Election 2020: Liberty Is at Stake

I have written many times over the years about what will happen to liberty in America the next time a Democrat is in the White House and Congress is controlled by Democrats. Many others have written or spoken about the same, dire scenario. Recently, for example, Victor Davis Hanson and Danielle Pletka addressed the threat to liberty that lies ahead if Donald Trump is succeeded by Joe Biden, in tandem with a Democrat takeover of the Senate. This post reprises my many posts about the clear and present danger to liberty if Trump is defeated and the Senate flips, and adds some points suggested by Hanson and Pletka. There’s much more to be said, I’m sure, but what I have to say here should be enough to make every liberty-loving American vote for Trump — even those who abhor the man’s persona.

Court Packing

One of the first things on the agenda will be to enlarge the Supreme Court and fill the additional seats with justices who can be counted on to support the following policies discussed below, should those policies get to the Supreme Court. (If they don’t, they will be upheld in lower courts or go unchallenged because challenges will be perceived as futile.)

Abolition of the Electoral College

The Electoral College helps to protect the sovereignty of less-populous States from oppression by more-populous States. This has become especially important with the electoral shift that has seen California, New York, and other formerly competitive States slide into leftism. The Electoral College therefore causes deep resentment on the left when it yields a Republican president who fails to capture a majority of the meaningless nationwide popular vote, as Donald Trump failed (by a large margin) in 2016), despite lopsided victories by H. Clinton in California, New York, etc.

The Electoral College could be abolished formally by an amendment to the Constitution. But amending the Constitution by that route would take years, and probably wouldn’t succeed because it would be opposed by too many State legislatures.

The alternative, which would succeed with Democrat control of Congress and a complaisant Supreme Court, is a multi-State compact to this effect: The electoral votes of each member State will be cast for the candidate with the most popular votes, nationwide, regardless of the popular vote in the member State. This would work to the advantage of a Democrat who loses narrowly in a State where the legislature and governor’s mansion is controlled by Democrats – which is the whole idea.

Some pundits deny that the scheme would favor Democrats, but the history of presidential elections contradicts them.

“Climate Change”

The “science” of “climate change” amounts to little more than computer models that can’t even “predict” recorded temperatures accurately because the models are based mainly on the assumption that CO2 (a minor greenhouse gas) drives the atmosphere’s temperature. This crucial assumption rests on a coincidence – rising temperatures from the late 1970s and rising levels of atmospheric CO2. But atmospheric CO2 has been far higher in earlier geological eras, while Earth’s temperature hasn’t been any higher than it is now. Yes, CO2 has been rising since the latter part of the 19th century, when industrialization began in earnest. Despite that, temperatures have fluctuated up and down for most of the past 150 years. (Some so-called scientists have resolved that paradox by adjusting historical temperatures to make them look lower than the really are.)

The deeper and probably more relevant causes of atmospheric temperature are to be found in the Earth’s core, magma flow, plate dynamics, ocean currents and composition, magnetic field, exposure to cosmic radiation, and dozens of other things that — to my knowledge — are ignored by climate models. Moreover, the complexity of the interactions of such factors, and others that are usually included in climate models cannot possibly be modeled.

The urge to “do something” about “climate change” is driven by a combination of scientific illiteracy, power-lust, and media-driven anxiety.

As a result, trillions of dollars have been and will be wasted on various “green” projects. These include but are far from limited to the replacement of fossil fuels by “renewables”, and the crippling of industries that depend on fossil fuels. Given that CO2 does influence atmospheric temperature slightly, it’s possible that such measures will have a slight effect on Earth’s temperature, even though the temperature rise has been beneficial (e.g., longer growing seasons; fewer deaths from cold weather, which kills more people than hot weather).

The main result of futile effort to combat “climate change” will be greater unemployment and lower real incomes for most Americans — except for the comfortable elites who press such policies.

Freedom of Speech

Legislation forbidding “hate speech” will be upheld by the packed Court. “Hate speech” will be whatever the bureaucrats who are empowered to detect and punish it say it is. And the bureaucrats will be swamped with complaints from vindictive leftists.

When the system is in full swing (which will take only a few years) it will be illegal to criticize, even by implication, such things as illegal immigration, same-sex marriage, transgenderism, anthropogenic global warming, or the confiscation of firearms. Violations will be 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 – at least until elites begin to acknowledge that Muslims are just as guilty of “incorrect thought” as persons of other religions and person who uphold the true spirit of the Constitution.

Reverse Discrimination

This has been in effect for several decades, as jobs, promotions, and college admissions have been denied the most capable persons in favor or certain “protected group” – manly blacks and women.

Reverse-discrimination “protections” will be extended to just about everyone who isn’t a straight, white male of European descent. And they will be enforced more vigorously than ever, so that employers will bend over backward to favor “protected groups” regardless of the effects on quality and quantity of output. That is, regardless of how such policies affect the general well-being of all Americans. And, of course, the heaviest burden – unemployment or menial employment – will fall on straight, white males of European descent. Except, of course, for the straight while males of European descent who are among the political, bureaucratic, and management elites who favor reverse discrimination.

Rule of Law

There will be no need for protests riots because police departments will become practitioners and enforcers of reverse discrimination (as well as “hate speech” violations and attempts to hold onto weapons for self-defense). This will happen regardless of the consequences, such as a rising crime rate, greater violence against whites and Asians, and flight from the cities (which will do little good because suburban police departments will also be co-opted).

Sexual misconduct (as defined by the alleged victim), will become a crime, and any straight, male person will 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.

Health Care

All health care and health-care related products and services (e.g., drug research) will be controlled and rationed by an agency of the federal government. Private care will be forbidden, though ready access to doctors, treatments, and medications will be provided for high officials and other favored persons.

Drug research – and medical research, generally – will dwindle in quality and quantity. There will be fewer doctors and nurses who are willing to work in a regimented system.

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.

Regulation

The regulatory regime, which already imposes a deadweight loss of 10 percent of GDP, will rebound with a vengeance, touching 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 – another blow to Americans’ general well-being.

Government Spending and National Defense

The dire economic effects of the foregoing policies will be compounded by massive increases in government spending on domestic welfare programs, which reward the unproductive at the expense of the productive. All of this will suppress investment in business formation and expansion, and in professional education and training. As a result, the real rate of economic growth will approach zero, and probably become negative.

Because of the emphasis on domestic welfare programs, the United States will maintain token armed forces (mainly for the purpose of suppressing domestic uprisings). The U.S. will pose no threat to the new superpowers — Russia and China. They won’t threaten the U.S. militarily as long as the U.S. government acquiesces in their increasing dominance.

Immigration

Illegal immigration will become legal, and all illegal immigrants now in the country – and the resulting flood of new immigrants — will be granted citizenship and all associated rights. The right to vote, of course, is the right that Democrats most dearly want to bestow because most of the newly-minted citizens can be counted on to vote for Democrats. The permanent Democrat majority will ensure permanent Democrat control of the White House and both houses of Congress.

Future Elections and the Death of Democracy

Despite the prospect of a permanent Democrat majority, Democrats won’t stop there. In addition to the restrictions on freedom of speech discussed above, there will be election laws requiring candidates to pass ideological purity tests by swearing fealty to the “law of the land” (i.e., 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.

Another Footnote about Anarchy

Seattle is what happens when the circle of anarchists is widened to include people who believe in force rather than dreamy abstractions about how private defense agencies can keep the peace. The problem — as realists like me have long noted — is that there are a lot of people who don’t believe in peace because it limits them to what the can earn honestly. And goes against their violent nature.


Related posts:

Anarchy: An Empty Concept
Anarchy, Minarchy, and Liberty
Friedman on Anarchy and Conservatism
A Few Thoughts about Anarchy
Extreme Libertarianism vs. the Accountable State
It’s the 1960s Redux
Apt Quotations for a Riot-Ridden Country
Anarchy: A Footnote

Bleeding Heart Libertarians (the Blog): Good Riddance

Ist kaputt. Why is it good riddance? See this post and follow the links, most of which lead to posts critical of Bleeding Heart Libertarians.

Bleeding Heart Libertarians (the Blog): A Bibliography of Related Posts

A recent post at Policy of Truth by its proprietor, Irfan Khawaja, prompted me to compile a list of all of the posts that I have written about some of the blog posts and bloggers at Bleeding Heart Libertarians. Though Khawaja and I disagree about a lot, I believe that we agree about the fatuousness of bleeding-heart libertarianism. (BTW, Khawaja’s flaming valedictory, on a different subject, is worth a read.)

Here’s the bibliography, arranged chronologically from March 9, 2011, to September 11, 2014:

The Meaning of Liberty
Peter Presumes to Preach
Positive Liberty vs. Liberty
More Social Justice
On Self-Ownership and Desert
The Killing of bin Laden and His Ilk
In Defense of Subjectivism
The Folly of Pacifism, Again
What Is Libertarianism?
Why Stop at the Death Penalty?
What Is Bleeding-Heart Libertarianism?
The Morality of Occupying Public Property
The Equal-Protection Scam and Same-Sex Marriage
Liberty, Negative Rights, and Bleeding Hearts
Bleeding-Heart Libertarians = Left-Statists
Enough with the Bleeding Hearts Already
Not Guilty of Libertarian Purism
Obama’s Big Lie
Bleeding-Heart Libertarians = Left-Statists (Redux)
Egoism and Altruism
A Case for Redistribution Not Made

The Common Good, or Rethinking Liberty

C. Bradley Thompson, writing at The American Mind (“The Rise and Fall of Pajama-Boy Nietzscheans“, May 13, 2020) takes on the radical right. There is much in Thompson’s essay with which I agree, and much with which I disagree. But I will focus here on these paragraphs:

There is no such thing as the “common good” unless one means the sum of the interests of all men and women in a particular society, and the only legitimate “good” common to all men and women as rational beings is freedom, which is the necessary condition from which they pursue all the goods necessary for living and living well. To the extent that the “common good” can mean anything at all, it describes the freedom and rights that all individuals must be guaranteed in a civilized society.

But the standard idea of the “common good” as used by [Sohrab] Ahmari [one of Thompson’s targets] is an abstraction that is greater than the sum of the individual men and women who make up a society. Thus the central problem with the anti-concept “common good” is that has no basis in objective reality, which means that it’s literally nothing other than a philosophic fantasy—a creation of the human imagination.

So far, not too bad. “The common good” as used by Ahmari is just another term for social-welfare function. And Thompson is right when he says that it has no basis in objective reality. It is, indeed, a creation of the human imagination. How can anyone meaningfully measure and sum the happiness or unhappiness of the hundreds of millions more persons now living in the United States. (or the billions more now living on Earth)? How, for instance, can anyone say that A’s enjoyment at inflicting pain on B (a non-masochistic) exceeds the pain suffered by B, resulting in an increase in “the common good”? Or conversely?

But the first paragraph quoted above is problematic. Freedom — or liberty — isn’t the necessary condition for living well. Liberty is living well, that is, in peaceful, willing coexistence and its concomitant: beneficially cooperative behavior.

The preconditions for liberty are mutual trust, respect, and forbearance. The third member of that triad requires trust in a transgressor’s ability and willingness to correct himself, either voluntarily or through a socially accepted sanction ranging from reproof to harsh punishment. For the sake of social comity, incorrigibility must therefore be treated by permanent removal from society, through exile, imprisonment, or execution.

Liberty, in sum, isn’t just a personal state of affairs. Rather, it’s a social state of affairs. And attaining it requires social agreement as to what constitutes expected and permissible behavior, and how to treat failures to behave as expected or to behave impermissibly. For, contrary to libertarian dogma, the underpinnings of liberty — mutual trust, respect, and forbearance — require the fulfillment of understood obligations, such as the obligation of able-bodied men to defend a community against invasion; the obligation of parents to instruct their children in society’s mores; or the obligation of men and women to enter into marriage before having children, the better to ensure that the children are raised in a secure and stable environment.

But what if the members of a polity differ strongly and fundamentally in their views of behavioral expectations and how to treat deviancy from those expectations? Where that is the case, there will be irreconcilable differences between factions within the polity, and those factions will strive constantly to rise to power so that they can impose their views on other factions. Where that is the case, liberty is impossible because mutual trust, respect, and forbearance are impossible.

Liberty, in other words, is a chimera in any polity whose members hold strong and irreconcilable views about behavioral norms, and where exit is practically impossible. The Founders and Framers overlooked those conditions because America was then much more homogeneous, culturally; the States were far more independent of each other; and migration to open territory was a real possibility.

Thus the Declaration of Independence opens with this high-flown sentiment:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

And the Constitution begins just as glibly:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

But neither document delves the meaning of liberty or its essential — social — prerequisites, because such delving was unnecessary in the conditions of the time: great cultural homogeneity, weak central government, and the real possibility of exit. Political union, loose at was, was conjoined with something much closer to cultural homogeneity than is now the case.

Paradoxically, America was far more united, culturally, at the time of the bloody Civil War than it is today, when cosmopolitan elites and “real people” are engaged in a bitter and socially and economically destructive cold civil war.

Unless the present clash is resolved in a way that enables the opposing cultures to coexist independently of each other (except for voluntary, arms-length commercial transactions), liberty will continue to be an empty word in the United States.


Related page: Social Norms and Liberty (with a long list of related posts at the end)

“Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death”

Most Americans who graduated from high school before the mid-1960s —  when patriotism was still a permissible attitude — would know that the man who said, famously, “give me liberty or give me death” was Patrick Henry. Henry said it at the end of his speech to the Second Virginia Convention on March 23, 1775. The speech convinced the convention to pass a resolution to provide troops for the Revolutionary War.

What Henry said applies with full force in today’s crucial moment, when the fearful are being goaded and coerced by state-worshipers into abandoning what is left of their liberty. The final sentences of Henry’s speech put today’s choice starkly:

What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!

The difference between then and now is that the citizens of Virginia had on their side — the side of liberty — the stalwarts who adopted the resolution and put it into effect. Those stalwarts, in addition to Patrick Henry, included Richard Henry Lee (grandfather of “Light Horse Harry” Lee and great-grandfather of Robert E. Lee), Benjamin Harrison (father of future president William Henry Harrison and great-grandfather of future president Benjamin Harrison), Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington.

Where are their spiritual descendants today? I ask because there is much truth in a piece that is making its way around the internet:

When the State tells you it’s safe to go to The Home Depot to buy a sponge but it’s too dangerous to go to a florist and buy flowers—it’s not about your health.

When the State shuts down millions of private businesses but doesn’t lay off a single government employee—it’s not about your health.

When the State bans dentists because it’s unsafe, but deems abortion visits safe—it’s not about your health.

When the State prevents you from buying cucumber seeds because it’s too dangerous, but allows in-person lottery ticket sales—it’s not about your health.

When the State tells you it’s too dangerous to go golf alone, fish alone or be in a motorboat alone, but the Governor can get his stage make up done, and hair done for 5 TV appearances a week—it’s not about your health.

When the state puts you IN a jail cell for walking in a park with your child because it’s too dangerous but lets criminals OUT of jail cells for their health—it’s not about YOUR health!

When the state tells you it’s too dangerous to get treated by a doctor of chiropractic or physical therapy treatments yet deems a liquor store essential—it’s not about your health!

When the State lets you go to the grocery store or hardware store but is demanding mail-in voting, IT’S NOT ABOUT YOUR HEALTH.

Yes, there’s a good deal of conspiracy-minded paranoia behind sentiments like that. But the screed also points to a truth: Governments across this once-free nation are making dictatorial decisions that are harming tens of millions of Americans, socially and economically, instead of letting those Americans decide for themselves what risks to take. That is to say, Americans are being deprived of (more of) their liberty because of the possibility that a small fraction of them might die.

Reducing the small fraction to an even smaller one is the official excuse for inflicting economic and social devastation on Americans. What’s the truth of the matter? There are many truths:

1. Elected officials prefer to err on the side of caution — in the guise of “caring” for the health of their constituents — to guard against second-wave effects. Rightly or wrongly — and mostly wrongly — they suffer electoral consequences for things that go wrong when they are in office, even those things are unavoidable or have nothing to do with official actions.

2. Elected officials (and government employees generally) are insulated from the economic effects of lockdowns, and have no skin in the game. Moreover, most of them — especially in the central government, State governments, and governments of cities — mingle with and take their cues from information, media, and academic elites who likewise have no skin in the game. Thus their focus, according to #1, is keeping the death toll low.

3. The personal consequences of economic devastation, for the tens of millions of Americans who aren’t insulated from it, aren’t big news. The media instead plays up the consequences of the disease — debilitation and death — in keeping with its age-old tradition: If it bleeds, it leads.

4. The tens of millions of Americans who are suffering economically are represented by demonstrators (often armed) who are portrayed as “selfish” Walmartians. They are the present equivalent (for elite snobs) of Hillary Clinton’s “deplorables”. And Trump is the leading “deplorable” because of his “racist” insistence on calling a virus that originated in China the “China virus”.

5. To the extent that the destruction of small businesses and the nation’s soaring unemployment rate are news, they stand (somehow, in the mind of smug elites) as proof that the “Trump economy” was somehow phony.

6. Therefore, Trump is discredited and doesn’t deserve reelection. Especially because his early, optimistic pronouncements about COVID-19 somehow caused the federal bureaucracy (a.k.a. the deep state) and many State and local governments (mostly those run by Democrats) to respond inadequately to the pandemic.

All of this plays well, not only to the insiders who perpetrate it but also — and importantly — to the tens of millions of Americans who haven’t a clue about what it means to lose a business or a job because they are economically secure thanks to a government job (or other sinecure), retirement income (especially from a government source), parental support, or ample savings. Fear wins with them because they might die but aren’t going to suffer financially.

To look at it another way, in America the COVID-19 pandemic is another front in the culture war between “cosmopolitan elites” (and their cosseted sycophants) and “real people“.

It is also another way for the ruling classes (for that is what they are) to secure their economic and social dominance, as Joel Kotkin explains in “The Pandemic Road to Serfdom” (The American Mind, May 1, 2020):

Even before the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, America, like most higher-income countries, was already heading toward a neo-feudal future: massive inequality, ever-greater concentrations of power, and increasingly widespread embrace of a uniform (albeit secular) religion. The pandemic, all too reminiscent of the great plagues of the Middle Ages, seems destined to accelerate this process….

[A]s jobs are destroyed on Main Street, others, like those at well-positioned Amazon, are created by the hundreds of thousands. It is also a rosy new dawn for online collaboration applications like Zoom, Google Hangouts, Facebook Rooms, Microsoft Teams, and Slack, the fastest-growing business app on record. Also greatly enhanced will be those who provide the infrastructure for the conquering digital economy, including chipmakers like Intel and cloud-computing behemoths like (yet again) Amazon and Microsoft.

The pandemic seems likely to further consolidate the tech industry shift from its garage-based startup past, with firms like Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and Amazon increasingly resembling Japan’s long-dominant keiretsu. The pandemic may have squashed many new companies that are now short on capital. In contrast, the oligarchic firms, which control upwards of 80% of such key markets as search, social media, cloud computing, and computer operating systems, now enjoy an even greater edge in garnering ever more of the nation’s technical talent.

Ultimately the pandemic will provide the new elite with opportunities to gain control of a whole set of coveted industries, from entertainment and media to finance and space travel. Perhaps most concerning will be their ability to control all aspects of information as the last vestiges of local and small-town journalism face Covid-driven “extinction level” events. What is now left of the “legacy” media—the Atlantic, Time, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times—has fallen increasingly under their control. Nine of the 13 richest people under age 40 are in the tech industry: the odds are favorable that the new elite will maintain their control over information for generations….

In contrast, the pandemic has proven an utter disaster for much of the Third Estate [the “commoners”]. The most evident damage can be seen at the malls, or on Main Street, where millions of small firms have been forced to close and, at least in some locations, may be forced to stay locked down for many more months….

In the aftermath of the lockdowns, small independent firms will be harder-pressed to compete against larger competitors with better access to capital and better positioning to wait out the pandemic. In the coming months, we might see many of our favorite local gyms and bars, or taco stands and family-owned Chinese restaurants, replaced by either online options or larger chains….

With the yeomanry thundering mostly from the Right, the protests of “essential” blue-collar workers could help boost the socialist cause. Roughly half of American households have no emergency savings and face an uncertain future as jobs disappear. A new class of ex-workers now finds the dole a more amenable or viable option than hard and dangerous work for relatively low pay. Bernie Sanders may have lost the nomination, but the message he ran on is amplified at a time when soup kitchens, as during the Depression, are now serving New York artists, writers, and musicians. The pandemic will likely increase the strong socialist tendency among both millennials and the successor Z generation….

Ultimately … disorder [born of joblessness] threatens the power of both the oligarchs and the clerisy. Their likely response may be embracing what I call “oligarchal socialism,” where the very notion of work disappears in favor of a regime of cash allotments. This notion of providing what Marx called “proletarian alms,” widely supported in Silicon Valley, could prove a lasting legacy of the pandemic. This is how Rome, as slaves replaced the middle orders, kept its citizenry in line, and how the Medieval order in times of economic stress relied on the charitable efforts of the Church.

The virus that now dominates our daily lives may soon begin to slowly fade, but it will have a deep, protracted impact on our society and class structure. Covid-19 will likely leave us with conditions that more resemble feudalism than anyone could have imagined just a few years ago.

As Rahm Emanuel, then Obama’s chief-of-staff-in-waiting, said during the financial crisis of late 2008,

You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.

What that means now, in addition to the entrenchment of the ruling oligarchy, is probably a permanent expansion of governmental power. As with the New Deal and Great Society, the current wave of handouts has engorged the rolls of those who depend on government and look to it (mostly in vain) for “solutions” to whatever problems seem beyond their (government-enfeebled) ability to solve through private action. And, “deplorables” aside, government’s role as nagging nanny (however incompetent) has been reinforced, and will be exploited to a fare-thee-well.

That’s what the mere possibility of death has done to liberty in the year 2020 A.D.


Other related reading:

F.H. Buckley, “What’s at Risk in Redivided America?“, The American Spectator, May 9, 2020

Wendell Cox, “Majority of COVID-19 Deaths in Nursing Homes: New Report“, newgeography, May 12, 2020

Dov Fischer, “A Time to Hate“, The American Spectator, May 11, 2020

Daniel Horowitz, “Simple Arithmetic Demonstrates that the Epidemic, outside Nursing Homes, Is Essentially Over“, Conservative Review, May 7, 2020

Arnold Kling, “The Future That We Won’t Have“, askblog, May 10, 2020

Francis Menton, “Why Are Government Employees Supposedly Immune to Layoffs?“, Manhattan Contrarian, May 6, 2020

Norbert Michel, “1% of Counties Home to Half of COVID-19 Cases, Over Half of Deaths“, The Daily Signal, May 12, 2020

Dave Middleton, “‘Predictive Models’ Rarely Are Predictive“, Watts Up With That?, May 8, 2020

Dave Middleton, “Lockdown Fail in One Easy Graph“, Watts Up With That?, May 12, 2020

Wilfred Reilly, “The Lockdowns Still Aren’t Working“, Spiked, May 8, 2020

Lockdown or Re-open?

UPDATED 05/03/20

Why are governments forcing businesses to close, costing tens of millions of jobs at least temporarily (and millions permanently), thus causing unemployment compensation claims to soar while tax revenues drop, and therefore causing some states to verge on bankruptcy, while also inflating unemployment compensation payouts and thereby making many workers reluctant to return to work even if they could? Nowhere mentioned in that breathless litany are the social and economic effects of lockdowns and job losses on families, friendships, social circles, etc., etc., etc.

The comfortable and fearful — a set that contains mostly leftists, who tend to be more affluent and more neurotic than the “deplorables” whom they disdain — are wont to worry about the consequence of re-opening “too soon” (i.e., before they are personally affected by lockdowns). That consequence, of course, is the possibility that the rate of COVID-19 infections and deaths will rise rather than fall to zero.

But so what? Suppose that a doctor — of all people — were to reopen his practice, tell patients that he will take every reasonable precaution to shield them from infection, require them to take similar precautions, have them sign releases holding him harmless should they later be found to have contracted COVID-19. Wouldn’t you go to that doctor if you needed to, rather than have him try to diagnose you telemedically? I would.

The same kinds of protocols could be followed by businesses of all kinds, and followed not only with respect to customers but also employees. Aren’t there tens of millions of citizens who would rather shop and work in the real world rather than in the virtual world? There certainly are tens of millions who would rather go to work instead of collecting unemployment compensation and watching their savings dwindle (if they have any to begin with). Moreover, the protocols could be backed by State governments granting to employers immunity from criminal and civil prosecutions if they follow specified procedures and all parties execute standard forms.

Why are governments preventing citizens from taking reasonable, informed risks so that the affluent and neurotic can sleep more easily — and enjoy watching frustrated “deplorables” protest in vain? Oh, that’s it. The suffering of “deplorables” given pleasure to leftists (e.g., this), and they’re in charge in too many places.

Which just goes to show, once again, that there’s no such thing as a social-welfare function. How can the pleasure gained by leftists possibly offset the pain they are causing to tens of millions of real Americans?

P.S. Jay Cost elaborates on the tension between the “haves” and the rest of us. The “haves” keep lecturing the rest of us to think of others. But it’s they who aren’t thinking of others; they’re only thinking of themselves. Well, if they don’t want to be exposed to COVID-19, they can just shelter in place while everyone else makes the economy work for the benefit of them (i.e., the “haves”).

My blue-collar roots are showing.

COVID-19: Public Service Announcement

It has become obvious that COVID-19 stats are unreliable; see this, this, and this, for example. I am therefore withdrawing from the business of reporting official stats and making projections based on them. I leave that endeavor with this thought.

A Few Thoughts about Anarchy

This light-hearted post is inspired by comments on “Extreme Libertarianism and the Accountable State“. I considered a long disquisition on the subject but decided that it (the subject) isn’t worth the effort.

Anarchy is a pipe dream. A state of one kind or another always exists or emerges, on a scale that ranges from the family unit to the globe-spanning empire.

If you are looking for a life in which you aren’t subject to another person — even one — you must be prepared to strike out on your own, go off the grid, and live entirely by your own wits and physical skills. If you want to take with you some things that you have acquired — things that were made by corporations that you might otherwise disdain because they are in bed with their regulators — be my guest. Sunk costs are sunk.

What about taking along a significant other or a close friend? Well, that might work if the person is your identical twin (assuming that an identical twin would share your psychological makeup). But, otherwise, you are setting yourself up for conflict. And if you value the other person emotionally or rely on his or her help to make your way through life, you will find yourself necessarily (and fairly often) acquiescing to that person; that is, being ruled by him or her in a way. Unless, of course, you are domineering and make the other person bow to your every wish, though that’s hardly in the spirit of anarchy, is it?

Oh, you’re not that kind of anarchist. You just want conflicts to be resolved and rules to be made locally rather than at some remove, so that you are a full participant in the resolution of conflicts and the making of rules. You can live with decisions with which you disagree as long as you have a direct hand in the making of them.

Well, I hate to break it to you, but that is no longer possible, and hasn’t been possible (in what is now the United States) since 1585. Yes, there is the occasional commune, and a few of them have lasted for more than 50 years. But they are the rare exceptions that prove the rule.

Small towns and villages? Well, they’re really in the same boat as the rare commune that doesn’t collapse like a soufflé after a few years. There’s nothing like the tyranny of small-town mores and ostracism. Even those (mythical) small towns and villages that are actually run in a participatory way — and not by local élites and power-mongers — are no more than microscopic nodes in the vast network of statutes, regulations, ordinances, codes, and judicial decrees that govern almost every economic transaction and far too many social transactions in the United States of America.

So, even a true believer in anarchy who actually wants to attain it must strive realistically. That means working hard just to contain (and occasionally curtail) the powers of the central government, State governments, and local governments. You won’t get far, but you will do more good than you will by preaching anarchy, which ain’t gonna happen and which only kooks like you believe in.

But maybe preaching anarchy gives you a lot of pleasure. So do other fruitless pursuits (e.g., this one), and they’re less frustrating.

P.S. If anarchy were a viable option, it would have long since thrived. If it seems to have eked out a tenuous existence in isolated cases because of state sponsorship, isn’t that evidence of its inviability? And if it hasn’t thrived because statists of one kind and another have suppressed it, isn’t that also proof of its inviability? Call it a non-existence proof. Case closed.

Not-So-Random Thoughts (XXVI)

“Not-So-Random Thoughts” is an occasional series in which I highlight writings by other commentators on varied subjects that I have addressed in the past. Other entries in the series can be found at these links: I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X, XI, XII, XIII, XIV, XV, XVI, XVII, XVIII, XIX, XX, XXI, XXII, XXIII, XXIV, and XXV. For more in the same style, see “The Tenor of the Times” and “Roundup: Civil War, Solitude, Transgenderism, Academic Enemies, and Immigration“.

CONTENTS

Free Trade Rethought

The Death Penalty

State Actors in Action

Red vs. Blue

Serfdom in Our Future?


FREE TRADE RETHOUGHT

My position on so-called free trade:

  • Estimate the amount by which the price of a foreign product or service is reduced by the actions of foreign governments or their proxies.
  • Add that amount to the price as a tariff.
  • Regularly review and adjust the schedule of tariffs.

All other trade would be unencumbered, excepting:

  • the importation of products and services otherwise restricted by U.S. law (e.g., tanks, artillery pieces)
  • the exportation of products and services that are used directly in the development, manufacture, and operation of sensitive military systems (e.g., fighter aircraft, anti-missile defenses).

Selective tariffs, based on actual costs of production, would encourage the efficient use of resources and protect American workers who would otherwise be victimized by unfair trade. But that’s it. Sweeping tariffs on imports — just to “protect” American workers — do more than protect them. They also penalize American consumers, most of whom are also workers.

William Upton, writing in light of current events (“Make America Autarkic Again“, The American Mind, March 13, 2020), would go a lot further:

In our over-globalized world, a policy of total autarky is infeasible. But a degree of autarky should be recognized as self-evidently in America’s national interest.

Autarky, for those unfamiliar, was an economic and industrial policy of self-reliance wherein a nation need not rely on international trade for its economic survival. This is not to say that said nation rejected international trade or isolated itself from the global economic order, rather that it merely could survive on its own if necessary….

[Oren] Cass notes that sound industrial policy has allowed nations like Germany and Japan to retain strong manufacturing sectors. Cass also emphasizes the pivotal importance of manufacturing, not just for the economy, but for American communities:

[M]anufacturing is unique for the complexity of its supply chains and the interaction between innovation and production. One of the most infuriating face-palms of modern economics is the two-step that goes like this: First, wave away concern as other countries with aggressive industrial policies … attract our critical supply chains overseas, explaining that it doesn’t matter where things get made. Second, wait for people to ask “why can’t we make this or that here,” and explain that of course we can’t because all of the supply chains and expertise are entrenched elsewhere. It’s enough to make one slam one’s head into the podium.

There may be something to it.


THE DEATH PENALTY

I was surprised to read the assessment by Theodore Dalrymple, a former prison doctor, of the death penalty (“The Death Penalty’s Demise and the Withering of Authority“, Law & Liberty, February 11, 2020). On the one hand:

If I had been a prison doctor while the death penalty was still imposed in Britain, I should have had the somewhat awkward task of certifying murderers fit for execution….  It was not permitted to execute madmen even if they had been sane at the time of their crime; but with the ever-widening and loosening of psychiatric diagnosis, I should no doubt have been tempted always to find a medical reason to postpone the execution sine die. I would have found it hard to sign what would have amounted to a medical death warrant, all the more so with the man before my very eyes. Nor would I have much relished attending the execution itself, to certify that the execution had worked….

But while I should not have wanted to participate in an execution, I was nevertheless viscerally in favour of the death penalty because it seemed to me that there were crimes (though by no means all of them murder) so heinous, so despicable, that no other penalty was adequate to express society’s outrage at, or repudiation of, them. Moreover — though quite late in my career — I discovered evidence that suggested that the death penalty did in fact act as a deterrent to murder, something which has long been contested or outright denied by abolitionists.

But on the other hand:

Does its deterrent effect, then, establish the case for the death penalty, at least in Britain? No, for two reasons. First, effectiveness of a punishment is not a sufficient justification for it. For example, it might well be that the death penalty would deter people from parking in the wrong place, but we would not therefore advocate it. Second, the fact is that in all jurisdictions, no matter how scrupulously fair they try to be, errors are sometime made, and innocent people have been put to death. This seems to me the strongest, and perhaps decisive, argument against the death penalty.

And on the third hand:

Although, on balance, I am against the death penalty, I do not assume that those who are in favour of it are necessarily moral primitives, which abolitionists often give the impression of believing. For most of our history, the rightness of the death penalty has been taken for granted, and it cannot be that we are the first decent, reflective people ever to have existed. The self-righteousness of the Europeans in this respect disgusts me when they set themselves up to judge others. France, for example, abolished the death penalty only in 1981 – AD 1981, that is, not 1981 BC. When the death penalty in Britain was abolished in 1965 after many decades of campaigning by abolitionists, more than 90 per cent of the population was still in favour of it. Almost certainly it believed, if not necessarily in a fully coherent way, that to abolish the death penalty was to weaken the authority of society and to lessen the majesty of the law. It was also to weaken the prohibition against killing and, though involving the taking of a life (the murderer’s), also lessened the sanctity of life….

In Britain, one of the effects of the abolition of the death penalty, the downward pressure on all prison sentences, has been little remarked. Punishment has to be roughly proportional to the gravity of the crime (exact proportionality cannot be achieved), but if murder attracts only 15 years’ imprisonment de facto, what sentences can be meted out to those who commit lesser, but still serious, crimes? Moreover, the charge of murder is often reduced to the lesser crime of manslaughter, in which sentences – as a consequence – are often derisory….

It is scarcely any wonder that in the years since the abolition of the death sentence, Britain has gone from being a well-ordered, non-violent, law-abiding society to being a society with the highest rate of violent crime in Western Europe. Of course, the abolition of the death penalty was not the only cause, for crime was rising in any case, but it brought its contribution to the festival of disorder that followed.

It seems to me that Dalrymple ends up arguing in favor of the death penalty. He is correct about its deterrent effect (same post). He is wrong to give heavy weight to the possibility of error. And he overlooks a conclusive argument in its favor: there is one less criminal who might be let loose to commit more crimes. All of those points and more are covered in these posts:

Does Capital Punishment Deter Homicide?
Libertarian Twaddle about the Death Penalty
A Crime Is a Crime
Crime and Punishment
Saving the Innocent?
Saving the Innocent?: Part II
More Punishment Means Less Crime
More About Crime and Punishment
More Punishment Means Less Crime: A Footnote
Clear Thinking about the Death Penalty
Let the Punishment Fit the Crime
Another Argument for the Death Penalty
Less Punishment Means More Crime
Crime, Explained
Why Stop at the Death Penalty?
Crime Revisited


STATE ACTORS IN ACTION

Once upon a time I made a case for rescuing the First Amendment from its enemies in

the telecommunications, news, entertainment, and education industries [which] have exerted their power to suppress speech because of its content….  The collective actions of these entities — many of them government- licensed and government-funded — effectively constitute a governmental violation of the Constitution’s guarantee of freedom of speech (See Smith v. Allwright, 321 U.S. 649 (1944) and Marsh v. Alabama, 326 U.S. 501 (1946).)

Leo Goldstein (“Google and YouTube Are State Actors“, American Thinker, March 9, 2020) finds a smoking gun

in the FCC Obamanet orders of 2010 and 2015. The 2015 Obamanet Order, officially called Open Internet Order, has explicitly obligated all internet users to pay a tax to Google and YouTube in their ISP and wireless data fees. The Order even mentions Google and YouTube by name. The tax incurs tens of billions of dollars per year. More specifically, the Order said that by paying ISP fees (including mobile wireless), each user also pays for the services that ISP gives to platforms and content providers like YouTube, even if the user doesn’t use them….

Platforms and content providers are misleadingly called “edge providers” here. Thus, every ISP customer in the US is obligated to pay for the traffic generated by Google, Netflix, Facebook, and Twitter, even if he used none of them!

Off with their heads.


RED VS. BLUE

The prolific Joel Kotkin weighs in on the Red States’ economic and electoral advantages:

Even in a state as deeply blue as [California}, Democrats’ disdain for the basic values and interests of their own base could unravel their now seemingly unbridgeable majority. At some point, parents, artists, minorities, small businesspeople and even sex workers will not be mollified sufficiently by a fulsome expression of good intentions. If more voters begin to realize that many of the policies being adopted are injurious, they may even begin to look again at the Republicans, particularly once the toxic President Trump is no longer on the ballot scaring the masses to toe the line. [“Democrats Risk Blowback with Leftward Turn“, newgeography, March 1, 2020]

* * *

The political and cultural war between red and blue America may not be settled in our lifetimes, but it’s clear which side is gaining ground in economic and demographic terms. In everything from new jobs—including new technology employment—fertility rates, population growth, and migration, it’s the red states that increasingly hold the advantage.

Perhaps the most surprising development is on the economic front. Over the past decade, the national media, and much of academia, have embraced the notion that the future belonged to the high-tax, high-regulation economies clustered on the East and West Coasts. The red states have been widely dismissed, in the words of the New York Times, as the land of the “left behind.”

Yet the left-behind are catching up, as economic momentum shifts away from coastal redoubts toward traditionally GOP-leaning states. Just a few years ago, states like California, Massachusetts, and New York held their own, and then some, in measurements of income growth from the Bureau of Economic Analysis. Now the fastest growth is concentrated in the Sunbelt and Great Plains. Texans’ income in the latest 2019 BEA estimates was up 4.2 percent, well above California’s 3.6 percent and twice New York’s 2.1 percent. The largest jumps—and this may matter a lot in 2020—took place in the Dakotas, Nebraska, and Iowa. [“Red v. Blue“, City Journal, February 7, 2020]

But:

[S]ocialism is gaining adherents even in the upper middle-class and among the oligarchy. One critical component lies in detestation of all things Trump even among CEOs, most of whom, according to a recent Chief Executive survey, want him impeached. Corporate America is increasingly embracing the notion of a guaranteed income and is adopting politically correct positions on such things as immigration, particularly in tech and on Wall Street.

But the most important driver for socialism comes from the burgeoning green movement. Long dominated by the elite classes, environmentalists are openly showing themselves as watermelons — green on the outside, red on the inside. For example, the so called “Green New Deal” — embraced by Sanders, Warren and numerous oligarchs — represents, its author Saikat Chakrabarti suggests, not so much a climate as “a how-do-you-change-the entire-economy thing”. Increasingly greens look at powerful government not to grow the economy, but to slow it down, eliminating highly paid blue-collar jobs in fields like manufacturing and energy. The call to provide subsidies and make work jobs appeals to greens worried about blowback from displaced workers and communities.

Combined with the confused and vacillating nature of our business elites, and the economic stagnation felt by many Americans, socialism in the West is on the rise. An ideology that history would seem to have consigned to Leon Trotsky’s “dustbin of history”, could turn the land that once embraced Adam Smith closer to the vision of Karl Marx. [“The West Turns Red?“, newgeography, February 25, 2020]

I have shown the economic superiority of the Red State model. But that isn’t enough to rescue the country from the perpetual allure of socialism. As I say here,

… States and municipalities governed by Democrats will ever more boldly pursue policies that undermine traditional American culture (e.g., unabated encouragement of illegal immigration, accelerated favoritism toward “identity groups”) and which are broadly destructive of the economic and social fabric; for example: persisting in costly, money-losing recycling and composting programs that do nothing for the environment (taking into account the environmental effects of the vehicles and equipment involved); the replacement of fossil-fuel sources of electricity by unreliable and expensive “renewable” sources; encouragement of homelessness by subsidizing it and making it socially acceptable; discouragement of family formation and stability through the continuation and expansion of long-discredited vote-buying welfare programs; openly persecuting conservatives and conservative institutions.

All of that will intensify the divisions between Red and Blue States, and the divisions between Red State governments and the Blue cities within them. But that is a first-order effect.

The second-order effect is to make living in Blue States and cities more onerous for middle-to-low-income earners (and even some among the affluent), who will seek greener (Redder) pastures outside Blue cities and Blue States. But many (most?) of those refugees will not flee because they have come to believe that big government is the cause of their problems. Rather, they (especially the younger, more mobile, and more “socialistic” ones) will flee because they don’t want to suffer the consequences of big government (high taxes, high housing costs, etc.). But, being addicted to the idea that big government is good, and ignorant of the connection between big government and their woes, they will continue to vote for big-government politicians and policies. Thus will Blue States and Blue cites gradually turn Purple and, in many cases, Blue.

You read it here.


SERFDOM IN OUR FUTURE?

I recently mused about Walter Scheidel’s book, The Great Leveler. Kotkin addresses the thesis of that book in “Who Will Prosper After the Plague?” (Tablet, April 13, 2020):

[T]he wreckage [caused by the Black Plague of the 14th century] created new opportunities for those left standing. Abandoned tracts of land could be consolidated by rich nobles, or, in some cases, enterprising peasants, who took advantage of sudden opportunities to buy property or use chronic labor shortages to demand higher wages. “In an age where social conditions were considered fixed,” historian Barbara Tuchman has suggested, the new adjustments seemed “revolutionary.”

What might such “revolutionary” changes look like in our post-plague society? In the immediate future the monied classes in America will take a big hit, as their stock portfolios shrink, both acquisitions and new IPOs get sidetracked and the value of their properties drop. But vast opportunities for tremendous profit available to those with the financial wherewithal to absorb the initial shocks and capitalize on the disruption they cause….

Over time, the crisis is likely to further bolster the global oligarchal class. The wealthiest 1% already own as much as 50% of the world’s assets, and according to a recent British parliamentary study, by 2030, will expand their share to two-thirds of the world’s wealth with the biggest gains overwhelmingly concentrated at the top 0.01%….

The biggest long-term winner of the stay-at-home trend may well be Amazon, which is hiring 100,000 new workers. But other digital industries will profit as well, including food delivery services, streaming entertainment services, telemedicine, biomedicine, cloud computing, and online education. The shift to remote work has created an enormous market for applications, which facilitate video conferencing and digital collaboration like Slack—the fastest growing business application on record—as well as Google Hangouts, Zoom, and Microsoft Teams. Other tech firms, such as Facebook, game makers like Activision Blizzard and online retailers like Chewy, suggests Morgan Stanley, also can expect to see their stock prices soar as the pandemic fades and public acceptance of online commerce and at-home entertainment grows with enforced familiarity.

Growing corporate concentration in the technology sector, both in the United States and Europe, will enhance the power of these companies to dominate commerce and information flows….

The modern-day clerisy consisting of academics, media, scientists, nonprofit activists, and other members of the country’s credentialed bureaucracy also stand to benefit from the pandemic. The clerisy operate as what the great German sociologist Max Weber called “the new legitimizers,” bestowing an air of moral and technocratic authority on the enterprises of their choosing….

Members of the clerisy are likely to be part of the one-quarter of workers in the United States who can largely work at home. Barely 3% of low-wage workers can telecommute but nearly 50% of those in the upper middle class can. While workers at most restaurants and retail outlets face hard times, professors and teachers will continue their work online, as will senior bureaucrats….

The biggest winners in the fallout from the coronavirus are likely to be large corporations, Wall Street, Silicon Valley, and government institutions with strong lobbies. The experience from recent recessions indicates that big banks, whose prosperity is largely asset-based, will do well along with major corporations, while Main Street businesses and ordinary homeowners will fare poorly….

In the Middle Ages, many former citizens, facing a series of disasters from plagues to barbarian invasions, willingly became serfs. Today, the class of permanently propertyless citizens seems likely to grow as the traditional middle class shrinks, and the role of labor is further diminished relative to that of technology and capital.

In contrast to the old unionized workers, many people today, whether their employment is full-time or part-time, have descended into the precariat, a group of laborers with limited control over how long they can work, who often live on barely subsistence wages. Nearly half of gig workers in California live under the poverty line.

Now comes the payoff:

Historically, pandemics have tended to spark class conflict. The plague-ravaged landscape of medieval Europe opened the door to numerous “peasant rebellions.” This in turn led the aristocracy and the church to restrict the movements of peasants to limit their ability to use the new depopulated countryside to their own advantage. Attempts to constrain the ambitions of the commoners often led to open revolts—including against the church and the aristocracy.

… As steady and well-paying jobs disappear, the demands for an ever more extensive welfare state, funded by the upper classes, will multiply.

Like their counterparts in the late 19th century, the lower-class workforce will demand changes. We already see this in the protests by workers at Instacart delivery service, and in Amazon warehouse workers concerned about limited health insurance, low wages, and exposure to the virus.

As the virus threatens to concentrate wealth and power even more, there’s likely to be some sort of reckoning, including from the increasingly hard-pressed yeomanry.

In the years before the great working-class rebellions of the mid-19th century, Alexis de Tocqueville warned that the ruling orders were “sleeping on a volcano.” The same might be seen now as well, with contagion pushing the lava into the streets, and causing new disruptions on a scale of which we can’t predict.

Something like socialism (for non-elites) may emerge for the rubble. It will be the 21th century equivalent of bread and circuses: share just enough of the wealth to keep the proletariat in line.

Extreme Libertarianism vs. the Accountable State

I left the following comment on a post at Policy of Truth:

[Another commenter] says “Most libertarians have their entire identity tied up in an a priori commitment to its never, ever being necessary or justified for the state to do anything like issuing and enforcing stay-at-home orders.” That nails it. Error and corruption are human traits, not just government traits. There is a fine line between too much government and not enough of it, and the line has been crossed in the wrong direction (too much) in many, many ways. But that doesn’t mean that there are no cases in which there isn’t enough government.

There’s a history behind my comment. It reflects a position that I staked out long ago (in blog time), and which I stated at length thirteen years ago, in “A Critique of Extreme Libertarianism“. The position is a rejection of the extreme libertarian (anarcho-capitalist) idea that the police and defense functions of government can be and should be provided by private defense agencies (i.e., security contractors). Here are some relevant excerpts (which include links to earlier posts in the same vein):

THE “GOOD” THAT ONLY A STATE CAN PROVIDE

… I have addressed that pipe-dream [private defense agencies] in several posts, including this one, in which I commented on an article by one Robert Murphy, who

assumes that if the vast majority of people agree that it’s wrong to use violence to settle disputes, then that won’t happen. Do the vast majority of people believe that it’s wrong to use violence to settle disputes? Perhaps, but it doesn’t take a vast majority to inject violence into a society; it takes only a relatively small number of renegades, who may be then be able to coerce others into condoning or supporting their criminal activities. . . .

What Murphy doesn’t entertain is the possibility that a small but very rich cabal could create a dominant defense agency that simply refuses to recongize other defense agences, except as enemies. In other words, there’s nothing in Murphy’s loose logic to prove that warlords wouldn’t arise. In fact, he soon gives away the game:

Imagine a bustling city, such as New York, that is initially a free market paradise. Is it really plausible that over time rival gangs would constantly grow, and eventually terrorize the general public? Remember, these would be admittedly criminal organizations; unlike the city government of New York, there would be no ideological support for these gangs.

We must consider that in such an environment, the law-abiding majority would have all sorts of mechanisms at their [sic] disposal, beyond physical confrontation. Once private judges had ruled against a particular rogue agency, the private banks could freeze its assets (up to the amount of fines levied by the arbitrators). In addition, the private utility companies could shut down electricity and water to the agency’’s headquarters, in accordance with standard provisions in their contracts.

Pardon me while I laugh at the notion that lack of “ideological support” for the gangs of New York would make it impossible for gangs to grow and terrorize the general public. That’s precisely what has happened at various times during the history of New York, even though the “law-abiding majority [had] all sorts of mechanisms at [its] disposal.” Murphy insists on hewing to the assumption that the existence of a law-abiding majority somehow prevents the rise a powerful, law-breaking minorities, capable of terrorizing the general public. Wait a minute; now he admits the converse:

Of course, it is theoretically possible that a rogue agency could overcome these obstacles, either through intimidation or division of the spoils, and take over enough banks, power companies, grocery stores, etc. that only full-scale military assault would conquer it. But the point is, from an initial position of market anarchy, these would-be rulers would have to start from scratch. In contrast, under even a limited government, the machinery of mass subjugation is ready and waiting to be seized.

Huh? It’s certainly more than theoretically possible for a “rogue agency” to wreak havoc. A “rogue agency” is nothing more than a fancy term for a street gang, the Mafia, or al Qaeda cells operating in the U.S. A “rogue agency” run by and on behalf of rich and powerful criminals — for their own purposes — would somehow be preferable to police forces and courts operated by a limited government that is accountable to the general public, rich and poor alike? I don’t think so. However much the American state engages in “mass subjugation” — and it does, to a degree — it is also held in check by its accountability to the general public under American law and tradition. A “rogue agency,” by definition, would be unbound by law and tradition.

Murphy’s analysis takes place in a land called “Erewhon.” He chooses to ignore the fact that he lives in the United States because he wasn’t a party to the Constitution. Yet that Constitution provides for a limited government, which in more than 200 years has yet to engage in systematic, mass subjugation of the kind practiced in the Third Reich and the Soviet Union, except in the case of slavery. And guess what? The American state ended slavery. How’s that for mass subjugation?

Anyone can conjure a Utopia, as Murphy has. But no one can guarantee that it will work. Murphy certainly hasn’t made the case that his Utopia would work.

In any event, by focusing on intra-societal violence Murphy ignores completely two crucial questions: (1) Can an anarchistic society effectively defend itself against an outside force? (2) Can it do so better than a society in which the state has a monopoly on the use of force with respect to outside entities? Murphy implies that the answer to both questions is “yes,” though he fails to explore those questions. Here is my brief answer: The cost of mounting a credible defense of the United States from foreign enemies probably would support only one supplier; that is, national defense is a natural monopoly. It is better for the American state — given its accountability to the general public — to be that supplier. . . .

A wasteful, accountable, American state is certainly preferable to an efficient, private, defense agency in possession of the same military might. Hitler and Stalin, in effect, ran private defense agencies, and look where that landed the Germans and Russians. Talk about subjugation.

THE STATE: AN INEVITABLE CREATURE OF SOCIETY

Contrary to Murphy and his ilk, there is no such thing as statelessness, at least not for groups larger than, say, hunter-gatherer bands or Hutterite colonies. Why? Because it is impossible for a group of more than a few dozen or a dozen-dozen persons to live together in pure consensus. In the end, a faction will dominate the group (a shifting faction, perhaps). And that faction will define harms that may be punished, punish those harms (i.e., administer justice), and take responsibility for the group’s defense.

The state is not a “thing” to be kept at bay; it is the mechanism by which a people enforces justice and defends itself against outsiders.The questions facing a group always are these: Upon what principles shall we found and guide the state, and to whom shall we entrust the the functions of the state?

Consider this:

A group of persons may be said to live in anarchy only if all of the rules that affect everyone in the group (e.g., where to live, how best to defend the group against predators) are made by unanimous, informed consent, which might be tacit. It follows, then, that a group might — by unanimous, informed consent — give a subset of its members the authority to make such decisions. The group’s members might delegate such authority, willingly and unanimously, because each member believes it to be in his or her best interest to do so. (The reasons for that belief might vary, but they probably would include the notion of comparative advantage; that is, those who are not in the governing subset would have time to pursue those activities at which they are most productive.) With a governing subset — or government — the group would no longer live in anarchy, even if the group remains harmonious and membership in it remains voluntary.

The government becomes illegitimate only when it exceeds its grant of authority and resists efforts to curb those excesses or to redefine the grant of authority. The passage of time, during which there are changes in the group’s membership, does not deligitimate the government as long as the group’s new members voluntarily assent to governance. Voluntary assent, as discussed above, may consist simply in choosing to remain a member of the group.

Now, ask yourself how likely it is that a group larger than, say, a nuclear family or a band of hunter-gatherers might choose to go without a government. Self-interest dictates that even relatively small groups will choose — for reasons of economy, if nothing else — to place certain decisions in the hands of a government.

All talk of anarchy as a viable option to limited government is nothing more than talk. Empty talk, at that.

EXTREME LIBERTARIANISM’S FATAL FLAW: THE “ANNE FRANK SYNDROME”

The political view that there should not be a state, if followed to its logical conclusion, would leave most Americans prey to the very real predators who lurk at home and abroad. Those very real predators care not one whit about non-aggression principles and contractual obligations, contrary to the assertions of Gustave de Molinari, a favorite of anarcho-capitalists, who wrote this:

Under a regime of liberty, the natural organization of the security industry would not be different from that of other industries. In small districts a single entrepreneur could suffice. This entrepreneur might leave his business to his son, or sell it to another entrepreneur. In larger districts, one company by itself would bring together enough resources adequately to carry on this important and difficult business. If it were well managed, this company could easily last, and security would last with it. In the security industry, just as in most of the other branches of production, the latter mode of organization will probably replace the former, in the end.

The “customers would not allow themselves to be conquered”? Tell that to those who pay gangsters for “protection,” and to the residents of gang-ridden areas. Molinari conveniently forgets that the ranks of “competitors” are open to those who, in their viciousness, will and do attack the persons and property of their rivals. If not everyone is honorable, as Molinari admits elsewhere in his essay, why would we expect private providers of security be honorable? Why would they not extort their customers while fighting each other? The result is bound to be something worse than life under an accountable state monopoly (such as we have in the U.S.) — something fraught with violence and fear. Think of The Roaring Twenties without the glossy coat of Hollywood glamour.

Molinari and his anarcho-libertarian descendants exhibit the Anne Frank syndrome. About three weeks before Frank and her family were betrayed and arrested, she wrote:

It’’s a wonder I haven’’t abandoned all my ideals, they seem so absurd and impractical. Yet I cling to them because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.

… Murphy, Molinari, and their ilk do not proclaim the jejune belief that all “people are truly good at heart,” yet they persist in the belief that the security can be achieved in the absence of an accountable state. That is, like Anne Frank, they assume — contrary to all evidence — that “people are truly good at heart.” But competition, by itself, does not and cannot prevent criminal acts.

Competition, to be beneficial, must be conducted within the framework of a rule of law. That rule of law must be enforced by a state which is accountable to its citizens for the preservation of their liberty. The present rule of law in the United States is far from perfect, but it is far more perfect than the alternative that is dreamt of by extreme libertarians.

THE PROPER LIBERTARIAN AGENDA

As I wrote here, extreme libertarianism

rests on invalid conceptions of human nature and the state. Contrary to the evidence of history, it presumes that no one would or could accrue and exercise enough power to flout the common law and treat other persons coercively. Contrary to the evidence of history — especially American history — it presumes that a properly constituted and governed state cannot increase the quotient of liberty.

There is no choice between anarchy and the state. Anarchy leads inexorably to coercion — except in a dreamworld. The real choice … is between the toughest guy on the block or a state whose actions are capable of redirection through our representative democracy.

The proper task at hand for American libertarians isn’t to do away with the state but to work toward a state that defends free markets, property rights, the common law, and freedom of contract.

Another task for American libertarians is to work toward devolution of power back to the individual States and, within the States, to the lowest possible level. The key to liberty is the ability of the individual to pick and choose among a variety of “experiments” in government. That is true federalism.

Anarcho-capitalism exemplifies a nirvana fallacy, in that it posits an unrealistic, unattainable alternative to the inevitable imperfections that accompany state rule. Anarchists have offered examples of “successful anarchies”, but the ones that I have seen have one thing in common: state sponsorship and protection (e.g., here).

Which leads me to an alternative (whose realism and attainability I will discuss) — a central government that is constrained to do the following:

  • Defend Americans and their overseas interests against foreign predators.
  • Ensure the free flow of trade among Americans without intervention, except to bar the sale or disclosure of products, service, or information detrimental to defense.
  • Guarantee due process of law, property rights, freedom of association, freedom of political speech, and free exercise of religion (consistent with the foregoing) throughout the United States.
  • Leave the rest to the States and their political subdivisions, provided that they do not interfere with or violate the preceding constraints.

That’s not an exact description of the state of affairs in the U.S. from 1789 to the late 1800s, but with a few significant (and since remedied) exceptions it is an approximate description. There was, of course, slavery and then injustice toward blacks on a vast scale. And there were many lesser failures, too, including the denial of suffrage to women.

A more perfect state of affairs would be one in which “the clock is turned back” on the central government’s myriad interventions since the late 1800s, except for those that are obviously just (e.g., the abolition of slavery, the end of Jim Crow, voting rights for blacks and women). I describe turning back the clock in that way because big-government advocates like to claim that those of us who wish to roll back the central government’s power also long for a replication of the 19th century. Balderdash!

At any rate, turning back the clock would be difficult, as evidenced by the continued growth of government power since the days of Teddy Roosevelt’s imperial presidency, despite not inconsiderable resistance and brief periods of abatement. Why is that? Because the growth of government is always rationalized as doing what’s necessary to “help” X, Y, and Z (sometimes by penalizing A, B, and C) — even though X, Y, Z, and their progeny are made the poorer for it.

But if the history of the past several decades shows anything, it shows that unremitting pressure to roll back the central government’s power can succeed in slowing its growth and even, in some areas, reversing it. The successes are due to two developments:

  • The election of Republican presidents and majorities in Congress. (Not all Republicans are devoted to smaller government, despite the lip-service most of them pay to that objective, but all Democrats, as far as I can tell, are devoted to the enlargement of government.)
  • The taming of the administrative state — the conglomeration of agencies that wields discretionary power to interpret and elaborate the broad powers entrusted to it, and then to execute and adjudicate its own interpretations and elaborations. (The taming will be done by Republicans it is done by anyone.)

The second development is as crucial than the first, because the administrative state cannot be regrown overnight, even with Democrats in charge.

A government in which the administrative state has been subdued is bound to act more like an accountable government. The acts of elected officials — and the consequence of those acts — will be more visible to the electorate if they take place in the spotlights that shine on Congress and the White House than if they are concealed in the shadows of the bureaucracy.

That’s the best that I can offer. It’s realistic and attainable, unlike the nirvana offered by libertarians.

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.