An Ideal World

Roger Scruton, in Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition, makes this observation:

Many accuse conservatism of being no more than a highly wrought work of mourning, a translation into the language of politics of the yearning for childhood that lies deep in us all.

Conservatism is more than nostalgia. It is, as I have written,

a disposition, that is, a temperament or tendency….

The conservative disposition is cautious, but not stuck in the mud. As Michael Oakeshott puts it,

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. [“On Being Conservative” in Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays, New and Expanded Edition]

A conservative (by disposition) will respect — or at least inspect — the views of others. A conservative’s default position is to respect prevailing social norms, taking them as a guide to conduct that will yield productive social and economic collaboration. Conservatism isn’t merely a knee-jerk response to authority. It reflects an understanding, if only an intuitive one, that tradition reflects wisdom that has passed the test of time. It also reflects a preference for changing tradition — where it needs changing — from the inside out, a bit at a time, rather from the outside in. The latter kind of change is uninformed by first-hand experience and therefore likely to be counterproductive, that is, destructive of social and economic cohesion and cooperation.

Yes, childhood is often remembered as a golden time. But I doubt that golden memories of childhood, or even mourning for its passage, are unique to conservatives. Take Paul Krugman, for example. He is a “liberal” in the modern, fascistic sense, and he waxes nostalgic for the 1950s, when he was a child.

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

There is, nevertheless, something to the idea that the years between the end of World War II and the early 1960s were something of a Golden Age. (See this post, for example.) But it was that way for reasons other than those offered by Krugman.

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

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

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

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

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


Related reading:

Fred Reed, “Decline in the Fall (or Late Summer Anyway): by Fred Gibbon“, Fred on Everything, August 15, 2018

Gilbert T. Sewall, “1968: Freedom without License“, The American Conservative, August 16, 2018


Related pages and posts:

Leftism
Social Norms and Liberty
Liberty and Society
The Eclipse of “Old America”
Genetic Kinship and Society
Well-Founded Pessimism
America: Past, Present, and Future
IQ, Political Correctness, and America’s Present Condition
The Barbarians Within and the State of the Union
The View from Here
The Culture War
O Tempora O Mores!
A Home of One’s Own
Surrender? Hell No!
Decline
Two-Percent Tyranny
1963: The Year Zero
Society
How Democracy Works
“Cheerful” Thoughts
How Government Subverts Social Norms
Turning Points
The Twilight’s Last Gleaming?
Society, Polarization, and Dissent
My Platform
How America Has Changed
Civil War?
Red-Diaper Babies and Enemies Within
Death of a Nation
Down the Memory Hole
“Why Can’t We All Just Get Along?”
Mass Murder: Reaping What Was Sown
“Democracy” Thrives in Darkness — and Liberty Withers
Whence Polarization

O.J.’s Glove and the Enlightenment

The Enlightenment

is not an historical period, but a process of social, psychological or spiritual development, unbound to time or place. Immanuel Kant defines “enlightenment” in his famous contribution to debate on the question in an essay entitled “An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?” (1784), as humankind’s release from its self-incurred immaturity; “immaturity is the inability to use one’s own understanding without the guidance of another.” Expressing convictions shared among Enlightenment thinkers of widely divergent doctrines, Kant identifies enlightenment with the process of undertaking to think for oneself, to employ and rely on one’s own intellectual capacities in determining what to believe and how to act. Enlightenment philosophers from across the geographical and temporal spectrum tend to have a great deal of confidence in humanity’s intellectual powers, both to achieve systematic knowledge of nature and to serve as an authoritative guide in practical life. This confidence is generally paired with suspicion or hostility toward other forms or carriers of authority (such as tradition, superstition, prejudice, myth and miracles), insofar as these are seen to compete with the authority of one’s own reason and experience. Enlightenment philosophy tends to stand in tension with established religion, insofar as the release from self-incurred immaturity in this age, daring to think for oneself, awakening one’s intellectual powers, generally requires opposing the role of established religion in directing thought and action. The faith of the Enlightenment – if one may call it that – is that the process of enlightenment, of becoming progressively self-directed in thought and action through the awakening of one’s intellectual powers, leads ultimately to a better, more fulfilled human existence.

The Enlightenment’s great flaw — probably fatal to Western civilization — is found in the contrast between the two passages that are highlighted in bold, italic type. I will not go on at length about the Enlightenment because I have addressed it elsewhere, directly and by implication (e.g., here, here, here, here, eighth item here, here, here, and here).

Suffice it to say that the Enlightenment is fixated on “reason”, which all too often is flawed logic applied to false “facts” and piled upon prejudice. It rejects, when it does not ignore, the wisdom that resides in tradition. It scorns the civilizing norms represented in tradition, norms upon which liberty depends, despite the false and contrary “logic” of “enlightened” thinkers like John Stuart Mill.

Here is an apt passage from Richard Fernandez’s review of Michael Walsh’s The Fiery Angel:

Deleting God, patriotism, heroic myths and taboos and all the “useless stuff” from Western culture turns out to be as harmless as navigating to the system folder (like C:\Windows\System32), “selecting all,” and pressing delete. Far from being clever, it leads to consequences far greater than anyone anticipated.

The Enlightenment reminds me of O.J. Simpson’s bloody glove. A single “fact” — that the glove seemed tight on O.J.’s hand — was instrumental in the acquittal of Simpson in the murder of his ex-wife and a friend of hers. This sliver of unreasonable doubt obscured the overwhelming evidence against Simpson. Later, he was found responsible for the murders in a civil trial, and then all but admitted his guilt in a book.

And so it is with “reason” and Western civilization. The pillars that have supported it and given it great economic and social strength are being destroyed, one at a time. Each move, as it is made, is portrayed (by its advocates) as “logical” and “reasonable” — and even consistent with liberty.

As I wrote 11 years ago,

Robin Hanson makes a mistake [here] that is common to “rationalists”: He examines every thread of human behavior for “reasonableness.”

It is the fabric of human behavior that matters, not each thread. Any thread, if pulled out of the fabric, might look defective under the microscope of “reason.” But pulling threads out of a fabric — one at a time — can weaken a strong and richly textured tapestry.

Whether a particular society is, in fact, a “strong and richly textured tapestry” is for its members to determine, through voice and exit. The “reasonableness” of a society’s norms (if they are voluntarily evolved) should be judged by whether those norms — on the whole — foster liberty (as explained here), not by the whether each norm, taken in isolation, is “reasonable” to a pundit inveighing from on high.

UPDATE (11/01/07): Hanson has updated his post…. But he digs himself a deeper, rationalistic hole when he says

I’ll now only complain about [Russ Roberts’s] bias to hold his previous beliefs to a lower standard than he holds posssible alternatives.

He should complain, rather, about his own, too-easy willingness to reject the wisdom of inherited beliefs on the basis of statistical analysis.

The Age of Enlightenment is the age of empty logic and the nirvana fallacy.

Utilitarianism vs. Liberty

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

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

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

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

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

THE UTILITARIAN WORLD VIEW

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

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

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

UTILITARIANISM AS ECONOMIC FALLACY, ARROGANCE, AND HYPOCRISY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UTILITARIANISM VS. LIBERTY

I have defined liberty as

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UTILITARIANISM AND GUN CONTROL VS. LIBERTY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CONCLUSION

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


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

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

Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and Leviathan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Social Norms, the Left, and Social Disintegration

Leftists like to taunt conservatives by saying that it is “conservative” to accept the status quo. But leftists know that the much of the status quo was attained by applying the power of the state to override a status quo that resulted from voluntary interactions among people. To question the new status quo becomes an occasion for official abuse (e.g., Mike Pompeo), or for levying civil and criminal penalties against the questioner (e.g., Jack Phillips).

Michael J. Totten has issued a useful reminder about the facts of life under leftitst totalitarianism:

As Christopher Hitchens once said of North Korea, communist states are places where everything that isn’t absolutely compulsory is absolutely forbidden. Mounting any kind of resistance against them is nearly impossible unless and until the state loses its will to continue.

And if you believe that today’s American leftists aren’t totalitarians at heart, I urge you to read this and this.

How did we get here? In addition to the raw exercise of political power, the left has deployed a clever gambit, which some libertarians have adopted in all seriousness because of their inability to see that social norms underlie liberty. (More about that below.) The gambit is to argue for the normalization of behavior that would otherwise be socially discouraged or illegal (e.g., homosexuality, pot-smoking, and worse) because it “just comes naturally”. Why, leftists and libertarians ask, should “natural acts” be discouraged or penalized?

The “natural act” defense is shallow and diversionary. Anything that a person can do is a “natural act” — literally. Such acts include not only murder — which leftists are loath to punish properly — but also various forms of “sexual misconduct”. This is a new, amorphous category of crime which encompasses almost any kind of behavior frowned on by strident feminists and the eunuchs who worship at their feet. It is a “crime” which leftists are quick to punish without benefit of due process.

In that regard, given the nature of the male human being, what is more natural than an attempt to flirt with an attractive female? But in today’s version of leftism, a rather innocent thing like a wolf-whistle or even holding a door open for a woman has become an act of aggression. But a physically dangerous and potentially deadly act such as anal intercourse is a “natural” act of love. (Do leftists ever check their ideas for logical consistency?)

Such contradictions just go to show that the real issue isn’t the “naturalness” of an act, but whether it should be allowed, and who decides whether it should be allowed.

It is taken for granted, even by leftists, that murder, theft, fraud, and various kinds of assault are unallowable, if not punishable in ways that serve the causes of justice and deterrence. Those leftists who are rationalists (as most of them are) will say that punishment is necessary because the world (or the United States, at least) would be a terrible place in which to live if anyone could murder, steal from, or assault anyone else with impunity.

But that is a superficial explanation for the evolution and application of social norms. They are about bonding, the essential ingredient of liberty (discussed below). Punishment isn’t just a response to wrong-doing; it’s an essential means of preserving the bonds that underlie liberty.

Leftists — who like to argue for government programs in aid of this and that group or cause by saying (inter alia) that “we’re all in this together” — think and act in the opposite direction. That which leftists prefer is to be made policy by force rather than being tested in the acid of use.

A classic example is the decree by Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the 5-4 majority in  Obergefell v. Hodges, which brushed aside a social norm thousands of years old in favor of “doing what comes naturally”. Kennedy quotes a district court’s ruling in a same-sex marriage case:

[I]t is wholly illogical to believe that state recognition of the love and commitment between same-sex couples will alter the most intimate and personal decisions of opposite-sex couples.

It may be illogical, but only if one grants the premises implicit in that statement. A key one is that people ignore signals sent by the state. They do not, of course, because of behavioral conditioning and the power of the state to enforce its edicts. (Consider, for example, the cake-makers, florists, and photographers who dared to say that they wouldn’t provide services for same-sex “weddings” and have been punished severely for their impunity.) People do heed the signals sent by the state, and the minions of the state count on that because the state cannot be everywhere all the time. (For every brave cake-maker there are thousands of complaisant shopkeepers, managers, and executives — eager to line up behind the new dispensation for fear of ostracism, and worse.)

And so, when the state undermines long-standing norms that discourage divorce, sodomy, and homosexual coupling, such behaviors become legitimate despite their anti-social effects. Certainly, there were such behaviors before they were legitimated by the state, but they were the exceptions that underscored the norms. The state has normalized the exceptions.

If anyone can be blamed for the low estate of social norms today, it is John Stuart Mill. He is the father of modern leftism, though he is usually thought of as a proponent of “classical liberalism”. Mill’s harm principle, enunciated in his long essay, On Liberty (1869), is the sand upon which leftism is built:

That principle is, 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. 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. [Chapter I, paragraph 9]

This seemingly libertarian principle is in fact anti-libertarian, as I explain at length in “On Liberty”. In that post I focus on harm. As I say there,

the only plausible interpretation of the harm principle is as follows: An individual may do as he pleases, as long as he does not believe that he is causing harm to others. That is Mill’s prescription for liberty. It is, in fact, an invitation to license and anarchy.

Here is Mill, again:

Society can and does execute its own mandates: and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practises a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself. Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough: there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development, and, if possible, prevent the formation, of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own. [Chapter I, paragraph 5]

There’s the rub. Who decides when the “tyranny of prevailing opinion and feeling” is too oppressive? In the end, it must be the state.

“State” is nothing more than an impressive-sounding word that really denotes the amalgam of elected officials, judges, bureaucrats, interest groups, corporate Quislings, and “reliable” voters who control the power of government — even when the more statist of the two major parties is formally out of power.

There are those who say that the state embodies the nation, which is like saying that the lion-tamer embodies the lion. The state most certainly is not society, but it is has the power to be far more tyrannical than society’s “prevailing opinion and feeling”.

Mill’s touchy-feely followers — libertarians and old-fashioned “liberals” — made a bargain with the devil when they opted to empower the state to overthrow those despised social norms. When long-established rules of behavior are sundered willy-nilly the result is a breakdown of the voluntary order known as civil society.

Liberty — the state of peaceful, willing, and beneficially cooperative coexistence, based on mutual trust, respect, and forbearance —  depends on the institutions of society. It is those institutions — 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.

The state usurps civil society through agencies vested with primary and even sole jurisdiction in many matters (e.g., public schools, health insurance for the elderly), and funding 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. (Why should I — or any reasonable person who isn’t in thrall to “intellectual” fads — trust a person who advocates infanticide in the womb or birth canal, who believes that anal intercourse is a natural act of love, who insists that science is “settled” by consensus, or who wants to establish a single-payer system of health-care with its inevitable death panels? I could go on, but you get the idea.)

Yes, there have been some actual wrongs that have been sustained by social norms. The worst wrong in American history was slavery, which drew on a widespread disdain for blacks as intellectually inferior and a fear of them as violent savages. This isn’t quite the same thing as a norm that prescribes behavior, but it underlies the now mainly tacit agreement among most whites (even affluent “liberals”) to “hold the line” against social integration. It’s important to note that the norm wasn’t restricted to the South, nor did it die with the end of slavery. Nor could it die, because it has a basis in truth — a truth that leftists embrace subtly, but tellingly, in the bigotry of low expectations.

Let me be perfectly clear: I am by no means apologizing for slavery. But it wasn’t a social norm per se; it was a practice that was validated, in part, by a social norm (prevailing attitudes toward blacks). Slavery was far from a universal practice; in 1860, about one-third of the families in the South owned slaves. More families undoubtedly would have owned slaves had they been able to afford them, but slavery wasn’t the norm in the South, and far from the norm in the North, even though most Northern whites shared the prevailing view of blacks. On that score, I quote a quintessential Northerner, the Great Emancipator himself:

I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, [applause]—that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race. I say upon this occasion I do not perceive that because the white man is to have the superior position the negro should be denied every thing. I do not understand that because I do not want a negro woman for a slave I must necessarily want her for a wife. [Cheers and laughter.] My understanding is that I can just let her alone. I am now in my fiftieth year, and I certainly never have had a black woman for either a slave or a wife. So it seems to me quite possible for us to get along without making either slaves or wives of negroes. I will add to this that I have never seen, to my knowledge, a man, woman or child who was in favor of producing a perfect equality, social and political, between negroes and white men. I recollect of but one distinguished instance that I ever heard of so frequently as to be entirely satisfied of its correctness—and that is the case of Judge Douglas’s old friend Col. Richard M. Johnson. [Laughter.] I will also add to the remarks I have made (for I am not going to enter at large upon this subject), that I have never had the least apprehension that I or my friends would marry negroes if there was no law to keep them from it, [laughter] but as Judge Douglas and his friends seem to be in great apprehension that they might, if there were no law to keep them from it, [roars of laughter] I give him the most solemn pledge that I will to the very last stand by the law of this State, which forbids the marrying of white people with negroes. [Continued laughter and applause.] [Abraham Lincoln, in the 4th Lincoln-Douglas debate, at Charleston, Illinois, on September 18, 1858]

(The prevailing attitude in the North was the same more than 100 years later, when I left the North for a job in the South, and found the natives to be like those I had left behind. Nor are attitudes really any different today, as far as I can tell — especially among affluentliberals” who undoubtedly pay lip service to “diversity”.)

Slavery was, above all, an economic institution that was kept in place by the political power of slave-owners, to the benefit of not a few Northern manufacturers, merchants, and bankers. To put it another way, slavery was really the product of state action at the behest of special interests. It doesn’t take a social norm to produce a great evil. All it takes is political power.

In summary, neither slavery nor any other wrong negates the irreplaceable value of social norms as an essential civilizing force. Nor do such wrongs validate the state’s power to override long-standing norms. That power is a two-edged sword. A state that is powerful enough to abolish slavery is also powerful enough to enact slavery of a different kind: forcing people to surrender a large portion of their income (and thus wealth) for the benefit of groups favored by the state.

“Thanks” to the state — and despite long-standing social norms — we now have not only 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 foster disease, promiscuity, and familial instability. The state, of course, doesn’t act of its own volition. It acts at the behest of leftists (and their clientele and enablers), who 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.

Those who scorn social norms often mock the “social oppression” that is captured in “What will the neighbors think?” But “social repression” is always with us. “What will the neighbors think?” has simply been replaced among leftists by “What will my ‘liberal’ friends think if I question today’s ‘liberal’ dogmas?” Those dogmas have ranged, over the decades, from eugenics (even before Hitler became a household word), prohibition, repeal of prohibition, peace through unilateral disarmament, overpopulation, global cooling, peak oil, global warming, carbon footprints, recycling, income inequality, unconscious racism, white privilege, forced integration, forced segregation (if blacks want it), coeducation, mixed-sex dorms, single-sex schools, any reference to or image of a firearm, keeping score, winning, cultural appropriation, diversity, globalization, free speech (not), homophobia, same-sex “marriage”, prohibition of smoking (pot excepted), gender “assignment” at birth, “free” college for all, “settled science”, collective guilt (but only for straight, white, conservative males of European descent, and Germans in 1933-1945), racial profiling and stereotyping (except when leftists do it), etc., etc., etc. All of which can be categorized as the triumph of hope over facts and experience.

“Social repression” — leftist style — now runs amok in the land. Witness political correctness in the nth degree, shout-downs of conservative speakers, trigger warnings, the demand for “safe spaces” where contrary views aren’t uttered, the banning of conservative views from social media, etc., etc., etc. Old-fashioned “social repression” didn’t hold a candle to the oppressiveness and destructiveness of today’s version.

Leftism, with its profusion of socially destructive dicta, is undoubtedly the least natural of political stances. It arises not from nationalistic or religious fervor, an informed view of human nature, or a principled view of rights and responsibilities. It arises from the political dilettantism of the spoiled children of capitalism. It has split the country into warring social camps — mostly in rhetoric but sometimes in actual battle.

It’s the left’s fault.


Related reading:
John Craig, “The Left vs. Natural Instincts“, American Renaissance, January 18, 2018
Theodore Dalrymple, “Mary Neal Lives On“, Taki’s Magazine, January 13, 2018
Theodore Dalrymple, “An Uncivil Society“, Taki’s Magazine, March 31, 2018
Rod Dreher, “A Time of Tribalism“, The American Conservative, April 27, 2018
Rod Dreher, “‘The Therapeutic Is Our Ultimate Terrorist’“, The American Conservative, April 28, 2018
Brian Jones, “Civic Chaos and the Myth of Autonomy“, Public Discourse, January 25, 2018
John O. McGinnis, “The Divide between Jefferson and Adams on Human Nature Is Ours Too“, Law and Liberty, January 17, 2018
Francis Menton, “Climate Science and the Process of Orthodoxy Enforcement“, Manhattan Contrarian, January 14, 2018
Gilbert T. Sewall, “The Man Who Foresaw the West’s Fantasia“, The American Conservative, January 25, 2018
Amy Wax, “Are We Free to Discuss America’s Real Problems?“, Imprimis, January 2018


Related posts:
Refuting Rousseau and His Progeny
The Left’s Agenda
In Defense of Marriage
The Left and Its Delusions
Abortion and Logic
The Myth That Same-Sex “Marriage” Causes No Harm
Society and the State
Abortion, Doublethink, and Left-Wing Blather
Abortion, “Gay Rights,” and Liberty
Liberty and Society
Tolerance on the Left
The Eclipse of “Old America”
Genetic Kinship and Society
“We the People” and Big Government
The Culture War
Getting Liberty Wrong
The Barbarians Within and the State of the Union
Abortion Rights and Gun Rights
Getting “Equal Protection” Right
The Writing on the Wall
How to Protect Property Rights and Freedom of Association and Expression
The Principles of Actionable Harm
Judicial Supremacy: Judicial Tyranny
The Beginning of the End of Liberty in America
Turning Points
There’s More to It Than Religious Liberty
Equal Protection in Principle and Practice
Social Justice vs. Liberty
Economically Liberal, Socially Conservative
The Transgender Fad and Its Consequences
The Left and “the People”
Why Conservatives Shouldn’t Compromise
Liberal Nostrums
The Harm Principle Revisited: Mill Conflates Society and State
Liberty and Social Norms Re-examined
Roundup: Civil War, Solitude, Transgenderism, Academic Enemies, and Immigration
Equality
Academic Freedom, Freedom of Speech, and the Demise of Civility
Self-Made Victims
Leftism
Leftism As Crypto-Fascism: The Google Paradigm
What Is Going On? A Stealth Revolution
Disposition and Ideology
How’s Your (Implicit) Attitude?
Down the Memory Hole
“Why Can’t We All Just Get Along?”
Sexual Misconduct: A New Crime, a New Kind of Justice
“Tribalists”, “Haters”, and Psychological Projection
Mass Murder: Reaping What Was Sown
Andrew Sullivan Almost Gets It
Utopianism, Leftism, and Dictatorship
Pronoun Profusion
“Democracy” Thrives in Darkness — and Liberty Withers
Preemptive (Cold) Civil War
My View of Mill, Endorsed
The Framers, Mob Rule, and a Fatal Error
Abortion, the “Me” Generation, and the Left
Abortion Q and A
Whence Polarization?
Negative Rights, Etc.

My View of Mill, Endorsed

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Danger of Marginal Thinking

The “marginal revolution” in economics, which occurred in the latter part of the 19th century, introduced marginalism,

a theory of economics that attempts to explain the discrepancy in the value of goods and services by reference to their secondary, or marginal, utility. The reason why the price of diamonds is higher than that of water, for example, owes to the greater additional satisfaction of the diamonds over the water. Thus, while the water has greater total utility, the diamond has greater marginal utility.

Although the central concept of marginalism is that of marginal utility, marginalists, following the lead of Alfred Marshall, drew upon the idea of marginal physical productivity in explanation of cost. The neoclassical tradition that emerged from British marginalism abandoned the concept of utility and gave marginal rates of substitution a more fundamental role in analysis. Marginalism is an integral part of mainstream economic theory.

But pure marginalism can be the road to ruin for a business if the average cost of a unit of output is greater than average revenue, that is, the price for which a unit is sold.

Marginalism is the road to ruin in law and politics. If a governmental act can be shown to have a positive effect “at the margin”, its broader consequences are usually ignored. This kind of marginalism is responsible for the slippery sloperatchet effect enactment and perpetuation of one economically and socially destructive government program after another. Obamacare, same-sex “marriage”, and rampant transgenderism are the most notorious examples of recent years. Among the many examples of earlier years are the Pure Food and Drug Act, the Supreme Court’s holding in Wickard v. Filburn, the Social Security Act and its judicial vindication, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the various enactments related to “equal employment opportunity”, including the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Frédéric Bastiat’s wrote about it more than 160 years ago, in “What Is Seen and What Is Not Seen“:

[A] law produces not only one effect, but a series of effects. Of these effects, the first alone is immediate; it appears simultaneously with its cause; it is seen. The other effects emerge only subsequently; they are not seen; we are fortunate if we foresee them.

The unseen effects — the theft of Americans’ liberty and prosperity — had been foreseen by some (e.g., Tocqueville and Hayek). But their wise words have been overwhelmed by power-lust, ignorance, and greed. Greed manifests itself in the interest-group paradox:

The interest-group paradox is a paradox of mass action….

Pork-barrel legislation exemplifies the interest-group paradox in action, though the paradox encompasses much more than pork-barrel legislation. There are myriad government programs that — like pork-barrel projects — are intended to favor particular classes of individuals. Here is a minute sample:

  • Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, for the benefit of the elderly (including the indigent elderly)
  • Tax credits and deductions, for the benefit of low-income families, charitable and other non-profit institutions, and home buyers (with mortgages)
  • Progressive income-tax rates, for the benefit of persons in the mid-to-low income brackets
  • Subsidies for various kinds of “essential” or “distressed” industries, such as agriculture and automobile manufacturing
  • Import quotas, tariffs, and other restrictions on trade, for the benefit of particular industries and/or labor unions
  • Pro-union laws (in many States), for the benefit of unions and unionized workers
  • Non-smoking ordinances, for the benefit of bar and restaurant employees and non-smoking patrons.

What do each of these examples have in common? Answer: Each comes with costs. There are direct costs (e.g., higher taxes for some persons, higher prices for imported goods), which the intended beneficiaries and their proponents hope to impose on non-beneficiaries. Just as importantly, there are indirect costs of various kinds (e.g., disincentives to work and save, disincentives to make investments that spur economic growth)….

You may believe that a particular program is worth what it costs — given that you probably have little idea of its direct costs and no idea of its indirect costs. The problem is millions of your fellow Americans believe the same thing about each of their favorite programs. Because there are thousands of government programs (federal, State, and local), each intended to help a particular class of citizens at the expense of others, the net result is that almost no one in this fair land enjoys a “free lunch.” Even the relatively few persons who might seem to have obtained a “free lunch” — homeless persons taking advantage of a government-provided shelter — often are victims of the “free lunch” syndrome. Some homeless persons may be homeless because they have lost their jobs and can’t afford to own or rent housing. But they may have lost their jobs because of pro-union laws, minimum-wage laws, or progressive tax rates (which caused “the rich” to create fewer jobs through business start-ups and expansions).

The paradox that arises from the “free lunch” syndrome is…. like the paradox of panic, in that there is a  crowd of interest groups rushing toward a goal — a “pot of gold” — and (figuratively) crushing each other in the attempt to snatch the pot of gold before another group is able to grasp it. The gold that any group happens to snatch is a kind of fool’s gold: It passes from one fool to another in a game of beggar-thy-neighbor, and as it passes much of it falls into the maw of bureaucracy.

As far as I know, only one agency of the federal government has been abolished in my lifetime, while dozens have been created and expanded willy-nilly at the behest of politicians, bureaucrats, and cronies. The one that was abolished — the Interstate Commerce Commission — still had “residual functions” that were transferred elsewhere. That’s the way it works in Washington, and in State capitals.

So one obvious danger of marginal thinking is that the nose of the camel under the edge of the tent is invariably followed by its neck, its humps, its tail, another camel’s nose, etc., etc. etc.

There’s a less obvious danger, which is typified by the penchant of faux-libertarians for dismissing objections to this and that “harmless” act. Economist Mark Perry, for example, regurgitates Milton Friedman’s 30-year-old plea for the decriminalization of drugs. Just because some behavior is “private” doesn’t mean that it’s harmless to others. Murder behind a closed door is still murder.

In the case of drugs, I turn to Theodore Dalrymple:

[I]t is not true that problems with drugs arise only when or because they are prohibited.

The relationship between crime and drug prohibition is also much more complex than the legalizers would have us believe. It is certainly true that gangs quickly form that try to control drug distribution in certain areas, and that conflict between the aspirant gangs leads to violence…. But here I would point out two things: first that the violence of such criminal gangs was largely confined to the subculture from which they emerged, so that other people were not much endangered by it; and second that, in my dealings with such people, I did not form the impression that, were it not for the illegality of drugs, they would otherwise be pursuing perfectly respectable careers. If my impression is correct, then the illegality of drugs might protect the rest of society from their criminality: the illegal drug trade being the occasion, but not the cause, of their violence.

What about Prohibition, is the natural reply? It is true that the homicide rate in the United States fell dramatically in the wake of repeal. By the 1960s, however, when alcohol was not banned, it had climbed higher than during Prohibition…. Moreover, what is less often appreciated, the homicide rate in the United States rose faster in the thirteen years before than in the thirteen years during Prohibition. (In other respects, Prohibition was not as much of a failure as is often suggested: alcohol-related problems such as liver disease declined during it considerably. But no consequences by themselves can justify a policy, otherwise the amputation of thieves’ hands would be universal.) Al Capone was not a fine upstanding citizen before Prohibition turned him into a gangster. [“Ditching Drug Prohibition: A Dissent”, Library of Law and Liberty, July 23, 2015, and the second in a series; see also “The Simple Truth about J.S. Mill’s Simple Truth”, op. cit., July 20, 2015; “Myths and Realities of Drug Addiction, Consumption, and Crime”, op. cit., July 31, 2015; and “Closing Argument on the Drug Issue”, op. cit., August 4, 2015]

This reminds me of my post, “Prohibition, Abortion, and ‘Progressivism’”, in which I wrote about the Ken Burns series, Prohibition. Here’s some of it:

Although eugenics is not mentioned in Prohibition, it looms in the background. For eugenics — like prohibition of alcohol and, later, the near-prohibition of smoking — is symptomatic of the “progressive” mentality. That mentality is paternalistic, through and through. And “progressive” paternalism finds its way into the daily lives of Americans through the regulation of products and services — for our own good, of course. If you can think of a product or service that you use (or would like to use) that is not shaped by paternalistic regulation or taxes levied with regulatory intent, you must live in a cave.

However, the passing acknowledgement of “progressivism” as a force for the prohibition of alcohol is outweighed by the attention given to the role of “evangelicals” in the enactment of prohibition. I take this as a subtle swipe at anti-abortion stance of fundamentalist Protestants and adherents of the “traditional” strands of Catholicism and Judaism. Here is the “logic” of this implied attack on pro-lifers: Governmental interference in a personal choice is wrong with respect to the consumption of alcohol and similarly wrong with respect to abortion.

By that “logic,” it is wrong for government to interfere in or prosecute robbery, assault, rape, murder and other overtly harmful acts, which — after all — are merely the consequences of personal choices made by their perpetrators. Not even a “progressive” would claim that robbery, assault, etc., should go unpunished, though he would quail at effective punishment.

“Liberals” of both kinds (“progressive” fascists and faux-libertarian) just don’t know when to smack camels on the nose. Civilization depends on deep-seated and vigorously enforced social norms. They reflect eons of trial and error, and can’t be undone peremptorily without unraveling the social fabric — the observance of mores and morals that enable a people to coexist peacefully and beneficially because they are bound by mutual trust, mutual respect, and mutual forbearance.

A key function of those norms is to inculcate self-restraint. For it is the practice of self-restraint that underlies peaceful, beneficial coexistence: What goes around comes around.


Related pages and posts:
Leftism
Social Norms and Liberty
*****
On Liberty
In Defense of Marriage
Myopic Moaning about the War on Drugs
Facets of Liberty
Burkean Libertarianism
The Myth That Same-Sex “Marriage” Causes No Harm
Lock ‘Em Up
Liberty and Society
The Eclipse of “Old America”
Genetic Kinship and Society
The Fallacy of Human Progress
Defining Liberty
The Pseudo-Libertarian Temperament
Getting Liberty Wrong
“Liberalism” and Personal Responsibility
Crime Revisited
A Cop-Free World?
The Beginning of the End of Liberty in America
Marriage: Privatize It and Revitalize It
More About Social Norms and Liberty
Amen to That
The Opposition and Crime
“And the Truth Shall Set You Free”
Double Amen
Economically Liberal, Socially Conservative
The Transgender Fad and Its Consequences
The Harm Principle Revisited: Mill Conflates Society and State
Liberty and Social Norms Re-examined
Natural Law, Natural Rights, and the Real World
Natural Law and Natural Rights Revisited
If Men Were Angels
Death of a Nation
Self-Made Victims

Liberty in Chains

I continue to add items to the list of related readings at the bottom of this post.

Liberty is a good thing, and not just because most people like to feel unconstrained by anything but their moral obligations and principles. (And it’s a good thing for liberty that it doesn’t depend entirely on self-control.) Liberty fosters constructive competition and, in the terminology of pop psychology, self-actualization; for example: the trial-and-error emergence of social norms that advance cooperation and comity; the trial-and-error emergence (and dissolution) of businesses that advance consumers’ interests; the freedom to work where one chooses (according to one’s ability), to live where one chooses (within one’s means), to marry the person of one’s choosing (consistent with public health and the wisdom embedded in voluntarily evolved social norms), to have as many children as a couple can provide for without imposing involuntary burdens on others; and the freedom to associate with persons of one’s own choosing, including the persons with whom one does business.

It’s no secret that those manifestations of liberty haven’t held throughout the United States and throughout its history. It’s also no secret that none of them is sharply and permanently defined in practice. In some jurisdictions, for example, a businessperson is forced by law to provide certain services or pay a stiff fine. The argument for such treatment takes a one-sided view of freedom of association, and grants it only to the person seeking the services, while denigrating the wishes of the person who is forced to provide them. The liberty of the customer is advanced at the expense of the liberty of the businessperson. It is an approach, like that of civil-rights law generally, which favors positive rights and dismisses negative ones. It is therefore anti-libertarianism in the name of liberty, as I explain in a recent post.

In sum, liberty isn’t a simple thing. It’s certainly not as simple or simplistic as J.S. Mill’s harm principle (a.k.a. non-aggression principle), as I have explained many times (e.g. here). In fact, it’s impossible for everyone to be satisfied that they’re living in a state of liberty. This is partly because so many people believe that they possess positive rights — entitlements provided at the expense of others.

More generally, liberty has been and continues to be invoked as a justification for anti-libertarian acts, beyond the creation and enforcement of positive rights. There is the problem of freedom of speech, for example, which has been interpreted to allow advocacy of anti-libertarian forms of government — most notably America’s present de facto blend of socialism and fascism.

This problem, which is actually a constitutional catastrophe, is closely related to the problem of democracy. There are many who advocate unbridled democratic control of private institutions through government power. One such person is Nancy MacLean, whose recent book, Democracy in Chains, seems to be a mindless defense of majority opinion. The Wikipedia entry for the book (as of today’s writing) seems fair and balanced (links and footnotes omitted):

In June 2017 MacLean published Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, focusing on the Nobel Prize winning political economist James McGill Buchanan, Charles Koch, George Mason University and the libertarian movement in the U.S, who, she argues, have undertaken “a stealth bid to reverse-engineer all of America, at both the state and national levels back to the political economy and oligarchic governance of midcentury Virginia, minus the segregation.” According to MacLean, Buchanan represents “the true origin story of today’s well-heeled radical right.”….

Booklist, which gave the book a starred review, wrote that Democracy in Chains … is “perhaps the best explanation to date of the roots of the political divide that threatens to irrevocably alter American government.” Publisher’s Weekly wrote that “MacLean constructs an erudite searing portrait of how the late political economist James McGill Buchanan (1919 – 2013) and his deep-pocketed conservative allies have reshaped–and undermined–American democracy.” Kirkus said “MacLean offers a cogent yet disturbing analysis of libertarians’ current efforts to rewrite the social contract and manipulate citizens’ beliefs.”

In The Atlantic, Sam Tanenhaus called Democracy in Chains, “A vibrant intellectual history of the radical right.” Genevieve Valentine wrote on NPR: “This sixty-year campaign to make libertarianism mainstream and eventually take the government itself is at the heart of Democracy in Chains.”

Democracy in Chains was criticized by libertarians. David Bernstein disputed MacLean’s portrayal of Buchanan and George Mason University, where Bernstein is and Buchanan was a professor. Jonathan H. Adler noted allegations of serious errors and misleading quotations in Democracy in Chains raised by Russ Roberts, David R. Henderson, Don Boudreaux and others. Ilya Somin disagreed that libertarianism was uniquely anti-democratic, arguing that libertarians and left-liberals alike believed in constraining democratic majorities regarding “abortion, privacy rights, robust definitions of free speech… and freedom of religion, extensive protections for criminal defendants, and limitations on the powers of law enforcement personnel”. George Vanberg argued that MacLean’s portrayal of Buchanan as wishing to “preserve (or enhance) the power of a white, wealthy elite at the expenses of marginalized social groups … represents a fundamental misunderstanding”. Michael Munger wrote that Democracy in Chains “is a work of speculative historical fiction” while Phillip Magness argued that MacLean had “simply made up an inflammatory association” concerning Buchanan and the Southern Agrarians. In response MacLean argued she was the target of a “coordinated and interlinked set of calculated hit jobs” from “the Koch team of professors who don’t disclose their conflicts of interest and the operatives who work fulltime for their project to shackle our democracy.”

Henry Farrell and Steven Teles wrote that “while we do not share Buchanan’s ideology … we think the broad thrust of the criticism is right. MacLean is not only wrong in detail but mistaken in the fundamentals of her account.”

The writers cited in the second and third paragraphs are far better qualified than I am to defend Buchanan’s integrity and ideas. (See “Related Reading”, below.) I will focus on MacLean’s ideas.

Why does MacLean claim that democracy is in chains? In what follows I draw on Alex Shephard’s interview of MacLean for The New Republic. MacLean is especially interested in preserving “liberal democracy”. What is it, according to Maclean? She doesn’t say in the interview, and mentions it only once:

[I]f you block off the political process from answering people’s needs, as the radical right managed to do throughout Barack Obama’s two terms on so many major issues, then people get frustrated. They get frustrated that politics has become so polarized between right and left and they believe that liberal democracy does not work—they start to believe that we need a radical alternative.

MacLean seems to have the same view of “liberal democracy” as her European counterparts. It is a mechanism through which government takes some people’s money, property rights, and jobs to buy other people’s votes. It is democracy only in the sense that a majority of voters can be counted on to demand other people’s money, property rights, and jobs. It confers on “liberal” politicians and their bureaucratic minions the image of being “compassionate”, and enables them to characterize their opponents — people who don’t support legalized theft — as mean-spirited. It is asymmetrical ideological warfare in action, with an unsurprising result: the victory of “liberal democracy”.

This sample of MacLean’s thinking (to dignify her knee-jerk leftism) is consistent with her assumption that she knows what “the people” really want; for example:

On issue after issue you see vast majorities of Republicans who actually agree on some of the fundamental needs of the country: They support a progressive income tax, they want to address global warming, they care about the preservation of Medicare and Social Security as originally construed as social insurance, they care about public education…. But they have been riled up by this apparatus [“radical right” libertarianism], and by very cynical Republican leaders, to support a party that is undermining the things that they seek.

What does the purported (and dubious) existence of “vast majorities of Republicans” have to do with anything? To the extent that there are voters who identify themselves as Republicans and who favor those programs that benefit them (or so they believe), that simply makes them part of the problem: another interest-group trying to spend other people’s money, and thus spending their own because every “favor” requires repayment in the realpolitik of Washington.

Also, as evidenced by many of the items listed below in “Related Reading”, MacLean’s discussion of “the fundamental needs of the country” and how they can best be met is deeply flawed. Further, her generalization about “vast majorities” is dubious given that (a) not a single Republican member of Congress voted for Obamacare but (b) Republicans made large gains in both houses of Congress in the election that followed the enactment of Obamacare.

There’s a bigger problem that MacLean doesn’t seem to grasp or acknowledge, namely, the debilitating effects of “liberal democracy” on liberty and prosperityeveryone’s liberty and prosperity, contrary to MacLean’s “right-wing conspiracy” theory. Even the poorest of today’s Americans would be far better off had the United States not become a “liberal democracy”. As for liberty, social and economic liberty are indivisible; taxation and regulation diminish prosperity and liberty (the ability to choose where one lives, with whom one associates, etc.).

In any event, by MacLean’s logic the demise of liberty and decline of prosperity are acceptable if a majority of the American people want it. Certainly, by the mid-1930s a vast majority of the German people wanted Adolph Hitler to remain in power, and it’s likely that similar majorities of the Russian and Chinese people felt the same way about Stalin and Mao. (The devil you know, etc.) The difference between “liberal democracy” and the totalitarian regimes of Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and their ilk is only a matter of degree.

MacLean would no doubt respond that there is a proper limit on government power, a limit that is respected in a “liberal democracy” but not in a dictatorship. But there is no limit, not even in a “liberal democracy”, except for the limit that those in power actually observe. In the end, it is up to those in power to observe that limit — and they won’t.

The Framers of the Constitution, who understood human nature very well, knew that venality and power-lust would prevail if the new government wasn’t constrained by rigorous checks and balances. (Those words don’t occur in the Constitution, but it is nevertheless replete with checks on the power of the central government and balances of power within the central government and between it and the States.) But the checks and balances have all but disappeared under the onslaught of decades’ worth of unconstitutional legislation, executive usurpation, and judicial malfeasance. The election of Donald Trump — leftist hysteria to the contrary notwithstanding — is all that saved America (temporarily, at least) from its continued spiral into hard despotism. Hillary Clinton would no doubt have redoubled Barack Obama’s penchant for government by executive fiat, given her expansive view of the role of the central government and her own dictatorial personality. (As far as I know, for all the hysteria about Mr. Trump’s supposed “fascism”, he has yet to defy court orders enjoining his executive actions, despite the apparent unconstitutionality of some of the judicial interventions.)

MacLean’s hysteria is badly misplaced. “Liberal democracy” isn’t under siege. Liberty and prosperity are, and have been for a long time. The siege continues, in the form of resistance to Mr. Trump’s administration by legislators, judges, the media, much of the academy, and the usual left-wing rabble. It’s all part of a vast, left-wing conspiracy.


Related reading (listed chronologically):

Jason Brennan, “Conspire Me This: Is Nancy MacLean a Hired Gun for the Establishment?“, Bleeding Heart Libertarians, June 23, 2017 (See grant number FA-57183-13, awarded to MacLean by the National Endowment for the Humanities.)

Russell Roberts, “Nancy MacLean Owes Tyler Cowen an Apology“, Medium, June 25, 2017

Don Boudreaux, Cafe Hayek — begin with “Russ Roberts on Nancy MacLean on Tyler Cowen on Democracy” (June 26, 2017) and continue through dozens of relevant and eloquent posts about MacLean’s outright errors, mental sloppiness, and argumentative slipperiness

David Henderson, “Nancy MacLean’s Distortion of James Buchanan’s Statement“, EconLog, June 27, 2017

Philip W. Magness, “How Nancy MacLean Went Whistlin’ Dixie“, Philip W. Magness, June 27, 2017

Ramesh Ponnuru, “Nancy MacLean’s Methods“, National Review Online, The Corner, June 27, 2017

Johnathan H. Adler, “Does ‘Democracy in Chains’ Paint an Accurate Picture of James Buchanan?“, The Volokh Conspiracy, June 28, 2017 (Adler updates this often)

David Bernstein, “Some Dubious Claims in Nancy MacLean’s ‘Democracy in Chains’“, The Volokh Conspiracy, June 28, 2017

Steve Horwitz, “MacLean on Nutter and Buchanan on Universal Education“, Bleeding Heart Libertarians, June 28, 2017

David Bernstein, “Some Dubious Claims in Nancy MacLean’s ‘Democracy in Chains,’ Continued“, The Volokh Conspiracy, June 29, 2017

Philip W. Magness, “Nancy MacLean’s Calhounite Imagination“, Philip W. Magness, June 29, 2017

Michael C. Munger, “On the Origins and Goals of Public Choice“, Independent Institute (forthcoming in The Independent Review), June 29, 2017

Daniel Bier, “The Juvenile ‘Research’ of ‘Historian’ Nancy MacLean“, The Skeptical Libertarian, July 5, 2017

David Boaz, “Another Misleading Quotation in Nancy MacLean’s ‘Democracy in Chains’“, Cato At Liberty, July 5, 2017

David Bernstein, “Yet More Dubious Claims in Nancy MacLean’s ‘Democracy in Chains’“, The Volokh Conspiracy, July 6, 2017

Michael Giberson, “Fun With Footnotes (A Game of Scholarly Diversity)“, Knowledge Problem, July 9, 2017

David Gordon, “MacLean on James Buchanan: Fake History for an Age of Fake News“, Mises Wire, July 10, 2017

Ilya Somin, “Who Wants to Put Democracy in Chains?“, The Volokh Conspiracy, July 10, 2017

David Bernstein, “Nancy MacLean’s Conspiratorial Response to Criticism of ‘Democracy in Chains’“, The Volokh Conspiracy, July 11, 2017

Don Boudreaux, “Quotation of the Day…“, Cafe Hayek, July 12, 2017

Don Boudreaux, “Nancy MacLean Should Get Back in Touch with Reality“, Cafe Hayek, July 12, 2017

Steve Horwitz, “A Devastating Review of Nancy MacLean’s Book on the Klan“, Bleeding Heart Libertarians, July 12, 2017

Jeffrey A. Tucker, “This Confused Conspiracy Theory Gets the Agrarians All Wrong“, FEE, Articles, July 12, 2017

David Bernstein, “Duke Professor Georg Vanberg on ‘Democracy in Chains’“, The Volokh Conspiracy, July 14, 2017

Henry Farrell and Steven Teles, “Even the Intellectual Left Is Drawn to Conspiracy Theories about the Right.Resist Them.“, Vox, July 14, 2017

Jonathan H. Adler, “‘Why Have So Many Embraced Such an Obviously Flawed Book?’“, The Volokh Conspiracy, July 15, 2017

Sarah Skwire, “MacLean Is Not Interested in a Fair Fight“, FEE, Articles, July 15, 2017

Steven Hayward, “The Scandal of the Liberal Mind“, Power Line, July 16, 2017

Steven Hayward, “When You’ve Lost Rick Perlstein…“, Power Line, July 19, 2017

Jonathan H. Adler, “Nancy MacLean Responds to Her Critics“, The Volokh Conspiracy, July 20, 2017

Charlotte Allen, “They’re Out to Get Her?“, The Weekly Standard, July 20, 2017

Dave Bernstein, “Did Nancy MacLean Make Stuff Up in ‘Democracy in Chains’?“, The Volokh Conspiracy, July 20, 2017

Brian Doherty, “What Nancy MacLean Gets Wrong about James Buchanan“, reason.com, July 20, 2017

Arnold Kling, “Nancy MacLean: Ignoring the Central Ethical Issue“, askblog, July 20, 2017

Greg Weiner, “Nancy MacLean’s Ad Hominem Ad Hominem“, Library of Law & Liberty, July 25, 2017

Jon Cassidy, “Render Them Unable: More on Nancy MacLean’s ‘Democracy in Chains’“, The American Spectator, July 27, 2017

Steve Horwitz, “Book Review — Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America“, Cato Journal, September 2017

Academic Freedom, Freedom of Speech, and the Demise of Civility

A professor has been suspended after claiming that anyone witnessing white people in mortal danger should “let them fucking die.”

Daniel Payne, The College Fix (June 27, 2017)

Predictably, the suspension of the professor — one Johnny Eric Williams of Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut — and a similar case at Essex County (New Jersey) College caused the usual (left-wing) suspects to defend the offenders and claim that their “academic freedom” and “freedom of speech” were being violated. (Boo hoo.) I will be unsurprised if the ACLU doesn’t weigh in on the side of hate.

This is what happens when the law becomes an abstraction, separate and apart from social norms. There is no better example of the degradation of the law, and of public discourse, than the case of Snyder v. Phelps, which I addressed in “Rethinking the Constitution: ‘Freedom of Speech and of the Press’“. What follows is based on that post.

Contrary to the current state of constitutional jurisprudence, freedom of speech and freedom of the press — and, by implication, academic freedom — do not comprise an absolute license to “express” almost anything, regardless of the effects on the social fabric.

One example of misguided absolutism is found in Snyder v. Phelps, a case recently and wrongly decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. This is from “The Burkean Justice” (The Weekly Standard, July 18, 2011):

When the Supreme Court convened for oral argument in Snyder v. Phelps, judicial formalities only thinly veiled the intense bitterness smoldering among the parties and their supporters. At one table sat counsel for Albert Snyder, father of the late Marine Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder, who was killed in al Anbar Province, Iraq. At the other sat Margie Phelps, counsel for (and daughter of) Fred Phelps, whose notorious Westboro Baptist Church descended upon Snyder’s Maryland funeral, waving signs bearing such startlingly offensive slogans as “Thank God for IEDs,” “God Hates Fags,” and “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.” A federal jury had awarded Snyder nearly $11 million for the “severe depression” and “exacerbated preexisting health conditions” that Phelps’s protest had caused him.

In the Supreme Court, Phelps argued that the jury’s verdict could not stand because the First Amendment protected Westboro’s right to stage their protest outside the funeral. As the Court heard the case on a gray October morning, Westboro protesters marched outside the courthouse, informing onlookers that God still “Hates Fags” and advising them to “Pray for More Dead Soldiers.”

Amidst that chaos, the Court found not division, but broad agreement. On March 2, 2011, it held that Westboro’s slurs were protected by the First Amendment, and that Snyder would receive no compensation, let alone punitive damages, for the emotional injuries that he had suffered. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the Court’s opinion, speaking for all of his brethren, conservatives and liberals alike—except one.

Justice Samuel Alito rejected the Court’s analysis and wrote a stirring lone dissent. “The Court now holds that the First Amendment protected respondents’ right to brutalize Mr. Snyder. I cannot agree.” Repeatedly characterizing Westboro’s protest as not merely speech but “verbal assaults” that “brutally attacked” the fallen Snyder and left the father with “wounds that are truly severe and incapable of healing themselves,” Justice Alito concluded that the First Amendment’s text and precedents did not bar Snyder’s lawsuit. “In order to have a society in which public issues can be openly and vigorously debated, it is not necessary to allow the brutalization of innocent victims. .  .  . I therefore respectfully dissent.”

There is more:

Snyder v. Phelps would not be the last time that Alito stood nearly alone in a contentious free speech case this term. Just weeks ago, as the Court issued its final decisions of the term, Alito rejected the Court’s broad argument that California could not ban the distribution of violent video games without parental consent. Although he shared the Court’s bottom-line conclusion that the particular statute at issue was unconstitutional, he criticized the majority’s analysis in Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association as failing to give states and local communities latitude to promote parental control over children’s video-game habits. The states, he urged, should not be foreclosed from passing better-crafted statutes achieving that legitimate end.

Moreover, Alito’s opinions in those cases followed a solo dissent late in the previous term, in United States v. Stevens, where eight of the nine justices struck down a federal law barring the distribution of disturbing “crush videos” in which, for example, a woman stabs a kitten through the eye with her high heel, all for the gratification of anonymous home audiences.

The source of Alito’s positions:

[T]hose speculating as to the roots of Alito’s jurisprudence need look no further than his own words—in public documents, at his confirmation hearing, and elsewhere. Justice Alito is uniquely attuned to the space that the Constitution preserves for local communities to defend the vulnerable and to protect traditional values. In these three new opinions, more than any others, he has emerged as the Court’s Burkean justice….

A review of Alito’s Snyder, Brown, and Stevens opinions quickly suggests the common theme: Alito, more than any of his colleagues, would not allow broad characterizations of the freedom of speech effectively to immunize unlawful actions. He sharply criticized the Court for making generalized pronouncements on the First Amendment’s reach, when the Court’s reiterations of theory glossed over the difficult factual questions that had given rise to regulation in the first place—whether in grouping brutal verbal attacks with protected political speech; or in equating interactive Duke Nukem games with the text of Grimm’s Fairy Tales; or in extending constitutional protection to the video of women illegally crushing animals. And Alito was particularly sensitive to the Court’s refusal to grant at least a modicum of deference to the local communities and state officials who were attempting to protect their populations against actions that they found so injurious as to require state intervention.

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. My copy is now in someone else’s hands, so I must rely on Edward J. Erler’s review of the book:


Liberty is lost when the law allows “freedom of speech, and of the press” to undermine the social norms that enable liberty. Liberty is not an abstraction, it is it is the scope of action that is allowed by socially agreed upon rights. It is that restrained scope of action which enables people to coexist willingly, peacefully, and cooperatively for their mutual benefit. Such coexistence depends greatly on mutual trust, respect, and forbearance. Liberty is therefore necessarily degraded when courts sunder social restraints in the name of liberty.


Other related posts:
On Liberty
Line-Drawing and Liberty
The Meaning of Liberty
Positive Liberty vs. Liberty
Facets of Liberty
Burkean Libertarianism
What Is Libertarianism?
True Libertarianism, One More Time
Human Nature, Liberty, and Rationalism
Liberty, Negative Rights, and Bleeding Hearts
Why Conservatism Works
Liberty and Society
Liberty as a Social Construct: Moral Relativism?
Defending Liberty against (Pseudo) Libertarians
Defining Liberty
The Futile Search for “Natural Rights”
The Pseudo-Libertarian Temperament
Parsing Political Philosophy (II)
Getting Liberty Wrong
Libertarianism and the State
“Liberalism” and Personal Responsibility
My View of Libertarianism
More About Social Norms and Liberty
The War on Conservatism
Social Justice vs. Liberty
Economically Liberal, Socially Conservative
The Harm Principle Revisited: Mill Conflates Society and State
Liberty and Social Norms Re-examined
Natural Law, Natural Rights, and the Real World
Rescuing Conservatism
If Men Were Angels
The Left and Evergreen State: Reaping What Was Sown

Liberty and Social Norms Re-examined

What is liberty, and why does it depend on the general observance of social norms?

Liberty is not the absence of restraint, whence chaos and depredation flow. Liberty is the presence of mutual restraint based on trust, respect, and forbearance. Where those attributes prevail, a people can coexist peacefully and cooperate beneficially. Cooperation includes not only unremunerated assistance but also the exchange of products and services for mutual benefit, directly or with the use of money.

The state, at best, provides an ambience in which liberty can flourish. It does that by defending citizens from foreign and domestic predators. But the actualization of liberty depends on the institutions of civil society: family, church, community, club, charity, and commercial enterprise. It is those institutions that inculcate social norms, and it the common observance of those norms that creates and sustains mutual trust, respect, and forbearance among a people.

By the same token, a lack of shared norms — especially by outright rejection — fuels mistrust, disrespect, and aggression. How do I know when someone isn’t worthy of my trust, respect, and forbearance? When he habitually signals — by deeds, words, or allegiances — the rejection of social norms.

Here is a rough taxonomy of social norms and their relationship to each other and to liberty:

Taxonomy of social norms

I’ll talk about some of the ways in which leftists undermine and signal their opposition to the norms that enable a functional civil society — one that advances mutual trust, respect, and forbearance. But first I want to make a general point about the power of the state to destroy socializing norms and institutions without overtly abolishing them. Leftists like to portray themselves as anti-authoritarian, but they do so cynically. One of the things that they know (or intuit) is that a vast swath of the populace is morally malleable, so if the state says that something is all right (or verboten) huge numbers of persons will follow suit and say that it’s all right (or verboten). As I once wrote, in a post about same-sex “marriage,”

When the state sends signals about private arrangements, private arrangements tend to align themselves with the signals being sent by the state.

Which is why the left relies heavily on non-electoral means of exerting control, that is, litigation and regulation. There is as much authority in those aspects of governance as there is in the decisions of elected representatives. If five justices of the Supreme Court were to say that the death penalty is unconstitutional, as they have said that homosexual “marriage” should be considered marriage, millions of people will acquiesce, without giving more than a moment’s thought to the broader social implications of either decree.

As the following paragraphs attest, decades-long persistence in such matters has amply rewarded the left’s efforts to transform America fundamentally — for the worse.

Murder. Core norms are widely accepted in America, though inconsistently. Leftists will decry murder and even call for the death penalty when the perpetrator is a white heterosexual and the victims are not. But leftists won’t admit that abortion is murder, that is, the taking of a human life. Moreover, leftists (and not a few misguided conservatives and libertarians) have for more than a century signaled their toleration of murder by opposing capital punishment. A pro-life leftist is someone who believes in sparing criminals and enemy combatants, while killing children in the womb.

Theft. Leftists will say that the prohibition of theft is a core social norm, and that it ought to be observed and enforced by the state. In the next breath, they will defend all manner of state-enforced theft, from Social Security transfer payments to housing subsidies, and then propose more of them (e.g., Universal Basic Income). If you believe that taxation isn’t theft (or worse), consider this. And if you believe that income redistribution at the point of a gun is charity, consider this.

Marriage and divorce. Leftists obviously have no qualms about the destruction of a crucial reinforcing norm: marriage. I have written a detailed defense of traditional marriage as a civilizing and libertarian institution, and a detailed condemnation of same-sex “marriage” as an anti-libertarian innovation. Rather than repeat the arguments of that post, I refer you to it. The bottom line is that the left, in its usual zeal to advance the cause of imaginary victims, has set in motion the destruction of a bulwark of civil society.

The heavy hand of leftism is visible in the adoption of no-fault divorce laws, which work against marital perseverance, which helps to ensure children to be raised by both parents. As Wikipedia puts it, the “Women’s movement effected change in Western society, including … ‘no fault’ divorce.” And where did no-fault divorce first become available? In California, of course.

Sexuality. The LGBTQ movement is a left-wing inspiration, designed mainly to infuriate conservatives and incidentally advance the cause of people whom leftists see as victims. (If the aim of persons who “identify” as LGBT or Q is to be left alone, loud shrillness isn’t the way to go about it.) Left-wing support of such groups — which are really identity groups, not victim groups — serves two purposes. The first is virtue-signaling; the second is goading conservatives into acts that can be portrayed as victim-bashing (e.g., various “bathroom bills”).  More deeply, left-wing support of the LGBTQ movement signals a rejection of civilizing norms, and is meant to erode them further. At the margin, there are many impressionable young persons who will turn their backs on marriage and family and adopt the frivolous, decadent, and too-often-fatal LGBTQ “lifestyle.”

Race. Before the contrived prominence of the LGBTQ “cause,” the left’s favorite victim group was blacks. Early and proper attention to barbarous and unjust practices (e.g., lynchings and denial of voting rights) gave way to the persistent myth that racial inequality is an artifact of slavery and legal segregation. The myth persists because of an obdurate refusal to recognize racial differences in intelligence. In “Race Gaps in SAT Scores Highlight Racial Inequality and Hinder Upward Mobility,” for example,  the authors (researchers at the Brookings Institution, which the media usually describe as center-left) document persistent race differences in IQ, admit that “it is unlikely that the racial achievement gap can be explained away by class differences across race,” but end with “race gaps on the SAT hold up a mirror to racial inequities in society as a whole,” as if those inequalities could be eradicated despite the demonstrably ineradicable intelligence gap. Well, they could be reduced — and are reduced, to some extent — but mainly by stealing money, jobs, and university admissions from whites and East Asians.

And so, billions upon billions of dollars have been wasted on early education, job training, public housing, and welfare payments (the conditions of which have destroyed black families and worsened the unemployment rate among blacks). Racial quotas (called “affirmative action” and “diversity programs”) have penalized better-qualified whites and Asians seeking jobs, promotions, and university admissions — and have also penalized blacks by setting them up for failure (see this, this, and this).

Forced “diversity” is in fact socially divisive, as Maverick Philosopher correctly observes. Then there were the divisive eight years of Obama’s presidency, in which he and his so-called Department of Justice defended black thugs and persecuted white cops. Is it any wonder that blacks and whites probably mistrust each other more than they have since the bad old days of D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation? Where all of this isn’t directly destructive of social comity, it signals rejection of core and reinforcing norms that make social comity possible.

Drugs. The legalization of marijuana isn’t just an issue for leftists, but they certainly champion legalization as yet another blow for “personal freedom.” The usual response to evidence that marijuana has many undesirable long-term effects is something like “so does alcohol, so why isn’t it illegal?” Well, it’s far too late to prohibit alcohol in the United States (tried and failed), and it’s probably far too late (and futile) to prohibit marijuana.

I’m not a prohibitionist (of alcohol or marijuana), but marijuana should be used knowing the risks associated with its use, just as the risks of alcohol consumption are well known. Instead, the push for “personal freedom” simply dodges the issue of risk by allowing marijuana consumption for medical conditions that apply to only a small fraction of its users.

Leftists will eventually turn on marijuana because it’s used and enjoyed by the unwashed masses (like cigarettes), so they will then campaign to regulate it and curtail its use. Marijuana use, in other words, is just a weapon in the culture war-cum-civil war — another route by which the left attacks and weakens traditional norms and those who stand behind them.

Religion. There’s nothing left to be said about the effort to eradicate religion. The late Justice Scalia called it “freedom from religion” as opposed to “freedom of religion,” which the Constitution guarantees. The ACLU and similar organizations attack expressions of religion at every turn. Those attacks may have the unsought effect of redoubling the devotion of many Americans to liberty-advancing religious principles. But surely, at the margin, the attacks will diminish religious affiliation and the social good that goes with it: true kindness and charity, true tolerance, true forgiveness. (For a discussion of the beneficial effects of religion go here and scroll to “Religion and Liberty.”)

To be against religion is an article of faith for most leftists, who fancy themselves rational and fact-based, despite ample evidence to the contrary. They are, in fact, spoiled children of capitalism engaged in adolescent rebellion. And religion is a favored target of the rebellious adolescent — especially religion of the Judeo-Christian variety, because most leftists were reared in that tradition. Islam, on the other hand, is acceptable because its adherents — who stand against almost everything leftists stand for — are “victims” in the twisted topography of leftist dogma.

Self-reliance. What better way to control people than to make them reliant on you instead of themselves? That’s how drug dealers (at the top of the food chain) make big bucks — until they’re shot or arrested. Dependency on big government is tantamount to dependency on the left, which gratifies a deeply felt need for power. (Fascism is a left-wing phenomenon.) Conservatives treat their children like children, so that those children will become responsible adults. Leftists treat adults like children because it makes them (leftists) feel superior. Though when leftists don’t get their way, they act like children, as they have done since the election of Donald Trump.

The left has devised and implemented many forms of control over the past 80 years. Those forms range from Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid to food stamps, special deals on housing and mortgages, and rampant regulation of all aspects of the economy. What better way to break the old American habit of self-reliance and personal responsibility — a habit that fosters mutually beneficial cooperation — than to establish government as the go-to arbiter of social and economic relations?

I could relate many personal run-ins with the nanny state, but I will close this discussion by pointing to examples of an especially annoying outrage: “Parents In Trouble Again for Letting Kids Walk Alone” (USA Today, April 13, 2015), “Parents Arrested for Letting their Children Play Outside as America Degenerates into Clinical Insanity” (OffTheGridNews, ca. 2012), and “How Children Lost the Right to Roam in Just 4 Generations” (Free-Range Kids, February 1, 2017). Fortunately, as a child I was not cooped up by the state.

*     *     *

That’s more than enough of that. The left’s crusade against social norms leads to predatory and destructive behavior and suppresses peaceful coexistence and mutually beneficial cooperation. It is the inevitable result of the culture war that the left has waged for decades:

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….

“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…. 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.

The culture war, which escalated sharply in the 1960s, is a classic case of barbarism vs. civilization. Arnold Kling describes it in The Three Languages of Politics:

[Leftists] use the heuristic of the oppressed-oppressor axis. [They] 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. [Conservatives] use the heuristic of the civilization-barbarism axis. [They] 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.

Kling often strains to be even-handed, not only in Three Languages of Politics but in general. (Sample his blog.) Here, I think he is being unduly kind by crediting the left with a concern for the oppressed. That is a superficial interpretation of the left’s championing of “victims,” but the deeper explanation — of which I’ve given many examples — is an attitude of rebellion for rebellion’s sake, coupled with a desire for control. And damn the social and economic consequences, which seem not to occur to (or bother) leftists hell-bent having their way by harnessing the power of the state.

I must therefore revise Kling’s statement of the conservative heuristic, to read as follows: Conservatives view most favorably the voluntary institutions that constrain and guide people toward civilized behavior. And they view most unfavorably those people who they see as trying to tear down such institutions, even if they are doing it unwittingly and for the ostensible objective of helping the “oppressed.”

But leftists will object that the institutions of civil society are often oppressive, or were when they held sway. That objection usually rests on the nirvana fallacy; the institutions do not or did not live up to the left’s idea of perfection. The left’s answer to the “failure” of civil institutions is the enactment of laws, writing of regulations, and promulgation of a judicial decrees. But how often do “reality based” leftists check back to see whether the various government interventions have produced their wanted effects without producing deleterious side effects? I venture to say that the answer is almost never. If leftists were interested in the actual betterment of their fellow Americans, as opposed to controlling them, they would long ago have curbed government spending and regulatory activity, which have stunted economic growth to the detriment of poor and rich alike.

The urge to control is evident in the nascent secessionist movement in California, which has my best wishes for success. Leftists reject constitutional limits on the central government as long as they’re in charge. But confront leftists with a central government that is at least nominally controlled by Republicans (many of whom are actually conservatives) and they want out. (By contrast, my support of secession is meant to restore constitutional limits on the central government by starting over.)

The urge to secede is legitimate, if hypocritical on the part of leftists. Exit, or the threat of it, is an essential element of the evolution of civil society — or would be if it weren’t under the thumb of the state. If you don’t like the policies of an institution to which you belong, you can voice your objections and exit if your objections aren’t met. The smaller the institution, the more likely is voice to be effective. And the smaller the institution, the more likely that there are ready alternatives to it.

Voice and the threat of exit are part of what make voluntary institutions effective. They can and do change gradually through trial-and-error. Even large ones, like the Roman Catholic Church, which has changed over the centuries in ways large and small. And when it changed too much in a “liberal” direction, alternatives arose in the form of various Traditional Catholic organizations.

Leftists evidently lack the disposition toward trial-and-error and compromise that makes for “living” social institutions. They will point to a few extreme examples (e.g., slavery and forced segregation) to make the case for precipitous and overbearing government action. The irony is that slavery and forced segregation were government-backed institutions. Other favorite examples (e.g., child labor and “sweat shops”) usually overlook the voluntary nature of the relationships in question — voluntary because the supposed victims were made better off than they had been before. A modern equivalent is found in the case of Wal-Mart, which doesn’t compensate its employees as well as some other, similar firms (e.g., Costco), but which doesn’t drag people off the street and enslave them. Wal-Mart’s workforce of volunteers is, by definition, better off than it would be in the absence of Wal-Mart, and Wal-Mart’s millions of customers are, too.

The drive to force Wal-Mart to pay higher wages will, in the end, have the same result as the drive to dictate a minimum wage. It will lead to unemployment for people who most need employment, and it will end in the adoption of automated systems to replace human labor.

Similarly, the drive to make America “fairer” by privileging various groups favored by the left will be thwarted by the realities of economics and human nature. Employers who strive to make a profit (unlike government and universities), will do as they have always done: pay lip-service to “equality” while finding ways to hire only the best-qualified employees. And too many of those persons who are temporarily lifted up by affirmative action and “diversity programs” will find themselves on the outside looking in when they don’t measure up to the expectations of demanding professors and profit-seeking employers.

It comes down to this: Leftists start with an idealized view of the world as it should be — socially and commercially. As a result, they see harm where there is actually gain. And in their zeal to make the world right — by their lights — they make it worse.

Dr. John J. Ray, as usual, is most perceptive about the left:

As a good academic, I first define my terms: A Leftist is a person who is so dissatisfied with the way things naturally are that he/she is prepared to use force to make people behave in ways that they otherwise would not….

The essential feature of all Leftism is the desire to stop other people from doing various things they want to do and make them do various things that they do not want to do (via taxation, regulation, mass murder etc.)  When (on October 30, 2008) Obama spoke of his intention to “fundamentally transform” America, he was not talking about America’s geography or topography.  He was talking about transforming what American people can and must do.  So that is the first and perhaps the most important thing about Leftism:  It is intrinsically authoritarian.

Leftists are not alone in desiring to regulate others, however, so to complete the definition, we have to look at other things that characterize them.

The first remaining thing to say about them is that Leftism is emotional.  The second is to say that the emotion is negative and the third thing to say is that the negative emotion (usually anger/hate/rage) is directed at the world about the Leftist, at the status quo if you like.  The Leftist is nothing if he is not a critic, though usually a very poorly-informed critic.  And the criticisms tend to be both pervasive and deeply felt.

Orwell of course understood Leftism exceptionally well so it is revealing that in 1943 he wrote an essay called “Can Socialists Be Happy?”  His answer was that they can’t even imagine it….

While defining Leftism in terms of their apparent drives and motivations is undoubterdly true and useful, it doesn’t provide a really sharp differentiation of the Left from others.  And I think we can improve on it.  And to do that I think we have to refer to the natural state of affairs.  “The natural state of affairs”?  What is that?  It is a concept sometimes used in both law and economics but I want to broaden its applicability.  I think it is actually quite easy to define in a generally applicable way.  It means whatever people would do in the absence of external constraints….

So I think we can now make a pretty sharp distinction between the changes Leftists want and the changes that conservatives want. Leftists want change AWAY from the natural state of affairs while conservatives want changes TOWARDS the natural state of affairs — or at least changes that respect the natural state of affairs.

For “natural state of affairs” read “social norms that underlie liberty.”

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Related:Social Norms and Liberty” and the many posted listed there

The Harm Principle Revisited: Mill Conflates Society and State

John Stuart Mill is the father of modern liberalism, though he is usually thought of as a proponent of classical liberalism. The mistake arises from Mill’s harm principle, enunciated in his long essay On Liberty (1869). It is the sand upon which liberalism (classical and modern) is built:

That principle is, 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. 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. [Chapter I, paragraph 9]

This seemingly libertarian principle is in fact anti-libertarian, as I explain at length in “On Liberty.” In that post I focus on harm. As I say there,

the only plausible interpretation of the harm principle is as follows: An individual may do as he pleases, as long as he does not believe that he is causing harm to others. That is Mill’s prescription for liberty. It is, in fact, an invitation to license and anarchy.

In this post I turn to Mill’s definition of society. Here is Mill again:

Society can and does execute its own mandates: and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, or any mandates at all in things with which it ought not to meddle, it practises a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, though not usually upheld by such extreme penalties, it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself. Protection, therefore, against the tyranny of the magistrate is not enough: there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling; against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them; to fetter the development, and, if possible, prevent the formation, of any individuality not in harmony with its ways, and compel all characters to fashion themselves upon the model of its own. [Chapter I, paragraph 5]

But here’s the rub. Who decides when the “tyranny of prevailing opinion and feeling” is too oppressive? The state.

“State” is nothing more than an impressive-sounding word that really denotes the amalgam of elected and non-elected officials who wield governmental power. There are those who say that the state embodies the nation, which is like saying that the lion-tamer embodies the lion. The state most certainly is not society, but it is has the power to be far more tyrannical than society’s “prevailing opinion and feeling.”

Recourse to the power of the state has become the first resort of individuals and groups who object to prevailing opinion and feeling. And when the state meddles with prevailing opinion and feeling it creates new grievances, which produce resistance and resentments that splinter the nation rather than unite it.

What kinds of prevailing opinion and feeling could be so oppressive that their effects must be undone by the oppressive state? Mill devotes Chapter IV of On Liberty to examples of oppression, but they are examples of state action at the behest of sectarian and moralistic interests. Mill conflates society and state, which is excusable in 19th century England, where nation and society were far more congruous than they are in 21st century America.

At any rate, Mill says that

the likings and dislikings of society, or of some powerful portion of it, are thus the main thing which has practically determined the rules laid down for general observance, under the penalties of law or opinion. [Chapter I, paragraph 7]

And opinion, in Mill’s view, becomes inimical to liberty when it is converted into law and bars such things as music, dancing, drinking, the expression of unpopular views, and free trade. In sum, On Liberty should be read as a warning against statist oppression at the behest of powerful factions. Though, as I show in “On Liberty,” it also — and contradictorily — can be read as a justification for behavior that subverts civilizing norms which underlie liberty.

But no matter, the harm principle lives on in the minds of leftists as a justification for using the power of the state to overturn norms of which they disapprove, while it also serves as a justification for anti-social behavior of which they approve. They are faux-individualists because their penchant for governmental intervention against social norms in the name of liberty actually results in the diminution of liberty.

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Related reading: Theodore Dalrymple, “The Simple Truth about J.S. Mill’s Simple Truth,” Library of Law and Liberty, July 20, 2015

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Related posts — everything listed at “Social Norms and Liberty,” but especially “On Liberty” and
Anarcho-Authoritarianism
The Meaning of Liberty
Facets of Liberty
The Pseudo-Libertarian Temperament
Romanticizing the State
“We the People” and Big Government
Liberty and Social Norms Re-examined

Color Me Unmoved

Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, an annual observance of the birth of its eponymous honoree. I was a young man, two months into my first post-college job, at the time of King’s March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. I wasn’t moved by the march, or by King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

Not for me are the mass march or the stirring speech. It is easy to stir the emotions of millions of persons. Such events are therefore insignificant. Significant events — the events that bind people and conduce to liberty — are mundane ones:

  • Couples who wed, stay together despite rough patches in their marriage, and teach their children right from wrong.
  • Owners of small businesses who persevere through hard times, retain loyal employees, and participate willingly and generously in community activities.
  • Craftsmen who take satisfaction in jobs well done, and who are pleased when their efforts please others.
  • Bankers whose diligence safeguards the money with which they’re entrusted, and who lend it judiciously to help couples buy homes, to finance businesses, and to provide the craftsmen’s tools of the trade.
  • Clergymen who tend the souls of these “average” Americans, and police who protect them.

These — and many others like them — are the unheralded, often mocked, and too-often scorned heroes whose daily lives of perseverance and dedication are the backbone of liberty: peaceful, willing coexistence and its concomitant: beneficially cooperative behavior.

“I have a dream,” “ask what you can do for your country,” and “we have nothing to fear but fear itself” are nothing more than high-flown, empty phrases. Liberty is built on the ordinariness of “ordinary people” doing ordinary things in everyday life.

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.

(See also: “Toleration Extremism: Notes on John Stuart Mill“, Maverick Philosopher, January 14, 2015.)

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.

Does Liberty Still Have a Fighting Chance?

Lawrence W. Reed, president of the Foundation for Economic Education, uses FEE’s website to argue that “Liberty Still Has a Fighting Chance“:

So here we are now, decades into the very egalitarian welfare state Tocqueville warned would be the death of American exceptionalism. It threatens to make us like all the other forgettable welfare states that languish in history’s dustbins, Greece included. Should we just assume it’s inevitable and go along for the ride? Or should we muster the character that built a nation and that Tocqueville identified as quintessentially American?

If you’re pessimistic, then you’re no longer part of the solution. You’ve become part of the problem. What chance does liberty have if its supposed friends desert it in its hour of need or speak ill of its prospects?

Ask yourselves, What good purpose could a defeatist attitude possibly promote? Will it make me work harder for the causes I know are right? Is there anything about liberty that an election or events in Congress disprove? If I exude a pessimistic demeanor, will it help attract newcomers to the ideas I believe in? Is this the first time in history that believers in liberty have lost some battles? If we simply throw in the towel, will that enhance the prospects for future victories? Do we turn back just because the hill we have to climb got a little steeper?

This is not the time to abandon time-honored principles. I can’t speak for you, but someday, I want to go to my reward and be able to look back and say, “I never gave up. I never became part of the problem I tried to solve. I never gave the other side the luxury of winning anything without a rigorous, intellectual contest. I never missed an opportunity to do my best for what I believed in, and it never mattered what the odds or the obstacles were. I did my part.”

Remember that we stand on the shoulders of many people who came before us and who persevered through far darker times. The American patriots who shed their blood and suffered through unspeakable hardships as they took on the world’s most powerful nation in 1776 are certainly among them. But I am also thinking of the brave men and women behind the Iron Curtain who resisted the greatest tyranny of the modern age and won. I think of those like Hayek and Mises who kept the flame of liberty flickering in the 1940s. I think of the heroes like William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson who fought to end slavery and literally changed the conscience and character of Britain in the face of the most daunting of disadvantages. And I think of the Scots who, 456 years before the Declaration of Independence, put their lives on the line to repel English invaders with these thrilling words: “It is not for honor or glory or wealth that we fight, but for freedom alone, which no good man gives up except with his life.”

As I think about what some of those great men and women faced, the obstacles before us today seem rather puny.

This is a moment when our true character, the stuff we’re really made of, will show itself. If we retreat, that would tell me we were never really worthy of the battle in the first place. But if we resolve to let these challenging times build our character and rally our dispirited friends to new levels of dedication, we will look back on this occasion someday with pride at how we handled it. Have you called a friend yet today to explain to him or her why liberty should be a top priority?

Nobody ever promised that liberty would be easy to attain or simple to keep. The world has always been full of greedy thieves and thugs, narcissistic power seekers, snake-oil charlatans, unprincipled ne’er-do-wells, and arrogant busybodies. No true friend of liberty should just roll over and play dead for any of them.

Take an inventory every day of what you’re doing for liberty. Get more involved in the fight. There are plenty of things you can do. If your state isn’t a right-to-work state, work to make it so. Support people and organizations like the Foundation for Economic Education that are teaching young people about the importance of liberty and character. Get behind the Compact for America and its plan for a balanced federal budget and an end to reckless spending and debt. Work for school choice in your state to help break the government monopoly on education. And be the very best example for liberty and character that you can possibly be in everything you do.

Whatever you do, don’t give up no matter what. Remember these words of the great US Supreme Court justice George Sutherland: “The saddest epitaph which can be carved in memory of a vanished liberty is that it was lost because its possessors failed to stretch forth a saving hand while yet there was time.”

Can Tocqueville’s American exceptionalism be restored? Can it last? You bet it can. The American Dream still lives, in the hearts of those who love liberty and refuse to meekly surrender it. So let’s wipe the frowns off our faces and get to work. Our future, our children’s future — liberty’s future — all depend on us.

This is nothing more than a platitudinous pep talk, delivered to a team that’s trailing by 12 touchdowns at half-time. Reed offers no actionable advice that will truly make a difference. Joining and supporting fringe groups won’t dim the promise of big government, which is to deliver seemingly free benefits to a broad, interlocking coalition of well-financed, media-backed, vote-rich interest groups. Reed is whistling in the dark.

I’m not being a defeatist. I’m being a realist. Liberty can be restored only when liberty-lovers get realistic about what it will take to restore it — and then act accordingly. What will it take? See “Independence Day 2016: The Way Ahead.”

What about the kinds of resistance counseled by Reed? Well, they might slow or even temporarily halt America’s descent into grim, impoverished, regimented statism. But they won’t prevent it. Only drastic action will do that.

Related, realistic posts about the state of America:
The Interest-Group Paradox
Rethinking the Constitution: “Freedom of Speech, and of the Press”
Well-Founded Pessimism
America: Past, Present, and Future
The Barbarians Within and the State of the Union
“We the People” and Big Government
The Culture War
The Fall and Rise of American Empire
O Tempora O Mores!
Democracy, Human Nature, and the Future of America
1963: The Year Zero
Society
How Democracy Works
“Cheerful” Thoughts
How Government Subverts Social Norms
Turning Points
The Twilight’s Last Gleaming?

Brandeis’s Ignorance

Louis D. Brandeis (1856-1941; Supreme Court justice, 1916-1939) penned many snappy aphorisms. Here’s one that “progressives” are especially fond of: “Behind every argument is someone’s ignorance.” Here it is in larger context:

Behind every argument is someone’s ignorance. Re-discover the foundation of truth and the purpose and causes of dispute immediately disappear.

Spoken like the true technocrat that Brandeis was. The “truth” was his to know, and to enforce through government action, beginning long before his ascent to the Supreme Court.

There are fundamental and irreconcilable differences that Brandeis’s “truth” cannot bridge. Brandeis and his intellectual kin would never admit that, of course, so bent were (and are) they on imposing their “truth” on all Americans.

Is it ignorant to value liberty over the promise of economic security, especially when it’s obtained at the expense of liberty?

Is it ignorant to treat terrorism as a risk that’s categorically different than a traffic accident or lightning strike?

Is it ignorant to defend traditional values and their civilizing influence against the depradations of one’s cultural and physical enemies?

Is is ignorant to fear that America’s police and armed forces will become less able to defend peaceful citizens when those forces are weakened in the name of “sexual equality”?

Is it ignorant to oppose the subversion of the institution of marriage, which is the bedrock of civil society, in the name of “marriage equality”?

“Progressives” will answer “yes” to all the questions. Thus proving the ignorance of “progressives” and the wisdom of opposing “progressivism.”

Related posts:
Getting It All Wrong about the Risk of Terrorism
A Skewed Perspective on Terrorism
Intellectuals and Capitalism
Intellectuals and Society: A Review
The Left’s Agenda
The Left and Its Delusions
The Myth That Same-Sex “Marriage” Causes No Harm
The Spoiled Children of Capitalism
Politics, Sophistry, and the Academy
Subsidizing the Enemies of Liberty
Are You in the Bubble?
Defense as an Investment in Liberty and Prosperity
Abortion, Doublethink, and Left-Wing Blather
Abortion, “Gay Rights,” and Liberty
The 80-20 Rule, Illustrated
Economic Horror Stories: The Great “Demancipation” and Economic Stagnation
The Culture War
The Keynesian Multiplier: Phony Math
The True Multiplier
The Pretence of Knowledge
Social Accounting: A Tool of Social Engineering
“The Science Is Settled”
The Limits of Science, Illustrated by Scientists
A Case for Redistribution, Not Made
Evolution, Culture, and “Diversity”
Ruminations on the Left in America
McCloskey on Piketty
The Rahn Curve Revisited
Nature, Nurture, and Inequality
The Real Burden of Government
Diminishing Marginal Utility and the Redistributive Urge
Rationalism, Empiricism, and Scientific Knowledge
Academic Ignorance
The Euphemism Conquers All
Superiority
The “Marketplace” of Ideas
Whiners
A Dose of Reality
Ty Cobb and the State of Science
Understanding Probability: Pascal’s Wager and Catastrophic Global Warming
God-Like Minds
The Beginning of the End of Liberty in America
Revisiting the “Marketplace” of Ideas
The Technocratic Illusion
Capitalism, Competition, Prosperity, and Happiness
Further Thoughts about the Keynesian Multiplier
The Precautionary Principle and Pascal’s Wager
Marriage: Privatize It and Revitalize It
From Each According to His Ability…
Non-Judgmentalism as Leftist Condescension
An Addendum to (Asymmetrical) Ideological Warfare
Unsurprising News about Health-Care Costs
Further Pretensions of Knowledge
“And the Truth Shall Set You Free”
Social Justice vs. Liberty
The Wages of Simplistic Economics
Is Science Self-Correcting?

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)

Individualism, Society, and Liberty

In “How Our Individualism Has Trapped Us in a Welfare State,” Heather Judd has taken a stab at an issue that I’ve pondered for a long time: the tension between individualism and society. Now, by “society” I mean true society:

Society — true society — consists of people who, among other things, agree as to the limits on what one may do. That shared view isn’t imposed by regulation, statute, or judicial decree — though such things will arise from the shared view in a true society. Rather, the shared view arises from the experience of living together and finding the set of customs and prohibitions that yields peaceful, willing coexistence and its concomitant: beneficially cooperative behavior. Liberty, in other words.

“The experience of living together and finding” a common “set of customs and prohibitions” seems consistent with Judd’s view of society, which she calls “an organized group of people sharing a common culture.” Judd doesn’t directly address the libertarian aspect of true society, but the thrust of her essay points in that direction. She laments the fact that

[c]ultural individualization has…cornered us into a welfare state mentality from which we cannot escape unless we replace our concept of a society of individuals with something more ordered and interconnected.

Toward the end of her essay she puts it this way:

Living together in isolation is not a sustainable social model. So long as we continue to think of the individual as the basic unit of society, our progression toward the disenchanted welfare state will continue, even while no amount of socialized government intervention will provide the human cohesion we need.

Judd’s view is that family is the backbone of society. And the drift away from families to individuals is destroying that backbone, which must be reconstructed. In her words,

government is incapable of buttressing our crumbling human connections. That task must start with rebuilding individuals into families and families into society. Like every great undertaking, the process will be slow and require sacrifice, but the recompense will be not only a healthy and sustainable society, but also, paradoxically, a stronger sense of our individual identity as we reconnect with other human beings.

I think she’s right about the breakdown of family, but her vague exhortation at the end leaves me wondering what can actually be done about it And even if there were some restoration of the family on a relatively large scale, I don’t think it would do much to alleviate the fragmentation of the United States, which has never been a society in the true meaning of the word.

Why have family ties loosened and broken? The answer, in two words: prosperity and mobility. Even without the welfare state (and despite it), a large fraction of the populace can afford to buy things like housing and elder-care that until World War II were often provided by families.

Greater mobility goes hand in hand with greater prosperity; the expansion of economic activity has been both intensive and extensive. Modern people are no different than their hunter-gatherer forbears; they go where their labors earn greater rewards. And in doing so they leave behind grandparents, parents, and siblings — most of whom are prosperous enough to fend for themselves. American families have been drifting apart for many generations. The drift was masked to some extent by the influx of European immigrants in the late 1800s and early 1900s, whose strong bonds were forged by economic necessity and mutual self-defense against xenophobic natives. But those bonds, too, have dissolved to the point that the exceptions (e.g., Amish and Hasidic communities) are notable for their rarity. And so it will be with the Hispanic immigration of recent decades, though economic necessity and ethnic differences probably will bind Hispanic immigrants far longer than they bound European ones.

So I don’t see the restoration of the family as likely — barring another World War II or Great Depression. Nor do I see the restoration of the family as necessary to the demotion of the welfare state. The welfare state does feed on individualism, but it also feeds on widespread economic ignorance and the cupidity of politicians and bureaucrats.

Economic ignorance abets cupidity, in that politicians and bureaucrats are able to feed their power-lust and line their pockets because most Americans have no grasp of the huge economic cost of the welfare state — or more accurately, the regulatory-welfare state. If the regulatory-welfare state is to be contained and diminished by electoral means, a huge number of Americans must be convinced of its exorbitant cost in dollars and liberty.

One might as well try to melt an iceberg with a hair dryer. Only a minority of economists understands or is willing to admit the dire economic consequences of the regulatory-welfare state, and only a minority of constitutional scholars understands or is willing to admit the anti-libertarian consequences of the regulatory-welfare state. More importantly — because only a small fraction of Americans is aware of what those “fringe” economists and constitutional scholars say — relatively few politicians and pundits on the national stage understand, agree with, and accurately relay those views to Americans. For every Ted Cruz there are probably two or three Bernie Sanderses.

To repeat the themes of recent posts, leftists are ruthless and they have the rhetorical advantage over principled politicians because they are very good at promising things without knowing or caring about the economic and social costs of what they promise. Their appeal to Mr. and Ms. Average and Below-Average — which is most Americans — rests on envy. Leftists are always on the lookout for privilege, which they promise to uproot:

Privilege…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. [Leftists] 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.” [Leftists] believe it necessary to use the power of government to alleviate (if not eliminate) unequal endowments and to elevate the “victims” of inequality.

If you were Mr. or Ms. Average or Below-Average, would you willingly sacrifice the (illusory) prosperity of the regulatory-welfare state and reject its promise of making everyone a winner? What’s more disheartening — but unsurprising given the state of political discourse — is that  Mr. and Ms. Above-Average are not only reluctant to abandon the regulatory-welfare state, but are its staunchest proponents.

In sum, individualism is here to stay, regardless of what happens to the regulatory-welfare state, unless there is a return to the dire days of 1930-1945. And even then, the regulatory-welfare state is here to stay, unless there is a negotiated partition of the country, a (successful) secession movement, or a coup by liberty-loving patriots.

I’m sorry, but that’s the way it looks from here.

Society, Polarization, and Dissent

One definition of liberty is the “right or power to act as one chooses.” This seems to be the usual view of the matter. But it should be obvious that liberty depends on restraint. Acting as one chooses covers a lot of ground, including acts that prevent others from doing as they choose (e.g., murder and fraud). Liberty is therefore a matter of mutual restraint, where there are agreed limits on what one may do.

Society — true society — consists of people who, among other things, agree as to the limits on what one may do. That shared view isn’t imposed by regulation, statute, or judicial decree — though such things will arise from the shared view in a true society. Rather, the shared view arises from the experience of living together and finding the set of customs and prohibitions that yields peaceful, willing coexistence and its concomitant: beneficially cooperative behavior. Liberty, in other words.

Some of the customs and prohibitions of a society will seem arbitrary and foolish to an outsider. But it is the observance of those customs and prohibitions that binds a people in mutual trust and respect. Peaceful, willing coexistence and beneficially cooperative behavior depend on mutual trust and respect.

Customs are positive acts — the ways in which people are expected to comport themselves and behave toward each other. A good example is the degree to which emotion is openly expressed or suppressed, which varies from the reserve of Japanese to the exuberance of Italians. Consistent failure to observe a society’s customs brands one as an outsider, someone who isn’t to be trusted. Such a person will find it hard to make more than a menial living, and is unlikely to have friends other than renegades like himself.

Strict prohibitions are like those found in the last six of the Ten Commandments: do not dishonor your parents; don’t commit murder, adultery, or theft; don’t lie maliciously; and don’t covet what others have. (The last of these is dishonored regularly by “social justice warriors” who liken redistribution by force to Christian charity.) The violation of prohibitions calls for prosecution by those who have been entrusted by society to enforce its norms. Punishments — which will range from execution to public shaming — are meant not only to punish wrong-doing but also deter it. Rehabilitation is the responsibility of the wrong-doer, not society.

The United States has long since ceased to be anything that resembles a society. And therein lies the source of political polarization. Governance is no longer based on shared customs and a common morality that arise from eons of coexistence. Governance and the rules on which it is based are imposed from outside of society. Those who use “society” when they mean government are ignorant and evasive.

Those of us who remember something that resembled a society bitterly resent the outsiders within (to coin a phrase) who seek to impose on everyone their version of customs and morals. It is a corrupt version that has no roots in society; it is meant, instead, to destroy what is left of it.

The path to total destruction began in the late 1800s, with the rise of the Progressive movement. Progressivism then and now is corrupt at its core because it seeks to replace the evolved social, economic, and political order with “science.” Scratch a Progressive and you find a fascist with an agenda to be imposed by the force of government.

What is the legacy of Progressivism? This:

  • the income tax and Social Security, which together with a vast regulatory regime (also a product of Progressivism) enable the central government to control the economy
  • direct election of Senators, which robbed the States of a check on the actions of the central government
  • the Federal Reserve System, which helped to bring about the Great Depression, the Great Recession, and several other economic downturns
  • public education indoctrination by psychobbable-spouting leftists
  • identity politics
  • persecution and prosecution of business success (a.k.a. antitrust action)
  • control of the production of food and drugs, with consequences ranging from wasteful labeling regulations to murderous delays in the approval of medications
  • abortion
  • Prohibition (the only Progressive “reform” to have been rescinded)
  • left-wing economic theories (income redistribution, pump-priming)
  • the theft of private property and deprivation of freedom of contract through the empowerment of labor unions, which inevitably became thuggish.

There’s more, but that’s enough to bring down any civilization. And it has.

Perhaps — because of population growth and economic and political ambition — it was inevitable that America would be transformed from a collection of interlocking societies into a vast geopolitical entity ruled by Progressives and their intellectual heirs. But whatever the causes, the transformation is almost complete…

Except for those Americans who do remember something like a true society, those Americans who know instinctively what a true society would be like, and those Americans who want to preserve the bits of true society that haven’t yet been destroyed by the fascists in Washington, their enablers in the media and academia, and their dependents throughout the land.

That’s the real polarization in America. (As opposed to the false one between leftists at one pole and faux conservatives, who simply want to move left at a slower pace.) And the polarization will not end as long as dissent remains alive.

Which is why the left is killing dissent. First they came for the students; then they came for the Christians; then…

Independence Day 2016: The Way Ahead

Prudence…will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations…reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.… [A]nd such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history…is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States.

Declaration of Independence
(In Congress. July 4, 1776. The unanimous Declaration
of the thirteen united States of America)

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It is fitting, in this summer of discontent, to be faced with a choice between the spiritual descendants of P.T. Barnum and Lady Macbeth. Washington, Jefferson, and Madison are spinning in their graves, at high velocity.

The candidacies of Trump and Clinton are symptoms of the looming demise of liberty in the United States. There hasn’t been a candidate since Ronald Reagan who actually understood and believed that Americans would be freer and therefore more prosperous if the central government were contained within the four corners of the Constitution. (And even Reagan had a soft spot in his heart for Social Security.) Nevertheless, it is appalling but unsurprising that liberty’s end is in sight just 27 years after Reagan left office.

What went wrong? And how did it go wrong so quickly? Think back to 1928, when Americans were more prosperous than ever and the GOP had swept to its third consecutive lopsided victory in a presidential race. All it took to snatch disaster from the jaws of delirium was a stock-market crash in 1929 (fueled by the Fed) that turned into a recession that turned into a depression (also because of the Fed). The depression became the Great Depression, and it lasted until the eve of World War II, because of the activist policies of Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt, which suppressed recovery instead of encouraging it. There was even a recession (1937-38) within the depression, and the national unemployment rate was still 15 percent in 1940. It took the biggest war effort in the history of the United States to bring the unemployment rate back to its pre-depression level.

From that relatively brief but deeply dismal era sprang a new religion: faith in the central government to bring peace and prosperity to the land. Most Americans of the era — like most human beings of every era — did not and could not see that government is the problem, not the solution. Victory in World War II, which required central planning and a commandeered economy, helped to expunge the bitter taste of the Great Depression. And coming as it did on the heels of the Great Depression, reinforced the desperate belief — shared by too many Americans — that salvation is to be found in big government.

The beneficial workings of the invisible hand of competitive cooperation are just too subtle for most people to grasp. The promise of a quick fix by confident-sounding politicians is too alluring. FDR became a savior-figure because he talked a good game and was an inspiring war leader, though he succumbed to pro-Soviet advice.

With war’s end, the one-worlders and social engineers swooped on a people still jittery about the Great Depression and fearful of foreign totalitarianism. (The native-born variety was widely accepted because of FDR’s mythic status.) Schools and universities became training grounds for the acolytes of socialism and amoral internationalism.

Warren Henry is right when he says that

progressivism is…broadly accepted by the American public, inculcated through generations of progressive dominance of education and the media (whether that media is journalism or entertainment). Certainly Democrats embrace it. Now the political success of Donald J. Trump has opened the eyes of the Right to the fact that Republicans largely accept it….

Republicans have occasionally succeeded in slowing the rate at which America has become more progressive. President Reagan was able to cut income tax rates and increase defense spending, but accepted tax increases to kick the can on entitlements and could not convince a Democratic Congress to reduce spending generally. Subsequent administrations generally have been worse. A Republican Congress pressured Bill Clinton into keeping his promise on welfare reform after two vetoes. He did so during a period when the end of the Cold War and the revenues from the tech bubble allowed Washington to balance budgets on the Pentagon’s back. Unsurprisingly, welfare reform has eroded in the ensuing decades.

Accordingly, the big picture remains largely unchanged. Entitlements are not reformed, let alone privatized. To the contrary, Medicare was expanded during a GOP administration, if less so than it would have been under a Democratic regime…. Programs are almost never eliminated, let alone departments.

The Right also loses most cultural battles, excepting abortion and gun rights. Notably, the inroads on abortion may be due as much to the invention and deployment of the sonogram as the steadfastness of the pro-life movement. Otherwise, political and cultural progressivism has been successful in their march through the institutions, including education, religion, and the family.

Curricula increasingly conform to the progressive fashions of the moment, producing generations of precious snowflakes unequipped even to engage in the critical thinking public schools claim to prioritize over an understanding of the ages of wisdom that made us a free and prosperous people. Church membership and attendance continues their long-term decline. A country that seriously debated school prayer 30 years ago now debates whether Christians must be forced to serve same-sex weddings.

Marriage rates continue their long-term decline. Divorce rates have declined from the highs reached during the generation following the sexual revolution, but has generally increased over the course of the century during which progressivism has taken hold (despite the declining marriage rate). Those advocating reform of the nation’s various no-fault divorce laws are few and generally considered fringe.

There’s more, but disregard Henry’s reification of America when he should write “most Americans”:

Meanwhile, America has voted for decade after decade of tax-and-spend, borrow-and-spend, or some hybrid of the two. If the white working class is now discontented with the government’s failure to redress their grievances, this is in no small part due to the ingrained American expectation that government will do so, based on the observation that government typically hungers to increase government dependency (not that the white working class would use these terms).…

In sum, while it is correct to note that elites are not doing their jobs well, it is more difficult to conclude that elites have not been responding to the political demands of the American public as much as they have driven them.…

The presidential nominees our two major parties have chosen are largely viewed as awful. But Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump offer two slightly different versions of the same delusion: that progressivism works, if only the elites were not so stupid. This delusion is what most Americans currently want to believe.

Sad but disastrously true. Dependency on government has become deeply ingrained in the psyche of most Americans. As Timothy Taylor points out,

[g]overnment in the United States, especially at the federal level, has become more about transfer payments and less about provision of goods and services.…

[There has been an] overall upward rise [of transfer payments] in the last half-century from 5% of GDP back in the 1960s to about 15% of GDP in the last few years….

The political economy of such a shift is simple enough: programs that send money to lots of people tend to be popular. But I would hypothesize that this ongoing shift not only reflects voter preferences, but also affect how Americans tend to perceive the main purposes of the federal government. Many Americans have become more inclined to think of federal budget policy not in terms of goods or services or investments that it might perform, but in terms of programs that send out checks.

What lies ahead? Not everyone is addicted to government. There are millions of Americans who want less of it — a lot less — rather than more of it. Here, with some revisions and an addition, are options I spelled out three years ago:

1. Business as usual — This will lead to more and more government control of our lives and livelihoods, that is, to less and less freedom and prosperity (except for our technocratic masters, of course).

2. Rear-guard action — This option is exemplified by the refusal of some States to expand Medicaid and to establish insurance exchanges under the Affordable Care Act. This bit of foot-dragging doesn’t cure the underlying problem, which is accretion of illegitimate power by the central government. Further, it can be undone by fickle voters and fickle legislatures, as they succumb to the siren-call of “free” federal funds.

3. Geographic sorting — The tendency of “Blue” States to become “bluer” and “Red” States to become “redder” suggests that Americans are sorting themselves along ideological lines. As with rear-guard action, however, this tendency — natural and laudable as it is — doesn’t cure the underlying problem: the accretion of illegitimate power by the central government. Lives and livelihoods in every State, “Red” as well as “Blue,” are controlled by the edicts of the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of the central government. There is little room for State and local discretion. Moreover, much of the population shift toward “Red” must be understood as opportunistic (e.g., warmer climates, right-to-work laws) and not as an endorsement of “Red” politics.

4. Civil disobedience — Certainly called for, but see options 5, 6, and 7.

5. Underground society and economy — Think EPA-DOL-FBI-IRS-NSA, etc., etc., and then dismiss this as a serious option for most Americans.

6. The Benedict Option, about which Bruce Frohnen writes:

[Rod] Dreher has been writing a good deal, of late, about what he calls the Benedict Option, by which he means a tactical withdrawal by people of faith from the mainstream culture into religious communities where they will seek to nurture and strengthen the faithful for reemergence and reengagement at a later date….

The problem with this view is that it underestimates the hostility of the new, non-Christian society [e.g., this and this]….

Leaders of this [new, non-Christian] society will not leave Christians alone if we simply surrender the public square to them. And they will deny they are persecuting anyone for simply applying the law to revoke tax exemptions, force the hiring of nonbelievers, and even jail those who fail to abide by laws they consider eminently reasonable, fair, and just.

7. A negotiated partition of the country — An unlikely option (discussed in this post and in some of the posted linked to therein) because, as discussed in option 6, “Blue” will not countenance the loss of control over millions of lives and livelihoods.

8. Secession — This is legal and desirable — as long as the New Republic of free states is truly free — but (a) it is likely to be met with force and therefore (b) unlikely to attract a critical mass of States.

9. Coup — Suggested several years ago by Thomas Sowell:

When I see the worsening degeneracy in our politicians, our media, our educators, and our intelligentsia, I can’t help wondering if the day may yet come when the only thing that can save this country is a military coup.

Glenn Reynolds, who is decidedly anti-coup, writes

that the American Constitution, along with traditional American political culture in general, tends to operate against those characteristics, and to make the American polity more resistant to a coup than most. It is also notable, however, that some changes in the Constitution and in political culture may tend to reduce that resistance….

The civics-book statement of American government is that Congress passes laws that must be signed by the president (or passed over a veto), and that those laws must be upheld by thejudiciary to have effect. In practice, today’s government operates on a much more fluid basis, with administrative agencies issuing regulations that have the force of law – or, all too often, “guidance” that nominally lacks the force of law but that in practice constitutes a command – which are then enforced via agency proceedings.…

[I]t seems likely that to the extent that civilians, law enforcement, and others become used to obeying bureaucratic diktats that lack a clear basis in civics-book-style democratic process, the more likely they are to go along with other diktats emanating from related sources. This tendency to go along with instructions without challenging their pedigree would seem to make a coup more likely to succeed, just as a tendency to question possibly unlawful or unconstitutional requirements would tend to make one less likely to do so. A culture whose basis is “the law is what the bureaucrats say it is, at least unless a court says different,” is in a different place than one whose starting impulse is “it’s a free country.”…

[P]ersistent calls for a government-controlled “Internet kill switch”49 – justified, ostensibly, by the needs of cyberdefense or anti-terrorism – could undercut that advantage [of a decentralized Internet]. If whoever controlled the government could shut down the Internet, or, more insidiously, filter its content to favor the plotters’ message and squelch opposition while presenting at least a superficial appearance of normality, then things might actually be worse than they were in [Fletcher Knebel and Charles Bailey’s Seven Days in May, which imagined an attempted coup by a Curtis LeMay-like general].…

[T]he most significant barrier to a coup d’etat over American history has probably stemmed simply from the fact that such behavior is regarded as un-American. Coups are for banana republics; in America we don’t do that sort of thing. This is an enormously valuable sentiment, so long as the gap between “in America” and “banana republics” is kept sufficiently broad. But it is in this area, alas, that I fear we are in the worst shape. When it comes to ideological resistance to coups d’etat, there are two distinct groups whose opinions matter: The military, and civilians. Both are problematic….

[T]here are some troubling trends in civilian/military relations that suggest that we should be more worried about this subject in the future than we have been in the past…

Among these concerns are:

  • A “societal malaise,” with most Americans thinking that the country was on “the wrong track.”
  • A “deep pessimism about politicians and government after years of broken promises,” leading to an “environment of apathy” among voters that scholars regard as a precursor to a coup.
  • A strong belief in the effectiveness and honor of the military, as contrasted to civilian government.
  • The employment of military forces in non-military missions, from humanitarian aid to drug interdiction to teaching in schools and operating crucial infrastructure.
  • The consolidation of power within the military – with Congressional approval – into a small number of hands….
  • A reduction in the percentage of the officer corps from places outside the major service academies.…
  • A general insulation of the military from civilian life…. “Military bases, complete with schools, churches, stores, child care centers, and recreational areas, became never-to-be-left islands of tranquility removed from the chaotic crime-ridden environment outside the gates…. Thus, a physically isolated and intellectually alienated officer corps was paired with an enlisted force likewise distanced from the society it was supposed to serve [quoting from an essay by Charles J. Dunlap, “The Origins Of The American Military Coup of 2012,” Parameters, Winter, 1992-93, at 2]….

[D]istrust in the civilian government and bureaucracy is very high. A 2016 Associated Press/National Opinion Research Center poll found that more than 6 in 10 Americans have “only slight confidence – or none at all” that the federal government can successfully address the problems facing the nation. And, as the AP noted, this lack of confidence transcends partisan politics: “Perhaps most vexing for the dozen or so candidates vying to succeed President Barack Obama, the poll indicates widespread skepticism about the government’s ability to solve problems, with no significant difference in the outlook between Republicans and Democrats.”

As a troubling companion to this finding, the YouGov poll on military coups…also found a troubling disconnect between confidence in civilian government and confidence in the military: “Some 71% said military officers put the interests of the country ahead of their own interests, while just 12% thought the same about members of Congress.” While such a sharp contrast in views about civilian government and the military is not itself an indicator of a forthcoming coup, it is certainly bad news. Also troubling are polls finding that a minority of voters believes that the United States government enjoys the consent of the governed.63 This degree of disconnection and disaffection, coupled with much higher prestige on the part of the military, bodes ill.

Or well, if you believe that a coup is the only possible salvation from despotism.

Military personnel (careerists, in particular) are disciplined, have direct access to the tools of power, and many of them are trained in clandestine operations. Therefore, a cadre of properly motivated careerists might possess the wherewithal necessary to seize power. But a plot to undertake a coup is easily betrayed. (Among other things, significant numbers of high-ranking officers are shills for the regulatory-welfare state.) And a coup, if successful, might deliver us from a relatively benign despotism into a decidedly malign despotism.

But unless there is a negotiated partition of the country — perhaps in response to a serious secession movement — a coup is probably the only hope for the restoration of liberty under a government that is true to the Constitution.

The alternative is a continuation of America’s descent into despotism, which — as many Americans already know — is no longer the “soft” despotism foreseen by Tocqueville.

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Related posts (in addition to those linked to throughout this one):
The Real Constitution and Civil Disobedience
A Declaration of Independence
A Declaration of Civil Disobedience
The States and the Constitution
And many more here