conservatism

Rescuing Conservatism

In a reply to a comment about “Psychological Insights into Leftism,” I said this about an article to which the commenter linked:

[T]he writer’s obvious bias is that change is good, which is really rather a stupid thing to believe. It all depends on what the change is and what effects it will have. Second, conservatives aren’t for stability for its own sake, but because — like good scientists — they believe that the null hypothesis (the status quo) holds true until they see strong evidence to the contrary. That is, they actually rely on evidence, not emotion — and it’s unthinking emotion that often fuels leftists. The global warming scare is a perfect example of this.

Which leads me to Chris Mooney, the Discover staffer who commissioned the piece. Mooney is the author of such books as The Republican War on Science and The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science — And Reality. There’s a whole lot of psychological projection going on there. Most anti-scientific activity these days is on the left. In addition to the over-hyped and poorly understood subject of AGW (rife with pseudo-scientific charlatanism), there’s IQ (which leftists like to disparage while claiming at the same time to be more intelligent than conservatives), the Keynesian multiplier (a mathematical con game), guns and crime (how are those strict gun-control laws working out for Chicago?), biological differences between men and women (quite real and wide-ranging), the effect of the minimum wage on unemployment (leftists like to cite the one study out of dozens that shows little or no effect), and on and on.

Later in the comment thread, I added this:

A big part of the problem here (and in general) is definitional. Leftists are statists who seek control of others in order to advance a certain agenda. But there are also right-statists, whose agenda is generally the opposite of the left-statists’ agenda. Right-statists are often wrongly called conservatives. They are not conservatives, who prefer to rely on the institutions of civil society, not the state. But the mislabeling allows leftists to get away with calling conservatives anti-scientific and emotional, when they’re really talking about their kindred spirits: right-statists.

Larry Thornberry highlights the problem of faux-conservatism in “If You Like Your Problem, You Can Keep Your Problem” (The Spectacle Blog, April 24, 2017):

The latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll showing Donald Trump with a falling job approval rating — 54 percent disapprove to 40 percent approve — has gotten wide print and broadcast coverage. But most of the coverage has been on how Trump’s numbers have been trending, down from February, and how he compares with previous presidents as this point in his presidency, not so very well.

Digging down to some other non-Trump-related numbers in the poll, conservatives, or anyone else who wishes to “make America great again,” will find even worse news. The poll found that 57 percent of respondents, including 28 percent of Republicans, say that government should be doing more to solve problems and help people. MORE!

I suspect that the percentage of Republicans who say “more” would be a lot higher when push comes to shove (e.g., avoiding cuts in Social Security and Medicare benefits, preserving pork-barrel spending that they perceive as beneficial to themselves). It’s also noteworthy that the percentage of all respondents who say that government should do more is the highest for 26 such polls, which date back to 1995.

Here’s a case in point, a not-unusual one I think: My late father-in-law had many admirable qualities. He was a career Air Force officer who flew combat missions in World War II and the Korean War. He was a faithful and considerate husband, a good father to his children (though not around as much as a civilian father would have been), a steadfast friend, a good neighbor, and a fount of jokes and song lyrics. He was thrifty (and thus left his widow with ample funds to see her through her old age), and he kept his yard and garden in good trim.

But after my father-in-law’s second retirement (from the job he took when he retired from the Air Force), he became increasingly outspoken about politics. He adopted the conservative mantle and identified himself as a Republican, like many an ex-Democrat Southerner. He grumbled about big government (reasonably enough), but would defend “his” Social Security benefits; denigrated toll roads (as if roads should be “free”); distrusted market outcomes, often stating that the price of something was “too high,” as if he knew what it should be; claimed repeatedly that he should receive free VA hospital care (though his income and wealth disqualified him); railed against illegal immigration while paying illegal immigrants to clean his house; and listened faithfully to Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly (a mirror image of the equally rude and blustering Chris Matthews), parroting whatever lines they were peddling at the moment, without critically evaluating their offerings.

Aside from “ordinary people” like my late father-in-law, there are “conservative” bloviators like Limbaugh, O’Reilly (whose downfall I don’t lament), and Michael Savage. If they’re truly conservative, they hide it well. Their demeanor belies their claims to conservatism.

Which is to say that true conservatism is really an unusual state of mind in America. In order to prevent the election of more leftists than are already in office, true conservatives must rely on the influence of bloviators like Limbaugh, O’Reilly, and Savage, and on the votes of faux conservatives like my late father-in-law. Further, the true conservative must often hold his nose and vote for the lesser of two evils — who, more often than not, will be a mediocrity, hypocrite, or poseur.

What, then, is true conservatism? It is first and foremost a disposition. That disposition leads to an attitude toward governance. I’ve written about this many times, but what I’ve written bears repetition. So here goes.

A key aspect of the conservative disposition, as I said earlier, is skepticism about change, but not steadfast opposition to it. At the heart of skepticism about change is respect for tradition, which, as Edward Feser explains in “Hayek and Tradition,” is

nothing other than the distillation of centuries of human experience…. Far from being opposed to reason, reason is inseparable from tradition, and blind without it. The so-called enlightened mind thrusts tradition aside, hoping to find something more solid on which to make its stand, but there is nothing else, no alternative to the hard earth of human experience, and the enlightened thinker soon finds himself in mid-air…. But then, was it ever truly a love of reason that was in the driver’s seat in the first place? Or was it, rather, a hatred of tradition? Might the latter have been the cause of the former, rather than, as the enlightened pose would have it, the other way around?)

Michael Oakeshott delves more deeply in “On Being Conservative” (Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays), from which I have quoted at length in this post and this one.  Follow the links (or buy Oakeshott’s book) if you want to read more than these suggestive passages:

[The conservative] does not suppose that the office of government is to do nothing…. [T]he office he attributes to government is to resolve some of the collisions which this variety of beliefs and activities generates; to preserve peace, not by placing an interdict upon choice and upon the diversity that springs from the exercise of preference, not by imposing substantive uniformity, but by enforcing general rules of procedure upon all subjects alike.

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

… The man of this [conservative] disposition understands it to be the business of a government not to inflame passion and give it new objects to feed upon, but to inject into the activities of already too passionate men an ingredient of moderation; to restrain, to deflate, to pacify and to reconcile; not to stoke the fires of desire, but to damp them down….

Political conservatism is, then, not at all unintelligible in a people disposed to be adventurous and enterprising, a people in love with change and apt to rationalise their affections in terms of ‘progress’…. Indeed, a disposition to be conservative in respect of government would seem to be pre-eminently appropriate to men who have something to do and something to think about on their own account, who have a skill to practise or an intellectual fortune to make, to people whose passions do not need to be inflamed, whose desires do not need to be provoked and whose dreams of a better world need no prompting. Such people know the value of a rule which imposes orderliness without directing enterprise, a rule which concentrates duty so that room is left for delight.

The essential ingredient in conservative governance is the preservation and reinforcement of the beneficial norms that are cultivated in the voluntary institutions of civil society: family, religion, club, community (where it is close-knit), and commerce. When those institutions are allowed to flourish, much of the work of government is done without the imposition of taxes and regulations, including the enforcement of moral codes and the care of those who unable to care for themselves.

In the conservative view, government would then be limited to making and enforcing the few rules that are required to adjudicate what Oakeshott calls “collisions.” And there are always foreign and domestic predators who are beyond the effective reach of voluntary social institutions and must be dealt with by a superior force.

By thus limiting government to the roles of referee and defender of last resort, civil society is allowed to flourish, both economically and socially. Social conservatism is analogous to the market liberalism of libertarian economics. The price signals that help to organize economic production have their counterpart in the “market” for social behavior (which really encompasses economic behavior). Behavior which is seen to advance a group’s well-being is encouraged; behavior which is seen to degrade a group’s well-being is discouraged.

Civil society is, in the main, self-policing — or it was before the Greatest Generation failed its children and the busy-bodies began seriously to destroy its bonds and usurp its tutelary, disciplinary, and charitable functions.


Related posts:
Liberty and Society
The Eclipse of “Old America”
Genetic Kinship and Society
Liberty as a Social Construct: Moral Relativism?
Defending Liberty against (Pseudo) Libertarians
Fighting Modernity
Defining Liberty
Conservatism as Right-Minarchism
Getting It Almost Right
The Social Animal and the “Social Contract”
The Pseudo-Libertarian Temperament
Parsing Political Philosophy (II)
How Libertarians Ought to Think about the Constitution
Getting Liberty Wrong
Romanticizing the State
Governmental Perversity
Libertarianism and the State
“Liberalism” and Personal Responsibility
My View of Libertarianism
No Wonder Liberty Is Disappearing
The Principles of Actionable Harm
More About Social Norms and Liberty
The War on Conservatism
Friedman on Anarchy and Conservatism
Old America, New America, and Anarchy
The Authoritarianism of Modern Liberalism, and the Conservative Antidote
Society, Polarization, and Dissent
Another Look at Political Labels
Individualism, Society, and Liberty
Utilitarianism vs. Liberty (II)
Consistent Conservatism
Economically Liberal, Socially Conservative
Why Conservatives Shouldn’t Compromise
Liberal Nostrums
The Harm Principle Revisited: Mill Conflates Society and State
Liberty and Social Norms Re-examined

Mugged by Non-Reality

A wise man said that a conservative is a liberal who has been mugged by reality. Thanks to Malcolm Pollock, I’ve just learned that a liberal is a conservative whose grasp of reality has been erased, literally.

Actually, this is unsurprising news (to me). I have pointed out many times that the various manifestations of liberalism — from stifling regulation to untrammeled immigration — arise from the cosseted beneficiaries of capitalism (e.g., pundits, politicians, academicians, students) who are far removed from the actualities of producing real things for real people. This has turned their brains into a kind of mush that is fit only for hatching unrealistic but costly schemes which rest upon a skewed vision of human nature.

Why Conservatives Shouldn’t Compromise

It’s tempting, sometimes, to compromise with the left’s agenda, which is top-down regulation of social and economic relations. The agenda has a huge constituency, after all. Think of the tens of millions of persons who would be harmed in the short run, if not for a long time, if a leftist scheme were undone.

Consider Obamacare, for example. A key provision of Obamacare — the camel’s nose, head, and shoulders in the tent of universal health care (a.k.a., socialized medicine) — is the vast expansion of eligibility for Medicaid. In the 30-some States that have opted to participate in the expanded program, persons with incomes up to 133 percent of the poverty line are eligible, including adults without dependent children.

It would seem that only a Simon Legree or Ebenezer Scrooge would deny Medicaid coverage to those millions who have obtained it by way of Obamacare. Or it would until the following considerations come to mind:

  • The poverty line is a misleading metric. It’s a relative measure of income, not an absolute one. Most “poor” persons in today’s America are anything but poor in relation the truly poor of the world, and they live far above a subsistence level. The poverty line is nothing but an arbitrary standard that justifies income redistribution.
  • Other persons, with their own problems, are paying for the government’s generous “gift” to the semi-poor. But who is really in a position to say that the problems of Medicaid recipients are more deserving of subsidization than the problems facing those who defray the subsidy?
  • If expanded Medicaid coverage were withdrawn, those now covered would be no worse off than they had been before taxpayers were forced to subsidize them.
  • Being relatively poor used to be a good reason for a person to work his way up the ladder of success. Perhaps not far up the ladder, but in an upward direction. It meant learning skills — on the job, if necessary — and using those skills to move on to more-demanding and higher-paying jobs. Redistributive measures — Medicaid subsidies, food stamps, extended unemployment benefits, etc. — blunt the incentive to better oneself and, instead, reinforce dependency on government.

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

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

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

And how does government pay for those handouts? In part, it taxes many of the people who receive them. It also pays generous salaries and benefits of the army of drones who administer them. It’s a Ponzi scheme enforced at gunpoint.

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

Freedom of Speech and the Long War for Constitutional Governance

Freedom of speech is at the heart of the war between the friends and enemies of liberty. The Constitution’s guarantee of freedom of speech is misunderstood. The social order that underlies liberty has been undermined by the Supreme Court’s free-speech absolutism. At the same time, the kind of speech that should be protected by the First Amendment is increasingly suppressed by the enemies of liberty, who will find succor in Justice Kennedy’s ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges.

The restoration of freedom of speech, properly understood, will take a long time and determined action by conservatives. It will require a counter-revolution against the insidious, decades-long spread of leftist doctrines by “educators” and the media.

THE SLIPPERY SLOPE AWAY FROM REASONED DISSENT

Bill Vallicella (Maverick Philosopher) characteristically asks a tough question, and answers it:

Ought flag burning come under the rubric of protected speech?  Logically prior question: Is it speech at all?  What if I make some such rude gesture in your face as ‘giving you the finger.’  Is that speech?  If it is, I would like to know what proposition it expresses.  ‘Fuck you!’ does not express a proposition.  Likewise for the corresponding gesture with the middle finger.  And if some punk burns a flag, I would like to know what proposition the punk is expressing.
The Founders were interested in protecting reasoned dissent, but the typical act of flag burning by the typical leftist punk does not rise to that level.  To have reasoned or even unreasoned dissent there has to be some proposition that one is dissenting from and some counter-proposition that one is advancing, and one’s performance has to make more or less clear what those propositions are.  I think one ought to be skeptical of arguments that try to subsume gestures and physical actions under speech.

The only reasonable objection to Vallicella’s position is that a government which can outlaw flag-burning or finger-flipping can outlaw any form of expression. The objection is a slippery-slope argument: allow X (suppression of certain forms of expression) and Y (suppression of any kind of expression, at the whim of government) is sure to follow.

What has happened, in fact, is the opposite: Forms of expression (i.e., speech and symbolic acts) that had been outlawed have been made legal by the U.S. Supreme Court. Examples are the showing of films that the authorities of a State considered obscene, the utterance or publication of statements advocating the overthrow of government, and flag-burning. The Court has developed something like an absolute position regarding freedom of speech — or, more accurately, freedom of expression.

For example, only where advocacy of and organization for an overthrow of government is deemed to be a “clear and present danger” can such advocacy or organization be curbed. Which is somewhat like waiting to shoot at an enemy armed with a long-range rifle until you are able to see the whites of his eyes. Or, perhaps more aptly in the 21st century, waiting until a terrorist strikes before acting against him. Which is too late, of course, and impossible in the usual case of suicide-cum-terror.

And therein lies the dangerous folly of free-speech absolutism. A general and compelling case against the current reign of absolutism is made by David Lowenthal in No Liberty for License: The Forgotten Logic of the First Amendment. Lowenthal’s case is summarized in Edward J. Erler’s review of the book (“The First Amendment and the Theology of Republican Government,” Interpretation, Spring 2000):

The thesis of David Lowenthal’s [book] is as bold as it is simple: “the First Amendment, intended as a bulwark of the republic, has become a prime agent of its destruction” (p. xiv). Lowenthal rightly argues that the First Amendment was adopted for a political purpose; it sought to protect only those liberties necessary for the preservation of republican government. Today, however, the focus of the First Amendment is on “individual rights” rather than the common good, at it is this “over-expansion of individual liberty” that Lowenthal believes has led to the vast decline of the “moral and political health of the republic,” a decline that undermines the very foundations of liberty itself. Indeed, the Supreme Court has “made individual freedom its god — at the expense of the moral, social, and political needs of ordered society” (p. xiv).

Lowenthal argues that this corruption in First Amendment jurisprudence was caused by the deliberate departure from the intentions of its framers: “the great impetus for movement in the direction of extreme liberty came not from within the system but from new philosophies and theories, mostly imported from abroad…. The main culprit here, according to Lowenthal, is John Stuart Mill who, in the hands of Justices Holmes and Brandeis, became the intellectual guide for a “second, hidden founding” (pp. 54, 45, 248, 250, 253, 267, 273). It was Mill who “supplied a new theoretical foundation for liberty, calling for its vast expansion in the name of freedom of thought,” and by the middle of the twentieth century, those forces set in motion by modernity, “relativism and subjectivism,” had become the dominant mode of thought informing constitutional interpretation (p. 267). Mill and his epigones replaced the founders as the source for understanding the Constitution.

The efforts of Holmes and Brandeis, of course, were part of the larger Progressive movement. The explicit goal of Progressivism was to free the Constitution from its moorings of the founding, most particularly from the “static” doctrines of the Declaration of Independence and its reliance on the permanent truths of the “laws of nature and nature’s God.” Progressivism itself was only one strain of modernity, but it shared with the other strains the depreciation of both reason and revelation as sources of moral and political authority. Progressivism was phenomenally successful in it debunking of the founding and its reformist zeal appealed wholly to the passions. It sought to liberate the passions from the constraints of morality, whereas the founders appealed to the “reason … of the public” (The Federalist, No. 49 [Rossiter, ed.] p. 317) as the foundation of moral and political order. The appeal to reason will always be more difficult than the appeal to passion, especially when the appeal to passion has itself assumed a kind of “moral” authority. It should not be surprising therefore that the success of the “Holmes-Brandeis school of jurisprudence,” in Lowenthal’s estimation, “is wholly out of keeping with its intrinsic merits” (p. 61).

Progressivism was a wholly alien doctrine; it derived not from any thought of the founding, but from Continental thought, principally of Hegel. The result was moral relativism verging on nihilism. But Lowenthal rightly questions “whether any alien doctrines, any doctrines other than those of the founders and framers, written into the language of the Constitution, should be so employed” (p. 54). Lowenthal supports original intent jurisprudence because the ideas of the framers and founders “remain constitutionally, politically, and morally superior to those that have displaced them” (p. xxii). Lowenthal does not minimize the difficulty of restoring the founding to its rightful place; he believe the republic is in grave danger and the danger is more than abundantly evident in the current understanding of the First Amendment. Lowenthal’s account is not that of a mere intellectual; it is written with a verve, moral passion, and deep understanding that is almost unknown among intellectuals.

The First Amendment, in the hands of the Supreme Court, has become inimical to the civil and state institutions that enable liberty. The Court has been so busy protecting the right of the media to subvert the national defense, that it hasn’t spared the time to extend its free-speech absolutism by striking down speech codes at taxpayer-funded universities. That’s perverse because, among many things, speech codes are intended to suppress the very kind of political dissent that the First Amendment was meant to protect. It isn’t protected because it’s conservative dissent from “liberal” orthodoxy.

ENTER THE AMORPHOUS HARM PRINCIPLE

One aspect of that orthodoxy, which Lowenthal addresses, is 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. [John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (1869), Chapter I, paragraph 9.]

This is empty rhetoric. Theodore Dalrymple exposes its emptiness in “The Simple Truth about J.S. Mill’s Simple Truth” (Library of Law and Liberty, July 20, 2015). Dalrymple writes about the legalization of drugs, but his indictment of the harm principle is general:

I can do as I please, and take what I like, so long as I harm no others.

One can easily sympathize with this attempt to delimit the relations between the individual and the state or other powerful authorities. Every government today is in practice vastly more oppressive than that of George III in the American colonies. Which of us does not feel an increasing weight on him of regulation, prohibition, and compulsion from on high—most of it nowadays supposedly for our own good—to help us lead a better or a longer life whether we want it or not? How are we to hold back the flood of official intrusion into our lives without a principle to distinguish legitimate from illegitimate intrusion?…

The objections to the Millian premise of the call to drug legalization are well-known. Man is a social as well as a political animal, and except for the very few who live in genuine isolation, almost all that we do affects someone else….

We may, indeed we ought to, have a bias or presumption in favor of individual liberty, and we should also have a lively appreciation of the fact that interference with liberty to prevent harm to others may actually cause more harm than it prevents. Moreover, because liberty is a good in itself, loss of liberty is a harm in itself, always to be taken into account.

None of this means that there is a very clear principle that can lay down in advance the limits of liberty, such as Mill wants (and the would-be legalizers of drugs rely upon)….

The libertarian position with regard to drugs would be more convincing if the costs of the choices of those who took them could be brought home to them alone. We know that, in practice, they are shared….

In short, there is no “very simple principle” of the kind that Mill enunciated, with an eloquence that disguised a certain hollowness, that establishes as inherently wrong the forbidding of citizens to take whatever drugs they like. By the same token, there is no very simple principle that will determine which drugs should be permitted and which banned.

If it is right to begin permitting the consumption of a heretofore banned drug, it must, therefore, be on other grounds than that “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.” As Einstein said, a theory should be as simple as possible, but not simpler than possible.

THE SUBVERSION OF SOCIAL NORMS IS THE SUBVERSION OF LIBERTY

Harm must be defined. And its definition must arise from voluntarily evolved social norms. Such norms evince 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?

Behavior is shaped by social norms. Those norms once were rooted in the Ten Commandments and time-tested codes of behavior. They weren’t nullified willy-nilly in accordance with the wishes of “activists,” as amplified through the megaphone of the mass media, and made law by the Supreme Court. What were those norms? Here are some of the most important ones:

Marriage is a union of one man and one woman. Nothing else is marriage, despite legislative, executive, and judicial decrees that substitute brute force for the wisdom of the ages.

Marriage comes before children. This is not because people are pure at heart, but because it is the responsible way to start life together and to ensure that one’s children enjoy a stable, nurturing home life.

Marriage is until “death do us part.” Divorce is a recourse of last resort, not an easy way out of marital and familial responsibilities or the first recourse when one spouse disappoints or angers the other.

Children are disciplined — sometimes spanked — when they do wrong. They aren’t given long, boring, incomprehensible lectures about why they’re doing wrong. Why not? Because they usually know they’re doing wrong and are just trying to see what they can get away with.

Drugs are taken for the treatment of actual illnesses, not for recreational purposes.

Income is earned, not “distributed.” Persons who earn a lot of money are to be respected. If you envy them to the point of wanting to take their money, you’re a pinko-commie-socialist (no joke).

People should work, save, and pay for their own housing. The prospect of owning one’s own home, by dint of one’s own labor, is an incentive to work hard and to advance oneself through the acquisition of marketable skills.

Welfare is a gift that one accepts as a last resort, it is not a right or an entitlement, and it is not bestowed on persons with convenient disabilities.

Sexism (though it isn’t called that) is nothing more than the understanding — shared by men and women — that women are members of a different sex (the only different one); are usually weaker than men; are endowed with different brain chemistry and physical skills than men (still a fact); and enjoy discreet admiration (flirting) if they’re passably good-looking, or better. Women who reject those propositions — and who try to enforce modes of behavior that assume differently — are embittered and twisted.

A mother who devotes time and effort to the making of a good home and the proper rearing of her children is a pillar of civilized society. Her life is to be celebrated, not condemned as “a waste.”

Homosexuality is a rare, aberrant kind of behavior. (And that was before AIDS proved it to be aberrant.) It’s certainly not a “lifestyle” to be celebrated and shoved down the throats of all who object to it.

Privacy is a constrained right. It doesn’t trump moral obligations, among which are the obligations to refrain from spreading a deadly disease and to preserve innocent life.

Addiction isn’t a disease; it’s a surmountable failing.

Justice is for victims. Victims are persons to whom actual harm has been done by way of fraud, theft, bodily harm, murder, and suchlike. A person with a serious disease or handicap isn’t a victim, nor is a person with a drinking or drug problem.

Justice is a dish best served hot, so that would-be criminals can connect the dots between crime and punishment. Swift and sure punishment is the best deterrent of crime. Capital punishment is the ultimate deterrent because an executed killer can’t kill again.

Peace is the result of preparedness for war; lack of preparedness invites war.

The list isn’t exhaustive, but it’s certainly representative. The themes are few and simple: respect others, respect tradition, restrict government to the defense of society from predators foreign and domestic. The result is liberty: A regime of mutually beneficial coexistence based on mutual trust and respect. That’s all it takes — not big government bent on dictating new norms just because it can.

But by pecking away at social norms that underlie mutual trust and respect, “liberals” have sundered the fabric of civilization. There is among Americans the greatest degree of mutual enmity (dressed up as political polarization) since the Civil War.

The mutual enmity isn’t just political. It’s also racial, and it shows up as crime. Heather Mac Donald says “Yes, the Ferguson Effect Is Real,” and Paul Mirengoff shows that “Violent Crime Jumped in 2015.” I got to the root of the problem in “Crime Revisited,” to which I’ve added “Amen to That” and “Double Amen.” What is the root of the problem? A certain, violence-prone racial minority, of course, and also under-incarceration (see “Crime Revisited”).

The Ferguson Effect is a good example of where the slippery slope of free-speech absolutism leads. More examples are found in the violent protests in the wake of Donald Trump’s electoral victory. The right “peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances” has become the right to assemble a mob, disrupt the lives of others, destroy the property of others, injure and kill others, and (usually) suffer no consequences for doing so — if you are a leftist or a member of one of the groups patronized by the left, that is.

THE REVERSE SLIPPERY-SLOPE

But that’s not the end of it. There’s a reverse slippery-slope effect when it comes to ideas opposed by the left. There are, for example, speech codes at government-run universities; hate-crime laws, which effectively punish speech that offends a patronized group; and penalties in some States for opposing same-sex “marriage” (a recent example is documented here).

Justice Kennedy’s egregious majority opinion in Obergefell v.Hodges lays the groundwork for more suppression. This is from Chief Justice Roberts’s dissent (references omitted):

Respect for sincere religious conviction has led voters and legislators in every State that has adopted same-sex marriage democratically to include accommodations for religious practice. The majority’s decision imposing same-sex marriage cannot, of course, create any such accommodations. The majority graciously suggests that religious believers may continue to “advocate” and “teach” their views of marriage. The First Amendment guarantees, however, the freedom to “exercise” religion.Ominously, that is not a word the majority uses.

Hard questions arise when people of faith exercise religion in ways that may be seen to conflict with the new right to same-sex marriage—when, for example, a religious college provides married student housing only to opposite-sex married couples, or a religious adoption agency declines to place children with same-sex married couples. Indeed, the Solicitor General candidly acknowledged that the tax exemptions of some religious institutions would be in question if they opposed same-sex marriage. There is little doubt that these and similar questions will soon be before this Court. Unfortunately, people of faith can take no comfort in the treatment they receive from the majority today.

Perhaps the most discouraging aspect of today’s decision is the extent to which the majority feels compelled to sully those on the other side of the debate. The majority offers a cursory assurance that it does not intend to disparage people who, as a matter of conscience, cannot accept same-sex marriage. That disclaimer is hard to square with the very next sentence, in which the majority explains that “the necessary consequence” of laws codifying the traditional definition of marriage is to “demea[n]or stigmatiz[e]” same-sex couples. The majority reiterates such characterizations over and over. By the majority’s account, Americans who did nothing more than follow the understanding of marriage that has existed for our entire history—in particular, the tens of millions of people who voted to reaffirm their States’ enduring definition of marriage—have acted to “lock . . . out,” “disparage,”“disrespect and subordinate,” and inflict “[d]ignitary wounds” upon their gay and lesbian neighbors. These apparent assaults on the character of fairminded people will have an effect, in society and in court. Moreover, they are entirely gratuitous. It is one thing for the majority to conclude that the Constitution protects a right to same-sex marriage; it is something else to portray everyone who does not share the majority’s “better informed understanding” as bigoted.

Justice Alito, in his dissent, foresees that the majority opinion

will be used to vilify Americans who are unwilling to assent to the new orthodoxy. In the course of its opinion,the majority compares traditional marriage laws to laws that denied equal treatment for African-Americans and women. The implications of this analogy will be exploited by those who are determined to stamp out every vestige of dissent.

Perhaps recognizing how its reasoning may be used, the majority attempts, toward the end of its opinion, to reassure those who oppose same-sex marriage that their rights of conscience will be protected. We will soon see whether this proves to be true. I assume that those who cling to old beliefs will be able to whisper their thoughts in the recesses of their homes, but if they repeat those views in public, they will risk being labeled as bigots and treated as such by governments, employers, and schools.

I expect Roberts and Alito to be proved right unless the election of Donald Trump soon results in a conservative majority on the Court, that is, the replacement of Kennedy or one of his allies in Obergefell v. Hodges.

In sum, there is no longer such a thing as the kind of freedom of speech intended by the Framers of the Constitution. There is on the one hand license for “speech” that subverts and flouts civilizing social norms — the norms that underlie liberty. There is on the other hand a growing tendency to suppress speech that supports civilizing social norms.

A WAR BY ANY OTHER NAME

What I have just described is a key component of the left’s continuing and relentless effort to reshape the world to its liking. Leftists don’t care about the licentious consequences of free-speech absolutism because they’re insulated from those consequences (or so they believe). Their motto should be “I’m all right, Jack.”

But leftists do care about making government big and all-powerful, so that it can enact the programs and policies they favor. To that end, leftists seek to suppress political dissent and to subvert voluntary cooperative behavior, which is found not only in evolved social norms but also in free markets. The people must be brought to heel at the command of big brother, who knows best.

It is war, in other words, and more than a culture war. It’s a war between the enemies of liberty and those who want liberty, not license. The problem is that too many of those who want liberty don’t know that there is a war. For one thing, those who want liberty aren’t necessarily self-described libertarians; rather, they’re traditional conservatives (Burkean libertarians) who, by nature, are attuned to beneficial cooperation, not ideological conflict. For another thing, many of those who want liberty have been brainwashed into believing that leftists also want liberty but are misguided about how to attain it.

It may be too late to pull victory from the jaws of defeat. But while there is still freedom to challenge the enemies of liberty there is still hope for the restoration of constitutional governance.

I would return to first principles. The United States was reconstituted in 1788 when the Constitution was ratified. As stated in the preamble to the Constitution, one of the purposes for reconstituting the nation was to “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”

Why, then, should the government of the United States tolerate the promulgation of anti-libertarian views? It is evident that in practice the free-speech slippery slope really leads away from liberty not toward it. I’m referring not just to riotous, licentious behavior that flouts civilizing norms and undermines them. I’m also referring to something much deeper and more subversive than that: the toleration of speech that has turned the Constitution on its head by converting the central government from a miserly, non-interfering night watchman to a partisan, micro-managing nanny with deep pockets into which almost everyone is allowed to dip.

This means, at a minimum, and end to free-speech absolutism, which has become a license for two-percent tyranny and the destruction of civilizing social norms. It also means taking a hard line with respect to advocates of big, intrusive government. It will be a cold day in hell before there is a president and a Congress and a Supreme Court who consistently and concertedly take a hard line — and carry it into action. Donald Trump is preferable to Hillary Clinton, but he is a far cry from Ronald Reagan, let alone Calvin Coolidge (my favorite president). The Republican majorities in Congress are infested with special pleaders who will log-roll until the cows come home. The Supreme Court will continue to be the Kennedy Court until Trump is able to replace Kennedy or one of the leftists with whom he allies increasingly often — assuming that Trump will stay true to his word about the conservative character of his nominees.

In sum, there’s no prospect of quick or certain victory in the war to restore constitutional governance to Washington and liberty to the land.

THE LONG WAR AHEAD

Conservatives must be prepared for and committed to a long war, with the aim of changing the character of the institutions that — in addition to family — hold the most sway over the minds of future leaders and the voters who will select those leaders: public schools, universities, and the media.

The long war will be a war to transform fundamentally the prevailing ethos of a nation that has sunk gradually into decadence and despotism. (Barack Obama’s “fundamental transformation” was nothing more than the proverbial frosting on the proverbial cake.) How does one even begin to wage such a war?

I would begin by following a key maxim of war-fighting: concentration of force. Roll up one enemy unit at a time instead of attacking on a broad front. As each enemy unit falls, the rest become relatively weaker by having fewer friendly units to call on for support.

Imagine, for example, a conservative takeover of several major universities,* which might be abetted by a concentrated campaign by conservative trustees with the support of friendly forces within the universities, and a few sympathetic media outlets, all backed by a loud and sustained chorus of supportive reporting, commentary, and outright propaganda emanating from the blogosphere. University administrators, as we have seen, are especially sensitive to changes in the prevailing direction of opinion, especially if that opinion is fomented within universities. Thus, if one major university were to move sharply in a conservative direction, it would take less effort to move a second one, even less effort to move a third one, and so on.

With universities falling into line, it would be a fairly simple task to remake the face of public education. It is universities, after all, which are mainly responsible for the left-wing indoctrination that most public-school teachers and administrators have been spreading throughout most of the land for many decades. It wouldn’t take a generation for the new, conservative disposition to spread. It would spread almost like wildfire for the same reasons that it would spread rapidly among universities: the desire to be “on the right side of history,” no matter what side it is. It would become more or less permanent, however, as new waves of students leave the universities that have converted to conservatism and begin to spread its gospel in public schools.

The conversion of the media would proceed in parallel with the conversion of public schools. It would be a self-inflicted conversion, born of the desire to please an audience that is becoming more and more conservative. The act of pleasing that audience would, in turn, result in the dissemination of stories with a conservative slant, which would help to speed the conversion of the as-yet unconverted members of the audience.

As for how to arrange a conservative takeover of a major university, I would begin with those few that have shown themselves ripe for conversion. Perhaps it’s one of the 27 universities that is a rated a “green-light institution” by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). The University of Chicago is a recent and prominent addition to that list.

Wherever the campaign begins, it should begin with a university whose trustees, sources of income, faculty, and current ideological balance make it ready to be pushed into the ranks of conservative institutions. Perhaps it would be a matter of electing a few more conservative trustees, with the help of a major donation from a conservative source. Perhaps a key department could be moved to the conservative side of the ledger by the hiring of a few faculty members. Perhaps the university needs only a slight push to become a leader in the refutation of speech codes, “safe spaces,” “trigger warnings,” and in the open embrace of conservative speakers and movements.

The devil is in the details, and I’m not conversant enough with the state of any university to suggest how or where to begin the campaign. But begin it must — and soon, before it’s too late to reverse the incoming tide of leftist regimentation of all aspects of our lives.
__________
* A takeover is better than a startup. A takeover not only means that there’s one less “enemy” to fight, but it also means that some “enemy” forces have been converted to friendly ones, which sets a precedent for more takeovers. Fox News Channel is a case in point. Its creation didn’t reduce the number of left-wing outlets. And the growth of FNC’s market share at the expense of left-wing outlets (mainly CNN) merely tapped into a ready market for a somewhat conservative outlet; it didn’t create that market. Further, FNC isn’t “serious” in the way that a university is, and so its slant is more easily dismissed as propaganda than would be the emanations from a major university.

Social Justice vs. Liberty

The original position is a central feature of John Rawls’s social contract account of justice, “justice as fairness,” set forth in A Theory of Justice (TJ). It is designed to be a fair and impartial point of view that is to be adopted in our reasoning about fundamental principles of justice. In taking up this point of view, we are to imagine ourselves in the position of free and equal persons who jointly agree upon and commit themselves to principles of social and political justice. The main distinguishing feature of the original position is “the veil of ignorance”: to insure impartiality of judgment, the parties are deprived of all knowledge of their personal characteristics and social and historical circumstances. They do know of certain fundamental interests they all have, plus general facts about psychology, economics, biology, and other social and natural sciences. The parties in the original position are presented with a list of the main conceptions of justice drawn from the tradition of social and political philosophy, and are assigned the task of choosing from among these alternatives the conception of justice that best advances their interests in establishing conditions that enable them to effectively pursue their final ends and fundamental interests. Rawls contends that the most rational choice for the parties in the original position are two principles of justice: The first guarantees the equal basic rights and liberties needed to secure the fundamental interests of free and equal citizens and to pursue a wide range of conceptions of the good. The second principle provides fair equality of educational and employment opportunities enabling all to fairly compete for powers and positions of office; and it secures for all a guaranteed minimum of all-purpose means (including income and wealth) individuals need to pursue their interests and to maintain their self-respect as free and equal persons.

Samuel Freeman, “Original Position,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,
February 27, 1999, with a substantive revision on September 9, 2014

Rawls, like many moral philosophers, presumes to judge all and sundry with his God-like mind. He uses it to fabricate abstract, ideal principles of distributive justice. Thus the real and possible world is found wanting because it fails to conform the the kind of world that’s implicit in Rawls’s principles. And thus the real and possible world must be brought into line with Rawls’s false ideal. The alignment must be performed by the state, whether or not Rawls admits it, because his principles are inconsistent with human nature and the facts of human existence.

There can’t be an original position. Human beings are already in myriad “positions,” of which they have extensive knowledge. And a large fraction of human beings wouldn’t willingly act as if they were “deprived of all knowledge of their personal characteristics and social and historical circumstances.” Why? because they wouldn’t deem it in their interest. The original position and the veil of ignorance are therefore nothing but contrivances aimed at justifying Rawls’s preferred social, political, and economic arrangements.

Further, there isn’t — and never will be — agreement as to “general facts about psychology, economics, biology, and other social and natural sciences.” For example, many of the related entries in this blog are representative of deep divisions between respectable schools of thought about such subjects as psychology, economics, evolution (as it applies to race and “natural rights”), criminology, etc. Rawls writes blithely of “general facts” because he assumes that they point to the kind of world that he envisions.

Similarly, there’s Rawls’s “list of the main conceptions of justice drawn from the tradition of social and political philosophy.” I doubt that Rawls is thinking of the conception that there is, or ought to be, an absolute rejection of any kind of social-welfare function wherein A’s gain is “acceptable” if it (somehow and by some impracticable measure) offsets B’s loss. But that position is implicit in the idea that there ought to be “a guaranteed minimum of all-purpose means (including income and wealth) individuals need to pursue their interests and to maintain their self-respect as free and equal persons.” This is nothing but cover for redistribution. Who decides how much of it is enough? Rawls? The social engineers who buy into Rawls’s conception of justice? Well, of course. But what justifies their stance? Their only real recourse is to impose their views by force, which reveals Rawls’s philosophical rationalization for what is, necessarily, a state-enforced redistributive scheme.

And who says that a person who accepts state-enforced handouts (the fruit of theft) will thereby maintain his self-respect and is a free and equal person. In fact, many recipients of state-imposed handouts are lacking in self-respect; they are not free because as wards of the state they subject themselves to its dictates; and they are equal only in an irrelevant, rhetorical sense, not in the sense that they are the equal of other persons in ability, effort, or moral character.

Rawlsian equality is an empty concept, as is the veil of ignorance. The latter is a variant of Kant’s categorical imperative: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.” The categorical imperative is a vacuous bit of philosophical rhetoric that doesn’t get around reality: Human beings often act as if there were a “law” for everyone else, but not for themselves.

The “veil of ignorance,” according to Wikipedia (as of July 2010) requires you to

imagine that societal roles were completely re-fashioned and redistributed, and that from behind your veil of ignorance you do not know what role you will be reassigned. Only then can you truly consider the morality of an issue.

This is just another way of pretending to omniscience. Try as you might to imagine your “self” away, you can’t do it. Your position about a moral issue is your position, not that of someone else. Rawls’s position is Rawls’s position, and that of persons who like the redistributive implications of his position. But who are Rawls and his ilk to set themselves up as neutral, omniscient judges of humanity’s moral, social, and economic arrangements? Who died and made them Gods?

In the end, justice comes down to the norms by which a people abide:  They can be voluntarily evolved and enforced socially, or in part by the state (e.g., imprisonment and execution). They can devised by clever theorists (e.g., Rawls) and others with an agenda (e.g., redistribution of income and wealth, abolition of alcohol, defense of slavery), and then imposed by the state.

There is a neglected alternative, which Michael Oakeshott describes in Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays:

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.

Such was the wisdom of the much-violated and mutilated Constitution of the United States. Its promise of liberty in the real world has been dashed by the Saviours of Society — idealists like Rawls, opportunists like FDR and LBJ, and criminals like the Clintons.

*      *      *

Related posts:
Greed, Cosmic Justice, and Social Welfare
Positive Rights and Cosmic Justice
What Is Conservatism?
Utilitarianism, “Liberalism,” and Omniscience
Utilitarianism vs. Liberty
Accountants of the Soul
Rawls Meets Bentham
The Meaning of Liberty
Positive Liberty vs. Liberty
On Self-Ownership and Desert
Burkean Libertarianism
Nature Is Unfair
Human Nature, Liberty, and Rationalism
Utilitarianism and Psychopathy
Merit Goods, Positive Rights, and Cosmic Justice
More about Merit Goods
Liberty, Negative Rights, and Bleeding Hearts
Why Conservatism Works
Defending Liberty against (Pseudo) Libertarians
Defining Liberty
Conservatism as Right-Minarchism
Getting Liberty Wrong
Romanticizing the State
More About Social Norms and Liberty
God-Like Minds
The Authoritarianism of Modern Liberalism, and the Conservative Antidote
Individualism, Society, and Liberty
Utilitarianism vs. Liberty (II)

An Addendum to Asymmetrical (Ideological) Warfare

I published “Asymmetrical (Ideological) Warfare” almost six years ago. I must say that it holds up well. In fact, I wouldn’t change a word of it. It’s fairly long, and I won’t try to summarize or excerpt it, except to repeat the opening sentence:

This post could be subtitled: “Or, why the left — Democrats and so-called liberals and progressives — enjoy a rhetorical advantage over libertarians and fiscal conservatives.”

In a few words: Leftists have the advantage of saying the kinds of things that people like to hear, especially when it comes to promising “free” stuff and visions of social perfection. There’s a lot more to it than that. Please read the whole thing.

What I didn’t say then, but will say now is that leftists have another advantage: they’re ruthless. Unlike true conservatives (not Trumpsters) and most libertarians, leftists can be ruthless, unto vicious. They pull no punches; they call people names; they skirt the law — and violate it — to get what they want (e.g., Obama’s various “executive actions”); they use the law and the media to go after their ideological opponents; and on and on.

Why the difference between leftists and true conservatives? Leftists want to rearrange the world to fit their idea of perfection. They have it all figured out, and dissent from the master plan will not be tolerated. (This is very Hitleresque and Stalinesque.) Conservatives and libertarians want people to figure out for themselves how to arrange the world within the roomy confines of simple morality (don’t cheat, don’t steal, don’t murder, etc.).

If Trump wins in November — a very big “if” — it should be an object lesson to true conservatives and libertarians. Take the gloves off and don brass knuckles. This isn’t a contest for hockey’s Lady Byng Trophy. To change the sports metaphor, we’re in the late rounds of a brutal fight, and well behind on points. It’s time to go for the knockout.

Another Look at Political Labels

Arnold Klng’s three-axis model is a good place to start:

My model of political language is that it is driven by heuristics. The standard definition of a heuristic is that it is an aid to learning or problem-solving. I think of heuristics as mental shortcuts.…

…I claim that progressives, conservatives, and libertarians each use a different heuristic. Because they use different heuristics, they speak different languages.Each heuristic sets up an axis of favorable and unfavorable. Ps [progressives] use the heuristic of the oppressed-oppressor axis. Ps view most favorably those groups who can be regarded as oppressed or standing with the oppressed. They view most unfavorably those groups who can be regarded as oppressors. Cs [conservatives] use the heuristic of the civilization-barbarism axis. Cs view most favorably the institutions that they believe constrain and guide people toward civilized behavior, and they view most unfavorably those people who they see as trying to tear down such institutions. Ls [libertarians] use the heuristic of the freedom-coercion axis. Ls view most favorably those who defer to decisions that are made on the basis of personal choice and voluntary agreement, and they view most unfavorably those people who favor government interventions that restrict personal choice.

For the sake of grammatical consistency and accuracy, I would use characterize the three axes as follows:

  • Ps — privileged-underprivileged
  • Cs — civilized-barbaric
  • Ls — free-oppressed.

How Ps Think

Privilege, for Ps, implies that the possessors of certain positive attributes (high intelligence, good looks, high income, access to political power) have come by those things undeservedly, and even at the expense of those who lack them: the underprivileged. Ps believe implicitly in a state of nature wherein everyone would have equal endowments of intelligence, looks, etc., if only it weren’t for “bad luck.” Ps believe it necessary to use the power of government to alleviate (if not eliminate) unequal endowments and to elevate the “victims” of inequality.

As Kling puts it elsewhere, “Progressives tend to believe that we just need the right leaders to bring out the good that is in everyone,” as if nature were subject to the dictates of government. Thus the push for the “living wage,” “affordable housing,” “free” college education, access to the restroom of one’s choice, and the suppression of uncomfortable ideas that reflect traditional mores and morals — and the facts of life (e.g., gender isn’t “assigned,” it just is). The realization of such desiderata justifies (for Ps) the power of government to nullify and override constitutional and social norms, including property rights, freedom of speech, freedom of association, and freedom of conscience.

How Cs Think

Cs don’t view endowments (intelligence, looks, etc.) as matters of luck; they just are, and no blame attaches to anyone for his endowments or lack of them. Cs recognize “bad luck,” but only as a transitory phenomenon from which its recipients can rebound — with the voluntary help of family, friends, and other members of their (true) society — if they adhere to traditional mores and morals, that is, behave civilly.

Civility is manifested in three essential traits: respect for others (including their rightful possessions), self-reliance, and self-control. As Kling puts it elsewhere, “Conservatives tend to believe that we need traditional institutions and restraints to control the evil impulses that are in everyone.” Cs  view economic cooperation as part and parcel of social comity, which requires civility and is damaged by the divisive identity politics fostered by Ps.

Privilege, for Cs, is the status or wealth that accrues to a person who has earned it through self-reliance and self-control, while being respectful of others. That kind of privilege is earned, and it doesn’t come at the expense of others. Cs, unlike Ps, don’t view the world as a zero-sum game, in which someone’s “good luck” somehow causes “bad luck” for others. Rather, Cs view persistent “bad luck” as arising in large part from a lack of self-reliance and self-control. Such behavior, to Cs, is barbaric and shouldn’t be countenanced, let alone encouraged as it is by the unrealistic worldview of Ps.

How Ls Think

Ls are like Cs in the value that they place on respect for others, self-reliance, and self-control. But Ls are more sanguine than Cs about the distribution of those traits, and they see traditional mores and morals as unnecessarily burdensome. Ls believe that the world would be a more prosperous and happier place if people were free of the governmental restraints that deny them the full exercise of their powers. As Kling puts it elsewhere, “Libertarians tend to believe that we just need smaller government to bring out the good that is in everyone.”

Ls and Ps Compared

Most Ls and Ps adhere to traditional mores and morals themselves, but nevertheless view some of those mores and morals as oppressive. Thus abortion and same-sex “marriage” are widely favored among Ls and Ps, and drug use one of their “victimless” crimes.

Most Ls, unlike Ps, would refrain from using the power of government to adjust economic inequalities, except to remedy “crony capitalism” and perhaps to replace a host of welfare programs with a simpler income guarantee. Many Ls also favor government actions meant to attain “equality” (e.g., public-accommodation laws), even though such actions actually restrict freedom.

Ls, in other words, are selective in their abhorrence of government action. And Ls are like Ps in that they presume to know precisely how to rearrange the social and economic order to make everyone happier.

Introducing Os

Ps, Cs, and Ls — persons who actually have the somewhat coherent views sketched above — are in the vast minority of Americans. To the extent that the views of Ps, Cs, or Ls hold sway, it is because of the backing of non-philosophical citizens whose votes and influence tip the balance in favor of one philosophy or another. I will call them Others (Os).

Why Ps Usually Prevail

Ps have a great advantage over Cs and Ls when it comes to attracting supporters among the Os. There are all of the “free” goodies, of course, and the various “equality” policies that attract identity groups and people whose self-esteem is boosted by thinking and saying “nice” things.

The economic and social effects of the progressive agenda are only indirectly and slowly realized through stagnation and moral decay, and so Ps need not fear the wrath of voters for the consequences of their policies. In fact, every dire consequence of government action (e.g., economic stagnation, reduced labor-force participation, rising medical costs, higher housing costs, financial crises) is seen by Ps as a reason for yet more government action — and most of the Os go along with it.

Cs also have the disadvantage of being associated with groups who hate the groups that are privileged by Ps. The backing of such groups (e.g., “rednecks”) puts Cs on the defensive, and leads many of them to compromise with Ps in the (vain) hope of seeming “compassionate.” Calvin Coolidge was the most recent truly conservative president, and probably the last one.

Ls are just Ps who don’t offer “free” goodies. (The Ls who favor a guaranteed income are clear that it should replace other welfare programs, and despite that come under fire from other Ls — which is most of them — for their naive belief that guaranteed income wouldn’t be added to the other programs.) Further, when Ls insist that government should be smaller, they are attacking the god (or Santa Claus) so beloved by Ps and most Os. Ls, in other words, don’t stand a snowball’s chance of making a serious electoral dent.

*     *     *

Related posts:
Academic Bias
Intellectuals and Capitalism
On Liberty
Greed, Cosmic Justice, and Social Welfare
Positive Rights and Cosmic Justice
Fascism with a “Friendly” Face
Penalizing “Thought Crimes”
Democracy and Liberty
The Interest-Group Paradox
Parsing Political Philosophy
Inventing “Liberalism”
Civil Society and Homosexual “Marriage”
What Is Conservatism?
Utilitarianism, “Liberalism,” and Omniscience
Utilitarianism vs. Liberty
Fascism and the Future of America
The Indivisibility of Economic and Social Liberty
Negative Rights
Negative Rights, Social Norms, and the Constitution
Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and the Legitimate State
The Near-Victory of Communism
Tocqueville’s Prescience
Accountants of the Soul
Rawls Meets Bentham
The Left
Asymmetrical (Ideological) Warfare
Our Enemy, the State
Pseudo-Libertarian Sophistry vs. True Libertarianism
Positivism, “Natural Rights,” and Libertarianism
“Intellectuals and Society”: A Review
The Golden Rule and the State
The Left’s Agenda
More Pseudo-Libertarianism
More about Conservative Governance
The Meaning of Liberty
Positive Liberty vs. Liberty
The Left and Its Delusions
The Golden Rule as Beneficial Learning
Facets of Liberty
Burkean Libertarianism
Rights: Source, Applicability, How Held
What Is Libertarianism?
Nature Is Unfair
True Libertarianism, One More Time
Human Nature, Liberty, and Rationalism
Utilitarianism and Psychopathy
The Spoiled Children of Capitalism
Politics, Sophistry, and the Academy
Subsidizing the Enemies of Liberty
Merit Goods, Positive Rights, and Cosmic Justice
More about Merit Goods
Why Conservatism Works
Liberty and Society
The Eclipse of “Old America”
Genetic Kinship and Society
Liberty as a Social Construct: Moral Relativism?
Defending Liberty against (Pseudo) Libertarians
Defining Liberty
Conservatism as Right-Minarchism
The Culture War
The Pseudo-Libertarian Temperament
Parsing Political Philosophy (II)
Modern Liberalism as Wishful Thinking
Getting Liberty Wrong
Romanticizing the State
Governmental Perversity
Libertarianism and the State
“Liberalism” and Personal Responsibility
Ruminations on the Left in America
My View of Libertarianism
No Wonder Liberty Is Disappearing
Academic Ignorance
More About Social Norms and Liberty
The Euphemism Conquers All
Superiority
The War on Conservatism
Whiners
A Dose of Reality
God-Like Minds
The Authoritarianism of Modern Liberalism, and the Conservative Antidote
The Technocratic Illusion
Winners and Losers
Equal Protection in Principle and Practice
Society, Polarization, and Dissent

Friedman on Anarchy and Conservatism

Friedman is David D. Friedman, proprietor of Ideas and author of (among many things) The Machinery of Freedom, which is mainly a sustained argument for anarcho-capitalism. As Friedman explains in the preface,

[t]he first edition of this book was written a little over forty years ago, the second about twenty years later. In this third edition, as in the second, I have chosen to leave the original material for the most part unchanged; references in parts I-III are to the world c. 1970, in part IV to the world c. 1988….

What I have added in this edition, aside from minor stylistic changes … is in parts V and VI. Part V contains later, I hope deeper, thoughts on my earlier ideas, part VI new material.

Friedman’s attachment to anarcho-capitalism has held for almost 50 years. That’s a remarkable record of intellectual consistency. Whether it signifies the soundness of anarcho-capitalism or merely world-class stubbornness is another matter. (In the past 50 years, my own views have evolved from collegiate “liberalism” to limited-government libertarianism to Burkean conservatism.)

Before I go further, I will say that I admire and agree with Friedman’s lucid treatment of free markets and their advantages vis-à-vis government regulations and government-provided services. But I disagree with Friedman’s view that private entities can replace government when it comes to criminal justice. I also disagree with Friedman’s characterization of conservatives as stubbornly opposed to change.

I must note, also, that Friedman’s main style of argumentation in The Machinery of Freedom is to pile assertion upon assumption, and to do so at such length and in such temperate language that the unwary or receptive reader may be lulled into agreement. The Machinery of Freedom is a long book (378 pages in paperback), so I will only offer a few examples of Friedman’s style — examples that I consider representative. The first example is drawn from chapter 29, “Police, Courts, and Laws — on the Market,” in which Friedman argues for private protection and adjudication agencies. He begins reasonably enough:

How, without government, could we settle the disputes that are now settled in courts of law? How could we protect ourselves from criminals?

Consider first the easiest case, the resolution of disputes involving contracts between well-established firms. A large fraction of such disputes are now settled not by government courts but by private arbitration of the sort described in Chapter 18. The firms, when they draw up a contract, specify a procedure for arbitrating any dispute that may arise. Thus they avoid the expense and delay of the courts.

The arbitrator has no police force. His function is to render decisions, not to enforce them. Currently, arbitrated decisions are usually enforceable in the government courts, but that is a recent development; historically, enforcement came from a firm’s desire to maintain its reputation. After refusing to accept an arbitrator’s judgment, it is hard to persuade anyone else to sign a contract that specifies arbitration; no one wants to play a game of ‘heads you win, tails I lose’.

Arbitration arrangements are already widespread. As the courts continue to deteriorate, arbitration will continue to grow. But it only provides for the resolution of disputes over pre-existing contracts. Arbitration, by itself, provides no solution for the man whose car is dented by a careless driver, still less for the victim of theft; in both cases the plaintiff and defendant, having different interests and no prior agreement, are unlikely to find a mutually satisfactory arbitrator. Indeed, the defendant has no reason to accept any arbitration at all; he can only lose—which brings us to the problem of preventing coercion.

Friedman then explains market-based solutions to the problem of preventing coercion. What follows, until I signal a new topic, are excerpts of his discussion with my commentary (underlined in brackets):

Protection from coercion is an economic good. It is presently sold in a variety of forms—Brinks guards, locks, burglar alarms. As the effectiveness of government police declines [this seems to be an assumption disguised as a fact-based assertion], these market substitutes for the police, like market substitutes for the courts, become more popular [or they could become more popular as supplements to government policing, which is limited by the amount that governments are able to extract from taxpayers].

Suppose, then, that at some future time there are no government police but instead private right enforcement agencies. [Realistically, there would be no government police — or unregulated private police — only if government itself were to disappear. I view that as an impossible event.] These agencies sell the service of protecting their clients against crime. Perhaps they also guarantee performance by insuring their clients against losses resulting from criminal acts. [How would private agencies differentiate themselves from gangsters who sell “protection”? This is an issue of trust that seldom arises with government police (or only among a small fraction of the populace), and an important reason for the retention of government police.]….

[Private agencies] would be selling a service to their customers and would have a strong incentive to provide as high a quality of service as possible at the lowest possible cost. It is reasonable to suppose that the quality of service would be higher and the cost lower than with the present governmental protective system. [Whether the cost would be lower depends to some extent on the scale of private agencies relative to the government ones they would replace. It’s premature to make assertions about quality of service before addressing the problem of inter-agency conflict.]

Inevitably, conflicts would arise between one agency and another. How might they be resolved?

I come home one night and find my television set missing. I immediately call my agency, Tannahelp Inc., to report the theft. They send an agent. He checks the automatic camera which Tannahelp, as part of their service, installed in my living room and discovers a picture of one Joe Bock lugging the television set out the door. [The security camera is a nice touch, but it strongly suggests that Tannahelp is providing a supplemental service, not merely supplanting government police. A lot of people can’t afford supplemental police services. Who do they turn to if there are no government police?] The Tannahelp agent contacts Joe, informs him that Tannahelp has reason to believe he is in possession of my television set, and suggests he return it, along with an extra ten dollars to pay for Tannahelp’s time and trouble in locating Joe. Joe replies that he has never seen my television set in his life and tells the Tannahelp agent to go to hell.

The agent points out that until Tannahelp is convinced there has been a mistake, he must proceed on the assumption that the television set is my property. Six Tannahelp employees, all large and energetic, will be at Joe’s door next morning to collect the set. Joe, in response, informs the agent that he also has a rights enforcement agency, Dawn Defense, and that his contract with them undoubtedly requires them to protect him if six goons try to break into his house and steal his television set.

The stage seems set for a nice little war between Tannahelp and Dawn Defense. It is precisely such a possibility that has led some libertarians who are not anarchists, most notably Ayn Rand, to reject the possibility of competing free-market rights enforcement agencies.

But wars are very expensive and Tannahelp and Dawn Defense are both profit-making corporations, more interested in saving money than face. I think the rest of the story would be less violent than Miss Rand supposed. [Maybe, maybe not. It’s just as likely that the most successful agency, and the eventual monopolist in a geopolitical area, will be the one that’s most aggressive, and which can afford to be aggressive because it numbers wealthy people among its clientele.]

The Tannahelp agent calls up his opposite number at Dawn Defense. ‘We’ve got a problem. . . .’ After explaining the situation, he points out that if Tannahelp sends six men and Dawn eight, there will be a fight. Someone might even get hurt. Whoever wins, by the time the conflict is over it will be expensive for both sides. They might even have to start paying their employees higher wages to make up for the risk. Then both firms will be forced to raise their rates. If they do, Murbard Ltd., an aggressive new firm which has been trying to get established in the area, will undercut their prices and steal their customers. [How convenient.] There must be a better solution.

The man from Tannahelp suggests that the better solution is arbitration. They will take the dispute over my television set to a reputable local arbitration firm. If the arbitrator decides that Joe is innocent, Tannahelp agrees to pay Joe and Dawn Defense an indemnity to make up for their time and trouble. If he is found guilty, Dawn Defense will accept the verdict; since the television set is not Joe’s, they have no obligation to protect him when the men from Tannahelp come to seize it. [An aggresssive agency of the kind that I posit above is also likely to have a monopoly on arbitration services — either overtly or through sub rosa relationships.]

What I have described is a very makeshift arrangement. In practice, once anarcho-capitalist institutions were well established [but how do we get from here to there?], agencies would anticipate such difficulties and arrange contracts in advance, before specific conflicts occurred, specifying the arbitrator who would settle them.

In such an anarchist society, who would make the laws? On what basis would the private arbitrator decide what acts were criminal and what their punishments should be? The answer is that systems of law would be produced for profit on the open market, just as books and bras are produced today. There could be competition among different brands of law just as there is competition among different brands of cars.

In such a society there might be many courts and even many legal systems. Each pair of protection agencies agree in advance on which court they will use in case of conflict. Thus the laws under which a particular case is decided are determined implicitly by advance agreement between the agencies whose customers are involved. In principle, there could be a different court and a different set of laws for every pair of agencies. In practice, many agencies would probably find it convenient to patronize the same courts, and many courts might find it convenient to adopt identical, or nearly identical, systems of law in order to simplify matters for their customers. Before labeling a society in which different people are under different laws chaotic and unjust, remember that in our society the law under which you are judged depends on the country, state, and even city in which you happen to be. Under the arrangements I am describing, it depends instead on your agency and the agency of the person you accuse of a crime or who accuses you of a crime. In such a society law is produced on the market. A court supports itself by charging for the service of arbitrating disputes. Its success depends on its reputation for honesty, reliability, and promptness and on the desirability to potential customers of the particular set of laws it judges by. [No, its success depends on selling its services to the highest bidders, who will be willing to pay for partial “justice” — as opposed to the impartial kind that criminal courts in the U.S. usually dispense.]….

Several objections may be raised to … free-market courts. The first is that they would sell justice by deciding in favor of the highest bidder. That would be suicidal; unless they maintained a reputation for honesty, they would have no customers— unlike our present judges. [This assertion conveniently disregards the strong possibility of a monopoly acquired through force and bribery. The stakes are such that war-like competition for the top-dog position, as costly as it is, can’t be ruled out. See, for example, the history of the Chicago Outfit and rivals in the days when government police were relatively ineffective.]….

Until he is actually accused of a crime, everyone wants laws that protect him from crime and let him interact peacefully and productively with others. Even criminals. Not many murderers would wish to live under laws that permitted them to kill— and be killed. [Everyone? Surely not. There are large numbers of persons, especially among the least rational and most dangerous segment of the populace, who simply don’t think like economists. And even among rational persons of means, there are many who believe that they have the wherewithal to defend themselves while getting away with murder and other anti-social acts.]

I turn now to chapter 63, “The Conservative Mistake.” This is less an apology for anarchy than it is a defense of open borders and an indictment of those who resist change. I take it up because it further illustrates Friedman’s penchant for making broad, unsupported, and (sometimes) off-target assertions — in this case about conservatism.

Critics of free immigration worry that immigrants might change the country, make it more socialist, more crime ridden, more like the places they are coming from, but offer no strong reason to expect those particular effects. Leaving the place where you grew up to move somewhere very different is, after all, evidence that you prefer the latter. [But “you” prefer the latter for particular reasons. Among those reasons is the knowledge that the new country offers a rather cushy “safety net” relative to that of the old country.] As I pointed out in one exchange, the Volokh brothers, associated with the popular libertarian/conservative legal blog the Volokh Conspiracy, are immigrants from the ex-Soviet Union. While Eugene and Sasha Volokh are slightly more socialist than I am, they are much less socialist than most of their fellow academics, not entirely surprising given that they have experienced socialism at first hand. [They are also unrepresentative of the vast numbers of immigrants who pour into the country from the south, and whose presence predictably results in higher taxes and lower wages for the many citizens who don’t reap the benefits of immigration.]

The same assumption, that change is presumptively bad, appears in arguments over global warming. [That change, in the form of unfettered immigration, will impose costs on citizens is a reasonable position for many citizens to take. Friedman glibly lumps opposition to that kind of change with the religious fervor which accompanies opposition to and fears of global warming, genetically modified foods, and fracking. The opening sentence spoils this otherwise trenchant paragraph.] It seems likely that the average temperature of the globe will go up by several degrees C over the next hundred years due mostly to increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. If I had to guess, my guess would be that the net effect of the change will be positive, for at least two reasons. The first is that human habitability is limited mostly by cold, not heat— the equator is populated, the poles are not. The second is that, for well understood reasons, global warming can be expected to increase temperatures more in cold places and at cold times than in warm. Combine those two and one might guess that a somewhat warmer world would be, on the whole, more suited to humans, not less. Yet most people discussing the issue take it for granted that the change is bad, indeed catastrophically bad. A similar pattern holds for a variety of other issues, from fracking to cloning to GMO foods.

I call it a mistake, but perhaps that is unfair. We know that the present is at least tolerable, since we are at present tolerating it. [Who is “we”? And what does it mean to “tolerate” something. I can “tolerate” a toothache, but for only as long as it takes to have the tooth treated or extracted.] A change might make things better, might make them worse, so why chance it? That sounds like a plausible argument, but it contains a hidden assumption— that stasis is an option, that if we do not have more immigration our cultural and political circumstances will remain the same, that without anthropogenic CO2, climate will stay what it currently is. [In the case of immigration, Friedman again resorts to an inappropriate collective view. There are many citizens whose lives are made worse because of immigration, even as there are many citizens who benefit from the availability of low-wage labor in yard maintenance, child care, and fast-food service.]

Both are demonstrably false. Over my lifetime the cultural and political institutions of the U.S. have changed for reasons that had little to do with immigration. [Immigration, however, imposes changes over and above those that would occur through the evolution of social norms in a more homogeneous polity.] Over the past million years, the climate of the earth has changed radically time after time for reasons that had nothing to do with anthropogenic CO2. A rise in sea level of a foot or two would create problems in some parts of the world, but not problems comparable to the effect of half a mile of ice over the present locations of Chicago and London.

The left wing version of the conservative mistake comes with its own pseudoscientific slogan, ‘the precautionary principle.’ It is the rule that no decision should be made unless one can be confident that it will not have substantial bad effects, that the lack of a reason to expect it have such effects is not enough. It sounds plausible, merely a matter of playing safe, but a moment’s thought should convince you that it is not merely wrong, it is internally incoherent. The decision to permit nuclear power could have substantial bad effects. The decision not to permit nuclear power could also have substantial bad effects. If one takes the precautionary principle seriously, one is obligated to neither permit nor forbid nuclear power and similarly with many other choices, including acting or not acting to prevent global warming.

Continuing with that example, I have long argued, only partly in jest, that the precautionary principle is a major source of global warming. Nuclear power is the one source of power that does not produce CO2 and can be expanded more or less without limit. A major factor restricting the growth of nuclear power has been the precautionary principle, even if not always under that name— hostility to permitting reactors to be built as long as there is any chance that anything could go wrong. That example demonstrates my more general point: Stasis is not an option. The world is going to change whether or not we permit nuclear power and there is no a priori reason to expect the changes if we permit it to be worse than those if we do not.

I am not arguing that there is never a good reason to fear change; sometimes a change can be reasonably predicted to have bad consequences. I am arguing that much opposition to change, across a wide range of different topics and disputes, is based on the mistaken assumption that if only that particular change is prevented, the next year, the next decade, the next century, will be more or less the same as the present. [Not so. Principled conservatives — and there are still a lot of us — understand and accept the beneficial role of evolutionary change, unforced by government policy.]

That is very unlikely. [No kidding!]

It’s not that I disagree with Friedman’s disdain for government, which is far, far more intrusive than is economically and socially healthy. But Friedman, whose high intelligence is beyond doubt, puts that intelligence to bad use in his biased argument for an unattainable nirvana and mistaken characterization of conservatism.

America’s Political Profile

This is a long post, contrary to my new blogging style, but much of it is quoted material.

REVISED 03/26/16 to incorporate the 9-question survey from Arnold Kling’s book, The Three Languages of Politics. The item linked in the earlier version of this post was an older, 10-question version of the survey, which doesn’t match the scoring key in Kling’s book that’s reproduced here.

Here is the estimable Arnold Kling, writing in The Three Languages of Politics:

I claim that progressives [Ps*], conservatives [Cs], and libertarians [Ls] each use a different heuristic. Because they use different heuristics, they speak different languages.

Each heuristic sets up an axis of favorable and unfavorable. Ps use the heuristic of the oppressed-oppressor axis. Ps view most favorably those groups who can be regarded as oppressed or standing with the oppressed. They view most unfavorably those groups who can be regarded as oppressors. Cs use the heuristic of the civilization-barbarism axis. Cs view most favorably the institutions that they believe constrain and guide people toward civilized behavior, and they view most unfavorably those people who they see as trying to tear down such institutions. Ls use the heuristic of the freedom-coercion axis. Ls view most favorably those who defer to decisions that are made on the basis of personal choice and voluntary agreement, and they view most unfavorably those people who favor government interventions that restrict personal choice.

I find a lot to like in Kling’s trichotomy. If you wonder where you stand, take Kling’s survey. Here it is, followed by a discussion of the scoring key and the key itself:

1. Late in 2012, in Newtown Connecticut, about two dozen school children were murdered in a shooting incident. What this indicates is

a) the need for teachers to be empowered and armed to fight back

b) the need for society to exert more control over the mentally ill

c) the need to reduce the power of the gun lobby 2. In the latter half of 2012, UN Ambassador Susan Rice went on news programs as an Administration spokesperson and described the deaths of Americans

2. In the latter half of 2012, UN Ambassador Susan Rice went on news programs as an Administration spokesperson and described the deaths of Americans at the Libyan consulate in Benghazi as resulting from a protest demonstration. The media should have assigned more significance to the fact that

a) Islamic militants were to blame for the murders

b) Politicians were seeking to assign or deflect blame

c) Susan Rice is a female African-American

3. In the 1940s, ordinary Germans participated in atrocities against Jews. This shows us

a) The dangers of a totalitarian system of government

b) The dangers of a collapse of moral values when a country’s institutions have failed

c) The dangers of anti-Semitism

4. When the issue of changing the tax code comes up, what question is most important?

a) how will the change affect the reward that people get for hard work and thrift?

b) does the government spend money more wisely than individuals?

c) how will the change affect inequality?

5. What is notable about the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is that

a) Israelis share American values much more than do Palestinians

b) Palestinians are an oppressed people

c) The government of Israel, Arab governments, the governments of other nations, and the UN are all at fault.

6. In 1992, a study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston found a high rejection rate for mortgage applications by African-Americans. What explains this?

a) racial discrimination

b) African-Americans were more likely to have poor credit histories or insufficient incomes to qualify for mortgages

c) the officials who directed the study had an agenda

7. The wave of mortgage defaults known as the “sub-prime crisis” was caused by mortgage loans that were

a) given to unqualified and undeserving borrowers

b) government-induced

c) predatory

8. The large number of unwed mothers with low income reflects

a) lack of economic opportunities, education, and access to birth control

b) cultural decay, which over-values sexual gratification and undervalues marital responsibility

c) incentives built into our tax and welfare system

9. Since 9/ 11, Presidents have employed controversial powers, such as warrantless surveillance and targeted killing. What do you think of the use of these powers?

a) Because Islamist terrorism is such a difficult and dangerous problem, I support the use of these powers to protect the American people.

b) I am totally against the use of these powers.

c) I am not sure about these powers, but I definitely trust the Obama-Biden administration to use them more judiciously than the Bush-Cheney administration.

Before we score the quiz and interpret your score, please answer one more question. Remember, the answer is not how you would respond. Instead, have in mind someone who agrees with you on many political issues. Which of the following paragraphs best describes how this person feels?

X) My heroes are people who have stood up for the underprivileged. The people I cannot stand are people who do not seem to care about the oppression of working people, minorities, and women.

Y) My heroes are people who have stood up for Western values. The people I cannot stand are the people who do not seem to mind the assault on the moral virtues and traditions that are the foundation for our civilization.

Z) My heroes are people who have stood up for the individual’s right to his or her own choices. The people I cannot stand are people who want government to impose their value system on everyone….

The first dominant heuristic is the one I associate with progressives (henceforth Ps). Ps, who are likely to respond X to the basic question, are most comfortable with language that frames political issues in terms of oppressors and oppressed.

The second dominant heuristic is one I associate with conservatives (henceforth Cs). Cs, who are likely to respond Y to the basic question, are most comfortable with language that frames political issues in terms of civilization and barbarism.

The third dominant heuristic is one I associate with libertarians (henceforth Ls). Ls, who are likely to respond Z to the basic question, are most comfortable with language that frames political issues in terms of freedom and coercion.

In short, my hypothesis is that someone who picked X on the basic question will tend to give corresponding progressive answers to the other nine questions. Someone who picked Y will tend to give conservative answers. Someone who picked Z will tend to pick libertarian answers. Now, go back and score your quiz to find out how many Ps, Cs, and Ls you picked. Match your answers as indicated below.

Give yourself one P for each of the following: 1c, 2c, 3c, 4c, 5b, 6b, 7c, 8a, 9c.

Give yourself one C for each of the following: 1b, 2a, 3b, 4a, 5a, 6c, 7a, 8b, 9a.

Give yourself one L for each of the following: 1a, 2b, 3a, 4b, 5c, 6a, 7b, 8c, 9b.

My guess is that progressives will have at least 6 Ps. My guess is that conservatives will have at least 4 Cs and fewer than 3 Ps. My guess is that libertarians will have at least 4 Ls and fewer than 3 Ps.

You may not agree in every case with Kling’s alignment of an answer with a political point of view (I don’t), but the overall result is probably in the ballpark. I chose Y for the basic question, and scored 6 Cs, 2 Ls, and 1 P (which I attribute to an error in Kling’s scoring scale); my actual score is 7 Cs and 2 Ls.** Inasmuch as traditional conservatism (my brand) is tantamount to true libertarianism (e.g., this post), I’m pleased to be classified as a conservative with libertarian leanings.

As for sorting progressives, conservatives, and libertarians, here’s my take: Someone with a lot of (i.e., 6 or more) Cs is unlikely to have even 1 P. (I don’t, really.) Someone with a lot of Ps is unlikely to have even 1 C, though he might have a few Ls. Someone with a lot of Ls is more likely to have some Ps, than some Cs.

But Kling’s survey is unlikely to be encountered by a more typical denizen of the United States. Such a person doesn’t think deeply or consistently about politics, but is more likely to be preoccupied with paying a mortgage or the rent, raising children or ignoring them to the extent possible, boozing with buddies (male and/or female), reading trashy novels (if anything), watching TV fare on a par with Dancing with the Stars, and so on. Such a person would probably weigh in with a mix of Cs, Ps, and Ls — and would prefer to give more than one answer to most of the questions. Such a person would be an adherent of America’s dominant political strain, which I call wishy-washy.

In short, I think the political landscape boils down to this:

  • A fringe of true Conservatives, some of them with a libertarian streak
  • A larger fringe of all-out progressives
  • A minuscule fringe of all-out libertarians
  • A microscopic fringe of left-libertarians, whose oxymoronic belief in libertarian communitarianism leads them to sympathize with progressives rather than conservatives
  • The wishy-washy masses in the vast middle, who go with what seems “nice” or “in style.” (Some wishy-washiers like to call themselves “centrists,” which is the verbal equivalent of putting lipstick on a pig.)

Conservatives and progressives are irreconcilable, as are conservatives and all-out libertarians. I also see no way of reconciling left-libertarians with all-out libertarians or conservatives.

But none of that matters much. Wishy-washiness dominates, which is why election outcomes seem to careen from one extreme to the other.
__________
* “Progressive” and its variants set my teeth on edge. There’s nothing progressive about so-called liberalism. I suspect that Kling uses “progressive” instead of “liberal” because he would otherwise have L for liberal and L for libertarian. I follow his usage here only to avoid confusion.

** Regarding question 6, Kling says that answer a) is libertarian, but pinning the blame on racial discrimination strikes me as progressive (racial discrimination is a kind of oppression, and blacks are victims of it). Kling says that answer b) is progressive, but answer b) — my answer — is a realistic but unfavorable  appraisal of the economic status of blacks, which strikes me as conservative (i.e., attributing to blacks an “uncivilized” or negative trait that stems from their generally lower intelligence and greater dependence on the welfare state). Kling says that answer c) is conservative, but it really pins the blame on government, which is a libertarian response. My two libertarian responses were to items 1 and 7.

Political Philosophies in Brief

The libertarian wants everything to be legal and nothing to be free.

The conservative wants some stuff to be illegal and nothing to be free.

The fascist wants to tell everyone what they should like because it’s the “national will.”

The socialist wants to tell everyone what they should like because it’s “good for them,” and he’ll make the rich pay for most of it.

The modern liberal is a socialist who tries to hide it by calling himself a progressive.

“The Great Debate”: Not So Great

I was drawn to Yuval Levin‘s The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left because some commentators on the right had praised it. But I was disappointed by The Great Debate for two reasons: repetitiveness and wrongheadedness (with respect to conservatism).

Regarding repetitiveness, the philosophical differences between Burke and Paine are rather straightforward and can be explained in a brief essay. Levin’s 304 pages strike me as endless variations on a simple theme — a literary equivalent of Philip Glass‘s long-winded minimalism.

In fact, I am wrong to suggest that it would take only a brief essay to capture the philosophical differences between Burke and Paine. Levin does it in a few paragraphs:

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]

In sum, Paine is the quintessential “liberal” (leftist), that is, 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. Burke, on the other hand, is a non-ideologue. Social arrangements — including political and economic ones — are emergent. 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]

This leads me to Levin’s wrongheadedness with respect to conservatism. It surfaces in the final chapter, with a failed attempt to reconcile the philosophies of Burke and Paine as variants of what Levin calls liberalism.

Given the stark differences between Paine’s proto-liberalism and Burkean conservatism, I cannot view the latter as a mere variant of the former. As Levin says,

the Burke-Paine debate is about Enlightenment liberalism, whose underlying worldview unavoidably raises the problem of the generations. Enlightenment liberalism emphasizes government by consent, individualism, and social equality, all of which are in tension with some rather glaring facts of the human condition : that we are born into a society that already exists, that we enter this society without consenting to it, that we enter it with social connections and not as isolated individuals, and that these connections help define our place in society and therefore often raise barriers to equality.** [Op. cit., p. 206]

Despite that, Levin writes of

[t]he tradition of conservative liberalism — the gradual accumulation of practices and institutions of freedom and order that Burke celebrated as the English constitution….

… [T]his very same conservative liberalism is very frequently the vision [that today’s conservatives] pursue in practice. It is the vision conservatives advance when they defend traditional social institutions and the family, seek to make our culture more hospitable to children, and rail against attempts at technocratic expert government. It is the vision they uphold when they insist on an allegiance to our forefathers’ constitutional forms, warn of the dangers of burdening our children with debt to fund our own consumption, or insist that the sheer scope and ambition of our government makes it untenable. [Op. cit., p. 229]

Levin’s sleight of hand is subtle. Paine’s so-called liberalism rests on premises rejected by Burke, the most important of which is that change can and should be imposed from the top down, through representative government. Where conservatives do promote change from the top down, it is to push civil society toward the status quo ante, wherein change was gradual and bottom-up, driven by the necessities of peaceful, beneficial coexistence. That isn’t liberalism; it’s conservatism, pure and simple.

Whence Levin’s category error? It seems to arise from Levin’s mistaken belief in an all-embracing social will. After all, if humankind has a collective will, its various political philosophies can be thought of as manifestations of an underlying bent. And that bent, in Levin’s view, might as well be called “liberalism.” It would be no less arbitrary to call it Couéism, or to say that pigs are human beings because they breathe air.

Am I being too harsh? Not at all. Consider the following passage from The Great Debate, with my interpolations in brackets:

The tension between those two dispositions comes down to some very basic questions: Should our society be made to answer [by whom] to the demands of stark and abstract commitments to ideals like social equality or to the patterns of its own concrete political traditions and foundations? Should the citizen’s relationship to his society be defined [by whom] above all by the individual right of free choice or by a web of obligations and conventions not entirely of our own choosing? Are great public problems best addressed through institutions designed to apply the explicit technical knowledge of experts or by those designed to channel the implicit social knowledge of the community? Should we [who?] see each of our society’s failings [by whose standards?] as one large problem to be solved by comprehensive transformation or as a set of discrete imperfections to be addressed by building on what works tolerably well to address what does not? What authority should the character of the given world exercise over our sense of what we would like it to be? [The opacity of the preceding sentence should be a clue about Levin’s epistemic confusion.]

Our answers [as individuals] will tend to shape how we [as individuals] think about particular political questions. Do we [sic] want to fix our [sic] health-care system by empowering expert panels armed with the latest effectiveness data to manage the system from the center or by arranging economic incentives to channel consumer knowledge and preferences and address some of the system’s discrete problems? [Or simply by non-interference with markets?] Do we [sic] want to alleviate poverty through large national programs that use public dollars to supplement the incomes of the poor or through efforts to build on the social infrastructure of local civil-society institutions to help the poor build the skills and habits to rise? [Or by fostering personal responsibility and self-reliance through laissez-faire, with private charity for the “hard cases”?] Do we [who?] want problems addressed through the most comprehensive and broadest possible means or through the most minimal and targeted ones? [Or through voluntary cooperation?]

…Is liberalism, in other words, a theoretical discovery to be put into effect or a practical achievement to be reinforced and perfected? [By who?] These two possibilities [see below] suggest two rather different sorts of liberal politics: a politics of vigorous progress toward an ideal goal or a politics of preservation and perfection of a precious inheritance. They suggest, in other words, a progressive liberalism and a conservative liberalism. [Op. cit., pp. 226-227]

Even though liberals tout individualism, they evince a (mistaken) belief in a collective conscience. Individualism, in the liberal worldview, is permissible only to the extent that it advances liberals’ values du jour. There is no room in liberalism for liberty, which is

peaceful, willing coexistence and its concomitant: beneficially cooperative behavior.

Why is there no room in liberalism for liberty? Because peaceful, willing coexistence might not lead to the particular outcomes that liberals value — for the moment.

In sum, liberalism, despite its name, is an enemy of liberty. And Paine proves his liberal credentials when, in Levin’s words, he

makes a forceful case for something like a modern welfare system. In so doing, Paine helps show how the modern left developed from Enlightenment liberalism toward embryonic forms of welfare-state liberalism as its utopian political hopes seemed dashed by the grim realities of the industrial revolution. [Op. cit., p. 120]

“The grim realities of the industrial revolution” are that workers’ real incomes rose, albeit gradually. Levin evidently belongs to the romantic-rustic school of thought that equates factories with misery and squalor and overlooks the deeper misery and squalor of peasantry.

I don’t know what school of conservative thought Levin belongs to, but it can’t the school of thought represented by Burke, Oakeshott, and Hayek. If it were, Levin wouldn’t deploy the absurd term “conservative liberalism.”

__________
* 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 it is made of air.

** Not to mention the obvious fact that human beings are not equal in any way, except rhetorically. Some would say that they are equal before the laws of the United States, which is true only in theory. Laws are not applied evenhandedly, especially including laws that are meant to confer “equality” on specified groups but which then accord privileges that deprive others of jobs, promotions, admissions, and speech and property rights (e.g., affirmative action, low-income mortgages, and various anti-discrimination statutes).

*     *     *

Related posts:
The Social Welfare Function
On Liberty
Inventing “Liberalism”
What Is Conservatism?
Utilitarianism vs. Liberty
Accountants of the Soul
The Left
Enough of “Social Welfare”
Undermining the Free Society
Pseudo-Libertarian Sophistry vs. True Libertarianism
Our Enemy, the State
Positivism, “Natural Rights,” and Libertarianism
“Intellectuals and Society”: A Review
What Are “Natural Rights”?
Government vs. Community
Libertarian Conservative or Conservative Libertarian?
Bounded Liberty: A Thought Experiment
The Left’s Agenda
Evolution, Human Nature, and “Natural Rights”
More Pseudo-Libertarianism
More about Conservative Governance
The Meaning of Liberty
Positive Liberty vs. Liberty
The Evil That Is Done with Good Intentions
Understanding Hayek
The Left and Its Delusions
The Destruction of Society in the Name of “Society”
About Democracy
True Libertarianism, One More Time
Human Nature, Liberty, and Rationalism
More Pseudo-Libertarianism
Bounded Liberty: A Thought Experiment
A Declaration and Defense of My Prejudices about Governance
Society and the State
Why Conservatism Works
Liberty and Society
Tolerance on the Left
The Eclipse of “Old America”
Genetic Kinship and Society
Liberty as a Social Construct: Moral Relativism?
Defending Liberty against (Pseudo) Libertarians
The Barbarians Within and the State of the Union
Defining Liberty
Government Failure Comes as a Shock to Liberals
“We the People” and Big Government
The Futile Search for “Natural Rights”
The Pseudo-Libertarian Temperament
Parsing Political Philosophy (II)
Modern Liberalism as Wishful Thinking
Getting Liberty Wrong
Romanticizing the State
“Liberalism” and Personal Responsibility
My View of Libertarianism
Parsing Political Philosophy (II)

Signature

My View of Libertariansim

A reader asked for my definition of “libertarian.” I’ve written about libertarianism many times since my early days as an unsophisticated adherent of J.S. Mill’s solipsistic “harm principle.”

My journey away from solipsistic libertarianism began with “A Paradox for Libertarians.” “Common Ground for Conservatives and Libertarians?” marks the next step in my journey. My declaration of independence from the harm principle is documented in “The Paradox of Libertarianism.” I then wrote “Liberty As a Social Construct,” “Social Norms and Liberty,” and “A Footnote about Liberty and Social Norms.” Those posts go beyond my rejection of the harm principle as the proper basis of libertarianism, and introduce the social aspect of liberty. I reiterated and elaborated my criticism of the harm principle in “The Harm Principle,” “Footnotes to ‘The Harm Principle’,” and “The Harm Principle, Again.”

All of those posts — and more in the same revisionist vein — appeared at my old blog, Liberty Corner. Those many posts set the stage for many more at Politics & Prosperity, including these:

On Liberty

Pseudo-Libertarian Sophistry vs. True Libertarianism

Libertarian Conservative or Conservative Libertarian?

More Pseudo-Libertarianism

Parsing Political Philosophy (II)

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

INTRODUCTION

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

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

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

THE ESSENCE OF POLITICS

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

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

THE BASELINE POSITION: TRADITIONAL CONSERVATISM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A TAXONOMY OF PHILOSOPHIES

I begin with a rough sorting of political philosophies:

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

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

Anarchism

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

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

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

Minarchism

The Central Tenet: Limited Government

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

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

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

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

The Protection of Negative Rights

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

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

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

More about Property Rights

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

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

The Role of Civil Society

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

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

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

A Note about Left-Minarchism

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

Statism

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

The Essence of Statism: Control

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

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

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

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

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

Feeble Excuses for Statism

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

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

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

The Bottom Line about Statism

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

Despotism

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

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

REFINING THE TAXONOMY

These statements implicate several political issues:

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

2. Who should determine social norms, and how?

3. What behaviors should obtain?

4. How should norms be enforced?

5. What is the proper role of the state?

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

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

8. Who should pay for functions of the state?

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

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

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

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

Taxonomy of political philosophies

*     *     *

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

Getting It Almost Right

Philosopher Matt Zwolinski writes:

…Libertarians do not deny the importance of community any more than they deny the importance of moral virtue. What they deny is the necessity or appropriateness of centralized state coercion in bringing about either.

The libertarian vision of a society is one of free and responsible individuals, cooperating on their own terms for purposes of mutual benefit. It is a vision that draws its support from a wide variety of moral and empirical beliefs with deep roots in the public political culture. And it is one that contemporary critics of the market would do well to take much more seriously.

Here’s the rub: Zwolinkski seems to assume that just any old moral beliefs will support a “society … of free and responsible, individuals, cooperating on their own terms for purposes of mutual benefit.” But there are moral beliefs that do not support such a society. Where do we find such beliefs? Right here in the U.S. of A., among many places.

There are whole cultures that foment disrespect for and violence toward others, even fellow adherents of the culture. There are whole cultures that disparage responsibility and tear down those who venture to practice it. And instead of acting to diminish the influence of those cultures, the government of the United States, abetted by its leftist adjuncts, has sheltered them from criticism and, instead, turned against the nominally dominant culture that fosters responsibility, respect, and civility.

A while ago, I listed some criteria for a moral code that supports liberty. The list follows, with comments added in boldface:

1. A code must be socially evolved, not imposed by the state. (Though the state may enforce a moral code that reflects social norms.) Norms in the U.S. have been subverted by state sponsorship of easy divorce, abortion, illegitimacy, and pornography — to name some.

2. A code that fosters beneficent behavior must conform to the Ten Commandments, or to the last six of them, at least. See #1.

3. Those who dissent from the code must be able to voice their dissent; otherwise, the code ceases to be socially evolved…. The voices of dissent have been muffled by campus speech codes and dominant left wing of the media. Dissent is characterized as “extremist” and “loony.” Leading politicians are cheerleaders for the stifling of dissent, and have succeeded in penalizing many who think “wrong” thoughts (“hate” crimes) and too openly express their opposition to state-sponsored social change (prosecutions under the “equal rights” mantra).

4. Those who cannot abide the code must be able to exit society’s jurisdiction, without penalty. See #7.

There is more, if a society is part of a larger polity.

5. That polity is illegitimate if it overrides the otherwise legitimate moral codes of its constituent societies. See #3.

6. That polity is illegitimate if it honors inimical moral codes, either overtly or by making acts of obeisance to them…. See #3.

7. That polity is illegitimate if, in overriding those moral codes, it effectively negates voice and exit. (This has happened in America, where we are hostages in our own land.) See this post for more.

Zwolinski admits that libertarianism, as envisioned by most libertarians, is a hollow shell. What he fails to admit is that the hollow shell can be filled with moral precepts — both evolved and state-imposed — that suppress liberty. One need not look beyond these shores to find such suppression.

*     *     *

Related posts:
Refuting Rousseau and His Progeny
Libertarianism, Marriage, and the True Meaning of Family Values
The Consequences of Roe v. Wade
The Old Eugenics in a New Guise
The Left, Abortion, and Adolescence
Moral Luck
Consider the Children
Same-Sex Marriage
“Equal Protection” and Homosexual Marriage
Law, Liberty, and Abortion
Equal Time: The Sequel
Marriage and Children
Abortion and the Slippery Slope
More on Abortion and Crime
Peter Singer’s Agenda
Parenting, Religion, Culture, and Liberty
Singer Said It
A “Person” or a “Life”?
A Wrong-Headed Take on Abortion
Crime, Explained
“Family Values,” Liberty, and the State
Intellectuals and Capitalism
Civil Society and Homosexual “Marriage”
Rawls Meets Bentham
The Left
Perry v. Schwarzenegger, Due Process, and Equal Protection
Rationalism, Social Norms, and Same-Sex “Marriage”
“Intellectuals and Society”: A Review
Our Enemy, the State
Pseudo-Libertarian Sophistry vs. True Libertarianism
The Left’s Agenda
More Pseudo-Libertarianism
More about Conservative Governance
The Meaning of Liberty
Positive Liberty vs. Liberty
On Self-Ownership and Desert
In Defense of Marriage
The Left and Its Delusions
Burkean Libertarianism
Crimes against Humanity
Abortion and Logic
True Libertarianism, One More Time
Human Nature, Liberty, and Rationalism
Utilitarianism and Psychopathy
The Myth That Same-Sex “Marriage” Causes No Harm
The Spoiled Children of Capitalism
Politics, Sophistry, and the Academy
Subsidizing the Enemies of Liberty
Libertarianism and Morality
Libertarianism and Morality: A Footnote
Society and the State
Are You in the Bubble?
Legislating Morality
Legislating Morality (II)
Abortion, Doublethink, and Left-Wing Blather
Abortion, “Gay Rights,” and Liberty
Race and Reason: The Achievement Gap — Causes and Implications
Liberty and Society
Tolerance on the Left
The Eclipse of “Old America”
Genetic Kinship and Society
Liberty as a Social Construct: Moral Relativism?
Defending Liberty against (Pseudo) Libertarians
“Conversing” about Race
Defining Liberty
“We the People” and Big Government
The Culture War

The Culture War

“Culture war” is a familiar term, but one that I hadn’t thought deeply about until a few days ago. I read something about abortion in which “culture war” occurred. The fog lifted, and I grasped what should have been obvious to me all along: The “culture war” isn’t about “culture,” it’s about morality and liberty. Rod Dreher, in the course of a premature paean to Barack Obama’s “diplomatic” approach to ideological strife, gets it right:

The source of our culture war is conflicting visions of what it means to be free and what it means to be an American – and even what it means to be fully human. More concretely, as Princeton’s Robert George has written, they have to do mainly “with sexuality, the transmitting and taking of human life, and the place of religion and religiously informed moral judgment in public life.” Because the cultural left and cultural right hold to irreconcilable orthodoxies on these questions, we find scant cultural consensus. That’s life in America. Unless we become a homogenous country, we will continue to struggle to live together, staying true to our deepest beliefs while respecting the liberty of others to stay true to their own. But we do not live in a libertarian Utopia. We can’t have it all. If, for example, courts constitutionalized same-sex marriage, as gay activists seek, that would have a ground-shaking effect on religious liberty, public schooling and other aspects of American life. Without question, it would intensify the culture war, as partisans of the left and right fight for what each considers a sacred principle. What irritates conservatives is the liberals’ groundless conceit that they fight from a values-neutral position, while the right seeks to impose its norms on others. Nonsense. Marriage was a settled issue until liberals began using courts to impose their moral vision on (so far) an unwilling majority. Who fired the first shot there? (“Obama Won’t End the Culture Wars,” RealClearPolitics, February 16, 2009)

And it doesn’t matter whether the unwilling are a majority or a minority. Just about everyone is a loser in the war against morality and liberty. When social norms — long-established rules of behavior — are sundered willy-nilly the result is a breakdown of the voluntary order known as civil society. The liberty to live a peaceful, happy, and even prosperous life depends on civil society: the daily observance of person X’s negative rights by persons W, Y, and Z — and vice versa. That is so because it is impossible and — more importantly — undesirable for the state to police everyone’s behavior. Liberty depends, therefore, on the institutions of society — family, church, club, and the like — through which individuals learn to treat one another with respect, through which individuals often come to the aid of one another, and through which instances of disrespect can be noted, publicized, and even punished (e.g., by criticism and ostracism). That is civil society, which the state ought to protect, but instead usurps and destroys. Usurping is one of the state’s primary (and illegitimate) functions. The state establishes agencies (e.g., public schools, welfare), gives them primary and even sole jurisdiction in many matters, and funds them with tax money that could have gone to private institutions. Worse, however, is the way in which the state destroys the social norms that foster social harmony — mutual respect and trust — without which a people cannot flourish.  As I observed some years ago, in connection with same-sex “marriage”:

Given the signals being sent by the state, the rate of formation of traditional, heterosexual marriages will continue to decline. (According to the Census Bureau, the percentage of adult males who are married dropped steadily from 71.1 percent in the 1960 census to 58.6 percent in the 2000 census; for females, the percentage dropped from 67.4 to 54.6. About half of each drop is explained by a rise in the percentage of adults who never marry, the other half by a rise in the percentage of divorced adults. Those statistics are what one should expect when the state signals — as it began to do increasingly after 1960 — that traditional marriage is no special thing by making it easier for couples to divorce, by subsidizing single mothers, and by encouraging women to work outside the home.)

“Thanks” to the signals sent by the state — many of them in the form of legislative, executive, and judicial dictates — we now have not just easy divorce, subsidized illegitimacy, and legions of non-mothering mothers, but also abortion, concerted (and deluded) efforts to defeminize females and to neuter or feminize males, forced association (with accompanying destruction of property and employment rights), suppression of religion, absolution of pornography, and the encouragement of “alternative lifestyles” that feature disease, promiscuity, and familial instability. The state, of course, doesn’t act of its own volition. It acts at the behest of special interests — interests with a “cultural” agenda. Dreher calls them liberals. I call them left-statists. They are bent on the eradication of civil society — nothing less — in favor of a state-directed Rousseauvian dystopia from which morality and liberty will have vanished, except in Orwellian doublespeak.

*     *     *

Related reading: Trevor Thomas, “The Laughable Liberal ‘Moral Imperative’,” American Thinker, December 1, 2013 Deborah C. Tyler, “Morality, Anti-Morality, and Socialism,” American Thinker, December 1, 2013 Related posts: Refuting Rousseau and His Progeny Libertarianism, Marriage, and the True Meaning of Family Values The Consequences of Roe v. Wade The Old Eugenics in a New Guise The Left, Abortion, and Adolescence Moral Luck Consider the Children Same-Sex Marriage “Equal Protection” and Homosexual Marriage Law, Liberty, and Abortion Equal Time: The Sequel Marriage and Children Abortion and the Slippery Slope More on Abortion and Crime Peter Singer’s Agenda Parenting, Religion, Culture, and Liberty Singer Said It A “Person” or a “Life”? A Wrong-Headed Take on Abortion Crime, Explained “Family Values,” Liberty, and the State Intellectuals and Capitalism Civil Society and Homosexual “Marriage” Rawls Meets Bentham The Left Perry v. Schwarzenegger, Due Process, and Equal Protection Rationalism, Social Norms, and Same-Sex “Marriage” “Intellectuals and Society”: A Review Our Enemy, the State Pseudo-Libertarian Sophistry vs. True Libertarianism The Left’s Agenda More Pseudo-Libertarianism More about Conservative Governance The Meaning of Liberty Positive Liberty vs. Liberty On Self-Ownership and Desert In Defense of Marriage The Left and Its Delusions Burkean Libertarianism Crimes against Humanity Abortion and Logic True Libertarianism, One More Time Human Nature, Liberty, and Rationalism Utilitarianism and Psychopathy The Myth That Same-Sex “Marriage” Causes No Harm The Spoiled Children of Capitalism Politics, Sophistry, and the Academy Subsidizing the Enemies of Liberty Libertarianism and Morality Libertarianism and Morality: A Footnote Society and the State Are You in the Bubble? Legislating Morality Legislating Morality (II) Abortion, Doublethink, and Left-Wing Blather Abortion, “Gay Rights,” and Liberty Race and Reason: The Achievement Gap — Causes and Implications Liberty and Society Tolerance on the Left The Eclipse of “Old America” Genetic Kinship and Society Liberty as a Social Construct: Moral Relativism? Defending Liberty against (Pseudo) Libertarians “Conversing” about Race Defining Liberty “We the People” and Big Government

Conservatism as Right-Minarchism

W. Winston Elliott III delivers an apt appreciation of Russell Kirk and conservatism:

[Kirk’s The Conservative Mind] does not supply its readers with a “conservative ideology”: for the conservative abhors all forms of ideology. An abstract rigorous set of political dogmata: that is ideology, a “political religion,” promising the Terrestrial Paradise to the faithful; and ordinarily that paradise is to be taken by storm. Such a priori designs for perfecting human nature and society are anathema to the conservative, who knows them for the tools and the weapons of coffeehouse fanatics.

For the conservative, custom, convention, constitution, and prescription are the sources of a tolerable civil social order. Men not being angels, a terrestrial paradise cannot be contrived by metaphysical enthusiasts; yet an earthly hell can be arranged readily enough by ideologues of one stamp or another. Precisely that has come to pass in a great part of the world, during the twentieth century.

Edward Feser puts it this way:

Tradition, being nothing other than the distillation of centuries of human experience, itself provides the surest guide to determining the most rational course of action. Far from being opposed to reason, reason is inseparable from tradition, and blind without it. The so-called enlightened mind thrusts tradition aside, hoping to find something more solid on which to make its stand, but there is nothing else, no alternative to the hard earth of human experience, and the enlightened thinker soon finds himself in mid-air…. But then, was it ever truly a love of reason that was in the driver’s seat in the first place? Or was it, rather, a hatred of tradition? Might the latter have been the cause of the former, rather than, as the enlightened pose would have it, the other way around?) (“Hayek and Tradition“)

As for conservative governance, I turn to Michael Oakeshott:

To some people, ‘government’ appears as a vast reservoir of power which inspires them to dream of what use might be made of it. They have favourite projects, of various dimensions, which they sincerely believe are for the benefit of mankind, and to capture this source of power, if necessary to increase it, and to use it for imposing their favourite projects upon their fellows is what they understand as the adventure of governing men. They are, thus, disposed to recognize government as an instrument of passion; the art of politics is to inflame and direct desire….

Now, the disposition to be conservative in respect of politics reflects a quite different view of the activity of governing. The man of this disposition understands it to be the business of a government not to inflame passion and give it new objects to feed upon, but to inject into the activities of already too passionate men an ingredient of moderation; to restrain, to deflate, to pacify and to reconcile; not to stoke the fires of desire, but to damp them down….

It is not, then, mere stupid prejudice that disposes a conservative to take this view of the activity of governing; nor are any highfalutin metaphysical beliefs necessary to provoke it or make it intelligible. It is connected merely with the observation that where activity is bent upon enterprise the indispensable counterpart is another order of activity, bent upon restraint, which is unavoidably corrupted (indeed, altogether abrogated) when the power assigned to it is used for advancing favourite projects. An ‘umpire’ who at the same time is one of the players is no umpire; ‘rules’ about which we are not disposed to be conservative are not rules but incitements to disorder; the conjunction of dreaming and ruling generates tyranny.

Political conservatism is, then, not at all unintelligible in a people disposed to be adventurous and enterprising, a people in love with change and apt to rationalise their affections in terms of ‘progress’…. Indeed, a disposition to be conservative in respect of government would seem to be pre-eminently appropriate to men who have something to do and something to think about on their own account, who have a skill to practise or an intellectual fortune to make, to people whose passions do not need to be inflamed, whose desires do not need to be provoked and whose dreams of a better world need no prompting. Such people know the value of a rule which imposes orderliness without irecting enterprise, a rule which concentrates duty so that room is left for delight…. (“On Being Conservative,” Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays, New and Expanded Edition., pp. 431-5)

Now, returning to Kirk, I redact his six “canons” of conservatism to conform to my “canons” of right-minarchism:

(1) Belief that a divine intent rules society as well as conscience…. Political problems, at bottom, are religious and moral problems… (2) Affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of traditional life, as distinguished from the narrowing uniformity and equilitarianism and utilitarian aims of most radical systems. (3) Conviction that civilized society requires orders and classes…. Society longs for leadership…. (4) Persuasion that property and freedom are inseparably connected, and that economic levelling is not economic progress…. (5) Faith in prescription [traditional mores] and distrust of “sophisters and calculators.” Man must put a control upon his will and his appetite…. Tradition and sound prejudice provide checks upon man’s anarchic impulse. (6) Recognition that change and reform are not identical….

Religion isn’t necessary to right-minarchism, though neither is it ruled out. Basic religious precepts (as in the Ten Commandments) form the moral foundation of civil society, which depends not so much on orders and classes as it does on order (as opposed to lawlessness) and respect for the persons and property of others. There is little else on which to differ with Kirk.

Therefore, in my taxonomy of politics, Kirk’s conservatism is located in right-minarchism — which is a distinct branch of libertarianism. Right-minarchism rejects the nihilism and strident anti-religionism which are rampant in strains of libertarianism, namely, anarchism and left-minarchism. Anarchists and left-minarchists believe, foolishly, that liberty is to be found in the rejection of order and social norms. Liberty would be the first victim of the brave new disorder that they wish for.

So, here’s to right-minarchism, the nexus of true conservatism and true libertarianism.

*     *     *

Related posts:
Democracy and Liberty
Parsing Political Philosophy
Is Statism Inevitable?
Inventing “Liberalism”
What Is Conservatism?
Utilitarianism, “Liberalism,” and Omniscience
Utilitarianism vs. Liberty
Law and Liberty
Negative Rights
Negative Rights, Social Norms, and the Constitution
Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and the Legitimate State
The Near-Victory of Communism
Tocqueville’s Prescience
Accountants of the Soul
“Natural Rights” and Consequentialism
Rawls Meets Bentham
Is Liberty Possible?
The Left
More about Consequentialism
Line-Drawing and Liberty
The Divine Right of the Majority
Our Enemy, the State
Pseudo-Libertarian Sophistry vs. True Libertarianism
Positivism, “Natural Rights,” and Libertarianism
What Are “Natural Rights”?
The Golden Rule and the State
Libertarian Conservative or Conservative Libertarian?
Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: Part I
Bounded Liberty: A Thought Experiment
Evolution, Human Nature, and “Natural Rights”
More Pseudo-Libertarianism
More about Conservative Governance
The Meaning of Liberty
Positive Liberty vs. Liberty
Facets of Liberty
Burkean Libertarianism
Rights: Source, Applicability, How Held
What Is Libertarianism?
True Libertarianism, One More Time
Human Nature, Liberty, and Rationalism
Utilitarianism and Psychopathy
Why Conservatism Works
Liberty and Society
The Eclipse of “Old America”
Genetic Kinship and Society
Liberty as a Social Construct: Moral Relativism?
Defending Liberty against (Pseudo) Libertarians
Fighting Modernity
The Barbarians Within and the State of the Union
Defining Liberty

Why (Libertarian) Conservatism Works

Liberalism,” overt statism, and pseudo-libertarianism are contrivances, based (respectively) on state-imposed “rationality” (often nothing more than whims wrapped in pseudo-intellectual language); unapologetic brute force; and an unrealistic, anti-social view of humans as arms-length negotiators. “Liberalism” and overt statism impose the preferences of powerful elites and individuals on everyone, regardless of the effects of those impositions on the well-being of everyone. That the impositions are advertised as beneficial does not make them so; such claims are delusional and self-serving. Pseudo-libertarianism can be dismissed as nothing more than a pipe-dream; “liberalism” and overt statism are the true enemies of liberty and prosperity.

True libertarianism (libertarian conservatism) rests on six principles:

  1. Belief that political problems, at bottom, are religious and moral problems.
  2. Affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of traditional life, as distinguished from the narrowing uniformity and egalitarian and utilitarian aims of most radical systems.
  3. Conviction that civilized society requires order.
  4. Persuasion that property and freedom are inseparably connected, and that economic leveling is not economic progress.
  5. Faith in traditional mores and distrust of “sophisters and calculators.” Tradition and sound prejudice provide checks upon man’s anarchic impulse.
  6. Recognition that change and reform are not identical.

These principles, taken together, set libertarian conservatism apart from “liberalism,” overt statism, and pseudo-libertarianism. Unlike those “systems,” libertarian conservatism relies on evolved social norms to regulate interpersonal relations and to channel them in mutually beneficial directions. That is to say, libertarian consevatism “works” because it is consistent with human needs and human nature; it incorporates the lessons of experience into everyday rules of conduct.

Related reading:
The 20th  Anniversary of Hayek’s Death,” by Mike Rappaport
Why I Am Not a Libertarian,” by Nathan Schlueter

Related posts:
On Liberty
Greed, Cosmic Justice, and Social Welfare
Positive Rights and Cosmic Justice
The Interest-Group Paradox
Parsing Political Philosophy
Is Statism Inevitable?
Inventing “Liberalism”
Utilitarianism, “Liberalism,” and Omniscience
Utilitarianism vs. Liberty
Law and Liberty
Negative Rights
Negative Rights, Social Norms, and the Constitution
Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and the Legitimate State
The Near-Victory of Communism
Tocqueville’s Prescience
The Mind of a Paternalist
Accountants of the Soul
Rawls Meets Bentham
Is Liberty Possible?
Our Enemy, the State
Pseudo-Libertarian Sophistry vs. True Libertarianism
Bounded Liberty: A Thought Experiment
The Meaning of Liberty
Positive Liberty vs. Liberty
Corporations, Unions, and the State
Rethinking the Constitution: “Freedom of Speech, and of the Press”
What Is Libertarianism?
Nature Is Unfair
True Libertarianism, One More Time
Human Nature, Liberty, and Rationalism
Utilitarianism and Psychopathy
A Declaration and Defense of My Prejudices about Governance
Merit Goods, Positive Rights, and Cosmic Justice
More about Merit Goods
Don’t Just Stand There, “Do Something”
What Is Bleeding-Heart Libertarianism?
Liberty, Negative Rights, and Bleeding Hearts
Legislating Morality
Legislating Morality (II)

The Libertarian-Conservative Fusion Is Alive and Well

The evidentiary trail begins with Daniel B. Klein‘s “I Was Wrong, and So Are You” (Atlantic Magazine, December 2011). The article’s teaser proclaims: “A libertarian economist retracts a swipe at the left—after discovering that our political leanings leave us more biased than we think.” Perhaps.

In any event, here is some of what Klein has to say in the Atlantic piece:

Back in June 2010, I published a Wall Street Journal op-ed arguing that the American left was unenlightened, by and large, as to economic matters. Responding to a set of survey questions that tested people’s real-world understanding of basic economic principles, self-identified progressives and liberals did much worse than conservatives and libertarians, I reported. To sharpen the ax, The Journal titled the piece “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?”—the implication being that people on the left were not….

The Wall Street Journal piece was based on an article that Zeljka Buturovic and I had published in Econ Journal Watch, a journal that I edit….

But one year later, in May 2011, Buturovic and I published a new scholarly article reporting on a new survey. It turned out that I needed to retract the conclusions I’d trumpeted in The Wall Street Journal. The new results invalidated our original result: under the right circumstances, conservatives and libertarians were as likely as anyone on the left to give wrong answers to economic questions….

Writing up these results was, for me, a gloomy task—I expected critics to gloat and point fingers. In May, we published another paper in Econ Journal Watch, saying in the title that the new results “Vitiate Prior Evidence of the Left Being Worse.” More than 30 percent of my libertarian compatriots (and more than 40 percent of conservatives), for instance, disagreed with the statement “A dollar means more to a poor person than it does to a rich person”—c’mon, people!—versus just 4 percent among progressives. Seventy-eight percent of libertarians believed gun-control laws fail to reduce people’s access to guns. Overall, on the nine new items, the respondents on the left did much better than the conservatives and libertarians. Some of the new questions challenge (or falsely reassure) conservative and not libertarian positions, and vice versa. Consistently, the more a statement challenged a group’s position, the worse the group did.

The articles to which Klein refers are “Economic Enlightenment in Relation to College-going, Ideology, and Other Variables: A Zogby Survey of Americans” and “Economic Enlightenment Revisited: New Results Again Find Little Relationship Between Education and Economic Enlightenment but Vitiate Prior Evidence of the Left Being Worse.” (Those links lead to abstracts and links to the full text of each article, in .pdf format.) Both papers explain how answers were scored and how respondents identified their political leanings. The choices offered were progressive, liberal, moderate, conservative, very conservative, and libertarian.

The questions asked are listed below (in italics), with the “unenlightened” (or “incorrect”) answers in parentheses. My comments (in bold) are followed by the correct answers, from an enlightened libertarian perspective.

1. Restrictions on housing development make housing less affordable. (Unenlightened: Disagree)

Disagreement suggests a refusal to acknowledge reality and/or a preference for arrogantly imposing one’s aesthetic views on others. The enlightened answer is “agree.”

2. Mandatory licensing of professional services increases the prices of those services. (Unenlightened: Disagree)

Disagreement suggests a refusal to acknowledge reality and/or a strong streak of paternalistic arrogance. The enlightened answer is “agree.”

3. Overall, the standard of living is better today than it was 30 years ago. (Unenlightened: Disagree)

Disagreement suggests a refusal to acknowledge reality or indoctrination in the standard leftist view that most people are doing worse than they used to, which (in the left-wing view) justifies redistribution of income. The enlightened answer is “agree.”

4. Rent-control laws lead to housing shortages. (Unenlightened: Disagree)

Disagreement suggests a refusal to acknowledge reality and/or a value judgment that lower rents are preferable to more and better housing. The enlightened answer is “agree.”

5. A company that has the largest market share is a monopoly.  (Unenlightened: Agree)

Agreement suggests a presumption that “largest market share” means dominance of a market, and is grounds for government action. The enlightened answer is “disagree.”

6. Third-world workers working overseas for American companies are being exploited. (Unenlightened: Agree)

Agreement suggests a value judgement that third-world workers would be better off doing whatever it is they did before the arrival of American companies, even though they probably choose to work for American companies because it makes them better off. Agreement is driven by the knee-jerk left-wing disposition to favor “victims.” The unenlightened answer is “agree.”

7. Free trade leads to unemployment. (Unenlightened: Agree)

Free trade can lead to unemployment in certain industries and areas, at least temporarily, but not in the long run (unless welfare programs discourage job-seeking and relocation). And free trade benefits American consumers. Agreement indicates an unwillingness to concede that change is always in the air, and that the effects of international trade are no different in kind than the effects of changes in patterns of domestic trade. Agreement is driven by the knee-jerk left-wing disposition to favor “victims.” The enlightened answer is “disagree.”

8. Minimum wage laws raise unemployment. (Unenlightened: Disagree)

Disagreement suggests a refusal to acknowledge reality and/or a value judgment that higher wages for some offsets the loss of employment by others. (This is a typically arrogant left-wing view of the world, in keeping with left-wing positions on most of the preceding questions.) The unenlightened answer is “disagree.”

9. A dollar means more to a poor person than it does to a rich person. (Unenlightened: Disagree)

This, the first of the “new” questions is truly ambiguous and requires a judgment that no one is entitled to make. Does a dollar “mean more” in relative or absolute terms? And how can anyone know what a dollar “means” to someone else? As it happens, the marginal utility of a dollar need not decline. An additional dollar represents an opportunity to buy something new and different or add to one’s store of wealth. In the latter case, more is preferable to less over a very large range of additional dollars. The enlightened answer is “disagree.”

10. Making abortion illegal would increase the number of black-market abortions. (Unenlightened: Disagree)

This is almost certainly a true statement. Those who disagree with it make two implicit judgments: (1) Abortion is a moral abomination because it ends an innocent life and (2) the net effect of making abortion illegal would be to reduce the number of abortions. Disagreement is therefore rational. Disagreement signals a superior moral stance; the enlightened answer is “disagree.”

11. Legalizing drugs would give more wealth and power to street gangs and organized crime. (Unenlightened: Agree)

I must quote myself:

The legalization of drugs will make them affordable only by those persons who can afford to pay the inevitably inflated prices that will result from government licensing of vendors, restrictions on the number and location of vendors, and restrictions on the amount of drugs an individual may purchase in a given period. (Regulation and paternalism go hand in hand.)….

…[G]overnment restrictions would open the door to a black market, operated by the usual suspects. In the meantime, drug-users would continue to expose themselves to the same inhibition-loosing effects, and many of them would still resort to crime to underwrite their drug intake.

Legalization is a paper panacea. Agreement with the proposition indicates a healthy grasp of reality. The enlightened answer (with respect to the real issue) is “agree.”

12. Drug prohibition fails to reduce people’s access to drugs. (Unenlightened: Agree)

Those who agree with this statement probably make two implicit judgments: (1) Drug use has untoward social consequences (e.g., impoverishment of families and crime) and (2) the net effect of making it illegal would be to reduce the incidence of those consequences. Opposition to drug use is therefore rational. The unenlightened answer (with respect to the real issue) is “disagree.”

13. Gun-control laws fail to reduce people’s access to guns. (Unenlightened: Agree)

This is almost certainly a false statement. But those who agree with it are making the rational judgment that gun-control laws of the strict (confiscatory) kind favored by the left will do little or nothing to disarm criminals, while leaving law-abiding citizens without guns. The enlightened answer (with respect to the real issue) is “agree.”

14. By participating in the marketplace in the United States, immigrants reduce the economic well-being of American citizens. (Unenlightened: Agree)

“Immigrants” these days are mainly illegal ones. Leftists don’t care about that because anything that sticks it to “the man” is good, in their adolescent-rebellion worldview. Nor do they care much about the cost of subsidizing the housing, health-care, and education of illegal immigrants — and those costs probably nullify the gains from lower labor costs that accrue to well-to-do leftists who employ nannies, yard men, and other types of unskilled labor. The enlightened answer is “agree.”

15. When a country goes to war its citizens experience an improvement in economic well-being. (Unenlightened: Agree)

Agreement with this statement reflects  the myth that World War II rescued America from the Great Depression. It did, but not because the war brought with it full employment of labor; the war also brought widespread rationing, so that resources could be diverted to the war effort. The war ended the Great Depression indirectly, in two, related ways. There was a “saving glut,” which generated demand for products and services once the war had ended. And businesses were ready and willing to respond to that demand because the war and FDR’s death brought a (temporary) end to the anti-business, anti-growth policies of the New Deal. The enlightened answer is “disagree” because wars consume resources and usually don’t have the  after-effects of WWII.

16. When two people complete a voluntary transaction, they both necessarily come away better off. (Unenlightened: Agree)

Both parties to a voluntary transaction believe that it will make them better off, and they will be right in most cases. The “correct” answer (“disagree”) hinges on “necessarily” and plays into the leftist view of voluntary transactions between individuals and businesses, where businesses are seen (by leftists) as exploiters. “Agree” is the correct answer with respect to the expectations and motives that drive voluntary exchange; “disagree” is favored by those who wish to discredit voluntary exchange and replace it with paternalistic regulation. The enlightened answer is “agree.”

17. When two people complete a voluntary transaction, it is necessarily the case that everyone else is unaffected by their transaction (Unenlightened: Agree)

Here, again, we find the qualifier “necessarily.” As with question 16, it serves to deflect attention from the normal course of events to the outliers that (in the minds of leftists) justify government action. For if anyone is affected (or even offended) in the slightest by a voluntary transaction, the “externality” thus created is grounds from some kind of government action, in the left-wing view of the world. The importance and negative effects of externalities are vastly overrated. The enlightened answer is “agree.”

My interpretations are deliberately provocative. But my point is that, the 17-question survey can be seen as a libertarian Rorschach test. An enlightened libertarian would see through the questions, as stated, to the deeper issues and give what I call enlightened answers.

I used the enlightened answers to compare the positions of self-described leftists, conservatives, and libertarians with each other and with the positions that an enlightened libertarian would take. The next two paragraphs describe my method.

In tables 1 and 2 of “Economic Enlightenment Revisited,” Buturovic and Klein (B & V) give, for each question, the percentage of respondents offering answers that are “incorrect” (in their view), overall and by ideological category. I used the values given in tables 1 and 2 to obtain weighted percentages of “incorrect” answers for “leftist” participants, that is, persons who self-identified as progressive and liberal. Similarly, I obtained weighted percentages of “incorrect” for “conservative” participants, that is, persons who self-identified as conservative and very conservative. I took the percentages for self-identified libertarians straight from the tables.

I then had to account for the fact that an enlightened libertarian would have answered eight questions (9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 16, and 17) “incorrectly,” according to B & V. For example, 30.5 percent of self-described libertarians answered question 9 “incorrectly.” But B & V’s “incorrect” answer is, in fact, the correct one from the standpoint of an enlightened libertarian; therefore, 100 – 30.5 = 69.5 percent of libertarians answered question 9 incorrectly. I made similar adjustments for all eight of the wrongly graded questions, and did so for leftists and conservatives as well as libertarians.

Without further ado, here is a question-by-question comparison of the three ideological categories with respect to the answers that an enlightened libertarian would give:

This leads to two observations:

1. Persons responding to the survey who self-describe as leftists did better than self-described conservatives and libertarians on only two questions: 12 and 15. To put it another way, libertarians and conservatives generally come closer than leftists to enlightened libertarian positions.

2. More significantly, it is obvious that self-described libertarians and conservatives are closely aligned on 14 of the 17 questions. Further, that would be true even if I were to accept B & V’s version of the “correct” answers.

Klein’s retraction is misguided. Many of the answers that he considers correct are, in fact, consistent with the wrong-headed views of extreme libertarians — a vocal but unrepresentative minority of libertarians.

The survey results evidently reflect the views of sensible libertarians, who understand that true libertarianism is found in traditionalist conservatism. The closeness of their positions to those of conservatives is heartening evidence of a de facto libertarian-conservative fusion.

Privacy Is Not Sacred

This is yet another post that begins with a quotation from Maverick Philosopher. In this instance, I am drawn to a passage in MP‘s “A Response to Asher Levy on Abortion“:

Asher thinks that laws against abortion “intrude into private life.”  He doesn’t seem to understand that some such intrusions are legitimate.  If he abuses or kills his own children he will have to answer to the state, and rightly so.  That is a legitimate intrusion into his private family life.  Conservatives, and some libertarians, maintain that there is no difference that makes a moral difference between killing born and unborn children.  If one of the legitimate functions of the state is to protect life, and it is, then that includes all human life.

In the matter of the so-called privacy right, I turn first to the late Justice Hugo L. Black, a man renowned for his defense of individual rights. This is from his dissent in Griswold v. Connecticut:

The Court talks about a constitutional “right of privacy” as though there is some constitutional provision or provisions forbidding any law ever to be passed which might abridge the “privacy” of individuals. But there is not. There are, of course, guarantees in certain specific constitutional provisions which are designed in part to protect privacy at certain times and places with respect to certain activities. Such, for example, is the Fourth Amendment’s guarantee against “unreasonable searches and seizures.” But I think it belittles that Amendment to talk about it as though it protects nothing but “privacy.” To treat it that way is to give it a niggardly interpretation, not the kind of liberal reading I think any Bill of Rights provision should be given. The average man would very likely not have his feelings soothed any more by having his property seized openly than by having it seized privately and by stealth. He simply wants his property left alone.

To put it more bluntly, as I do in “Privacy: Variations on the Theme of Liberty,”

if privacy were an absolute right, it would be possible to get away with murder in one’s home simply by committing murder there. In fact, if there are any absolute rights, privacy certainly isn’t one of them.

Further to the point (from “Law, Liberty, and Abortion“):

It is … unsurprising that the majority in Roe v. Wade could not decide whether the general privacy right is located in the Ninth Amendment or the Fourteenth Amendment. Neither amendment, of course, is the locus of a general privacy right because none is conferred by the Constitution, nor could the Constitution ever confer such a right, for it would interfere with such truly compelling state interests as the pursuit of justice. The majority simply chose to ignore that unspeakable consequence by conjuring a general right to privacy for the limited purpose of ratifying abortion.

The spuriousness of the majority’s conclusion is evident in its flinching from the logical end of its reasoning: abortion anywhere at anytime. Instead, the majority delivered this:

The privacy right involved, therefore, cannot be said to be absolute. . . . We, therefore, conclude that the right of personal privacy includes the abortion decision, but that this right is not unqualified and must be considered against important state interests in regulation.

That is, the majority simply drew an arbitrary line between life and death — but in the wrong place. It is as if the majority understood, but wished not to acknowledged, the full implications of a general right to privacy. Such a general right could be deployed by unprincipled judges to decriminalize a variety of heinous acts.

What about the morality of abortion? Once again, I am uncannily in agreement with MP. This is from one of my early posts, “I’ve Changed My Mind“:

I can no longer condone the legality of abortion. For one thing, legal abortion is a step on the path to legal euthanasia. But legal abortion stands by itself as a crime against humanity….

Once life begins it is sophistry to say that abortion doesn’t amount to the taking of an innocent life. It is also sophistry to argue that abortion is “acceptable” until such-and-such a stage of fetal development. There is no clear dividing line between the onset of life and the onset of human-ness. They are indivisible.

The state shouldn’t be in the business of authorizing the deaths of innocent humans. The state should be in the business of protecting the lives of innocent humans — from conception to grave.

When I wrote that, more than seven years ago, I considered myself a libertarian. Subsequent reflection about libertarianism and its shortcomings led me to reject mainstream libertarianism because it is inimical to liberty, for reasons I spell out in many of the posts linked below. My rejection began with the issue of abortion, and it spread.

I am, in fact, a conservative, though I prefer the more accurate designation of Burkean libertarian. Thoroughgoing libertarianism is impossible in a world of flesh-and-blood social beings whose relationships are not merely calculated and transactional — or cold-blooded, like abortion.

Related posts (abortion and privacy):
I’ve Changed My Mind
Next Stop, Legal Genocide?
It Can Happen Here: Eugenics, Abortion, Euthanasia, and Mental Screening
Creeping Euthanasia
PETA, NARAL, and Roe v. Wade
Notes on the State of Liberty in American Law
The Consequences of Roe v. Wade
The Old Eugenics in a New Guise
The Left, Abortion, and Adolescence
Law, Liberty, and Abortion
Oh, *That* Slippery Slope
Abortion and the Slippery Slope
The Cynics Debate While Babies Die
Privacy, Autonomy, and Responsibility
Oh, *That* Privacy Right
Peter Singer’s Agenda
The Slippery Slope in Holland
The Slippery Slope in England
The Slippery Slope in New Jersey
An Argument Against Abortion
The Case against Genetic Engineering
Singer Said It
Privacy: Variations on the Theme of Liberty
A “Person” or a “Life”?
How Much Jail Time?
A Wrong-Headed Take on Abortion
Crimes against Humanity
Abortion and Logic

Related posts (libertarianism):
On Liberty
What Is Conservatism?
Utilitarianism, “Liberalism,” and Omniscience
Utilitarianism vs. Liberty
The Indivisibility of Economic and Social Liberty
Law and Liberty
Negative Rights
Negative Rights, Social Norms, and the Constitution
Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and the Legitimate State
Tocqueville’s Prescience
Accountants of the Soul
“Natural Rights” and Consequentialism
Rawls Meets Bentham
More about Consequentialism
Line-Drawing and Liberty
Pseudo-Libertarian Sophistry vs. True Libertarianism
Positivism, “Natural Rights,” and Libertarianism
What Are “Natural Rights”?
The Golden Rule and the State
Libertarian Conservative or Conservative Libertarian?
Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: Part I
Social Justice
Bounded Liberty: A Thought Experiment
Evolution, Human Nature, and “Natural Rights”
More Pseudo-Libertarianism
More about Conservative Governance
The Meaning of Liberty
Positive Liberty vs. Liberty
More Social Justice
On Self-Ownership and Desert
Understanding Hayek
The Golden Rule as Beneficial Learning
Why I Am Not an Extreme Libertarian
Facets of Liberty
Burkean Libertarianism
Rights: Source, Applicability, How Held
What Is Libertarianism?
True Libertarianism, One More Time

Burkean Libertarianism

This post rounds off the preceding one and (possibly) puts and end to my discussion of conservatism and libertarianism. I have argued in many posts that true libertarianism is to be found in conservatism — Burkean conservatism, in particular. (The preceding post is a good case in point, as are many of the posts linked at the bottom of that post.)

Roger Scruton writes:

…A small dose of philosophy will persuade us that people have always been wrong to look to the future for the test of legitimacy, rather than to the past. For the future, unlike the past, is unknown and untried. A host of respectable modern thinkers were aware of this fact and tried (against the pressure of half-educated enthusiasm) to remind their contemporaries of it: Burke, for example…. The modernist adulation of the future should be seen as an expression of despair, not of hope… (An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Philosophy, p. 163)

That brief passage exposes “mainstream” libertarianism — contractarian, utilitarian, economistic — for the sham that it is. In its various forms, it assumes a world that ought to be and might be (if only people behaved like automata), instead of looking to a world that can be, as revealed by the past.

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

But what does conservatism have to do with libertarianism? Instead of quoting myself, I yield to John Kekes, who toward the end of “What Is Conservatism?” says this:

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

Therein lies true libertarianism — true because it is attainable.

It is fitting and proper to close this post with my version of Russel Kirk’s six “canons” of conservatism (summarized here):

  1. Belief that political problems, at bottom, are religious and moral problems.
  2. Affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of traditional life, as distinguished from the narrowing uniformity and egalitarian and utilitarian aims of most radical systems.
  3. Conviction that civilized society requires order.
  4. Persuasion that property and freedom are inseparably connected, and that economic leveling is not economic progress.
  5. Faith in traditional mores and distrust of “sophisters and calculators.” Tradition and sound prejudice provide checks upon man’s anarchic impulse.
  6. Recognition that change and reform are not identical.

I will now turn my attention to other matters.* High on my list of things to do is to contribute, in some small way, to the rejection of Obama and his party in next year’s election. They are all-but-declared enemies of a truly free society — one whose members shape their own rules by trial and error, in the process forging the social bonds that foster liberty, which is peaceful, willing coexistence and beneficially cooperative behavior.
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* My resolve weakens in the face of provocation. Thus “What Is Libertarianism?” (09/06/11), and probably more in that vein.