Category Archive: Philosophy

  1. What Classical Liberals Get Wrong About Political Science

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    Can there be a classical liberal political science?

    To answer that question, it is instructive to examine how classical liberal ideas have developed and what disciplines have shaped the classical liberal tradition most.

    And to begin, we must acknowledge that contemporary scholarly classical liberalism has developed in an imbalanced way.

    By far the greatest intellectual investment has been in economics.

    There are good reasons for this, of course: the understanding of market processes and market ordering that liberal economists have given us is central to an appreciation of the counterintuitive idea that unplanned and decentralized voluntary action can yield beneficial social results.

    The insight that the market economy is a spontaneous order has been a crucial one for the development of modern classical liberalism as a whole. And economists, those who study market processes and orders, have a disproportionate tendency to be sympathetic to open and liberal markets. Most of the founders of the Mont Pelerin Society—the organization that shaped the intellectual agenda of postwar classical liberalism—were economists (of one methodological stripe or another).

    Somewhere behind economics, in an order I wouldn’t know how to rank, come law and philosophy.

    Classical liberal legal scholarship has encompassed both US constitutional law, recovering a sense of the commitment to liberty found in the US Constitution’s protection of rights as well as its structure of federalism and separated powers; and private law, especially in the law-and-economics tradition.

    Classical liberal philosophy has taught us a great deal about the meaning and intellectual structure of rights, liberty, and justice, and about the vision of human well-being and flourishing that animates a concern with freedom. And, in a broad way, these streams of research and scholarship in economics, law, and philosophy have complemented and enriched each other, contributing to the emergence of a distinctive kind of classical liberal social theory—the humane studies highlighted in the name of the organization that hosts this website.

    In contrast, political science, including the kind of political theory that is done within political science, has been relatively neglected in this ongoing scholarly program. (So has sociology; another topic for another time.)

    This is not, as some readers will be tempted to think, because political scientists are sympathetic to “the state” as economists are sympathetic to the market. Political scientists are in routinely in the business of studying things we don’t find attractive: wars, coups, revolutions, genocides, civil wars, authoritarianism, populism, voter ignorance, and institutional dysfunction of all kinds.

    Yet the study of those topics through the lens of political science ought to be a key part of a classical liberal social theory.

    We don’t have to agree with those who think that markets and civil society are constituted by the state to see that they may be either facilitated or jeopardized by political outcomes. War, civil war, institutional collapse, the rise of authoritarian or totalitarian governments—understanding where these come from and how to inhibit them is a cornerstone of a fully developed account of social orders compatible with human liberty.

    And we don’t have to conceptually identify democracy or majoritarianism with liberty in order to think that, as a matter of fact, constitutional democratic governments are a crucial feature of free societies. It follows that we ought to care about how they work, and where they come from.

    But the current classical liberal interpretation of political science is lacking.

    All too often, classical liberal social theorists (who, in other domains, are well aware that social outcomes can be the product of human action without being the product of human design) treat political outcomes as being a matter of other people’s bad will and bad decisions. But political orders are complex emergent phenomena, as much as other orders in human society. Building a stable government that protects and facilitates individual liberty, involves more than a group of people with the correct beliefs about rights theory agreeing to do good things rather than bad things.

    In other words, too many classical liberals who understand complexity in other social arenas become decisionists when they think about politics: all we need from governing institutions, they assert, is for people to make good decisions rather than bad ones.

    They fall into this fallacy partly because they identify good government from a classical liberal perspective with mere inaction: all our rulers need to do is to stay their hand. Whatever the truth (and it’s a partial truth, as Hayek knew) of laissez faire as a description of good policy, it is no truth as an answer to the underlying organization of violence, coercion, and rule. A political order that can engage in and commit to the right kind of inaction, in the right ways and at the right times, is a rare accomplishment, and we still know too little about how to get it and how to keep it.

    Over the course of these posts in coming weeks and months, I will identify some obstacles that have prevented the development of a classical liberal political science and political theory that can fit within the broad development of the humane studies. (Spoiler alert: Lockean social contract theory and public choice theory, while they’ve both taught us valuable things, have become in important ways intellectual obstacles to overcome.) And I’ll try to draw on what political scientists and theorists have learned, offering some thoughts about what needs to be incorporated within the developing liberal social theory of the humane studies.

  2. The Harmony and Balance of Virtue and Liberty

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    Virtue and liberty are both good things, and when the world is well-ordered, they are in harmony with one another. Today we often find them at odds. The friends of virtue see liberty abused in the pursuit of vices which prove self-destructive to the individual and harmful to others, while friends of liberty think the friends of virtue want to force them to live a certain way, confining their personal freedom, and for that matter, differing vastly among themselves about what virtue is. Consider, for example, the practices permitted by modern sexual freedom, on the one hand, and the debates over whether society can establish a normative definition of marriage on the other.

    Let me suggest a way of thinking about this question that can allow harmony between liberty and virtue. Define virtue as human excellence, as the ancient Greeks defined it, including moral excellence but not limited to it. Define liberty as the individual’s faculty of governing himself — and include political liberty, the capacity of people to govern themselves as a whole.

    Virtue, then, depends upon freedom; no virtuous act can be fully virtuous unless it is freely chosen by the person acting.

    And while our virtues often owe their formation and their exercise to others — to our parents or others who taught us right from wrong and instilled in us good habits, to our friends who counsel us in making hard decisions and help to guide us on the right path — in the end action is only truly human when it is chosen thoughtfully and conscientiously.


    We can improve ourselves by repeated good choices and in fact probably have to continuously aim at self-improvement to keep from growing inattentive and corrupt.

    Besides, there are many forms of human excellence and many virtues, and no one can cultivate all of these, even if there are some, like justice, that all of us need to possess to a certain extent. Part of what makes us social and political beings is that we rely upon and even take pleasure in one another’s excellences, enjoying an outstanding musical or athletic performance by another even if it is far beyond our own capacities, or appreciating a great act of statesmanship or a courageous stand for justice even if it is something we didn’t have the opportunity or perhaps the courage and ability to do ourselves.

    In a free society, we choose what excellences to cultivate, whether technical or artistic or political or commercial or intellectual. Some basic moral virtues might be expected of everyone, but even these are developed and perfected in different ways according to the life we choose.

    Virtue Is A Necessity

    But a free society also depends upon virtue. Partly this is a matter of individuals’ making good use of their own freedom, which is rarely done without some measure of self-discipline and prudence. Partly it is a matter of learning the basic justice and civility that is needed for living together with others in civil society.

    Partly it is a matter of developing the political virtues needed for republican government: a willingness to get involved and speak up; to step back, take turns, and try to understand political opponents who are nevertheless fellow citizens; to obey just laws and use prudence to correct those one finds unjust; to contribute according to one’s capacity for the common defense when necessary; to learn how self-government operates and encourage others to do the same.

    A free society probably cannot thrive if every citizen is absorbed in politics all the time — that’s one reason we have a representative system, not direct democracy — but it surely cannot thrive if most citizens are ignorant or indifferent about politics, that is, if they lack the basic virtues that make political freedom work.

    Harmony between virtue and freedom is the ideal, but usually in political life one has to settle for a balance between them. Some people think — looking at our epidemics of drug addiction and family breakdown in recent decades — that the balance has shifted too much in the direction of individual license, neglecting both the virtues of private life and the virtues of political life. Many have thought the decline of the virtues of political life was on ample display in our recent elections — on the part of the voters, the parties, and many of the candidates. I am a little more optimistic, because the election seems to have energized citizens of every partisan description to recognize the importance of political choice and the need to be politically engaged.

    Such awareness is not by itself evidence of political virtue, but it is the necessary condition for people to make the effort to learn about our form of government, to listen to their friends and their opponents, to deliberate and act and thereby gain political experience in the process, and finally to appreciate the value of our liberties. Gratitude, too, is a political virtue, at least in a republic like our own which has been shaped both by freedom and by virtue. Indeed, I think gratitude ought to be widely shared, for ours is a democratic republic, where the rights, if not always the opportunities, for the exercise of political liberty are equal, and the opportunities themselves can be created with a little effort and ingenuity, that is, with a little virtue.

  3. Debate: Is Ayn Rand right about rights?

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    [Here, Professor Matt Zwolinski provides three essays that argue there are problems with Ayn Rand’s Objectivist philosophy. After each, Professor Stephen Hicks responds with an essay of his own that clarifies and defends the Objectivist point of view.]

    Ayn Rand’s Ethical Egoism — Matt Zwolinski

    Ayn Rand is, quite famously, an advocate of ethical egoism — the idea that each individual’s own life is the ultimate standard of value for that individual. She is also, quite famously, an advocate of individual rights — the idea that each individual has a morally protected sphere of freedom against which other individuals must not intrude. Figuring out how, or whether, these two things fit together is one of the major puzzles involved in making sense of Rand’s philosophy. If my life is the standard of morality, then why should I refrain from interfering with your freedom if doing so will advance my interests?

    In her “synoptic statement” on rights, Rand makes the following series of claims:

    If man is to live on earth, it is right for him to use his mind, it is right to act on his own free judgment, it is right to work for his values and to keep the product of his work. If life on earth is his purpose, he has a right to live as a rational being: nature forbids him the irrational.

    But there seems to be a fallacy of equivocation going on here. In the first three uses, Rand uses the term “right” to assert that certain actions are morally permissible (it’s not wrong to do them) or even obligatory (it would be wrong not to do them).[i] So, for example, when Rand says that it is right for man to work for his values, she seems to mean at least that it is not wrong for him to do so, and perhaps more strongly that it would be wrong for him not to do so.

    The other kind of “right”

    Rand’s fourth usage of the word “right,” however, is significantly different. When she says that man “has a right” to live as a rational being, she is not merely saying that it is right for man to live as a rational being. She is saying that man has a right to live as a rational being. And these are two very different claims.

    To have a right is to have a certain kind of claim against others. That claim could be a purely moral one (in which case the right is a moral right), or it could be one enforceable by law (in which case it is a legal right). It could be a claim against others that they perform certain positive actions such as repaying a debt (in which case it is a positive right), or it might simply be a claim that others refrain from performing certain kinds of actions like taking one’s property without one’s consent (in which case it is a negative right).

    The important point, for our purposes, is that rights in this sense are claims on other people. To say that one person, A, has a right against another, B, doesn’t say much at all about what it would be wrong or right for A herself to do. What it says, instead, is that it would be wrong for B to act (or fail to act) toward A in certain ways.

    If any person has a right, then as a matter of moral logic, some other person must have a corresponding obligation.

    And this is the puzzle for Rand and her followers: Where exactly are these obligations supposed to come from? In order to remain consistent with egoism, it seems that Rand must claim that A’s right against B must be grounded not in A’s interests, but in B’s. In other words, B only has an obligation to refrain from interfering with A if it is good for B to do so. But as Mike Huemer has argued, it’s very hard to see why this restraint will always turn out to be in best interests of B.

    It certainly doesn’t look that way in “lifeboat” cases like the situation described in Joel Feinberg’s story of the lost hiker — cases that I think are not as easily dismissed as Rand believed them to be. But we don’t need to go to the lifeboat to find cases that give us reason to doubt Rand’s claim. Even in ordinary life, there would seem to be plenty of situations in which B can advance his real, rationally defensible interests by violating A’s rights: stealing her lost wallet, lying on a resume he submits to her business, or littering on her property.

    Objectivists must, for each and every one of these cases, deny either that (1) the action is actually a rights violation, or (2) that B’s interests would actually be advanced by the violation. In certain cases, this might work — B might not correctly anticipate the guilt he will feel after stealing, or his chances of being punished. But whether the expected costs of a rights-violation outweigh the expected benefits is an empirical question. And as far as I can tell, neither Rand nor her followers have given us sufficient reason to believe that the answer to that question is always going to be that they do.

    Zwolinski and Rand on Egoism and Rights — Stephen Hicks

    Two points are most important here, one about content and one about method.

    At first sight, rights do seem egoistic: I have a right to my life, my liberty, my property, and as a matter of robust, jealously-guarded principle I want those rights to be respected by others.

    Rand in particular argues that our rights are based in our needs and capacities as human beings. Human life is a process of thinking, producing, and consuming, and to survive and flourish each individual must take responsibility for the process. The creation and consumption of human value requires freedom of thought and freedom of action — individuals need to think and discover what is good for them, they need to act on their knowledge to produce those good things, and they need to consume the goods they produce.

    In a social context, other people can be beneficial to the process: we can learn from each other, act jointly to be more productive, and trade to mutual advantage as consumers.

    But other people can also be threats to the process: censorship, kidnapping, enslavement, theft, and so on undercut the affected individual’s ability to think, act, and consume. Those actions are therefore social wrongs, on principle, so their opposites are social rights.

    That is what Rand means in the lines in which right is repeated, which Professor Zwolinski sees as problematic (paragraph 2): rights are a type of moral principle; they are part of a family of concepts that link individual right to social right to political right. The connection is maintaining the identification of what is moral in each increasingly-narrow context.

    But, as Zwolinski questions (paragraph 6), why does it follow egoistically that I should respect others’ rights? I want my rights to be respected by others, yes — but why should I want others’ rights to be respected by me? Where does the principled commitment to universal and symmetrical application come from?

    Rand argues that as human beings we are not able to survive by instinct or by range-of-the-moment action. We are rational beings, and we survive and flourish by making principled, categorical identifications and acting on them. I need to be self-responsible. I need to be productive. I need to plan long-range. And I need to do all of that in a world in which much of my living is social. So what principles should I adopt in my dealings with others?

    So the relevant questions about respecting others’ rights are these:

    • Can I recognize that others are humans?
    • Can I recognize that they have the same general needs?
    • Can I understand that, as a general rule, their respecting certain principles in their dealings with me is good for me?
    • Can I understand that, as a general rule, my respecting certain principles in my dealings with them is good for them?
    • Can I understand that both or all of us will be better off if certain principles are respected?
    • Can I grasp that the same facts that make those principles right for me also make them right for others?

    Rand’s answer to all of those questions is Yes. Moral self-education, then, hopefully guided and encouraged by good parenting and other socialization, is a matter of thinking through those questions and testing various answers to them in one’s dealings with family members, neighborhood kids, schoolmates, and others as one grows—until one is in a position to conceptualize and commit to principles as a mature individual.

    Rational egoism is thus Rand’s grounding of political rights.

    (This is not yet to presuppose answers to questions about emergency situations, whether to be a selective predator, how to deal with non-respecters of rights, determining degrees of violations of rights, or the status those not capable of grasping principles. Rand’s theory of rights is about contextual principles applied with practical wisdom; it’s not one of contextless absolutes to be mechanically followed. So more needs to be said.)

    The emphasis on rational above indicates that for Rand epistemological matters are central to normative issues, for Rand is in a minority of thinkers who so emphasize the importance of fundamental philosophy. This brings us to a second important point.

    Permissible to Whom?
    In characterizing Rand’s position, Zwolinski asks at one point (paragraph 3) whether the claim of rights is to be interpreted as permissible or obligatory. That distinction should give us pause, for what kind of morality frames things in terms of permissions and obligations?

    If we are to speak of permissible, then we should ask from whom we are seeking permission; and if we are to speak of obligatory, then we should ask to whom or what we are so obligated. Yet if we know anything about Rand’s ethics, then we should sense that we such a taxonomy is alien to it.

    The point is that when interpreting a thinker’s position, it is weak methodology to state a thinker’s claim, interpret it by a distinction taken from some other philosophical framework, note that the resulting mix makes no sense, and then criticize the original claim.

    Other moralities’ distinctions may be useful in criticizing a thinker’s position after one has figured out what it is. But when initially trying to interpret a position, we should beware of importing highly abstract distinctions from foreign moral theories.

    Property and Value — Matt Zwolinski

    Ayn Rand was a firm believer in property rights, holding them to be essentially a corollary of the right to life. After all, if the right to life is a right to act in order to preserve one’s life, then this right would be ineffectual if man did not also have the right to the product of his action — to that which he has produced.

    The problem is that everything we produce is, ultimately, made out of raw materials that were not themselves produced by anybody. So even if it’s easy to justify why I should be morally entitled to the cake I’ve baked out of the flour and butter I owned, it’s not so easy to justify why I should be morally entitled to the patch of land I simply found and quickly put a fence around. In political philosophy, this is known as the problem of “original appropriation.”

    The problem of original appropriation strikes many philosophers as serious because of the seemingly zero-sum nature of natural resources. There’s only so much land to go around. Therefore, whatever land you take and claim as your own leaves less land for me. Your interests might be served by your act of appropriation, but mine seem to be set back. Original appropriation, it has seemed to many philosophers, involves a real conflict of interests between the appropriators and everyone else.

    Now, I think there are ways out of this problem — the most promising of which is developed in a wonderful essay by David Schmidtz. But Rand herself never grapples with the problem directly.

    I suspect the reason why is that she didn’t see it as a genuinely serious problem. Rand did not believe that land and other natural resources were the true source of value. And thus, one person’s appropriation of some of that stuff did not really set back the interests of others in any serious way.

    Mind and Value
    For Rand, man’s mind is the fundamental source of values that sustain his life.

    Physical stuff by itself can be no aid in man’s survival unless it is first understood by the mind and then put to work through deliberate, rational, productive action. Before man figured out what to do with it, crude oil was a pollutant, not a value. It was the human mind that transformed oil from an annoyance into a resource.

    I think that there is a tremendously important insight in this analysis of value. But I also think it’s possible to stretch that insight too far. And I think that Rand, unfortunately, is guilty of doing precisely this.

    After all, even if it’s true that nothing of value would exist without the human mind, it’s equally true that nothing (or at least almost nothing) of value would exist without physical resources for the mind to operate on. Both the human mind and physical resources are thus necessary for the production of value. Objective value is an aspect of reality in relation to man. So without the reality, or without the man, there is no value.

    Thus, even if we accept Rand’s idea that natural resources have no intrinsic value in themselves, we must nevertheless recognize that they are a necessary component in the production of value. And so when we take those natural resources and put a fence around them, we are depriving others of something important. We are depriving non-owners of the liberty they once possessed to use that resource in their own productive activities. We are imposing upon them an obligation to refrain from using that resource without our consent — an obligation that we will enforce with the use of physical violence, if necessary. And this calls for justification.

    I am enthusiastic supporter of property rights. And thus I do believe that such justification can be provided. But — and here I return to my earlier point about rights and egoism — providing a justification to one person of another person’s property right in X would seem to require doing more than simply showing how such rights are good for the first person. Since A’s property right imposes an obligation on B, we need to show how such an obligation is good for B as well. If A’s property right in X is good for A but bad for B, then for B to respect that right would be an act of self-sacrifice, and fundamentally incompatible with his rational pursuit of his own self-interest.

    Property Rights and Value: Zwolinski and Rand and Locke and Rousseau — Stephen Hicks

    Professor Matt Zwolinski raises a fun and deep issue about property rights. It has a long history before Rand, with Locke and Rousseau staking out near-opposite positions, and with post-Rand thinkers such as Robert Nozick and David Schmidtz making strong contributions.

    Why did Rand not engage with it? I agree with Zwolinski that from the perspective of her robust creation ethic, it is either trivial or a non-problem. So the question is whether it really is a problem and/or a more serious one than she judged.

    Value results from raw materials plus human agency. How much comes from each? Raw materials can be more or less plentiful, and human agency can be more or less creative. So we can play around with the variables by considering examples.

    1. A writer uses 1,000 sheets of paper to write a great novel. In this case, the raw material is plentiful and the contribution of human creativity is huge, so we are not inclined to complain that her taking 1,000 sheets of paper leaves less available for the rest of us.
    2. A hiker discovers easily accessible platinum deposits in unowned territory, stakes it out, and becomes rich after relatively minimal effort. In this case, the raw material is relatively scarce and the contribution of human creativity is much less, so we are more likely to hear complaints that his appropriation is questionable.

    So if one emphasizes the value-adding power of human creativity, as Rand and her great near-contemporary Julian Simon are noteworthy for doing, then one acquires an opportunity mindset. The issue of raw materials becomes more trivial, as intelligent people can always create value out of what is available.

    But if one is struck by a relative scarcity of certain raw materials, then, as Zwolinski points out, one is pushed into a zero-sum mindset, and that mindset tends to seeing others’ gains as its deprivations and others’ rights as imposing unwanted obligations.

    Perspectives on Property
    Two points are worth making here, so let’s work with the most popular example—land—to get to the core assumptions, for as always in philosophy the basic assumptions are the most important.

    Suppose I look at the Manhattan skyline, as Rand did from her apartment. Do I see opportunities for me, given what others have done with the land? Or do I see deprivation, as others got to Manhattan Island long before I did and acquired it all for themselves? If I scale out to the United States as a whole, I find that almost half of its land is owned by local, state, and federal governments and the rest by private individuals and organizations — all of it acquired long before I immigrated. Should I say that opportunities have been taken away from me and/or that obligations have been imposed on me?

    The first important point about such examples is one made by Locke in the Second Treatise, where he states that “he who appropriates land to himself by his labour, does not lessen but increase the common stock of mankind.” (I see Schmidtz as working out in more welcome detail what was only sketched by Locke.)

    If, for example I had arrived in 1600 in what is now New York, then some opportunities would have been available to me then that are not available now. True. But some opportunities are available now that were not available then. At which time was the net value of the opportunities greater? If the net opportunities are greater now, then the language of deprivation and imposition is misplaced. (And if my goal is to acquire land in New York, then that opportunity is still available to me, as it has a lively real-estate market.) So property rights are win-win, contrary to the zero-sum thinkers.

    But here is what I take to be the second and deeper point. We can speak of the mutually-beneficial nature of property rights, and that is a value of them to each of us. But that value of property rights should not be taken as part of the justification for initial appropriation, because raw materials in their unowned state are not items to which anyone has a claim.

    Here we can take Rousseau as the foil, with his famous line against appropriators that initially “the fruits of the earth belong to us all.” His assertion is that, prior to property rights, we all have a claim in common to everything that exists, so anyone who appropriates incurs an obligation to make good on his or her lessening the common stock held by the rest of us.

    But initially the raw materials of the universe are unowned, not owned in common, which means that nobody has any sort of claim to them with respect to anyone else. It’s the difference between saying:

    1. The raw materials are unowned, so everybody has a claim to them.


    1. The initial raw materials are unowned, so nobody has a claim to them.

    To put the point in metaphysical terms, when one comes into existence, one has no claims on anything in the world. A just-born child has no entitlements with respect to the world at large, including both the as-yet unowned raw materials and the properties of others.

    The child’s parents have obligations to provide for it on its growth journey to adulthood, but the governing assumption is that everything has to be earned. That includes that first breath of air the child appropriates from the commons by his or her own effort—for which the child need present no justification. At the same time, the preexisting property arrangements are not an imposition upon the just-born child that must be justified to the child.

    Force and Freedom — Matt Zwolinski

    Ayn Rand endorses a form of the libertarian “nonaggression principle,” which holds that the use of force should properly be banished from human relationships. For Rand, force is evil because it prevents individuals from acting according to the dictates of their own reason.

    Thus, force violates man’s fundamental right to life — his right to act in pursuit of his values according to his own judgments, uncompelled by the judgment of any other. As Rand puts it, “To violate man’s rights means to compel him to act against his own judgment, or to expropriate his values. Basically, there is only one way to do it: the use of physical force.”

    For Rand, then, “the basic political principle of the Objectivist ethics is: no man may initiate the use of physical force against others.” But how exactly are we to understand the meaning of the key term “force” in this principle?

    Traditionally, libertarians and Objectivists have taken one of two broad approaches to defining “force.” One approach, which we can call the “moralized approach,” defines force in terms of an underlying theory of rights. The other approach, the “nonmoralized approach,” defines force in a way that makes no essential reference to rights or other moral terms.

    To see the difference, imagine a case in which A violates B’s rights, but does so without so much as physically touching B. Perhaps B leaves his car unlocked on the street, and A lets himself in and drives away with it. Has A initiated force against B? If we accept the nonmoralized definition of force, we will have to say “no.” After all, A didn’t touch B at all. The only way we can explain the way in which A’s action affects B is in terms of the property right B has in his car. But if this is our basis for claiming that A has initiated force against B, then we are implicitly relying on a moralized definition of force. A’s action initiates force against B because it violates B’s (moral) rights.

    It matters a great deal which of these understandings Objectivists rely on to inform the nonaggression principle. But neither understanding is entirely without its own peculiar difficulties. If, for instance, we accept a nonmoralized definition of force, then we abandon the tight, conceptual connection between force and the violation of rights, and must accept the possibility that some violations of rights will not involve the initiation of force, and the possibility that some cases of the initiation of force will not involve rights-violations.

    And this means that we must take seriously the socialist argument that property rights themselves involve the initiation of force. After all, if I put a fence around a piece of land and threaten to arrest anybody who walks across it without my consent, it certainly looks like I’m initiating force when I grab a peaceful trespasser and slap a pair of handcuffs on him. The only way to deny that my action constitutes the initiation of force, it seems, is to argue that it was really the trespasser who initiated force. But that move is available only if we abandon the nonmoralized conception of force, and adopt a moralized understanding instead.

    Suppose we do that. Adopting a moralized definition of force allows us to explain why the individual who steals someone’s car is initiating force, and why the landowner who enforces his property right isn’t. So, so far, so good.  But the moralized approach to force comes with a serious drawback of its own.

    For if we define the initiation of force in terms of the violation of rights, then we cannot define the violation of rights in terms of the initiation of force, lest we be guilty of circular argument. In other words, if we say that force is just any activity that violates individual rights, we cannot turn around and then say that our rights are to be understood in terms of freedom from the initiation of force.

    Both ways of understanding force, then, appear to generate problems for Rand’s use of the nonaggression principle. And Rand’s frequent claim that force severs the connection between man’s mind and his actions seems to lead to further difficulties: Is the claim that force eliminates our ability to act on the dictates of our reason or merely that it limits it? The former claim is quite implausible, but the latter forces us to notice that a great number of other things also limit this ability, such as, well, other people’s property rights.

    As I have argued at greater length elsewhere, the non-aggression principle is a poor basis on which to build a libertarian philosophy. But for the reasons described above, Rand’s invocation of it appears to be especially problematic.

    Force, Rights, and Zwolinski’s Questions for Rand — Stephen Hicks

    Let’s start with four scenarios involving a man running on a field who is suddenly tackled to the ground by another man.

    1. The tackler, it turns out, was a policeman, and the tackled man was escaping from a house he had burgled.
    2. The tackler, it turns out, was a defensive football player, and the tackled man was an offensive football player carrying the ball.
    3. The tackler and tackled were playing football, but the tackled man was outside the field’s white borderline when he was hit by the tackler.
    4. The tackled man was jogger and the tackler was a weirdo who liked randomly assaulting people.

    In case 1, the tackled goes to jail. In case 2, the tackler and tackled try again. In case 3, the tackler’s team is penalized. In case 4, the tackler goes to jail.

    Professor Zwolinski’s questions about force and rights again raise issues of content and method. Let’s focus on the method issues, as they are more relevant to his apparent puzzles. Zwolinski is in at least broad agreement with Rand that individual rights exist but has questions about how she derives them that seem to me driven by a methodological tangle.

    In the four scenarios above, the physical actions are identical — one man tackles another to the ground — yet they have very different consequences. Understanding why those consequences are normatively appropriate requires attending to the broader complex context within which those actions and consequences occurred.

    That in turn means that the proper place to start is not by specifying contextless definitions of force (e.g., as moralized or non-moralized) and then trying to deduce correct answers about particular circumstances. The method is not to present an abstract dichotomy of definitions, ask for a commitment to either, and then find a problematic case for whichever one is chosen.

    Zwolinski is certainly correct that non-moralized definitions won’t work, and his objection here seems a variation on the classic Is-Ought problem: if we define force only non-morally, then we will face a gap when we want to define rights as moral principles. And at the same time we of course should heed Zwolinski’s warning about using moralized concepts in circular ways.

    But the key content point is that all human action is “moralized.” We are always in a context of judging good and bad, right and wrong, better or worse. Consequently, by the time we get to high philosophy and are identifying principles such as rights, we are deeply embedded in moralized contexts.

    (In his closing paragraph, Zwolinski was perhaps speaking loosely in saying that the NAP is a poor principle upon which to base a libertarian philosophy. But certainly Rand’s invocation of something like an NAP is not basic to her philosophy. It’s not even basic to her ethics or to her social philosophy. Rather it is a derivative, specifying a bridge principle between ethics and social philosophy and politics.)

    Actions necessary for human life
    Yet as Zwolinski also properly states, Rand begins by specifying the individual actions that are necessary for human life (thinking, production, etc.). She identifies ways in which others’ actions can be beneficial to our lives (teaching, friendship, economic trade, etc.). Then she identifies the types of actions by others that interfere with those necessary actions — and within that very broad category she identify the subset of interferences that are major enough to justify physical retaliation (theft, rape, kidnapping, assault, etc.).

    The process is empirical, and at each stage of identification an argument from cases is necessary to establish the principle involved. We see this argument, for example, among philosophers about defining that final category of cases in which the retaliatory principle kicks in — where exactly is the demarcation?

    John Stuart Mill offers the broader Harm Principle (On Liberty, I.9) while Rand specifies the narrow initiation-of-physical-force principle. Mill eschews the rights label while Rand embraces it. But the method for both is inductive by investigating a large number of particular cases and abstracting the relevant similarities and differences. Or to put it in modern-philosophy epistemological terms, their approach is empirical-and-bottom-up-abstraction — rather than rationalist-abstract-definitions-and-downward-branching-decision-trees.

    But even here “initiation of force” is all by itself not a definitive guide, as many initiations of force are legitimate. Parent initiate force regularly with their infants — every time the kid’s diaper needs changing he or she is man-handled (or woman-handled) without consent.

    Boxers are encouraged to initiate massive physical force upon each other until the bell rings. If you see your girlfriend about to step in the path of an onrushing bus, you will grab her and haul her back.

    So we always need to identify what legitimate values are being pursued or possessed and by what means. Then we can exercise judgment whether the initiation of physical force in a particular case is an inappropriate interference with that legitimate pursuit or possession.

    [i] This is what analytic philosophers refer to as the “deontic status” of an action.

  4. Religion and Totalitarianism

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    Is religion totalitarian? Some claim that religious faith demands obedience from human beings in a way that necessarily excludes any freedom of choice. As Sean Breen of the blog Atheist Republic recently argued:

    Religiously enforced policies, top-down structure, harsh punishments and limits on freedoms all contribute to total control over a peoples — that’s what religion entails, and that’s what totalitarianism entails. Totalitarian regimes are modelled on religious dogma, and there is categorically no basis to the claim that atheism has made any contribution to the atrocities committed by such regimes.

    We might find Mr. Breen’s revulsion to authoritarian regimes admirable; we might even look at the list of religiously-inspired violence that he cites, such as Christian crusades in the Middle East, and lament how easily religious passions have been mobilized for cynical, worldly ends.

    But to then claim that religion itself is inherently “totalitarian” is to obliterate an important distinction.  It is true that religious leaders have sometimes worked hand-in-hand with cruel regimes, granting them legitimacy on loan from the heavens. But totalitarian regimes are a measure still worse: they recognize no authority beyond this world to whom anyone could even appeal.

    Everything Within The State

    The term “totalitarian” was created and endorsed by Italian fascists; it was defined approvingly by Benito Mussolini as a doctrine that required “everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.”

    Human beings have had governments of various forms for 9,000 years, but for most of that history, authority within governments has been divided between worldly rulers and religious authorities, who proscribed the limits of secular leaders’ rule. Some ancient rulers, such as the Egyptian Pharaohs and Mohammed, combined religious and political leadership. But most sovereigns have ceded theological concerns to others.

    Among peoples of faith, kings and princes could not afford to ignore completely the edicts of clergy. A Hindu prince who ran rampant and defied the restrictions of dharma, or religious duty, would be easily unseated by any rival who demonstrated greater piety, and thus closer adherence to the principles of the cosmos.

    But religious leaders also depended on worldly powers for security and withdrew support from them only in extreme circumstances. In medieval Europe, authority was divided between the pope and secular kings; both sides of the religious-secular divide maintained a careful balance between legitimacy and power that gave absolute authority to neither.

    Losing Balance

    Because religious authority has traditionally been paired with the worldly power in a system of checks and balances, we only see totalitarianism itself arise in cases where one of the two sides has been swept away.

    Occasionally, religious authority has appeared to prevail over secular power. Saudi Arabia could fairly be described as a totalitarian state: since striking a pact in the 18th century, the Wahhabi clergy and the House of Saud have essentially fused into one religiously-inspired political force.

    But in our age, the balance has usually tipped the other way, as secular states drain religious institutions of their influence. The self-proclaimed “totalitarians” of fascist Italy, like the Nazis in Germany and the Bolsheviks of the Soviet Union, either destroyed religions or pushed them aside. These dictators rightly understood that if a people believed in a source of moral authority outside the state, that authority could be cited in challenges to the state’s control over them.

    The balance has shifted in favor of secular governments for a simple reason: for better or for worse, worldly governments no longer need religious authorities to grant them legitimacy. States now have an entirely secular source of authority to back up their power — the will of the people. In the modern age, rulers who can claim to represent “the people” have little reason to fear the condemnation of clerics.

    Henry VIII pioneered such defiance when he cited the sovereignty of the English nation as reason to break with the Catholic church (and then to establish his own Church of England). Ever since, some have said, the nation has become “the God of modernity,” and religious institutions have retreated before the state’s advance. The horrors of fascism, nationalism, socialism, and Communism cannot be blamed on secularism; these crimes are the result of particular totalitarian visions. But it is still more unfair to claim that religion had anything to do with the crimes of states that had thoroughly eradicated religion as a check on their powers.

    This is not to say that religion has no role in politics in the modern age: it obviously does. Poland would have never escaped the grip of the Soviet Union if the Poles had not found their Catholicism incompatible with Communist rule; Ayatollah Khomeini could not have overthrown the Shah of Iran had he not been able to convince the pious masses that Shia Islam needed to be restored to the Iranian state.

    But these cases show that even religious politics is not uniformly authoritarian. True, the Iranian regime has abused its religious mandate, but the Catholic revolution in Poland led that country to democracy.

    The Poles were lucky: the religious case for their nation’s freedom was cast in individualistic terms. Touring his native Poland before Communism’s fall, Pope John Paul II claimed that “the future of Poland will depend on how many people are mature enough to be non-conformists.” Far from being totalitarian, John Paul II’s faith helped undermine a dictatorship.

    It’s foolish to pin blame for totalitarianism on any one factor — religion, secularism, or nationalism. If we want to find the foundations of dictatorship, we should look instead at how each of these factors are defined in a country’s political culture.

    Is the faith imagined as a source of individual strength and dignity? Then it is unlikely to promote thuggish rule.

    Is the nation defined as a collective in need of salvation? Then one leader will claim the right to abuse its citizens in the name of the nation’s restoration.

    True totalitarians are celebrated as the embodiment of the people, so much so that they are granted the authority to shape those people from above, overriding any purported rights that individual persons might have.

    If you fear totalitarians, don’t fear the priest; his influence is long diminished. Fear instead the person who claims to so perfectly represent the people that he can trample over them in their name.

  5. Let’s take back the meaning of “pro-choice”

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    What comes to mind when you hear the term “pro-choice”? If it’s the number of deodorant options at your local convenience store, you must not follow the news very closely. “Choice” has become a euphemism for abortion rights specifically (along with “life” and prenatal rights), but the concept of choice is actually a fundamental precept of living in a free society.

    So I want to take back the term “pro-choice.” Truly supporting choice means supporting the right of individuals to choose what they want to do with their bodies and property and with whom they want to do it as long as that choice does not clearly affect the property rights of another. Here are some questions to consider:

    School Choice

    Let’s concede that government will fund education (of course, a liberty-minded person would argue that that is inappropriate to force citizens to pay taxes to support schools). Why should a parent have to send their child to the school in their neighborhood? If you support choice, should you deny parents a choice of educational institutions?

    Food and Drugs

    Some city governments have recently imposed a tax on sodas because of the unhealthy nature of the beverages. In New York City, there was even a push by Democrat politician Felix Ortiz to ban salt. Therefore, one’s choice to drink sodas or junk food is being either hindered by a higher price due to the tax.

    When it comes to drugs, some conservatives want extreme government control over what individuals can put into their bodies. They sometimes argue that drug use causes negative externalities which justify government intervention, but these effects on third parties can be remedied by strict government penalties when one violates the rights of others or injures others under the influence of the drug.

    Liberals, who are sympathetic to legalizing marijuana, are inconsistent when it comes to other drugs. But shouldn’t being pro-choice mean that we support an individual’s right to choose what to put in their bodies regardless of the potential internal harms they may cause? This is not to say that an individual who supports legalization is for the use of drugs. In fact, one can hate these drugs, but still hold the position that the government should not use money, human resources, and jail space fighting these drugs.

    Helmet Laws

    To whom does one’s head belong? There is no doubt that it belongs to the individual and nobody else. Yet, the government requires motorcycle riders to wear a helmet. If one supports choice, then one should support motorcycle riders who don’t want to wear a helmet — it’s their body and they should be able to do what they want to do with it, including not protecting their head with a helmet. Of course, a person who chooses not to wear the helmet in order to enjoy his motorcycle ride more must also be willing to deal with the consequences of that choice.

    Discrimination (personal and business)

    Most, if not all, individuals support an individual’s right to discriminate based on whatever criteria he or she decides when it comes to whom they will “hook up with,” date, or marry. In other words, the vast majority is pro-choice when it comes to using race, ethnic background, attractiveness, religion, sexual orientation, and age as filtering devices.

    Moreover, it is legal for one to say, “I will only marry someone of this religion” or “I am only attracted to this particular look,” or “I will only marry someone who is younger than I am.” The vast majority of people, regardless of political philosophy, are pro-choice when it comes to our personal lives.

    However, why does this choice or freedom of association not exist for the individual who is a business owner? What if a business owner wants to hire only employees who look like a particular Hollywood actor or actress or a famous model? The vast majority, conservative or liberal, would not support this freedom of choice. Why is it legal and considered morally acceptable to have the freedom of choice to determine who enters into his or her home based on whatever criteria, but not when it comes to a business owner who wants to discriminate?

    Selling Organs

    Many, if not most, people support one’s right to give away (donate) his or her kidney or part of his or her liver. In fact, they would probably hold the donor in high esteem. So why not support the choice of an individual to sell his or her kidney to a willing buyer who is in critical condition (which is currently illegal)? If it’s my organ, should I not have the right to sell it to a willing buyer? Incidentally, I would guess that most individuals believe it should be legal to sell one’s eggs or sperm (which is legal).

    Prostitution/earning income

    Do we have a choice to sell the use of our body for money? Yes, it’s called a job. An employee is the willing seller of his or her labor, and the last I checked employees are bodies not spirits. In fact, I bet most people also believe an adult should have the right to make an income by starring in pornographic films.

    They might even believe, though not necessarily, that there is nothing immoral about pornography itself. So why are so many people anti-choice when it comes to using one’s body to make money from sex? It’s interesting that porn stars earn an income by having sex, but prostitution is illegal. It is inconsistent to support choice for willing adults when it comes to careers and ways of earning income, including sex (e.g., strippers, porn stars), except when one wants to be a gigolo or prostitute.

    To be clear, I am not supporting the morality of these ways of earning an income. I am pointing out the logical inconsistency.


    The foundational basis of what it means to be “pro-choice” is that a person’s body belongs to himself or herself and that the government should not interfere with what one chooses to do with their own body—it’s a property rights argument. So let’s take back the term “pro-choice” and apply it consistently across all levels of human action and interaction.

  6. Highlights from our Reddit AMA with Professor Lauren Hall

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    If you missed the Reddit AMA with Professor Lauren Hall last week, fear not! We’ve taken the liberty of compiling some of the highlights for your viewing pleasure. You can check out the whole thing here.

    Dr. Hall is associate professor of political science at Rochester Institute of Technology.  She is the author of Family and the Politics of Moderation (Baylor University Press, 2014), regular contributor to the Learn Liberty Blog, and has appeared on Learn Liberty in Choice and Change: How to Close the Gender Gap and Bridging the Gender Gap: The Problems with Parental Leave


    Who is your favorite economist, and why?


    Probably Adam Smith. I think he was ahead of his time in a variety of important ways and his work The Theory of Moral Sentiments provides a wonderful bridge between economics, politics, and moral theory. Of course, few people actually read that one. His “invisible hand” forms the foundation for a lot of spontaneous order theory, though the idea didn’t really originate with him. But he was very influential on Darwin and others who wanted to understand how complex systems evolve.


    What was your first exposure to classical liberal thought, and when did you know that you wanted to focus your scholarship on those ideas?


    My father was a libertarian and made me read Hayek’s Use of Knowledge in Society in high school. I laughed it off and became a progressive activist. But when I ended up in graduate school I found myself drawn to classical liberal themes, particularly the idea of spontaneous orders. I had studied the biological side of this in undergrad when I studied under David Sloan Wilson and I was really intrigued by the social side of evolution. My advisor had libertarian leanings and I ended up taking courses on both Hayek and Adam Smith, among others.

    A really important moment though was attending a summer workshop on libertarian thought hosted by the Institute for Humane Studies when I was a young grad student. The alternative explanations and solutions they provided for social problems really struck me and I’ve been involved with them now as a faculty member for a while. I think they do great work with undergrads and grad students, providing those alternative explanations.


    Bryan Caplan in his book “Myth of the Rational Voter” said something like people who think the wisdom of crowds applies to politics have never taught an undergrad economics course.

    What do you find are the most common flawed beliefs that college students come to your course that are difficult for them to let go of?


    My students come in almost inevitably with the belief that if there is a problem, government is the answer. It is so so so hard to convince them that there are other more efficient, more just, less harmful ways to solve social problems. And it applies to conservatives as well as liberals. I spend a lot of time trying to undermine the belief that “politics” is what politicians do. It’s what all of us do every day. But government has taken on such a central role in most people’s lives that most of my students really struggle to look beyond it.


    For libertarianism to benefit society, it seems to me, the largest parts of the philosophy count on people behaving a certain way.

    What would you say to someone who doesn’t necessarily trust business owners to care a whit about their employees in the absence of the protections libertarians seem to think infringe on their personal freedoms? What would you say to someone, in defense of this ideology, who has watched business large and small step all over the little guy on their way to the top?

    How would you defend this ideology as being good for the whole, when we’re living in a society that has consistently engaged in exploitative business practices?


    A standard libertarian reply argues that freeing up companies to compete with each other for employees as well as in other ways would provide the freedom people need to escape exploitative employers. Obviously, some people who are really desperate will always end up in not great jobs, at least temporarily, but it’s unclear that government regulations end up much better. Last time I checked, public housing in NYC and other places was pretty awful. It’s also worth noting that part of the reason the poor are so much better off today than they were even 50 years ago is because of the innovation that the U.S. system has made possible. At any rate, I agree with you that if capitalism ends up really making people worse off overall, it’s not a defensible system. I just don’t think we see that pattern on the macro level.

    If you have a more specific example of what your concerns are I might be able to address it better. But generally, the answer is “free markets make everyone better off.” This is definitely true in the long term, but may not be true in the short term, which is where I think we need to have some ideas for helping people out when they are struggling. Not necessarily government, but someone has to be willing to lend a hand. (This got a bit rambling toward the end, but hopefully you make sense of some of it.)


    Why do you think there are so few female libertarians? My wife asked me this question and there doesn’t seem to be an obvious answer to me. The best estimates for a ratio of men to women was about 60/40 although the (unfair) perception by a lot of people is that it is much worse.

    Questions: Why do you think this is and what if anything can be done to make women feel more welcome among libertarians?


    This is a tough one and I don’t have a good answer. I do think that a lot of it is that the Democratic party has been successful (recently) in branding themselves the party of women and families. That wasn’t always the case, but it seems to be now.

    I also think there’s a tendency in women, whether it’s the result of socialization or biology (probably both), that tends to focus on group well-being over individual well-being. That communitarian focus comes out in my work, since I focus on what I call “social individualism”. The hardcore individualists like Rand and Rothbard are going to have a hard time convincing many women that their theories make a lot of sense, since I think women are rooted in a more communal worldview. Many men I know who are fathers or caretakers of older relatives express the same frustration with that kind of atomistic approach. (There are a lot of caveats in here, obviously)

    The other half of it is probably some frustration with the behavior of some libertarian men. Forums online can get really ugly really quickly, which turns a lot of women off. But IRL I’ve never had any problems being a libertarian woman, so I’m not sure how much of the nastiness online is just a function of online anonymity instead of being unique to libertarians.


    Pure speculation but I think many women feel like they didn’t have full rights until women made the government enforce their rights, and don’t want to go back to before their rights and autonomy were enforced.


    I think that’s a big part of it too. I’ve written a few blogs for Learn Liberty that make the point that just because the government was on women’s side once or twice does not mean we can ignore the 8000 other times the government has treated women like objects or children. Government policies have harmed women immeasurably and I think women do themselves a serious disservice when they think somehow government will “protect” them from injustice with one hand while it doles out injustice with the other.


    What do you think are some broad tactics that might be effective at swaying more women towards a more classical liberal perspective? Do you think that such an aim is becoming increasingly unrealistic with modern feminism becoming increasingly radical and socialistic?


    A lot of things that people are already doing, honestly. There’s been a burst of energy from libertarian feminists in recent years, particularly in the blogosphere, but also in mainstream think tanks. Getting the message out there that markets can be powerful tools for female empowerment and that government policies more often harm women than help is also helpful.

    I don’t actually think modern feminism is becoming increasingly radical, though I think identity politics is hitting some kind of extreme point from which it has to come back. But the vast majority of my students who call themselves feminists aren’t radicals in any sense of the term. Many of them are a lot more like first wave feminists in that they see differences between men and women and they’re ok with those differences, but they don’t want those differences codified legally. So I have a lot of hope that feminism can be moderated and that most forms of it are certainly compatible with libertarian thought, though feminists would have to get over their love affair with government policies.


    What do you think are the biggest problems facing women today?


    I think one of the biggest ones is that women are still much more economically vulnerable than men are. Some of this has to do with single-parenthood, which still by and large affects women much more than it does men. Government policies like occupational licensure and the second earner tax make this problem more acute. But despite gains in education and a variety of other areas, women, particularly the elderly and those with children, are much more likely to be in poverty than men are. So that’s a big problem.


    I have heard some people suggest that instead of using the word “feminist” to describe themselves, they’ve been using words like “egalitarian”. I know that some libertarian women have been replacing “feminist” with other words that they feel better convey the value of gender equality and equal gender representation. Some would argue that any label inherently leaves room for oversimplification and misunderstanding, but what are your personal thoughts on using words like “feminist” or “egalitarian”? Do you think there should be a change in labelling? Especially when it comes to university courses, do you think it matters whether classes are called “gender studies” or “women’s studies” or “feminist studies”?


    I do think “feminism” has an implied association with other kinds of radical ideologies. I wish we could get away from some of that. When I teach Women in Politics (a pretty banal title) I always get at least one student who is pleasantly surprised that it’s not a traditional gender studies course. I think there’s a hunger out there for real and frank discussions of gender that don’t come from a radical lens. Unfortunately, I see that radical lens in a lot of my students and my colleagues and they can’t take it off even when they might need to.

    I’m not sure though what labels would work better. I can understand the move toward “gender studies” in some ways, since a lot of modern issues in gender relate to both men and women as well as LGBTQ populations. But “gender studies” of course carries with it that same kind of radical social justice lens. We’ve really struggled with this problem in what to call our courses. I would like to do a broader course on the politics of gender, but it’s hard to know what to call a course that discusses men’s issues, women’s issues, and LGBTQ issues, without immediately getting pigeonholed. I try to just develop a reputation among my own students as someone who looks at a diversity of sides on these issues, but that doesn’t help your broader question about labelling.


    Thank you for your response! I’ve recently started distinguishing between the social movement and the philosophy. For instance, there are a lot of aspects of the second wave that I disagree with, including some of the content in The Feminine Mystique. But of course even spreading out the social movements into three waves is also tricky and runs into the same problems with oversimplification. Do you think that making these kinds of distinctions will lead to a more frank discussion of gender, or do you think that these kinds of details make the topic less accessible, more tedious, and push people away?


    Honestly, I think they push people away. I do a cursory introduction to the various waves of feminism when I teach Women in Politics, but I try to underscore that these waves obscure a lot of variation. The other thing I do is try to avoid jargon, which is sometimes tough. But I do think helping people think through the kind of equality that matters to them — political equality, economic equality, social equality, total androgyny, etc. — can help illuminate some of these patterns.


    Where do you see yourself in 10 years work wise?


    My goal after this book on medicalization is to get back to theory. I’d like to do more work on Burke and his understanding of rights. I want to tie in the work I’ve done on the family and social individualism to his particular understanding of the intergenerational compact. That’s probably a five year plan.

    I don’t see myself transitioning out of academia any time soon. I’ve debating running for public office, and may do so in the future, but my kids are really little and it’s not the right time for any of us. But I think that will be a much later development, if it ever happens.


    Will politics in America ever calm down again? Or is populism the way of the future.


    I hope so. I’m heartened by the fact that there are now people openly defending cosmopolitan values out in the streets, rather than just in academia. I’m not sure where we’re going from here, because the electorate is more fractured than ever before. A big question mark centers around what direction the Republican party will end up taking. If they’re forced down an even more populist path we may end up there for a while. I don’t think it’s sustainable long term, but it can make things very uncomfortable for the next couple decades.


    What do you get on your garbage plate? me personally, im a baked beans, home fry, 2 cheeseburgers with all the toppings kind of guy


    I’m definitely a double cheeseburger, home fries, mac salad, onions and hot sauce kind of girl. The baked beans are too sweet for me, but I see the allure.


    I’m just not a mayo person. Who has the best plate?


    Well, the “correct” answer to that is Nick Tahoe’s, but we live in Pittsford now and I’m not going all the way into the city for a garbage plate. I like Hungry’s Grill for my local GP. DogTown on Monroe Ave also has some fun combinations. I know some people swear by the various “hots” outlets, but I rarely get to those.

  7. Markets work with altruism, too

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    As Adam Smith and many others have emphasized, a great virtue of the market is its ability to channel self-interest toward the public interest. For instance, Walmart sells a smartphone for under $30 that has specs comparable to the original iPhone, which sold for $499 in 2007 (about $600 in today’s dollars). Does Walmart produce functional, low-cost phones because it’s an altruistic public benefactor? Probably not; it sells phones for less than its competitors to win more business and earn more money. So the market channels Walmart’s self-interest toward the public interest. But the market channels altruism effectively, too — indeed, far more effectively than states.

    To see why, think of a donation choice as a kind of consumption choice. Let’s go back to the phone example for a minute. If I’m trying to buy a phone for everyone in my family within a $200 budget, I’ll shop around to find the store that will sell me the most phones for $200. Since stores have to compete for my business, they have an incentive to be as efficient as possible so they can offer me the biggest bang for my buck. A store that sells 2 phones for $200 will lose business to the store that manages to sell 3 (comparable) phones for $200.

    Similarly, if a philanthropist wants do to as much good as she can with $1 million, she has an incentive to shop around to find the charity that can help the most people for $1 million. Since charities have to compete for her donations, they have an incentive to be as efficient as possible. A charity that saves 400 lives for $1 million will lose her business to the charity that saves 500 lives for $1 million. The philanthropic “consumer” has an incentive to shop around for an efficient charity because she gets to decide which charity her donations will go to. If she discovers that a given charity isn’t doing much good, she can take her money elsewhere.

    Contrast this situation with that of the philanthropic voter. Unlike the philanthropic consumer in a market for charity, the philanthropic voter can’t change anything if a state-run redistribution program is operating inefficiently. He might want to withdraw his tax dollars from it and send them somewhere that helps more people, but he’s not allowed to do that.

    The most he can do is vote for better candidates who promise better programs, but his single vote isn’t going to change anything. So even those voters with sincere philanthropic motivations have comparatively little incentive to monitor the efficiency of public welfare spending. As a result, public welfare programs have comparatively little incentive to operate efficiently — that is, to do as much good as they could.

    This hypothesis seems to be borne out in the data; consider economist Jeffrey Miron’s report on the inefficiency of the federal government’s anti-poverty programs: “If the $1.45 trillion in [the United States federal government’s] direct anti-poverty spending in 2007 had been simply divided up among the poorest 20% of the population, it would have provided an annual guaranteed income that year of more than $62,000 per poor household.”

    Along similar lines, total government anti-poverty spending in 2011 amounted to $61,830 per poor family of three — a family for whom the poverty line was $18,530. (Of course, we wouldn’t want the government to directly distribute $62,000 to each family below the poverty line because that would create a perverse incentive to drop below the poverty line. The point is that the government’s anti-poverty spending doesn’t do a cost-effective job of targeting poverty.) By contrast, a top private charity, GiveDirectly, transfers 80-90 percent of its donations to extremely poor recipients in Kenya and Uganda.

    Even philanthropists with causes other than maximizing welfare gains per dollar spent can do better in markets than politics. Suppose your child was born prematurely and you feel a strong obligation to support neonatal research. If the government fails to spend your tax dollars on this cause, there’s nothing you can do about it. But a market in charity allows you to fund your “niche” cause without needing the support of the electorate. Indeed, think of how well markets accommodate atypical preferences in general: you can buy soy Buffalo wings from vegan restaurants and tickets to atonal punk concerts even though most of your compatriots don’t share your values.

    Socialist philosopher G.A Cohen expresses the conventional view when he says it is “the genius of the market that it recruits low-grade motives to desirable ends.” He’s right that the market can route low-grade motives toward the common good. But he’s wrong that this is the genius of the market. It recruits high-grade motives to desirable ends, too.

  8. Happy birthday to René Descartes, father of methodological skepticism

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    On March 31, 1596, René Descartes came into the world. Once he entered the intellectual fray, things would never be the same.

    Even if you’ve only taken an intro to philosophy course, you probably already have some sense of Descartes’s influence on epistemology and metaphysics. Perhaps his interest for political and moral philosophers isn’t quite as well known, though.

    So, let’s celebrate his 421st birthday with a little list of reasons why lovers of liberty should give René another look.

    1. Freedom from Fortune

    We all know that Descartes is famous for his method of doubt, but what that method is, exactly, and what motivates Descartes to develop it can be a bit trickier to untangle. But at least one of Descartes’s claims about the method is clear: it will free us from our dependence on fortune.

    Without the method, some people found themselves in possession of the knowledge and experience required to develop an understanding of a particular object, idea, or dynamic … and others didn’t.

    With the method, we are no longer subject to contingency in the same way. If we commit ourselves to an inquiry, and if we seriously undertake the work of approaching it systematically, we can be confident that we will make progress. Descartes claims to liberate philosophers from indiscriminate fortune or, in other words, to lay the groundwork for an intellectual meritocracy.

    1. Freedom of the Will

    In the Fourth Meditation, Descartes describes the possibility of avoiding error entirely. His argument rests on the distinctions between understanding, imagination, and will. Imagination concerns mental images, but it is clearly limited. (Just try to form images of a 1000 sided figure and 10,000 sided figure, and see if you can tell the difference between those two images in your head.)

    Understanding concerns things that can be rationally apprehended, and Descartes presents it as obviously limited. We can, he says, form the idea of a supremely great and infinite (divine) understanding, and it is immediately clear that human understanding falls far short of it. The will is different, though.

    The human will is infinite. It is, he says, in no way inferior to the divine, except insofar as it is constrained by the limits of human imagination and understanding. So, Descartes claims that the way to avoid error is to make sure that the infinite will does not range beyond the boundaries of understanding and imagination.

    The implications for this description of the will are, in themselves, fascinating. Human beings have an infinite will, a capacity for freedom of choice that is bounded only by our imagination and our understanding, both of which can be cultivated and expanded. If we are to avoid error, we must rein in the will while we cultivate the understanding and imagination, but as our understanding and imagination grows, so does the scope of our freedom.

    Descartes has recontextualized human freedom within completely amoral constraints. If one can understand and/or imagine it, one is free to choose it.

    1. Self-Determination

    It is easy to make fun of Descartes’s grandiose claim that his method will make us “masters and possessors of nature,” but who can dispute the stunning progress that science and technology has brought to the natural world? We may not be comfortable with mastering and possessing nature, but the obstacles to that today are increasingly more moral than practical.

    And, even though contemporary scientific methodology is not exactly Cartesian, it is certainly its heir.

    But the ambition to master and possess nature is even less easy to dismiss when we follow the Cartesian turn around to see that it is our own natures that Descartes first helps us to master — our own selves he helps us to possess.

    Descartes begins with himself, because self-mastery is the central tenant of any version of his methodology one might discern in his work. And, pushing even more deeply into the preconditions for his project, it is important to note that, for Descartes, such self-determination is possible at all. The claim that we should learn self-mastery is on the surface of Descartes’s writings. The claim that we can is at least as significant, and is fairly easily missed.

    But, in the universe of discourse in which Descartes was writing, the claim that human beings could control themselves, direct themselves, perhaps even own (!) themselves was radical, and we should remember to give him credit for that.

    1. Freedom of Conscience

    In his recent book, Cartesian Psychophysics and the Whole Nature of Man, Richard Hassing argues that the psycho-physical model Descartes presents in the Passions of the Soul laid the groundwork for diagnosing and avoiding the errors of judgment that drive men to conduct religious wars.

    So, all those arcane arguments about the pineal gland and its function on the frontier of the spiritual and physical substances of human existence also have a moral and therapeutic aim. As we act, the cavities in our brains change shape. And the more we act in a particular way, the more those cavities change to make those actions frictionless and natural.

    Put bluntly, Descartes describes an anatomy that makes independent thought possible. And with it, he offers an alternative to those who believe they must defer to the religion of their fathers, even when it drives them to atrocious behavior.

    In the Passions, the chief virtue Descartes describes is Generosity, but this is not Aristotle’s virtue of giving and taking. For Descartes, Generosity is esteeming oneself properly and as highly as possible. One enacts generosity when one realizes that the only thing that we truly possess, as human beings, is the free control of our volitions. The only acts for which we genuinely deserve praise or blame are those where we use our free will well or badly.

    Deferring to a group rather than acting on one’s own conscience is never praiseworthy for Descartes. And, the more we do the hard work of acting generously — that is, according to a good use of one’s own free will — the more one’s anatomy will be altered to make such choices and actions more natural. Not only can we distance ourselves from groupthink and appeal to our own conscience to guide our actions, virtue requires that we do.

    1. Individual Liberty (for better or worse)

    Alexis de Tocqueville opens the second part of Democracy in America with the claim that “America is one of the countries of the world where the precepts of Descartes are least studied and best followed.” What he says he means by that hilarious claim is that 19th-century Americans share a common philosophical method, even though they don’t know that’s what it is. And, he says, it looks like this:

    To escape from the spirit of system, from the yoke of habits, from the maxims of family, from the opinions of class, and, to a certain point, from the prejudices of nation; to take tradition only as information, and present facts only as a useful study for doing otherwise and better; to seek by yourself and in yourself alone the reason for things, to strive toward the result without allowing yourself to be caught up in the means, and to aim for the substance beyond form: such are the principle features that characterize what I will call the philosophical mode of the Americans.

    What we are now more apt to call radical individualism was, for Tocqueville, Cartesianism, and it worried him. Tocqueville feared that individualism would isolate Americans from one another spiritually, debase our imaginations and our souls. And, as the American spirit spread throughout the world, so would a leveling effect. First Americans, then all “Americanized” peoples would be rendered unable to appreciate refinement, cultivation, ambition. Our unselfconscious, enthusiastic, and contagious Cartesianism would eventually dumb down the world.

    Tocqueville had some interesting ideas for how to combat the creep of “soft despotism” in the face of the inevitable rise of individualism. Lovers of liberty have other responses, both to the statement of the problem and to ideas about the conditions under which genius is incubated. So, those of us who have a different perspective on the meaning of individualism for culture may not walk all the way down that road with Tocqueville, but we probably should have something to say about it. And perhaps we can thank Descartes just as legitimately as Tocqueville sought to blame him.