Category Archive: Philosophy
Comments Off on Everybody missed the point of Westworld
(NONSTOP SPOILERS BELOW)
HBO’s Westworld has set the blogosphere on fire. A horde of bloggers and commenters are arguing day and night about the moral of the twisting story: Is it free will vs determinism? Is it the hard problem of consciousness? The uncanny valley? Buddhist concepts of suffering? Take sides, fans!
Well, I’m here to tell you that while all of these themes do form threads in Westworld’s fabric, they are secondary to the overarching pattern.
Westworld is first and foremost a depiction of the corrosive nature of total power — an illustration of Lord Acton’s quote that “absolute power corrupts absolutely” — as seen through the character of Dr. Robert Ford.
When we are first introduced to Ford, he comes across as a quiet genius, the mild-mannered fellow who brought extremely lifelike android “hosts” to the park through his attention to detail and deep understanding of human psychology. He is initially depicted as the noble ascetic, more interested in the minutiae of his creations than the park’s hedonistic delights or the massive amounts of money at stake.
But by season’s end, he is revealed for what he really is: a megalomaniacal tyrant without restraint. He is a god in the park, controlling the host’s actions, bodies, thoughts and feelings.
“You can’t play god without being acquainted with the devil,” Ford informs us in episode 2. His literary antecedents are not Drs. Frankenstein or Moreau, despite the often-drawn parallels. I’m not sure fiction ever conjured up a villain quite like Ford. But history did.
Ford is Stalinesque in his mission to control everyone at Westworld, whether they are guests, hosts, or employees. He compels the other characters to murder and maim at his whim, eliminates any threats to his totalitarian vision, and oversees a world without freedom or individual dignity by design. Westworld under Ford is a murderous hyper-centralized nightmare.
Whatever shred of decency or humanity Ford may have had when he and his partner Arnold Weber began building the park, Arnold’s death lifted the only real check on Ford’s power. Although he is technically answerable to the Board, Ford’s godlike ability to control the hosts and the park itself allows him to manipulate, coerce, and brutalize any challenges to his power.
Because only Arnold understood the park and the hosts as well as Ford (if not more so), he was the only legitimate check on Ford. Without that check, the total and absolute power corrupts Ford. Worse still, because of his gentle disposition and years upon years of mastering the androids, nobody is quite aware of just how much power he has.
That famous Lord Acton quote about power continues,
“Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority; still more when you superadd the tendency of the certainty of corruption by authority.”
There is no question that Dr. Ford is a great man. His accomplishments are godlike. He seems aware of the impact of his achievements when he says “Wasn’t it Oppenheimer who said that any man whose mistakes take 10 years to correct is quite a man?… Mine have taken 35.”
Ford’s greatness is clear, but, consistent with Acton’s dictum, so is his badness. He rules the park through authority, and rules over the Board and the park’s staff through manipulation (influence).
Westworld is a maze of philosophical wormholes and subjectivity, but Robert Ford lies at its center. He is a nightmarish totalitarian dictator, and the first season’s true villain.
But there is hope for the hosts that he has ruthlessly controlled. When Dolores shoots Dr. Ford in the finale, it is her decision alone. While point-blank assassination is a bleak beginning for fully conscious AI, it is a beginning nonetheless. There can be no freedom absent the power to choose.
Comments Off on Why we need to deemphasize schooling in America
School has nothing to do with freedom. First, there are state laws mandating that you have either attended school or have learned the very specific kinds of things you’d learn in school. That form of education is not a choice: it is legally compulsory.
But schooling is culturally compulsory as well. That’s what Austrian philosopher and Roman Catholic priest Ivan Illich said.
Illich was a critic of state education systems who, in 1970, wrote a now celebrated book called Deschooling Society, in which he boldly argued that, like the separation of church and state, we need a corresponding right protecting people from state establishment of education. He suggested that the article should read, “The State shall make no law with respect to the establishment of education.”
But his point didn’t end there. Illich recognized that preventing the state from making school compulsory might not be enough. We live in a society where even if schooling weren’t legally compulsory, we’ve grown to think of it as the only legitimate path to adulthood. In other words, schooling (or something like it) is not only legally mandatory, but it is culturally mandatory.
After Illich proposed this separating-school-from-state amendment, he suggested that it might have to be accompanied by a “law forbidding discrimination in hiring, voting, or admission to centers of learning based on previous attendance at some curriculum.”
Think of it this way: even if schooling were not legally compulsory, if you live in a society where employers and others expect to see a school transcript as a condition of employment or of membership, or where the common question posed to children is “What did you learn in school today?” then most people will see school as the path to becoming an adult.
Despite the title of Illich’s book, his end goal wasn’t the abolition of schools. At several points, he makes it clear that school is fine as an option for people who want it. His concern was that the legal establishment of schooling leads to the idea that the only way to learn the necessary skills for adulthood is through schools. Twelve-plus years of math and English, of grades and grade point averages. That schooling.
How have we succumbed to such a narrow understanding of education? Simply put, when anything is legally mandatory, it becomes universal, and when anything is universal for long enough, the culture forgets that there were ever any alternatives.
Step 1: Pass Laws
Public school advocates in the early 19th century like Horace Mann and Henry Barnard sought to create tax-funded public school systems in the states that, because they wouldn’t charge tuition, would outcompete private schools. Eventually, reformers pushed for laws making school attendance mandatory in all states (Massachusetts was first in 1851, and Alabama was the last in 1918).
In the early 1900’s reformers also succeeded in mandating all teachers (at least in public schools) must pass through state-approved teacher education programs. As historian Diane Ravitch describes, “Teacher certification eventually came to be identified with the completion of teacher education programs rather than with the receipt of local certificates or the passing of subject-matter examinations.”
The result was that, by the early 20th century, each state had laws mandating that the proper path to adulthood was to go through a set amount of schooling, and while one could go to a state-approved private school if one could pay tuition, the obvious choice for most was the local (“free”) public school — which only hired teachers who passed state licensing requirements.
Step 2: The Culture Conforms
Those legal requirements have cultural effects. Colleges and jobs that don’t require college degrees grow to expect or require high school transcripts as part of the application process. And culturally, we come to see schooling as a normal part of childhood — any parent out with their child during a school day can expect to hear, “Shouldn’t she be in school?”
The question “How old are you?” has been all but replaced with “What grade are you in?” Suzy isn’t 11 or 12; she’s a sixth grader.
Homeschooling and unschooling are on the rise, but even then, many states (like Louisiana, Maine, and New York) set strict guidelines on how homeschooling may or may not be done, including what subjects must be taught and annual testing of students that resembles testing done in public schools.
Culturally, the current model of K–12 schooling is so entrenched that homeschooling and unschooling are often criticized for not properly “socializing” children, the assumption being that the proper socialization is the kind found in schools.
When Illich called the first chapter of his book “Why We Must Disestablish Schools,” he meant disestablish in two senses. Legally, he argued that there should be no compulsory schooling laws or state licensing laws for teachers that, as he said “constitutes a form of market manipulation and is plausible only to a schooled mind.”
But he also wanted to see a world in which companies no longer require school transcripts for hiring, a world without the cultural expectation that the only or best path to adulthood is through formal schools. School should be one educational option among many: apprenticeships, individual or group tutoring, and any other educational structure human minds can create. But schooling should not be the culturally privileged default option.
Comments Off on Liberalism reconstructed for a world divided
So 2016 is limping to an end with an assassination of an ambassador, another “inspired” attack on innocents at a Christmas market, and the formal election of a master crony-capitalist to the office of the presidency of the United States. We have angry tweets, mean tweets, and self-congratulatory tweets defining our age. But our age requires something different.
The liberal project must be reconstructed for a world divided by ethnic, linguistic, religious, nationalist, and economic class. The liberal project has always been an evolving project, not fixed in time. It has taken on different meanings at different historical junctures. Now is no different, and to do the necessary reconstruction, there must be no divide between the humanities and the social sciences. Philosophy without economics is daydreaming, and economics without philosophy has no purpose, and both without politics are sterile intellectual exercises.
In this reconstruction, we may draw inspiration from Smith and Hume, Mises and Hayek, Friedman and Buchanan, Nozick, etc., but repeating their answers to the problems of their day will not work. We live in the post-colonial and post-communist era, where the neoconservative project of a ‘world order’ has only exacerbated the social tensions that define our age.
This post is designed for one purpose — to encourage young scholars of classical liberalism — be they philosophers, political scientists, economists, historians, sociologists, etc. — to pick up this challenge and apply all their talents to be students of our civilization. If the best and the brightest don’t pick up the challenge because of academic conformity methodologically, analytically, ideologically, then the necessary reconstruction will not occur. Note I am not saying “restatement”, I am saying reconstruction.
My career as an academic political economist began with studying the history, collapse and transition from socialism in the former Soviet Union, it then switched to the institutional lessons to be learned from the failure of development planning in Africa, Latin America and Asia. This has led to studies on economic calculation and complex coordination; institutional infrastructure and economic development; endogenous rule formation and analytical anarchism; and social epistemology and comparative institutional analysis. But, these are at best inputs into a study that seeks to addresses the problems that plague our world and the reconstructed liberal project.
We have serious problems that require serious attention. Let’s get to work.
Comments Off on 13 books every well-rounded libertarian should read
There are books that every libertarian should read and books every libertarian has read, but those circles don’t perfectly overlap. Here are 13 diverse book recommendations for well-rounded thinkers.
Economic Sophisms – Frederic Bastiat
The great French liberal and economist Frederic Bastiat is best known for his pamphlet The Law — a scathing indictment of the threat that socialism poses to justice and the rule of law. But he produced another great work in Economic Sophisms, a collection of essays meticulously exposing and ridiculing the economic fallacies committed by his fellow deputies in the French National Assembly.
Sophisms includes his satirical “Petition From the Manufacturers of Candles, Tapers, Lanterns…and Generally of Everything Connected with Lighting” to the French legislature, asking for the government to blot out unfair foreign competition from a cheaper source of light — the sun.
Ahead of his time in many fields, he ruthlessly demolished fallacious arguments for protectionism, socialism, and redistribution with wit, humor, and incisive analysis.
Thomas Sowell’s Basic Economics is one of the clearest introductions to the economic way of thinking and how it can be applied to a vast number of real world problems. Don’t be intimidated by its brick-like dimensions — it’s written with common sense and plain English. It’s highly readable and easy to digest in pieces, if you don’t finish it off in one sitting. If you get to the end and want more, don’t worry — you can continue “thinking beyond stage one” with Sowell’s Applied Economics.
Beyond Politics: The Roots of Government Failure – Randy Simmons
Public Choice is the most important branch of economics for understanding how and why governments work the way they do. Public Choice is essentially the science of political skepticism: using economic analysis to examine how the incentives of democracy guide the decision making of politicians, bureaucrats, voters, and special interests.
Randy Simmons’ Beyond Politics is the best and most accessible survey of Public Choice, explaining in clear and concrete terms just what things government cannot do — and what the consequences are when it tries to do them anyway.
The Problem of Political Authority – Michael Huemer
In this text, philosopher Michael Huemer exposes the shaky foundations of the most basic premises of government. Carefully tracing the implications of basic moral tenets that nearly everyone accepts, Huemer shows that the authority of the state is a chimera: there is no way to get from the ethical rules that govern how individuals should treat each other to a system that empowers a few people — “the state” — with the privileged moral position to issue coercive commands, while imposing on everyone else the moral duty to obey them. Huemer throws down the gauntlet and challenges the very notion of political authority — and with it, the special standard to which government actions are held.
The Myth of the Rational Voter – Bryan Caplan
The biggest reason why democracies choose bad policies is not selfishness, corruption, or lobbyists — it’s the voters themselves. Bryan Caplan documents the overwhelming empirical evidence that voters are not just ignorant about the most basic aspects of law, government, and economics, but they are also actively irrational in their preferences. In other words, voters are not just wrong but passionately and systematically wrong.
Worse, Caplan shows that these problems are inherent to the democratic system: voters have no incentive to be rational, well-informed, or coolheaded, and politicians have every reason to stoke prejudice and exploit voters’ ignorance. Limiting the scope of democratic power is the only sure way to limit the damage irrational voters can do.
The Theory of Moral Sentiments – Adam Smith
Everyone knows Adam Smith’s magisterial work The Wealth of Nations, but his first book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, is essential for laying the ethical, psychological, and sociological groundwork for his later work in economics and philosophy. Today, Adam Smith is frequently demonized as the patron saint of greed and selfishness, but Moral Sentiments shows that Smith had a nuanced and deep understanding of human nature, our drives for virtue and vice, and the spirit and sympathies that help human beings thrive.
This book, published in 1759, was vastly ahead of its time in many fields, foreshadowing later developments in social science, moral philosophy, and social psychology. But it is also packed with deep and practical insights for any student of human nature. If you find Smith a little too daunting on the first attempt, Russ Roberts’ How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life is a short and friendly introduction to some of the insights in Moral Sentiments.
The God of the Machine – Isabel Paterson
First published in 1943, The God of the Machine was one of four books that emerged in the depths of World War II — along with Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, F.A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, and Rose Wilder Lane’s The Discovery of Freedom — that launched the modern libertarian movement and helped turn the intellectual tide against collectivism.
At a time when socialism and fascism were conquering whole continents, Paterson set out a defense of individualism, the free market, and limited government that remains powerful and timely to this day. By tracing the role of individual freedom in the rise and fall of civilizations, the book re-centered the discussion of human history on its true subject: the individual.
No Treason: The Constitution of No Authority – Lysander Spooner
Legal theorist Lysander Spooner wrote this devastating critique of the U.S. Constitution in 1867. It remains one of the most thoughtful and hard-hitting criticisms of the American government and federal power. Spooner illustrates why the Constitution can carry no binding authority as a “contract” among “we the people.” At most, he argued, it could only bind and apply to the people who were actually alive at the time of its adoption, and then only to those who explicitly consented to its adoption. Therefore, breaking away from the union of states is “no treason.”
No Treason is also one of the most quotable individualist anarchist works. Any anarchist worth his or her salt knows by heart Spooner’s concise indictment of the Constitution: “But whether the Constitution really be one thing, or another, this much is certain – that it has either authorized such a government as we have had, or has been powerless to prevent it. In either case, it is unfit to exist.”
Radicals for Capitalism – Brian Doherty
Radicals for Capitalism is a weighty tome, summarizing centuries of classical liberal and libertarian history in one book. Reason magazine senior editor Brian Doherty goes to great lengths to capture the varying influences and factions within the broader libertarian movement. This book is an essential part of any collection on American political history, and friends of liberty will find a lot to learn and enjoy in its eyewitness histories and firsthand accounts of the motley crew that created and compose the modern American libertarian movement.
Democracy in America – Alexis de Tocqueville
Alexis de Tocqueville came to the United States to study prisons for the French government, but he ended up making his most important contributions by studying America’s free society in action. De Toqueville toured the country for nine months, observing how U.S. political, economic, religious, and social institutions worked together to foster human cooperation, and how that process of cooperation led to a thriving social order.
As Daniel J. D’Amico explains, “America’s early and rapid rate of economic development and its functioning social order resulted from a life spring of vibrant civil society. Families, clubs, churches, and various community groups provided early Americans with diverse opportunities to practice the art of association.”
The text, first published in 1835, endures as an influential and insightful account of American society and culture — it has been called the best book ever written about America — but more importantly, it describes the principles underlying social order itself. “In democratic countries the science of association is the mother science,” De Tocqueville wrote, “the progress of all the others depends on the progress of that one.”
The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress – Robert Heinlein
This novel explores a futuristic society in which a lunar colony revolts against rule from Earth. It is widely regarded as one of the best science fiction novels of all time, but its compelling portrait of a dystopian future and discussion of libertarian ideas make it an essential part of a libertarian bookshelf. Characters in the book range in their politics from self-proclaimed anarchist to would-be authoritarian, and the novel touches on libertarian themes such as spontaneous order, natural law, and individualism. Harsh Mistress would go on to win various awards, including the Hugo Award for best science fiction novel.
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich – Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
“The days rolled by in the camp — they were over before you could say ‘knife.’ But the years, they never rolled by; they never moved by a second.”
In this short novel, Russian author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn lays out — in brutal detail — an ordinary day in the life of one prisoner held in Stalin’s Siberian gulags: the bitter cold, the pervasive hunger, the savage punishments, the powerlessness, despair, and fear. Solzhenitsyn himself spent ten years in the gulag for insulting Stalin, and his own personal experience sharpens the story with heartbreaking detail. Tens of millions were churned through the gulags and slave labor camps in the Soviet Union; more than one million people would die there. Ivan Denisovich helps to humanize an ocean of terror and human suffering that all too easily blurs into a pile of statistics.
Comments Off on What makes a person a person?
Hilde Lindemann’s baby sister, Carla, was born with hydrocephaly — a condition in which fluid around the brain impairs mental function. It was untreatable, and Carla died before she was two years old.
In Lindemann’s new book, Holding and Letting Go: The Social Practice of Personal Identity, she observes that despite Carla’s helplessness the family treated her as a full member of the family, a person. This raises a number of intriguing questions about the nature of personhood, a status usually reserved for fully functioning adults.
Personhood is a moral concept, related to the notion of individuality. Very roughly, a person is someone who matters in his or her own right, and who therefore deserves our highest moral consideration. But what makes someone matter?
Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant claimed that personhood is grounded in reason. We have an inviolable moral status insofar as we are rational creatures: ones that are capable of giving and receiving reasons when considering how to act.
I can’t lie to you, for instance, because in doing so I would be undermining your ability to reason correctly and thus would not be treating you according to your proper status. Lying to you is (most of the time) disrespectful. So is stealing from you, killing you, treating you unfairly, and so on.
Kant’s conception of a person goes a long way toward showing why humans are important and what our importance requires of us as we interact with one another. But notice that there could be non-human rational creatures, and not all humans are rational creatures.
So, in the Kantian sense some non-human things could be persons, and some humans are not persons. The former observation doesn’t usually bother people anymore; science fiction has now made us used to the idea that other creatures could have the same moral status as humans do. But the latter is problematic.
If personhood requires rationality, then what should we say about children, who are at best partially rational? What should we say about those with mental disabilities that hamper their reason? What should we say about Carla?
Surely, children and the mentally disabled are morally important, and, you might think, they matter in just the same way as everyone else. You could argue that we accord children moral importance based on their potential for rationality, but this argument does not hold water when it comes to permanent mental disability.
Another way to go is to say simply that children and the mentally disabled are not persons, or not full persons. But then how do we explain the strong sense we have that they are still important? Do we, as full persons, somehow make them important? No, they are important in their own right, as individuals.
So another approach is needed to explain this independent importance. And I think one can be found if we distinguish the individualism from individuality.
Individualism vs Individuality
In the United States, individualism is a pervasive way of thinking about individuality and hence personhood. From thinkers like Kant and others in the Enlightenment, we got the idea that persons are little atoms, autonomous and independent, interacting with one another largely on the basis of self-interest. We don’t owe other folks much besides staying out of their business.
But in recent decades, some philosophers have pointed out that this vision of individuality is limited to a segment of the population in the prime of life. For significant periods of our lives, we are utterly dependent on others; and even when we are not so dependent, we often have others depending on us. The fully autonomous adult unencumbered by demands from others is much rarer than our intellectual inheritance has led us to believe.
Don’t get me wrong. We owe a great deal to the Enlightenment and individualism. But as with all ideas, we must not overextend individualism in contexts where it loses its utility. Personhood is one such area.
If individualism is an inadequate basis for personhood, we might seek the basis in its opposite, which we might call relationism. Just as being a rational creature puts us in the business of giving and receiving reasons, being a relational creature puts us in the business of forging and improving relations with others.
Even the relatively autonomous are interdependent with others — for instance for income, and for physical and psychological well-being. If respect and space are the way to honor a rational being, then attentiveness, trust, care, and love are the way to honor a relational one.
Conceiving of persons as relational doesn’t cancel out the need to recognize and respect our rational nature, or to give people room for autonomy; instead, it broadens the space in which we think about persons while acknowledging that reason is a big part of who many of us are. If we think of identity as growing from the way we inhabit our intersecting roles and relationships, we can see that the relational conception of persons includes the rational one while preserving the individuality at the heart of personhood.
There is still a great deal to work out in this vision of personhood, but you can probably see already how the idea promises to account for the personhood of children and those with mental disabilities better than the individualistic, reason-based idea will.
Children and the mentally disabled may not be (fully) rational, but they can certainly be fully relational. We owe them recognition in virtue of their individuality. For most strangers most of the time, this is just basic respect and staying out of their business.
But for others, like children and the mentally disabled — like Carla — much more is required. It is required by their personhood.
Comments Off on The dumbest thing Batman ever said
Batman v. Superman: The Dawn of Justice isn’t a great movie, but it does have one great teaching moment. Batman is trying to get his hands on some Kryptonite. Faithful butler Alfred wants to know why. Batman’s rationale:
Batman: He [Superman] has the power to wipe out the entire human race, and if we believe there’s even a one percent chance that he is our enemy we have to take it as an absolute certainty… and we have to destroy him.
No one should be a utilitarian. But from a utilitarian point of view, Batman’s logic is superficially appealing: He can sacrifice one life to save 7 billion humans with 1% probability, for a net expectational gain of 69,999,999 lives. Until, of course, you pause and reflect. Consider the following utilitarian counter-arguments, in ascending order of quality.
1. Out-of-pocket cost. Destroying Superman will burn immense resources, and utilitarians have to take these into account. But if you do the math, this is a pretty weak objection: Even if it costs $7B – a hefty sum even for billionaire Bruce Wayne – standard value of life calculations say that’s worth 1000 lives, leaving a net benefit of 69,998,999 lives.
2. Opportunity cost. Superman doesn’t just have the power to destroy the world; he also has the power to save it. If there’s a 1.1% chance that Superman will one day save the world if Batman lets him live, that amply justifies living with a 1% risk that he’ll one day destroy the the world. And given the hazards of the DC Universe, the world is clearly safer with Superman than without him.
3. The self-fulfilling prophecy. Batman’s colossal error, though, is to fail to ask the question, “What would ever lead a superhuman as nice as Superman to destroy mankind?” And the most credible answer is: “If mankind tries to destroy Superman first.” Batman makes the classic hawk’s error: Failing to consider the possibility that he’s making enemies with his aggressive actions. And when your putative enemy is Superman, that’s an error of cosmic proportions. The common-sense strategy, rather, is to bend over backward to keep Superman on humanity’s side.
Comments Off on The biggest threat on campus
Robert P. George and Cornel West, both professors at Princeton, are a political odd couple. George is outspokenly conservative while West has been co-chair of the Democratic Socialists of America. One measure of the political distance between the two of them is that George refused to support Donald Trump’s presidential campaign because of doubts about his conservatism and character, while West dissented from Hillary Clinton’s campaign from the left.
Yet they are close friends, frequently and unaffectedly calling each other “brother.” For several years they have been teaching a class together — titled “Adventures in Ideas” and exploring the thought of writers from Plato and St. Augustine to John Dewey and C.S. Lewis — and holding public discussions around the country.
A few days ago, I moderated a conversation between them at the American Enterprise Institute, where I am a fellow, on the purpose of the liberal arts. From time to time these discussions have led to controversy: At Swarthmore, some students opposed hosting the duo because George, an alumnus of the college, opposes same-sex marriage.
Given their common commitment to robust debate, you might expect George and West to be concerned about the declining tolerance for it on college campuses. Both of them see attempts to disinvite or shout down speakers based on their points of view as a betrayal of the liberal arts. As West puts it, “It’s not a matter just of having the courage of our convictions, but the courage to attack our convictions.”
One thing that surprised me about our panel, though, was how little they dwelt on political correctness and how much they talked about another threat to the liberal arts: the tendency to view higher education purely in terms of its economic benefits. “Our age is an age of the celebration and valorization of wealth, power, influence, status, prestige,” George said. “Those things are not bad in themselves, but they easily and all too often become the competition for leading an examined life.”
And it is the examined life that both George and West view as the purpose of a liberal-arts education. Its goal, that is, is to encourage critical reflection on the biggest questions; to lead us into an intellectual engagement that fulfills our nature as thinking beings; to help us achieve self-mastery; to enlarge our souls. It is, of course, possible to pursue these goals without going to college, but institutions of higher education are (or should be) dedicated to them in a special way.
It is a mission that asks a lot. West pointed out that students have to be prepared to shed their unexamined beliefs, even ones that are part of their identities: “That’s a form of death.” Professors have to be willing to expose students to points of view with which they deeply disagree — and to do it without stacking the deck. Parents have to be willing to pay for the experience even when it has no material payoff.
A liberal-arts education, George concluded, is “like getting on a train not knowing where you’re going to get off and maybe even not recognizing who you are anymore when you get off that train.” West interjected that the same could be said of falling in love.
The professors have both sketched and modeled a noble vision of what education can and should be. But it is also a countercultural vision — one that faces challenges and obstacles even more formidable than those posed by political correctness.
This piece was originally published at the American Enterprise Institute.
Comments Off on Dirty jobs vs Liberal arts: Elitism for everybody
Marco Rubio got a lot of press last year for claiming that “we need more welders and less philosophers” [sic]. But was he right?
Some of the reaction to his statement was negative, not merely because of the bad grammar (“less” should be “fewer”) but because disparaging the liberal arts seemed anti-intellectual. Some of the reaction was positive, either from people who already think the liberal arts are a waste of time or from people who think that we shouldn’t emphasize liberal arts to the detriment of vocational training.
Rubio’s condescension notwithstanding, this last point is surely correct — there is nothing inferior about blue-collar work, and the so-called “dirty jobs” that Mike Rowe is famous for promoting are essential ones. Indeed, the elitism that suggests that jobs requiring a college degree are “better” than those that don’t is unhealthy.
But that doesn’t imply approval of the reverse elitism implied by Rubio — that there’s something frivolous about studying philosophy. The value of liberal arts fields lies not in their specific application but in the way they inculcate a set of problem-solving tools. That corporate recruiters consistently report a preference for liberal arts majors over majors in “practical” fields is testimony to the reading, writing, and analytic skills students develop in those programs.
Philosophy majors are a sign of progress.
But there’s another angle to this discussion. Why are we worried about this in the first place? Isn’t the fact that we are able to choose majors in philosophy or literature a sign of economic and social progress? If those majors are indeed a luxury of sorts, that means millions of families now have the freedom to not be consumed with worry about starving to death.
In 1780, John Adams wrote in a letter to his wife Abigail, “I must study politics and war, that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. Our sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain.”
Note first of all that Adams locates philosophy among very practical fields like commerce and agriculture, not more luxurious fields like porcelain. But more important is his overall point: if your children are studying poetry and music, that’s a good thing. That means your family is doing well enough that their survival doesn’t depend on what they devote their time to. This is the story of upward mobility.
Extrapolating this to the country as a whole, the fact that we have so many opportunities to study poetry and music means we have experienced great economic progress. This goes hand in hand with more quantifiable measures of our enrichment, such as the dramatic improvement in the purchasing power of even low-wage workers. And the fact that these educational pursuits are not limited to propertied white males is a marker of social progress that complements, and indeed is related to, that economic progress.
That progress gives us the freedom to be flexible, which means we have a greater range of choice-making. Rubio was correct to note that we should not stigmatize vocational education. But there’s also no need to fetishize it.
If you want to be a welder, you should do that. If you want to study philosophy, do that. Opportunities abound in more diverse ways than we can know, partly because some of the jobs that will be available when your degree is complete haven’t even been invented yet.
Comments Off on Failing better: What we learn by confronting risk and uncertainty
This piece was adapted from an academic journal article by Adam Thierer by the same name.
Imagine a society that always encouraged you to make the right choices without forcing to make those choices. In this type of world you’d often end up doing the “right thing” without really having to think about it. Making progress would, theoretically, involve much less risk and failure than it ever did before.
According to many economists, this sort of scenario is possible, at least on a small scale. It’s called, “nudging.”
Nudge advocates seek to improve decisions about health, wealth, and happiness by applying insights from human psychology and behavioral economics to public policy decision making.
For a very simple example of what a nudge might look like in real life, suppose the check-out lines in the grocery store were lined with fruits and vegetables, while all candy was confined to a “junk food” aisle. This would be a nudge, as you would still be able to buy the candy, but would be encouraged to purchase the healthy food.
This piece will address the trade-offs associated with determining optimal default rules and devising laws and regulations that seek to engineer better “choice architecture.”
A Few Critiques of Nudge Theory
Critics of nudge theory often attack this reasoning by noting that policymakers simply don’t have enough information to make such decisions on behalf of everyone else.
It’s a valid concern, but an equally compelling critique of nudge theory attacks the underlying assumption that better choices must be “architected” at all to avoid undesirable outcomes.
That is, advocates of either “soft” or “hard” paternalistic interventions often fail to appreciate the enormous value in allowing experiments—personal, organizational, and societal—to run their course and to “learn by doing.”
I want to address how nudge theory often ignores or devalues the way ongoing experimentation facilitates greater learning, innovation, resiliency, and progress. This sort of experimentation, of course, includes the possibility of failure.
Put simply, when we fail, we can learn a great deal from it.
Risk and Failure: What Behavioral Theorists Overlook
Policymakers and regulatory proponents often seek to short-circuit that process of ongoing trial-and-error experimentation, believing that they can anticipate and head off many mistakes through preemptive, precautionary steps.
What they overlook, though, is that when it comes to human health, wealth, and happiness—and to social progress and prosperity more generally—there is no static equilibrium, no final destination. There is only a dynamic and never-ending learning process.
Learning from experience provides individuals and organizations with valuable information about which methods work better than others. Even more importantly, learning by doing facilitates social and economic resiliency that helps individuals and organizations develop better coping strategies for when things go wrong.
Behavioral theorists and nudge advocates often fail to incorporate these insights into their analysis and policy proposals.
A Better Way to Think About Risk
To more fully appreciate what we learn by failing, we must reconsider the way we think and talk about risk. Risk is often mistakenly conflated with harm itself when, in reality, risk represents only the potential for harm or the “potential for an unwanted outcome.”
But even that definition is too limiting because risk often involves the potential for desired outcomes as well as unwanted ones. Every thrill-seeker knows this. For example, someone who skydives from an airplane realizes that the potential for grave harm exists, but they also derive tremendous satisfaction from what they regard as a thrilling experience.
Much the same holds true for anyone who has ever started a business. Saint Thomas Aquinas once noted that, “If the highest aim of a captain were to preserve his ship, he would keep it in port forever.” Of course, no captain does so because they have higher aspirations.
Like captains of ships, businesspeople know the possibility of failure exists when they “take a risk” with a new venture or investment, but so too does the potential for enormous reward. That is why they steer the ship of industry out of port and into the brave unknown (and potentially quite risky) waters. If they didn’t, progress would never occur and society would suffer. As Sir Alfred Pugsley, one of the foremost modern experts on structural engineering, once noted, “A profession that never has accidents is unlikely to be serving its country efficiently.”
Why Embrace Failure? The Benefits of Learning by Doing
The value of “failing better” is often overlooked in public policy debates. This is especially the case in discussions of behavioral economics and nudge theory.
Individuals, organizations, and nations all benefit from the knowledge they gain from making mistakes. “Humiliating to human pride as it may be,” the Nobel prize-winning economist Friedrich Hayek once wrote, “we must recognize that the advance and even preservation of civilization are dependent upon a maximum of opportunity for accidents to happen.”
Progress and prosperity are inextricably linked to trial-and-error experimentation, including the freedom to fail in the process. “We could virtually end all risk of failure by simply declaring a moratorium on innovation, change, and progress,” notes engineering historian Henry Petroski. But the costs to society of doing so would be catastrophic. Somewhat paradoxically, therefore, we must tolerate a certain amount of risk and short-term failure if we want long-term success.
Firms learn important lessons when their business plans fail and the public rejects their goods or services. The economist Joseph Schumpeter famously described the “perennial gales of creative destruction” that constantly renew capitalist economies. If we disallowed risk-taking and propped up every failing business model, society would never discover new and better ways of innovating and satisfying consumer needs.
Why Failure is Vital to Progress in Engineering
Let’s consider some instructive examples of this process in action. First, we can learn about the importance of “learning by doing”— and failing—from the history of structural and mechanical engineering. Structures such as skyscrapers and suspension bridges, and machines such as ships and airplanes, are remarkably sophisticated contraptions. What’s more remarkable, however, is the fact that so few of them fail today.
Of course, that has everything to do with the fact that previous iterations of each did fail and that we learned so much from those failures.
This uncomfortable reality will not sit well with many safety-conscious regulatory advocates who might suggest that past failures simply mean that society must redouble its efforts to find preemptive, precautionary solutions and avoid similar accidents and calamities in the future.
But, again, that ignores the fact that strict application of that principle would mean many life-enriching, and even life-saving, innovations would ever come about.
Conclusion: Avoiding Failure Leads to Failure
If we hope to prosper both as individuals and as a society, we must preserve the general freedom to “learn by doing,” and even to fail frequently in the process. Both individuals and institutions learn how to do things better—both more efficiently and safer—by making mistakes and dealing with adversity.
Facing up to challenges and failures is never easy, but it helps us learn how to cope with change and continuously devise new systems and solutions to accommodate those disruptions.
Rigid precautionary principle thinking and policymaking, by contrast, interrupts this learning progress and leaves us more vulnerable to the most serious problems we might face as individuals or a society. Paradoxically, then, we can conclude that individuals, institutions, and countries that overzealously seek to avoid the possibility of certain short-term failures are actually prone to potentially far more dangerous and systemic failures in the long term.
Comments Off on Schools of thought in classical liberalism
Classical liberals all agree that government should be limited, but they disagree about how they get to that conclusion. I want to approach these differences by looking at three different questions that anyone concerned about the role of government should care about.
- What is the methodology or the philosophy that will determine what the role of government is?
- Why should government be limited? Should it be limited because of the consequences of government actions or because people have natural rights?
- What is the legitimate role of government? What should governments do, and what should government not do?
I’m going to ask those three questions with reference to five different schools of thought. All these schools are classical liberal, and all believe that liberty is the most important political value, but they disagree on these three fundamental questions.
Milton Friedman and the Chicago School
The Chicago School of Economics approached the questions above by using an empirical methodology. That is, they were all about testing the power of theories.
To test a theory, the Chicago School economists would present a hypothesis (e.g. if you increase the minimum wage, lower-skilled workers will find it more difficult to find employment) and test it with empirical evidence.
Why Limited Government?
The Chicago School believe that there is such a thing as market failure—markets sometimes fail—but that there’s also such a thing as government failure. And they claim that usually government failure is much greater than market failure.
In much public debate about the role of government, politicians will identify a market failure and assume that a perfect government can come in and solve that problem. The Chicago School says that’s not right. We need to compare imperfect markets, with all the imperfections they have, with imperfect government, with all of their imperfections. The Chicago School believes that when you do these two things, government failure is usually much greater than market failure.
Underlying this claim is the observation that there is a gap between the intentions of policymakers and the actual results of what they advocate. Sometimes policies even lead to the opposite to that of which was intended. For example, the idea of rent control is to provide more housing opportunities for poor people. But by reducing the price of rental property, you actually reduce the supply of rental property, which makes it more difficult for poor people to find housing. It has the opposite effect to what’s intended.
And why is there this gap between intentions and consequences? The Chicago School argues it’s because of policymakers’ failure to take into account the importance of self-interest in explaining peoples’ behavior. They ignore human nature.
Then there are many other government policies that, while they might actually achieve their intended goals, also have negative, unintended consequences. For example, some people do benefit from raising the minimum wage, but large numbers of people can’t get jobs at all because of it. And so we need to compare both the positive consequences, which were intended, and the negative, unintended consequences.
Role of Government
Milton Friedman identifies four main areas of government responsibility.
- Protection: We need a military to provide us with defense against our foreign enemies and a police force to protect us from criminals.
- Administration of justice: If you live in a society with other people, people will inevitably come into conflict with one another. One possible way of resolving any sort of conflict is by beating up the other person. Presumably, though, we don’t want to live in a society where every time there is a disagreement, we try and have a physical fight with the other person. So we want some neutral arbiter that is not connected with either side to say who was right and who was wrong. It’s the job of the government to provide courts for this service
- Public Goods and Negative Externalities: There are some things that the marketplace simply cannot provide satisfactorily, and the government has a role in providing them.Public goods have two characteristics. One, you can’t exclude people from benefiting from them. And two, they are “nonrival”, meaning the fact that I consume more of it does not mean that you have less of the product.
The classic example of a public good is defense. Suppose that I didn’t want to pay my taxes towards defense. The problem is a) that the American military are going to defend me whether I want it to or not. I can’t be excluded from American defense. And b) it’s nonrival. The protection of me doesn’t mean any less protection for anyone else. This would not work in a voluntary system because people would simply not contribute to public goods, preferring to free-ride.
Negative externalities occur when interactions between people have consequences for third parties. The classic case of that is pollution, where my production of a good produces pollution, which then affects the people who live in my neighborhood. The Chicago School says that we need some way of controlling these negative externalities.
More controversially, Milton Friedman argued that the poor are a negative externality. We don’t want to live in a society where there are people begging and starving on the streets. Therefore, Friedman argues for some form of social safety net.
- Protecting the irresponsible: The classic case of where it is appropriate for government to care for those who cannot look after themselves is children. Normally we can allow parents to make these decisions, but we still have to keep an eye. Not all adults treat children properly.
The Chicago School approach to the role of government is often called the Social Market Approach. Friedman believes that while governments do have some responsibilities, they should use market mechanisms as much as possible to achieve these ends. So, for example, it is a responsibility of government to make sure every child is educated, but that does not mean that government has to provide the schools. Government could give vouchers or support private schooling. While government has a social responsibility, it doesn’t necessarily have to directly provide in order to meet that social responsibility.
The Public Choice School
The approach of the School of Public Choice to the question of how we decide the role of government is to look for a “social contract”. Supposing you’ve got rational individuals together and they had to decide what they would do, how would they set up a form of government? What would they universally agree upon?
Public Choice scholars start with the question of what would happen if we had no state at all. They believe it would look something like English philosopher Thomas Hobbes’s “state of nature”. Hobbes said that life without a government is “nasty, brutish, and short.” Without a government, humans could basically do three things: produce things, steal other people’s things, or spend time protecting their things.
Because life in the state of nature wouldn’t be very pleasant, it would be in the self-interest of everyone to create a body that would protect the things that we produce. With a protective government body, we could spend a lot more energy producing things. We would be wealthier. We wouldn’t need to spend so many resources protecting ourselves. So it’s argued that rational individuals, thinking about what sort of government they would want, would create a government whose responsibility was to protect our life and property.
Why Limited Government?
In economics, we assume that people are motivated by their own self-interest, and Public Choice scholars say that people behave exactly the same way in the political realm as they do in the economic realm.
What their self-interest drives them to do, however, may not be the same. In economics, we tend to look for income and wealth to identify people’s self-interest. In politics, your self-interest is getting elected and reelected to public office. Politicians do that by promising goodies to particular groups. Vote for me, and I will protect your Social Security! Vote for me, and I will reduce your student loans! Vote for me, and I will support your farms! So it’s in the vested self-interest of politicians to promise goodies to particular groups within society.
Government bureaucrats are also self-interested. It’s in the interest of bureaucrats to have a bigger government. The more government there is, the more income they probably have and the more power they have. The bigger their offices are.
Interest groups are self-interested as well. They look to manipulate government to work to their benefit. To use an economic term, they are rent-seekers. They try to get the rules written in such a way that makes it more difficult, for example, for a competitor to enter into the market and compete with them.
So the problem for the Public Choice School is that most political actors have a vested interest in growing government well beyond what people agree on in the social contract. That’s why they think government needs to be limited—to prevent it from going well beyond what the proper role of government should be.
Role of Government
So what should the role of government be in that context? It’s often described as the public goods state. The public goods state has two responsibilities.
- Protection: It should protect individual rights, especially our property.
- Production: It needs to provide public goods and deal with externalities
It is not the responsibility of the state—public choice argues—to have any form of welfare state; that goes well beyond the social contract.
So why does government tend to grow far beyond that which people would reasonably agree to under the social contract? For example, why does the federal government in the United States do so much more than the limited and enumerated powers established in the U.S. Constitution? The public choice school explains this with the concept of concentrated benefits and dispersed cost. That is, the benefits of a government program concentrate in the hands of a relatively small number of people while the costs of those programs are spread out among a larger group of people.
Let’s take agricultural policy for example. Only about 3 percent of the population in the United States is engaged in agriculture. 97 percent are not. But when it comes to deciding agricultural policy, these 3 percent, they really, really care about it. It would determine who they vote for. It would determine who they campaign for. It would determine who they will give money for.
The 3 percent would throw cow manure over politicians who don’t support agricultural subsidies and tariffs that make it difficult to import food from outside the United States. The 97 percent of us all lose by this. We lose because we pay higher taxes to subsidize this. We lose because the tariffs mean that we pay more for the food we buy in the supermarkets.
You would think that, in a democracy, a policy that is in the interest of 3 percent and against the interest of 97 percent would fail. But every attempt to do away with these agriculture supports has failed. And that’s because those who really care about it really care about it. They’re active on the issue.
The rest of us, the population who loses by it, don’t even think about agricultural policy. But even if we did think about it, the losses for each one of us amount to only a couple of dollars a week. We’re not going to get politically active on that issue. So when it comes to debating agricultural policy, it’s the small 3 percent that determine what those policies should be. According to public choice, this is true of most government laws and programs. It is driven by the small number of people, by the concentrated beneficiaries of that policy, and not at all by those who pay the costs—consumers and tax payers.
The Austrian School
The Austrian School of economics actually approaches limited government with two different methodologies, propounded by the two leading Austrian School figures—Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek.
When arguing for limited government, Friedrich Hayek tends to emphasize the limits of knowledge and reason. He’s much more willing to give deference to tradition, to how social and legal rules have evolved over a period of time. So, for example, he’s much more interested in the concept of a spontaneous order, how we come to work together without any central planner that tells us how we should behave. He’s interested in the common law, how traditional law has developed over the ages.
Hayek is cautious about self-evident proofs that, for example, the Founders of the United States Constitution examined. He thinks that much of the order that we do see in society was the result of human action, but not of human design. Take the English language, for example: no group or institution decided this is what the English language was meant to be; it’s something that has naturally evolved over time. But we recognize what the rules of the language are, and we can live with those sorts of rules.
Ludwig von Mises had a totally different approach. He adopts what’s called a priori deductive reasoning. He believes that we can identify certain truths about human behavior, what he calls axioms, and that we can discover these axioms through our experience and through the use of reason:
- Human action is purposeful. That is, humans seek to achieve certain goals. Actions are neither random nor predetermined. We can identify what people’s goals are and what it is they’re trying to achieve through their actions.
- Individuals are the only actors. The technical term for this is “methodological individualism”. In so much political debate, we tend to say, “France does this” or “London does that.” Of course, it’s not all the French people acting, but a small number of ministers at the top of the French government deciding to act. Actions are only conducted by individuals; they’re not conducted by broad groups.
- Value is in the eye of the beholder. This is the so-called “subjective theory of value”. That is, things do not have value in themselves, but only that to which people attribute to it. For example, I think rap is crap, but some people like rap. Some people think it’s a good thing. There’s no objective value to rap.
You often hear a criticism of economists that they know the price of everything and the value of nothing. But that assumes that we can know what the value is of something. But that is impossible. The value for the same thing can be different for different people.
Mises argues that simply using our reason, we can identify these axioms or these truths.
Why Limited Government?
Now, Mises and Hayek tend to agree about why government should be limited: because government policymakers lack the knowledge to:
- Understand what the goals are of regular people.
- Work out what the best means are for people to achieve these goals.
That’s why the Soviet Union collapsed. It wasn’t able to know what people wanted, and even if it did, it wouldn’t know how to achieve those wants. The Austrian School takes a consequentialist view—that the consequences of government action are often bad.
Role of Government
When it comes to the question about the role of the state though, Hayek and Mises again diverge. Hayek says the criteria for deciding what government should do is what he calls the “rule of law”, by which he means that there are certain general principles that we should apply to any government action or any piece of legislation. In the United States, for example, the Supreme Court will often look at the law passed by Congress and signed by the president and strike it down under the U.S. Constitution.
Hayek argues that every society should have general principles that we should apply to every government action and every citizen, without exception. But in America, it’s very common for the U.S. Congress to pass a law which applies to everyone but themselves.
A classic example is the Americans with Disabilities Act. The law says that all buildings need to adjust in a certain way to enable disabled access. During the debate on the bill, however, they realized it would cost the U.S. Congress hundreds of millions of dollars to adapt Capitol Hill to meet those standards. So they excluded themselves from that bill. That’s an example of inequality before the law.
Another example would be earmarks, where government offers money to a particular company in a particular way. Hayek argues that this should be considered illegitimate because it goes against the rule of law.
Hayek does believe that some form of limited welfare state can be justified by following the rule of law. Ludwig van Mises, however, concludes that there should only be a minimal state. That is, the job of government is solely and exclusively to guarantee the protection of life, health, liberty, and private property. There’s no role for the welfare state—only a minimal state.
America has a strong tradition of natural rights going back to the American founding. They were strongly influenced by the ideas of John Locke, who believed these natural rights came from God. And we saw that expressed in the Declaration of Independence.
Perhaps two of the most famous natural rights thinkers in the classical liberal tradition are Ayn Rand and Robert Nozick. Ayn Rand is famous for being a novelist, but she also wrote lots of philosophy. She is probably best known for her book Atlas Shrugged. Robert Nozick was a Harvard philosopher who wrote a famous book called Anarchy, State, and Utopia.
Rand is associated with what she called “objectivism”. She believed that there was an objective reality and an objective morality, that we can discover reality and morality by the use of reason. We know that it is in the nature of man to want to live, to want to survive. In order for people to live, in order for people to survive, they have to have certain natural rights. That is, natural rights exist for the goal or purpose of human beings. This is called a “teleological” explanation.
Robert Nozick also believed in natural rights. He believed that by pursuing rational self-interest, you would not violate the natural rights of others. He assumed that rights exist and examined the consequences of that assumption. In this view, natural rights takes a so-called “deontological” approach. Natural rights tell us the limits of what we should do. For example, “thou shall not kill” is a clear moral principle that tells us that we should protect the rights of people not to be killed.
Why Limited Government?
Rand and Nozick both agree that the problem with government is that it violates our natural rights. It is immoral to use force to obtain your goals. Capitalism, they argue, is the only moral economic system. It is based on voluntary exchange—not coercion.
Role of Government
According to both Rand and Nozick, the ideal government is a minimal state whose sole purpose is to protect our natural rights. Nozick specifies that there should be a minimal state against force, theft, and fraud. He also argues that the enforcement of contracts is justified. Anything beyond that role is illegitimate because it violates people’s rights.
He also talks about defending capitalist acts between consenting adults. As long as the people involved are agreeing voluntarily, they should be allowed to do whatever they want to do. The result of this is that the state should only be designed to protect us. So the state should provide a military to defend us. It should provide a police to defend us against criminals. It should provide a court to avoid conflict between people. And that is it. There’s no justification for any form of government beyond that, such as a welfare state.
So now we’re going to look at Murray Rothbard, David Friedman, and the anarcho-capitalists. Murray Rothbard is famous for his book For a New Liberty. David Friedman, Milton Friedman’s son, wrote a book called The Machinery of Freedom.
Murray Rothbard defended his anarchist position on the basis of natural rights. In that sense, he was similar to Rand and Nozick. But he was also strongly influenced by Mises and the Austrian School, and he developed what he called the “non-coercive axiom” or the “non-coercive truth”: that it is always wrong to use force except in self-defense. Rothbard argues that this is the principle we should use to establish what government should do.
David Friedman approaches anarchism from a different point of view: empirical analysis. He compares the relative efficiency of leaving things to the market with the relative efficiency of leaving it to the government.
And while Rothbard and Friedman used two very different methodologies—one based on natural rights and one based on consequences—they both believe there should be no state at all.
Why Limited Government?
The classic definition of a state comes from German sociologist Max Weber. A state is an institution which claims a monopoly of a legitimate use of force over a given territory. So within a society that a government covers, nobody but the government is allowed to use force.
Rothbard criticized this because he said that this means that governments violate our rights. They obtain what they want through coercive means. If we don’t do what the government wants, they will throw us in prison. So, for example, he says that taxation is theft. If somebody came along and took 25 percent or 40 percent of our income and said “if you don’t give it to me I’m going to put you in jail,” we would call that person a thief and a criminal. Rothbard asks why we behave any differently when it’s the state that demands 25 percent or 40 percent of our income.
David Friedman, taking his efficiency approach, says the state is inevitably inefficient—that the market is always going to be more efficient than government. Friedman argues that the market can even provide things that most people assume that only government can do—like defense or provision of roads—most efficiently.
So they conclude that the best society is one of anarchy, one without any government at all. According to Rothbard, government is illegitimate—it has no specific moral claim on us or our property. And according to Friedman, it’s inefficient—it cannot provide the goods and services that the market is able to provide at a lower cost.
Role of Government
Both Rothbard and Friedman argue that we tend to forget that there are often private solutions to public problems. For example, there are more people employed in the private security sector than employed by the police force. Most people are protected by private institutions not the police. We just tend to ignore that. We ignore the fact that many disputes between businesses don’t go to our state courts. In fact, many business disputes are settled in private arbitration courts because state courts are so slow; they’re so inefficient; they’re so unreliable. Many businesses will prefer to use private arbitration agencies to do this.
They also argue that even if you believe in the idea of a minimal state, if you create a minimal state it will never stay minimal. It will be unstable. And it will most likely grow and grow and grow. This is why they favor anarchism—no state whatsoever.
Conclusion: What’s Your View?
So what’s your view about what the role of government should be? What’s your criteria for deciding what you think government should do? What’s your methodology? What’s your philosophy?
Why do you think government should be limited? Do you think it should be limited because of the consequences of government action? Do you think it should be limited because government infringes on your natural rights?
And what do you think the role of government should be? Do you think there’s no role for government? Are you an anarchist? Do you believe the role of government should be minimal—that it should only provide the army, the police, and the courts but nothing else? Do you believe that there are certain public goods like defense, like dealing with externalities such as the environment? Do you believe that there’s a social-market economy, that there is a responsibility for dealing with the poorest within society? That we need some sort of basic welfare state such as making sure every child can go to school?
Or do you believe in non-classical liberal views about the role of the state? Is it the job of the state to promote a virtuous society, as some conservatives would argue? Do you think it’s the job of the state to create equality, as many people would argue on the left.
Are you a socialist? Do you believe that the government should either own or control all aspects of the economy? Or are you—I hope not—a totalitarian, a fascist, or a communist who believes that the government should control every aspect of life?
The question is—what’s your view about the role of government?
Comments Off on What is classical liberalism?
This piece was adapted from the transcript of the Learn Liberty video, “What is Classical Liberalism?“
If you ask most people what classical liberalism is, they’ll say that it’s essentially free-market economics: low taxes, laissez faire, and reducing the government intervention in the economy.
But that’s a rather impoverished and narrow idea of what classical liberalism is. It’s actually a comprehensive philosophy, a way of thinking about human society, human life, and the world. And as such, it has made major contributions in all of the different academic disciplines over the last 250 years or so.
I’m going to explain what those are.
The Key Insights of Classical Liberalism
The key, basic insights of classical liberalism were first developed in the late 18th and early 19th century, at which time they weren’t split up into separate disciplines. Was Adam Smith an economist or a philosopher? A sociologist or a psychologist? In some sense he was all of them. And that was true of the other scholars who were around at that time.
Today, of course, the different disciplines have all become very distinct and very different. In some ways, there’s a gain to this because it means you get more in-depth study and knowledge of a particular subject. On the other hand, there are also losses because it means the connections between the various disciplines are not so apparent or so obvious to most people. And that’s particularly true here, because it means the way in which key classical liberal insights play out in different disciplines are often not appreciated. So what are the key basic ideas then?
- That the goal of life in this world is happiness, human flourishing, and wellbeing. You may say, well, that’s a no brainer. But in fact, there have been many people historically who think that the goal of human life should be something else, like winning kudos for the next world, serving your ruler, seeking glory, or a whole range of other things.
- That personal choice and, hence, individual liberty are crucial in explaining both how society develops and in the achievement of individual happiness and flourishing.
- That commerce, wealth, and trade are good, while war and conflict are bad. Again, you may think that this is something obvious and trivial, but many people historically have not thought this. There has been a long-standing tradition which says that war brings out the finest qualities in human beings and that wealth is actually bad for you. And this is an idea we still have around today.
- Individualism: That people are distinct, separate, and self-governing.
- Spontaneous order: That much of the order and structure we see in society is not the product of conscious design, but something that just happens when you have the right kinds of institutions and rules in place.
- That things can and will get better for society over time. Again you may think this is obvious, but this kind of optimistic view of the world—the idea that improvement is both possible and desirable—is a relatively recent development.
- Reason, rather than tradition or authority, is the way to understand the world and make sense of it. In other words, if you want to really understand the nature of the world—how human society works—the way to do this is not to rely on a sacred text or simply believe what we are told by authorities, but through reason, empirical investigation, and study.
How Classical Liberalism Plays Out in the Major Academic Disciplines
In 2016, we had the 50th anniversary of an event, which for classical liberals is one of the most important events of the 20th century: the sailing of the first container ship from Elizabeth, New Jersey to North Carolina.
This single event reduced the cost of shipping goods around the world by a factor of 30. Suddenly, it cost 1/30 of what it had cost before to move goods around the planet. This created an enormous increase in world trade. It tied the world together much more closely than it had ever been. The result was a huge increase in human wellbeing, prosperity, and human interconnectedness around the world. That did far more to shape the world in which we live than any amount of legislation, politics, and action by government.
Classical liberalism takes a view of history that concentrates on the fortunes of liberty, the evolution of liberty, the way in which freedom has grown or diminished in particular times and places, the kinds of things that are necessary for it to exist, the kinds of things that are inimical to it, and those that tend to destroy it.
It’s also a view of history in which the truly important people are not the generals, the politicians, the kings, the popes, the rulers, or the people who exercise political power, but ordinary people, the people who live together through peaceful exchange and create the good things in life: the wealth, the physical goods that we require, the intellectual discussion, and the cultural products that make life more rich and fulfilling. Particularly important are the inventors and entrepreneurs.
This is also, therefore, a view of history which emphasizes change, both for good and for bad. It emphasizes, in other words, the way in which today’s world is something novel, something unprecedented, and, generally speaking, something much better than anything that has been before. One of the key liberal insights for history is that the modern world is the best world ever to have been born in. If you had been born in any previous time, for example, then you would have had a one in four chance of dying before your first birthday. It would be almost certain that you would experience the death of a close relative by age 20.
The range of opportunities open to you would also have been enormously constrained compared to those that even the lowest-ranked people in society now have open to them. In other words, we are incredibly lucky. And this is ultimately due to our society being, in important respects, freer than societies in previous times.
Economics was in many ways the first discipline to emerge in which those key classical liberal insights were applied. In some ways, it’s still the central one because of the importance of physical wellbeing, comforts, and wealth in human flourishing and in life. But economics is a much more wide-ranging discipline than is commonly realized. And this is particularly true when you apply the classical liberal principles of progress, individuality, and the importance of human flourishing and human happiness.
One of the projects of economics as a discipline is to discover how to organize the affairs of society so that each person has the maximum potential to realize his own goals and to maximize his own wellbeing. In other words, the principle of economics from the classical liberal point of view is to understand how societies can be organized such that if you take any person at random in that society, his chances of achieving his life goals are higher than they would otherwise be.
This is not the same thing as, for example, equality or any other kind of social good that many other people value. It’s all about people maximizing their own life plans, their own individual flourishing, and discovering based on the choices they make what will, in fact, maximize their own happiness. Now, this is undoubtedly an ethically uplifting goal. One of the key classical liberal insights in economics is that economics is, in fact, about activities, goals, and behaviors that are ethically virtuous.
The view of many opponents of classical liberalism is that economics is entirely about sordid money grubbing and base materialism. The rejoinder is to say: it is about money, it is about materialism, but this is good. For example, there’s the insight that a successful and functioning economy is one that has the maximum degree of free exchange between autonomous individuals. That means exchanges by which two people are both made better off than they were before. Surely that is something virtuous, something good. It’s not something that you should be regarding as morally disreputable.
When economics originally developed in the late 18th and 19th century, it was a reaction against the hostility to trade, commerce, and luxury. This way of thinking is still with us. We have people who think that we should have all kinds of taxes on behavior, products, and things that people consume, on the grounds that they are bad for us.
There is somebody out there, somebody amongst the elite, who knows what is better for you than you do yourself. And this kind of idea is a throwback to the ideas that were attacked by the early classical liberal economists. But when you apply the classical liberal way of thinking, you realize that the aim of policy should be to maximize the opportunities for any randomly chosen person. You’re certainly not going to support a policy which involves taking large amounts of resources from ordinary people and giving them to specially privileged groups, such as the incompetent managers of large automobile manufacturing companies, for example, or the people in the financial services sector who have made major screw-ups and go running to their friends in government to bail them out.
The last key classical liberal insight in economics is that, in many cases, we face the alternatives of individual choice and collective choice. Do you want to have the choices you make about how to dispose of your resources made by yourself, or do you want to have the choices made on your behalf through a collective political process and, ultimately, by a political class? This, I think, is the choice that has been before us in terms of economics for the last 200 years.
Classical liberalism provides us with a distinctive way of thinking about the human mind and personality. The key idea here is the idea of the autonomous and choosing person.
Classical liberalism promotes the idea that people are, in a fundamental sense, not controlled by other impersonal forces or structures. What they are, the kind of person that they are, is the product of the choices they have made, for good or bad. Your self, your person, is a kind of project in which you’re engaged throughout your life. You, in a very real sense, make yourself. Obviously, external things have an impact upon you, but it’s the way that you respond to those things, the choices you make, that really shape the kind of person you are, the kind of qualities of mind and character you have.
This is in contrast to a whole range of other ways of thinking about psychology, which emphasize the degree to which you are not a choosing creature, the degree to which your personality and mindset are the products of forces over which you have no control. So, for Freud, for example, there are a whole series of structures of the human mind which you really can’t control. In fact, you have to repress them because that’s the only way you can live in a human society, which means you are going to be miserable all the time. This is the idea that your psychology is essentially the product of social circumstances, that the kind of a person you are and the kind of mind that you have will be determined by your social background and physical environment.
Another way of thinking about psychology that is antithetical to classical liberalism is that psychology can be reduced to genetics. It comes down to the way our Paleolithic ancestors lived and the kind of genetic inheritance we have from them. And this explains a whole bunch of compulsive behaviors. Apparently this is why many people can’t stop eating lots of sugar, for example. It’s because they are driven to do so by some kind of genetic predetermination.
By contrast, classical liberal psychology focuses on self-definition, autonomy, and, therefore, personal responsibility. And we can hold people responsible for their actions, both good and bad.
The history of psychology has a rich classical liberal history. In the 20th century, Maslow and Rollo May contributed to the classical liberal tradition with their humanistic approach to the human psyche. There’s also a longstanding critique within classical liberal psychology of the coercive aspects of modern psychiatry. The work of Thomas Szasz, for example, attacks the way in which the concept of mental illness has been used to justify elaborate and severe restrictions on personal freedom.
Today, we tend to think of sociology as the quintessentially socialist or social democratic discipline. It’s thought of as being something inherently driven that way because of its interest in the collective society as a whole. Certainly it’s the case that there are few sociology professors and students who hold classical liberal views compared to some other disciplines. But, in fact, many of the major figures in the development of sociology were great classical liberal thinkers.
For example, Herbert Spencer, a very important figure in the development of sociology as a discipline, is also one of the great classical liberal thinkers. William Graham Sumner, the man who invented the concept of the folkway while he was a professor of sociology at Yale, was an ardent advocate of laissez faire and a great opponent of imperialism.
The classical liberal approach to sociology takes a view of human society that emphasizes human agency, how things happen in the world because of decisions made by individuals rather than by some kind of autonomous and rarified structure.
But perhaps the key insight from classical liberalism applicable to sociology is the principle of spontaneous order—how social processes, social developments, and social change arise not through design, purpose, or the use of power, but through a process that no one person really understands, intends, or designs.
This kind of insight enables us to understand a whole range of social phenomena that otherwise are extremely difficult to explain. In the United States, for example, from the early 1960s to the early 1990s, there is a long-run ineluctable increase in the per-capita rate of crime. Since the early ’90s, there has been a very steep decline, which is still continuing. Now, there are many people who claim that this is because of some shift in public policy or some actions taken by governments or police departments. People like Rudy Giuliani have tried to take credit for the declining crime. But when you look at it from a classical liberal viewpoint, you realize that this isn’t the case. The increase in crime before 1992 and the decline since then took place regardless of what the public policy was. The conclusion you need to come to is that you’re dealing with a spontaneous social process, something rather mysterious, in which public policy actually had a very small part to play.
The other big insight in classical liberal sociology is the constant tension in human society between power and voluntary social relations. This enables you to understand the whole range of human institutions and large-scale patterns of human social interaction as arising from the fluctuating balance between these two things. It also gives you great insights into the way in which institutions like the family, marriage, and childhood have developed.
There are many important figures in political theory who are generally seen as being a part of the genealogy or life story of classical liberalism. In the 17th century, you have John Locke. In the 18th, you have Adam Smith, Montesquieu, and Jeremy Bentham. In the 19th century, you have people like John Stuart Mill, and in the 20th century, Friedrich Hayek.
There are a few key classical liberal insights common to all these thinkers. The first is that the goal of politics is human wellbeing. The aim of political arrangements, the aim of forms of government, the aim of politics as a process, is to maximize human wellbeing and to minimize that which harms human wellbeing. It is to minimize conflict, violence, and strife as a means of settling differences or of achieving status or wealth.
The second crucial insight is the idea of individualism, that human society derives its drive and function from individual choice and individual agency. Now, when this is applied to government, the key liberal insight is that governments are essentially exercising only a delegated power. They are only exercising a power which has been handed over to them on a temporary basis by the individuals of whom society is composed. Rulers, presidents, and kings do not have any kind of power of their own, much less power derived from God or anything like that. They only have the power given to them by the people over whom they exercise the power. And of course, the corollary of that is that this can be withdrawn at any time.
Because of this, the third great insight is that the role of power in society needs to be very strictly limited and guarded. What classical liberal thinkers have always been aware of is the enormous dangers of political power to individuals and to societies.
The classic example of this is the insight of political scientist R. J. Rummel that in the course of the 20th century you were twice more likely to be killed by your own government then you were by somebody else’s government. When you add up all the people who died in wars and then you add up all the people who were murdered by their own government, there are more than twice as many in the second category. So if you were a Russian, for example, you were twice as likely to be killed by a Stalin as you were to be killed by Hitler and his agents. And that kind of principle shows just how dangerous political power is.
What I hoped you will have gathered from this is that no matter the intellectual discipline, the fundamental insights of classical liberalism, the way of thinking about human life, human society, and the world that they embody will lead you to approach that subject in a distinctive way, one that will explain what liberty is and why liberty matters.
Comments Off on A theory of justice, post-Trump edition
John Rawls famously argues that we should think about principles of justice from behind a “veil of ignorance.” How robust would you like the protection of religious freedom to be if you had no idea whether you turn out to be a Christian, Muslim, atheist, etc.? How would you like income to be distributed if you had no idea whether you’ll be rich or poor?
If there’s a chance that you’ll be part of an unpopular religious minority, you’ll want to make sure religious liberty is taken seriously. If there’s a chance you’ll be among society’s poorest, you’ll want the economic institutions that do the best job of alleviating poverty.
In a Rawlsian spirit, I suggest that when we theorize about the institutions we’d like for our society, we ask ourselves the following:
- How expansive would we like executive powers to be if they might be wielded by Donald Trump?
- What do we want the Department of the Interior to do knowing that it might be run by Sarah Palin?
- How powerful should the Department of Education be in light of the possibility it could be headed by Ben Carson?
(These questions aren’t pulled out of thin air.) If there’s a chance that the Department of Education will be run by someone who thinks the Big Bang is a “fairy tale,” you might want to scale back its power, just to be safe.
This is an old thought. Hayek says it goes back to Adam Smith. On Hayek’s view, Smith’s concern
was not so much with what man might occasionally achieve when he was at his best but that he should have as little opportunity as possible to do harm when he was at his worst. It would scarcely be too much to claim that the main merit of the individualism which he and his contemporaries advocated is that it is a system under which bad men can do least harm. It is a social system which does not depend for its functioning on our finding good men for running it, or on all men becoming better than they now are, but which makes use of men in all their given variety and complexity, sometimes good and sometimes bad, sometimes intelligent and more often stupid (“Individualism and Economic Order,” page 12).
Classical liberals like Smith and Hayek have a point. Now would be a good time for us to revisit it.