Category Archive: Philosophy
Comments Off on Rawls the Irrelevant
As editor of Cato Unbound, I don’t actively take sides. Here, though, I’m going to be a bit polemical. My thesis is simple: If you want to square libertarianism with social justice, John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice is probably not a book you should reach for.
As the term is usually used, the advocates of “social justice” are not Rawlseans. You will not win them by quoting Rawls. You will not win them by thinking like Rawls. They know what they want, and Rawls isn’t it. Rawls is for the milquetoasts of the academy; social justice is radical stuff. Whatever their origins, the two have diverged, and there’s no sense denying it.
(This leaves aside Rawls’ effect on libertarianism proper, which Todd Seavey has aptly described as “attaching a washing machine to a soufflé.” The only way to improve would be to specify, more elegantly than I’m doing right now, that the free market is the washing machine, a durable good that benefits everyone; and Rawls is the soufflé, a fragile, delectable confection, enjoyed for half a minute by a well-stuffed class of elites.)
Now we may certainly debate the merits of Rawls’ system (I say it’s flawed) but we should recognize that Rawls is tangential to the debate about libertarianism and social justice.1
Rawls’ distinctive move in political theory was to recommend a shift in strategy. Those who are most concerned with the poor should reject both egalitarianism and utilitarianism, he argued. In their place he urged a maximin strategy, in which inequality of wealth would be tolerated, and even welcomed, on the condition that relative disparities in wealth always worked to the absolute benefit of the poor.
I’d like to ask the libertarians who are keen on Rawls: Have you ever tried pointing out the absolute wealth of the American poor? Have you ever mentioned this fact to a progressive? And did their hair not immediately catch fire?
For decades, the U.S. Census Bureau has reported that over 30 million Americans were living in “poverty,” but the bureau’s definition of poverty differs widely from that held by most Americans. In fact, other government surveys show that most of the persons whom the government defines as “in poverty” are not poor in any ordinary sense of the term. The overwhelming majority of the poor have air conditioning, cable TV, and a host of other modern amenities. They are well housed, have an adequate and reasonably steady supply of food, and have met their other basic needs, including medical care. Some poor Americans do experience significant hardships, including temporary food shortages or inadequate housing, but these individuals are a minority within the overall poverty population. Poverty remains an issue of serious social concern, but accurate information about that problem is essential in crafting wise public policy. Exaggeration and misinformation about poverty obscure the nature, extent, and causes of real material deprivation, thereby hampering the development of well-targeted, effective programs to reduce the problem.
To a rounding error, this is what Rawls would demand. Note that the absolute wealth of our poor is virtually unprecedented in all of human history. It’s an accomplishment shared only by those countries that have adopted a significant measure of free market economics, or, at best, by a few others who piggybacked on the free market’s creative success while adding almost nothing of value themselves.
The overwhelming majority of the poor in the United States enjoy technological wonders that didn’t even exist a few decades ago. Outside the free market/liberal democratic synthesis, essentially no other social system has ever delivered as much — because almost none of them can produce a steady stream of new technological innovations in the first place, let alone distribute them to the poor.
Forgetting, then, that most American poor really do eat cake. Also forgetting that the very notion of the poor eating cake was unthinkably absurd for all of human history. That’s why it became a catchphrase — because it was absurd. And yet our poor eat cake while talking on a video phone and watching their choice of movies on a flat-screen TV.
This really ought to count for something, but somehow it never does. And if giving the poor a lifestyle that would have been the merest science fiction in the 1960s doesn’t count for anything — then what on earth would?
In one sense, the poor are entitled to as much as possible. And I mean that sincerely. Were I able, I would give every American a salary of $200,000 a year — in real terms, not inflationary funny-money. I would put everyone in today’s much-hated one percent. And why stop there? Let’s have free clothes from Prada. Free meals from Le Bernardin. And biological immortality. And a fully functional U.S.S. Enterprise. Because hey, why not?
Where we could find all that wealth, God only knows. But the problems are technological, not philosophical. Nothing in justice forbids everyone from growing arbitrarily wealthy, provided they come by it peaceably and honestly.
But what is social justice, then? It’s the kind of justice demanded by socialism. We might want to say that market institutions can provide it. We might want to say a lot of things about markets. We think markets are good; naturally, we want to promote them. But we should not lose sight of what markets actually are. Or of who our real audience is. This stuff isn’t going to convince socialists, and we’re kidding ourselves if we think that it will.
The type of justice demanded by socialism is neither the type favored by libertarians — that of continuous, undirected, uncoerced economic activity — nor the type favored by Rawlseans — too complex to set off neatly with dashes. Social justice appears to mean (1) an ever-greater equality of outcome through forced wealth transfer and/or state-run economies; (2) a prediction — surely falsifiable — that forced transfers enhance the dignity and autonomy of the poor, (3) state-subsidized status enhancement for members of aggrieved groups, and (4) never mind about the absolute holdings of the poor, already.
That’s also why I will never be a socialist, and why I will always be skeptical of social justice.
The advocates of social justice do not like it that the poor have surprisingly large holdings in absolute terms. Point it out to them, and they grow resentful or condescending. (“Well… but… it’s not really very nice cake…”) All these consumer goods dull the sense of envy, and that sense needs to be sharpened if we’re going to force the equality of outcome.
But you never make more cake by slicing it up differently. When cake goes to the hungriest, you don’t encourage baking; you encourage whining about hunger. How do you make more cake? Even the baker can’t answer that question in any detail. It’s a product, so far as we can tell, only of the market process, of specialization and gains from trade, of local knowledge and market discipline.
That discipline now yields a productivity unheard of in all of human history. That’s something we and the Rawlseans both might learn from. But it’s not a thing beloved by the advocates of social justice.
1 On that tangent: I find Rawls incompatible with libertarianism in part because Rawlsean thinking is too quick to bless the status quo. It is, as I suggest above, too conservative for libertarianism, which ought to be a radical political movement. Libertarianism should always begin at or near the question, “Why is there some government rather than no government?” Libertarians may be anarchists or minarchists, but they should never take government as either a matter of course or as one of indifference.
This piece was originally published at Libertarianism.org. It is one side of a debate between Jason Kuznicki and Brian Kogelmann. You can read Kogelmann’s piece here.
Comments Off on A (Revised) Theory of Justice
I’ll admit it: I’m a Rawls guy. I consider Rawls’s A Theory of Justice to be one of the most compelling pieces of political philosophy ever written, grounded in one of the most convincing justificatory arguments ever crafted. But I’m also a libertarian. This presents something of a problem: although Rawls is part of the liberal tradition, he is arguably the pinnacle of the “high” liberal tradition, which is a far cry from the “classical” side I’m more comfortable with. Indeed, Rawls maintained that out of five possible political orders—laissez-faire capitalism, welfare-state capitalism, state socialism, liberal (market) socialism, and property-owning democracy—only two such orders would be justified by the argument he sets forth: market socialism and property-owning democracy. (John Rawls, Justice as Fairness: A Restatement, 136-138.) Given my commitment to Rawlsian political philosophy and my staunch libertarian leanings, a pressing question arises: what gives?
Before explaining away the apparent contradiction I need to give a brief summary of Rawls’s overall argument from A Theory of Justice. Rawls saw himself as continuing the social contract tradition found in Locke, Rousseau, and Kant, though with a higher level of sophistication and abstraction than his historical predecessors possessed. In doing so he saw the social contract as a hypothetical contract: the principles of justice are the principles we would agree to if faced with an original bargaining position subject to certain constraints. The major constraint of the original position is that we consider potential political orders while behind a veil of ignorance: that is, we can’t know our particular position in society—whether we’re rich or poor, black or white, insanely talented or disappointingly average, hardworking or in a perennial state of torpor, religious or an atheist. In doing so we get rid of features Rawls considers to be morally arbitrary while also removing personal bias: after all, there is something suspect about billionaires arguing that capital gains taxes are unjust, as there is when the impecunious argue for radical egalitarianism.
The resulting principles of justice agreed to in the original position are as follows: First, each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberties compatible with a similar scheme of liberties for others. Rawls says those basic liberties are the right to vote and hold office, liberty of conscience and freedom of thought, freedom of speech and assembly, as well as the right to hold personal (not productive) property. (A Theory of Justice, 53.) Second (and this is an incomplete summary), social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are to the greatest expected benefit of the least advantaged. (Ibid., 72.) This principle requires that we think about economic inequalities by first imagining a perfect state of equality. Deviation from this perfect state of equality is justified only if the least advantaged in this new state of inequality are better off than they would be in the original state of perfect equality. As a final note, we need to recognize one more salient feature of the two principles of justice: namely, that they are in lexical order. By this Rawls means to say that “infringement of the basic equal liberties protected by the first principle cannot be justified, or compensated for, by greater social and economic advantages.” (Ibid., 54.) In other words, we can’t go about messing with people’s basic liberties in order to make those worst off in society better off, as required by the second principle. The basic liberties are fixed.
Given these two principles of justice, how can we go about marrying Rawlsian political philosophy with libertarianism? There are two ways, both of which I endorse, both of which, to be fair, face problems of their own. First, we can take a route similar to John Tomasi’s in his excellent new book Free Market Fairness, though I do diverge with him in significant ways. This approach argues that Rawls’s list of basic liberties enumerated in the first principle is lacking. What should also be included is “thick economic liberties,” which includes (by my estimation) the freedom of contract, the right to own private productive property, as well as the right to keep most of the fruits of one’s labor. If these liberties were included then—given the lexical ordering of the principles of justice—it would follow that the pursuit of the satisfaction of the second principle through setting up redistributive institutions would be greatly handicapped, for we cannot do anything that violates our now-present economic rights. Thus, in shifting the content of the first principle we protect economic liberties while limiting the significance and scope of redistribution.
This approach is not without problems, though. One key feature of Rawls’s understanding of the basic liberties (particularly the political ones) is that it is not sufficient that we simply have them; we also must be able to realize their “fair value.” By this, Rawls means that we must be able to meaningfully exercise these rights. As an example, it is true that I have the right to run for political office. But given that I am a poor graduate student, and given that running for office costs a great deal of money, it is probably true that I cannot exercise this right in a meaningful way—that is, the fair value of my right is not realized. One of the reasons, cites Rawls, that the fair value of rights is often not realized is due to wealth inequality: “While it may appear … that citizens’ basic rights and liberties are effectively equal … social and economic inequalities in background institutions are ordinarily so large that those with great wealth and position usually control political life and enact legislation and social policies that advance their interests.” (Justice as Fairness: A Restatement, 148. ) And he’s probably right about this: massive wealth inequalities allow some individuals to exercise their rights more effectively than others. As such, there is a tension between wealth inequality and the realization of the fair value of the basic liberties enumerated in the first principle of justice.
The problem here is that if we are to achieve fair value for everyone’s basic liberties then we will probably need to do something about massive wealth inequalities—but we can’t, because we have just included thick economic liberties as basic liberties, which would mean that we would have to violate our newfound thick economic liberties in order to reach a state of distribution that allows for the fair value of our other basic liberties to be realized. This would mean, to put it in Orwellian terms, that some basic liberties are more equal than others. And the problems don’t stop there. Can a poor person realize the fair value of their right to own private productive property (if we are to include thick economic liberties as those whose fair value must be realized)? Probably not—after all, it costs a lot to buy a factory. As such, does the inclusion of thick economic liberties coupled with the fair value criterion require us to redistribute so we can allow the fair value of our new thick economic liberties to be realized? If the answer is yes, then it seems like we would be in the peculiar position of having to violate our newfound thick economic liberties in order to, in a sense, realize them. These problems are not incorrigible, though. Two solutions come to mind: we can lexically order the basic liberties as we did the two principles of justice, or we can get rid of the fair value criterion, and only require that we protect basic liberties in a formal, less robust sense.
Here is the second way we can marry Rawls’s political philosophy with libertarianism: We can keep the basic structure of the two principles of justice the same, and simply make an economic argument. We can argue that the political order best satisfying the second principle of justice is a free market capitalistic order—that, as a matter of fact, the worst off will be best off if we let the market run its course. This would essentially result in libertarians echoing Milton Friedman’s pithy line that a rising tide raises all boats. As someone who lacks formal economic training, there is not much I can say about this type of argument. This, though, is actually one of the argument’s weaknesses: Given the incredible lack of agreement we see among professional economists, it is doubtful that we can ever be sure what economic system will indeed best satisfy the second principle of justice. Thus, there will always be indeterminacy as to whether this argument is correct or not due to its reliance on empirical facts—an indeterminacy that could (presumably) be avoided with a knock-down philosophical argument, as the above approach requires.
In this essay I presented two ways one can reconcile Rawls’s political philosophy with libertarianism. As someone who broadly endorses the Rawslian approach to political philosophy I also endorse the two arguments presented in this paper. In the spirit of fairness I also tried to highlight the problems both these approaches encounter. I think this is an important thing to do. There is no perfect argument, as of yet, establishing libertarianism as the best, or most just, political order. By doing exercises like this—by presenting various arguments in support of libertarianism while also being open and honest about their weaknesses—we can hopefully make philosophical progress through constructive discussion, and, at times, through trial by fire. In the end, libertarianism as a whole will be better off.
This piece was originally published at Libertarianism.org. It is one side of a debate between Jason Kuznicki and Brian Kogelmann. You can read Kuznicki’s piece here.
Comments Off on Was Jeremy Bentham a Classical Liberal at heart?
Jeremy Bentham was born on Feb. 15th, 1748, in Spitalfields, England. One of the main early advocates of utilitarianism — the ethical view that, roughly, an act is right insofar as it promotes happiness, and wrong insofar as it does not — he is best known for his view that “it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong.”
This impersonal, aggregative approach to ethics might seem to be a far cry from the individualism of classical liberalism. The impression that Bentham’s work lies outside the classical liberal tradition might be reinforced by the knowledge that in one of his major works, “Anarchical Fallacies,” he trenchantly criticized the view that persons had natural rights. And in fact, Bentham produced as one of his students Robert Owen, one of the founders of utopian socialism.
But Bentham himself was very much an individualist, and, as such, belongs firmly in the classical liberal tradition. Bentham’s opposition to natural rights (which he termed “nonsense on stilts”) stemmed from his view that the basis of morality was the value of happiness. For Bentham, this could be measured (through the “hedonic calculus”) with different types of happiness being ranked according to such factors as their duration and intensity. (It is important to note that for Bentham the happiness of all creatures mattered morally, not just that of humans.)
Bentham’s approach to morality was thus nothing if not empirical, and so insofar as it is true that certain institutional structures are more conducive to widespread well-being than others (e.g., markets, secure private property rights, and the rule of law) these would be supported by him.
But we need not rely on such indirect evidence to usher Bentham into the ranks of great classical liberals. In an age when (male) homosexuality was not only morally condemned but criminalized in England, Bentham wrote against the persecution of gay men, although he kept his essay on the topic (“On Offenses Against Oneself”) private and unpublished. He also argued (in “Defense of Usury”) in favor of economic liberty, holding that no-one “of ripe years and of sound mind, acting freely, and with his eyes open, ought to be hindered … from making such bargain … as he thinks fit.” And, of course, he was one of the primary mentors of John Stuart Mill, the great classical liberal author of On Liberty.
Bentham died in 1832, in Westminster, leaving behind some 30 million words of work on philosophy, law, economics, and politics. He also left behind his preserved body, which is now on display at University College, London. According to an urban myth, he still attends faculty meetings, where he is recorded as being “present, but not voting.”
Comments Off on What if we are not racists after all?
An explosion of studies over the last couple of decades have claimed that almost everyone is subconsciously a racist, a sexist, or a bigot of some other sort.
These studies often rely on a new method of studying bias, called the Implicit Association Test. But now it seems this research method may not have been telling us what we thought after all.
Among the less controversial insights of Sigmund Freud retained by modern, scientific psychology is the assumption that many important human motivations lie in the subconscious: inaccessible, beneath our awareness, and — perhaps most importantly — unavailable to external observers (such as, say, psychological scientists).
One subject of particular interest is bias against racial groups, women, and religious minorities. Unfortunately, these topics are notoriously difficult to study. Most of us would be reluctant to state outright that we believe our race is morally superior to all others, or that we prefer the company of members of our own race over members of other races. But this doesn’t mean we don’t harbor those beliefs. In fact, we might not even be aware of our own biases in the first place.
This problem has bedeviled psychology for decades. How do you study what you cannot measure directly? Imagine if physicists had no instrument capable of measuring weight or energy, or if biologists were forced to labor without the aid of microscopes.
To a large extent, the state of a science is defined by the tools that aid its progress. Today, much of psychological research is performed with rather blunt instruments: structured interviews and paper-and-pencil questionnaires that can do little to help us understand attitudes that the subjects of the study are unable (or unwilling) to admit to themselves, let alone others.
The Implicit Association Test
The Implicit Association Test (IAT) was developed to overcome those limitations and tap into underlying biases that would otherwise be difficult to measure. The assumption behind the IAT is that if certain concepts have positive connotations — even on an unconscious level — then they will be easily associated with each other. In a typical IAT session (you can try it out for yourself), a participant will be seated in front of a computer and instructed to press keys in response to different pairs of stimuli on opposite sides of the screen, combined with an image in the middle.
In the classic test of racial bias, a participant might be instructed to press the “E” key to indicate when an African American face or word with a positive connotation (e.g., “happy”) was displayed in the center of the screen, and the “I” key whenever a white face or word with a negative connotation (e.g., “harmful”) was displayed. After completing one session with a set of pairings, the task would reverse: white faces would be paired with positive words, and black faces would be paired with negative words.
The key is that the stimuli being displayed are constantly bouncing back and forth, forcing the participant to decide which button to press each time; if a person harbors bias against African Americans, they will respond faster when photos of African Americans are paired with negative words, because they make those associations with relative ease.
Voila! A measure of heretofore inaccessible unconscious bias.
Many psychological scientists (particularly in my own sub-discipline, social psychology) embraced this method and applied it with gusto to the study of implicit bias toward racial minorities. Anti-black bias was a common target, and the idea that nearly all white individuals (and even some black individuals) reliably exhibit implicit, negative associations with black faces quickly became part of the social psychological canon.
My own undergraduate social psychology textbook, published just four years after the IAT was formally introduced, explained the test’s promise:
In clever experiments by Anthony Greenwald and his colleagues (1998, 2000), nine in ten White people took longer to identify pleasant words (such as peace and paradise) as “good” when associated with Black rather than White faces. The subjects, mind you, typically expressed little or no prejudice, only an unconscious, unintended response.
The IAT also garnered attention outside the field, due in no small part to careful marketing by the tool’s creators. You have almost certainly heard about the IAT, even if you don’t explicitly (pun intended) know it. Today, media accounts routinely sport confident headlines (“Implicit Bias Is Real. Don’t Be So Defensive”) and treat results from the test as establishing, without a doubt, that we are all harboring latent racist tendencies (e.g., “The science of your racist brain”).
The lesson many were taking from this body of findings was that most people (if not everyone) — no matter how progressive they might think they are — harbors some bias. At its most problematic, implicit bias has been said to explain everything from redlining to police shootings.
A Troubled Instrument
But as Tom Bartlett and Jesse Singal point out in their recent pieces on the IAT, there are numerous problems with the instrument itself. First and foremost, we must recognize that if it assesses anything at all, the IAT is a proxy (i.e., indirect) measure of bias, and a rather crude one at that. Let’s say it takes me longer to press a key in response to a positive word paired with a black face than a positive word paired with a white face.
Does this mean that I harbor anti-black bias? Possibly. Or, perhaps I just have more exposure to white faces than black faces? That’s possible, too. The literature is by no means definitive on which explanation best fits the data.
The IAT also appears to be a poor predictor of actual behavior (which is, after all, what we’re really concerned with if we are trying to explain phenomena such as hiring discrimination and police violence). A recent meta-analysis (a large scale “study of studies,” where the results from multiple papers are statistically analyzed together) indicated that the multiple versions of the IAT failed to provide results that were any better than simple, explicit questionnaires (i.e., sophisticated ways of asking, in a straightforward manner, “are you racist?”).
Finally, the IAT exhibits extraordinarily low reliability: you take it in the morning and you exhibit bias; take it in the afternoon and you don’t. We don’t normally expect separate administrations of a psychological test to be identical, but as Singal points out, even the most generous estimates in this area show the IAT to be woefully inadequate.
An Instrument of Bias
Of course, it is indeed possible — if not probable — that most people harbor some form of preference for their own racial, ethnic, or religious group (take your pick — the IAT has been used to measure a variety of bias types). But what the media, advocates, and many scholars have claimed is that the effect of such preferences can explain a whole host of social ills.
The reality is certainly more complex: in the United States. For example, income disparities by race exist due to a variety of factors, starting with explicit, state-sponsored oppression from legalized slavery through the Jim Crow era, and including emergent cultural norms that reified bigoted assumptions and further marginalized racial and ethnic minorities.
State-sponsored housing programs concentrated poverty in urban areas, and state-run school systems — free of any market influence — failed our most vulnerable populations. In short, our modern problems regarding race are sociological, educational, and economic in nature. To whatever extent psychological factors play a role in modern race relations, they do so within a much broader context. A focus on unconscious bias ignores that simple fact.
But what is perhaps most fascinating about the IAT is its meteoric rise, despite failing to meet the most basic criteria for a psychological measure. The introduction of psychometric instruments usually requires years of study, scrutiny and revision before they are broadly accepted by researchers. Had the IAT been a measure of a comparatively mundane construct (say, extraversion or anxiety), I doubt it would have gained widespread acceptance with such velocity.
Ironically, the popularity of the IAT may be due to bias — specifically, the desire of an entire field to explain the complex phenomenon of racial disparities and bigotry in a manner compatible with leftist ideology. And while the test’s designers state explicitly that they do not yet have a cure for the implicit bias that ails us, that is surely their implication.
Comments Off on Make Compromise Great Again: Arthur Schlesinger and the politics of the extreme
The 2016 presidential campaign highlighted the role of traditional and social media in pulling American political culture further out toward the edges of the political spectrum. The political center, once understood to be the common ground on which the messy but necessary compromises of democratic politics take place, has instead become a discredited dead zone, a place where only political and moral cowards are assumed to encamp, where a resolute “courage of your convictions” is believed to be absent.
This lamentable situation has sent me back to Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s acclaimed 1949 book, The Vital Center, in search of some perspective. Schlesinger, whom William F. Buckley Jr. once described as “the senior U.S. liberal,” is often regarded as persona non grata in libertarian and conservative circles: someone whose significant abilities as a historian were regularly overpowered by his blind partisanship.
Yet in this book Schlesinger makes crystalline observations that are fundamentally nonpartisan in nature. He argues for the importance of energy at the center of the spectrum of American politics — not the left, not the right.1
The Virtue of the Center
His analysis is cool-headed and, in fact, borders on Aristotelian in nature: he hearkens back to the Greek philosopher’s notion that virtue lies in the center of a spectrum of behavior at the extremes of which lie immoderate and destructive vices. In this way, Schlesinger makes the crucial nature of the political center abundantly clear: it is the peripheral positions in modern politics, on both right and left, that inevitably deteriorate into tyranny. In our enthusiasm for our own position, he explains, we forget that “the totalitarian left and the totalitarian right meet at last on the murky grounds of tyranny and terror.”
In the middle of the 18th century, French philosopher Montesquieu wrote about the necessity of what he described as a “balanced” government — some new alchemy that he couldn’t quite imagine but that would nevertheless combine the three classical forms of government (monarchy, aristocracy, democracy) into something new and much improved. He warned that when any of these is left to rule in their pure forms, it inevitably deteriorates into something profoundly negative, finally into tyranny.
Similarly, what Schlesinger explains in The Vital Center is that extremes of left and right on the political spectrum are as antithetical to freedom as are Montesquieu’s unadulterated forms.
The Rush to the Political Extremes
What he couldn’t have foreseen in 1949 were those forces that have made the rush to those extremes much more headlong. Social media and the current tone of the 24-hour news networks push people into self-sustaining echo chambers that simply reinforce, then magnify, assumptions and prejudices. Fewer and fewer citizens are able to credit those with whom they disagree with anything like sincerity, goodwill, or even rationality.
In part this rush to the political extremes is fueled by fear and paranoia. The specter of Soviet communism hung heavy over free societies in the early years of the Cold War when Schlesinger was writing, yet there’s no less anxiety today. “Our modern industrial economy, based on impersonality, interchangeability and speed,” he says, “has worn away the old protective securities without creating new ones.”
How much more true that is today. Both conservatism and progressivism “each in a sober mood has a great contribution to make to free society.… But neither is capable of saving free society.” That sober mood, sustainable in an atmosphere of centrism, becomes harder to maintain out on the fearful and frantic edges of the spectrum.
From the perspective of years, Schlesinger’s book turns out to be not so much a valid assertion of, as he puts it, “the relative superiority in practice of left-wing governments,” (one gets the feeling he just can’t help himself). Instead, it serves more as a foreshadowing of how the modern progressive spirit, now nourished by adopted attitudes such as political correctness and the intolerance for dissent, has in the past 30 years trended totalitarian much more than the Republicans, whom Schlesinger clearly and perhaps accurately feared were more prone to such character in the years immediately after WWII.
Schlesinger’s message is at least as important today as when he wrote the book. Far from being the place where conviction dies and morality perishes in endless sequences of compromises, the center ground is vital to the survival of democracy. He has given us a clear way of considering the balance and the dangers of its disappearance.
Pulling back the rabid extremes of both left and right must begin with a rehabilitation of the way we think of the political center — as honorable and even heroic rather than a place where principles and morals are inevitably and shamefully betrayed. If the United States is to remain a viable power on the international scene, it must be one whose center holds, particularly in the face of a wider world that often seems dedicated to nothing but eradicating heresies and enforcing consensus.
1Schlesinger is more measured in this analysis than he is in, say, his hagiographic three-volume hymn to the FDR administration, or his cloying obeisance to John Kennedy.
Comments Off on Immanuel Kant: Philosopher of Freedom
If you want to understand the moral basis of a free society, there might be no better place to start than the thought of Immanuel Kant. He is the most significant and widely discussed moral philosopher in history. And he was self-consciously an Enlightenment liberal who believed in limited government and maximum freedom.
Let’s take a look at the elements of his moral and political argument for freedom.
I. The Good Will and the Moral Law
In his first work of moral philosophy, The Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant tries to systematize our common moral intuitions in order to give us a method for deciding moral controversies — that is, issues where our consciences or intuitions might disagree with others’ or not speak clearly.
He notes that the only unconditionally good thing in the world, according to common understanding, is a good will. Good fortune, health, and even happiness broadly understood are not unconditionally good, because when married to a bad will they become a source of condemnation for an impartial spectator. We don’t applaud the evil man who achieves his goals and rides off into the sunset savoring his victory. We condemn him and hope his plans are frustrated. No, more important than being happy is to be worthy of happiness, that is, to have a good will.
On this point, the Objectivist founder Ayn Rand misinterpreted Kant. She believed he was what she called an “altruist,” who thought it was praiseworthy to sacrifice happiness. Kant believes, as most of us do, that happiness should not motivate us to the exclusion of duty. Obedience to the moral law — duty — is the most important thing, but happiness is also desirable.
Kant notes that an important assumption necessary for moral responsibility is the idea that we human beings give the moral law to our own wills. We say to ourselves, “This is the right thing to do, and so I will do it.” We don’t know how it is possible for us to freely determine our own wills, but it must be possible for us if we are to consider ourselves as morally responsible beings.
II. The Categorical Imperative
The moral law takes the form of an unconditional or categorical imperative. It says, for instance, “Do not murder, even if you can achieve your goals by doing so.” It’s not a hypothetical imperative like “if you don’t want to burn your hand, don’t touch the hot stove,” or “if you don’t want to go to jail, don’t murder.” It commands our wills regardless of what our particular goals are.
Kant thinks all particular moral commands can be summed up in a fundamental, categorical imperative. It takes three forms. I’ll mention two of them here.
One form of the categorical imperative focuses on the notion that human beings are special because of our capacity for moral responsibility. Kant assumes that this capacity gives each individual human being a dignity, not a price. What that means is that we must not trade off the legitimate rights and interests of any human being for anything else. We must not treat other people or ourselves as means only to some other end, but always as ends in ourselves.
The other, perhaps more frequently cited, form of the imperative is highly abstract: “Always act according to that maxim that you can will as a universal law of nature.” In other words, think about the principle or rule that justifies your action; then figure out whether it’s universalizable. If so, it is an acceptable principle or rule for you to follow; if not, it is not. “Steal when I can gain an advantage thereby” is not universalizable because it implies that others may steal from me, that is, take what I own against my will. But I cannot will against my own will.
III. Rights and Freedoms
Now, this understanding of the dignity of the individual human being implies that persons have rights, in other words, that we have an enforceable duty to respect the freedoms of all persons.
So we can’t trample on the freedoms of one person to help one or many others (contra the “act utilitarians”). For instance, it would be wrong to kill one healthy person to distribute her organs to several sick people, even if doing so was necessary to save two or more lives. Each person has a dignity that must not be trampled, no matter what.
[Pullquote text=”Each person has a dignity that must not be trampled, no matter what.”]
(Another misunderstanding of Kant says that he thinks your intentions are the only thing that matter and you can ignore the consequences of your actions. To the contrary, to ignore consequences is to act with ill intent. Consequentialists differ from Kant in believing that only aggregate consequences of actions need be taken into account. Kant’s political theory is individualist, while consequentialist theories are inevitably collectivist.)
In an essay titled “Theory and Practice” (short for a much longer title), Kant gives an overview of his political theory. Once a civil state has been established to secure our rights, he says,
No one can compel me to be happy in accordance with his conception of the welfare of others, for each may seek his happiness in whatever way he sees fit, so long as he does not infringe upon the freedom of others to pursue a similar end which can be reconciled with the freedom of everyone else within a general workable law — i.e. he must accord to others the same right as he enjoys himself.
Kant therefore endorses the law of equal freedom, that everyone should have maximum freedom to pursue happiness consistent with the like freedom of everyone else, or what some libertarians have called the “Non-Aggression Principle.” This principle applies under government, not just in the state of nature.
The equal freedom of each subject in a civil state, Kant says, “is, however, perfectly consistent with the utmost inequality of the mass in the degree of its possessions, whether these take the form of physical or mental superiority over others, or of fortuitous external property and of particular rights (of which there may be many) with respect to others.” Kant is no Rawlsian; he is a classical liberal who realizes that liberty upsets patterns and should be preserved in spite of (or because of) that.
In the same essay, Kant endorses Locke’s view of the social contract. A legitimate state with a right to rule can emerge only after unanimous consent to the initial contract. To do otherwise would be to violate the non-consenters’ rights. We now know that unanimous consent to the social contract has rarely occurred in human history, and so Kant’s strong theory of individual rights sets us up for a rejection of political authority.
IV. Kantian Liberalism
Kant’s moral philosophy justifies extremely strong individual rights against coercion. The only justification for coercion in his philosophy seems to be defense of self or others. His ideal government therefore seems to be extremely limited and to allow for the free play of citizens’ imaginations, enterprise, and experiments in living.
Kant does take some strange positions on particular moral positions. He has an odd view of marriage as a kind of mutual servitude, he denies that there is a right to resist an unjust sovereign, and he thinks lying is always wrong, no matter what. I find that Kant is most persuasive at his most abstract, when he deals with fundamental philosophical issues.
Whatever your opinion of his work, Immanuel Kant deserves to be widely read by classical liberals and libertarians. His contributions to liberalism are important and still underappreciated.
Comments Off on Crony-in-Chief: Donald Trump epitomizes Ayn Rand’s “Aristocracy of Pull.”
After Donald Trump announced a number of cabinet picks who happen to be fans of Ayn Rand, a flurry of articles appeared claiming that Trump intended to create an Objectivist cabal within his administration.
“Ayn Rand-acolyte Donald Trump stacks his cabinet with fellow Objectivists,” proclaimed one article. Would that it were so. The novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand, whose birthday is today, was a passionate champion of individual freedom and laissez-faire capitalism and a fierce opponent of authoritarianism. For her, government exists solely to protect our rights, not to meddle in the economy or to direct our private lives.
A president who truly understood Rand’s philosophy would not be cozying up to Putin, bullying companies to keep manufacturing plants in the United States, or promising “insurance for everybody” among many other things Trump has said and done.
And while it’s certainly welcome news that several of Trump’s cabinet picks admire Rand, it’s not surprising. Her novel Atlas Shrugged depicts a world in decline as it slowly strangles its most productive members. The novel celebrates the intelligent and creative individuals who produce wealth, many of whom are businessmen. So it makes sense that businessmen like Rex Tillerson and Andy Puzder would be among the novel’s millions of fans.
But a handful of fans in the administration hardly signals that Trump’s would be an “Ayn Rand” administration. The claims about Rand’s influence in the administration are vastly overblown.
Even so, there is at least one parallel we can draw between a Trump administration and Rand’s novels, although it’s not favorable to Trump. As a businessman and a politician, Trump epitomizes a phenomenon that Rand harshly criticized throughout her career, especially in Atlas Shrugged. Rand called it “pull peddling.” The popular term today is “cronyism.” But the phenomenon is the same: attempting to succeed, not through production and trade, but by trading influence and favors with politicians and bureaucrats.
Cronyism has been a big issue in recent years among many thinkers and politicians on the Right, who have criticized “big government” because it often favors some groups and individuals over others or “picks winners and losers.”
Commentators on the Left, too, often complain about influence peddling, money in politics, and special interests, all of which are offered as hallmarks of corruption in government. And by all indications, Trump was elected in part because he was somehow seen as a political “outsider” who will “drain the swamp.”
But as the vague phrase “drain the swamp” shows, there’s a lot more concern over cronyism, corruption, and related issues than there is clarity about what the problem actually is and how to solve it.
Ayn Rand has unique and clarifying views on the subject. With Trump in office, the problem she identified is going to get worse. Rand’s birthday is a good time to review her unique explanation of, and cure for, the problem.
The Problem: Unlimited Government
The first question we need to be clear about is: What, exactly, is the problem we’re trying to solve? “Drain the swamp,” “throw the bums out,” “clean up Washington,” “outsiders” vs. “insiders” — these are all platitudes that can mean almost anything to anyone.
Are lobbyists the problem? Trump and his advisers seem to think so. They’ve vowed to keep lobbyists out of the administration, and Trump has signed an order forbidding all members of his administration from lobbying for 5 years.
It’s not clear whether these plans will succeed, but why should we care? Lobbyists are individuals hired to represent others with business before government. We might lament the existence of this profession, but blaming lobbyists for lobbying is like blaming lawyers for lawsuits. Everyone seems to complain about them right up until the moment that they want one.
The same goes for complaints about the clients of lobbyists — the hated “special interests.” Presidents since at least Teddy Roosevelt have vowed to run them out of Washington yet, today, interest groups abound. Some lobby for higher taxes, some for lower taxes. Some lobby for more entitlements, some for fewer or for more fiscal responsibility in entitlement programs. Some lobby for business, some for labor, some for more regulations on both. Some lobby for freer trade, some for trade restrictions. The list goes on and on. Are they all bad?
The question we should ask is, Why do people organize into interest groups and lobby government in the first place?
The popular answer among free-market advocates is that government has too much to offer, which creates an incentive for people to tap their “cronies” in government to ensure that government offers it to them. Shrink government, the argument goes, and we will solve the problem.
Veronique de Rugy, senior fellow at the Mercatus Center, describes cronyism in these terms:
This is how cronyism works: A company wants a special privilege from the government in exchange for political support in future elections. If the company is wealthy enough or is backed by powerful-enough interest groups, the company will get its way and politicians will get another private-sector ally. The few cronies “win” at the expense of everyone else.
(Another term for this is “rent seeking,” and many other people define it roughly the same way.)
There’s a lot of truth to this view. Our bloated government has vast power over our lives and trillions of dollars worth of “favors” to dole out, and a seemingly endless stream of people and groups clamor to win those “favors.” As a lawyer who opposes campaign finance laws, I’ve often said that the problem is not that money controls politics, it’s that politics controls money — and property, and business, and much of our private lives as well.
Still, we need to be more precise. “Favors,” “benefits,” and “privileges” are too vague a way to describe what government has to offer. Among other things, these terms just raise another question: Which benefits, favors, or privileges should government offer? Indeed, many people have asked that question of cronyism’s critics. Here’s how the Los Angeles Times put it in an editorial responding to the effort by some Republicans to shut down the Export-Import Bank:
Governments regularly intervene in markets in the name of public safety, economic growth or consumer protection, drawing squawks of protest whenever one interest is advanced at the expense of others. But a policy that’s outrageous to one faction — for example, the government subsidies for wind, solar and battery power that have drawn fire on the right — may in fact be a welcome effort to achieve an important societal objective.
It’s a valid point. Without a way to tell what government should and should not do, whose interests it should or should not serve, complaints about cronyism look like little more than partisan politics. When government favors the groups or policies you like, that’s good government in action. When it doesn’t, that’s cronyism.
Government Force and Legal Plunder
In Rand’s view, there is a serious problem to criticize, but few free-market advocates are clear about exactly what it is. Simply put, the problem is the misuse of the power that government possesses, which is force. Government is the institution that possesses a legal monopoly on the use of force.
The question we need to grapple with is, how should it use that power?
Using terms like “favors,” “privileges,” and “benefits” to describe what government is doing when cronyism occurs is not just too vague, it’s far too benign. These terms obscure the fact that what people are competing for when they engage in cronyism is the “privilege” of legally using force to take what others have earned or to prevent them from contracting or associating with others. When groups lobby for entitlements — whether it’s more social security or Medicare or subsidies for businesses — they are essentially asking government to take that money by force from taxpayers who earned it and to give it to someone else. Call it what you want, but it ultimately amounts to stealing.
When individuals in a given profession lobby for occupational licensing laws, they are asking government to grant a select group of people a kind of monopoly status that prevents others who don’t meet their standards from competing with them — that is, from contracting with willing customers to do business.
These are just two examples of how government takes money and property or prevents individuals from voluntarily dealing with one another. There are many, many more. Both Democrats and Republicans favor these sorts of laws and willingly participate in a system in which trading on this power has become commonplace.
“Rent seeking” doesn’t capture what is really going on. Neither, really, does “cronyism.” They’re both too tame.
A far better term is the one used by nineteenth-century French economist Frederic Bastiat: “legal plunder.” Rand uses the term “political pull” to describe those who “succeed” by convincing friends in government to use the law to plunder others or to prevent them from competing.
And she uses the phrase “the Aristocracy of Pull,” which is the title of a whole chapter in Atlas Shrugged, to describe a society in which political pull, rather than production and trade, has become the rule. It’s a society that resembles feudalism, in which people compete to gain the favor of government officials in much the same way that people in feudal times competed for the favor of the king so they could use that power to rule over one another and plunder as they pleased.
The cause, for Rand, is not the size of government, but what we allow it to do. When we allow government to use the force it possesses to go beyond protecting our rights, we arm individuals to plunder one another and turn what would otherwise be limited instances of corruption or criminality into a systemic problem.
For example, when politicians promise to increase social security or to make education “free,” they are promising to take more of the incomes of taxpayers to pay for these welfare programs. When they promise to favor unions with more labor laws or to increase the minimum wage, they are promising to restrict businesses’ right to contract freely with willing workers. When they promise to “keep jobs in America,” they are promising to impose tariffs on companies that import foreign goods. The rule in such a system becomes: plunder or be plundered. What choice does anyone have but to organize themselves into pressure groups, hire lobbyists, and join the fray?
Rand memorably describes this process in the famous “money speech” in Atlas Shrugged:
But when a society establishes criminals-by-right and looters-by-law — men who use force to seize the wealth of disarmed victims — then money becomes its creators’ avenger. Such looters believe it safe to rob defenseless men, once they’ve passed a law to disarm them. But their loot becomes the magnet for other looters, who get it from them as they got it. Then the race goes, not to the ablest at production, but to those most ruthless at brutality. When force is the standard, the murderer wins over the pickpocket. And then that society vanishes, in a spread of ruins and slaughter.
Observe what kind of people thrive in such a society and who their victims are. There’s a big difference between the two, and Rand never failed to make a moral distinction between them.
Wealth Creators vs. Wealth Appropriators
In the early 1990s, Atlantic City resident Vera Coking found herself in the sights of a developer who wanted to turn the property on which she lived into a casino parking lot. The developer made what he thought was a good offer, but she refused. The developer became incensed, and instead of further trying to convince Coking to sell or finding other land, he did what a certain kind of businessman has increasingly been able to do in modern times. He pursued a political “solution.” He convinced a city redevelopment agency to use the power of eminent domain to force Coking to sell.
The developer was Donald Trump. His ensuing legal battle with Coking, which he lost, was the first of a number of controversies in recent decades over the use of eminent domain to take property from one private party and give it to another.
Most people can see that there’s a profound moral distinction between the Trumps and their cronies in government on the one hand and people like Vera Coking on the other. One side is using law to force the other to give up what is rightfully theirs. To be blunt, one side is stealing from the other.
But the victims of the use of eminent domain often lobby government officials to save their property just as vigorously as others do to take it. Should we refer to all of them as “special interests” and damn them for seeking government “favors”? The answer should be obvious.
But if that’s true, why do we fail to make that distinction when the two sides are businesses — as many do when they criticize “Wall Street,” or the financial industry as a whole, or when they complain about “crony capitalism” — as though capitalism as such is the problem? Not all businesses engage in pull-peddling, and many have no choice but to deal with government or to lobby in self-defense.
John Allison, the former CEO of BB&T bank (and a former board member of the Ayn Rand Institute, where I work), refused to finance transactions that involved the use of eminent domain after the Supreme Court issued its now-infamous decision in Kelo v. City of New London, which upheld the use of eminent domain to transfer property from one private party to another. Later, Allison lobbied against the TARP fund program after the financial crisis, only to be pressured by government regulators into accepting the funds. In an industry as heavily regulated as banking, there’s little a particular bank can do to avoid a situation like that.
Another example came to light in 2015, when a number of news articles ran stories on United Airlines’s so-called “Chairman’s Flight.” This was a flight from Newark to Columbia, South Carolina, that United continued to run long after it became clear it was a money-loser. Why do that? It turns out the chairman of the Port Authority, which controls access to all the ports in New York and New Jersey, had a vacation home near Columbia. During negotiations over airport fees, he made it clear that he wanted United to keep the flight, so United decided not to cancel it. Most of the news stories blamed United for influence-peddling. Only Holman Jenkins of the Wall Street Journal called it what it was: extortion by the Port Authority chairman.
The point is, there’s a profound moral difference between trying to use government to plunder others and engaging with it essentially in self-defense. It’s the same difference between a mobster running a protection racket and his victims. And there’s an equally profound moral difference between people who survive through production and trade, and those who survive by political pull.
Rand spells out this latter difference in an essay called “The Money Making Personality:”
The Money-Maker is the discoverer who translates his discovery into material goods. In an industrial society with a complex division of labor, it may be one man or a partnership of two: the scientist who discovers new knowledge and the entrepreneur — the businessman — who discovers how to use that knowledge, how to organize material resources and human labor into an enterprise producing marketable goods.
The Money-Appropriator is an entirely different type of man. He is essentially noncreative — and his basic goal is to acquire an unearned share of the wealth created by others. He seeks to get rich, not by conquering nature, but by manipulating men, not by intellectual effort, but by social maneuvering. He does not produce, he redistributes: he merely switches the wealth already in existence from the pockets of its owners to his own.
The Money-Appropriator may become a politician — or a businessman who “cuts corners” — or that destructive product of a “mixed economy”: the businessman who grows rich by means of government favors, such as special privileges, subsidies, franchises; that is, grows rich by means of legalized force.
In Atlas Shrugged, Rand shows these two types in action through characters like steel magnate Hank Rearden and railroad executive Dagny Taggart, two brilliant and productive business people who carry a crumbling world on their shoulders. On the opposite end of the spectrum are Orren Boyle, a competitor of Rearden’s, and Jim Taggart, Dagny’s brother and CEO of the railroad where she works. Both constantly scheme to win special franchises and government contracts from their friends in Washington and to heap regulations on productive businesses like Rearden’s. Rearden is forced to hire a lobbyist in Washington to try to keep the bureaucrats off of his back.
When we damn “special interests” or businesses in general for cronyism, we end up grouping the Reardens in with the Orren Boyles, which only excuses the behavior of the latter and damns the former. This attitude treats the thug and his victim as morally equivalent. Indeed, this attitude makes it seem like success in business is as much a function of whom you know in Washington as it is how intelligent or productive you are.
It is unfortunately true that many businesses use political pull, and many are a mixture of money-makers and money-appropriators. So it can seem like success is a matter of government connections. But it’s not true in a fundamental sense. The wealth that makes our modern world amazing — the iPhones, computers, cars, medical advances and much more — can only be created through intelligence, ingenuity, creativity and hard work.
Government does not create wealth. It can use the force it possesses to protect the property and freedom of those who create wealth and who deal with each other civilly, through trade and persuasion; or it can use that force to plunder the innocent and productive, which is not sustainable over the long run. What principle defines the distinction between these two types of government?
The Solution: A Government Limited by the Principle of Rights
As I noted earlier, the common view about cronyism is that it is a function of “big” government and that the solution is to “shrink” or “limit” government. But that just leads to the question: what’s the limiting principle?
True, a government that does less has less opportunity to plunder the innocent and productive, but a small government can be as unjust to individuals as a large one. And we ought to consider how we got to the point that government is so large. If we don’t limit government’s power in principle, pressure group warfare will inevitably cause it to grow, as individuals and groups, seeing government use the force of law to redistribute wealth and restrict competition, ask it to do the same for them.
The common response is that government should act for the “good of the public” rather than for the narrow interests of private parties. The Los Angeles Times editorial quoted above expresses this view. “What’s truly crony capitalism,” says the Times, “is when the government confuses private interests with public ones.”
Most people who criticize cronyism today from across the political spectrum hold the same view. The idea that government’s job is to serve “the public interest” has been embedded in political thought for well over a century.
Rand rejects the whole idea of the “public interest” as vague, at best, and destructive, at worst. As she says in an essay called “The Pull Peddlers”:
So long as a concept such as “the public interest” … is regarded as a valid principle to guide legislation — lobbies and pressure groups will necessarily continue to exist. Since there is no such entity as “the public,” since the public is merely a number of individuals, the idea that “the public interest” supersedes private interests and rights, can have but one meaning: that the interests and rights of some individuals takes precedence over the interests and rights of others.
If so, then all men and all private groups have to fight to the death for the privilege of being regarded as “the public.” The government’s policy has to swing like an erratic pendulum from group to group, hitting some and favoring others, at the whim of any given moment — and so grotesque a profession as lobbying (selling “influence”) becomes a full-time job. If parasitism, favoritism, corruption, and greed for the unearned did not exist, a mixed economy [a mixture of freedom and economic controls] would bring them into existence.
It’s tempting to blame politicians for pull-peddling, and certainly there are many who willingly participate and advocate laws that plunder others. But, as Rand argues, politicians as such are not to blame, as even the most honest of government officials could not follow a standard like “the public interest”:
The worst aspect of it is not that such a power can be used dishonestly, but that it cannot be used honestly. The wisest man in the world, with the purest integrity cannot find a criterion for the just, equitable, rational application of an unjust, inequitable, irrational principle. The best that an honest official can do is to accept no material bribe for his arbitrary decision; but this does not make his decision and its consequences more just or less calamitous.
To make the point more concrete, Which is in the public interest, the jobs and products produced by, say, logging and mining companies — or preserving the land they use for public parks? For that matter, why are public parks supposedly in “the public interest”? As Peter Schwartz points out in his book In Defense of Selfishness, more people attend private amusement parks like Disneyland each year than national parks. Should government subsidize Disney?
To pick another example, Why is raising the minimum wage in “the public interest” but not cheap goods or the rights of business owners and their employees to negotiate their wages freely? It seems easy to argue that a casino parking lot in Atlantic City is not “in the public interest,” but would most citizens of Atlantic City agree, especially when more casinos likely mean more jobs and economic growth in the city?
There are no rational answers to any of these questions, because “the public interest” is an inherently irrational standard to guide government action. The only approach when a standard like that governs is to put the question to the political process, which naturally leads people to pump millions into political campaigns and lobbying to ensure that their interests prevail.
Rand’s answer is to limit government strictly to protecting rights and nothing more. The principle of rights, for Rand, keeps government connected to the reason we need government in the first place: to protect our ability to live by protecting our freedom to think and produce, cooperate and trade with others, and pursue our own happiness. As Rand put it in Atlas Shrugged (through the words of protagonist John Galt):
Rights are conditions of existence required by man’s nature for his proper survival. 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. Any group, any gang, any nation that attempts to negate man’s rights, is wrong, which means: is evil, which means: is anti-life.
A government that uses the force it possesses to do anything more than protect rights necessarily ends up violating them. The reason is that force is only effective at stopping people from functioning or taking what they have produced or own. Force can therefore be used either to stop criminals or to act like them.
The principle, then, is that only those who initiate force against others — in short, those who act as criminals — violate rights and are subject to retaliation by government. So long as individuals respect each other’s rights by refraining from initiating force against one another — so long as they deal with each other on the basis of reason, persuasion, voluntary association, and trade — government should have no authority to interfere in their affairs.
When it violates this principle of rights, cronyism, corruption, pressure group warfare and mutual plunder are the results.
There’s much more to say about Rand’s view of rights and government. Readers can find more in essays such as “Man’s Rights,” “The Nature of Government,” and “What Is Capitalism?” and in Atlas Shrugged.
In 1962, Rand wrote the following in an essay called “The Cold Civil War”:
A man who is tied cannot run a race against men who are free: he must either demand that his bonds be removed or that the other contestants be tied as well. If men choose the second, the economic race slows down to a walk, then to a stagger, then to a crawl — and then they all collapse at the goal posts of a Very Old Frontier: the totalitarian state. No one is the winner but the government.
The phrase “Very Old Frontier” was a play on the Kennedy administration’s “New Frontier,” a program of economic subsidies, entitlements and other regulations that Rand saw as statist and which, like many other political programs and trends, she believed was leading America toward totalitarianism. Throughout Rand’s career, many people saw her warnings as overblown.
We have now inaugurated as 45th president of the United States a man who regularly threatens businesses with regulation and confiscatory taxation if they don’t follow his preferred policies or run their businesses as he sees fit. A recent headline in USA Today captured the reaction among many businesses: “Companies pile on job announcements to avoid Trump’s wrath.”
Are Rand’s warnings that our government increasingly resembles an authoritarian regime — one that issues dictates and commands to individuals and businesses, who then have to pay homage to the government like courtiers in a king’s court — really overblown? Read Atlas Shrugged and her other writings and decide for yourself.
Comments Off on Lunar prisoners fight for freedom in Robert A. Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress
In the year 2076, the inhabitants of a prison colony on the moon rebel and demand their freedom, sparking a war for independence against all of Earth.
This is the story of Robert Heinlein’s classic novel, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. My message to you today is simple: don’t miss this book. Not only is it a gripping story, it is also an intriguing examination of government, governance, and politics. There is a lot to be learned about liberty here.
The book explores anarchism deeply throughout. Because the “Loonies” (the moon is known as “Luna”) are convicts or the descendants of convicts, and because they cannot escape Luna without boarding one of the government’s ships, the official government — the Lunar Authority, set up by the rulers on Earth — does not do much at all.
But in such a hostile physical environment, order is essential, and the Loonies have worked out for themselves a functioning system of governance without government, of rules without legislation.
The details are intriguing. Their courts, for example, are ad hoc. There is a very memorable trial for a tourist from Earth who violated a Lunar sexual custom.
And the revolutionaries debate anarchism among themselves, as in the following exchange from early in the story:
“I’m a rational anarchist.”
“I don’t know that brand. Anarchist individualist, anarchist Communist, Christian anarchist, philosophical anarchist, syndicalist, libertarian — those I know. But what’s this? Randite?”
“I can get along with a Randite. A rational anarchist believes that concepts such as ‘state’ and ‘society’ and ‘government’ have no existence save as physically exemplified in the acts of self-responsible individuals. He believes that it is impossible to shift blame, share blame, distribute blame … as blame, guilt, responsibility are matters taking place inside human beings singly and nowhere else. But being rational, he knows that not all individuals hold his evaluations, so he tries to live perfectly in an imperfect world … aware that his effort will be less than perfect yet undismayed by self-knowledge of self-failure.”
“Hear, hear!” I said. “‘Less than perfect.’ What I’ve been aiming for all my life.”
“You’ve achieved it,” said Wyoh. “Professor, your words sound good but there is something slippery about them. Too much power in the hands of individuals — surely you would not want … well, H-missiles, for example — to be controlled by one irresponsible person?”
“My point is that one person is responsible. Always. If H-bombs exist, and they do, some man controls them. In terms of morals, there is no such thing as ‘state.’ Just men. Individuals. Each responsible for his own acts.”
“Anybody need a refill?” I asked.
Nothing uses up alcohol faster than political argument. I sent for another bottle.
The book is sprinkled delightfully with allusions to history, political philosophy, and even the Bible, particularly in the words of the leader of the revolutionaries, old Professor Bernardo de la Paz (the “rational anarchist” in the exchange above). Here are a few I noticed (how many have I missed?). I leave it to the reader (with the help of Google) to attempt to identify the particular originals alluded to:
“We shall fight them on the surface, we shall fight them in the tubes, we shall fight them in the corridors! If die we must, we shall die free!”
“Yes! Ja-da! Tell ’em, tell ’em!”
“And if we die, let history write: This was Luna’s finest hour! Give us liberty … or give us death!”
Some of that sounded familiar. But his words came out fresh and new. I joined in the roars.
[Winston Churchill (twice); Patrick Henry (once)]
“Comrade members, like fire and fusion, government is a dangerous servant and a fearful master. You are now have freedom — if you can keep it. But do remember that you can lose this freedom more quickly to yourselves than to any other tyrant.
[George Washington and Benjamin Franklin]
He took me up on that high mountain and offered me the kingdoms of Earth. Or of Luna. Take job of “Protector Pro Tem” with [the] understanding [it] was mine permanently if I could deliver. Convince Loonies they could not win. Convince them that this new setup was to their advantage — emphasize benefits, free schools, free hospitals, free this and that — details later but an everywhere government just like on Terra.
The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress was published in 1966, when the despots in and apologists for the Soviet Union were still claiming the productive superiority of Marxist “scientific” central planning, five year plans, conscript labor, indoctrination, and collectivization. Heinlein scorned it all.
This passage comes during the negotiations between the Federated Nations of Earth and Luna’s ambassadors, before war breaks out:
“Hearing” was one-sided; we listened while chairman talked. Talked an hour; I’ll summarize:
Our preposterous claims were rejected. Lunar Authority’s sacred trust could not be abandoned. Disorders on Earth’s Moon could not be tolerated. Moreover, recent disorders showed that Authority had been too lenient. Omission was now to be corrected by an activist program, a five-year plan in which all phases of life in Authority’s trusteeship would be overhauled. A code of laws was being drafted; civil and criminal courts would be instituted for benefit of “client-employees” — which meant all persons in trust area, not just consignees with uncompleted sentences. Public schools would be established, plus indoctrinal adult schools for client-employees in need of same.…
Was ready to burn his ears off. “Client-employees!” What a fancy way to say “slaves.”
In my favorite passage, which provoked a lot of thinking in me when I first read it some 30 years ago, Professor de la Paz advises the Constitutional Convention drafting a plan for Luna’s government.
“I note one proposal to make this Congress a two-house body. Excellent. The more impediments to legislation the better. But, instead of following tradition, I suggest one house of legislators, another whose single duty is to repeal laws.…
But in writing your constitution let me invite attention to the wonderful virtues of the negative! Accentuate the negative! Let your document be studded with things the government is forever forbidden to do. No conscript armies … no interference however slight with freedom of press, or speech, or travel, or assembly, or of religion, or of instruction, or communication, or occupation … no involuntary taxation. Comrades, if you were to spend five years in a study of history while thinking of more and more things that your government should promise never to do and then let your constitution be nothing but those negatives, I would not fear the outcome.
“What I fear most are affirmative actions of sober and well-intentioned men, granting government powers to do something that appears to need doing. Please remember always that the Lunar Authority was created for the noblest of purposes by just such sober and well-intentioned men, all popularly elected. And with that thought I leave you to your labors. Thank you.”
There is a lot more great stuff in this speech and throughout The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. Don’t miss it.
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.