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“.)

FDR’s Fascism, Underscored

I have written before about FDR’s fascistic methods. See, for example, “FDR and Fascism” and  “FDR and Fascism: More Data“. If you’re wondering how FDR could have been a fascist when he was a bitter enemy of the openly fascistic Axis powers, you need to understand what constitutes fascism (which is a thing apart from the dictatorships that prevailed in Germany, Italy, and Japan). A good definition (no longer online) was found in an earlier version of Wikipedia‘s article about fascism:

Fascism is a system in which the government leaves nominal ownership of the means of production in the hands of private individuals but exercises control by means of regulatory legislation and reaps most of the profit by means of heavy taxation. In effect, fascism is simply a more subtle form of government ownership than is socialism.

The two posts that I link to in the first paragraph give some examples of FDR’s brand of fascism. Paul Kengor, in “Franklin Delano Quid Pro Quo“, lays it on with a trowel. There was nothing subtle about FDR’s political thuggery. And it was orders of magnitude worse than Trump’s alleged pressuring of Ukraine for personal political gain:

[I]f you want to see a president who engaged in using explicitly public funds for his own explicitly political interests, look no further than FDR. In fact, no one did it more. What Trump is alleged to have done one time to Ukraine, well, FDR did incessantly to his own citizenry.

To show this, I’ll make things really easy, citing a single source: scholar and historian Dr. Burton Folsom. Among Folsom’s books on FDR, go to just one, his New Deal or Raw Deal?, published in 2008 by Simon & Schuster — a dozen years ago, long before anyone could ever imagine Donald Trump even seeking the presidency. Numerous books on FDR could be cited, but here I’ll stick with just this one.

Starting around page 85 of the book, Folsom addresses the first of at least a dozen examples of FDR abusing his powers and the public purse.

FDR’s chief instrument for shaking down his targets was the crown jewel of his New Deal: the WPA, the Works Progress Administration. The WPA was at the core of the New Deal and FDR’s vast administrative state. Quite literally tons of taxpayer coin went into this massive relief program, which FDR, in turn, redirected for political manipulation. For the record, WPA picked up from where FERA, the Federal Emergency Relief Act, left off. The wildly disproportionate share of FERA money that went to states like Pennsylvania (second only to Illinois in funds received), a state that had gone for Herbert Hoover in 1932, but which FDR hoped to flip in 1936, was scandalous and undoubtedly heavily influenced by the president’s political considerations.

But let’s stick with the WPA, under which FDR reformulated relief from FERA. WPA become the cash cow that FDR would milk not only for public jobs but for political patronage.

“The inefficiency and uselessness of many WPA projects was a serious problem,” Dr. Folsom writes, “but a greater problem was the increased politicization of relief under the WPA.” President Roosevelt had “much discretion in allocation and distributing” WPA money, not unlike a president’s discretion in allocating and distributing foreign aid — though worse because foreign policy is constitutionally the president’s prerogative. As Folsom notes, FDR would choose “which states would receive what,” and the main problem was that this “made relief a game of political manipulation,” at least in the hands of a manipulative president like Franklin Roosevelt. “The problems that plagued the FERA would sharply increase under WPA because more money was at stake,” Folsom notes. “Governors worried that their states would not get their ‘fair share’ of federal tax booty, and so they came to Washington, hats in hand, to curry favor with Roosevelt, Harry Hopkins, who became the WPA director, and other New Deal administrators.”…

“Although Roosevelt and Hopkins said they would not use WPA and other relief organizations to play politics,” Folsom notes, “the evidence suggests again and again that that is exactly what they allowed to happen.”

That’s for sure. And Folsom’s book is full of them. Every Republican (and every Democrat) involved in the Trump impeachment trail should grab a copy of Folsom’s book and read through the examples. Again, I’ll make it easy for them. Here’s a summary:

  • Pages 85–88 are loaded with quid pro quo specifics on the WPA
  • Page 92, last paragraph, is solid quid pro quo on the WPA
  • Page 117, middle paragraph, on Social Security
  • Page 135, the indented quote from Raymond Moley regarding FDR’s attitude
  • Page 157, next to last paragraph, is quid pro quo with FDR and Kansas City boss “Big Tom” Pendergast
  • Page 167 is quid pro quo on IRS investigations
  • Pages 170–77 are loaded with patronage quid pro quo by FDR
  • Page 184, middle of the page, quote from Sen. Hiram Johnson on subsidies for votes
  • Page 185 shows quid pro quo with FDR and the black vote
  • Pages 187–91 show tables regarding votes and where federal funds went
  • Pages 196–200 show federal funds used to court senators in FDR’s court-packing scheme

Read them and weep. It’s disgusting. To repeat all of them here would take several thousand words and constitute a virtual cut and paste from Folsom’s book. Still, I’ll note a few of them.

Harry Hopkins was well aware of the abuses taking place. He received mail regularly from people all over the country who were denied federal jobs or fired because of their political views or affiliations. There were so many of these letters that they’re today housed in state-by-state files at the National Archives in Washington in a large file labeled “WPA — Political Coercion.” The New Jersey file is especially fat. One WPA worker complained, “You are either on the WPA or employed in some government department and by virtue thereof you owe a duty to the [Democratic] Party to do your part in making the canvass.”

Of course.

Gavin Wright, a scholar and economist who carefully analyzed WPA spending state by state, concluded, “WPA employment reached peaks in the fall of election years. In states like Florida and Kentucky — where the New Deal’s big fight was in the primary elections — the rise of WPA employment was hurried along in order to synchronize with the primaries.”

FDR and his Democrat buddies were using WPA funds like a party war chest to help them win elections.

FDR’s own advisers were taken aback by his scheming, his ruthlessness, his ego. Particularly shocked was FDR’s speechwriter, Raymond Moley, who provided an assessment of FDR that we now hear every day from Democrats about Donald Trump. Moley was struck by “the utter lack of logic of the man [FDR], the scantiness of his precise knowledge of things that he was talking about, by the gross inaccuracies in his statements, by the almost pathological lack of sequence in his discussion, by the complete rectitude that he felt as to his own conduct.” He went on, adding that he was appalled at FDR’s “immense and growing egotism that came from his office, by his willingness to continue the excoriation of the press and business in order to get votes for himself, by his indifference to what effect the long-continued pursuit of these ends would have upon the civilization in which he was playing a part.” Moley was aghast at how FDR’s “political habits” were fueled by “the added influence of a swollen ego.” This was so bad, felt FDR’s own speechwriter, that he considered the president “dangerous in the extreme.”

Again, that appraisal sounds like any modern Democrat’s take on Donald Trump: the scant knowledge, the gross inaccuracies in statements, the dangerously swollen ego, the excoriation of the press, the extreme and almost “pathological” behavior, etc. But of course, here was a Democrat on a Democrat — an FDR speechwriter on FDR. And FDR is a hero to Democrats, the patron saint of their party….

Folsom also describes attempts by FDR to influence entire voting blocs, including black Americans. His analysis is backed by hard data, with several pages of tables.

Importantly, these are only some examples from a single book. Almost any non-hagiographic biography of FDR shows abuses like these. His vicious pursuit against Andrew Mellon, for example, again with the power of the public largesse behind him, and his extraordinary effort to nationalize everyone’s gold, are other stunning abuses of power. As to Mellon, the immensely talented former Treasury secretary was just one victim of FDR’s misuse of the IRS to punish, silence, and even ruin his political opponents. I personally knew one of Mellon’s nephews. He was extremely bitter at FDR for what FDR did to his uncle — an honorable man and dedicated public servant who ultimately was fully exonerated, even though the president’s lawyers went after Mellon like a pack of wolves with unlimited government dollars behind them.

“Roosevelt absolutely tried to ruin my uncle’s life,” Mellon’s nephew told me. “It was vicious.”

Folsom unavoidably addresses this as well. Mellon, he notes, became the object of a “massive and unrelenting IRS investigation.” Elmer Irey, head of the Intelligence Unit at FDR’s IRS, later confessed that “the Roosevelt administration made me go after Andy Mellon.” No less than Walter Lippmann would call FDR’s indictment of Mellon “an act of profound injustice.” This was done in large part to discredit the Mellon tax cuts that spurred the vast economic prosperity of the 1920s, given that FDR was literally pushing for a 99.5 percent tax rate on incomes over $100,000. He wanted to smear Mellon in order to smear the Mellon free-market philosophy….

As for FDR’s abusive antics, everyone knew about them, from congressmen to reporters. “The furor over the WPA and vote buying became so loud,” notes Folsom, “that Senator Carl Hatch of New Mexico introduced a bill barring WPA workers, and certain other appointees, from political activity.”

Moreover, most FDR historians know about this side of their man. They shrug it off. They treat their beloved New Dealing president with a wink and grin, chuckling at FDR’s wonderful political “horse-trading.” Like LBJ’s stunts — including spying on the Goldwater campaign in 1964 — they treat it like it’s fun, cute, endearing. (“Oh, yes, good ol’ Lyndon!”) Everyone does it, they shrug — until they judge that maybe a Republican might have done something like it, even just once. Put any one of these FDR–LBJ abuses in the hands of a Nixon or a Trump, and it’s impeachment time, baby….

Naturally, liberals today, in 2020, will ignore this. If you actually get this information in their face, they’ll dismiss it as whataboutism. But that’s nonsense, and unfair. Even if Trump were guilty as charged with the Ukraine, why would you impeach and remove a president for a onetime offense of something that the likes of FDR did daily throughout the worst decade and crisis in American history? It would be damned unjust. I personally couldn’t do it, regardless of whether I liked or voted for Donald Trump. Fair-minded people should understand that. Trump supporters will. And that’s yet another reason why they’ll ignore the Democrats’ histrionics about Donald Trump’s allegedly impeachable and removable abuse of power.

The left’s unremitting defense of FDR in the face of his well known, well documented strong-arm tactics is just another symptom of the left’s moral elasticity.

A Warning Too Late?

I am reading (thanks to my son) Warning to the West, a collection of five speeches given by Alexander Solzhenitsyn in 1975 and 1976.

Solzhenitsyn, in the second of the speeches, says:

Communism is as crude an attempt to explain society and the individual as if a surgeon were to perform his delicate operations with a meat ax. All that is subtle in human psychology and in the structure of society (which is even more complex), all of this is reduced to crude economic processes.

It is also reduced to “class”, in a simplistic way that would be laughable were it not taken as gospel by so many. Thus the opening sentence of Part I of the The Communist Manifesto:

The history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggles.

Oh, really? Only if one omits war, flood, famine, invention, innovation, entrepreneurship, religion, morality, science, and myriad other facets of human life.

Or, as Solzhenitsyn puts it in the same speech:

Communism is so devoid of arguments that it has none to advance against its opponents in … Communist countries. It lacks arguments and hence there is the club, the prison, the concentration camp, and insane asylums with forced confinement.

Further:

Marxism has always opposed freedom…. In their correspondence Marx and Engels frequently stated that terror would be indispensable after achieving power, that “it will be necessary to repeat the year 1793 [the year of the Reign of Terror following the French Revolution of 1789]. After achieving power we’ll be considered monsters, but we couldn’t care less.”

None of this should come as a surprise to anyone who takes a bit of time to read the Manifesto, which at 11,000 words is just a long essay. The heart of it is in Part II:

[T]he first step in the revolution by the working class, is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling as to win the battle of democracy.

The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degrees, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e., of the proletariat organised as the ruling class; and to increase the total of productive forces as rapidly as possible.

Of course, in the beginning, this cannot be effected except by means of despotic inroads on the rights of property, and on the conditions of bourgeois production; by means of measures, therefore, which appear economically insufficient and untenable, but which, in the course of the movement, outstrip themselves, necessitate further inroads upon the old social order, and are unavoidable as a means of entirely revolutionising the mode of production.

The state is supposed to wither away when nirvana is attained. But Marx and Engels, having already shown themselves to be socially and economically ignorant, thereby reveal their ignorance of human nature. Power is a prize unto itself. And, as the subsequent history of Communism demonstrates amply, those who hold it will use force or coercion (e.g., the incumbent-protection racket known as campaign-finance “reform”) to perpetuate their grip on it.

Of all the frightening parts of the Manifesto, I find what comes next to be most frightening:

These measures [referred to above] will of course be different in different countries. Nevertheless in the most advanced countries, the following will be pretty generally applicable.

1. Abolition of property in land and application of all rents of land to public purposes.

2. A heavy progressive or graduated income tax.

3. Abolition of all right of inheritance.

4. Confiscation of the property of all emigrants and rebels.

5. Centralisation of credit in the hands of the State, by means of a national bank with State capital and an exclusive monopoly.

6. Centralisation of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the State.

7. Extension of factories and instruments of production owned by the State; the bringing into cultivation of waste-lands, and the improvement of the soil generally in accordance with a common plan.

8. Equal liability of all to labour. Establishment of industrial armies, especially for agriculture.

9. Combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries; gradual abolition of the distinction between town and country, by a more equable distribution of the population over the country.

10. Free education for all children in public schools…. Combination of education with industrial production, &c., &c.

Those measures that haven’t been fully enacted in the United States have either been partially enacted or are taken seriously by leading politicians and a goodly fraction of the populace.

The first sentence of item 10 may seem unexceptionable, but the next sentence (in the quotation) betrays it; that is, education is to be the means of inculcating Communism. Which is exactly the model of public education in America, which began as an anti-Catholic measure and has evolved into a machine of leftist indoctrination.

As for the entire list, it matters not whether the ideas come from Marx and Engels or “enlightened” American politicians. Their thrust is the destruction of liberty — and, with it, prosperity. The frightening thing is that the American politicians who advance the ideas and the public that swallows them cannot see (or don’t care about) the consequences. This, of course, can be counted as a “victory” for public education in America.

(See also “Asymmetrical (Ideological) Warfare” and “An Addendum to (Asymmetrical) Ideological Warfare“,)

Peak Civilization?

Here is an oft-quoted observation, spuriously attributed to Socrates, about youth:

The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers.

Even though Socrates didn’t say it, the sentiment has nevertheless been stated and restated since 1907, when the observation was concocted, and probably had been shared widely for decades, and even centuries, before that. I use a form of it when I discuss the spoiled children of capitalism (e.g., here).

Is there something to it? No and yes.

No, because rebelliousness and disrespect for elders and old ways seem to be part of the natural processes of physical and mental maturation.

Not all adolescents and young adults are rebellious and disrespectful. But many rebellious and disrespectful adolescents and young adults carry their attitudes with them through life, even if less obviously than in youth, as they climb the ladders of various callings. The callings that seem to be most attractive to the rebellious are the arts (especially the written, visual, thespian, terpsichorial, musical, and cinematic ones), the professoriate, the punditocracy, journalism, and politics.

Which brings me to the yes answer, and to the spoiled children of capitalism. Rebelliousness, though in some persons never entirely outgrown or suppressed by maturity, will more often be outgrown or suppressed in economically tenuous conditions, the challenges of which which almost fully occupied their bodies and minds. (Opinionizers and sophists were accordingly much thinner on the ground in the parlous days of yore.)

However, as economic growth and concomitant technological advances have yielded abundance far beyond the necessities of life for most inhabitants of the Western world, the beneficiaries of that abundance have acquired yet another luxury: the luxury of learning about and believing in systems that, in the abstract, seem to offer vast improvements on current conditions. It is the old adage “Idle hands are the devil’s tools” brought up to date, with “minds” joining “hands” in the devilishness.

Among many bad things that result from such foolishness (e.g., the ascendancy of ideologies that crush liberty and, ironically, economic growth) is the loss of social cohesion. I was reminded of this by Noah Smith’s fatuous article, “The 1950s Are Greatly Overrated“.

Smith is an economist who blogs and writes an opinion column for Bloomberg News. My impression of him is that he is a younger version of Paul Krugman, the former economist who has become a left-wing whiner. The difference between them is that Krugman remembers the 1950s fondly, whereas Smith does not.

I once said this about Krugman’s nostalgia for the 1950s, a decade during which he was a mere child:

[The nostalgia] is probably rooted in golden memories of his childhood in a prosperous community, though he retrospectively supplies an economic justification. The 1950s were (according to him) an age of middle-class dominance before the return of the Robber Barons who had been vanquished by the New Deal. This is zero-sum economics and class warfare on steroids — standard Krugman fare.

Smith, a mere toddler relative to Krugman and a babe in arms relative to me, takes a dim view of the 1950s:

For all the rose-tinted sentimentality, standards of living were markedly lower in the ’50s than they are today, and the system was riddled with vast injustice and inequality.

Women and minorities are less likely to have a wistful view of the ’50s, and with good reason. Segregation was enshrined in law in much of the U.S., and de facto segregation was in force even in Northern cities. Black Americans, crowded into ghettos, were excluded from economic opportunity by pervasive racism, and suffered horrendously. Even at the end of the decade, more than half of black Americans lived below the poverty line:

Women, meanwhile, were forced into a narrow set of occupations, and few had the option of pursuing fulfilling careers. This did not mean, however, that a single male breadwinner was always able to provide for an entire family. About a third of women worked in the ’50s, showing that many families needed a second income even if it defied the gender roles of the day:

For women who didn’t work, keeping house was no picnic. Dishwashers were almost unheard of in the 1950s, few families had a clothes dryer, and fewer than half had a washing machine.

But even beyond the pervasive racism and sexism, the 1950s wasn’t a time of ease and plenty compared to the present day. For example, by the end of the decade, even after all of that robust 1950s growth, the white poverty rate was still 18.1%, more than double that of the mid-1970s:

Nor did those above the poverty line enjoy the material plenty of later decades. Much of the nation’s housing stock in the era was small and cramped. The average floor area of a new single-family home in 1950 was only 983 square feet, just a bit bigger than the average one-bedroom apartment today.

To make matters worse, households were considerably larger in the ’50s, meaning that big families often had to squeeze into those tight living spaces. Those houses also lacked many of the things that make modern homes comfortable and convenient — not just dishwashers and clothes dryers, but air conditioning, color TVs and in many cases washing machines.

And those who did work had to work significantly more hours per year. Those jobs were often difficult and dangerous. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration wasn’t created until 1971. As recently as 1970, the rate of workplace injury was several times higher than now, and that number was undoubtedly even higher in the ’50s. Pining for those good old factory jobs is common among those who have never had to stand next to a blast furnace or work on an unautomated assembly line for eight hours a day.

Outside of work, the environment was in much worse shape than today. There was no Environmental Protection Agency, no Clean Air Act or Clean Water Act, and pollution of both air and water was horrible. The smog in Pittsburgh in the 1950s blotted out the sun. In 1952 the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland caught fire. Life expectancy at the end of the ’50s was only 70 years, compared to more than 78 today.

So life in the 1950s, though much better than what came before, wasn’t comparable to what Americans enjoyed even two decades later. In that space of time, much changed because of regulations and policies that reduced or outlawed racial and gender discrimination, while a host of government programs lowered poverty rates and cleaned up the environment.

But on top of these policy changes, the nation benefited from rapid economic growth both in the 1950s and in the decades after. Improved production techniques and the invention of new consumer products meant that there was much more wealth to go around by the 1970s than in the 1950s. Strong unions and government programs helped spread that wealth, but growth is what created it.

So the 1950s don’t deserve much of the nostalgia they receive. Though the decade has some lessons for how to make the U.S. economy more equal today with stronger unions and better financial regulation, it wasn’t an era of great equality overall. And though it was a time of huge progress and hope, the point of progress and hope is that things get better later. And by most objective measures they are much better now than they were then.

See? A junior Krugman who sees the same decade as a glass half-empty instead of half-full.

In the end, Smith admits the irrelevance of his irreverence for the 1950s when he says that “the point of progress and hope is that things get better later.” In other words, if there is progress the past will always look inferior to the present. (And, by the same token, the present will always look inferior to the future when it becomes the present.)

I could quibble with some of Smith’s particulars (e.g., racism may be less overt than it was in the 1950s, but it still boils beneath the surface, and isn’t confined to white racism; stronger unions and stifling financial regulations hamper economic growth, which Smith prizes so dearly). But I will instead take issue with his assertion, which precedes the passages quoted above, that “few of those who long for a return to the 1950s would actually want to live in those times.”

It’s not that anyone yearns for a return to the 1950s as it was in all respects, but for a return to the 1950s as it was in some crucial ways:

There is … something to the idea that the years between the end of World War II and the early 1960s were something of a Golden Age…. But it was that way for reasons other than those offered by Krugman [and despite Smith’s demurrer].

Civil society still flourished through churches, clubs, civic associations, bowling leagues, softball teams and many other voluntary organizations that (a) bound people and (b) promulgated and enforced social norms.

Those norms proscribed behavior considered harmful — not just criminal, but harmful to the social fabric (e.g., divorce, unwed motherhood, public cursing and sexuality, overt homosexuality). The norms also prescribed behavior that signaled allegiance to the institutions of civil society (e.g., church attendance, veterans’ organizations) , thereby helping to preserve them and the values that they fostered.

Yes, it was an age of “conformity”, as sneering sophisticates like to say, even as they insist on conformity to reigning leftist dogmas that are destructive of the social fabric. But it was also an age of widespread mutual trust, respect, and forbearance.

Those traits, as I have said many times (e.g., here) are the foundations of liberty, which is a modus vivendi, not a mystical essence. The modus vivendi that arises from the foundations is peaceful, willing coexistence and its concomitant: beneficially cooperative behavior —  liberty, in other words.

The decade and a half after the end of World War II wasn’t an ideal world of utopian imagining. But it approached a realizable ideal. That ideal — for the nation as a whole — has been put beyond reach by the vast, left-wing conspiracy that has subverted almost every aspect of life in America.

What happened was the 1960s — and its long aftermath — which saw the rise of capitalism’s spoiled children (of all ages), who have spat on and shredded the very social norms that in the 1940s and 1950s made the United States of America as united they ever would be. Actual enemies of the nation — communists — were vilified and ostracized, and that’s as it should have been. And people weren’t banned and condemned by “friends”, “followers”, Facebook, Twitter, etc. etc., for the views that they held. Not even on college campuses, on radio and TV shows, in the print media, or in Hollywood moves.

What do the spoiled children have to show for their rejection of social norms — other than economic progress that is actually far less robust than it would have been were it not for the  interventions of their religion-substitute, the omnipotent central government? Well, omnipotent at home and impotent (or drastically weakened) abroad, thanks to rounds of defense cuts and perpetual hand-wringing about what the “world” might think or some militarily inferior opponents might do if the U.S. government were to defend Americans and protect their interests abroad?

The list of the spoiled children’s “accomplishments” is impossibly long to recite here, so I will simply offer a very small sample of things that come readily to mind:

California wildfires caused by misguided environmentalism.

The excremental wasteland that is San Francisco. (And Blue cities, generally.)

Flight from California wildfires, high taxes, excremental streets, and anti-business environment.

The killing of small businesses, especially restaurants, by imbecilic Blue-State minimum wage laws.

The killing of businesses, period, by oppressive Blue-State regulations.

The killing of jobs for people who need them the most, by ditto and ditto.

Bloated pension schemes for Blue-State (and city) employees, which are bankrupting those States (and cities) and penalizing their citizens who aren’t government employees.

The hysteria (and even punishment) that follows from drawing a gun or admitting gun ownership

The idea that men can become women and should be allowed to compete with women in athletic competitions because the men in question have endured some surgery and taken some drugs.

The idea that it doesn’t and shouldn’t matter to anyone that a self-identified “woman” uses women’s rest-rooms where real women and girls became prey for prying eyes and worse.

Mass murder on a Hitlerian-Stalinist scale in the name of a “woman’s right to choose”, when she made that choice by (in almost every case) engaging in consensual sex.

Disrespect for he police and military personnel who keep them safe in their cosseted existences.

Applause for attacks on the same.

Applause for America’s enemies, which the delusional, spoiled children won’t recognize as their enemies until it’s too late.

Longing for impossible utopias (e.g., “true” socialism) because they promise what is actually impossible in the real world — and result in actual dystopias (e.g., the USSR, Cuba, Britain’s National Health Service).

Noah Smith is far too young to remember an America in which such things were almost unthinkable — rather than routine. People then didn’t have any idea how prosperous they would become, or how morally bankrupt and divided.

Every line of human endeavor reaches a peak, from which decline is sure to follow if the things that caused it to peak are mindlessly rejected for the sake of novelty (i.e., rejection of old norms just because they are old). This is nowhere more obvious than in the arts.

It should be equally obvious to anyone who takes an objective look at the present state of American society and is capable of comparing it with American society of the 1940s and 1950s. For all of its faults it was a golden age. Unfortunately, most Americans now living (Noah Smith definitely included) are too young and too fixated on material things to understand what has been lost — irretrievably, I fear.


I was going to append a list of related posts, but the list would be so long that I can only refer you to “Favorite Posts” — especially those listed in the following sections:

I. The Academy, Intellectuals, and the Left
II. Affirmative Action, Race, and Immigration
IV. Conservatism and Other Political Philosophies
V. The Constitution and the Rule of Law
VI. Economics: Principles and Issues
VIII. Infamous Thinkers and Political Correctness
IX. Intelligence and Psychology
X. Justice
XI. Politics, Politicians, and the Consequences of Government
XII. Science, Religion, and Philosophy
XIII. Self-Ownership (abortion, euthanasia, marriage, and other aspects of the human condition)
XIV. War and Peace

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.

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“.)

Dangerous Millennials?

I return to Joel Kotkin’s essay, “America’s Drift Toward Feudalism“ (American Affairs Journal, Winter 2019), which I quoted recently and favorably. This is from the final passages of the essay:

In the world envisioned by the oligarchs [the ultrarich, especially the czars of Big Tech and financial institutions] and the clerisy [affluent professionals and members of the academic-goverment-information-media complex], the poor and much of the middle class are destined to become more dependent on the state. This dependency could be accelerated as their labor is devalued both by policy hostile to the industrial economy, and by the greater implementation of automation and artificial intelligence.

Opposing these forces will be very difficult, particularly given the orientation of our media, academia, and the nonprofit world, as well as the massive wealth accumulated by the oligarchs. A system that grants favors and entertainment to its citizens but denies them prop­erty expects little in return. This kind of state, Tocqueville suggested, can be used to keep its members in “perpetual childhood”; it “would degrade men rather than tormenting them.”

Reversing our path away from a new feudalism will require, among other things, a rediscovery of belief in our basic values and what it means to be an American. Nearly 40 percent of young Ameri­cans, for example, think the country lacks “a history to be proud of.” Fewer young people than previous generations place an emphasis on family, religion, or patriotism. Rather than look at what binds a dem­ocratic society together, the focus on both right and left has been on narrow identities incapable of sustaining a democratic and pluralistic society. The new generation has become cut off from the traditions and values of our past. If one does not even know of the legacies underpinning our democracy, one is not likely to notice when they are lost. Recovering a sense of pride and identification with Ameri­ca’s achievements is an essential component of any attempt to recover the drive, ambition, and self-confidence that propelled the United States to the space age. If we want to rescue the future from a new and pernicious form of feudalism, we will have to recover this ground.

To reverse neo-feudalism, the Third Estate—the class most threat­ened by the ascendency of the oligarchs and the clerisy—needs to re­invigorate its political will, just as it did during the Revolution and in the various struggles that followed. “Happy the nation whose people has not forgotten to how to rebel,” noted the British historian R. H. Tawney. Whether we can understand and defy the new feudalism will determine the kind of world our children will inherit.

There is altogether too much reification going on here. Take the final paragraph, for example, where Kotkin says that the Third Estate (the poor and middle class) “needs to invigorate its political will”. The Third Estate is an abstraction, not an actual association of persons united for the purpose of taking collective action.

Individual members of the Third Estate will do whatever it is that they choose to do and are capable of doing. One frightening possibility is that enough of them will take to the polls and increasingly tip the balance toward left-wing politicians who promise to share the wealth. Having followed Kotkin’s blog for some time, I doubt that that is an outcome he prefers, inasmuch as efforts to share the wealth are economically destructive — especially for members of the Third Estate.

For more about the economic status of Millennials (as an abstract group), see Timothy Taylor’s “About Millennials“.

Can Libertarianism and Conservatism Be Reconciled? A Footnote

Near the end of Sir Roger Scruton’s On Human Nature, I came upon a discussion that bears directly on my post, “Can Libertarianism and Conservatism Be Reconciled?“. Scruton’s point is essential and merits a spotlight. Further, it 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 ahve 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“.)

Why Is Capitalism Under Attack from the Right?

Many conservatives, this one included, have been or are becoming critical of capitalism. Near the end of a recent post, for example, I say that

capitalism is an amoral means to material ends. It is not the servant of society, properly understood. Nor is it the servant of conservative principles, which include (inter alia) the preservation of traditional morality, both as an end and as a binding and civilizing force.

One aspect of capitalism is that it enables the accumulation of great wealth and power. The “robber barons” of the late 19th century and early 20th century accumulated great wealth by making possible the production of things (e.g., oil and steel) that made life materially better for Americans rich and poor.

Though the “robber barons” undoubtedly wielded political power, they did so in an age when mass media consisted of printed periodicals (newspapers and magazines). But newspapers and magazines never dominated the attention of the public in the way that radio, movies, television, and electronically transmitted “social media” do today. Moreover, there were far more printed periodicals then than now, and they offered competing political views (unlike today’s periodicals, which are mainly left of center, when not merely frivolous.)

Which is to say that the “robber barons” may have “bought and sold” politicians, but they weren’t in the business of — or very effective at — shaping public opinion. (f they had been, they wouldn’t have been targets of incessant attacks by populist politicians, and anti-trust legislation wouldn’t have been enacted to great huzzahs from the public.

Today’s “robber barons”, by contrast, have accumulated their wealth by providing products and services that enable them to shape public opinion. Joel Kotkin puts it this way:

In the past, the oligarchy tended to be associated with either Wall Street or industrial corporate executives. But today the predominant and most influential group consists of those atop a handful of mega-technology firms. Six firms—Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Netflix—have achieved a combined net worth equal to one-quarter of the nasdaq, more than the next 282 firms combined and equal to the GDP of France. Seven of the world’s ten most valuable companies come from this sector. Tech giants have produced eight of the twenty wealthiest people on the planet. Among the na­tion’s billionaires, all those under forty live in the state of California, with twelve in San Francisco alone. In 2017, the tech industry pro­duced eleven new billionaires, mostly in California….

Initially many Americans, even on the left, saw the rise of the tech oligarchy as both transformative and positive. Observing the rise of the technology industry, the futurist Alvin Toffler prophesied “the dawn of a new civilization,”2 with vast opportunities for societal and human growth. But today we confront a reality more reminiscent of the feudal past—with ever greater concentrations of wealth, along with less social mobility and material progress.

Rather than Toffler’s tech paradise, we increasingly confront what the Japanese futurist Taichi Sakaiya, writing three decades ago, saw as the dawn of “a high-tech middle ages.”3 Rather than epitomizing American ingenuity and competition, the tech oligarchy increasingly resembles the feudal lords of the Middle Ages. With the alacrity of the barbarian warriors who took control of territory after the fall of the Roman Empire, they have seized the strategic digital territory, and they ruthlessly defend their stake.

Such concentrations of wealth naturally seek to concentrate power. In the Middle Ages, this involved the control of land and the instruments of violence. In our time, the ascendant tech oligarchy has exploited the “natural monopolies” of web-based business. Their “super-platforms” depress competition, squeeze suppliers, and reduce opportunities for potential rivals, much as the monopolists of the late nineteenth century did. Firms like Google, Facebook, and Microsoft control 80 to 90 percent of their key markets and have served to further widen class divides not only in the United States but around the world.

Once exemplars of entrepreneurial risk-taking, today’s tech elites are now entrenched monopolists. Increasingly, these firms reflect the worst of American capitalism—squashing competitors, using inden­tured servants from abroad for upwards of 40 percent of their Silicon Valley workforce, fixing wages, and avoiding taxes—while creating ever more social anomie and alienation.

The tech oligarchs are forging a post-democratic future, where opportunity is restricted only to themselves and their chosen few. As technology investor Peter Thiel has suggested, democracy—based on the fundamental principles of individual responsibility and agency—does not fit comfortably with a technocratic mindset that believes superior software can address and modulate every problem. [“America’s Drift Toward Feudalism“, American Affairs Journal, Winter 2019]

I can’t deny that rise of the tech oligarchs and their willingness and ability to move public opinion leftward probably influenced my view of capitalism. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It is evidence that, contra Keynes, I am not the slave of some defunct economist.

Will public opinion shift enough to cause the containment of today’s “robber barons”? I doubt it. Most Republican politicians are trapped by their pro-capitalist rhetoric. Most Democrat politicians are trapped by their ideological alignment with the the “barons” and the affluent classes that are dependent on and allied with them.

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 Allure of Leftism

When I think of leftism, I often conjure my memory of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). If you haven’t seen the film, here’s the premise of the action:

Dr. Miles Bennell returns to his small town practice to find several of his patients suffering the paranoid delusion that their friends or relatives are impostors. He is initially skeptical, especially when the alleged doppelgangers are able to answer detailed questions about their victim’s lives, but he is eventually persuaded that something odd has happened and determines to find out what is causing this phenomenon.

The essence of what follows is captured in the following excerpts of the script:

Dr. Miles Bennell:

Jack! Thank God [you’re here]! The whole town’s been taken over by the pods!

Jack Bellicec:

Not quite. There’s still you and Becky.

Miles, it would have been so much easier if you’d gone to sleep last night.

Relax. We’re here to help you….

There’s nothing to be afraid of. We’re not going to hurt you. Once you understand, you’ll be grateful.

Remember how Teddy [his wife] and I fought against it. We were wrong.

Miles:

You mean Teddy doesn’t mind?

Jack:

Of course not. She feels exactly the way I do.

Miles:

Let us go! If we leave town, we won’t come back.

Jack:

We can’t let you go. You’re dangerous to us.

Don’t fight it, Miles. It’s no use. Sooner or later, you’ll have to go to sleep….

Miles, you and I are scientific men. You can understand the wonder of what’s happened.

Just think. Less than a month ago Santa Mira was like any other town — people with nothing but problems. Then out of the sky came a solution. Seeds drifting through space for years took root in a farmer’s field. From the seeds came pods which had the power to reproduce themselves in the exact likeness of any form of life….

There’s no pain. Suddenly, while you’re asleep they’ll absorb your minds, your memories — and you’re reborn into an untroubled world.

Miles:

Where everyone’s the same?

Jack:

Exactly.

Miles:

What a world.

We’re not the last humans left. They’ll destroy you!

Jack:

Tomorrow, you won’t want them to. Tomorrow, you’ll be one of us….

[Later, Miles is trying to flee the city with his girlfriend, Becky]

Becky:

I went to sleep, Miles, and it happened….

They were right. Stop acting like a fool, Miles, and accept us.

Miles [interior monologue]:

I’ve been afraid a lot of times in my life but I didn’t know the real meaning of fear until I had kissed Becky.

A moment’s sleep, and the girl I loved was an inhuman enemy bent on my destruction.

That moment’s sleep was death to Becky’s soul just as it had been for Jack and Teddy and Dan Kauffman and all the rest.

Their bodies were now hosts, harboring an alien form of life, a cosmic form. which, to survive must take over every human man….

Miles [later, screaming at passers by]:

You fools! You’re in danger! Can’t you see?

They’re after you! They’re after all of us! Our wives, our children, everyone!

They’re here already!

You’re next!

You’re next!

You’re next!

You’re next!

You’re next!

Miles’s pleas go unheeded and the pod people seem destined to conquer humanity. Resistance is met by force, of course, because there must be no dissent from the true way.

So why not just let go of yourself and give in to the allure of leftism? It’s as easy as going to sleep.

All you have to do is forget …

the bonds of love and fellowship that attach you to family and friends … because all human beings (and animals, too) are brothers and sisters under the skin, and even unknown strangers half a world away must be treated as family, notwithstanding human nature (and the mendacious nature those who spout this nonsense);

the ancient, civilizing, and uniting moral code that is embedded in the Ten Commandments … for it teaches hate toward those who don’t observe it (hate being whatever offends the stated beliefs of those who spout this nonsense);

the derivative practice of taking others as individuals, judging them by their actions, and rewarding them for their contributions … for that is discrimination and it must be remedied by celebrating and elevating persons because of certain preferred characteristics that they happen to possess (skin color, sex, sexual orientation, gender “identity” — preferred characteristics that are subject to change without notice);

the vast improvements in the well-being of humanity that are due to the free exchange of products and services, and which are diminished by governmental dictation of the scope and kind of exchange (beyond obviously harmful products and services) … for it is not right that some persons (owing to their inborn intelligence, creativity, effort, and willingness to take risks) should reap “inordinate” rewards for having made and done things that benefit others (though it is right that those who spout this nonsense should be honored and rewarded for doing so);

the lessons of failure seen time and time again where the foregoing practices have been suppressed in favor of social and economic “equality” (though the rulers and the favorites have always been more equal than everyone else) … because the next time it (the suppression) will be done right.

As Miranda says in The Tempest, about another realm of magical thinking,

O, wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world
That has such people in ’t!


Related page and posts:

Leftism

Asymmetrical (Ideological) Warfare
An Addendum to (Asymmetrical) Ideological Warfare
Insidious Leftism
Intellectuals and Authoritarianism
Socialism, Communism, and Three Paradoxes
Understanding the “Resistance”: The Enemies Within
Leninthink and Left-think
The Subtle Authoritarianism of the “Liberal Order”
Society, Culture, and America’s Future
The Democrats’ Master Plan to Seize America

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

Liberty: Constitutional Obligations and the Role of Religion

Fifteen years ago I opined that the Constitution levied the following implicit obligations on citizens:

  • Obey the law, generally
  • Pay taxes
  • Accept the money of the United States as legal tender
  • Respect patents, copyrights, and other recognized forms of intellectual property
  • Refrain from rebellion and insurrection
  • Serve in the armed forces (if the law requires it)
  • Refrain from committing treason
  • Serve on juries
  • Do not take anyone into slavery or involuntary servitude.

A jejune libertarian, Timothy Sandefur, objected:

On what grounds does the Constitution assign these obligations? What moral right does it have to impose these upon us?

The Constitution, as a document, can’t have a “moral right”. But let us suppose that what Sandefur really meant to ask was “what moral right did the Framers of the Constitution have to imposed these obligations on us?”. The answer is “none”, for reasons to which I will come. But that doesn’t prevent the Constitution from binding Americans — either by consent or coercion.

Given the inevitability of the state (anarchism is a fantasy), the real issue is not the Framers’ (nonexistent) moral right but the advantages of living under the Constitution (as written) rather than the many inferior alternatives that abound in the world (including living under the Constitution as it has been ignored and misinterpreted).

Which brings me to a basic and widely flouted obligation that the Constitution imposes, namely to preserve, protect, and defend it. More properly, to preserve, protect, and defend the way of life that the Constitution presupposes.

I make the latter point because I was reminded of it by a passage in “A Genuinely Transgressive Act: On the Dedication of Christ Chapel at Hillsdale College” (The New Criterion, November 2019). In his dedicatory remarks, Justice Clarence Thomas

quoted John Adams’s address to the Massachusetts militia in 1798: “our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” Thomas underscored the critical point, one that is missing from most lamentations about the failures of the educational establishment. “The preservation of liberty,” he said in his peroration, “is not guaranteed. Without the guardrails supplied by religious conviction, popular sovereignty can devolve into mob rule, unmoored from any conception of objective truth.”

To elaborate (and borrowing from an old post of mine), libertarians (like Sandefur) claim that libertarianism is a moral code, when it is in fact destructive of the kind of morality that binds a people in mutual trust and mutual forbearance. These depend on the observance of actual codes of conduct, not the rote repetition of John Stuart Mill’s empty “harm principle”.

It is my view that libertarians who behave morally toward others do so not because they are libertarians but because their cultural inheritance includes traces of Judeo-Christian ethics. For example, the non-aggression principle — a foundation of libertarian philosophy — is but a dim reflection of the Ten Commandments.

As Jennifer Roback Morse and Friedrich Hayek rightly argue (here and here), a libertarian order can be sustained only if it is built on deeply ingrained morality. But that morality can only operate if it is not circumscribed and undermined by the edicts of the state. The less intrusive the state, the more essential are social norms to the conditions of liberty. If those norms wither away, the results — more rapaciousness, heedlessness, and indolence — invite the the growth of the state and its adoption of repressive policies.

The flimsy morality of today’s libertarianism will not do. Neither the minimal state of “mainstream” libertarians nor the stateless Utopia of extreme libertarians can ensure a moral society, that is, one in which there is mutual trust, mutual forbearance, and promise-keeping.

Where, then, is moral education to be had? In the public schools, whose unionized teachers preach the virtues of moral relativism, big government, income redistribution, and non-judgmentalism (i.e., lack of personal responsibility)? I hardly think so.

That leaves religion, especially religion in the Judeo-Christian tradition. As the Catholic Encyclopedia puts it:

The precepts [of the last six of the Commandments] are meant to protect man in his natural rights against the injustice of his fellows.

  • His life is the object of the Fifth;
  • the honour of his body as well as the source of life, of the Sixth;
  • his lawful possessions, of the Seventh;
  • his good name, of the Eighth;
  • And in order to make him still more secure in the enjoyment of his rights, it is declared an offense against God to desire to wrong him, in his family rights by the Ninth;
  • and in his property rights by the Tenth.

Though I am a deist, I would gladly live in a society in which the majority of my fellow citizens believed in and adhered to the Ten Commandments, especially the last six of them. I reject the currently fashionable notion that religion per se breeds violence. In fact, a scholarly, non-sectarian meta-study, “Religion and its effects on crime and delinquency” (Medical Science Monitor, 2003; 9(8):SR79-82), offers good evidence that religiosity leads to good behavior:

[N]early all [reports] found that that there was a significant negative correlation between religiosity and delinquency. This was further substantiated by studies using longitudinal and operationally reliable definitions. Of the early reports which were either inconclusive or found no statistical correlation, not one utilized a multidimensional definition or any sort of reliability factor. We maintain that the cause of this difference in findings stemmed from methodological factors as well as different and perhaps flawed research strategies that were employed by early sociological and criminological researchers.The studies that we reviewed were of high research caliber and showed that the inverse relationship [between religiosity and delinquency] does in fact exist. It therefore appears that religion is both a short term and long term mitigat[o]r of delinquency.

But a society in which behavior is guided by the Ten Commandments seems to be receding into the past. As one headline puts it, “In U.S., Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace“. And the degree of religious belief probably is overstated because respondents tend to say the “right” thing, which (oddly enough) continues to be a profession of religious faith (in the hinterlands, at least).

Historian Niall Ferguson, a Briton, writes about the importance of religiosity in “Heaven Knows How We’ll Rekindle Our Religion, but I Believe We Must” (July 31, 2005):

I am not sure British people are necessarily afraid of religion, but they are certainly not much interested in it these days. Indeed, the decline of Christianity — not just in Britain but across Europe — stands out as one of the most remarkable phenomena of our times.

There was a time when Europe would justly refer to itself as “Christendom.” Europeans built the Continent’s loveliest edifices to accommodate their acts of worship. They quarreled bitterly over the distinction between transubstantiation and consubstantiation. As pilgrims, missionaries and conquistadors, they sailed to the four corners of the Earth, intent on converting the heathen to the true faith.

Now it is Europeans who are the heathens. . . .

The exceptionally low level of British religiosity was perhaps the most striking revelation of a recent … poll. One in five Britons claim to “attend an organized religious service regularly,” less than half the American figure. [In light of the relationship between claimed and actual church attendance, discussed above, the actual figure for Britons is probably about 10 percent: ED.] Little more than a quarter say that they pray regularly, compared with two-thirds of Americans and 95 percent of Nigerians. And barely one in 10 Britons would be willing to die for our God or our beliefs, compared with 71 percent of Americans. . . .

Chesterton feared that if Christianity declined, “superstition” would “drown all your old rationalism and skepticism.” When educated friends tell me that they have invited a shaman to investigate their new house for bad juju, I see what Chesterton meant. Yet it is not the spread of such mumbo-jumbo that concerns me as much as the moral vacuum that de-Christianization has created. Sure, sermons are sometimes dull and congregations often sing out of tune. But, if nothing else, a weekly dose of Christian doctrine helps to provide an ethical framework for life. And it is not clear where else such a thing is available in modern Europe.

…Britons have heard a great deal from Tony Blair and others about the threat posed to their “way of life” by Muslim extremists such as Muktar Said Ibrahim. But how far has their own loss of religious faith turned Britain into a soft target — not so much for the superstition Chesterton feared, but for the fanaticism of others?

Yes, what “way of life” is being threatened — and is therefore deemed worth defending — when people do not share a strong moral bond?

I cannot resist adding one more quotation in the same vein as those from Hayek and Ferguson. This comes from Theodore Dalrymple (Anthony Daniels), a no-nonsense psychiatrist who, among his many intellectual accomplishments, has thoroughly skewered John Stuart Mill’s fatuous essay, On Liberty. Without further ado, here is Dalrymple on religion (“Why Religion Is Good for Us”, New Statesman, April 21, 2003):

I remember the day I stopped believing in God. I was ten years old and it was in school assembly. It was generally acknowledged that if you opened your eyes while praying, God flew out of the nearest window. That was why it was so important that everyone should shut his eyes. If I opened my eyes suddenly, I thought, I might just be quick enough to catch a glimpse of the departing deity….

Over the years, my attitude to religion has changed, without my having recovered any kind of belief in God. The best and most devoted people I have ever met were Catholic nuns. Religious belief is seldom accompanied by the inflamed egotism that is so marked and deeply unattractive a phenomenon in our post-religious society. Although the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions are said to have given man a more accurate appreciation of his true place in nature, in fact they have rendered him not so much anthropocentric as individually self-centred….

[T]he religious idea of compassion is greatly superior, both morally and practically, to the secular one. The secular person believes that compassion is due to the victim by virtue of what he has suffered; the religious person believes that compassion is due to everyone, by virtue of his humanity. For the secular person, man is born good and is made bad by his circumstances. The religious person believes man is born with original sin, and is therefore imperfectible on this earth; he can nevertheless strive for the good by obedience to God.

The secularist divides humanity into two: the victims and the victimisers. The religious person sees mankind as fundamentally one.

And why not? If this life is all that you have, why let anything stand in the way of its enjoyment? Most of us self-importantly imagine that the world and all its contrivances were made expressly for us and our convenience….

The secularist de-moralises the world, thus increasing the vulnerability of potential victims and, not coincidentally, their need for a professional apparatus of protection, which is and always will be ineffective, and is therefore fundamentally corrupt and corrupting.

If a person is not a victim pure and simple, the secularist feels he is owed no compassion. A person who is to blame for his own situation should not darken the secularist’s door again: therefore, the secularist is obliged to pretend, with all the rationalisation available to modern intellectuals, that people who get themselves into a terrible mess – for example, drug addicts – are not to blame for their situation. But this does them no good at all; in fact it is a great disservice to them.

The religious person, by contrast, is unembarrassed by the moral failings that lead people to act self-destructively because that is precisely what he knows man has been like since the expulsion from Eden. Because he knows that man is weak, and has no need to disguise his failings, either from himself or from others, he can be honest in a way that the secularist finds impossible.

Though I am not religious, I have come to the conclusion that it is impossible for us to live decently without the aid of religion. That is the ambiguity of the Enlightenment.

The weakening of the Judeo-Christian tradition in America is owed to enemies within (established religions trying in vain to be “relevant”) and to enemies without (leftists and nihilistic libertarians who seek every opportunity to denigrate religion). Thus the opponents of religiosity seized on the homosexual scandals in the Catholic Church not to attack homosexuality (which would go against the attackers’ party line) but to attack the Church, which teaches the immorality of the acts that were in fact committed by a relatively small number of priests.

Then there is the relentless depiction of Catholicism as an accomplice to Hitler’s brutality, about which my son writes in his review of Rabbi David G. Dalin’s The Myth of Hitler’s Pope: How Pius XII Rescued Jews from the Nazis:

Despite the misleading nature of the controversy — one which Dalin questions from the outset — the first critics of the wartime papacy were not Jews. Among the worst attacks were those of leftist non-Jews, such as Carlo Falconi (author of The Silence of Pius XII), not to mention German liberal Rolf Hochhuth, whose 1963 play, The Deputy, set the tone for subsequent derogatory media portrayals of wartime Catholicism. By contrast, says Dalin, Pope Pius XII “was widely praised [during his lifetime] for having saved hundreds of thousands of Jewish lives during the Holocaust.” He provides an impressive list of Jews who testified on the pope’s behalf, including Albert Einstein, Golda Meir and Chaim Weizmann. Dalin believes that to “deny and delegitimize their collective memory and experience of the Holocaust,” as some have done, “is to engage in a subtle yet profound form of Holocaust denial.”

The most obvious source of the black legend about the papacy emanated from Communist Russia, a point noted by the author. There were others with an axe to grind. As revealed in a recent issue of Sandro Magister’s Chiesa, liberal French Catholic Emmanuel Mounier began implicating Pius XII in “racist” politics as early as 1939. Subsequent detractors have made the same charge, working (presumably) from the same bias.

While the immediate accusations against Pius XII lie at the heart of Dalin’s book, he takes his analysis a step further. The vilification of the pope can only be understood in terms of a political agenda — the “liberal culture war against tradition.” . . .

Rabbi Dalin sums it up best for all people of traditional moral and political beliefs when he urges us to recall the challenges that faced Pius XII in which the “fundamental threats to Jews came not from devoted Christians — they were the prime rescuers of Jewish lives in the Holocaust — but from anti-Catholic Nazis, atheistic Communists, and… Hitler’s mufti in Jerusalem.”

I believe that the incessant attacks on religion have helped to push people — especially young adults — away from religion, to the detriment of liberty. It is not surprising that “liberals”  tend to be anti-religious, for — as Dalrymple points out — they disdain the tenets of personal responsibility and liberty that are contained in the last six of the Ten Commandments. It is disheartening, however, when libertarians join the anti-religious chorus. They know not what they do when they join the left in tearing down a bulwark of civil society, without which liberty cannot prevail.

Humans need no education in aggression and meddling; those come to us naturally. But we do need to learn to take responsibility for our actions and to leave others alone — and we need to learn those things when we are young. Such things will not be taught in public schools. They could be taught in homes, but are less likely to be taught there as Americans drift further from their religious roots.

Am I being hypcritical because I am unchurched and my children were not taken to church? Perhaps, but my religious upbringing imbued in me a strong sense of morality, which I tried — successfully, I think — to convey to my children. But as time passes the moral lessons we older Americans learned through religion will attenuate unless those lessons are taught, anew, to younger generations.

Rather than join the left in attacking religion and striving to eradicate all traces of it from public discourse, those who claim to love liberty ought to accommodate themselves to it and even encourage its acceptance — for liberty’s sake.

The Subtle Authoritarianism of the “Liberal Order”

There is a smug kind of person whom I know well, having been trained in the economics of control; having worked for more than thirty years with economists, engineers, mathematicians, statisticians, and others whose penchant it was to find the “best” solution to every problem; and having known (too many) “right thinking” persons whose first reaction to every disaster, sob story, and inconvenience is that government experts should make it stop (liberty, unintended consequences, and costs are of no importance).

A small sample of the smuggies’ certainties: “Efficient” means of transportation (e.g., fast intercity trains, urban light rail) should be provide by government (i.e., taxpayers) because they’re obviously the “best” way to move people, the revealed preferences of consumers (and voters) to the contrary notwithstanding. Cities should be zoned to encourage density (because, you know, cities are “cool”, “climate change”, yadayadyada), the preference of actual people (and evidence against “climate change”) to the contrary notwithstanding.

The list goes on and on. You can easily add to it even if you haven’t had your morning coffee.

The kind of smug person who holds such views holds them for many reasons: peer influence, virtue-signaling, educated incapacity, public-school and university indoctrination, and good old-fashioned snobbery (the “deplorables” must be made to do what’s in their own interest). Most such persons are also financially comfortable — too comfortable, obviously, because they seem to have nothing better to do with their money than to pay the higher taxes that inevitably result from their electoral choices: candidates who believe that government is the answer; bond issues and other ballot measures that enable politicians to spend more money to “fix” things. The less-comfortable contingent (e.g., school teachers and low-level government employees) go along to get along and because they must believe that government is good, just as a young child must believe in Santa Claus.

The agenda and constituency of the “liberal order” parallel those of the so-called liberal international order, which Sumantra Maitra addresses in a review article, “The End Times of the Liberal Order“? (Spectator USA, October 26, 2018):

A liberal order is not natural. Robert Kagan admits as much in his new bookThe Jungle Grows Back, when he writes that the ‘the creation of the liberal order has been an act of defiance against both history and human nature’. Nor is a liberal order an ‘order’, or liberal in nature. It is a sort of hegemonic or imperial peace.

Nothing wrong with that, of course; peace, any peace, is important. Unfortunately, it is the liberal part, which causes the problem. An internationalist, utopian worldview, liberalism is full of crusaderly zeal, constantly ‘going abroad in search of monsters to destroy’. Liberal internationalists badly want to shape the world. When given the chance, they do manage to shape the world, very badly indeed….

[John] Mearsheimer’s The Great Delusion claims that liberalism itself is paradoxical. It supports tolerance, but it is a universalist paradigm, deeply committed to borderless values. There cannot be any compromise or cooperation, because everything, everywhere is an existential battle. This causes conflict both at home and abroad. Domestically, liberalism divides a nation into good and bad people, and leads to a clash of cultures. Internationally, it leads to never-ending wars.

Encore: Domestically, liberalism divides a nation into good and bad people, and leads to a clash of cultures.

The clash of cultures was started and sustained by so-called liberals, the smug people described above. It is they who — firmly believing themselves to be smarter, on the the side of science, and on the side of history — have chosen to be the aggressors in the culture war.

Hillary Clinton’s remark about Trump’s “deplorables” ripped the mask from the “liberal” pretension to tolerance and reason. Clinton’s remark was tantamount to a declaration of war against the self-appointed champion of the “deplorables”: Donald Trump. And war it has been. much of it waged by deep-state “liberals” who cannot entertain the possibility that they are on the wrong side of history, and who will do anything — anything — to make history conform to their smug expectations of it.


Related reading:

Joel Kotkin, “Elites Against Western Civilization“, City Journal, October 3, 2019 (examples of the smug worldview, from a non-smug academic)

Victor Davis Hanson, “The Globalist Mindset: They Hate You“, American Greatness, December 16, 2018 (more, from another non-smug academic)

Victor Davis Hanson, “The Military-Intellegence Complex“, American Greatness, November 3, 2019 (even more)

Lyle H. Rossiter Jr., M.D. “The Liberal Mind: The Psychological Causes of Political Madness“, Townhall, December 4, 2006 (a psychiatrist’s diagnosis confirms mine)

Related pages and posts (focusing on various aspects of delusional “liberalism”):

Abortion Q & A
Climate Change
Economic Growth Since World War II (see especially The Rahn Curve in Action)
Leftism
Modeling and Science
Political Ideologies
Spygate (a.k.a. Russiagate)

Hurricane Hysteria
“Tribalists”, “Haters”, and Psychological Projection
“Science is Real”
“Liberalism”: Trying to Have It Both Ways
Understanding the Resistance: The Enemies Within
Intellectuals and Authoritarianism
More Unsettled Science
Homelessness
Leninthink and Left-Think
More Unsettled Science
Not-So-Random Thoughts (XXIV) (especially The Transgender Trap: A Political Nightmare Becomes Reality and Assortative Mating, Income Inequality, and the Crocodile Tears of “Progressives”)
Climate Hysteria
Rawls vs. Reality

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.

“Endorsed” by Victor Davis Hanson

Not really. But here’s what he said on October 20 in “Why Do They Hate Him So?“:

The Left detests Trump for a lot of reasons besides winning the 2016 election and aborting the progressive project. But mostly they hate his guts because he is trying and often succeeding to restore a conservative America at a time when his opponents thought that the mere idea was not just impossible but unhinged.

And that is absolutely unforgivable.

Here’s what I said on October 11 in “Understanding the ‘Resistance’: The Enemies Within“:

Why such a hysterical and persistent reaction to the outcome of the 2016 election? (The morally corrupt, all-out effort to block the confirmation of Justice Kavanaugh was a loud echo of that reaction.) Because the election of 2016 had promised to be the election to end all elections — the election that might have all-but-assured the the ascendancy of the left in America, with the Supreme Court as a strategic high ground.

But Trump — through his budget priorities, deregulatory efforts, and selection of constitutionalist judges — has made a good start on undoing Obama’s great leap forward in the left’s century-long march toward its vision of Utopia. The left cannot allow this to continue, for if Trump succeeds (and a second term might cement his success), its vile work could be undone.

VDH and LV, the dream team.

Conservatism vs. Libertarianism

Returning to the subject of political ideologies, I take up a post that had languished in my drafts folder for these past 18 months. It begins by quoting an unintentionally prescient piece by Michael Warren Davis: “The Max Bootification of the American Right” (The American Conservative, April 13, 2018). It’s unintentionally prescient because Davis boots Boot out of conservatism at about the same time that Boot was declaring publicly that he was no longer a conservative.

By way of introduction, Davis takes issue with

an article from the Spring 2012 issue of the Intercollegiate Review called “The Pillars of Modern American Conservatism” by Alfred S. Regnery. Like the [Intercollegiate Studies Institute] itself, it was excellent on the main. But it suffers from the grave (albeit common) sin of believing there is such a thing as “modern” conservatism, which can be distinguished from historic conservatism….

The trouble with “modern” conservatism … is that historic conservatism didn’t fail. It has not been tried and found wanting, as Chesterton would say; it has been found difficult and not tried….

The genius of fusionists (what is generally meant by “modern” conservatives) like William F. Buckley and Frank S. Meyer was joining the intellectual sophistication of traditionalism with the political credibility of libertarianism. The greatest traditionalists and libertarians of that age—Russell Kirk and Friedrich Hayek, respectively—protested vehemently against this fusion, insisting that their two schools were different species and could not intermarry. It was inevitable that “modern” conservatism would prioritize the first principles of one movement over the other. That is to say, this new conservatism would be either fundamentally traditionalist or fundamentally libertarian. It could not be both.

Regnery’s article proves that the latter came to pass. “Modern” conservatism is in fact not conservatism at all: it is a kind of libertarianism, albeit with an anti-progressive instinct.

Consider the subheadings: “The first pillar of conservatism,” Regnery writes, “is liberty, or freedom… The second pillar of conservative philosophy is tradition and order.” This is an inversion of the hierarchy put forward in What Is Conservatism?, a collection of essays edited by Meyer and published by the ISI in 1964. According to Meyer’s table of contents, essays with an “emphasis on tradition and authority” (Kirk, Willmoore Kendall) rank higher than those with an “emphasis on freedom” (M. Stanton Evans, Wilhelm Röpke, Hayek).

The ordering is no coincidence. This question of priorities became one of the principal logjams between the Kirkians and Hayekians. As Kirk explained in “Libertarians: Chirping Sectaries,” published in the Fall 1981 issue of Modern Age:

In any society, order is the first need of all. Liberty and justice may be established only after order is tolerably secure. But the libertarians give primacy to an abstract liberty. Conservatives, knowing that “liberty inheres in some sensible object,” are aware that true freedom can be found only within the framework of a social order, such as the constitutional order of these United States. In exalting an absolute and indefinable “liberty” at the expense of order, the libertarians imperil the very freedoms they praise.

This seems rather straightforward in terms of domestic policy, but we should consider its implications for foreign policy, too. The triumph of the “emphasis on freedom” is responsible for the disastrous interventionist tendencies that have plagued all modern Republican administrations.

We again turn to Kirk in his essay for What is Conservatism? titled “Prescription, Authority, and Ordered Freedom.” Here he warned:

To impose the American constitution on all the world would not render all the world happy; to the contrary, our constitution would work in few lands and would make many men miserable in short order. States, like men, must find their own paths to order and justice and freedom; and usually those paths are ancient and winding ways, and their signposts are Authority, Tradition, Prescription.

That is why traditionalists oppose regime change in the Middle East. Freedom may follow tyranny only if (as in the Revolutions of 1989) the people themselves desire it and are capable of maintaining the machinery of a free society. If the public is not especially interested in self-government, they will succumb either to a new despot or a stronger neighboring country. We have seen both of these scenarios play out in post-Ba’athist Iraq, with the rise of ISIS and the expansion of Iranian hegemony.

It is also why traditionalist conservatives are tarred as pro-Putin by liberals and “modern” conservatives. If Putin is indeed a neo-Tsarist, we may hope to see Russia follow C.S. Lewis’s maxim: “A sum can be put right: but only by going back till you find the error and working it afresh from that point, never by simply going on.” Communism is the error, and while Putinism is by no means the solution, we may hope (though not blindly) that it represents a return to the pre-communist order. Those are, if not optimal conditions for true liberty to flourish, at least the best we can reasonably expect.

More important, however, is that we recognize the absurdity of “modern” conservatives’ hopes that Russia would have transitioned from the Soviet Union to a carbon copy of 1980s Britain. We do the Russian people a disservice by holding President Putin to the example of some mythical Tsarina Thatcherova. That is simply not the “ancient and winding way” Providence has laid out for them.

Such an unhealthy devotion to abstract liberty is embodied in Max Boot, the Washington Post’s new conservative [sic] columnist. Consider the opening lines of his essay “I Would Vote for a (Sane) Donald Trump,” published last year in Foreign Policy:

I am socially liberal: I am pro-LGBTQ rights, pro-abortion rights, pro-immigration. I am fiscally conservative: I think we need to reduce the deficit and get entitlement spending under control… I am pro-free trade: I think we should be concluding new trade treaties rather than pulling out of old ones. I am strong on defense: I think we need to beef up our military to cope with multiple enemies. And I am very much in favor of America acting as a world leader: I believe it is in our own self-interest to promote and defend freedom and free markets as we have been doing in one form or another since at least 1898.

Boot has no respect for Authority, Tradition, and Prescription—not in this country, and not in those manifold countries he would have us invade. His politics are purely propositional: freedom is the greatest (perhaps the sole) virtue, and can be achieved equally by all men in all ages. Neither God nor history nor the diverse and delicate fibers that comprise a nation’s social order have any bearing on his ideologically tainted worldview.

Boot, of course, was hired by the Post to rubber-stamp the progressive agenda with the seal of Principled Conservatism™. Even he can’t possibly labor under the delusion that Jeff Bezos hired him to threaten Washington’s liberal establishment. Yet his conclusions follow logically from the pillars of “modern” conservatism.

Two choices lie before us, then. One is to restore a conservatism of Authority, Tradition, and Prescription. The other is to stand by and watch the Bootification of the American Right. Pray that we choose correctly, before it’s too late to undo the damage that’s already been done.

Boot was to have been the Post‘s answer to David Brooks, the nominal conservative at The New York Times, about whom I have often written. Boot, however, has declared himself a person of the left, whereas Brooks calls himself a “moderate“, which is another way of saying wishy-washy. Both of them give aid and comfort to the left. They are Tweedeldum and Tweedle-dumber, as a wag once observed (inaccurately) of Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey (opponents in the 1968 presidential election).

Returning to the main point of this post, which is the difference between conservatism and libertarianism, I will offer a view that is consistent with Davis’s, but expressed somewhat differently. This is from “Political Ideologies“:

There is an essential difference between conservatism and libertarianism. Conservatives value voluntary social institutions not just because they embed accumulated wisdom. Conservatives value voluntary social institutions because they bind people in mutual trust and respect, which foster mutual forbearance and breed social comity in the face of provocations. Adherence to long-standing social norms helps to preserve the wisdom embedded in them while also signalling allegiance to the community that gave rise to the norms.

Libertarians, on the other hand, following the lead of their intellectual progenitor, John Stuart Mill, are anxious to throw off what they perceive as social “oppression”. The root of libertarianism is Mill’s “harm principle”, which I have exposed for the fraud that it is (e.g., here and here)….

There’s more. Libertarianism, as it is usually explained and presented, lacks an essential ingredient: morality. Yes, libertarians espouse a superficially plausible version of morality — the harm principle, quoted above by Scott Yeonor. But the harm principle is empty rhetoric. Harm must be defined, and its definition must arise from social norms. The alternative, which libertarians — and “liberals” — obviously embrace, is that they are uniquely endowed with the knowledge of what is “right”, and therefore should be enforced by the state. Not the least of their sins against social comity is the legalization of abortion and same-sex “marriage” (detailed arguments at the links).

Liberty is not an abstraction. It is the scope of action that is allowed by long-standing, voluntarily evolved social norms. It is that restrained scope of action which enables people to coexist willingly, peacefully, and cooperatively for their mutual benefit. That is liberty, and it is served by conservatism, not by amoral, socially destructive libertarianism.

I rest my case.

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.

Leninthink and Left-think

The following passages from Gary Saul Morson’s “Leninthink” (The New Criterion, October 2019) speak volumes about today’s brand of leftism:

In [Lenin’s] view, Marx’s greatest contribution was not the idea of the class struggle but “the dictatorship of the proletariat,” and as far back as 1906 Lenin had defined dictatorship as “nothing other than power which is totally unlimited by any laws, totally unrestrained by absolutely any rules, and based directly on force.”

*   *   *

For us, the word “politics” means a process of give and take, but for Lenin it’s we take, and you give. From this it follows that one must take maximum advantage of one’s position. If the enemy is weak enough to be destroyed, and one stops simply at one’s initial demands, one is objectively helping the enemy, which makes one a traitor.

*   *   *

If there is one sort of person Lenin truly hated more than any other, it is—to use some of his more printable adjectives—the squishy, squeamish, spineless, dull-witted liberal reformer.

*   *   *

If by law one means a code that binds the state as well as the individual, specifies what is and is not permitted, and eliminates arbitrariness, then Lenin entirely rejected law as “bourgeois.”…  Recall that he defined the dictatorship of the proletariat as rule based entirely on force absolutely unrestrained by any law.

*   *   *

Lenin’s language, no less than his ethics, served as a model, taught in Soviet schools and recommended in books with titles like Lenin’s Language and On Lenin’s Polemical Art. In Lenin’s view, a true revolutionary did not establish the correctness of his beliefs by appealing to evidence or logic, as if there were some standards of truthfulness above social classes. Rather, one engaged in “blackening an opponent’s mug so well it takes him ages to get it clean again.” Nikolay Valentinov, a Bolshevik who knew Lenin well before becoming disillusioned, reports him saying: “There is only one answer to revisionism: smash its face in!”

*   *   *

No concessions, compromises, exceptions, or acts of leniency; everything must be totally uniform, absolutely the same, unqualifiedly unqualified.

*   *   *

Critics objected that Lenin argued by mere assertion. He disproved a position simply by showing it contradicted what he believed. In his attack on the epistemology of Ernst Mach and Richard Avenarius, for instance, every argument contrary to dialectical materialism is rejected for that reason alone. Valentinov, who saw Lenin frequently when he was crafting this treatise, reports that Lenin at most glanced through their works for a few hours. It was easy enough to attribute to them views they did not hold, associate them with disreputable people they had never heard of, or ascribe political purposes they had never imagined. These were Lenin’s usual techniques, and he made no bones about it.

Opponents objected that Lenin lied without compunction, and it is easy to find quotations in which he says—as he did to the Bolshevik leader Karl Radek—“Who told you a historian has to establish the truth?” Yes, we are contradicting what we said before, he told Radek, and when it is useful to reverse positions again, we will.

*   *   *

Lenin did not just invent a new kind of party, he also laid the basis for what would come to be known in official parlance as “partiinost’,” literally Partyness, in the sense of Party-mindedness….

… The true Party member cares for nothing but the Party. It is his family, his community, his church. And according to Marxism-Leninism, everything it did was guaranteed to be correct.

*   *   *

[The prominent Bolshevik Yuri] Pyatakov grasped Lenin’s idea that coercion is not a last resort but the first principle of Party action. Changing human nature, producing boundless prosperity, overcoming death itself: all these miracles could be achieved because the Party was the first organization ever to pursue coercion without limits.

*   *   *

Many former Communists describe their belated recognition that experienced Party members do not seem to believe what they profess…. It gradually dawned on [Richard Wright] that the Party takes stances not because it cares about them—although it may—but because it is useful for the Party to do so.

Doing so may help recruit new members, as its stance on race had gotten Wright to join. But after a while a shrewd member learned, without having been explicitly told, that loyalty belonged not to an issue, not even to justice broadly conceived, but to the Party itself. Issues would be raised or dismissed as needed.

*   *   *

I remarked to one colleague, who called herself a Marxist-Leninist, that it only made things worse when she told obvious falsehoods in departmental meetings. Surely, such unprincipled behavior must bring discredit to your own position, I pleaded.

Her reply brought me back to my childhood [as a son of a party member]. I quote it word-for-word: “You stick to your principles, and I’ll stick to mine.” From a Leninist perspective, a liberal, a Christian, or any type of idealist only ties his hands by refraining from doing whatever works. She meant: we Leninists will win because we know better than to do that.

In the end, leftism is about power — unchallenged power to do whatever it is that must be done.

Up from Darkness

I’m in the midst of writing a post about conservatism that will put a capstone on the many posts that I’ve written on the subject. It occurred to me that it might be helpful to understand why some conservatives (or people who thought of themselves as conservatives) abandoned the faith. I found “Do conservatives ever become liberal?” at Quora. None of the more than 100 replies is a good argument for switching, in my view. Most of them are whining, posturing, and erroneous characterizations of conservatism.

But the first reply struck home because it describes how a so-called conservative became a “liberal” in a matter of minutes. What that means, of course, is that the convert’s conservatism was superficial. (More about that in the promised post.) But the tale struck home because it reminded me of my own conversion, in the opposite direction, which began with a kind of “eureka” moment.

Here’s the story, from my “About” page:

I was apolitical until I went to college. There, under the tutelage of economists of the Keynesian persuasion, I became convinced that government could and should intervene in economic affairs. My pro-interventionism spread to social affairs in my early post-college years, as I joined the “intellectuals” of the time in their support for the Civil Rights Act and the Great Society, which was about social engineering as much as anything.

The urban riots that followed the murder of Martin Luther King Jr. opened my eyes to the futility of LBJ’s social tinkering. I saw at once that plowing vast sums into a “war” on black poverty would be rewarded with a lack of progress, sullen resentment, and generations of dependency on big brother in Washington.

There’s a lot more after that about my long journey home to conservatism, if you’re interested.