Control vs. Competition: Striking the Balance

Rare is the person who doesn’t have a definite view of how the world should be — at least those aspects of it that are important to the person. Even “libertarians” have proven themselves of dictatorial bent in such matters as the state-enforced redefinition of marriage as between anyone and anyone.

Having held a senior management position that made me responsible for the business side of a think-tank full of prime donne analysts (my customers), I know that control is necessary in any organization which strives to survive and thrive. Control is always there, if not in minute-to-minute micromanagement then in the design of processes and performance standards. The more indirect the ways and means of control the happier (generally) will workers be. (There are, of course, some workers who need and seek close direction, and some who need but reject it. Neither type fared well in my regime.)

If you are intelligent and competent, the urge to control can be very strong in you, especially if you are highly conscientious. You want to get things done, and done right. And you aren’t often sure that the people who work for you are capable of doing things right unless you (a) give them a lot of direction and (b) establish processes that help to ensure that their jobs are performed well.

The urge to control — in the manner I just outlined — may seem to conflict with “libertarian” and free-market principles. The reduction or absence of control is touted as the way to ensure that good ideas, systems, and processes are offered up and adopted through demonstrations of their superiority, which leads to and emulation and further innovation. By the same token, the controllers and their systems are forced to prove their worth, rather than appeal to authority (“Because I say so.”) or use authority (regulation) to maintain control.

There is something to be said for both ways of ordering the world. Chaos and inefficiency would reign if organizations (from families to huge corporations) were anarchic. Order and efficiency might emerge here and there because of the instinct to survive and the pressure of competition, but turmoil and waste would abound.

The spontaneous order of “libertarians” and free markets isn’t necessarily instantaneous order. It may take some disastrous wrecks at busy intersections before drivers generally adopt a stop-and-look-and-yield-to-the-car-on-the-right rule. Government institutionalizes the rule by installing stop signs or traffic lights. Government, on the other hand, doesn’t do much between the stop signs and traffic lights, except to arrest and fine violators of speed limits and reckless drivers often enough (in theory) to procure a relatively safe and steady flow of traffic.

Similarly, individual firms may be tightly controlled — whether overtly through micro-management or covertly through processes that have the same effect. But free markets give those firms room in which to innovate, market, and price their products so that consumers get good value for their money, while badly run firms fall by the wayside. In this instance, government (ideally) polices firms only to ensure that they don’t sell dangerous products and services, don’t despoil the environment, and don’t cheat their customers. Government, of course, doesn’t limit itself to minimal interventions because the urge to dictate is made real, all too often, by the power of government to shape commerce to its liking rather than to the tastes and preferences of consumers.

Putting government aside (and how I wish we could, for the most part), there is a flaw in the picture of controlled firms competing freely for consumers’ favor. The flaw is obvious in this reductio ad absurdum: There is one firm in the United States that produces all products and services. The firm has many subdivisions, each of which operates according to protocols that range from minute micro-management to loose-seeming processes that guide workers in the “right” direction. But the giant firm has no competitors and so its output accords with the wishes of its managers, which mesh with consumers’ wishes only by sheer luck.

The easily recognizable result is equivalent to state socialism. The are two reasons that a self-proclaimed socialist won’t embrace mega-corporatism. The first is that he might not (and probably wouldn’t be) in charge of it. The second is that he believes, beyond reason, that transforming a private person into a government bureaucrat magically transforms him into all-wise, all-knowing, beneficent servants of the people with not wish whatsoever to impose his personal worldview on others.

What about something closer to the current situation, in which important industries are dominated by one firm or a few firms, but those industries compete furiously with each other for consumers’ patronage? That’s a far better situation than the corporate equivalent of state socialism, but it still means that a lot of what becomes available to consumers depends on the whims of corporate bureaucrats and is, at best, sluggishly responsive to consumers’ wants. Overlay it with the heavy hand of government regulation and you get something much closer to state socialism.

The irony of the anti-trust movement of the late 1800s and early 1900s was that it (temporarily) broke up the monopolies of the day, but instituted regulatory agencies that simply (and with greater force) replicated the inefficiencies and unresponsiveness of the monopolies. That is to say, the anti-trust movement (which still has a lot of life in it) brought the U.S. closer to state socialism and the resulting evils of non-competitiveness.

Is there a golden mean of sorts, a combination of orderliness in the small that yields order and efficiency in the large? Classical microeconomic theory posits the perfectly competitive market as the golden mean. The theoretical result of perfect competition is more of everything, which is another way of saying that competition pushes costs down because it squeezes out inefficiency and “excess” profits. But economists recognize that perfect competition is a theoretical ideal that is seldom if ever attainable in the real world, and then only in isolated cases.

Various kinds of less-than-perfect competition — and even monopolies in some industries — are therefore not only inevitable but also desirable from the consumer’s point of view. The massive deadweight losses inflicted by regulation cannot conceivably be worth the theoretical losses resulting from less-than-perfect competition. And regulation is just one aspect of a burdensome control apparatus — government — that has robbed Americans of trillions of dollars over the decades.

The moral of the story: Control what you can if it makes you feel better. Control what you can if it makes your business more profitable. But aside from the obvious things, like controlling crime and foreign enemies, don’t use government to make the world conform to your idea of what it should be like. You’ll only make yourself poorer — and less free.

(See also “Economics: A Survey” and “Putting in Some Good Words for Monopoly“.)

Whither (Wither) Classical Liberalism — and America?

John O. McGinnis, in “The Waning Fortunes of Classical Liberalism“, bemoans the state of the ideology which was born in the Enlightenment, came to maturity in the writings of J.S. Mill, had its identity stolen by modern “liberalism”, and was reborn (in the U.S.) as the leading variety of libertarianism (i.e., minarchism). McGinnis says, for example that

the greatest danger to classical liberalism is the sharp left turn of the Democratic Party. This has been the greatest ideological change of any party since at least the Goldwater revolution in the Republican Party more than a half a century ago….

It is certainly possible that such candidates [as Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Pete Buttigieg] will lose to Joe Biden or that they will not win against Trump. But they are transforming the Democratic Party just as Goldwater did the Republican Party. And the Democratic Party will win the presidency at some time in the future. Recessions and voter fatigue guarantee rotation of parties in office….

Old ideas of individual liberty are under threat in the culture as well. On the left, identity politics continues its relentless rise, particularly on university campuses. For instance, history departments, like that at my own university, hire almost exclusively those who promise to impose a gender, race, or colonial perspective on the past. The history that our students hear will be one focused on the West’s oppression of the rest rather than the reality that its creation of the institutions of free markets and free thought has brought billions of people out of poverty and tyranny that was their lot before….

And perhaps most worrying of all, both the political and cultural move to the left has come about when times are good. Previously, pressure on classical liberalism most often occurred when times were bad. The global trend to more centralized forms of government and indeed totalitarian ones in Europe occurred in the 1920s and 1930s in the midst of a global depression. The turbulent 1960s with its celebration of social disorder came during a period of hard economic times. Moreover, in the United States, young men feared they might be killed in faraway land for little purpose.

But today the economy is good, the best it has been in at least a decade. Unemployment is at a historical low. Wages are up along with the stock market. No Americans are dying in a major war. And yet both here and abroad parties that want to fundamentally shackle the market economy are gaining more adherents. If classical liberalism seems embattled now, its prospects are likely far worse in the next economic downturn or crisis of national security.

McGinnis is wrong about the 1960s being “a period of hard economic times” — in America, at least. The business cycle that began in 1960 and ended in 1970 produced the second-highest rate of growth in real GDP since the end of World War II. (The 1949-1954 cycle produced the highest rate of growth.)

But in being wrong about that non-trivial fact, McGinnis inadvertently points to the reason that “the political and cultural move to the left has come about when times are good”. The reason is symbolized by main cause of social disorder in the 1960s (and into the early 1970s), namely, that “young men feared they might be killed in faraway land for little purpose”.

The craven behavior of supposedly responsible adults like LBJ, Walter Cronkite, Clark Kerr, and many other well-known political, media, educational, and cultural leaders — who allowed themselves to be bullied by essentially selfish protests against the Vietnam War — revealed the greatest failing of the so-called greatest generation: a widespread failure to inculcate personal responsibility in their children. The same craven behavior legitimated the now-dominant tool of political manipulation: massive, boisterous, emotion-laden appeals for this, that, and the other privilege du jour — appeals that left-wing politicians encourage and often lead; appeals that nominal conservatives often accede to rather than seem “mean”.

The “greatest” generation spawned the first generation of the spoiled children of capitalism:

The rot set after World War II. The Taylorist techniques of industrial production put in place to win the war generated, after it was won, an explosion of prosperity that provided every literate American the opportunity for a good-paying job and entry into the middle class. Young couples who had grown up during the Depression, suddenly flush (compared to their parents), were determined that their kids would never know the similar hardships.

As a result, the Baby Boomers turned into a bunch of spoiled slackers, no longer turned out to earn a living at 16, no longer satisfied with just a high school education, and ready to sell their votes to a political class who had access to a cornucopia of tax dollars and no doubt at all about how they wanted to spend it. And, sadly, they passed their principles, if one may use the term so loosely, down the generations to the point where young people today are scarcely worth using for fertilizer.

In 1919, or 1929, or especially 1939, the adolescents of 1969 would have had neither the leisure nor the money to create the Woodstock Nation. But mommy and daddy shelled out because they didn’t want their little darlings to be caught short, and consequently their little darlings became the worthless whiners who voted for people like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama [and who Bill Clinton and Barack Obama], with results as you see them. Now that history is catching up to them, a third generation of losers can think of nothing better to do than camp out on Wall Street in hopes that the Cargo will suddenly begin to arrive again.

Good luck with that.

[From “The Spoiled Children of Capitalism”, posted in October 2011 at Dyspepsia Generation but no longer available there.]

I have long shared that assessment of the Boomer generation, and subscribe to the view that the rot set in after World War II, and became rampant after 1963., when the post-World War II children of the “greatest generation” came of age.

Which brings me to Bryan Caplan’s post, “Poverty, Conscientiousness, and Broken Families”. Caplan — who is all wet when it comes to pacifism and libertarianism — usually makes sense when he describes the world as it is rather than as he would like it to be. He writes:

[W]hen leftist social scientists actually talk to and observe the poor, they confirm the stereotypes of the harshest Victorian.  Poverty isn’t about money; it’s a state of mind.  That state of mind is low conscientiousness.

Case in point: Kathryn Edin and Maria KefalasPromises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage.  The authors spent years interviewing poor single moms.  Edin actually moved into their neighborhood to get closer to her subjects.  One big conclusion:

Most social scientists who study poor families assume financial troubles are the cause of these breakups [between cohabitating parents]… Lack of money is certainly a contributing cause, as we will see, but rarely the only factor.  It is usually the young father’s criminal behavior, the spells of incarceration that so often follow, a pattern of intimate violence, his chronic infidelity, and an inability to leave drugs and alcohol alone that cause relationships to falter and die.

Furthermore:

Conflicts over money do not usually erupt simply because the man cannot find a job or because he doesn’t earn as much as someone with better skills or education.  Money usually becomes an issue because he seems unwilling to keep at a job for any length of time, usually because of issues related to respect.  Some of the jobs he can get don’t pay enough to give him the self-respect he feels he needs, and others require him to get along with unpleasant customers and coworkers, and to maintain a submissive attitude toward the boss.

These passages focus on low male conscientiousness, but the rest of the book shows it’s a two-way street.  And even when Edin and Kefalas are talking about men, low female conscientiousness is implicit.  After all, conscientious women wouldn’t associate with habitually unemployed men in the first place – not to mention alcoholics, addicts, or criminals.

Low conscientiousness was the bane of those Boomers who, in the 1960s and 1970s, chose to “drop out” and “do drugs”. It will be the bane of the Gen Yers who do the same thing. But, as usual, “society” will be expected to pick up the tab, with food stamps, subsidized housing, drug rehab programs, Medicaid, and so on.

Before the onset of America’s welfare state in the 1930s, there were two ways to survive: work hard or accept whatever charity came your way. And there was only one way for most persons to thrive: work hard. That all changed after World War II, when power-lusting politicians sold an all-too-willing-to-believe electorate a false and dangerous bill of goods, namely, that government is the source of prosperity — secular salvation. It is not, and never has been.

McGinnis is certainly right about the decline of classical liberalism and probably right about the rise of leftism. But why is he right? Leftism will continue to ascend as long as the children of capitalism are spoiled. Classical liberalism will continue to wither because it has no moral center. There is no there there to combat the allure of “free stuff“.

Scott Yenor, writing in “The Problem with the ‘Simple Principle’ of Liberty”, makes a point about J.S. Mill’s harm principle — the heart of classical liberalism — 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 classical liberalism (a.k.a. minarchistic 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.

Conservatism, by contrast, is anchored in moral principles, which are reflected in deep-seated social norms, at the core of which are religious norms — a bulwark of liberty. But principled conservatism (as opposed to the attitudinal kind) isn’t a big seller in this age of noise:

I mean sound, light, and motion — usually in combination. There are pockets of serenity to be sure, but the amorphous majority wallows in noise: in homes with blaring TVs; in stores, bars, clubs, and restaurants with blaring music, TVs, and light displays; in movies (which seem to be dominated by explosive computer graphics), in sports arenas (from Olympic and major-league venues down to minor-league venues, universities, and schools); and on an on….

The prevalence of noise is telling evidence of the role of mass media in cultural change. Where culture is “thin” (the vestiges of the past have worn away) it is susceptible of outside influence…. Thus the ease with which huge swaths of the amorphous majority were seduced, not just by noise but by leftist propaganda. The seduction was aided greatly by the parallel, taxpayer-funded efforts of public-school “educators” and the professoriate….

Thus did the amorphous majority bifurcate. (I locate the beginning of the bifurcation in the 1960s.) Those who haven’t been seduced by leftist propaganda have instead become resistant to it. This resistance to nanny-statism — the real resistance in America — seems to be anchored by members of that rapidly dwindling lot: adherents and practitioners of religion, especially between the two Left Coasts.

That they are also adherents of traditional social norms (e.g., marriage can only be between a man and a woman), upholders of the Second Amendment, and (largely) “blue collar” makes them a target of sneering (e.g., Barack Obama who called them “bitter clingers”; Hillary Clinton called them “deplorables”)….

[But as long] as a sizeable portion of the populace remains attached to traditional norms — mainly including religion — there will be a movement in search of and in need of a leader [after Trump]. But the movement will lose potency if such a leader fails to emerge.

Were that to happen, something like the old, amorphous society might re-form, but along lines that the remnant of the old, amorphous society wouldn’t recognize. In a reprise of the Third Reich, the freedoms of association, speech, and religious would have been bulldozed with such force that only the hardiest of souls would resist going over to the dark side. And their resistance would have to be covert.

Paradoxically, 1984 may lie in the not-too-distant future, not 36 years in the past. When the nation is ruled by one party (guess which one), footvoting will no longer be possible and the nation will settle into a darker version of the Californian dystopia.

It is quite possible that the elections of 2020 or 2024 will bring about the end of the great experiment in liberty that began in 1776. And with that end, the traces of classical liberalism will all but vanish, along with liberty. Unless something catastrophic shakes the spoiled children of capitalism so hard that their belief in salvation through statism is destroyed. Not just destroyed, but replaced by a true sense of fellowship with other Americans (including “bitter clingers” and “deplorables”) — not the ersatz fellowship with convenient objects of condescension that elicits virtue-signaling political correctness.

Economics Explained — Part II: Economic Principles in Perspective

This is the second installment of a long post. I may revise it as I post later parts. The whole will be published as a page, for ease of reference. If you haven’t read “Part I: What Is Economics About?“, you may benefit from doing so before you embark on this part.

What Drives Us

Humans are driven by the survival instinct and a host of psychological urges, which vary from person to person. Those urges include but are far from limited to the self-aggrandizement (ego), the need for love and friendship, and the need to be in control (which includes the needs to possess things and to control others, both in widely varying degrees). Economic activity, as I have said, excludes matters of love and friendship (though not calculated relationships that may seem like friendship), but aside from those things — which influence personal economic activity (e.g., the need to provide for loved ones) — there are more motivations for economic activity than can be dreamt of by economists. Those motivations are shaped genes and culture, which are so varied and malleable (in the case of culture) that specific knowledge about them is useful only to the purveyors of particular goods.

Therefore, economists long ago (and wisely) eschewed models of economic behavior that impute particular motivations to economic activity. Instead they said that individuals seek to maximize utility (something like happiness or satisfaction), whatever that might be for particular individuals. Similarly, they said that firms seek to maximize profits, which is easier to quantify because profit is measured in monetary units (dollars in America).

Irrational Rationality

Further, economists used to say that individuals act rationally when they strive to maximize utility. Behavioral economists (e.g., Richard Thaler) have challenged the rationality hypothesis by showing that personal choices are often irrational (in the judgment of the behavioral economist). The case of “saving too little” for retirement is often invoked in support of interventions (including interventions by the state) to “nudge” individuals toward making the “right” choices (in the judgment of the behavioral economist). The behavioral economist would thus impose his own definition of rational behavior (e.g., wealth-maximization) on individuals. This is arrogance in the extreme. All that the early economists meant by rationality was that individuals strive to make choices that advance their particular preferences.

Wealth-maximization is one such preference, but far from the only one. A young worker, for example, may prefer buying a car (that enables him to get to work faster than he could by riding a bus) to saving for his retirement. There are many other objections to the imposition of behavioral economists’ views. The links at the end of “No Tears for Cass Sunstein” (Thaler’s co-conspirator) will lead you to some of them. That post and the posts linked to at the end of it also provide insights into the authoritarian motivations of Thaler, Sunstein, and their ilk.

The Rise of Corporate Irresponsibility

Turning to firms — the providers of goods that satisfy wants — I have to say that the profit-maximization motive has been eroded by the rise of huge firms that are led and managed by bureaucrats rather than inventors, innovators, and entrepreneurs. The ownership of large firms is, in most cases, widely distributed and indirect (i.e., huge blocks of stock are held in diversified mutual-fund portfolios). This makes it possible for top managers (enabled by compliant boards of directors) to adopt policies that harm shareholders’ financial interests for the sake of presenting a “socially responsible” (“woke”) image of the firm to … whom?

The firm’s existing customers aren’t the general public, they are specific segments of the general public, and some of those segments don’t take kindly to public-relations ploys that flout the values that they (the specific segments) hold dearly. (Gillette and Dick’s Sporting Goods are recent cases in point.) The “whom” might therefore consist of segments of the public that the firms’ managers hope will buy the firm’s products because of the firm’s pandering. and — more likely — influential figures in business, politics, the arts, the media, etc., whom the managers are eager to impress.

“Social responsibility” fiascos are only part of the picture. Huge, bureaucratic firms are no more efficient in their use of resources to satisfy consumers’ wants than are huge, bureaucratic governments that (at best) provide essential services (defense and justice) but in fact provide services that politicians and bureaucrats are “needed” in order to buy votes and make work for themselves.

The bottom line here is that the satisfaction of consumers’ wants has been compromised badly. And the combination of government interventions and corporate misfeasance has made the economy far less productive than it could be.

The Flip Side of Economics: Failure to Produce

Economics, therefore, is about the satisfaction of human wants through the production and exchange of goods, given available resources. It is also about the failure to maximize the satisfaction of wants, given available resources, because of government interventions and corporate misfeasance.

The gross underperformance of America’s economy illustrates an important but usually neglected principle of economics: Every decision has an opportunity cost. When you choose to buy a car, for example, you forgo the opportunity to buy something else for the same amount of money. That something else, presumably, would afford you less satisfaction (utility) than the car. Or so the theory goes. But whether it would or wouldn’t isn’t for a behavioral economist to say.

Individuals (and firms) often make choices that they later regret. It’s called learning from experience. But “nudging”, government interventions, and corporate sluggishness reduce the opportunity to learn from experience. (Government interventions and corporate sluggishness also prevent, as I have said, behaviors that are essential to economic vitality: invention, innovation, and entrepreneurship.)

Government interventions also incentivize economically and personally destructive behavior. There are many estimates of the costs of government interventions (e.g., this one and those documented quarterly in Regulation magazine) and a multitude of examples of the personally destructive behavior engendered by government interventions. It is impossible to say which intervention has been the most harmful to the citizenry, but if pressed I would choose the thing broadly called “welfare”, which disincentivizes work and is an important cause of the dissolution of black (welfare-dependent) families, with attendant (and dire) results (educational, occupational, criminal) that bleeding hearts prefer to attribute to “racism”. If not in second place, but high up on my list, is the counterproductive response (by government at the prodding of bleeding hearts) to homelessness.

Thus we have yet another principle: the “law” of unintended consequences. Unintended consequences are the things that aren’t meant to happen — but which do happen — when an actor (be it governmental, corporate, or individual) doesn’t think about (or chooses to minimize or ignore) when it or he focuses on a particular problem or desire to the exclusion of other problems or desires. Individuals can learn from unintended consequences; governments and, increasingly, corporations are too rule-bound and infested by special interests to do so.

None of what I have said about corporations should be taken as an endorsement of governmental interventions to make them somehow more efficient and responsible. (The law of unintended consequences applies in spades when it comes to government.) The only justification for state action with respect to firms is to keep them from doing things that are inimical to liberty and can’t be rectified by private action. In an extreme case, a business that specializes in murder for hire is (or should be) a target for closure and prosecution. A business that sells a potentially harmful product (e.g., guns, cigarettes) isn’t a valid target of state action because the harmful use of the product is the responsibility of the buyer, product-liability law to the contrary notwithstanding.

What about a business that collaborates (perhaps tacitly) with other businesses or special interests to prevent the expression of views that are otherwise protected by the First Amendment but which are opposed by the managers of the business and their political allies? There are good arguments for a hand-off approach, in that markets — if they are allowed to operate freely — will provide alternatives that allow the expression (and wide circulation) of “objectionable” views. If anti-trust actions against purveyors of oil and steel (two take two examples from the past) are inadvisable (as I have argued), aren’t anti-trust actions against purveyors of information and ideas equally inadvisable? There is a qualitative difference between economic rapacity and what amounts to a war that is being waged by one segment of the nation against other segments of the nation. (See for example, “The Subtle Authoritarianism of the ‘Liberal Order’“.) Government action to defend the besieged segments is therefore fitting and proper. (See “Preemptive (Cold) Civil War“.)

Economics and Liberty

This brings me to the gravest economic threat to liberty, which is state socialism and its variants: communism, fascism, and social democracy. All of them vest control of the economy in the state, when not through outright state ownership of the means of production, then through laws and regulations that dictate allowable types of economic output, the means and methods of its production, and its beneficiaries. The United States has long been burdened with what has been called a “mixed” economic system, which is in fact a social democracy — an economy that has many of the trappings of free-market capitalism but is in fact heavily managed by governments (federal, State, and local) in the service of “social justice” and various trendy causes.

The most recent of these is the puritanical, often hypocritical, and anti-scientific effort to rescue the planet from “climate change”. The opportunity cost of this futile undertaking, were it conducted according to the dictates of its most strident supporters, would be a vast share of the economic output of the the Western world (inasmuch as Russia, China, India, and even Japan are disinclined to participate), thus demoting America and Western Europe to Third-World status and rendering them vulnerable to economic and military blackmail by Russia and China. (Old grudges die hard.) You can be sure, however, that even in their vastly diminished state, the Western “democracies” would find the resources with which to cosset the ruling class of politicians and their favorites.

Proponents of state action often defend it by adverting to the paradox of collective action, which is that individuals and firms, acting in what they perceive to be their own interests, can bring about a disaster that engulfs them. “Climate change” is the latest such so-called disaster. What the proponents of state action always omit to consider (or mention) is that state action itself can bring about a disaster that engulfs all of us. The attempt to control “climate change” is just such an action, and it is of the more dangerous kind because government programs, once started, are harder to turn around than the relatively modest and inexpensive projects of individuals and firms.

You may think that I have strayed a long way from the principles of economics. But I haven’t, if you’ve been following closely. What I have done — or tried to do — is put economic activity in perspective. Which is to say that I’ve tried to show that economic activity may be important and even crucial to our lives, but it is not the only important and crucial thing in our lives. Economic activity is shaped by government and culture. If the battle to contain government is successful, and if the battle to preserve a culture of personal responsibility and respect for traditional norms is successful, economic activity will thrive and be worth the striving.

Ruthless Reason

Thanks to someone (I don’t remember who it was), I found The Orthosphere, which I am now following. The first post that I read there is “Beware the Jaws of Ruthless Reason“, by Jonathan M. Smith. It is replete with statements that I fully endorse; for example:

I think we must grant that the Left is more slavishly addicted to Reason than the Right—or at least than the genuine Right.  There are, needless to say, many spurious men of the Right who betray their spuriosity by boasting about their ruthless reasoning; but genuine men of the Right have always been chary of Reason because they see that Reason is ruthless.

And because Reason is ruthless, they see that it must be kept on a very stout chain.

When I say that Reason is ruthless, I mean that it respects nothing but itself, and that when it is let off its chain, it will therefore chew to pieces anything with which it disagrees.  To see what this means, you have only to look at any specimen of modern architecture.  Reason chewed away any ornament that did not answer the demands of Reason, and the naked box that remained was utterly inhuman….

A man of the Right does not deny that Reason is often a very good thing.  But because it is not the only good thing, he knows it would be very bad to let it off of its chain to mutilate and maul everything else that is good.  He finds that Reason turns up its nose at other things he approves, both in the world and in himself.

And that Reason will chew these things to pieces if he lets it….

Political theory is produced almost exclusively by the Left, for they have an idea that human felicity requires the discovery and universal application of a despotic principle. Equality is the despotic principle of the overt Left; Freedom is the despotic principle of the covert Left or spurious Right.

Now a genuine man of the Right does not deny that Equality and Freedom can often be very good things, but because they are not the only good things, he knows it would be very bad for them to become despotic principles that will mutilate and maul everything else that is good….

A genuine man of the Right will wish to conserve many principles.  He sees that reason is good, but that despotic Reason will destroy loveliness and loyalty.  He sees that equality is good, but that despotic Equality will destroy justice and love.  He sees that freedom is good, but that despotic Freedom will destroy decency and solidarity.

This reminds me of one of my critiques of libertarianism, an offshoot of the enlightenment and an ideology based on “reason”:

As for the Enlightenment … , it has a fatal flaw, which is reason (a.k.a. rationalism). 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.

But reason is in fact shaped by customs, instincts, erroneous beliefs, faulty logic, venal motivations, and unexamined prejudices. Objectivism, for example, is just another error-laden collection of “religious” dogmas, as discussed here, here, and here.

Sir Roger Scruton underscores the shallowness of reason in On Human Nature. Scruton’s point applies not only to libertarianism (i.e., classical liberalism) but also to its offshoot — modern “liberalism” — neither of which, as rationalistic philosophies, bear any resemblance to conservatism, properly understood.

Here is the essential difference between conservatism and the varieties of liberalism, in Scruton’s words:

[W]e find near-universal agreement among American moral philosophers that individual autonomy and respect for rights are the root conceptions of moral order, with the state conceived either as an instrument for safeguarding autonomy or — if given a larger role — as an instrument for rectifying disadvantage in the name of “social justice.” The arguments given for these positions are invariably secular, egalitarian, and founded in an abstract idea of rational choice. And they are attractive arguments, since they justify both a public morality and a shared political order in ways that allow for the peaceful coexistence of people with different faiths, different commitments, and deep metaphysical disagreements. The picture of the moral life that I have presented is largely compatible with these arguments. But it also points to two important criticisms that might be made of them.

The first criticism is that the contractarian position fails to take our situation as organisms seriously. We are embodied beings, and our relations are mediated by our bodily presence. All of our most important emotions are bound up with this: erotic love, the love of children and parents, the attachment to home, the fear of death and suffering, the sympathy for others in their pain or fear — none of these things would make sense if it were not for our situation as organisms…. If we were disembodied rational agents — “noumenal selves“… — then our moral burdens would be lightly worn and would amount only to the side constraints required to reconcile the freedom of each of us with the equal freedom of our neighbors. But we are embodied beings, who are drawn to each other as such, trapped into erotic and familial emotions that create radical distinctions, unequal claims, fatal attachments, and territorial needs, and much of moral life is concerned with the negotiation of these dark regions of the psyche.

The second criticism is that our obligations are not and cannot be reduced to those that guarantee our mutual freedom. Noumenal selves come into a world unencumbered by ties and attachments for the very reason that they do not come into the world at all…. For us humans, who enter a world marked by the joys and sufferings of those who are making room for us, who enjoy protection in our early years and opportunities in our maturity, the field of obligation is wider than the field of choice.  We are bound by ties that we never chose, and our world contains values and challenges that intrude from beyond the comfortable arena of our agreements. In the attempt to encompass these values and challenges, human beings have developed concepts that have little or no place in liberal theories of the social contract — concepts of the sacred and the sublime, of evil and redemption, that suggest a completely different orientation to the world than that assumed by modern moral philosophy.

(See also “The Shallowness of Secular Ethical Systems” and “Rawls vs. Reality“.)

Economics Explained – Part I: What Is Economics About?

This is the first installment of a long entry. I may revise it as I post later entries. The whole will be published as a page, for ease of reference.

Economics, as a discipline, often seems counterintuitive, when it is not downright paradoxical. Perhaps the most counterintuitive principle of economics is that unregulated markets are the best mechanism for meeting human wants, given limited resources. Despite that principle, most economists emulate politicians and rabble-rousers in their penchant for second-guessing market outcomes and devising ways of manipulating those outcomes. This penchant does not negate the principle; it merely underscores the unwarranted vanity of the “intellectual” class.

Economics is mysterious to laymen because its practitioners have embellished it with unduly complex mathematical theorizing. In other words, when economics is not counterintuitive it is simply incomprehensible.

There is no need for economics to be counterintuitive or mysterious. Many writers have essayed simple — and correct — expositions of the principles of economics. The most notable effort, perhaps, is Henry Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson. Another good source is The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics at The Library of Economics and Liberty (a web site). (Good places to start there are “Basic Concepts” and “Ten Key Ideas“.)

Unfortunately, Hazlitt’s short book is more than 200 pages long. And the entries at The Library of Economics and Liberty are disjointed. What the world needs is a truly concise but coherent and comprehensive statement of the principles of economics. Thus this post, in which I use not a single equation or graph. Why? Because equations and graphs can be off-putting to readers who are not habituated to them. Moreover, equations and graphs imply a degree of precision that is not found in the real world; verbal explanations, hedged with qualifications, give a more accurate picture of reality (albeit one that necessarily remains incomplete).

I begin with the basic question: What is economics about? The answer to that question leads to observations about the principles of economics, which are shaped by politics and culture. From there, I illustrate the principles by working through an example that eventually takes them all into account.

What Is Economics About?

Economics is about the satisfaction of human wants through the production and exchange of goods (a term that encompasses information, services, and tangible products). That simple definition raises several issues, which are the fundamental subjects of economic inquiry:

  1. What are human wants, and how do they arise?
  2. Are all human wants (e.g., love) the proper domain of economics?
  3. By what mechanisms are resources transformed into goods and then matched (or not) to human wants?
  4. What determines the rate of output of all goods, that is, the aggregate degree of satisfaction of human wants?
  5. What is the proper role of government in the satisfaction of human wants?

The brief answers to these questions, upon which I elaborate below, are as follows:

1. Human wants arise from basic human requirements and impulses (e.g., the need for food, clothing, shelter, transportation, and status). Another way to say it is that human wants are both biological and emotional. Particular human wants, therefore, arise from a combination of biological impulses and cultural influences. Some wants clearly are essential to life (e.g., food); some wants clearly are nonessential but nevertheless fill emotional needs (e.g., yachts and mansions). But, like mountains and molehills, the extremes are distinguishable but they are connected by many indistinguishable intermediate stages; that is, there is no telling when wants transition from essential, to beneficial, to frivolous. Moreover — and this is an essential point to which I will return — the striving to fulfill what might seem to be frivolous wants can lead (by steps to be discussed later) to the creation of jobs that yield income from which the job-holders are able to fulfill essential wants (and others, as well).

2. Some human wants arise from impulses that economists should be wary of trying to analyze and measure. The most obvious of these is the kind of love that leads to marriage, sex, and children. Yes, there are sexual arrangements outside marriage that are purely economic transactions. But love of the kind that leads to marriage, sex, and children (and thence to love of parents for their children) is beyond the ken of economics. So, too, are other relationships that are non-transactional, such as friendship and membership in various voluntary organizations (churches, clubs, etc.).

3. Economics is therefore about arms-length transactions — transactions that aren’t bound up in non-contractual relationships like marriage, family, friendship, church, and club. Voluntary exchange and prices are the default mechanisms for matching goods with wants in arms-length transactions. The simplest example is barter: Andy makes bread and wants butter to put on it; Babette makes butter and wants bread for it: Andy and Babette strike a bargain that yields a rate of exchange between bread and butter (i.e., a price for bread in terms of butter and vice versa); the exchange makes both Andy and Babette better off (i.e., there are mutual gains from trade). The prices established by Andy and Babette also serve as signals (provide information) to others who seek to exchange bread and butter; for example, Chuck (a potential producer of butter) might be willing to make butter and trade with Andy on more favorable terms than those offered by Babette.

4. There is no such thing as an aggregate measure of the output of goods — though aggregation is implicit in macroeconomic constructs (e.g., gross domestic product). Thinking only of the United States, for example, how is it possible to aggregate the value of myriad goods that are produced and bought by dozens of millions of businesses and individuals? Hint: Because statistical sampling is arbitrary and uncertain, the answer cannot be found in the common denominator of money. It is nevertheless possible for an economy to move generally in the direction of growth or decline, with exceptions around the trend. It is obvious, for example, that most Americans use goods that are superior in number and quality to the goods that most Americans enjoyed 50 years ago. It is also obvious that during the episode known at the Great Depression, most Americans were materially worse off than they had been before the depression began, and that relatively few became better off. How such things happen, and how economic growth can be sustained and economic declines can be reversed, are valid subjects of economic analysis.

5. Voluntary exchange, unalloyed, can leave some persons “behind” (e.g., those who are incapable of producing bread in exchange for butter, those whose output is worth less to buyers than it used to be). But there is another human impulse (call it “altruism” for now) that leads to the voluntary redistribution of wealth and income, thus enabling the beneficiaries of the redistribution to buy more goods than they can afford on their own. Government action taken in the name of altruism displaces and discourages private altruistic action. More generally, government action throttles economic vitality, causes and exacerbates economic disruptions, and interferes with the constructive resolution of those disruptions. The proper role of government is to provide a framework of defense and justice within which economic actors can operate voluntarily and with little fear that their efforts to improve their lot (and the lot of others less fortunate) will be stymied by force or fraud. Government intervenes legitimately only when it prevents or discourages force and fraud (e.g., defending foreign sources of oil, detecting and preventing terrorism on U.S. soil, prosecuting thieves and murderers, prosecuting “boiler room” operators).

Can Libertarianism and Conservatism Be Reconciled?

This post is inspired by an article in The Objective Standard, which proclaims itself

the preeminent source for commentary from an Objectivist perspective, objectivism being Ayn Rand‘s philosophy of reason, egoism, and capitalism.

The writer, with whom I have jousted sporadically for 15 years, will go unnamed here because I want to emphasize his ideology, of which he is merely a representative advocate. He is either an Objectivist who happens to be a libertarian or a libertarian who happens to be an Objectivist.

In either case, his article manifests libertarianism as it is widely understood: an ideology of individualism — the right of the individual to lead his life he sees fit. That central tenet of libertarianism is a condensation of John Stuart Mill’s harm principle:

[T]he sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise, or even right… The only part of the conduct of anyone, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign. [On Liberty (1869), Chapter I: Introductory]

By the same token, a consistent libertarian rejects conservatism’s emphasis on social norms. Mill is clear on that point:

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

Mill thus rejects the enforcement of social norms, “except [in] a few of the most obvious cases” by either the state or “society” (ibid.). This exception is a cop-out, a slippery way of trying to eat one’s cake and have it, too. What Mill is saying, really, is that there are some social norms he would like to see enforced and many that he claims not to care about. Thus Mill reveals his inner authoritarian: the “decider” about which social norms are good and which are bad. (Mill isn’t alone among libertarians in there willingness to resort to statist coercion, as I will point out later.)

Lest anyone misunderstand Mill’s overt position about social norms, he expands on it a few paragraphs later:

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

By that “logic”, an individual is a law unto himself, and may do as he pleases as long as he believes (or claims to believe) that his conduct is not harmful to others. (What is an “obvious” exception to Mill may not be obvious to the ardent individualists in a Millian nirvana.) Is that what the writer believes?

I doubt that he would directly acknowledge such a belief. But it is implicit in his glorification of the Enlightenment and attack on conservatism. In particular, he praises some unexceptionable cases of personal liberation, which he characterizes as a illustrative of Enlightenment values. From there, he attacks a contemporary critic of the Enlightenment and the godfather of conservatism, Edmund Burke.

To begin at the beginning, the article opens with vignettes about three women: one who was raised an Orthodox Jew, put into an arranged marriage, and later left Orthodox Judaism (the fate of her marriage is left unmentioned); one who escaped the totalitarianism of North Korea; and one who fled an oppressive Muslim upbringing Africa and Saudi Arabia. The common theme of the stories is that

these remarkable women from such diverse backgrounds ultimately found freedom and a world of ideas and experiences to enrich their lives [which] is a cause for celebration and for reflecting on how fortunate we are—those of us who did not face such daunting odds. It’s also cause for reflection on the millions of people today who still live in the silent, senseless darkness of ignorance and terror.

Further,

in the light of history, the experiences these women escaped are not only not rare, but are in fact how most people have lived for most of their lives in most of the nations of the world. Illiteracy, ignorance, poverty, hunger, and disease are by a wide margin the most common state of affairs in which humanity has found itself. It is only in the past two centuries that a portion of the human race has risen out of darkness into enlightenment. And it has done so in a manner very much like the stories these women tell.

What I mean is that although these are stories of personal liberation and discovery, Western civilization as a whole went through something similar on a culture-wide level beginning around 1700, in a period that we, appropriately enough, call the Enlightenment.

The article ends there (for non-subscribers). A subsequent excerpt at the writer’s blog zooms in on the Enlightenment:

[O]ne of the more prominent conservative enemies of the Enlightenment today, Sorhab [sic, it’s Sohrab] Ahmari, … recently wrote in the religious journal First Things that the Enlightenment is responsible for “the eclipse of permanent truths, family stability, community solidarity, and much else,” and has led to “the pornographization of daily life, to the culture of death, to the cult of competitiveness.”…

… When Ahmari writes of “permanent truths,” he does not mean the natural rights of mankind, let alone the economic forces of supply and demand or the scientific laws of biology. He means religious dogma, handed down by an established church.

When he speaks of “family stability,” he does not mean harmony attained by respecting and nourishing the value of every family member. He means the subordination of each one to unchosen obligations; the prohibition of the right to marry for large portions of our society; and opposition to the right of unhappy spouses to divorce and to value their own flourishing and happiness along with their family commitments.

When he speaks of “communal solidarity,” he means the right of the community to sacrifice the happiness and freedom of individuals within that community—to censor people; to dictate how they may use their property and what jobs they may take; to tell them what books they may read and what movies they may watch.

And when he denounces “the cult of competitiveness,” he means the right to excel, the right to aspire, the right to pursue happiness and achieve one’s dreams. He is mounting a direct attack on the value of enjoyment. When Ahmari denounces what he calls the “fetishizing of autonomy,” his meaning is unmistakable: individualism—the right of the individual to his or her own life—is his primary target.

Ahmari and his admirers pledge themselves to a society of—in Burke’s words, “submission,” “obedience,” “subordination,” and “servitude.” And they do so while wrapping themselves in the American flag.

How does the writer know what Ahmari means by “permanent truths”, “family stability”, “communal solidarity”, and “the cult of competitiveness”? The footnotes to the article (conveniently available to the non-subscriber) list two pieces by Ahmari. The first is a long epistle signed by Ahmari and fourteen other persons. The second is a later article in which Ahmari addresses some criticisms of the letter. In fact, Ahmari legitimately criticizes the consequences of the “liberalization” of society by government interventions and cultural warfare, “liberalization” to which some so-called conservatives (he calls them “consensus conservatives”) have been party.

The writer is keen to present horror stories that illustrate (in his view) the consequences of the failure of the Enlightenment to arrive in every part of the globe. But as a defender of liberty he should be equally keen to present horror stories that illustrate the consequences of Enlightenment “liberalism” in the West.

One such story is the increasing frequency of mass shootings in America, which has occurred (not coincidentally, I believe) with the decline of religiosity and the tearing down of traditional social norms.

Another such story, which the writer skips over, is the legalization of pre-natal infanticide — known otherwise as abortion — which Ahmari refers to as “the culture of death”. If the writer has reversed his long-held pro-abortion stance, I can find no evidence of it on his blog. But that is entirely consistent with his implicit endorsement of the harm principle, according to which every person is a law unto himself.

I return now to the article and the writer’s brief discussion of Edmund Burke’s political philosophy. How does the writer know that Burke’s kind of society is one of “submission”, “obedience”, “subordination”, and “servitude” — or what Burke meant by those terms? Perhaps there are clues in Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), which the writer cites four times. The following passage seems to be at the heart of the writer’s j’accuse:

I thought ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards to avenge even a look that threatened her [the Queen of France] with insult. But the age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists, and calculators has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever. Never, never more, shall we behold that generous loyalty to rank and sex, that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart, which kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom! The unbought grace of life, the cheap defence of nations, the nurse of manly sentiment and heroic enterprise, is gone! It is gone, that sensibility of principle, that chastity of honor, which felt a stain like a wound, which inspired courage whilst it mitigated ferocity, which ennobled whatever it touched, and under which vice itself lost half its evil by losing all its grossness!

Romantic twaddle? Perhaps, but Burke isn’t so much lamenting the demise of the monarchy of France as he is contrasting it with what followed.

As Burke understood — and conservatives understand — in the real world one doesn’t get to choose (or build) a perfect world. At best, one gets to choose between a tolerable world, a less-tolerable one, and an intolerable one. Burke foretold in Reflections that the revolutionaries of 1789 were laying groundwork for something intolerable; for example:

They are aware that the worst consequences might happen to the public in accomplishing this double ruin of Church and State; but they are so heated with their theories, that they give more than hints that this ruin, with all the mischiefs that must lead to it and attend it, and which to themselves appear quite certain, would not be unacceptable to them, or very remote from their wishes.

Those who would argue that the French Revolution and the ensuing Reign of Terror were preferable to the excesses of the monarchy would — if they were consistent — argue that the Bolshevik Revolution and the subsequent reigns of terror were preferable to the rule of the Tsars. (I duly note that the writer has sympathy for the victims of communism; perhaps he should therefore be more understanding of Burke’s sympathy for the victims of the French Revolution.)

What did Burke really believe? I will draw on Yuval Levin’s The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left. I have reviewed the book and found it wanting, but not because Levin fails to capture the essence of Burke’s political philosophy. (Follow the link in the preceding sentence to understand my reservations about the book.) Here are relevant excerpts of Levin’s book, which (as I say in my review) capture the philosophical differences between Burke and Paine:

Paine lays out his political vision in greater detail in Rights of Man than in any of his earlier writings: a vision of individualism, natural rights, and equal justice for all made possible by a government that lives up to true republican ideals. [Kindle edition, p. 34]

*     *     *

Politics [to Burke] was first and foremost about particular people living together, rather than about general rules put into effect. This emphasis caused Burke to oppose the sort of liberalism expounded by many of the radical reformers of his day. They argued in the parlance of natural rights drawn from reflections on an individualist state of nature and sought to apply the principles of that approach directly to political life. [Op. cit., p. 11]

*     *     *

For Paine, the natural equality of all human beings translates to complete political equality and therefore to a right to self-determination. The formation of society was itself a choice made by free individuals, so the natural rights that people bring with them into society are rights to act as one chooses, free of coercion. Each person should have the right to do as he chooses unless his choices interfere with the equal rights and freedoms of others. And when that happens— when society as a whole must act through its government to restrict the freedom of some of its members— government can only act in accordance with the wishes of the majority, aggregated through a political process. Politics, in this view, is fundamentally an arena for the exercise of choice, and our only real political obligations are to respect the freedoms and choices of others.

For Burke, human nature can only be understood within society and therefore within the complex web of relations in which every person is embedded. None of us chooses the nation, community, or family into which we are born, and while we can choose to change our circumstances to some degree as we get older, we are always defined by some crucial obligations and relationships not of our own choosing. A just and healthy politics must recognize these obligations and relationships and respond to society as it exists, before politics can enable us to make changes for the better. In this view, politics must reinforce the bonds that hold people together, enabling us to be free within society rather than defining freedom to the exclusion of society and allowing us to meet our obligations to past and future generations, too. Meeting obligations is as essential to our happiness and our nature as making choices. [Op cit., pp. 91-92]

Paine is the quintessential “liberal” (leftist) — a rationalistic ideologue who has a view of the world as it ought to be. And it is that view which governments should serve, or be overthrown. In that respect, there is no distance at all between Paine and his pseudo-libertarian admirers (e.g., here). Their mutual attachment to “natural rights” lends them an air of moral superiority, but their conception of “natural rights” as innate in human beings — like the harm principle — is made of air. Natural rights, properly understood, arise from the social norms that writer seems to disdain (though if he does, I wonder how he has managed to survive and thrive in a world dominated by social norms).

To the writer’s great disappointment, I’m sure, the truth of the matter is that social norms — including political and economic ones — are emergent. (This is not a morally relativistic position.) Michael Oakeshott, a latter-day Burkean, puts it this way:

Government, … as the conservative … understands it, does not begin with a vision of another, different and better world, but with the observation of the self-government practised even by men of passion in the conduct of their enterprises; it begins in the informal adjustments of interests to one another which are designed to release those who are apt to collide from the mutual frustration of a collision. Sometimes these adjustments are no more than agreements between two parties to keep out of each other’s way; sometimes they are of wider application and more durable character, such as the International Rules for for the prevention of collisions at sea. In short, the intimations of government are to be found in ritual, not in religion or philosophy; in the enjoyment of orderly and peaceable behaviour, not in the search for truth or perfection….

To govern, then, as the conservative understands it, is to provide a vinculum juris for those manners of conduct which, in the circumstances, are least likely to result in a frustrating collision of interests; to provide redress and means of compensation for those who suffer from others behaving in a contrary manners; sometimes to provide punishment for those who pursue their own interests regardless of the rules; and, of course, to provide a sufficient force to maintain the authority of an arbiter of this kind. Thus, governing is recognized as a specific and limited activity; not the management of an enterprise, but the rule of those engaged in a great diversity of self-chosen enterprises. It is not concerned with concrete persons, but with activities; and with activities only in respect of their propensity to collide with one another. It is not concerned with moral right and wrong, it is not designed to make men good or even better; it is not indispensable on account of ‘the natural depravity of mankind’ but merely because of their current disposition to be extravagant; its business is to keep its subjects at peace with one another in the activities in which they have chosen to seek their happiness. And if there is any general idea entailed in this view, it is, perhaps, that a government which does not sustain the loyalty of its subjects is worthless; and that while one which (in the old puritan phrase) ‘commands the truth’ is incapable of doing so (because some of its subjects will believe its ‘truth’ to be in error), one which is indifferent to ‘truth’ and ‘error’ alike, and merely pursues peace, presents no obstacle to the necessary loyalty.

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

As for the Enlightenment in which the writer puts so much stock, it has a fatal flaw, which is reason (a.k.a. rationalism). 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.

But reason is in fact shaped by customs, instincts, erroneous beliefs, faulty logic, venal motivations, and unexamined prejudices. Objectivism, for example, is just another error-laden collection of “religious” dogmas, as discussed here, here, and here.

On a higher plane, what could be more revealing of the prejudices and emotions upon which reason ultimately rests than the long-running Einstein-Bohr debate, which stemmed from Einstein’s reasonable prejudice that quantum mechanics gives an unrealistic (indeterminate) depiction of reality. (The interpretation of quantum mechanics still remains unsettled, more than 90 years after the debate began.)

Further, as the Wikipedia article admits, the Enlightenment — like its subsequent manifestations in politics and pseudo-science (e.g., Malthusianism, Marxism, Objectivism, “climate change”, “social justice”, “equality”) — relies on reductionism, which is

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

(Thus the shallowness and inconsistency of secular ethical systems, which include but are far from limited to libertarianism and Objectivism.)

Reductionist reason fails 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. I want bridge-builders and aircraft-makers to use the mathematical tools and physical facts at their disposal. It should be noted, however, that the origins of those tools and the gathering of those facts long preceded the Enlightenment, and that their subsequent development was (and is) a project unto its own. To take a notable example, Isaac Newton, among other things the inventor of calculus as we know it (contemporaneously with Gottfried Wilhelm Leibnitz), was religious (though unorthodox), a student of the occult, and an alchemist (see this). Even children of the Enlightment can be — are often are — supremely irrational and steered by psychological forces beyond their ken.

In sum, reason has almost nothing to do with most of life — and especially not with politics, social norms, religion, or rebellion. The last is too often an act of emotion and interest-group advancement, which can be (and has been) justified by reason.

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

A particular feature of the Enlightenment was that its rationalism gave rise to leftism. Thomas Sowell writes about the wages of leftist “intellectualism” in Intellectuals and Society:

One of the things intellectuals have been doing for a long time is loosening the bonds that hold a society together. They have sought to replace the groups into which people have sorted themselves with groupings created and imposed by the intelligentsia. Ties of family, religion, and patriotism, for example, have long been treated as suspect or detrimental by the intelligentsia, and new ties that intellectuals have created, such as class — and more recently “gender” — have been projected as either more real or more important. [p. 303]

In my view, the

left’s essential agenda is the repudiation of ordered liberty of the kind that arises from evolved social norms, and the replacement of that liberty by sugar-coated oppression. The bread and circuses of imperial Rome have nothing on Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, Obamacare, and the many other forms of personal and corporate welfare that are draining America of its wealth and élan. All of that “welfare” has been bought at the price of economic and social liberty (which are indivisible).

Freedom from social bonds and social norms is not liberty. Freedom from religion, which seems to be the objective of rationalists (like the writer), is bound to yield less liberty and more crime, which further erodes liberty.

I put it to you this way: Would you rather live in the rationalistic world of libertarian-Objectivists or in Burke’s (and Oakeshott’s) real one?

Here’s a clue to the answer that I hope you will choose: The ideal world of a rationalist cannot be attained by real people acting in mutually beneficial cooperation, which is the essence of the free markets about which the writer claims to care so much. Rationalism is destructive of religion (which on balance is a bulwark of liberty), long-standing social norms (which in fact enable liberty), and the necessary right of free people in society to make mistakes and learn from them.

The writer’s diatribe reminds me of the old, sad story that has been repeated innumerable times throughout mankind’s recorded history. The quest for perfection along one or another moral dimension breeds fanaticism. Fanaticism turns into an unrelenting evil of its own. Just ask one of the innumerable victims of communism, some of whom have survived it.

Moreover, as I have pointed out many times, the kind of libertarianism espoused by the writer isn’t the real thing. A true libertarian is a traditional conservative who

respects socially evolved norms because those norms evidence and sustain the mutual trust, respect, forbearance, and voluntary aid that — taken together — foster willing, peaceful coexistence and beneficially cooperative behavior. And what is liberty but willing peaceful coexistence and beneficially cooperative behavior?

Which isn’t to say, by any means, that a place in which traditional norms prevail will be perfect. Far from it — and some places, such as those cited by the writer — are farther than others. But the route to improvement can’t be found by shredding norms willy-nilly and declaring that every man is a law unto himself. In fact, what some libertarians urge, paradoxically, is the selective shredding of social norms by the state. (another manifestation of the smug authoritarianism of the “liberal order”). That is the “logic” of so-called libertarianism.

What really happens, of course, is that the shredding of social norms creates a void that is filled by chaos and then by the rule of power. The rule may be brutal like those of Lenin, Stalin, and Mao, or “benign” like those of today’s coercively governed Western “democracies”. But it will be a rule that so-called libertarians will rail against — in vain. The perfection of “rational” ideologies — libertarianism as well as fascism and socialism —  is indeed the enemy of the good. (Conservatism, properly understood, isn’t an ideology, though it has ideological implications.)

I conclude that libertarianism of the kind preached by the writer and his ilk cannot be reconciled with conservatism. But they should be allied against their common enemy: the oppressive state.

The Shallowness of Secular Ethical Systems

This post is prompted by a recent offering from Irfan Khawaja, who styles himself an ex-libertarian and tries to explain his apostasy. Khawaja abandoned libertarianism (or his version of it) because it implies a stance toward government spending that isn’t consistent with the desideratum of another ethical system.

Rather than get bogged down in the details of Khawaja’s dilemma, I will merely point out what should be obvious to him (and to millions of other true believers in this or that ethical system): Any system that optimizes on a particular desideratum (e.g., minimal coercion, maximum “social” welfare by some standard) will clash with at least one other system that optimizes a different desideratum.

Further, the various desiderata usually are overly broad. And when the desiderata are defined narrowly, what emerges is not a single, refined desideratum but two or more. Which means that there are more ethical systems and more opportunities for clashes between systems. Those clashes sometimes occur between systems that claim to optimize on the same (broad) desideratum. (I will later take up an example.)

What are the broad and refined desiderata of various ethical systems? The following list is a start, though it is surely incomplete:

  • Liberty

Freedom from all restraint

Freedom from governmental restraint

Freedom to do as one chooses, consistent with traditional social norms (some of which may be enforced by government)

Freedom to do as one chooses, regardless of one’s endowment of intelligence, talent, effort, wealth, etc.

  • Equality

Equal treatment under the law

Economic equality, regardless of one’s intelligence, talent, effort, wealth, etc.

Economic and social equality, regardless of one’s intelligence, talent, effort, wealth, etc.

  • Democracy

Participation in governmental decisions through the election of officials whose powers are limited to those deemed necessary to provide for the defense of innocent citizens from force and fraud

Participation in governmental decisions through the election of officials who have the power to bring about economic and social equality

Governmental outcomes that enact the “will of the people” (i.e., the desiderata of each group that propounds this kind of democracy)

  • Human welfare

The maximization of the sum of all human happiness, perhaps with some lower limit on the amount of happiness enjoyed by those least able to provide for themselves

The maximization of the sum of all human happiness, as above, but only with respect to specific phenomena viewed as threats (e.g., “climate change”, “overpopulation”, resource depletion)

  • Animal welfare (including but far from limited to human welfare)

Special protections for animals to prevent their mistreatment

Legal recognition of animals (or some of them) as “persons” with the same legal rights as human beings

No use of animals to satisfy human wants (e.g., food, clothing, shelter)

It would be pedantic of me to explain the many irreconcilable clashes between the main headings, between the subsidiary interpretations under each main heading, and between the subsidiary interpretations under the various main headings. They should be obvious to you.

But I will show that even a subsidiary interpretation of a broad desideratum can be rife with internal inconsistencies. Bear with me while I entertain you with a few examples, based on Khawaja’s dilemma — the conflict between his versions of welfarism and libertarianism.

Welfarism, according to Khawaja, means that a government policy, or a change in government policy, should result in no net loss of lives. This implies that that it is all right if X lives are lost, as long as Y lives are gained, where Y is greater than X. Which is utilitarianism on steroids — or, in the words of Jeremy Bentham (the godfather of utilitarianism), nonsense upon stilts (Bentham’s summary dismissal of the doctrine of natural rights). To see why, consider that the blogger’s desideratum could be accomplished by a ruthless dictator who kills people by the millions, while requiring those spared to procreate at a rate much higher than normal. Nirvana (not!).

A broader approach to welfare, and one that is more commonly adopted, is an appeal to the (fictional) social-welfare function. I have written about it many times. All I need do here, by way of dismissal, is to summarize it metaphorically: Sam obtains great pleasure from harming other people. And if Sam punches Joe in the nose, humanity is better off (that is, social welfare is increased) if Sam’s pleasure exceeds Joe’s pain. It should take you a nanosecond to understand why that is nonsense upon stilts.

In case it took you longer than a nanosecond, here’s the nonsense: How does one measure the pleasure and pain of disparate persons? How does one then sum those (impossible) measurements?

More prosaically: If you are Joe, and not a masochist, do you really believe that Sam’s pleasure somehow cancels your pain or compensates for it in the grand scheme of things? Do you really believe that there is a scoreboard in the sky that keeps track of such things? If your answer to both questions is “no”, you should ask yourself what gives anyone the wisdom to decree that Sam’s punch causes an increase in social welfare. The philosopher’s PhD? You were punched in the nose. You know that Sam’s pleasure doesn’t cancel or compensate for your pain. The philosopher (or politician or economist) who claims (or implies) that there is a social-welfare function is either a fool (the philosopher or economist) or a charlatan (the politician).

I turn now to libertarianism, which almost defies analysis because of its manifold variations and internal contradictions (some of which I will illustrate). But Khawaja’s account of it as a prohibition on the initiation of force (the non-aggression principle, a.k.a. the harm principle) is a good entry point. It is clear that Khawaja understands force to include government coercion of taxpayers to fund government programs. That’s an easy one for most libertarians, but Khawaja balks because the prohibition of government coercion might mean the curtailment of government programs that save lives. (Khawaja thus reveals himself to have been a consequentialist libertarian, that is, one who favors liberty because of its expected results, not necessarily because it represents a moral imperative. This is yet another fault line within libertarianism, but I won’t explore it here.)

Khawaja cites the example of a National Institutes of Health (NIH) program that might cure cystic fibrosis or alleviate its symptoms. But Khawaja neglects the crucial matter of opportunity cost (a strange omission for a consequentialist). Those whose taxes fund government programs usually aren’t those who benefit from them. Taxpayers have other uses for their money, including investments in scientific and technological advances that improve and lengthen life. The NIH (for one) has no monopoly on life-saving and life-enhancing research. To put it succinctly, Khawaja has fallen into the intellectual trap described by Frédéric Bastiat, which is to focus on that which is seen (the particular benefits of government programs) and to ignore the unseen (the things that could be done instead through private action, including — not trivially — the satisfaction of personal wants). When the problem is viewed in that way, most libertarians would scoff at Khawaja’s narrow view of libertarianism.

Here’s a tougher issue for libertarians (the extreme pacifists among them excluded): Does the prohibition on the initiation of force extend to preemptive self-defense against an armed thug who is clearly bent on doing harm? If it does, then libertarianism is unadulterated hogwash.

Let’s grant that libertarianism allows for preemptive self-defense, where the potential victim (or his agent) is at liberty to decide whether preemption is warranted by the threat. Let’s grant, further, that the right of preemptive self-defense includes the right to be prepared for self-defense, because there is always the possibility of a sudden attack by a thug, armed robber, or deranged person. Thus the right to bear arms at all times, and in all places should be unrestricted (unabridged, in the language of the Second Amendment).

Along comes Nervous Nellie, who claims that the sight of all of those armed people around her makes her fear for her life. But instead of arming herself, Nellie petitions government for the confiscation of all firearms from private persons. The granting of Nellie’s petition would constrain the ability of others to defend themselves against (a) private persons who hide their firearms successfully; (b) private persons who resort to other lethal means of attacking other persons, and (c) armed government agents who abuse their power.

The resulting dilemma can’t be resolved by appeal to the non-aggression principle. The principle is violated if the right of self-defense is violated, and (some would argue) it is also violated if Nellie lives in fear for her life because the right of self-defense is upheld.

Moreover, the ability of government to decide whether persons may be armed — indeed, the very existence of government — violates the non-aggression principle. But without government the non-aggression principle may be violated more often.

Thus we see more conflicts, all of which take place wholly within the confines of libertarianism, broadly understood.

The examples could go on an on, but enough is enough. The point is that ethical systems that seek to optimize on a single desideratum, however refined and qualified it might be, inevitably clash with other ethical systems. Those clashes illustrate Kurt Gödel‘s incompleteness theorems:

Gödel’s incompleteness theorems are two theorems of mathematical logic that demonstrate the inherent limitations of every formal axiomatic system capable of modelling basic arithmetic….

The first incompleteness theorem states that no consistent system of axioms whose theorems can be listed by an effective procedure (i.e., an algorithm) is capable of proving all truths about the arithmetic of natural numbers. For any such consistent formal system, there will always be statements about natural numbers that are true, but that are unprovable within the system. The second incompleteness theorem, an extension of the first, shows that the system cannot demonstrate its own consistency.

There is the view that Gödel’s theorems aren’t applicable in fields outside of mathematical logic. But any quest for ethical certainties necessarily involves logic, however flawed it might be.

Persons who devise and purvey ethical systems, assuming their good intentions (often a bad assumption), are simply fixated on particular aspects of human behavior rather than taking it whole. (They cannot see the forest because they are crawling on the ground, inspecting tree roots.)

Given such myopia, you might wonder how humanity manages to coexist cooperatively and peacefully as much as it does. Yes, there are many places on the globe where conflict is occasioned by what could be called differences of opinion about ultimate desiderata (including religious ones). But most human beings (though a shrinking majority, I fear) don’t give a hoot about optimizing on a particular desideratum. That is to say, most human beings aren’t fanatical about a particular cause or belief. And even when they are, they mostly live among like persons or keep their views to themselves and do at least the minimum that is required to live in peace with those around them.

It is the same for persons who are less fixated (or not at all) on a particular cause or belief. Daily life, with its challenges and occasional pleasures, is enough for them. In the United States, at least, fanaticism seems to be confined mainly to capitalism’s spoiled children (of all ages), whether they be ultra-rich “socialists”, affluent never-Trumpers, faux-scientists and their acolytes who foresee a climatic apocalypse, subsidized students (e.g., this lot), and multitudes of other arrant knights (and dames) errant.

Atheists are fond of saying that religion is evil because it spawns hatred and violence. Such sentiments would be met with bitter laughter from the hundreds of millions of victims of atheistic communism, were not most of them dead or still captive to the ethical system known variously as socialism and communism, which promises social and economic equality but delivers social repression and economic want. Religion (in the West, at least) is a key facet of liberty.

Which brings me to the point of this essay. When I use “liberty” I don’t mean the sterile desideratum of so-called libertarians (who can’t agree among themselves about its meaning or prerequisites). What I mean is the mundane business of living among others, getting along with them (or ignoring them, if that proves best), treating them with respect or forbearance, and observing the norms of behavior that will cause them to treat you with respect or forbearance.

It is that — and not the fanatical (unto hysterical) rallying around the various desiderata of cramped ethical systems — which makes for social comity and economic progress. The problem with silver bullets (Dr. Ehrlich’s “magic” one being a notable exception) is that they ricochet, causing more harm than good — often nothing but harm, even to those whom they are meant to help.


Related pages and posts:

Climate Change
Economic Growth Since World War II
Leftism
Modeling and Science
Social Norms and Liberty

On Liberty
Greed, Cosmic Justice, and Social Welfare
Democracy and Liberty
Utilitarianism vs. Liberty
Fascism and the Future of America
The Indivisibility of Economic and Social Liberty
Tocqueville’s Prescience
Accountants of the Soul
Pseudo-Libertarian Sophistry vs. True Libertarianism
Bounded Liberty: A Thought Experiment
Evolution, Human Nature, and “Natural Rights”
More Pseudo-Libertarianism
The Meaning of Liberty
Positive Liberty vs. Liberty
Facets of Liberty
Burkean Libertarianism
What Is Libertarianism?
True Libertarianism, One More Time
Utilitarianism and Psychopathy
Why Conservatism Works
The Eclipse of “Old America”
Genetic Kinship and Society
Liberty as a Social Construct: Moral Relativism?
Defending Liberty against (Pseudo) Libertarians
Defining Liberty
The Pseudo-Libertarian Temperament
Modern Liberalism as Wishful Thinking
Getting Liberty Wrong
Romanticizing the State
Libertarianism and the State
My View of Libertarianism
The Principles of Actionable Harm
More About Social Norms and Liberty
Superiority
The War on Conservatism
Old America, New America, and Anarchy
The Authoritarianism of Modern Liberalism, and the Conservative Antidote
Society, Polarization, and Dissent
Social Justice vs. Liberty
The Left and “the People”
The Harm Principle Revisited: Mill Conflates Society and State
Liberty and Social Norms Re-examined
Natural Law, Natural Rights, and the Real World
Natural Law and Natural Rights Revisited
Libertarianism, Conservatism, and Political Correctness
My View of Mill, Endorsed
Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and Leviathan
Suicide or Destiny?
O.J.’s Glove and the Enlightenment
James Burnham’s Misplaced Optimism
True Populism
Libertarianism’s Fatal Flaw
The Golden Rule and Social Norms
The Left-Libertarian Axis
Rooted in the Real World of Real People
Consequentialism
Conservatism, Society, and the End of America
Conservatism vs. Leftism and “Libertarianism” on the Moral Dimension
Free Markets and Democracy
“Libertarianism”, the Autism Spectrum, and Ayn Rand
Tragic Capitalism
A Paradox for Liberals
Rawls vs. Reality
The Subtle Authoritarianism of the “Liberal Order”
Liberty: Constitutional Obligations and the Role of Religion
Society, Culture, and America’s Future

Rawls vs. Reality

I have never understood the high esteem in which John Rawls‘s “original position” is held by many who profess political philosophy. Well, I understand that the original position supports redistribution of income and wealth — a concept beloved of the overpaid faux-socialist professoriate — but it is a logical and empirical absurdity that shouldn’t be esteemed by anyone who thinks about it rigorously. (Which tells me a lot about the intelligence, rigor, and honesty of those who pay homage to it.)

What is the original position? According to Wikipedia it is

a hypothetical situation developed by … Rawls as a thought experiment to replace the imagery of a savage state of nature of prior political philosophers like Thomas Hobbes.

In the original position, the parties select principles that will determine the basic structure of the society they will live in. This choice is made from behind a veil of ignorance, which would deprive participants of information about their particular characteristics: their ethnicity, social status, gender and, crucially, Conception of the Good (an individual’s idea of how to lead a good life). This forces participants to select principles impartially and rationally.

As a thought experiment, the original position is a hypothetical position designed to accurately reflect what principles of justice would be manifest in a society premised on free and fair cooperation between citizens, including respect for liberty, and an interest in reciprocity.

In the state of nature, it might be argued that certain persons (the strong and talented) would be able to coerce others (the weak and disabled) by virtue of the fact that the stronger and more talented would fare better in the state of nature. This coercion is sometimes thought to invalidate any contractual arrangement occurring in the state of nature. In the original position, however, representatives of citizens are placed behind a “veil of ignorance”, depriving the representatives of information about the individuating characteristics of the citizens they represent. Thus, the representative parties would be unaware of the talents and abilities, ethnicity and gender, religion or belief system of the citizens they represent. As a result, they lack the information with which to threaten their fellows and thus invalidate the social contract they are attempting to agree to….

Rawls specifies that the parties in the original position are concerned only with citizens’ share of what he calls primary social goods, which include basic rights as well as economic and social advantages. Rawls also argues that the representatives in the original position would adopt the maximin rule as their principle for evaluating the choices before them. Borrowed from game theory, maximin stands for maximizing the minimum, i.e., making the choice that produces the highest payoff for the least advantaged position. Thus, maximin in the original position represents a formulation of social equality.

The social contract, citizens in a state of nature contract with each other to establish a state of civil society. For example, in the Lockean state of nature, the parties agree to establish a civil society in which the government has limited powers and the duty to protect the persons and property of citizens. In the original position, the representative parties select principles of justice that are to govern the basic structure of society. Rawls argues that the representative parties in the original position would select two principles of justice:

  1. Each citizen is guaranteed a fully adequate scheme of basic liberties, which is compatible with the same scheme of liberties for all others;
  2. Social and economic inequalities must satisfy two conditions:
    • to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged (the difference principle);
    • attached to positions and offices open to all.

The reason that the least well off member gets benefited is that it is assumed that under the veil of ignorance, under original position, people will be risk-averse. This implies that everyone is afraid of being part of the poor members of society, so the social contract is constructed to help the least well off members.

There are objections aplenty to Rawls’s creaky construction, some of which are cited in the Wikipedia piece:

In Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Robert Nozick argues that, while the original position may be the just starting point, any inequalities derived from that distribution by means of free exchange are equally just, and that any re-distributive tax is an infringement on people’s liberty. He also argues that Rawls’s application of the maximin rule to the original position is risk aversion taken to its extreme, and is therefore unsuitable even to those behind the veil of ignorance.

In Solving the Riddle of Right and Wrong, Iain King argues that people in the original position should not be risk-averse, leading them to adopt the Help Principle (Help someone if your help is worth more to them than it is to you) rather than maximin.

In Liberalism and the Limits of Justice, Michael Sandel has criticized Rawls’s notion of veil of ignorance, pointing out that it is impossible, for an individual, to completely prescind from [his] beliefs and convictions … as … required by Rawls’s thought experiment.

There is some merit in those objections, but they they don’t get to the root error of Rawls’s concoction. For that’s what it is, a concoction that has nothing to do with real people in the real world. The original position is an exercise in moral masturbation.

To begin at the beginning, the ostensible aim of Rawls’s formulation is to outline the “rules” by which a society can attain social justice — or, more accurately, social justice as Rawls defines it. (In what follows, when I refer to social justice in the context of Rawls’s formulation, the reader should mentally add the qualifier “as Rawls defines it”.)

Rawls presumably didn’t believe that there could be an original position, let alone a veil of ignorance. So his real aim must have been to construct a template for the attainment of social justice. The actual position of a society could then (somehow) be compared with the template to determine what government policies would move society toward the Rawlsian ideal.

Clearly, Rawls believed that his template could be justified only if he arrived at it through what he thought would be a set of unexceptionable assumptions. Otherwise, he could simply have promulgated the template (the maximin distribution of primary social goods), and left it at that. But to have done so would have been to take a merely political position, not one that pretends to rest on deep principles and solid logic.

What are those principles, and what is the logic that leads to Rawls’s template for a just society? Because there is no such thing as an original position or veil of ignorance, Rawls assumes (implicitly) that the members of a society should want social justice to prevail, and should behave accordingly, or authorize government to behave accordingly on their behalf. The idea is to make it all happen without coercion, as if the maximin rule were obviously the correct route to social justice.

To make it happen without coercion, Rawls must adopt unrealistic assumptions about the citizens of his imaginary society: pervasive ignorance of one’s own situation and extreme risk-aversion. Absent those constraints, some kind of coercion would be required for the members of the society to agree on the maximin rule. Effectively, then, Rawls assumes the conclusion toward which he was aiming all along, namely, that the maximin rule should govern society’s treatment of what he calls primary social goods — or, rather, government’s treatment of those goods, as it enforces the consensus of a society of identical members.

What is that treatment? This, as I understand it:

  • Guarantee each citizen a fully adequate scheme of basic liberties, which is compatible with the same scheme of liberties for all others.
  • Tolerate only those inequalities with respect to social and economic outcomes that yield the greatest benefit to the least-advantaged.
  • Tolerate only those inequalities that derive from positions and offices that are open to all citizens.

Rawls’s scheme is superficially attractive to anyone who understands that forced equality is inimical to economic progress (not to mention social comity and liberty), and that it harms the least-advantaged (because they “share” in a smaller “pie”) as well as those who would otherwise be among the more-advantaged. Similarly, the idea that all citizens have the same basic rights and social advantages seems unexceptionable.

But many hard questions lurk beneath the surface of Rawls’s plausible concoction.

What is an adequate scheme of basic liberties? The two weasel-words — “adequate” and “basic” — mean that the scheme can be whatever government officials would prefer it to be, unless the clone-like populace defines the scheme in advance. But the populace can’t be clone-like, except in Rawls’s imagination, so government can’t be constrained by a definition of basic liberties that is conceived in the original position. Thus government must (and certainly will) adopt a scheme that reflects the outcome of intra-governmental bargaining (satisficing various popular and bureaucratic interests) — not a scheme that is the consensus of a clone-like citizenry lusting after social justice.

Do basic liberties entail equal rights under law? Yes, and they have been enshrined in American law for a century-and-a-half. Or have they? It seems that rights are a constantly evolving and malleable body of entitlements, which presently (in the view of many) include (inter alia) the right to defecate on public property, the right to be given addictive drugs, the right not to be offended or “triggered” emotionally, and the right not to be shunned by persons whose preferences don’t run to sodomy and “gender fluidity”.

The failure to provide equal rights– whatever they may be at the moment — isn’t a failure that can be remedied by magically reverting to the original position, where actual human beings aren’t to be found. The rights of the moment must be enforced by government. But government enforcement necessarily involves coercion, and certainly involves arbitrariness of a kind that might even offend Rawls. For government, in the real world, is a blunt instrument wielded by politicians and bureaucrats who strike crude bargains on behalf of the sundry interest groups to which they are beholden.

Turning to economic inequality, how does one define the least-advantaged? Are the least-advantaged those whose incomes fall below a certain level? For how long? Who defines the level? If raising incomes to that level reduces the rewards of economically productive work (e.g., invention, innovation, investment, entrepreneurship) through taxation, and thereby reduces the opportunities available to the least-advantaged, by what complex computation will the “right” level of taxation by determined? Surely not by citizens in the original position, operating behind the veil of ignorance, nor — it must be admitted — by government, the true nature of which is summarized in the final sentence of the preceding paragraph.

And what about wealth? How much wealth? Wealth at what stage of one’s life? When a person is still new to the work force but, like most workers, will earn more and accrue wealth? What about wealth that may be passed from generation to generation? Or is such wealth something that isn’t open to all and therefore forbidden? And if it is forbidden, what does that do to the incentives of wealth-builders to do things that advance economic growth, which benefits all citizens including the least-advantaged?

In both cases — income and wealth — we are dealing in arbitrary distinctions that must fall to government to decide, and to enforce by coercion. There is no question of deciding such things in the original position, even behind a veil of ignorance, unless the citizenry consists entirely of Rawls’s omniscient clones.

I must ask, further, why the least-advantaged — if they could be defined objectively and consistently — should be denied incentives to earn more income and build wealth? (Redistribution schemes do just that.) Is that social justice? No, it’s a particular kind of social justice that sees only the present and condescends toward the least-advantaged (whoever they might be).

What about the least-advantaged socially? If social status is directly correlated with income or wealth, there is no need to delve deeper. But if it is something else, the question arises: What is it, how can it be measured, and how can it be adjusted so that the least-advantaged are raised to some minimal level of social standing? How is that level defined and who defines it? Surely not Rawls’s clones operating in complete ignorance of such things. The task therefore, and again, must fall to government, the failings and coerciveness of which I have already addressed adequately.

Why should the least-advantaged on any dimension, if they can be defined, have privileges (i.e., government interventions in their favor) that are denied and harmful to the rest of the citizenry? Favoring the least-advantaged is, of course, “the right thing to do”. So all that Rawls accomplished by his convoluted, pristine “reasoning” was to make a plausible (but deeply flawed) case for something like the welfare state that already exists in the United States and most of the world. As for his conception of liberty and equal rights, Rawls cleverly justifies trampling on the liberty and equal rights of the more-advantaged by inventing like-minded clones who “authorize” the state to trample away.

Rawls put a lot of hard labor into his justification for welfare-statism in the service of “social justice”. The real thing, which was staring him in the face, amounts to this: Government intervenes in voluntarily cooperative social and economic arrangements only to protect citizens from force and fraud, where those terms are defined by long-standing social norms and applied by (not reworked or negated by) legislative, executive, and judicial acts. Which norms? The ones that prevailed in America before the 1960s would do just fine, as long as laws forbidding intimidation and violence were uniformly enforced across the land.

Perfection? Of course not, but attainable. The Framers of the original Constitution did a remarkable job of creating a template by which real human beings (not Rawls’s clones) could live in harmony and prosperity. Real human beings have a penchant for disharmony, waste, fraud, and abuse — but they’re all we have to work with.

Political Ideologies

I have just published a new page, “Political Ideologies”. Here’s the introduction:

Political ideologies proceed in a circle. Beginning arbitrarily with conservatism and moving clockwise, there are roughly the following broad types of ideology: conservatism, anti-statism (libertarianism), and statism. Statism is roughly divided into left-statism (“liberalism”or “progressivism”, left-populism) and right-statism (faux conservatism, right-populism). Left-statism and right-statism are distinguishable by their stated goals and constituencies.

By statism, I mean the idea that government should do more than merely defend the people from force and fraud. Conservatism and libertarianism are both anti-statist, but there is a subtle and crucial difference between them, which I will explain.

Not everyone has a coherent ideology of a kind that I discuss below. Far from it. There is much vacillation between left-statism and right-statism. And there is what I call the squishy center of the electorate which is easily swayed by promises and strongly influenced by bandwagon effects. In general, there is what one writer calls clientelism:

the distribution of resources by political power through an agreement in which politicians – the patrons – make this allocation dependent on the political support of the beneficiaries – their clients. Clientelism emerges at the intersection of political power with social and economic activity.

Politicians themselves are prone to stating ideological positions to which they don’t adhere, out of moral cowardice and a strong preference for power over principle. Republicans have been especially noteworthy in this respect. Democrats simply try to do what they promise to do — increase the power of government (albeit at vast but unmentioned economic and social cost).

In what follows, I will ignore the squishy center and the politics of expediency. I will focus on the various ideologies, the contrasts between them, and the populist allure of left-statism and right-statism. Because the two statisms are so much alike under the skin, I will start with conservatism and work around the circle to them. Conservatism gets more attention than the other ideologies because it is intellectually richer.

Go here for the rest.

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 is 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

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