense of things, establishing and verifying facts, applying logic, and adapting or justifying practices, institutions, and beliefs based on new or existing information.

So much of life is — of necessity — conducted in a realm beyond “reason”, where instincts and customs come into play in a universe that is but dimly understood.

By contrast, as the Wikipedia article admits, the Enlightenment — like its contemporary manifestations in pseudo-science (e.g., Malthusianism, Marxism, “climate change”), politics (e.g., “social justice”), and many other endeavors — relies on reductionism, which is

the practice of oversimplifying a complex idea or issue to the point of minimizing or distorting it.

Reason relies on verbalization (or its mathematical equivalent), but words (and numbers) fail us:

Love, to take a leading example, is a feeling that just is. The why and wherefore of it is beyond our ability to understand and explain. Some of the feelings attached to it can be expressed in prose, poetry, and song, but those are superficial expressions that don’t capture the depth of love and why it exists.

The world of science is of no real help. Even if feelings of love could be expressed in scientific terms — the action of hormone A on brain region X — that would be worse than useless. It would reduce love to chemistry, when we know that there’s more to it than that. Why, for example, is hormone A activated by the presence or thought of person M but not person N, even when they’re identical twins?

The world of science is of no real help about “getting to the bottom of things.” Science is an infinite regress. S is explained in terms of T, which is explained in terms of U, which is explained in terms of V, and on and on. For example, there was the “indivisible” atom, which turned out to consist of electrons, protons, and neutrons. But electrons have turned out to be more complicated than originally believed, and protons and neutrons have been found to be made of smaller particles with distinctive characteristics. So it’s reasonable to ask if all of the particles now considered elementary are really indivisible. Perhaps there other more-elementary particles yet to be hypothesized and discovered. And even if all of the truly elementary particles are discovered, scientists will still be unable to explain what those particles really “are.”

Reason is valuable when it consists of the narrow application of logic to hard facts. But it has almost nothing to do with most of life — and especially not with politics.

Just as words fail us, so has the Enlightenment and much of what came in its wake.

As exemplified by this “child of the enlightenment”:

Child of the enlightenment

(See also “In Praise of Prejudice” and “We, the Children of the Enlightenment“.)

Further Thoughts about Utilitarianism

I am staunchly anti-utilitarian, as I explain at length in this post. But I have argued elsewhere (e.g., here) against government-designed rules that favor the few at the expense of the many. Does that make me a hypocrite?

No. Because I am also against government-designed rules that favor the many at the expense of the few. Both kinds of rules are abhorrent to me because they are government-designed. (I say “government-designed” because there are many rules imposed by government — the prohibition of murder, for example — which merely enforce long-standing social norms. Government-designed rules aren’t strictly government designed; they usually arise from efforts by interest groups to benefit themselves regardless of, or in spite of, long-standing social norms.)

To be clear, when I use the word “favor” I’m thinking not of rules that are meant to protect the vast majority of people from the small minority of them who are predators. “Favor” doesn’t come into it. To “favor” one group over another is to give privileges to that group which impose burdens on others. The prohibition of murder, for example, doesn’t “favor” victims; it denies (or attempts to deny) predators the “privilege” of victimizing others. (For much more, see “The Invention of Rights“.)

So when I rail against two-percent tyranny — the granting of privileges for small segments of the populace — it’s not that I’m making a utilitarian judgment about those privileges (i.e., 98 percent outweighs 2 percent). Rather, it’s because of the privileges themselves.

Such privileges may seem to be born of common sense (e.g., bike lanes keep bicyclists out of traffic lanes; the legalization of same-sex marriage merely extends the institution of marriage, which is a “good thing”). But, as government-designed rules, they signal that the beneficiaries deserve special treatment. Thus, for example, bicyclists push the envelope by riding the white line between the bike lane and the traffic lane. Same-sex couples (emboldened by other government-designed rules) use their status to attack and (financially) destroy businesses that prefer not to honor same-sex “marriage” or same-sex relationships.

In the latter case, a government-designed definition of marriage fosters the subversion of a long-recognized right: freedom of association. Same-sex couples have that freedom, but they seek to deny it to those who prefer not to associate with them.

(See also “How to Protect Property Rights and Freedom of Association and Expression“.)

The Essential Declaration of Independence

The core of the Declaration, brought up to date:

To secure life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, the present government of the United States was instituted by the Constitution of 1787. That government has long since become destructive of its legitimate ends, having enacted myriad abuses of its power while often failing to secure life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It is therefore the right and duty of the people to alter, abolish, or secede from that government, and to replace it with a new government that strictly adheres to the original Constitution and Amendments I-X, XI-XV, XIX, XX, XXII, XXV, and XXVII.

(See “Constitution: Myths and Realities” for much more, including the legality of secession.)

The Left-Libertarian Axis

I long ago concluded that the path to liberty is found in conservatism, not in what is called “libertarianism”. By conservatism I mean the disposition to rely on the tried-and-true, which doesn’t preclude a willingness to innovate but does insist that the acceptance of innovation must be voluntary. (See “Social Norms and Liberty” and the posts listed at the end. “True Libertarianism, One More Time” and “Why Conservatism Works” are especially relevant here.)

Among many reasons for my rejection of “libertarianism” is its essential similarity to leftism, both ideologically and in its implementation.

The ideological similarity is evident in Arnold Kling‘s three-axes model, which he explains in The Three Languages of Politics: Talking Across the Political Divide. Here are some relevant passages:

In politics, I claim that progressives, conservatives, and libertarians are like tribes speaking different languages. The language that resonates with one tribe does not connect with the others. As a result, political discussions do not lead to agreement. Instead, most political commentary serves to increase polarization. The points that people make do not open the minds of people on the other side. They serve to close the minds of the people on one’s own side.

Which political language do you speak? Of course, your own views are carefully nuanced, and you would never limit yourself to speaking in a limited language. So think of one of your favorite political commentators, an insightful individual with whom you generally agree. Which of the following statements would that commentator most likely make?

(P) [Progressive] My heroes are people who have stood up for the underprivileged. The people I cannot stand are the people who are indifferent to the oppression of women, minorities, and the poor.

(C) [Conservative] My heroes are people who have stood up for Western values. The people I cannot stand are the people who are indifferent to the assault on the moral virtues and traditions that are the foundation for our civilization.

(L) [Libertarian] My heroes are people who have stood up for individual rights. The people I cannot stand are the people who are indifferent to government taking away people’s ability to make their own choices….

I call this the three-axes model of political communication. A progressive will communicate along the oppressor-oppressed axis, framing issues in terms of the (P) dichotomy. A conservative will communicate along the civilization-barbarism axis, framing issues in terms of the (C) dichotomy. A libertarian will communicate along the liberty-coercion axis, framing issues in terms of the (L) dichotomy….

If there is a real difference between P and L, I cannot find it. “Liberty-coercion” is just another way of saying “oppressor-oppressed”. One who isn’t oppressed is therefore (in the view of the “progressive”) enjoying liberty, or is at least one step closer to it.

The operational similarity between leftism and “libertarianism” is the enthusiasm shown by many “libertarians” for government intervention when it advances their particular causes. The following passages, lifted from an old post of mine, elaborate on the ideological and operational similarities of leftism and “libertarianism”.

Some “libertarians” have become apologists for PCness. Will Wilkinson, for example, suggests that

most PC episodes mocked and derided by the right are not state impositions. They are generally episodes of the voluntary social enforcement of relatively newly established moral/cultural norms.

Wilkinson grossly simplifies the complex dynamics of PCness. His so-called “newly established … norms” are, in fact, norms that have been embraced by insular élites (e.g., academics and think-tank denizens like Wilksinson) and then foisted upon “the masses” by the élites in charge of government and government-controlled institutions (e.g., tax-funded universities). Thus it is no surprise that proposals to allow same-sex marriage fare poorly when they are submitted to voters. Similarly, the “right” to an abortion, almost four decades after Roe v. Wade, remains far from universally accepted and meets greater popular resistance with the passage of time.

Roderick Long is another “libertarian” who endorses PCness:

Another issue that inflames many libertarians against political correctness is the issue of speech codes on campuses. Yes, many speech codes are daft. But should people really enjoy exactly the same freedom of speech on university property that they would rightfully enjoy on their own property? Why, exactly?

If the answer is that the purposes of a university are best served by an atmosphere of free exchange of ideas — is there no validity to the claim that certain kinds of speech might tend, through an intimidating effect, to undermine just such an atmosphere?…

At my university [Auburn], several white fraternity members were recently disciplined for dressing up, some in Klan costumes and others in blackface, and enacting a mock lynching. Is the university guilty of violating their freedom of expression? I can’t see that it is. Certainly those students have a natural right to dress up as they please and engage in whatever playacting they like, so long as they conduct themselves peacefully. But there is no natural right to be a student at Auburn University.

Long — who describes himself as a “left-libertarian market anarchist” (whatever that is) — makes a clever but fallacious argument. The purposes of a university have nothing to do with the case. Speech is speech, except when it really isn’t speech, as in sit-ins (trespass), child pornography (sexual exploitation of minors), and divulging military secrets (treason, in fact if not in name).

Long is rightly disgusted by the actions of the fraternity members he mentions, but disgust does not excuse the suppression of speech by a State university. It is true that there is no “natural right” to be a student at Auburn, but there is, likewise, no “natural right” not to be offended.

Steven Horwitz is a kindred spirit:

Yes, legislation like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 involved some interference with private property and the right of association, but it also did away with a great deal of state-sponsored discrimination and was, in my view, a net gain for liberty.

Well, some parts of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, together with its progeny — the Civil Rights Acts of 1968 and 1991 — did advance liberty, but many parts did not. A principled libertarian would acknowledge that, and parse the Acts into their libertarian and anti-libertarian components. A moral scold who really, really wants the state to impose his attitudes on others would presume — as Horwitz does — to weigh legitimate gains (e.g., voting rights) against unconscionable losses (e.g., property rights and freedom of association). But presumptuousness comes naturally to Horwitz because he — like Lindsey, Wilkinson, and Long — stands high above reality, in his ivory tower.

Wilkinson is sympatico with Horwitz in the matter of state action:

Government attempts to guarantee the worth of our liberties by recognizing positive rights to a minimum income or certain services like health care often (but not always) undermine the framework of market and civil institutions most likely to enhance liberty over the long run, and should be limited. But this is really an empirical question about what really does maximize individuals’ chances of formulating and realizing meaningful projects and lives.

Within this framework, racism, sexism, etc., which strongly limit the useful exercise of liberty are clear evils. Now, I am ambivalent about whether the state ought to step in and do anything about it.

Wilkinson, like Horwitz, is quite willing to submit to the state (or have others do so), where state action passes some kind of cost-benefit test. (See “Utilitarianism vs. Liberty.”)

In any event, what more could the state do than it has done already? Well, there is always “hate crime” legislation, which (as Nat Hentoff points out) is tantamount to “thought crime” legislation. Perhaps that would satisfy Long, Horwitz, Wilkinson, and their brethren on the “libertarian” left. And, if that doesn’t do the trick, there is always Richard Thaler’s “libertarian” paternalism (with its statist slant), and Cass Sunstein’s proposal for policing thought on the internet. Sunstein, at least, doesn’t pretend to be a libertarian.

Where is libertarianism to be found? In conservatism, of all places, because it is a reality-based political philosophy.

But what does conservatism have to do with libertarianism? I have in various posts essayed an answer to that question (here, here, here, and here, for example), but now I turn the floor over to John Kekes, who toward the end of “What Is Conservatism?” says this:

The traditionalism of conservatives excludes both the view that political arrangements that foster individual autonomy should take precedence over those that foster social authority and the reverse view that favours arrangements that promote social authority at the expense of individual autonomy. Traditionalists acknowledge the importance of both autonomy and authority, but they regard them as inseparable, interdependent, and equally necessary. The legitimate claims of both may be satisfied by the participation of individuals in the various traditions of their society. Good political arrangements protect these traditions and the freedom to participate in them by limiting the government’s authority to interfere with either.

Therein lies true libertarianism — true because it is attainable. Left-libertarians believe, foolishly, that liberty is to be found in the rejection of social norms. Liberty would be the first victim of the brave new disorder that they wish for.

The Golden Rule and Social Norms

The Golden Rule (a.k.a. the ethic of reciprocity) is summarized as “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. Commandments IV – X are specific examples of the application of The Golden Rule. The Golden Rule has been expressed in many ways in many different cultural settings. I therefore see it as principle that arises out of social necessity, even though it has the imprimatur of various religions.

“Doing unto others as they would do unto you” implies an accepted set of social norms, which go beyond actual harm (e.g., murder, theft). The norms arise gradually as close-knit groups (families, clans, tribes, ethnic groups) coexist over a period of time. Coexistence yields lessons about behaviors that are acceptable (they advance in-group trust and cooperation) and behaviors that are unacceptable (they undermine in-group trust and cooperation). So the norms will include not only obvious things like the prohibition of murder (though not killing in self-defense), but also what I call instrumental or signaling behaviors to show that one is a trustworthy member of the group who abides by its norms and can be counted on to advance the interests of the group. This latter phenomenon is disparigingly called “tribalism” by “cosmopolitan sophisticates”, even though they are extreme tribalists in their own right.

Behavioral signaling is an inevitable and invaluable feature of harmonious coexistence. You can probably think of many examples of the kinds of persons whom you wouldn’t trust, based on their mannerism, clothing, hair styles, tastes in music, and — above all – political views.

It is certainly possible and desirable to apply The Golden Rule to members of out-groups. (The Parable of the Good Samaritan is meant to encourage such behavior.) But, as President Reagan said famously about relations with the Soviet Union: “Trust, but verify.” In other words, remain wary. Overt friendliness can be a dangerous trap.

(See also “Real Americans“.)

Not with a Bang

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

T.S. Elliot, The Hollow Men

It’s also the way that America is ending. Yes, there are verbal fireworks aplenty, but there will not be a “hot” civil war. The country that my parents and grandparents knew and loved — the country of my youth in the 1940s and 1950s — is just fading away.

This would not necessarily be a bad thing if the remaking of America were a gradual, voluntary process, leading to time-tested changes for the better. But that isn’t the case. The very soul of America has been and is being ripped out by the government that was meant to protect that soul, and by movements that government not only tolerates but fosters.

Before I go further, I should explain what I mean by America, which is not the same thing as the geopolitical entity known as the United States, though the two were tightly linked for a long time.

America was a relatively homogeneous cultural order that fostered mutual respect, mutual trust, and mutual forbearance — or far more of those things than one might expect in a nation as populous and far-flung as the United States. Those things — conjoined with a Constitution that has been under assault since the New Deal — made America a land of liberty. That is to say, they fostered real liberty, which isn’t an unattainable state of bliss but an actual (and imperfect) condition of peaceful, willing coexistence and its concomitant: beneficially cooperative behavior.

The attainment of this condition depends on social comity, which depends in turn on (a) genetic kinship and (b) the inculcation and enforcement of social norms, especially the norms that define harm.

All of that is going by the boards because the emerging cultural order is almost diametrically opposite that which prevailed in America. The new dispensation includes:

  • casual sex
  • serial cohabitation
  • subsidized illegitimacy
  • abortion on demand
  • easy divorce
  • legions of non-mothering mothers
  • concerted (and deluded) efforts to defeminize females and to neuter or feminize males
  • gender-confusion as a burgeoning norm
  • “alternative lifestyles” that foster disease, promiscuity, and familial instability
  • normalization of drug abuse
  • forced association (with accompanying destruction of property and employment rights)
  • suppression of religion
  • rampant obscenity
  • identity politics on steroids
  • illegal immigration as a “right”
  • “free stuff” from government (Social Security was meant to be self-supporting)
  • America as the enemy
  • all of this (and more) as gospel to influential elites whose own lives are modeled mostly on old America.

As the culture has rotted, so have the ties that bound America.

The rot has occurred to the accompaniment of cacophony. Cultural coarsening begets loud and inconsiderate vulgarity. Worse than that is the cluttering of the ether with the vehement and belligerent propaganda, most of it aimed at taking down America.

The advocates of the new dispensation haven’t quite finished the job of dismantling America. But that day isn’t far off. Complete victory for the enemies of America is only a few election cycles away. The squishy center of the electorate — as is its wont — will swing back toward the Democrat Party. With a Democrat in the White House, a Democrat-controlled Congress, and a few party switches in the Supreme Court (of the packing of it), the dogmas of the anti-American culture will become the law of the land; for example:

Billions and trillions of dollars will be wasted on various “green” projects, including but far from limited to the complete replacement of fossil fuels by “renewables”, with the resulting impoverishment of most Americans, except for comfortable elites who press such policies).

It will be illegal to criticize, even by implication, such things as abortion, illegal immigration, same-sex marriage, transgenderism, anthropogenic global warming, or the confiscation of firearms. These cherished beliefs will be mandated for school and college curricula, and enforced by huge fines and draconian prison sentences (sometimes in the guise of “re-education”).

Any hint of Christianity and Judaism will be barred from public discourse, and similarly punished. Islam will be held up as a model of unity and tolerance.

Reverse discrimination in favor of females, blacks, Hispanics, gender-confused persons, and other “protected” groups will be required and enforced with a vengeance. But “protections” will not apply to members of such groups who are suspected of harboring libertarian or conservative impulses.

Sexual misconduct (as defined by the “victim”) will become a crime, and any male person may be found guilty of it on the uncorroborated testimony of any female who claims to have been the victim of an unwanted glance, touch (even if accidental), innuendo (as perceived by the victim), etc.

There will be parallel treatment of the “crimes” of racism, anti-Islamism, nativism, and genderism.

All health care in the United States will be subject to review by a national, single-payer agency of the central government. Private care will be forbidden, though ready access to doctors, treatments, and medications will be provided for high officials and other favored persons. The resulting health-care catastrophe that befalls most of the populace (like that of the UK) will be shrugged off as a residual effect of “capitalist” health care.

The regulatory regime will rebound with a vengeance, contaminating every corner of American life and regimenting all businesses except those daring to operate in an underground economy. The quality and variety of products and services will decline as their real prices rise as a fraction of incomes.

The dire economic effects of single-payer health care and regulation will be compounded by massive increases in other kinds of government spending (defense excepted). The real rate of economic growth will approach zero.

The United States will maintain token armed forces, mainly for the purpose of suppressing domestic uprisings. Given its economically destructive independence from foreign oil and its depressed economy, it will become a simulacrum of the USSR and Mao’s China — and not a rival to the new superpowers, Russia and China, which will largely ignore it as long as it doesn’t interfere in their pillaging of respective spheres of influence. A policy of non-interference (i.e., tacit collusion) will be the order of the era in Washington.

Though it would hardly be necessary to rig elections in favor of Democrats, given the flood of illegal immigrants who will pour into the country and enjoy voting rights, a way will be found to do just that. The most likely method will be election laws requiring candidates to pass ideological purity tests by swearing fealty to the “law of the land” (i.e., abortion, unfettered immigration, same-sex marriage, freedom of gender choice for children, etc., etc., etc.). Those who fail such a test will be barred from holding any kind of public office, no matter how insignificant.

Are my fears exaggerated? I don’t think so, given what has happened in recent decades and the cultural revolutionaries’ tightening grip on the Democrat party. What I have sketched out can easily happen within a decade after Democrats seize total control of the central government.

Will the defenders of liberty rally to keep it from happening? Perhaps, but I fear that they will not have a lot of popular support, for three reasons:

First, there is the problem of asymmetrical ideological warfare, which favors the party that says “nice” things and promises “free” things.

Second, What has happened thus far — mainly since the 1960s — has happened slowly enough that it seems “natural” to too many Americans. They are like fish in water who cannot grasp the idea of life in a different medium.

Third, although change for the worse has accelerated in recent years, it has occurred mainly in forums that seem inconsequential to most Americans, for example, in academic fights about free speech, in the politically correct speeches of Hollywood stars, and in culture wars that are conducted mainly in the blogosphere. The unisex-bathroom issue seems to have faded as quickly as it arose, mainly because it really affects so few people. The latest gun-control mania may well subside — though it has reached new heights of hysteria — but it is only one battle in the broader war being waged by the left. And most Americans lack the political and historical knowledge to understand that there really is a civil war underway — just not a “hot” one.

Is a reversal possible? Possible, yes, but unlikely. The rot is too deeply entrenched. Public schools and universities are cesspools of anti-Americanism. The affluent elites of the information-entertainment-media-academic complex are in the saddle. Republican politicians, for the most part, are of no help because they are more interested on preserving their comfortable sinecures than in defending America or the Constitution.

On that note, I will take a break from blogging — perhaps forever. I urge you to read one of my early posts, “Reveries“, for a taste of what America means to me. As for my blogging legacy, please see “A Summing Up“, which links to dozens of posts and pages that amplify and support this post.

Il faut cultiver notre jardin.

Voltaire, Candide


Related reading:

Michael Anton, “What We Still Have to Lose“, American Greatness, February 10, 2019

Rod Dreher, “Benedict Option FAQ“, The American Conservative, October 6, 2015

Roger Kimball, “Shall We Defend Our Common History?“, Imprimis, February 2019

Joel Kotkin, “Today’s Cultural Engineers“, newgeography, January 26, 2019

Daniel Oliver, “Where Has All the Culture Gone?“, The Federalist, February 8, 2019

Malcolm Pollack, “On Civil War“, Motus Mentis, March 7, 2019

Fred Reed, “The White Man’s Burden: Reflections on the Custodial State“, Fred on Everything, January 17, 2019

Gilbert T. Sewall, “The Diminishing Authority of the Bourgeois Culture“, The American Conservative, February 4, 2019

Bob Unger, “Requiem for America“, The New American, January 24, 2019

A Summing Up

This post has been updated and moved to “Favorite Posts“.

Never Give In

Never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.

Winston S. Churchill, October 1941

*     *     *

I was reminded of Churchill’s exhortation by Gregory Hood’s article about the reaction of Beltway “conservatives” to Tucker Carlson’s excoriation of Mitt Romney’s craven attack on President Trump. Hood says, among many things, that

flowery tributes to “freedom” by conservatives and libertarians sound like a modern-day Italian quoting the legal codes of the Papal States. If “freedom” means control over your own property, Americans have not been free for at least fifty years….

The distinction between Tucker Carlson and his Conservatism Inc. critics is the distinction between confrontation and collaboration.

Collaboration is also known as compromise, a word favored by faux conservatives because it connotes virtue. But there is nothing virtuous about it. Compromise between good and evil necessarily results in more evil.

A leading case in point is the vast expansion of government handouts — in which “conservatives” have been complicit — beginning with and since the New Deal. As I say here,

[t]he lack of something, if it’s truly important to a person, is an incentive for that person to find a way to afford the something. That’s what my parents’ generation did, even in the depths of the Great Depression, without going on the dole. There’s no reason why later generations can’t do it; it’s merely assumed that they can’t. But lots of people do it. I did it; my children did it; my grandchildren are doing it.

Republicans used to say such things openly and with conviction, before they became afraid of seeming “mean.” Principled conservatives should still be thinking and saying such things. When conservatives compromise their principles because they don’t want to seem “mean,” they are complicit in the country’s march down the road to serfdom — dependency on and obeisance to the central government.

Every advance in the direction of serfdom becomes harder and harder to reverse. The abolition of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid is now unthinkable, even though those programs have caused hundreds of millions of Americans to become addicted to government handouts….

The best time — usually the only time — to kill a government program is before it starts. That’s why conservatives shouldn’t compromise.

Build the wall, drain the swamp, nominate justices who drive leftists crazy. Never give in.

Peak Leftism?

Leftists used to be somewhat subtle in their efforts to win the hearts of the populace. I would say minds, too, but leftism is an emotional, delusional stance — not a reasoned or scientific one, leftist propaganda to the contrary notwithstanding. Whereas conservatism is about learning from experience, which requires personal responsibility and teaches self-reliance, leftism gives primacy to “hope” (blind faith) and “change” (for its own sake), shirks personal responsibility, and teaches reliance on government.

Now, leftism — a.k.a. fascism in the name of utopianism — seems to reach new heights of hysteria every day. Gone is the appearance of sweet reason and “compassion”. Fangs are bared, cudgels are in motion, bullets are flying.

Isn’t this bound to end, to “burn itself out”? Not necessarily. Consider the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the American Civil War, the Bolshevik Revolution, Hitler’s rise to power, and the Chinese Communist Revolution. What do they have in common with each other and with the not-so-stealthy revolution that has been taking place in America?

For one thing, the historical movements succeeded in overthrowing the established political order — for better and (usually) for worse. The ongoing stealth revolution has done so, too, but mainly by exploiting the established order’s rules, that is, by co-opting and subverting the legislative, executive, and judicial functions. The First Amendment, to take a leading example, has been exploited by the media to subvert America’s defenses; exploited by purveyors of filth and decadence to subvert social norms against such filth and decadence; and exploited by purveyors of anti-constitutional measures to advance those measures through asymmetrical ideological warfare.

The present and historical revolutions have several things in common:

  • “intellectuals” who enunciate the revolution’s aims
  • active, visible, and vocal hard-core followers who are prepared to sacrifice (and even to die) for the cause
  • fringe followers who support the cause (by word, deed, or vote) because they believe in it, or come to believe in it because of social pressure to do so
  • “financiers” who lend substantial material support to the cause because they believe in it or stand to benefit from its success.

The not-so-stealthy revolution in America is unlike the historical ones because its participants — for the most part — are not considered subversive, or cannot be treated as subversive under prevailing legal norms. One of those norms, as mentioned above, is an overly broad interpretation of the First Amendment, which empowers the enemies of liberty. Defenders of liberty, on the other hand, are being suppressed by universities and social media, acting with state-like power.

More generally, there has been an almost unrelenting assault on the Constitution, the design of which was intended to “secure the Blessings of Liberty to … our Posterity”. The stage for this assault was set when, in the words of Bertrand de Jouvenel,

the government at Washington … launch[ed] a war such as Europe had never yet seen to crush the attempt of the Southern States to form themselves into a separate unity.

As in so many instances since the Civil War, the government at Washington wrapped itself in a mantle of holiness (i.e, anti-slavery) to impose a decidedly unholy agenda on the nation. The agenda in the case of the Civil War was the destruction of the co-sovereign relationship between the States and central government that was at the heart of the Constitution. The government at Washington thereafter, and by various means, has

  • arrogated to itself power that belongs to the States under the Constitution — power which is most evident in the alphabet soup of agencies doing things that aren’t contemplated in the Constitution
  • usurped rights belonging to the people, including, but far from limited to, freedom of association and peaceful use of one’s property
  • undermined civilizing social norms, including but far from limited to, religious observances that do not constitute an establishment of religion, and the peremptory redefinition of marriage.

These power grabs have sometimes been executed boldly, and with the support of broad masses of people — especially but not exclusively during the Progressive Era, and under the aegis of the New Deal and the Great Society. But since the Progressive Era there has been a general accretion of power, often through subtle regulatory aggression, even during Republican administrations.

Given the great successes enjoyed by the enemies of liberty — by the left, that is — why the present hysteria? The unrelenting “resistance” to Trump. The phony sexual-assault allegations against Kavanaugh. The “hate whitey” campaign, to which many white leftists subscribe. The “hate” hoaxes perpetrated by their supposed (leftist) victims. The increasingly obvious pro-left bias that pervades most “news” media. The promises by congressional Democrats of post-election retribution against Republicans. And on and on.

The hysteria stems from a fear of losing ground. There is a ratchet effect in politics that has worked to the left’s advantage for more than a century. What if the ratchet effect were reversed, obviously and decisively, by the efforts of one man — a man whom the left (and dupes on the right) have done their best to thwart and discredit? Would this not embolden more advocates of liberty to speak and act boldly — to reject the compromising, emasculated, collaborationist “conservatism” of the Bushes, McCain, and Romney?

It probably would. And that’s what the left fears. And its fears are evident in the present hysteria.

That’s why today’s elections are so important. Today may well mark a turning point in the not-so-stealthy revolution. If the GOP holds the House and Senate, Trump will have been vindicated. He will have more allies (outside of Congress if not within it) in his battles to build a judiciary of constitutionalists; to fend off the cultural and electoral threat from south of the border, to rebuild America’s defenses and pursue a pro-American foreign policy, and generally to put the forces of liberty on the offensive for a change.

P.S. (on the morning after election day): The Dems have won a majority in the House, though a narrow one. Meanwhile, the GOP has increased its majority in the Senate. That is the better half of the loaf because control of the Senate means that Trump can continue to remake the judiciary in a conservative image. Further, the House will be perceived as the obstructionist body for the next two years, setting the stage for a GOP restoration there. Barring the unforeseeable, a largely successful Trump presidency will set the stage for Republican dominance in 2020.

True Populism

Populism, according to Wikipedia,

refers to a range of approaches which emphasise the role of “the people” and often juxtapose this group against “the elite”. There is no single definition of the term, which developed in the 19th century and has been used to mean various things since that time. Few politicians or political groups describe themselves as “populists”, and in political discourse the term is often applied to others pejoratively….

[T]he ideational approach … defines populism as an ideology which presents “the people” as a morally good force against “the elite”, who are perceived as corrupt and self-serving. Populists differ in how “the people” are defined, but it can be based along class, ethnic, or national lines. Populists typically present “the elite” as comprising the political, economic, cultural, and media establishment, all of which are depicted as a homogenous entity and accused of placing the interests of other groups—such as foreign countries or immigrants—above the interests of “the people”. According to this approach, populism is a thin-ideology which is combined with other, more substantial thick ideologies such as nationalism, liberalism, or socialism. Thus, populists can be found at different locations along the left–right political spectrum and there is both left-wing populism and right-wing populism.

Just as “the elite” isn’t homogeneous, neither is “the people”. True populism therefore demands a decentralized polity, according to the principle of subsidiarity:

[M]atters ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest or least centralized competent authority. Political decisions should be taken at a local level if possible, rather than by a central authority.

This is a conservative principle because deciding matters locally means that they are usually handled in accordance with social norms that prevail locally, and which reflect local conditions. This is in contrast with one-size-fits-all “solutions” imposed by distant officials who have no appreciation of local knowledge and norms, and who — in any event — are usually hostile to those things.

Subsidiarity is also, in theory, a libertarian principle. Too many self-styled libertarians, however, are quick to abandon the principle in favor of state-imposed rules that favor their views about how “society” should be organized. Thus — and to the detriment of social comity and stability — we have state-imposed abortion, a state-imposed edict to honor same-sex “marriage”, state-imposed “tolerance” of unsafe sexual acts, the rending of families by lax divorce laws, and on and on.

It is populist resentment of elite dominance that enabled Trump’s electoral victory. “Drain the swamp” is a good part of it. The rest is mainly a desire for the preservation (or restoration) of traditional American culture, the protection of which requires selective immigration and strong defenses.

The principle and spirit of populism — and its enemies — is captured by Bertrand de Jouvenel in his 1945 epic, On Power: The Natural History of its Growth:

Every Power is sure to attack centrifugal tendencies. But the behaviour of democratic Power offers in this respect some peculiar features of a striking kind. It claims its mission to be that of liberating man from the constraints put on him by the old Power, which was the more or less direct descendant of conquest. But that did not stop the Convention from guillotining the Federalists [in the French Revolution], the English Parliament from wiping out, in some of the bloodiest repressions of history, the separatist nationalism in Ireland, or the government at Washington from launching a war such as Europe had never yet seen to crush the attempt of the Southern States to form themselves into a separate unity….

This hostility to the formation of smaller communities is inconsistent with the claim to have inaugurated government of the people by itself, for clearly a government answers more closely to that description in smaller communities than in larger. Only in smaller communities can citizens choose their ruler directly from men whom they know personally. Only in them can justification be found for the encomium pronounced by Montesquieu:

The people is well fitted to choose …. The people knows well whether a man has often seen active service and what successes he has won: therefore it is well equipped to choose a general. It knows whether a judge attends to his duties; whether most people leave his court satisfied; whether or not he is corrupt: therein is knowledge sufficient for it to elect a praetor…. These are all facts which make a public square a better-informed place than the palace of a king.

But the new men whom the popular voice has made masters of the imperium have never shown any inclination to a regime of that kind. It was distasteful to them, as the heirs of the monarchical authority, to fritter away their estate on subordinating themselves. On the contrary, strong in the strength of a new legitimacy, their one aim was to increase it. Against the federalist conception [the Abbe] Sieyès [1748-1836] was their mouthpiece: “… a general administration which, starting from a common centre, will reach uniformly to the remotest parts of the Empire — a body of laws which, through its elements are provided by the body of citizens, takes bodily form at as distant a level as that of the National Assembly, to whom alone it belongs to interpret the general wish, that wish which thereafter falls with all the weight of an irresistible force on those very wills which have joined in the formation of it.” [Liberty Press edition (1993), pp. 286-288, links added, emphasis in original]

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Utilitarianism vs. Liberty

Utilitarianism is an empty concept. And it is inimical to liberty.

What is utilitarianism, as I use the term? This:

1. (Philosophy) the doctrine that the morally correct course of action consists in the greatest good for the greatest number, that is, in maximizing the total benefit resulting, without regard to the distribution of benefits and burdens

To maximize the total benefit is to maximize social welfare, which is the well-being of all persons, somehow measured and aggregated. A true social-welfare maximizer would strive to maximize the social welfare of the planet. But schemes to maximize social welfare usually are aimed at maximizing it for the persons in a particular country, so they really are schemes to maximize national welfare.

National welfare may conflict with planetary welfare; the former may be increased (by some arbitrary measure) at the expense of the latter. Suppose, for example, that Great Britain had won the Revolutionary War and forced Americans to live on starvation wages while making things for the enjoyment of the British people. A lot of Britons would have been better off materially (though perhaps not spiritually), while most Americans certainly would have been worse off. The national welfare of Great Britain would have been improved, if not maximized, “without regard to the distribution of benefits and burdens.” On a contemporary note, anti-globalists assert (wrongly) that globalization of commerce exploits the people of poor countries. If they were right, they would at least have the distinction of striving to maximize planetary welfare. (Though there is no such thing, as I will show.)

THE UTILITARIAN WORLD VIEW

A utilitarian will favor a certain policy if a comparison of its costs and benefits shows that the benefits exceed the costs — even though the persons bearing the costs are often not the persons who accrue the benefits. That is to say, utilitarianism authorizes the redistribution of income and wealth for the “greater good”. Thus the many governmental schemes that are redistributive by design, for example, the “progressive” income tax (i.e., the taxation of income at graduated rates), Social Security (which yields greater “returns” to low-income workers than to high-income workers, and which taxes current workers for the benefit of retirees), and Medicaid (which is mainly for the benefit of persons whose tax burden is low or nil).

One utilitarian justification of such schemes is the fallacious and short-sighted assertion that persons with higher incomes gain less “utility” as their incomes rise, whereas the persons to whom that income is transferred gain much more “utility” because their incomes are lower. This principle is sometimes stated as “a dollar means more to a poor man than to a rich one”.

That is so because utilitarians are accountants of the soul, who believe (implicitly, at least) that it is within their power to balance the unhappiness of those who bear costs against the happiness of those who accrue benefits. The precise formulation, according to John Stuart Mill, is “the greatest amount of happiness altogether” (Utilitarianism, Chapter II, Section 16.)

UTILITARIANISM AS ECONOMIC FALLACY, ARROGANCE, AND HYPOCRISY

It follows — if you accept the assumption of diminishing marginal utility and ignore the negative effect of redistribution on economic growth — that overall utility (a.k.a. the social welfare function) will be raised if income is redistributed from high-income earners to low-income earners, and if wealth is redistributed from the wealthier to the less wealthy. But in order to know when to stop redistributing income or wealth, you must be able to measure the utility of individuals with some precision, and you must be able to sum those individual views of utility across the entire nation. Nay, across the entire world, if you truly want to maximize social welfare.

Most leftists (and not a few economists) don’t rely on the assumption of diminishing marginal utility as a basis for redistributing income and wealth. To them, it’s just a matter of “fairness” or “social justice”. It’s odd, though, that affluent leftists seem unable to support redistributive schemes that would reduce their income and wealth to, say, the global median for each measure. “Fairness” and “social justice” are all right in their place — in lecture halls and op-ed columns — but the affluent leftist will keep them at a comfortable distance from his luxurious abode.

In any event, leftists (including some masquerading as economists) who deign to offer an economic justification for redistribution usually fall back on the assumption of the diminishing marginal utility (DMU) of income and wealth. In doing so, they commit (at least) four errors.

The first error is the fallacy of misplaced concreteness which is found in the notion of utility. Have you ever been able to measure your own state of happiness? I mean measure it, not just say that you’re feeling happier today than you were when your pet dog died. It’s an impossible task, isn’t it? If you can’t measure your own happiness, how can you (or anyone) presume to measure — and aggregate — the happiness of millions or billions of individual human beings? It can’t be done.

Which brings me to the second error, which is an error of arrogance. Given the impossibility of measuring one person’s happiness, and the consequent impossibility of measuring and comparing the happiness of many persons, it is pure arrogance to insist that “society” would be better off if X amount of income or wealth were transferred from Group A to Group B.

Think of it this way: A tax levied on Group A for the benefit of Group B doesn’t make Group A better off. It may make some smug members of Group A feel superior to other members of Group A, but it doesn’t make all members of Group A better off. In fact, most members of Group A are likely to feel worse off. It takes an arrogant so-and-so to insist that “society” is somehow better off even though a lot of persons (i.e., members of “society”) have been made worse off.

The third error lies in the implicit assumption embedded in the idea of DMU. The assumption is that as one’s income or wealth rises one continues to consume the same goods and services, but more of them. Thus the example of chocolate cake: The first slice is enjoyed heartily, the second slice is enjoyed but less heartily, the third slice is consumed reluctantly, and the fourth  slice is rejected.

But that’s a bad example. The fact is that having more income or wealth enables a person to consume goods and services of greater variety and higher quality. Given that, it is possible to increase one’s utility by shifting from a “third helping” of a cheap product to a “first helping” of an expensive one, and to keep on doing so as one’s income rises. Perhaps without limit, given the profusion of goods and services available to consumers.

And if should you run out of new and different things to buy (an unlikely event), you can make yourself happier by acquiring more income to amass more wealth, and (if it makes you happy) by giving away some of your wealth. How much happier? Well, if you’re a “scorekeeper” (as very wealthy persons seem to be), your happiness rises immeasurably when your wealth rises from, say, $10 million to $100 million to $1 billion — and if your wealth-based income rises proportionally. How much happier is “immeasurably happier”? Who knows? That’s why I say “immeasurably” — there’s no way of telling. Which is why it’s arrogant to say that a wealthy person doesn’t “need” his next $1 million or $10 million, or that they don’t give him as much happiness as the preceding $1 million or $10 million.

All of that notwithstanding, the committed believer in DMU will shrug and say that at some point DMU must set in. Which leads me to the fourth error, which is introspective failure. If you’re like most mere mortals (as I am), your income during your early working years barely covered your bills. If you’re more than a few years into your working career, subsequent pay raises probably made you feel better about your financial state — not just a bit better but a whole lot better. Those raises enabled you to enjoy newer, better things (as discussed above). And if your real income has risen by a factor of two or three or more — and if you haven’t messed up your personal life (which is another matter) — you’re probably incalculably happier than when you were just able to pay your bills. And you’re especially happy if you put aside a good chunk of money for your retirement, the anticipation and enjoyment of which adds a degree of utility (such a prosaic word) that was probably beyond imagining when you were in your twenties, thirties, and forties.

In sum, the idea that one’s marginal utility (an unmeasurable abstraction) diminishes with one’s income or wealth is nothing more than an assumption that simply doesn’t square with my experience. And I’m sure that my experience is far from unique, though I’m not arrogant enough to believe that it’s universal.

UTILITARIANISM VS. LIBERTY

I have defined liberty as

the general observance of social norms that enables a people to enjoy…peaceful, willing coexistence and its concomitant: beneficially cooperative behavior.

Where do social norms come into it? The observance of social norms — society’s customs and morals — creates mutual trust, respect, and forbearance, from which flow peaceful, willing coexistence and beneficially cooperative behavior. In such conditions, only a minimal state is required to deal with those who will not live in peaceful coexistence, that is, foreign and domestic aggressors. And prosperity flows from cooperative economic behavior — the exchange of goods and services for the mutual benefit of the parties who to the exchange.

Society isn’t to be confused with nation or any other kind of geopolitical entity. Society — true society — is

3a :  an enduring and cooperating social group whose members have developed organized patterns of relationships through interaction with one another.

A close-knit group, in other words. It should go without saying that the members of such a group will be bound by culture: language, customs, morals, and (usually) religion. Their observance of a common set of social norms enables them to enjoy peaceful, willing coexistence and beneficially cooperative behavior.

Free markets mimic some aspects of society, in that they are physical and virtual places where buyers and sellers meet peacefully (almost all of the time) and willingly, to cooperate for their mutual benefit. Free markets thus transcend (or can transcend) the cultural differences that delineate societies.

Large geopolitical areas also mimic some aspects of society, in that their residents meet peacefully (most of the time). But when “cooperation” in such matters as mutual aid (care for the elderly, disaster recovery, etc.) is forced by government; it isn’t true cooperation, which is voluntary.

In any event, the United States is not a society. Even aside from the growing black-white divide, the bonds of nationhood are far weaker than those of a true society (or a free market), and are therefore easier to subvert. Even persons of the left agree that mutual trust, respect, and forbearance are at a low ebb — probably their lowest ebb since the Civil War.

Therein lies a clue to the emptiness of utilitarianism. Why should a qualified white person care about or believe in the national welfare when, in furtherance of national welfare (or something), a job or university slot for which the white person applies is given, instead, to a less qualified black person because of racial quotas that are imposed or authorized by government? Why should a taxpayer care about or believe in the national welfare if he is forced by government to share the burden of enlarging it through government-enforced transfer payments to those who don’t pay taxes? By what right or gift of omniscience is a social engineer able to intuit the feelings of 300-plus million individual persons and adjudge that the national welfare will be maximized if some persons are forced to cede privileges or money to other persons?

Consider Robin Hanson’s utilitarian scheme, which he calls futarchy:

In futarchy, democracy would continue to say what we want, but betting markets would now say how to get it. That is, elected representatives would formally define and manage an after-the-fact measurement of national welfare, while market speculators would say which policies they expect to raise national welfare….

Futarchy is intended to be ideologically neutral; it could result in anything from an extreme socialism to an extreme minarchy, depending on what voters say they want, and on what speculators think would get it for them….

A betting market can estimate whether a proposed policy would increase national welfare by comparing two conditional estimates: national welfare conditional on adopting the proposed policy, and national welfare conditional on not adopting the proposed policy.

Get it? “Democracy would say what we want” and futarchy “could result in anything from an extreme socialism to an extreme minarchy, depending on what voters say they want.” Hanson the social engineer believes that the “values” to be maximized should be determined “democratically,” that is, by majorities (however slim) of voters. Further, it’s all right with Hanson if those majorities lead to socialism. So Hanson envisions national welfare that isn’t really national; it’s determined by what’s approved by one-half-plus-one of the persons who vote. Scratch that. It’s determined by the politicians who are elected by as few as one-half-plus-one of the persons who vote, and in turn by unelected bureaucrats and judges — many of whom were appointed by politicians long out of office. It is those unelected relics of barely elected politicians who really establish most of the rules that govern much of Americans’ economic and social behavior.

Hanson’s version of national welfare amounts to this: whatever is is right. If Hitler had been elected by a slim majority of Germans, thereby legitimating him in Hanson’s view, his directives would have expressed the national will of Germans and, to the extent that they were carried out, would have maximized the national welfare of Germany.

Hanson’s futarchy is so bizarre as to be laughable. Ralph Merkle nevertheless takes the ball from Hanson and runs with it:

We choose to be more specific [than Hanson] about the definition of what we shall call the “collective welfare”, for the very simple reason that “voting on values” retains the dubious voting mechanism as a core component of futarchy….

We can create a DAO Democracy capable of self-improvement which has unlimited growth potential by modifying futarchy to use an unmodifiable democratic collective welfare metric, adapting it to work as a Decentralized Autonomous Organization, implementing an initial system using simple components (these components including the democratic collective welfare metric, a mechanism for adopting legislation (bills)) and using a built-in prediction market to filter through and adopt proposals for improved components….

1) Anyone can propose a bill at any time….

8) Any existing law can be amended or repealed with the same ease with which a new law can be proposed….

13) The only time this governance process would support “the tyranny of the majority” would be if oppression of some minority actually made the majority better off, and the majority was made sufficiently better off that it outweighed the resulting misery to the minority.

So, for example, we should trust that the super-majority of voters whose incomes are below the national median wouldn’t further tax the voters whose incomes are above the national median? And we should assume that the below-median voters would eventually notice that the heavy-taxation policy is causing their real incomes to decline? And we should assume that those below-median voters would care in any event, given the psychic income they derive from sticking it to “the rich”? What a fairy tale. The next thing I would expect Merkle to assert is that the gentile majority of Germans didn’t applaud or condone the oppression of the Jewish minority, that Muslim hordes that surround Israel aren’t scheming to annihilate it, and on into the fantasy-filled night.

How many times must I say it? There is no such thing as a national, social, cosmic, global, or aggregate welfare function of any kind. (Go here for a long but probably not exhaustive list of related posts.)

To show why there’s no such thing as an aggregate welfare function, I usually resort to a homely example:

  • A dislikes B and punches B in the nose.
  • A is happier; B is unhappier.
  • Someone (call him Omniscient Social Engineer) somehow measures A’s gain in happiness, compares it with B’s loss of happiness, and declares that the former outweighs the latter. Thus it is a socially beneficial thing if A punches B in the nose, or the government takes money from B and gives it to A, or the government forces employers to hire people who look like A at the expense of people who look like B, etc.

If you’re a B — and there are a lot of them out there — do you believe that A’s gain somehow offsets your loss? Unless you’re a masochist or a victim of the Stockholm syndrome, you’ll be ticked off about what A has done to you, or government has done to you on A’s behalf. Who is an Omniscient Social Engineer — a Hanson or Merkle — to say that your loss is offset by A’s gain? That’s just pseudo-scientific hogwash, also known as utilitarianism. But that’s exactly what Hanson, Merkle, etc., are peddling when they invoke social welfare, national welfare, planetary welfare, or any other aggregate measure of welfare.

What about GDP as a measure of national welfare? Even economists — or most of them — admit that GDP doesn’t measure aggregate happiness, well-being, or any similar thing. To begin with, a lot of stuff is omitted from GDP, including so-called household production, which is the effort (not to mention love) that Moms (it’s usually Moms) put into the care, feeding, and hugging of their families. And for reasons hinted at in the preceding paragraph, the income that’s earned by A, B, C, etc., not only buys different things, but A, B, C, etc., place unique (and changing) values on those different things and derive different and unmeasurable degrees of happiness (and sometimes remorse) from them.

If GDP, which is is relatively easy to estimate (within a broad range of error), doesn’t measure national welfare, what could? Certainly not systems of the kind proposed by Hanson or Merkle, both of which pretend to aggregate that which can’t be aggregated: the happiness of an entire population. (Try it with one stranger, and see if you can arrive at a joint measure of happiness.)

The worst thing about utilitarian schemes and their real-world counterparts (regulation, progressive taxation, affirmative action, etc.) is that they are anti-libertarian. As I say here,

utilitarianism compromises liberty because it accords no value to individual decisions about preferred courses of action. Decisions, to a utilitarian, are valid only if they comply with the views of the utilitarian, who feigns omniscience about the (incommensurable) happiness of individuals.

No system can be better than the “system” of liberty, in which a minimal government protects its citizens from each other and from foreign enemies — and nothing else. Liberty was lost in the instant that government was empowered not only to protect A from B (and vice versa) but to inflict A’s preferences on B (and vice versa).

Futarchy — and every other utilitarian scheme — exhibits total disregard for liberty, and for the social norms on which it ultimately depends. That’s no surprise. Social or national welfare is obviously more important to utilitarians than liberty. If half of all Americans (or American voters) want something, all of us should have it, by God, even if “it” is virtual enslavement by the regulatory-welfare state, a declining rate of economic growth, and fewer jobs for young black men, who then take it out on each other, their neighbors, and random whites.

Patrick Henry didn’t say “Give me maximum national welfare or give me death,” he said “Give me liberty or give me death.” Liberty enables people to make their own choices about what’s best for them. And if they make bad choices, they can learn from them and go on to make better ones.

No better “system” has been invented or will ever be invented. Those who second-guess liberty — utilitarians, reformers, activists, social justice warriors, and all the rest — only undermine it. And in doing so, they most assuredly diminish the welfare of most people just to advance their own smug view of how the world should be arranged.

UTILITARIANISM AND GUN CONTROL VS. LIBERTY

Gun control has been much in the news in recent years and decades. The real problem isn’t guns, but morality, as discussed here. But arguments for gun control are utilitarian, and gun control is a serious threat to liberty.

Consider the relationship between guns and crime. Here is John Lott’s controversial finding (as summarized at Wikipedia several years ago):

[A]llowing adults to carry concealed weapons significantly reduces crime in America. [Lott] supports this position by an exhaustive tabulation of various social and economic data from census and other population surveys of individual United States counties in different years, which he fits into a large multifactorial mathematical model of crime rate. His published results generally show a reduction in violent crime associated with the adoption by states of laws allowing the general adult population to freely carry concealed weapons.

Suppose Lott is right. (There is good evidence that he isn’t wrong. RAND’s recent meta-study is laughably subjective.)

If more concealed weapons lead to less crime, then the proper utilitarian policy is for governments to be more lenient about owning and bearing firearms. A policy of leniency would also be consistent with two tenets of libertarian-conservatism:

  • the right of self-defense
  • taking responsibility for one’s own safety beyond that provided by guardians (be they family, friends, passing strangers, or minions of the state), because guardians can’t be everywhere, all the time, and aren’t always effective when they are present.

Only a foolish, extreme pacifist denies the first tenet. No one (but the same foolish pacifist) can deny the second tenet in good faith.

However, if Lott is right and government policy were to veer toward greater leniency, it is possible that more innocent persons will be killed by firearms than would otherwise be the case. The incidence of accidental shootings could rise, even as the rate of crime drops.

Which is worse, more crime or more accidental shootings? Not even a utilitarian can say, because no formula can objectively weigh the two things. (Not that that will stop a utilitarian from making up some weights, to arrive at a formula that supports his prejudice in the matter.) Both have psychological aspects (victimization, wound, grief) that defy quantification. The only reasonable way out of the dilemma is to favor liberty and punish wrong-doing where it occurs. The alternative — more restrictions on gun ownership — punishes many (those who would defend themselves), instead of punishing actual wrong-doers.

Suppose Lott is wrong, and more guns mean more crime. Would that militate against the right to own and bear arms? Only if utilitarianism is allowed to override liberty. Again, I would favor liberty, and punish wrong-doing where it occurs, instead of preventing some persons from defending themselves.

In sum, the ownership and carrying of guns isn’t a problem that’s amenable to a utilitarian solution. (Few problems are, and none of them involves government.) The ownership and carrying of guns is an emotional issue (and not only on the part of gun-grabbers). The natural reaction to highly publicized mass-shootings is to “do something”.

In fact, the “something” isn’t within the power of government to do, unless it undoes many policies that have subverted civil society over the past several decades. Mass shootings — and mass killings, in general — arise from social decay. Mass killings will not stop, or slow to a trickle, until the social decay stops and is reversed — which may be never.

So when the next restriction on guns fails to stop mass murder, the next restriction on guns (or explosives, etc.) will be adopted in an effort to stop it. And so on until self-defense, personal responsibility — and liberty — are fainter memories than they already are.

My point is that it doesn’t matter whether Lott is right or wrong. Utilitarianism has no place in it for liberty. My right to self-defense and my willingness to take personal responsibility for it —  given the likelihood that government will fail to defend me — shouldn’t be compromised by hysterical responses to notorious cases of mass murder. The underlying aim of the hysterics (and the left-wingers who encourage them) is the disarming of the populace. The necessary result will be the disarming of law-abiding citizens, so that they become easier prey for criminals and psychopaths.

A proper libertarian* eschews utilitarianism as a basis for government policy. The decision whether to own and carry a weapon for self-defense belongs to the individual, who (by his decision) accepts responsibility for his actions**. The role of the state in the matter is to deter aggressive acts on the part of criminals and psychopaths by visiting swift and certain justice upon them when they commit such acts.

CONCLUSION

Utilitarianism compromises liberty because it accords no value to the abilities, knowledge, and preferences of individuals. Decisions, to a utilitarian, are valid only if they serve to increase collective happiness, which is a mere fiction. Utilitarianism is nothing more than an excuse for imposing the utilitarian’s prejudices about the way the world ought to be.


* Libertarianism, by my reckoning, spans anarchism and the two major strains of minarchism: left-minarchism and right-minarchism. The internet-dominant strains of libertarianism (anarchism and left-minarchism) are, in fact, antithetical to liberty because they denigrate civil society. (For more on the fatuousness of  the dominant strains of “libertarianism,” see “On Liberty” and “The Meaning of Liberty”.) The conservative traditionalist (right-minarchist) is both a true libertarian and a true conservative.

** Criminals and psychopaths accept responsibility de facto, as persons subject to the laws that forbid the acts that they perform. Sane, law-abiding adults accept responsibility knowingly and willinglly. Restricting the ownership of firearms necessarily puts sane, law-abiding adults at the mercy of criminals and psychopaths.

Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and Leviathan

Rights arise from voluntary and enduring social relationships. In that respect, they are natural because they represent the accommodations that a people make with each other in order to coexist peacefully and to their mutual benefit. (Natural rights, as I define them, are not the same thing as the kind of “natural rights” that many philosophers, political theorists, mystics and opportunistic politicians claim to find hovering in human beings like Platonic essences. See this, this, this, and this, for example.)

Natural rights, in sum, are the interpersonal claims that a people agree upon and (mainly) observe in their daily interactions. The claims can be negative (do not kill, except in self-defense) or positive (children must be clothed, fed, and taught about rights). For reasons discussed later, such claims are valid and generally honored even if there isn’t a superior power (a chieftain, monarch, or state apparatus) to enforce them.

Liberty is the condition in which agreed rights are generally observed, and enforced when they are violated. Liberty, in other words, is the condition of peaceful, willing coexistence and its concomitant: beneficially cooperative behavior. Peaceful, willing coexistence does not imply “an absence of constraints, impediments, or interference”, which is a standard definition of liberty. Rather, it implies that there is necessarily a degree of compromise (voluntary constraint) for the sake of beneficially cooperative behavior. Even happy marriages are replete with voluntary constraints on behavior, constraints that enable the partners to enjoy the blessings of union.

That’s all there is to it. Liberty isn’t a nirvana-like state of euphoria; it’s just what everyday life is like when people are able to coexist by their own lights, perhaps under the aegis of a superior power which does nothing but ensure that they are able to do so.

The persistence of natural rights and liberty among a people is fostered primarily by mutual trust, respect, and forbearance. Punishment of violations of rights (and therefore of liberty) helps, too, as long as the punishment is generally agreed upon and applied consistently.

Natural rights, as discussed thus far, are distinct from “rights” (sometimes “natural rights”) that people demand of a superior power. (See, for example, the UN Declaration of Human Rights, which is a wish-list of things that people are “entitled” to.) Those are really privileges. Government can (and sometimes does) recognize and protect truly natural rights, but it doesn’t manufacture them. The Bill of Rights, for example, consists of a hodge-podge of actual rights (e.g., the right to bear arms), and privileges (e.g., protection from self-incrimination). Some of the latter are special dispensations made necessary by the existence of government itself, that is, promises made by the government to protect the people from its superior power.

As mentioned in passing earlier, rights are usually divided into two categories: negative and positive. Negative rights are natural rights that can be exercised without requiring anything of others but reciprocal forbearance [1]. Wikipedia puts it this way:

Adrian has a negative right to x against Clay if and only if Clay is prohibited from acting upon Adrian in some way regarding x…. A case in point, if Adrian has a negative right to life against Clay, then Clay is required to refrain from killing Adrian….

To spin out the example, there is a negative right not to be harmed (killed in this case) as long as Clay is forbidden to kill Adrian, Adrian is forbidden to kill Clay, both are forbidden to kill others, and others are forbidden to kill anyone. This is a widely understood and accepted negative right. But it is not an unconditional right. There are also widely understood and accepted exceptions to it, such as killing in self-defense.

In any event, the textbook explanation of negative rights, such as the one given by Wikipedia, is appealing. But it is simplistic, like John Stuart Mill’s harm principle.

“Negative rights” and “harm”, by themselves, are mere abstractions. It seems obvious that a person shouldn’t be harmed as long as he is doing no harm to others, which is the essence of Wikipedia‘s explanation. But “harm” is the operative word. Harm isn’t an abstraction; it’s a real thing — many real things — with concrete meanings. And those concrete meanings arise from social interactions and the norms born of them.

For example, libertarians consider it a negative right to sell one’s home to another person without interference by one’s neighbors (or the state acting on their behalf). One’s neighbors must forbear intervention, just as the seller must forbear intervention against the sales of the neighbors’ homes. But intervention may be necessary to prevent harm.

The part that libertarians usually get wrong is forbearance. Libertarians assume forbearance. They assume forbearance because they assume away — or simply ignore — the possibility that a voluntary transaction between two parties may result in harm to third parties.

But what if the buyer is an absentee owner who rents rooms to all and sundry (resulting in parking problems, an eyesore property, etc.)? Libertarians reject zoning as an infringement on the negative right of property ownership. So what are put-upon neighbors supposed to do about the absentee landlord who rents rooms to all and sundry? Well, the neighbors can always complain to the city government if things get out of hand, can’t they? Yes, but in the meantime harm will have been done, and the police may not be able to put a stop to it unless the harm actually violates a statute or ordinance that the police and courts are willing and able to enforce without being attacked as racist pigs, or some such thing.

Does the libertarian conception of negative rights have room in it for homeowners’ associations that actually allow neighborhoods to define harm, as it applies to their particular circumstances, and act to prevent it? In my experience, the libertarian conception of negative property rights — thou shalt not interfere in the sale of a house — has become enshrined in statutes and ordinances that de-fang homeowners’ associations, making them powerless to prevent harm by enforcing restrictive covenants (e.g., against renting rooms) that libertarians decry as infringements of negative rights.

The only negative rights worthy of the name are specific rights that are recognized within a voluntary and enduring association of persons. Violations of those rights undermine the fabric of mutual trust and mutual forbearance that enable a people to coexist in beneficial, voluntary cooperation. That — not some imaginary nirvana — is liberty.

By the same token, a voluntary and enduring association of persons can recognize positive rights. That is to say, positive rights — those broadly accepted as part and parcel of peaceful, willing coexistence and its concomitant: beneficially cooperative behavior — are just as much an aspect of liberty as are negative rights. (Doctrinaire libertarians, who aren’t really libertarians, mistakenly decry all positive rights as antithetical to liberty.)

Returning to the Wikipedia article quoted above, and the example of Adrian and Clay,

Adrian has a positive right to x against Clay if and only if Clay is obliged to act upon Adrian in some way regarding x…. [I]f Adrian has a positive right to life against Clay, then Clay is required to act as necessary to preserve the life of Adrian.

Negative and positive rights are compatible with each other in the context of the Golden Rule, or ethic of reciprocity: One should treat others as one would expect others to treat oneself. This is a truly natural law, for reasons I will come to.

The Golden Rule can be expanded into two, complementary sub-rules:

  • Do no harm to others, lest they do harm to you.
  • Be kind and charitable to others, and they will be kind and charitable to you.

The first sub-rule fosters negative rights. The second sub-rule fosters positive rights. But, as discussed earlier, the rights in question are specific — not abstract injunctions — because they are understood and recognized in the context of voluntary and enduring social relationships.

I call the Golden Rule a natural law because it’s neither a logical construct (e.g., the “given-if-then” formulation discussed here) nor a state-imposed one. Its long history and widespread observance (if only vestigial) suggest that it embodies an understanding that arises from the similar experiences of human beings across time and place. The resulting behavioral convention, the ethic of reciprocity, arises from observations about the effects of one’s behavior on that of others and mutual agreement (tacit or otherwise) to reciprocate preferred behavior, in the service of self-interest and empathy.

That is to say, the convention is a consequence of the observed and anticipated benefits of adhering to it. Those benefits accrue not only to the person who complies with the Golden Rule in a particular situation (the actor), but also to the person (or persons) who benefit from compliance (the beneficiary). The consequences of compliance don’t usually redound immediately to the actor, but they redound indirectly over the long-term because the actor (and many more like him) do their part to preserve the convention. It follows that the immediate impetus for observance of the convention is a mixture of two considerations: (a) an understanding of the importance of preserving the convention and (b) empathy on the part of the actor toward the beneficiary.

The Golden Rule will be widely observed within a group only if the members of the group are (a) generally agreed about the definition of harm, (b) value kindness and charity (in the main), and (c) perhaps most importantly see that their acts have beneficial consequences. If those conditions are not met, the Golden Rule descends from convention to slogan.

Is the Golden Rule susceptible of varying interpretations across groups, and is it therefore a vehicle for moral relativism? Yes, with qualifications. It’s true that groups vary in their conceptions of permissible behavior. For example, the idea of allowing, encouraging, or aiding the death of old persons is not everywhere condemned. (Many — with whom I wouldn’t choose to coexist voluntarily — embrace it as a concomitant of a government-run or government-regulated health-care “system” that treats the delivery of medical services as matter of rationing.) Infanticide has a long history in many cultures; modern, “enlightened” cultures have simply replaced it with abortion. (More behavior that is beyond the pale of my preferred society.) Slavery is still an acceptable practice in some places, though those enslaved (as in the past) usually are outsiders. Homosexuality has a long history of condemnation, and occasional acceptance. (To be pro-homosexual nowadays — and especially to favor homosexual “marriage” — has joined the litany of “causes” that connote membership in the tribe of “enlightened” “progressives” [a.k.a., “liberals” and leftists], along with being for abortion [i.e., pre-natal infanticide] and against the consumption of fossil fuels — except for one’s McMansion and SUV, of course.)

The foregoing recitation suggests a mixture of reasons for favoring or disfavoring various behaviors, that is, regarding them as beneficial or harmful. Those reasons range from utilitarianism (calculated weighing of costs and benefits) to status-signaling. In between, there are religious and consequentialist reasons for favoring or disfavoring various behaviors. Consequentialist reasoning goes like this: Behavior X can be indulged responsibly and without harm to others, but there a strong risk that it will not be indulged responsibly, or that it will lead to behavior Y, which has repercussions for others. Therefore, it’s better to put X off-limits, or to severely restrict and monitor it.

Consequentialist reasoning applies to euthanasia (it’s easy to slide from voluntary to involuntary acts, especially when the state controls the delivery of medical care); infanticide and abortion (forms of involuntary euthanasia and signs of disdain for life); homosexuality (a depraved, risky practice — especially among males — that can ensnare impressionable young persons who see it as an “easy” way to satisfy sexual urges); alcohol and drugs (addiction carries a high cost, for the addict, the addict’s family, and sometimes for innocent bystanders). In the absence of governmental edicts to the contrary, long-standing attitudes toward such behaviors would prevail in most places. (Socially and geographically isolated enclaves are welcome to kill themselves off and purify the gene pool.)

The exceptions discussed above to the contrary notwithstanding, there’s a mainstream interpretation of the Golden Rule — one that still holds in many places — which rules out certain kinds of behavior, except in extreme situations, and permits certain other kinds of behavior. There is, in other words, a “core” Golden Rule that comes down to this:

  • Killing is wrong, except in self-defense. (Capital punishment is just that: punishment. It’s also a deterrent to murder. It isn’t “murder,” muddle-headed defenders of baby-murder to the contrary notwithstanding.)
  • Various kinds of unauthorized “takings” are wrong, including theft (outright and through deception). (This explains popular resistance to government “takings” ,especially when it’s done on behalf of private parties. The view that it’s all right to borrow money from a bank and not repay it arises from the mistaken beliefs that (a) it’s not tantamount to theft and (b) it harms no one because banks can “afford it”.)
  • Libel and slander are wrong because they are “takings” by word instead of deed.
  • It is wrong to turn spouse against spouse, child against parent, or friend against friend. (And yet, such things are commonly portrayed in books, films, and plays as if they are normal occurrences, often desirable ones. And it seems to me that reality increasingly mimics “art”.)
  • It is right to be pleasant and kind to others, even under provocation, because “a mild answer breaks wrath: but a harsh word stirs up fury” (Proverbs 15:1).
  • Charity is a virtue, but it should begin at home, where the need is most certain and the good deed is most likely to have its intended effect. (Leftists turn a virtue into an imposition when they insist that “charity” — as in income redistribution — is a proper job of government.)

None of these observations would be surprising to a person raised in the Judeo-Christian tradition, or even in the less vengeful branches of Islam. The observations would be especially unsurprising to an American who was raised in a rural, small-town, or small-city setting, well removed from a major metropolis, or who was raised in an ethnic enclave in a major metropolis. For it is such persons and, to some extent, their offspring who are the principal heirs and keepers of the Golden Rule in America.

An ardent individualist — particularly an anarcho-capitalist — might insist that social comity can be based on the negative sub-rule, which is represented by the first five items in the “core” list. I doubt it. There’s but a short psychological distance from mean-spiritedness — failing to be kind and charitable — to sociopathy, a preference for harmful acts. Ardent individualists will disagree with me because they view kindness and charity as their business, and no one else’s. They’re right about that, but kindness and charity are nevertheless indispensable to the development of mutual trust among people who in an enduring social relationship. Without mutual trust, mutual restraint becomes problematic and co-existence becomes a matter of “getting the other guy before he gets you” — a convention that I hereby dub the Radioactive Rule.

Nevertheless, the positive sub-rule, which is represented by the final two items in the “core” list, can be optional for the occasional maverick. An extreme individualist (or introvert or grouch) could be a member in good standing of a society that lives by the Golden Rule. He would be a punctilious practitioner of the negative rule, and would not care that his unwillingness to offer kindness and charity resulted in coldness toward him. Coldness is all he would receive (and want) because, as a punctilious practitioner of the negative rule; his actions wouldn’t necessarily invite harm.

But too many extreme individualists would threaten the delicate balance of self-interested and voluntarily beneficial behavior that’s implied in the Golden Rule. Even if lives and livelihoods did not depend on acts of kindness and charity — and they probably would — mistrust would set it in. And from there, it would be a short distance to the Radioactive Rule.

Of course, the delicate balance would be upset if the Golden Rule were violated with impunity. For that reason, the it must be backed by sanctions. Non-physical sanctions would range from reprimands to ostracism. For violations of the negative sub-rule, imprisonment and corporal punishment would not be out of the question.

Now comes a dose of reality. Self-governance is possible only for a group of about 25 to 150 persons: the size of a hunter-gatherer band or Hutterite colony. It seems that self-governance breaks down when a group is larger than 150 persons. Why should that happen? Because mutual trust, mutual respect, and mutual forbearance — the things implied in the Golden Rule — depend very much on personal connections. A person who is loathe to say a harsh word to an acquaintance, friend, or family member — even when provoked — often waxes abusive toward strangers, especially in this era of e-mail and comment threads, where face-to-face encounters aren’t involved.

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

The preference of like for like is derided by libertarians and leftists as tribalism, which is like the pot calling the kettle black. There’s no one who is more tribal than a leftist, who weighs every word spoken by another person to ensure that person’s alignment with the left’s current dogmas. (Libertarians have it easier, inasmuch as most of them are loners by disposition, and thrive on contrariness.) But the preference of like for like is quite rational: Cooperation and help include mutual defense (and concerted attack, in the case of leftists).

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

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

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

The all-powerful state destroys liberty, even while sometimes defending it. This is done not just by dictating how people must live their lives, which is bad enough. It is also done by eroding the social bonds that liberty is built upon — the bonds that secure peaceful, willing coexistence and its concomitant: beneficially cooperative behavior.
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[1] Here is a summary of negative rights, by Randy Barnett:

A libertarian … favors the rigorous protection of certain individual rights that define the space within which people are free to choose how to act. These fundamental rights consist of (1) the right of private property, which includes the property one has in one’s own person; (2) the right of freedom of contract by which rights are transferred by one person to another; (3) the right of first possession, by which property comes to be owned from an unowned state; (4) the right to defend oneself and others when fundamental rights are being threatened; and (5) the right to restitution or compensation from those who violate another’s fundamental rights. [“Is the Constitution Libertarian?”, Georgetown Public Law Research Paper No. 1432854 (posted at SSRN July 14, 2009), p. 3]

Borrowing from and elaborating on Barnett’s list, I come to the following set of negative rights:

  • freedom from force and fraud (including the right of self-defense against force)
  • property ownership (including the right of first possession)
  • freedom of contract (including contracting to employ/be employed)
  • freedom of association and movement
  • restitution or compensation for violations of the foregoing rights.

This set of negative rights that would obtain in a state which devolves political decisions to the level of socially cohesive groups, while serving only as the defender of such rights (in the last resort) against domestic and foreign predators.

Order vs. Authority

I am an orderly person: an organized, neat, planner. As an orderly person, I have no problem with the idea of living in a community where one’s property must conform to certain standards: the color of house paint, style of siding, height of grass, prompt removal of empty trash bins from the street, only guests’ cars parked in the street (and not overnight), garage door closed when garage isn’t in use, etc.

I know people who object to such rules, and consider them authoritarian. But the occupant of a community with strict environmental standards knows (or should know) what he’s getting into. Living in a regime of strict environmental standards as a matter of choice doesn’t signify a preference for authoritarianism, it signifies a preference for neatness. I, for one, have no desire to push other people around; leave me alone and I’ll leave you alone.

Oddly, though, the people I know who express disdain for communities with strict environmental standards like to think of themselves as “libertarian”. But they are not; they are “liberals” who have a strong preference for authoritarianism, that is, pushing other people around (e.g., Obamacare, “green” regulations). It’s just that, like most people, they don’t like to be pushed around. There’s no better word for such people than “hypocrite”.

My View of Mill, Endorsed

Scott Yenor, writing in “The Problem with the ‘Simple Principle’ of Liberty” (Law & Liberty, March 19, 2018), makes a point about J.S. Mill’s harm principle that I have made many times. Yenor begins by quoting the principle:

The sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. . . . The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. . . .The only part of the conduct of anyone, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part that merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.

This is the foundational principle of libertarianism, and it is deeply flawed, as Yenor argues (successfully, in my view). He ends with this:

[T]he simple principle of [individual] liberty undermines community and compromises character by compromising the family. As common identity and the family are necessary for the survival of liberal society—or any society—I cannot believe that modes of thinking based on the “simple principle” alone suffice for a governing philosophy. The principle works when a country has a moral people, but it doesn’t make a moral people.

Here are some of the posts in which I address liberty as Mill saw it and as I see it:

On Liberty
Parsing Political Philosophy
Pseudo-Libertarian Sophistry vs. True Libertarianism
More Pseudo-Libertarianism
The Meaning of Liberty
Understanding Hayek
Burkean Libertarianism
What Is Libertarianism?
True Libertarianism, One More Time
Why Conservatism WorksLiberty and Society
Defending Liberty against (Pseudo) Libertarians
Defining Liberty
The Pseudo-Libertarian Temperament
Parsing Political Philosophy (II)
Getting Liberty Wrong
My View of Libertarianism
Social Norms and Liberty
More About Social Norms and Liberty
Individualism, Society, and Liberty
The Harm Principle Revisited: Mill Conflates Society and State
Liberty and Social Norms Re-examined

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