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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.”

Legislating Morality (II)

Donald Boudreaux is co-proprietor of Cafe Hayek. I agree with him on almost everything (defense being the notable exception), but I can’t swallow this:

Too bad that too few people realize – as does the Rev. Robertson today [regarding marijuana], and as did Mr. Rockefeller 80 years ago [regarding alcohol] – that government cannot prohibit private behaviors without unleashing consequences far worse than those of the prohibited behaviors themselves.

That’s a too-sweeping statement. Does the “prohibition” of theft and murder unleash consequences “far worse than those of the prohibited behaviors”? I don’t think so.

On the contrary, the “prohibition” by statute and ordinance of direct harms to life, liberty, and property enables the state to perform one of its two legitimate functions, which is to punish those harms and thereby deter their commission (at least partially). (The other legitimate function is to defend us from foreign predators.)

Where is the line between legitimate and illegitimate state action properly drawn? That’s a tough question. My general answer is that the state should be authorized to act in defense of long-standing social norms. Those norms used to encompass the last six of the Ten Commandments, which “prohibit” certain interpersonal transgressions: murder, adultery, theft, libel and slander, and covetousness. But under the dispensation of the “liberal” state, murder is not punished timely or adequately, adultery is encouraged (and marriages and families broken) by no-fault divorce laws, libel and slander are commonplace, and “social justice” is covetousness rampant.

I would say that “prohibition” has a rightful place in the maintenance of civil society.

Related posts:
The Principles of Actionable Harm
Line-Drawing and Liberty
Myopic Moaning about the War on Drugs
Saving the Innocent
Facets of Liberty
Crimes against Humanity
Abortion and Logic
Why Stop at the Death Penalty?
The Myth That Same-Sex “Marriage” Causes No Harm
Lock ‘Em Up
Legislating Morality

The Shape of Things to Come

Given the “State of the Union: 2010,” you may wonder how much worse things can get in this land of the once-free. Here are some very real possibilities:

  • More curbs on freedom of speech, in the name of “protecting” certain groups (e.g., homosexuals, immigrants, Muslims) and “preserving public order” (i.e., protecting government and government officials from criticism).
  • A complete government takeover of medical services (a U.S. National Heath Service), with no provision for opting-out to private care.
  • Environmentalism and warmism rampant, with draconian restrictions on everything from where we live, the design of our housing, and the range of products and services we are allowed to buy.
  • A stagnant economy — crushed by the weight of entitlement programs, environmentalism, warmism, and income equalization — affords a lower quality of life (on a par with the U.S. of the 1950s), and is unable to support a robust defense against foreign enemies.
  • Further reductions in quality of life, brought about by economic isolation, arising partly out of protectionism, partly out of voluntary withdrawal from overseas interests (in the name of self-sufficiency), and partly out of our unwillingness and inability to defend our overseas interests in the face of superior Chinese and Russian forces.
  • The erosion of traditional morality — aided by governmental endorsement of moral relativism — leading to the increasing brutalization of the citizenry and an eventual police-state response.

I could expand the list, but it is already depressing enough.

If you cannot participate in the efforts of the Tea Party movement, the American Conservative Union, and the Club for Growth to roll back the forces of oppression in this land, support those organizations with your dollars. Every little bit helps.