liberty

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)

Utilitarianism vs. Liberty (II)

Utilitarianism is an empty concept. And it’s 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.)

That’s enough about utilitarianism for now. Turning to liberty, I have defined it 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 “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.

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

The Twilight’s Last Gleaming?

Arnold Kling reviews Yuval Levin’s The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism:

Levin rejects the binary choice between strong central government and pure individualism. Instead, he extols what he calls the mediating institutions of families, local government, religious institutions, and charity. His idea of paradise would be a nation in which these institutions are allowed to experiment with a variety of ways of trying to help nurture and educate citizens who are capable of exercising freedom.

If Levin is right, then it would help to have the federal government back away from many of the responsibilities it has taken on over the past fifty years. Instead, more authority and responsibility should be left to these mediating institutions.

For me, Levin offers an appealing vision. However, I wonder if it can ever attract broad public support. In 2016, it appears to me that Americans do not value freedom as much as they used to. If President Obama represented the nostalgia for the era of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, then currently his party seems to be moving even further to the left, with many believing that some form of socialism is the answer. On the Republican side, it seems ironic that the candidate who gained ascendancy by promising to wall off our southern neighbors would appear to wish to run the United States like a Latin American strongman. And on college campuses, many students and administrators prefer “safe spaces” to free speech.

I worry that mediating institutions have lost their effectiveness. The broad middle class has given way to a bifurcated society, with the highly-educated and the less-educated no longer attending the same churches or sharing similar life experiences. The close-knit neighborhood has given way to the anonymous city, where local government is mostly responsive to powerful public sector unions and favor-seeking businesses. Perhaps this means that Levin’s vision is nearly as unrealistic as those that he criticizes. Restoring our mediating institutions might be yet another exercise in trying to squeeze the toothpaste back into the tube.

I share Kling’s pessimism. Not only will the left not allow government to back off, but even if government were to back off, it would be too late to rescue liberty in much of the country. In my commentary about David D. Friedman’s pro-anarchy tract, The Machinery of Freedom, I observed that the America of two or three generations ago

would have done quite will without government because its inhabitants — even the rich and powerful and best and brightest — were largely bound by common customs and common sense. [The America of today] — riddled as it is with dependency on the state and the divisions arising from the politics of “social justice” — has neither the collective will nor the wherewithal to resist the dictatorship or warlordism that surely would follow in the wake of the (extremely unlikely) replacement of government by anarchy.

Dictatorship or warlordism wouldn’t follow the restoration of constitutional governance in the United States, but neither would liberty blossom. For the reasons adduced by Kling and me, the partial vacuum left by the shrinkage of the central government would be filled by many a State and local government — at the behest of majorities of their government-addicted constituencies.

To find liberty, a person would probably have to move to a village, town, or small city in one of the States that has been solidly “Red” for a decade or more. But many such locales would eventually succumb to the influx of refugees from big-government, high-tax jurisdictions. Those refugees usually are fleeing the tax and regulatory consequences of the very programs that they support — and will continue to support because they don’t seem to understand that it is the programs they support which yield the high taxes and draconian regulations that they detest.

Liberty in the United States has been the victim of economic illiteracy and cupidity. Liberty might be rescued — temporarily — by the (unlikely) shrinkage of the central government. The permanent salvation of liberty would require eternal vigilance, accompanied by a strictly enforced ban on the promulgation of anti-libertarian ideas and anti-social practices. License granted in the name of liberty subverts liberty.

It is no coincidence that economic progress, which depends greatly on mutual trust and respect, has faltered badly since the arrival of the Great Society and the rise of the counter-culture. It is bread and circuses all over again.

The barbarians are within and at the gates.

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Related posts:

On Liberty

The Interest-Group Paradox

Rethinking the Constitution: “Freedom of Speech, and of the Press”

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

“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

More about Social Norms and Liberty

I recently revised my page, “Social Norms and Liberty,” and announced that revision in this post. I say in the post that “social norms — long-standing and voluntarily evolved — [are] the bedrock of a truly libertarian order.” Neither the page nor the post is meant to stand alone in supporting that proposition. Many of the posts listed at the bottom of the page are meant to do that.

But I fear that I’ve never been clear enough about which social norms foster liberty. Thus the following rough taxonomy of social norms and their relationship to each other and to liberty:

Taxonomy of social norms

Liberty is attainable where civil society prevails — where there is in fact and spirit a regime of willing, peaceful coexistence and beneficially cooperative behavior. Such a regime allows for a minimal state, one that is limited to the protection of citizens from predators, foreign and domestic, who commit (or would commit) prohibited acts.

How do I know when someone isn’t to be trusted with my liberty? When he habitually signals — by deeds, words, or allegiances — the rejection of core social norms that conduce to liberty.

I do not distinguish between “personal” and “official” behavior. The actions of tyrants belie whatever honeyed words they use to justify those actions. A politician like Obama, for example, is as much of a tyrant (if less murderous) as a Hitler, Stalin, Mao, or Castro — his election by “the people” and his rhetoric about “fairness,” etc., to the contrary notwithstanding. His policies are destructive of economic and social liberty, and may yet prove destructive of the physical liberty of Americans. Those who adulate and enable him (and his ilk) are simply not to be trusted, even if their adulation and support are naive.

The same goes for anyone in this country who adheres to a version of Islam that professes jihad against America and Americans. Any such person (or group) may be “American” in man-made law, but he or she is no more to be respected or trusted than a murdering, drug-pushing, woman-beating gang member.

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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:

Facets of Liberty
“We the People” and Big Government

Signature

Social Norms and Liberty

I often refer to social norms — long-standing and voluntarily evolved — as the bedrock of a truly libertarian order. This page serves as a permanent home for my views about social norms. It includes a long list of posts about social norms, liberty, libertarianism, and the destructive role of government.

How to Protect Property Rights and Freedom of Association and Expression

Opposition to Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act is more than another battle in the culture war. It continues a trend that began with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964: suppression of the rights of Americans to use their property as they see fit, to associate with whom they please, and to oppose elite opinion. (UPDATE 04/02/15: John Derbyshire puts a lot of flesh on the bare bones of the preceding sentences. By contrast, Andrew Napolitano — that pseudo-libertarian windbag — manages to get it wrong, as usual, by praising the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and its theft of property rights and denial of freedom of association. UPDATE 04/05/15: Warren Meyer cuts through the baloney.)

It is past time to put a stop to the trend. Liberty-loving Americans should fight back by pushing for a constitutional amendment like this:

1. Neither the United States nor any State, including its political subdivisions and educational institutions, may require any governmental entity or private person, business, or organization to discriminate against any person solely on account of that person’s age, gender, sexual preference, race, color, national origin, mental or physical condition, veteran status, political affiliation, or political views. [This is how Jim Crow laws should have been dealt with. “Solely” is meant to leave room for reasonable exceptions, such as mental qualifications for admission to a university, physical qualifications for jobs, and gender segregation in prisons and restrooms. Clauses of elaboration might be necessary.]

2. Neither the United States nor any State, including its political subdivisions and educational institutions, may require any governmental entity or private person, business, organization to sell property to, do business with, hire, promote, accept as a student, associate with, or give preference to any person, business, or organization on account of income, age, gender, sexual preference, race, color, national origin, mental or physical condition, veteran status, political affiliation, or political views. [This would rule out all kinds of preferences, including favoritism toward often-bogus minority- and women-owned business and relaxed lending practices of the kind that led to the Great Recession.]

3. Neither the United States nor any State, including its political subdivisions and educational institutions, shall initiate or continue in effect any statute, regulation, policy, or judicial decree that penalizes a private person, business, or organization for expressing a view about a person’s age, gender, sexual preference, race, color, national origin, mental or physical condition, veteran status, political affiliation, or political views. [Clauses of elaboration might be necessary to ensure that this doesn’t rule out such things as prosecutions for espionage and treason, or private actions for libel.]

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Related posts:
Academic Bias
Intellectuals and Capitalism
“Intellectuals and Society”: A Review
The Left’s Agenda
The Left and Its Delusions
The Spoiled Children of Capitalism
Politics, Sophistry, and the Academy
Subsidizing the Enemies of Liberty
Are You in the Bubble?
Not-So-Random Thoughts
The Culture War
Ruminations on the Left in America
No Wonder Liberty Is Disappearing

Signature

No Wonder Liberty Is Disappearing

I just took the Freedom Scenarios Inventory at YourMorals.org, the producers of which include the estimable Jonathan Haidt. I was shocked by the result — not my result, but my result in comparison with the results obtained by other users.

Before you look at the result, you should read this description of the test:

The scale is a measure of the degree to which people consider different freedom issues to be morally relevant. As you may have noticed, this inventory does not include perennially contentious freedom-related issues like abortion or gun rights. These issues were deliberately excluded from this scale, because we are interested in what drives people to be concerned with freedom issues in general. On the other hand, people’s stances on well worn political issues like abortion and gun control are likely to be influenced more by their political beliefs rather than their freedom concerns.

The idea behind the scale is to determine how various individual difference variables relate to people’s moral freedom concerns. Throughout the world, calls for freedom and liberty are growing louder. We want to begin to investigate what is driving this heightened concern for freedom. Surprisingly little research has investigated the antecedents of freedom concerns. In the past, our group has investigated clusters of characteristics associated with groups of people who are more concerned with liberty (i.e., libertarians), but this type of investigation differs from the current investigation in that we are now interested more in individual differences in freedom concerns – not group differences…. It seems that many psychologists assume that many types of freedom concerns are driven by a lack of empathy for others, but we think the truth is more complicated than this.

The test-taker is asked to rate each of 14 scenarios on the following scale:

0 – Not at all morally bad
1 – Barely morally bad
2 – Slightly morally bad
3 – Somewhat morally bad
4 – Morally bad
5 – Very morally bad
6 – Extremely morally bad
7 – Extraordinarily morally bad
8 – Nothing could be more morally bad

Here are the 14 scenarios, which I’ve numbered for ease of reference:

1. You are no longer free to eat your favorite delicious but unhealthy meal due to the government’s dietary restrictions.

2. You are no longer free to always spend your money in the way you want.

3. You are not always free to wear whatever you want to wear. Some clothes are illegal.

4. Your favorite source of entertainment is made illegal.

5. Your favorite hobby is made illegal.

6.. You are not free to live where you want to live.

7. By law, you must sleep one hour less each day than you would like.

8. You are no longer free to eat your favorite dessert food (because the government has deemed it unhealthy).

9. You are no longer allowed to kill innocent people . [Obviously thrown in to see if you’re paying attention.]

10. You are no longer free to spend as much time as you want watching television/movies/video clips due to government restrictions.

11, You are no longer free to drink your favorite beverage, because the government considers it unhealthy.

12. You are no longer free to drive whenever you want for however long you want due to driving restrictions.

13. You are no longer free to go to your favorite internet site.

14. You are no longer free to go to any internet site you choose to go to.

I didn’t expect to be unusual in my views about freedom. But it seems that I am:

Moral profile-freedom concern

A lot of people — too many — are willing to let government push them around. Why? Because Big Brother knows best? Because freedom isn’t worth fighting for? Because of the illusion of security and prosperity created by the regulatory-welfare state? Whatever the reason, the evident willingness of test-takers to accede to infringements of their liberty is frightening.

The result confirms my view that democracy is an enemy of liberty.

*     *     *

Related posts:
Something Controversial
More about Democracy and Liberty
Yet Another Look at Democracy
Democracy and the Irrational Voter
The Ruinous Despotism of Democracy
Democracy and Liberty
The Interest-Group Paradox
About Democracy

Signature

Romanticizing the State

Timothy Sandefur, an old sparring partner of mine, offers qualified praise for the state:

Cato Unbound has an excellent essay by Mark S. Weiner arguing that whatever its shortcomings, the state as a political entity is better than its likely alternative: clan rule. I remember having similar thoughts when Christina and I got married. As atheists, we occasionally face various forms of discrimination (fortunately only rarely, and typically minor) but we were still able to get married because we could obtain a civil marriage through the state. Lucky us. In centuries past, that alternative might not have been open to us. In this way, the state provided us with a service that in other times and places has not been available: secular marriage.

It’s a mystery to me why Sandefur and his spouse, both of them declared atheists and libertarians, want their marriage to be authorized by the state. Surely, they know that they could have entered into a cohabitation contract without the approval of the state. That contract could have included many provisions, including an agreement to submit their differences to binding, private arbitration.

Did they seek state approval to indicate that their marriage is just as legitimate as marriages sanctioned by churches? This strikes me as out of character for atheists and libertarians. If one doesn’t believe in God and is generally opposed to the workings of the state (beyond some minimal level of defense, perhaps), why would one unnecessarily emulate believers and acknowledge the state’s legitimacy in a sphere where its involvement is unnecessary?

All of that aside, I am bemused by Sandefur’s laudatory reference to Weiner’s essay, which begins with this:

Many conservatives argue as a basic tenet of their political thought that individual liberty thrives when the state is limited and weak. “As government expands, liberty contracts,” explained President Ronald Reagan in his farewell address, calling the principle “as neat and predictable as a law of physics.” This view is especially pronounced among libertarians, and for libertarians of an anarchist perspective, the opposition between the individual and the state is fundamental and irreconcilable.

I believe this view is significantly mistaken. From the perspective of comparative law and legal history, it represents a dangerous illusion characteristic of citizens who already enjoy the benefits of modern liberal government. Although the state can be an instrument of tyranny, robust government capable of vindicating the public interest is vital for individual autonomy.

As I argue in my recent book The Rule of the Clan, among its important benefits, a strong central state provides the most effective means to ensure that persons are treated as individuals, not merely as cousins. In its absence, people are forced to look to other institutions to address their social and legal problems, and the most enduring such organization in human history is the extended family, the clan—for which group loyalty trumps individual rights.

Because the rule of the clan provides many vital goods that liberal societies deliver less effectively, and because it is based on the natural fact of genetic affinity, it represents an ever-present gravitational force in human affairs.

One of the objects of modern liberal government is to resist this gravitational pull.

The fatal flaw in Weiner’s argument is his passing admission that “the state can be an instrument of tyranny.” The state not only can be an instrument of tyranny; it is an instrument of tyranny. When it comes to tyranny, the clan has nothing on the state.

Weiner writes as if the state were a kind of mechanical contrivance, free of human impulses and capable of a dispassionate defense of individualism. Would that it were so, but it is not so. The state — as a human institution — is powered by the operation of clannish institutions. As Daniel McCarthy writes in response to Weiner,

It’s not only the case that a strong central government—today’s “state” or the ancient empire—can safeguard the individual from being subsumed into a constraining group identity, but it’s also the case that the active component of liberty, the exercise of self-government, has tended to be a matter of group expression.

In republican Rome, the good (self-government) was inextricably mixed with the bad (rule by clannish elites). But this is the story of self-government everywhere. The House of Commons in England, for example, did not begin as an institution to represent all commoners; it began as a forum to represent the wealthiest towns and localities….

Reform of the boroughs, broadening of the franchise, and the introduction of the secret ballot were great struggles; at times they seemed almost revolutionary to Britain’s landed class. These struggles were fought and won not by individuals but by groups that were more than a little clannish and coercive. Clannishness was characteristic of the Catholic and Dissenting Protestant groups that also fought at this time—sometimes literally in streets—for their civil liberties. And in America, too, clannish groups, from racial minorities to religious and sexual ones, have had to battle for freedom. This was not at all an individualistic activity, either in its origins or its methods. The liberties we as individuals cherish today were largely won by clannish groups.

Such struggles, even when they are outlawed and cannot be conducted at the ballot box, are a kind of participation in power, as one institution of power—not the state, but the clan—compels another to recognize its demands and accede to at least some of them for the sake of peace. Even in ordinary politics at the level of Republicans and Democrats, clannishness rather than individualism is the rule, with religious, ethnic, and cultural blocs pursuing group objectives. Individualists tend to be blind to this reality; they are often at a loss to explain politics when, judged as a purely individual activity, even the act of voting is irrational. But it’s not an individual activity—it’s a clan ritual, one that bears some relation to the actual acquisition of power for the group.

Without groups, there is no participation in power—not outside of the tiniest direct democracy, at any rate. The ever present possibility of clan organization, well noted by Weiner, is a natural building block for group participation in ruling. As Weiner warns, the admixture of kinshp and government can lead to “clannism,” in which a kin group dominates the state and uses its machinery of power for selfish ends. Yet without strong clans, participation in power, for defensive as well as aggressive purposes, is forestalled. The result is Caesarism—the condition of the early Roman Empire, in which the citizen may have certain individual legal rights, but he has hardly any way of participating in government to safeguard or extend those rights….

The paradox of rule is that to secure one’s rights, one must participate in government, but participation in government means wielding power that can—and inevitably will—be used to oppress others. Participation in government necessarily has an illiberal dimension, even though it is also indispensable for securing liberty.

I call it the interest-group paradox:

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.” …

The paradox that arises from the “free lunch” syndrome is much like the …. paradox of thrift, in that large numbers of individuals are trying to do something that makes certain classes of persons better off, but which in the final analysis makes those classes of persons worse off. It 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.

I call this third, insidious, paradox the interest-group paradox. It is the costliest of the three — by a long shot. It has dominated American politics since the advent of “progressivism” in the late 1800s. Today, most Americans are either “progressives” (whatever they may call themselves) or victims of “progressivism.” All too often they are both.

Sandefur’s “free lunch” is the state’s recognition and authorization of his marriage. Now, it’s true that the state was already in the business of recognizing and authorizing marriage, so Sandefur’s “free lunch” probably didn’t impose additional costs on the rest of us. But by beseeching the state for a favor, he joins millions of others in validating a panoply of state powers that, on the whole, suppress rather than uphold liberty.

Sandefur would argue that his right to be married wasn’t the state’s to grant. Rather, rights exist independently, and the state sometimes recognizes and enforces them. The state, in other words, is really in the business of bestowing benefits. But because of the interest-group paradox there’s always a price to be paid — in dollars or liberty — for those benefits. The price is often justified by referring to “the greater good,” “the people,” “the nation,” or “society” (to list but a few such shibboleths).

What does that have to do with individualism? Nothing. How does it differ from clannism? It doesn’t; it is simply clannism with a bigger army.

*     *     *

Related posts:
On Liberty
Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and the Legitimate State
The Unreality of Objectivism
“Natural Rights” and Consequentialism
More about Consequentialism
Line-Drawing and Liberty
Pseudo-Libertarian Sophistry vs. True Libertarianism
Positivism, “Natural Rights,” and Libertarianism
What Are “Natural Rights”?
The Golden Rule and the State
Libertarian Conservative or Conservative Libertarian?
Evolution, Human Nature, and “Natural Rights”
More about Conservative GovernanceWhy I Am Not an Extreme Libertarian
Facets of Liberty
Burkean Libertarianism
Understanding Hayek
Rights: Source, Applicability, How Held
What Is Libertarianism?
True Libertarianism, One More Time
Human Nature, Liberty, and Rationalism
Libertarianism and Morality
Libertarianism and Morality: A Footnote
Society and the State
Why Conservatism Works
The Pool of Liberty and “Me” Libertarianism
Not Guilty of Libertarian Purism
Liberty and Society
The Eclipse of “Old America”
Genetic Kinship and Society
Liberty as a Social Construct: Moral Relativism?
Defending Liberty against (Pseudo) Libertarians
Defining Liberty
Conservatism as Right-Minarchism
“We the People” and Big Government
The Social Animal and the “Social Contract”
The Futile Search for “Natural Rights”
The Pseudo-Libertarian Temperament
Parsing Political Philosophy (II)
Getting Liberty Wrong
Left-Libertarianism in a Nutshell

Getting Liberty Wrong

Like most libertarians, Jeffrey Tucker doesn’t understand liberty. He writes:

Liberty allows peaceful human cooperation. It inspires the creative service of others. It keeps violence at bay. It allows for capital formation and prosperity. It protects human rights of all against invasion. It allows human associations of all sorts to flourish on their own terms. It socializes people with rewards toward getting along rather than tearing each other apart, and leads to a world in which people are valued as ends in themselves rather than fodder in the central plan. (“Against Libertarian Brutalism,” The Freeman, March 12, 2014)

What’s wrong with Tucker’s formulation? In a word: reification. Liberty does nothing, absolutely nothing. Liberty is a result of human striving, not the mysterious causal force of Tucker’s imagining.

Liberty is what people enjoy when they coexist peacefully and cooperatively, when they recognize property rights, when they allow freedom of association, and when they observe both of the complementary sub-rules of the Golden Rule:

  • 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.

None of this is possible unless there is agreement as to what constitutes harm — agreement which is embedded in and preserved by social norms that have evolved through eons of trial and error. Above all, there must be mutual trust and respect. Liberty is therefore likely to prevail only in a polity that is bound by genetic kinship.

Getting back to Tucker’s effusion: It’s just another example of left-libertarian whinging. Liberty is all right, say left-libertarians, as long as it yields certain results. What are those results? Combine the treacly, goody-two-shoes mentality of Romper Room, Captain Kangaroo, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, and Sesame Street; throw in laws and regulations to suppress non-conforming behavior; form identically shaped, identically colored, identically mindless citizens; and bake in the heat of elite-manufactured opinion.

*     *     *

Related posts:
On Liberty
Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and the Legitimate State
The Unreality of Objectivism
“Natural Rights” and Consequentialism
More about Consequentialism
Line-Drawing and Liberty
Pseudo-Libertarian Sophistry vs. True Libertarianism
Positivism, “Natural Rights,” and Libertarianism
What Are “Natural Rights”?
The Golden Rule and the State
Libertarian Conservative or Conservative Libertarian?
Evolution, Human Nature, and “Natural Rights”
More about Conservative GovernanceWhy I Am Not an Extreme Libertarian
Facets of Liberty
Burkean Libertarianism
Understanding Hayek
Rights: Source, Applicability, How Held
What Is Libertarianism?
True Libertarianism, One More Time
Human Nature, Liberty, and Rationalism
Libertarianism and Morality
Libertarianism and Morality: A Footnote
Society and the State
Why Conservatism Works
The Pool of Liberty and “Me” Libertarianism
Not Guilty of Libertarian Purism
Liberty and Society
The Eclipse of “Old America”
Genetic Kinship and Society
Liberty as a Social Construct: Moral Relativism?
Defending Liberty against (Pseudo) Libertarians
Defining Liberty
Conservatism as Right-Minarchism
“We the People” and Big Government
The Social Animal and the “Social Contract”
The Futile Search for “Natural Rights”
The Pseudo-Libertarian Temperament
Parsing Political Philosophy (II)

Parsing Political Philosophy (II)

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

INTRODUCTION

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

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

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

THE ESSENCE OF POLITICS

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

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

THE BASELINE POSITION: TRADITIONAL CONSERVATISM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A TAXONOMY OF PHILOSOPHIES

I begin with a rough sorting of political philosophies:

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

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

Anarchism

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

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

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

Minarchism

The Central Tenet: Limited Government

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

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

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

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

The Protection of Negative Rights

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

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

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

More about Property Rights

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

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

The Role of Civil Society

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

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

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

A Note about Left-Minarchism

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

Statism

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

The Essence of Statism: Control

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

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

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

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

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

Feeble Excuses for Statism

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

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

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

The Bottom Line about Statism

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

Despotism

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

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

REFINING THE TAXONOMY

These statements implicate several political issues:

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

2. Who should determine social norms, and how?

3. What behaviors should obtain?

4. How should norms be enforced?

5. What is the proper role of the state?

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

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

8. Who should pay for functions of the state?

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

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

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

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

Taxonomy of political philosophies

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

The Social Animal and the “Social Contract”

Here we go again, into “all men are brothers” territory:

“Morality can do things it did not evolve (biologically) to do,” says [Joshua] Greene [author of Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap between Us and Them]. How can it do this? By switching from the intuitive “automatic mode” that underpins our gut reactions to the calculating, rational “manual mode”. This, for Greene, means embracing utilitarianism, “the native philosophy of the manual mode”. Utilitarianism takes the idea that “happiness is what matters, and everyone’s happiness counts the same”, generating the simple three-word maxim, “maximise happiness impartially”.

Greene is not the first to think that he has found “a universal moral philosophy that members of all human tribes can share” and that those who disagree are simply not being rational enough. Many a philosopher will raise an eyebrow at his claim that “the only truly compelling objection to utilitarianism is that it gets the intuitively wrong answers in certain cases”.

At least one strong objection is suggested by what Greene himself says. He knows full well that the kind of absolutely impartial perspective demanded by utilitarianism – in which the interests of your own child, partner or friends count for no more than any others – “is simply incompatible with the life for which our brains were designed”. Greene takes this as a flaw of human beings, not his preferred moral theory. But when someone, for example, dedicates a book to his wife, as Greene does, this does not reflect a failure to be appropriately objective. A world in which people showed no such preferences would be an inhuman, not an ideal, one. A morality that values human flourishing, as Greene thinks it should, should put our particular attachments at its core, not view them as “species-typical moral limitations” to be overcome.

That’s an excerpt of Julian Baggiani’s commendable review of Greene’s book and two others (“The Social Animal,” FT.com, January 3, 2014).

Greene makes two errors. First, he assumes that it’s wrong to prefer those who are closest to one, geographically and by kinship, to those who are farther away. Second, he assumes that happiness can be added, and that what should matter to a person is not his happiness but the sum of all the happiness in the world. The errors are so obvious that I won’t dwell on them here. If you want to read more about them, start with “Liberalism and Sovereignty,” “Inside-Outside,” “Modern Utilitarianism,” “The Social Welfare Function,” and “Utilitarianism vs. Liberty.” And by all means read “The Fallacy of Human Progress,” which addresses Steven Pinker’s rationalistic thesis about overcoming human nature (The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined).

Yes, human beings are social animals, but human beings are not “brothers under the skin,” and there is no use in pretending that we are. Trying to make us so, by governmental fiat, isn’t only futile but also wasteful and harmful. The futility of forced socialization is as true of the United States — a vast and varied collection of races, ethnicities, religions, and cultures — as it is of the world.

Despite the blatant reality of America’s irreconcilable diversity, American increasingly are being forced to lead their lives according to the dictates of the central government. Some apologists for this state of affairs will refer to the “common good,” which is a fiction that I address in the third, fourth, and fifth of the above-linked posts. Other apologists like to invoke the “social contract,” another fiction that Michael Huemer disposes of quite nicely:

[I]t is often said that the government derives its powers from a “social contract,” whereby the people have granted these special powers to the government. The only problem with this theory is that it is factually false—I have not in fact agreed to have a government, to pay taxes, or to obey the government’s laws.

A number of suggestions have been made as to how, despite my protestations to the contrary, I really have agreed to all those things. Here I will just mention one, because it is the one most often heard in conversation. This is the suggestion that I have “implicitly” agreed to have a government merely by residing in the government’s territory. (“If you don’t want a government, simply move to Antarctica!”) Very briefly, the problem with this suggestion is that it presupposes that the state owns all the territory over which it claims jurisdiction, or that for some other reason it has the right to exclude people from that area. But there is no way to establish such a right on the part of the state, unless one has already shown that the state has legitimate authority. This therefore cannot be presupposed in an argument designed to establish the state’s authority. In this case, the statist’s claim seems analogous to the leader of a protection racket claiming that his victims have voluntarily agreed to pay him protection money, merely by living in their own houses. There are other ways in which social contract enthusiasts claim that we have accepted the social contract, but as I explain in the book, each of them falls to equally serious objections, which show that the social contract does not come close to satisfying the generally accepted principles of real, valid contracts.

Another popular suggestion is that, in democratic nations (about half the world today), the democratic process confers authority on the government. The motivation behind this view is initially puzzling. Recall that the problem is to explain why the state may undertake actions that would be considered rights violations if anyone else were to perform them. Typically, if some type of action violates someone’s rights—for instance, theft, kidnapping, or murder—the action will not be converted into an ethically permissible, non-rights-violating one if a larger number of people support the action than oppose it. If you’re in a group of friends, and five of them decide they want to rob you, while only three oppose robbing you, this does not make it ethically permissible to rob you. Similarly, even if every law were directly authorized by a popular referendum of everyone affected by the law, it is unclear why this would render legitimate a law that would otherwise have been a rights violation. Matters are only more problematic in a society in which a minority of people vote, and they vote merely to select representatives who may or may not keep their promises, and may or may not do what their supporters wanted.

But doesn’t the government have to coerce us in the ways that it does in order to maintain itself in existence, so that it can provide law and order? And without government, wouldn’t society degenerate into a constant war of everyone against everyone? The first thing to note about this argument is that it could at most justify a tiny minority of all the powers claimed by any modern state. Perhaps the government must make laws against violence and theft and provide a court system to adjudicate disputes, in order to prevent a Hobbesian war of all against all. But why must the government control what drugs you may put into your body, what wages you may pay your employees, how much wheat you may grow on your farm, and whether you buy health insurance? Why must they subsidize agribusiness, send rockets to Mars, fund the arts, provide college loans, and run their own school system? The question is not, “Why are those programs beneficial?” The question is, “How are those programs justified by the threat of the Hobbesian war that would supposedly result from anarchy?”

Granted, sometimes it is necessary to use coercion to prevent some disaster from occurring. But having done so, one is not then ethically permitted to continue using coercion beyond the minimal amount necessary to prevent that disaster. If we really stand in danger of some sort of all-out Hobbesian war, then the state would be justified in employing the minimum coercion necessary to prevent the state of war from occurring. This would not justify their continuing to employ coercion whenever it strikes their fancy, or whenever they think they can achieve some benefit by doing so. (“The Problem of Authority,” Cato Unbound, March 4, 2013)

A point that Huemer doesn’t make in his essay is to compare Americans with the “boiling frog“:

The premise is that if a frog is placed in boiling water, it will jump out, but if it is placed in cold water that is slowly heated, it will not perceive the danger and will be cooked to death. The story is often used as a metaphor for the inability or unwillingness of people to react to significant changes that occur gradually.

The metaphor is apt. Americans — or a very large fraction of Americans — have been “boiled” stealthily:

Power has been passing to Washington for more than 100 years, in defiance of the Constitution, because of … the Nirvana fallacy, unrepresentative government, logjams and log-rolling, fiefdoms and egos, and the ratchet effect and interest-group paradox. Thus Washington is able to exert its power on the entire country, bringing big government to places that don’t want it….

[G]overnmental acts and decrees have stealthily expanded and centralized government’s power, and in the process have usurped social norms. The expansion and centralization of power occurred in spite of the specific limits placed on the central government by the original Constitution and the Tenth Amendment. These encroachments on liberty are morally illegitimate because their piecemeal adoption has robbed Americans of voice and mooted the exit option. And so, liberty-loving Americans have discovered — too late, like the proverbial frog in the pot of water — that they are impotent captives in their own land.

Voice is now so muted by “settled law” (e.g., “entitlements,” privileged treatment for some, almost-absolute control of commerce) that there a vanishingly small possibility of restoring constitutional government without violence. Exit is now mainly an option for the extremely wealthy among us. (More power to them.) For the rest of us, there is no realistic escape from illegitimate government-made law, given that the rest of the world (with a few distant exceptions) is similarly corrupt. (“‘We the People’ and Big Government,” Politics & Prosperity, November 16, 2013)

And, no, “we” — that is all of “us” — don’t want it to be that way:

If there is an “American psyche,” it has multiple-personality disorder.

What do you think when a snobbish European generalizes about Americans — a bunch of crude, gun-toting, money-grubbers? Do you think that such generalizations are correct? You probably don’t. And if you don’t, why would you think (or speak and write) as if Americans are like ants, that is, of one mind and collectively responsible for the actions of government? …

There’s no need to look abroad for inapplicable generalizations about America…. [C]onservatives and liberals have been separating themselves from each other. Only a cock-eyed optimist — the kind of person who believes that living in the same (very large) geographic requires unity — would call this a bad thing. As if proximity yields comity. It doesn’t work for a lot of families; it doesn’t work for most blacks and whites; it doesn’t work for upper-income and lower-income groups. Why should it work for most conservatives and liberals? …

But aren’t “we all in this together,” as proponents of big and bigger government are wont to proclaim? Not at all. The notion that “we are all in this together” is just a slogan, which really means “I want big and bigger government” to “solve” this or that problem — usually at the expense of persons who have done nothing to create the “problem.” “We are all in this together” is a call for action by government, not proof of a mythical “national will.” If “we” were “all in this together,” we wouldn’t need to be reminded of it. Like a good sports team or military unit, we would simply act that way. (Op. cit.)

It’s true that most human beings crave some kind of social connection. But the gap between that craving and the faux connectedness of one-size-fits-all big government can’t be bridged by ringing phrases (“We the People”), by appeals to patriotism, or by force.

Government can take my money, and it can make me do things the way “technocrats” want them done — and it can do the same to millions of other Americans. But government can’t make me (or those other millions) love the recipients of my money or feel happier because I’m doing things the “right” way. It can only make my (and those other millions) despise the recipients and detest forced conformity. Only divisiveness can prevent the complete destruction of liberty in the name of “society.”

Social unity is found not in government but in genetic kinship:

[G]enetic kinship is indispensable to society, where society is properly understood as “an enduring and cooperating social group whose members have developed organized patterns of relationships through interaction with one another.” (“Genetic Kinship and Society,” Politics & Prosperity, August 16, 2012)

It takes overeducated dunderheads like Joshua Greene to denigrate the bonds of genetic kinship, even while openly prizing them.

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Other related posts:
On Liberty
Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and the Legitimate State
Tocqueville’s Prescience
What Is Conservatism?
Zones of Liberty
Society and the State
I Want My Country Back
The Golden Rule and the State
Government vs. Community
Evolution, Human Nature, and “Natural Rights”
More about Conservative Governance
The Meaning of Liberty
Evolution and the Golden Rule
Understanding Hayek
The Golden Rule as Beneficial Learning
True Libertarianism, One More Time
Human Nature, Liberty, and Rationalism
Utilitarianism and Psychopathy
Why Conservatism Works
Reclaiming Liberty throughout the Land
Rush to Judgment
Secession, Anyone?
Race and Reason: The Achievement Gap — Causes and Implications
Liberty and Society
The Eclipse of “Old America”

The Culture War

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

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

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

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

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

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

Defining Liberty

When philosophers get together, you can be sure of one thing: A lot of words will be spilled to little or no effect. This proposition is amply demonstrated by a virtual symposium on “The System of Liberty” at The Online Library of Liberty.

Thousands of words leave the reader in search of a useful definition of liberty — any definition of it, for that matter. This is as good as it gets:

[I]n conventional English, the words “liberty” and “freedom” appear to be used to refer to variety of related but not identical things. My view is that “freedom” and “liberty” are not in the first instance philosophical concepts, unlike, say, “epistemic justification” or “social contract.” Instead, these are conventional concepts in natural language, though they are concepts that philosophers appropriately take great interest in. Thus, there is a default presumption that philosophers should yield to common usage when discussing what “liberty” really means….

In closing, I think there are three main questions about liberty:

1. What is it? …

There’s a lot of hooey about Hobbes and Locke, and so on, but it’s all to no avail.

Well, what is liberty? Bereft as I am of indoctrination in the mumbo-jumbo of philosophy, I am especially qualified to tell you. It is a social construct that cannot be defined by a priori philosophizing.

Thus:

liberty — “do what you want, constrained only by the harm to others” — is an empty concept unless it rests on a specific definition of harm. Why? Because harm is not a fixed thing — like the number 1 or your house — it is a vague concept that has meaning only when it refers to specific types of act, which then may be judged as harmful by some and unharmful by others. But until harm is defined and agreed through mutual consent (explicit or implicit), liberty lacks real meaning.

Therefore:

Liberty … is a social construct, without a fixed meaning. Further, harm is not a single thing; it is many things, each of which is socially defined. Each harm refers to a right; the right not to be killed without (specified) cause, for example. The collection of rights (anti-harms) defines the scope of liberty in a particular society. Liberty is therefore divisible, to some extent; that is, a person might enjoy most of his socially agreed rights, but not all of them, because of this action by government or that action by a compatriot or enemy. (It is wrong, however, to assume that one can divide rights between social and economic categories; what is called economic activity is nothing more than a particular aspect of social activity, and the denial of certain economic rights is also a denial of social rights.)

However, when I say that

liberty is a social construct …. is a realistic position, not a morally relativistic one. I am quite prepared to be judgmental of societies and polities. There is a “best” morality. It was widely practiced in Old America [see this]. Though it is still practiced in the remnants of Old America, it is vanishing from the United States, mainly because government has sundered social bonds and usurped the role of  society as the arbiter of morality. The government of the United States and the governments of most of its political subdivisions are illegitimate because their legal impositions are, for the most part, rooted in envy and power-lust — and not in Judeo-Christian morality.

I am in danger of philosophizing, so I’ll leave you with a specific definition of liberty:

peaceful, willing coexistence and its concomitant: beneficially cooperative behavior

To sum up:

The problem with [the usual definitions of liberty] should … be obvious. Those definitions focus on the individual, whereas the relevant definition of liberty is a social one. That is to say, one cannot address social justice and its connection to liberty unless liberty is viewed as a modus vivendi for a group of individuals. There is no such thing as the ability to do as one pleases — the dominant motif of [the usual definitions] — unless

  • one lives in complete isolation from others, or
  • one lives in the company of others who are of identical minds, or
  • one rules others.

The first condition is irrelevant to the matter of social justice. The second is implausible. The third takes the point of view of a dictator, and omits the point of view of his subjects.

If you prefer to read thousands of words, go here:
On Liberty
Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and the Legitimate State
What Is Conservatism?
Law and Liberty
Zones of Liberty
Society and the State
I Want My Country Back
The Golden Rule and the State
Government vs. Community
Evolution, Human Nature, and “Natural Rights”
More about Conservative Governance
The Meaning of Liberty
Evolution and the Golden Rule
Understanding Hayek
The Golden Rule as Beneficial Learning
Facets of Liberty
True Libertarianism, One More Time
Human Nature, Liberty, and Rationalism
Libertarianism and Morality
Libertarianism and Morality: A Footnote
Legislating Morality
Legislating Morality (II)
Why Conservatism Works
Reclaiming Liberty throughout the Land
Liberty and Society
The Eclipse of “Old America”
Genetic Kinship and Society

Defending Liberty against (Pseudo) Libertarians

(Pseudo) libertarians like to demonstrate their bogus commitment to liberty by proclaiming loudly their support for unfettered immigration, unfettered speech, unfettered abortion, unfettered same-sex coupling (and legal recognition thereof as “marriage’), and unfettered you-name-it.. In the minds of these moral relativists, liberty is a dream world where anything goes — anything of which they approve, that is.

The aim of today’s sermon is to embellish what I’ve said previously in many of the posts listed at the bottom of this one on the subject of (pseudo) libertarians and (pseudo) libertarianism. I begin with Bryan Caplan.

My disdain for Caplan’s (pseudo) libertarian, pacifistic, one-worldishness is amply documented: here, here, here, here, here, and here (second item). Caplan has been at it again, in recent posts about immigration (as in opening the floodgates thereto).

Consider this post, for example, where Caplan tries (in vain) to employ Swiftian hyperbole in defense of unfettered immigration. In the following block quotation, each of Caplan’s “witty” proposals is followed by my observations (in brackets and bold type):

Libertarians’ odd openness to using immigration restrictions to protect American freedom has me thinking.  There are many statist policies that could indirectly lead to more libertarian policy.  If you’re open to one, you should logically be open to all.

Here are just a few candidates:

1. Make public schools teach libertarianism.  Sure, public education should be abolished.  But as long as public education exists, wouldn’t it be better if the schools taught children about the value of freedom and the wonder of markets?

[Well, yes, our course it would. But public schools don’t do that — and won’t do that — because they were long ago taken over by leftist “educators.” Next stupid idea…]

2. Discourage fertility of less libertarian groups.  If you really think that Muslims or Hispanics are unusually statist, their high birth rates should worry you.  Indeed, any birth rate above zero should worry you.  A moderate step would be to offer members of these groups extra subsidies for birth control.  From there, it’s just a hop, skip, and a jump to subsidized sterilization, tax penalties, or a selective One Child Policy.

[But why allow the immigration of statist-leaning groups in the first place? In fact, it would be a good idea to encourage them — and others — to leave. If the encouragement were financial, it would be a good investment.]

3. Censor statist ideas.  Sure, Paul Krugman has a right to free speech.  But the rest of us have a right to not be ruled by people swayed by Krugman.  It’s childish to deny the trade-off, no?

[It is childish to deny the trade-off. That’s why idiots like Caplan deny it. They believe that theft is wrong, but they don’t believe in preventing (or reducing) the amount of theft committed by government because statist ideas have been and are allowed to flourish. See below for more on this point.]

4. Subsidize vacations for less libertarian groups on election day.  Suppose the government gave members of unlibertarian groups free trips to Cancun that conveniently coincided with election day.  While some of the eligible would file an absentee ballot, there is little doubt that this would heavily depress turnout.  So why not?

[Better yet — and far less expensive — establish meaningful eligibility standards for voting; for example, being at least 30 years of age, owning one’s home, and being able to read and write at the 12th-grade level. This might empower more “liberals” than conservatives, give the tendency of educated persons to adhere to statism. But their power would be constrained by the sensible prohibition of speech that advocates theft in the name of the state.]

The first link in the block quotation is to an earlier post by Caplan, in which, for practical purposes, he joins with Don Boudreaux in proclaiming (psuedo) libertarian absolutism on such other matters as freedom of speech. As Boudreaux puts it,

Freedom may well destroy itself.  That’s a risk I’m willing to take, especially if the proposed means of saving freedom is to restrict it.

This reminds me of “it was necessary to destroy the village in order to save it.” It’s a position that defies logic; thus:

  1. Freedom is not merely literal freedom from captivity; it is the enjoyment of that freedom through the peaceful pursuit of happiness. (Freedom, as a general condition, is possible only if everyone’s pursuit of happiness is peaceful with respect to other persons and their property.)
  2. It is wrong to deny any person his freedom, regardless of his demonstrated enmity toward freedom as defined in 1. (This is Boudreaux’s stated position, which — taken literally — precludes the imprisonment of convicted murderers, rapists, thieves, and others whose acts deny to others the peaceful pursuit of happiness.)
  3. Freedom, therefore, consists only of literal freedom. (This conclusion, which contradicts the full definition of freedom given in 1, is the logical consequence of Boudreaux’s position. And yet, Boudreaux would be the last person to accept this limited definition of freedom.)

It doesn’t matter whether the person whose demonstrated hostility toward freedom (properly defined) is a thief or a socialist. One is the same as the other when it comes to the defense of freedom (properly defined). Boudreaux and his ilk would be consistent (though wrong) if they were to say that thieves shouldn’t be imprisoned, but I doubt that they would say such a thing because they are staunch defenders of property rights. Why then, do they defend the right of statists to spread the gospel of government control over our lives and livelihoods, which is nothing but government-sponsored theft and demonstrably more damaging than garden-variety theft?

As I say at the end of this post,

Liberty is lost when the law allows “freedom of speech, and of the press” to undermine the civil and state institutions that enable liberty.

There is a very good case for the view that the First Amendment sought to protect only those liberties necessary for the preservation of republican government. The present statist regime is a long way from the kind of republican government envisioned by the Framers.

Another staple of (pseudo) libertarian thought is a slavish devotion to privacy — when that devotion supports a (pseudo) libertarian position. Economists like Caplan and Boudreaux are cagy about abortion. But other (pseudo) libertarians are less so; for example:

I got into a long conversation yesterday with a [Ron] Paul supporter who took me to task for my criticisms of Paul’s positions. For one thing, he insisted, Paul’s position on abortion wasn’t as bad as I made it out, because Paul just thinks abortion is a matter for the states. I pointed out that in my book, saying that states can violate the rights of women [emphasis added] is no more libertarian than saying that the federal government can violate the rights of women.

Whence the “right” to abort an unborn child? Here, according to the same writer:

I do believe that abortion is a liberty protected by the Fourteenth Amendment….

This train of “logic” is in accord with the U.S. Supreme Court’s manufactured “right” to an abortion under the Fourteenth (or was it the Ninth?) Amendment, which I have discussed in various places, including here. All in the name of “privacy.”

Here, again, we see devotion to a value for its own sake, regardless of the implications for liberty. As I say here,

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

(Psuedo) libertarians choose not to characterize abortion as murder. They prefer to think of it as a form of control over one’s own body. But an unborn child is not “one’s own body” — it is its own body, created (in the overwhelming majority of cases) by consensual sex between the mother and a male person. Abortion is nothing more than a murderous flight from personal responsibility, which is a trait highly praised (in the abstract) by (pseudo) libertarians. And it is a long step down a very slippery eugenic slope.

It is no wonder that many (pseudo) libertarians like to call themselves liberaltarians. It is hard to distinguish (pseudo) libertarians from “liberals,” given their shared penchant for decrying and destroying freedom of association and evolved social norms. It is these which underlie the conditions of mutual respect, mutual trust, and forbearance that enable human beings to coexist peacefully and cooperatively. That is to say, in liberty.

Related posts:
Law, Liberty, and Abortion
Abortion and the Slippery Slope
Privacy: Variations on the Theme of Liberty
An Immigration Roundup
Illogic from the Pro-Immigration Camp
On Liberty
Illegal Immigration: A Note to Libertarian Purists
Inside-Outside
A Moralist’s Moral Blindness
Pseudo-Libertarian Sophistry vs. True Libertarianism
The Folly of Pacifism
Positivism, “Natural Rights,” and Libertarianism
What Are “Natural Rights”?
The Golden Rule and the State
Libertarian Conservative or Conservative Libertarian?
Bounded Liberty: A Thought Experiment
Evolution, Human Nature, and “Natural Rights”
More Pseudo-Libertarianism
More about Conservative Governance
The Meaning of Liberty
Positive Liberty vs. Liberty
On Self-Ownership and Desert
In Defense of Marriage
Understanding Hayek
Rethinking the Constitution: Freedom of Speech and of the Press
The Golden Rule as Beneficial Learning
Why I Am Not an Extreme Libertarian
Facets of Liberty
Burkean Libertarianism
Rights: Source, Applicability, How Held
The Folly of Pacifism, Again
What Is Libertarianism?
True Libertarianism, One More Time
Human Nature, Liberty, and Rationalism
Utilitarianism and Psychopathy
Privacy Is Not Sacred
A Declaration and Defense of My Prejudices about Governance
The Libertarian-Conservative Fusion Is Alive and Well
Libertarianism and Morality
Libertarianism and Morality: A Footnote
Merit Goods, Positive Rights, and Cosmic Justice
More about Merit Goods
What Is Bleeding-Heart Libertarianism?
Prohibition, Abortion, and “Progressivism”
Liberty, Negative Rights, and Bleeding Hearts
Cato, the Kochs, and a Fluke
Conservatives vs. “Liberals”
Not-So-Random Thoughts (II)
Why Conservatism Works
The Pool of Liberty and “Me” Libertarianism
Bleeding-Heart Libertarians = Left-Statists
Enough with the Bleeding Hearts, Already
Not Guilty of Libertarian Purism
Liberty and Society
The Eclipse of “Old America”
Genetic Kinship and Society
Liberty as a Social Construct: Moral Relativism?

Not-So-Random Thoughts (VI)

Links to the other posts in this occasional series may be found at “Favorite Posts,” just below the list of topics.

Arnold Kling reprises and expands on a point that I have made in “Liberty and Society” (among other posts, linked therein):

My inclination is to approve of organizations that promote group objectives and attempt to limit individual choices, as long as participation in these organizations is voluntary….

I read Adam Smith as approving of social pressure….

In Smith’s psychology, we imagine ourselves being regarded by others, and this imaginative exercise strongly influences our self-regard. Smith seems to me to suggest that this is good for mankind as a whole, because it encourages moral behavior.

Along these lines, there is a tradition within libertarian thought that champions the institutions of civil society as an alternative to statism….

In Hayek’s view, social norms are not the product of one person’s design; rather, they are the outcome of an evolutionary process….

Social norms, like the market, embody knowledge that is beyond the capability of any one individual to possess. I believe that for Hayek, trying to arrive at moral decisions solely on the basis of objective reasoning would be as futile a project as attempting to centrally plan an economy. Either project discards too much useful information to be successful….

I believe that modern research offers support for the views of Smith and Hayek on the nature of human psychology. For example, Jonathan Haidt, in The Righteous Mind, says that we have evolved to care about our status within groups. An important way to achieve status within a group is to adhere to and defend its norms.

One view is that systems of social norms are a necessary ingredient in human progress. For example, Haidt writes,

Moral systems are interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, technologies, and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate self-interest and make cooperative societies possible.

…[W]e live in a world that demands enormous levels of trust among strangers. We want to be able to use credit cards in remote villages in underdeveloped countries, to be able to buy and sell used goods on eBay, to hire contractors and service workers on Craigslist, and so on. We could not live the way we do if our trust circles were limited to something like a Dunbar number (the 150 or so people we can know well enough personally)….

What I am saying is that we should not become wedded to the view that the world we want is one in which irrational group attachments have been completely eradicated from the human psyche. Yes, this capacity for group attachment is manifest in state-worship that we find troubling. But group norms are a fundamental component of human nature. We probably owe a debt of gratitude to the part of human behavior that becomes irrationally attached to groups and to group norm enforcement.

It may be that the role of libertarians is to point out that political demagogues are exploiting the tribal loyalty instincts of citizens against their better interests, as is typically the case. But it may be neither realistic nor desirable to “educate” people in order that they should lose all sense of group attachment, including attachment to the state. (“Libertarians and Group Norms,” Library of Economics and Liberty)

Kling’s academic even-handedness aside, he is on exactly the right track. Liberty is a social construct, not a Platonic ideal.

*   *   *

Call it selection bias, if you will, but The Hockey Schtick posts a seemingly endless stream of academic papers that refute “warmism” and support natural explanations of the brief period of warming during the final quarter of the 20th century. Go there, and then go to “Anthropogenic Global Warming Is Dead, Just Not Buried Yet, ” and follow the links therein.

*   *   *

Theodore Dalrymple addresses Britain’s National Health Service and rationing:

Traditionally, the NHS has been inexpensive compared with most health-care systems, Britain spending less on its health care per head and as a proportion of GDP than any other developed country. But this reality is changing quickly. The NHS was inexpensive because it rationed care by means of long waiting lists; it also neglected to spend money on new hospitals and equipment. I once had a patient who had been waiting seven years for his hernia operation. The surgery was repeatedly postponed so that a more urgent one might be performed. When he wrote to complain, he was told to wait his turn.

Such rationing has become increasingly unacceptable to the population, aware that it does not occur elsewhere in the developed world. This was the ostensible reason for the Labour government’s doubling of health-care spending between 1997 and 2007. To achieve this end, the government used borrowed money and thereby helped bring about our current economic crisis. Waiting times for operations and other procedures fell, but they will probably rise again as economic necessity forces the government to retrench.

But the principal damage that the NHS inflicts is intangible. Like any centralized health-care system, it spreads the notion of entitlement, a powerful solvent of human solidarity. Moreover, the entitlement mentality has a tendency to spread over the whole of human life, creating a substantial number of disgruntled ingrates.

And while the British government long refrained from interfering too strongly in the affairs of the medical profession, no government can forever resist the temptation to exercise its latent powers. Eventually, it will dictate—because that is what governments and their associated bureaucracies, left to their own devices, and of whatever political complexion, do. The government’s hold over medical practice in Britain is becoming ever firmer; it now dictates conditions of work and employment, the number of hours worked, the drugs and other treatments that may be prescribed, the way in which doctors must be trained, and even what should be contained in applicants’ references for jobs. Doctors are less and less members of a profession; instead, they are production workers under strict bureaucratic control, paid not so much by result as by degree of conformity to directives. (“Universal Mediocrity,” City Journal, Summer 2012)

Rationing? It can’t happen here, right? Wrong. For more, see my “Rationing and Health Care.” “The Perils of Nannyism: The Case of Obamacare,” “More about the Perils of Obamacare.” and “The Rationing Fallacy.”

*   *   *

Cato’s loony libertarians (on matters of defense) once again trot out Herr Doktor Professor John Mueller. He writes:

We have calculated that, for the 12-year period from 1999 through 2010 (which includes 9/11, of course), there was one chance in 22 million that an airplane flight would be hijacked or otherwise attacked by terrorists. (“Serial Innumeracy on Homeland Security,” Cato@Liberty, July 24, 2012)

Mueller’s “calculation” consists of an recitation of known terrorist attacks pre-Benghazi and speculation about the status of Al-Qaeda. Note to Mueller: It is the unknown unknowns that kill you. I refer Herr Doktor Professor to “Riots, Culture, and the Final Showdown” and “Mission Not Accomplished.”

LIberty as a Social Construct: Moral Relativism?

This is the fourth installment of a series that explores the true nature of liberty, how liberty depends on society, how society (properly understood) has been eclipsed by statism and its artifacts, and how society — and therefore liberty — might re-emerge in the United States. In this installment, I take up the second of several possible objections to my model of a society’s essence and workings. This series will close with a blueprint for the restoration of society and liberty in America.

If you have not read the first three installments, “Liberty and Society,” “The Eclipse of ‘Old America’,” and “Genetic Kinship and Society,” I recommend that you do so before you continue. This post addresses the following question: Am I Endorsing Moral Relativism?

In “Liberty and Society,” I argue that

liberty — “do what you want, constrained only by the harm to others” — is an empty concept unless it rests on a specific definition of harm. Why? Because harm is not a fixed thing — like the number 1 or your house — it is a vague concept that has meaning only when it refers to specific types of act, which then may be judged as harmful by some and unharmful by others. But until harm is defined and agreed through mutual consent (explicit or implicit), liberty lacks real meaning.

Liberty, in other words, is a social construct, without a fixed meaning. Further, harm is not a single thing; it is many things, each of which is socially defined. Each harm refers to a right; the right not to be killed without (specified) cause, for example. The collection of rights (anti-harms) defines the scope of liberty in a particular society. Liberty is therefore divisible, to some extent; that is, a person might enjoy most of his socially agreed rights, but not all of them, because of this action by government or that action by a compatriot or enemy. (It is wrong, however, to assume that one can divide rights between social and economic categories; what is called economic activity is nothing more than a particular aspect of social activity, and the denial of certain economic rights is also a denial of social rights.)

Before you accuse me of moral relativism, consider the following. I am not endorsing a particular social construct, merely describing reality. The ugly reality is that in some societies there are barbarous acts which are considered to be moral, or to be justified because they are committed to enforce a moral code. One need look no further than certain Islamic sects, which endorse acts of terror against infidels, the stoning to death of adulterous women, and the imprisonment of homosexuals just because they are homosexuals. Are those acts justified by their broad acceptance within the Islamic sects that preach and practice them? Not in my view, certainly. But abhorrence of such acts does not negate the fact that they are accepted as normal within certain societies.

These facts will not dissuade moral absolutists, among whose number are deontological libertarians. Such libertarians like to believe that there is a “correct” moral code, and that it is known to them. This is a rather priestly pretension for a sect whose ranks are populated mainly by atheists. Persons who come to moral absolutism through religious conviction have the advantage of intellectual consistency.

By the deontological account, every human being is endowed with certain inalienable rights — “natural rights.”  What are those rights? One might assume that deontologists agree unanimously about them, inasmuch as deontologists accept the non-aggression principle and self-ownership as axiomatic. But the devil, as always, is in the details. Does the non-aggression principle preclude abortion? Some deontologists say that it does; others, that it does not. Does the non-aggression principle preclude a preemptive strike when it is evident that an enemy is about to attack? Again, it depends on which deontologist answers the question. I could go on, but that should be enough to tell you that deontology is no guarantee of moral certainty. In fact, deontology is nothing more than Mill’s harm principle in fancy dress And it has the same fatal flaw: It is a general statement into which one may pour a variety of specific meanings. (See “Liberty and Society.”) Efforts by deontologists to ground “natural rights” in evolutionary biology are equally fatuous. (See “Evolution, Human Nature, and ‘Natural Rights’,” and “More Thoughts about Evolutionary Teleology.”)

Then there are consequentialist libertarians, who claim that a regime of negative rights is best because it yields the greatest good for the greatest number. But the problem with that stance is its utilitarianism, that is, its presumption that the welfare of one person can be weighed against that of another person. (See “Enough of Social Welfare.”)

What about “progressives,” who are like deontological libertarians in the certainty with which they proclaim “natural rights,” which they (“progressives”) like to call “universal rights” and “human rights.” Unsurprisingly, “progressive” conceptions of rights are unlike those of most libertarians, who recognize only negative rights (“bleeding hearts” excepted). “Progressives” are champions of positive rights, that is, claims against the produce and property of others.

Who is to say that the “progressives” are wrong and hard-core libertarians are right? In other words, if there is a moral high ground, who decides who is standing on it? If a group of “progressives” were to form a cohesive society in which certain positive rights were agreed and accepted by all, without resort to coercion, would that not be a legitimate state of affairs? I have to admit that it would be.

That said, there is among “progressives” broad resistance to a pure share-and-share-alike ethos. In fact, “progressives” adhere to a share-this-much-but-no-more ethos. Though the “sharing” is not true sharing but redistribution by government edict. And the proper amount of “sharing” is always an idiosyncratic product of “progressive” attitudes du jour.

If you seek a good example of moral relativism, you can always find it in “progressivism,” with its ad hoc morality. Consequentialist libertarianism is no better, in principle, though when it comes to policy, consequentialists tend to be indistinguishable from deontologists. The latter, if they are nothing else, are demi-paragons of moral absolutism. If they were paragons, they would all discover the same operational code — one that goes deeper than an invocation of “natural rights.”

But I have wandered from the main point, which is whether variations in moral codes necessarily denote significant differences as to the nature of morality. Moral codes have two types of component: core values and instrumental values. Core values usually are expressed as absolutes: You shall not kill; you shall not steal; and so on. And those values may be held in common by many societies, even though those societies may have markedly different instrumental values.

The Amish, for example, subscribe to the core values that are enunciated in the Ten Commandments. But their instrumental values vary from sect to sect; thus:

Amish lifestyle is dictated by the Ordnung (German, meaning: order), which differs slightly from community to community, and, within a community, from district to district. What is acceptable in one community may not be acceptable in another. No summary of Amish lifestyle and culture can be totally adequate, because there are few generalities that are true for all Amish. Groups may separate over matters such as the width of a hat-brim, the color of buggies, or other issues.

The last sentence of the quotation will cause “sophisticates” to smirk, though secular “sophisticates” are loathe to associate with persons who hold “mistaken” views about abortion, child-rearing, capital punishment, and the proper role of government — to name but a few examples. And yet, those same “sophisticates” will agree with their ideological enemies that murder, theft, and several other acts are wrong. The devil, as I say, is in the details.

Instrumental values may be as trivial (to the non-Amish) as the width of a hat-brim, or as consequential (to a large number of persons on the left and right) as the proper punishment for premeditated murder (i.e., whether it should be incarceration, perhaps with a rehabilitative aim, or execution).

Why are instrumental values so important? And do differences about instrumental values preclude common cause with respect to core values?

A society is much more than its core values, As I have said,

[a] society coheres around genetic kinship, and is defined by its common culture, which includes its moral code. The culture is developed, transmitted through, and enforced by the voluntary institutions of society (civil society). The culture is the product of trial and error, where those elements that become part of received culture serve societal coherence and — in the best case — help it to thrive. Coherence and success depend also on the maintenance of mutual respect, trust, and forbearance among society’s members. Those traits arise in part from the sharing of a common culture (which is an artifact of societal interaction) and from genetic kinship, which is indispensable to societal coherence.

(On the importance of genetic kinship, see Genetic Kinship and Society.”)

But genetic kinship stretches only so far as a bonding material. When a person — even a person of the “right” race and ethnicity — flouts a society’s instrumental values, he signals disrespect for all of that society values, not just disrespect for the instrumental values in question. Take the predominantly white, flag-burning, rampaging, long-haired, bearded war-protestors of the 1960s and early 1970s, for example. Even though the United States is not a society and never has been one, it cohered in Old America because of commonalities among the societies of which it was composed. To be long-haired and bearded in the 1960s and early 1970s was (rightly) taken not just as a sign of one’s anti-war views but as a sign of one’s rejection of the values common to the societies of Old America. And so it was that to wear one’s hair long and to sport a beard (especially if the hair and beard were unkempt) was to risk a beating at the hands of white “good old boys.” (That the “good old boys” later adopted long hair and shaggy beards only underscores the role of signaling in social solidarity.)

It is nevertheless possible for societies that differ in their instrumental values to find common cause — as long as the differences are not too great:

Old America‘s core constituents, undeniably, were white, and they had much else in common: observance of the Judeo-Christian tradition; British and north-central European roots; hard work and self-reliance as badges of honor; family, church, and club as cultural transmitters, social anchors, and focal points for voluntary mutual aid. The inhabitants of Old America were against “entitlements” (charity was real and not accepted lightly); for punishment (as opposed to excuses about poverty, etc.); overtly religious or respectful of religion (and, in either case, generally respectful of the Ten Commandments, especially the last six of them); personally responsible (stuff happens, and it is rarely someone else’s fault); polite, respectful, and helpful to strangers (who are polite and respectful); patriotic (the U.S. was better than other countries and not beholden to international organizations, wars were fought to victory); and anti-statist (even if communitarian in a voluntary way). Living on the dole, weirdness for its own sake, open hostility to religion, habitual criminality, “shacking up,” and homosexuality were disgraceful aberrations, not “lifestyles” to be tolerated, celebrated, or privileged.

Old America was a large and richly diverse nation, united as much as it could be — and as much as it needed to be for mutual self-defense. Much of that unity has been undone by the purveyors of “diversity” (i.e., state-imposed preferences), who are also the purveyors of “equality” (i.e., unearned entitlements). Those same purveyors are moral relativists who cannot bring themselves to keep Americans safe from violent sub-cultures, at home and abroad.

Which brings me to my criteria for judging moral codes:

1. A code must be socially evolved, not imposed by the state. (Though the state may enforce a moral code that reflects social norms.)

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

3. Those who dissent from the code must be able to voice their dissent; otherwise, the code ceases to be socially evolved. (Dissent does not encompass treason.)

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

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

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

6. That polity is illegitimate if it honors inimical moral codes, either overtly or by making acts of obeisance to them. (A case in point: Obama’s support for uprisings in the Middle East — uprisings led by Muslim extremists, as Obama must surely have known.)

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

In closing, it is true that liberty is a social construct. But that is a realistic position, not a morally relativistic one. I am quite prepared to be judgmental of societies and polities. There is a “best” morality. It was widely practiced in Old America. Though it is still practiced in the remnants of Old America, it is vanishing from the United States, mainly because government has sundered social bonds and usurped the role of  society as the arbiter of morality. The government of the United States and the governments of most of its political subdivisions are illegitimate because their legal impositions are, for the most part, rooted in envy and power-lust — and not in Judeo-Christian morality.

Related posts:
On Liberty
Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and the Legitimate State
What Is Conservatism?
Law and Liberty
Zones of Liberty
Society and the State
I Want My Country Back
The Golden Rule and the State
Government vs. Community
Evolution, Human Nature, and “Natural Rights”
More about Conservative Governance
The Meaning of Liberty
Evolution and the Golden Rule
Understanding Hayek
The Golden Rule as Beneficial Learning
Facets of Liberty
True Libertarianism, One More Time
Human Nature, Liberty, and Rationalism
Why Conservatism Works
Reclaiming Liberty throughout the Land
Rush to Judgment
Secession, Anyone?
Race and Reason: The Achievement Gap — Causes and Implications
Liberty and Society
The Eclipse of “Old America”
Genetic Kinship and Society