Category Archive: Justice

  1. 3 Oscar films for the radical individualist

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    Films are stories, stories have heroes, and heroism is almost by definition a celebration of the individual. Great films codify and reflect our greatest values back to us. Even antiheroes are instructive about their personal goals and flaws.

    But this year’s Oscar nominations offer up a few films with especially strong individualist themes.

    For an in-depth look at the individualist philosophy, one could do worse than Eric Foner’s even-handed overview, “Radical Individualism in America.” But, tl;dr, individualism places an emphasis on the rights of the individual and the pursuit of his or her happiness, rather than the prerogatives of collectives or states, as the core to a just and liberal society.


    oscars. academy awards, silence,

    Martin Scorsese’s Silence, nominated for best cinematography, stars Andrew Garfield as a 17th-century Jesuit priest, Alessandro Valignano. He travels to Japan to rescue his mentor (Liam Neeson), a missionary. At that time, Christianity was illegal in imperial Japan, and anyone caught practicing the religion could be subjected to torture until they renounced their faith.

    Scorsese subjects us to multiple scenes of Japanese Christians put through torture to renounce their faith, with a mostly helpless Valignano doing his best to maintain the community’s morale. Ultimately, he is forced to watch five of his disciples brutally tortured until he personally renounces his own faith. He spends the rest of his days in Japan as an apostate priest, sadly sorting through foreign imports for any forbidden Christian iconography.

    The freedom to practice the religion of one’s choosing is essential to a free society. Leave aside for a moment the immorality of torturing people because of their faith. Even if it weren’t wrong, it is nearly impossible to force someone to change their core beliefs. The viewer assumes Valignano has been broken by the torture he endured, but the last image we see is his dead hand clutching a contraband cross.

    Silence is an excellent, if difficult-to-watch, exploration of an individual pitted against the most extreme hostility of a larger collective.

    Hacksaw Ridge

    oscars, academy awards, hacksaw ridge

    Ayn Rand would have been proud of Andrew Garfield’s acting choices in 2016, because he stars in this next film as well — in fact, this performance has earned Garfield a nomination for best actor. Hacksaw Ridge is based on the true story of Corporal Desmond Doss, who was the first conscientious objector to receive the Medal of Honor.

    Doss, a hardline pacifist, volunteers for military medical service at the outbreak of the Second World War. Although he undergoes, and excels at, the harsh training of boot camp, he refuses to touch weaponry or train on Saturday (the sabbath day for Seventh Day Adventists). His peers and superiors ostracize him, even going so far as to have him discharged for psychiatric reasons. He endures a savage beating, but refuses to identify his assailants.

    His refusal to handle weaponry as an enlisted soldier leads to his being arrested for insubordination. While in a jail cell, his fiancée begs him to plead guilty so he can be released, but Doss won’t compromise. He is ultimately vindicated and goes on to serve heroically as a medic in the Battle of Okinawa.

    Much like Silence, Hacksaw Ridge digs deep into the concept of religious freedom. But the religious part isn’t really the point so much as the freedom part. The liberty of the mind is a core individualist value. Thomas Paine once put it succinctly: “My own mind is my own church.” The liberal society is strong in large part because different people believe, and argue for, different ideas. Societal change is impossible without competing views butting heads.

    La La Land

    oscars, la la land, academy awards

    La La Land has a massive total of 14 Oscar nominations this year. The film is at once a throwback to the golden era of musicals and a reinvigoration of the genre.

    It’s wildly unlike the above films in tone. But it is also a fierce defense of individualism. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone) both have big dreams. Mia wants to be an actress, and Sebastian wants to open a jazz club, in part so that he can protect the heritage of a genre that he thinks is growing corrupted by the pervasiveness of pop music.

    Like a lot of individualists, they’re both incredibly headstrong. Sebastian loses gig work because he constantly goes off preapproved set lists in favor of jazz improv. Mia is all-in on pursuing a dream career, one that results in failure for just about everyone who tries. But being headstrong is only half the story: they acknowledge their stubbornness and accept the consequences.

    Rebellion against societal norms carries costs for these types. They full well know it, and rebel anyway. In an earlier era, before the word was ruined, we called this romanticism.

    The claim that La La Land is about radical individualism may seem like a stretch, but it’s encoded deep within the film. For instance, Sebastian and Mia go on a date that involves first watching, and then recreating a scene from one of the great films about individuals confronting societal pressures, Rebel Without a Cause.

    Sebastian and Mia clearly love each other, but they ultimately decide not to compromise on their dreams. This is neither right nor wrong, but it does come with consequences. They could either have each other, or have their respective dreams realized. Call it the “pursuit of happiness,” even though the film’s ending is wicked sad.

    Here’s to the Individualists

    There is something to be said for the risk-taker, the visionary, the rebel. Ayn Rand, in “The Soul of an Individualist,” phrased it memorably:

    The great creators — the thinkers, the artists, the scientists, the inventors — stood alone against the men of their time. Every great new thought was opposed. Every great new invention was denounced. But … they fought, they suffered, and they paid. But they won.

    This is perhaps even more true for the great heroes of film than it is for the great heroes of history, although “winning” is often more like getting a seat at Valhalla than actual victory.

    Great stories almost always emphasize the worth and moral dignity of the individual. This does not mean groups don’t matter, or that one should descend into solipsism. Individualism matters because you only get one life to live, and nobody is in a better place to make the most of it than you.

  2. What you should know about the Non-Aggression Principle

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    You’ve heard libertarians talking about it. You’ve seen the dank memes. But what exactly is the non-aggression principle? What does it do? And why does it get talked about so much?

    In this post, I’ll try to explain.

    There are many historical antecedents to the NAP, but libertarians usually trace its current formulation to Murray Rothbard, who put it as follows:

    The fundamental axiom of libertarian theory is that no one may threaten or commit violence (“aggress”) against another man’s person or property. Violence may be employed only against the man who commits such violence; that is, only defensively against the aggressive violence of another.

    In short, no violence may be employed against a nonaggressor. Here is the fundamental rule from which can be deduced the entire corpus of libertarian theory.

    The nonaggression principle is sometimes (and confusingly) called an axiom, a practice which Rothbard also began. If we use the standard meaning of the word “axiom,” the NAP is no such thing: an axiom is a statement that is self-evidently true or that cannot reasonably be denied. An example of a philosophical axiom might be something like “I am aware of phenomena” or “modus ponens is a valid form of reasoning.”

    The NAP requires more argument than these. Although it may be foundational to libertarian theory – and thus axiomatic in a weaker sense of the term — the NAP clearly does not prove itself; just as clearly, reasonable people can and do deny it. Crucially, the NAP depends on the existence of a definition of aggression; if this definition of aggression is to encompass assaults not committed directly on the body, then the NAP also depends on a valid theory of property ownership. Neither of these is self-evident. Both are contentious topics in political theory about which libertarians offer a specific set of answers, but not everyone will agree with us.

    Note that we can’t use the NAP to establish that property may be justly held. Nor can we use it to establish the validity of a particular pattern of property ownership among many — that would be circular: ownership rights cannot acquire the condition of justice simply by asserting that their violation would be unjust.

    And yet property claims must derive from something; they seem all but inescapable. Claims about property are found even among animals. The earliest known forms of writing are tallies that were apparently used to keep track of possessions. Contrary to what some on the left may say, no human society appears ever to have been entirely without property.

    Indeed, even a wholly communist society would run on the assertion that the whole of the people is the collective owner of all property. By no means does communism lack property claims: on the contrary, its claims in this area are almost impossibly rigid and ubiquitous. How well such a society could instantiate these claims (and what results may come of trying) are different questions entirely. What matters is that even communist societies make claims about property constantly.

    If property claims are an inevitable feature of human society, as seems likely, then we cannot escape the question of what status these claims will have, whether collectively or in particular. We must ask not so much whether property is justified, but rather what its extent should be, which objects should be subject to property claims, and which entities within society should be the rightful possessors of what goods, and for what reasons.

    John Locke’s theory of property, which has frequently been invoked by classical liberals, holds that property began as a grant of the entire world, from God, to all of humanity in common. Property became private, Locke held, because property existed from the beginning to satisfy human needs, and because private property was apt to satisfy those needs more effectively. Individuals improve private property, a step which they tend not to take with a commons, and thus private property is more apt to the purpose for which property exists in any form.

    For those not satisfied by the Lockean account — myself included — David Hume offered a justification for private property that rests on its effects upon human beings:

    Who sees not, for instance, that whatever is produced or improved by a man’s art or industry ought, for ever, to be secured to him, in order to give encouragement to such useful habits and accomplishments? That the property ought also to descend to children and relations, for the same useful purpose? That it may be alienated by consent, in order to beget that commerce and intercourse, which is so beneficial to human society? And that all contracts and promises ought carefully to be fulfilled, in order to secure mutual trust and confidence, by which the general interest of mankind is so much promoted?

    Examine the writers on the laws of nature; and you will always find, that, whatever principles they set out with, they are sure to terminate here at last, and to assign, as the ultimate reason for every rule which they establish, the convenience and necessities of mankind.

    Emphasis added. Societies in which property is privately held will cultivate useful habits and accomplishments in their members: property conduces to virtue. (Hume’s argument here is sometimes taken for a rejection of natural law altogether, but I do not agree. Although it relies on no supernatural justifications, observations about the nature of mankind may indeed form the basis for a type of natural law theory.)

    We might add to Hume the further observation that where property is held in common, individuals will often endeavor to live by the labor of others, using the common property as a means to their own ends. The efforts expended in pursuing this strategy, however, are not productive; they do not add to the stock of goods that humanity has at its disposal. In this sense, they represent wasted effort, and the waste is encouraged by the system of common property itself. Similarly, when property is not held in common, but when its tenure is doubtful or insecure, individuals will not exercise the industry needed to improve it for the long term, and this too impoverishes humanity in general.

    None of these considerations are likely to be terribly problematic to someone who has grown up in a society where private property predominates. We are used to the usefulness of property.

    But there is something about the NAP that is nonetheless politically important, because it serves as an indictment of much government action that is otherwise held to be morally acceptable. The NAP reminds us that theories of property in many of their most common and seemingly inoffensive formulations stand deeply at odds with the justifications for government action that are held by (perhaps) the vast majority of citizens in the modern world. That this vast majority simultaneously holds to something like a Lockean or a Humean conception of private property ought to trouble them enormously: such a conception may call into question the propriety of the state itself.

    As Rothbard put it, “The problem is not so much in arriving at [the NAP] as in fearlessly and consistently pursuing its numerous and often astounding implications.” This task has always been the work of the libertarian movement, and it has indeed brought us to some astounding implications, including the idea that taxation is tantamount to theft.

    Almost everyone has some theory of property, even if it’s a badly considered one. And almost everyone has a theory of what government ought to do. Pointing out that these theories are usually in conflict with one another is an important move, above all when government is apt to justify itself by arguing that it preserves property rights. Thus, the NAP’s importance is not that it founds a theory of property, but rather that it points out a conflict: considered as classes, theories of property and theories of government usually don’t get along too well. Actions that deprive individuals of property without their consent stand as exceptions to the rule of private property, a rule which most of us generally endorse. And yet “actions that deprive individuals of private property without their consent” are precisely what make governments function.

    Forcing people to confront this conflict in their intuitions isn’t trivial work by any means. Resolutions to the conflict may vary, but libertarians can almost be defined as those who refuse to grant special exemptions to the government when private property is at stake. It may be that particular government actions can be justified, but doing so will require a careful revision of our deeper ideas about private property. This sort of revision is almost never actually undertaken by the proponents of state action, and when it is undertaken, it is seldom to the satisfaction of libertarians. Even without fully adopting the libertarian program, others may do well to consider more carefully these conflicting intuitions.

  3. Rawls the Irrelevant

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    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?

    A Rawlsean ought to love this report from the Heritage Foundation:

    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.

    It takes remarkable upper-lip musculature to sneer in such circumstances. But some do manage. “Let Them Eat Cake,” says one progressive commentator about the report — hardly an outlier.

    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 It is one side of a debate between Jason Kuznicki and Brian Kogelmann. You can read Kogelmann’s piece here.

  4. A (Revised) Theory of Justice

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    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 It is one side of a debate between Jason Kuznicki and Brian Kogelmann. You can read Kuznicki’s piece here.

  5. The many faces of means-testing

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    Isn’t a Universal Basic Income just another name for a negative income tax, such as Tax = -$10,000 + .3*Income?  If so, isn’t a Universal Basic Income means-tested by definition?

    The answer to the first question is Yes.  UBI is just Milton Friedman’s negative income tax in new packaging.

    The answer to the second question, however, is more equivocal.  The UBI is means-tested in the weak sense that your net payment falls with income.  But the UBI dispenses with many other traditional forms of means-testing.  Most notably:

    1. Means-testing by age.  Most welfare states prioritize children and the elderly.  The implicit theory is that, unlike prime-age adults, the very young and the very old are unable to provide for themselves.
    2. Means-testing by dependents and marital status.  Most welfare states prioritize single moms with minor children.  The implicit theory is that single moms have reduced opportunities to work due to their family responsibilities.
    3. Means-testing by health.  Most welfare states prioritize the disabled.  The implicit theory is that they’re not healthy enough to work.
    4. Means-testing by job history.  Most welfare states prioritize people who recently lost their jobs over people who have never worked, or lost their jobs a long time ago.  The implicit theory is that the short-term unemployed are unlucky, while the long-term unemployed are lazy.

    If your UBI proposal includes factors like these in its formula, it’s very hard to see what makes it a UBI.

    If your UBI proposal dispenses with most or all these factors, then it is a distinctive reform indeed.  But “distinctive” is a far cry from “good.”

    Advocates correctly note that dropping multi-faceted means-testing reduces moral hazard: If your monthly payment doesn’t depend on your health, you have no reason to fake bad health.

    But there is also an gargantuan disadvantage: Dropping multi-faceted means-testing greatly increases the number of eligible recipients.  If perfectly able-bodied, childless adults are eligible for free money, plenty will take it – and many won’t work at all.  Taxes on remaining workers have to rise to pay for them.  This probably won’t create a “UBI death spiral,” but a milder sloth spiral definitely kicks in, especially over the longer run as stigma against idleness erodes.  And the burden of supporting able-bodied non-workers is also very likely to cut into funding for the more deserving poor.

    Frankly, given the bleak long-run fiscal forecast for the U.S., I’m baffled that anyone with libertarian sympathies takes the UBI seriously.  The welfare state is already unsustainable, largely because our means-testing by age and health isn’t stringent enough.  The elderly may have trouble working now, but since they had a lifetime to save for their own retirements, few of the indigent elderly are victims of circumstance.  And given the huge long-run rise in the share of U.S. adults on disability despite rising health and less strenuous jobs, its clearly far too easy to plead disability.

    What’s especially strange is that the bleak long-run fiscal forecast makes old-school libertarian austerity more relevant than ever.  Why are so many libertarians running away from our core ideas when conditions are nearly ripe for mainstream America to finally listen to us?

    This piece was originally published at Econlog.

  6. Weird election rules: The baseball hall of fame

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    Hillary Clinton won the popular vote. But Donald Trump won the Electoral College. What would happen if we got rid of the Electoral College? Or if we switched to proportional representation?

    It’s hard to predict with certainty how our political elections would look under different rules because the process of determining a president has been effectively unchanged over the last two centuries. Yes, there is considerable benefit to rule consistency. But in an empirical sense, it would be enlightening to have seen America’s voting rules change over time and the impacts of those changes on the process of selecting the president.

    But in a broader sense, any variation in election rules — for president, for student body treasurer, or for anything else — allows us to examine the rules’ impact on voting outcomes.

    Fortunately for us, there was another election result announced recently that has witnessed some changes in its voting procedure over the years — the annual voting for the Baseball Hall of Fame.

    While there’s certainly less at stake with Hall of Fame voting — coercion included — the process can still give us some insight.

    Voting for 10

    Hall of Fame voting is different from political elections in several ways. First, Hall of Fame voting is not a winner-take-all election. Candidates gain entrance into the Baseball Hall of Fame simply by meeting the criteria of being named on 75% of the ballots cast. And, because each voter can put up to 10 players on their ballot, oftentimes several players get inducted in the same voting cycle. This year, three players were inducted by the vote.

    More interestingly, players can appear on the ballot numerous times. In essence, voters are considering the same electoral question over several consecutive voting cycles. If we assume voters to be rational, then a voter’s decision on any particular player should not change across ballots and across years. Interestingly, this doesn’t appear to be the case.

    The voting history of retired players for the Hall of Fame is littered with cases of receiving markedly different levels of votes across different years. Jim Rice, inducted into the Hall of Fame in his 15th and final year of eligibility in 2009, received 76.4% of the vote; in 1995, during his 1st year of eligibility, he received 29.8%.

    The most shocking example may be that of Ralph Kiner, who garnered just 1.1% of the vote in 1960 before finally being inducted in 1975 with 75.4%. How can we explain this seemingly inconsistent result — that only 1% of voters judged a career to be Hall of Fame–worthy in one year, while 75% of voters deemed it worthy just 15 years later?

    There are several possibilities. Maybe the assumption that Hall of Fame voters are rational is ill-conceived. Indeed, there is a feeling that voters become more sentimental for fringe candidates over time, perhaps even enough to push them over the 75% threshold for induction. And instances of any candidate losing votes over time — Curt Schilling notwithstanding — are rare.

    But maybe we can look to voting rules causing these curious outcomes. As previously mentioned, voters are limited to a maximum of ten players on any particular ballot. It could then be the case that voters feel there are more candidates worthy of Hall of Fame consideration than they are able to vote for, and thus must find some way to prioritize some players over others.

    There is some evidence for this having an impact. Of the approximately 300 ballots made public from this year’s vote (OneDrive users can access the data here), over half contained the full 10 names. And nearly a third of those with full ballots directly indicated that they would have preferred to vote for more than 10 players.

    While a 1%-to-75% shift may be too big to attribute entirely to ballot-crowd-out, it may well be a significant factor in the general upward trend of vote totals for players over the years.

    Who Can Vote?

    Another culprit for the shifting vote totals is a constant change in population of those who are able to vote. Voting for the Baseball Hall of Fame is run by the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA). Since 1947, BBWAA limited the ability to vote for the Hall of Fame to members of 10 years or more. Once receiving the ability to vote, members held it until death (unless they decided to opt out).

    Then, in 2015, the Hall of Fame announced that BBWAA members who had not actively covered the sports within the last 10 years would be ineligible to vote — effectively ending life-long voting.

    It is uncertain exactly what the impact of this voting rule change will be in the long run — it’s possible that sentimentality may drop by removing the longest-tenured voters, and the perception of what it means to be a Hall of Famer may change more quickly in aggregate by removing a chunk of the electorate — but the impact on vote totals has already been felt, as this year’s results showed significant gains for several players languishing in the more-than-5%-but-still-well-below-75% range.

    Democracy, and voting, have long been known to be imperfect means of aggregating group preferences. Thanks to the Baseball Hall of Fame, however, we can begin to understand the margins by which things tend to get a little weird.

  7. Reddit AMA with Fabio Rojas, Professor of Sociology at Indiana University

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    Dr. Fabio Rojas is professor of sociology at Indiana University Bloomington. He is the author of From Black Power to Black Studies: How a Radical Social Movement Became an Academic Discipline (2007, The Johns Hopkins University Press). More recently, he is also the author of Theory for the Working Sociologist (2017, Columbia University Press). His research has focused on organizational behavior, political sociology, higher education, and health policy.

    Professor Rojas recently appeared on Learn Liberty Live, sharing his expertise on the history of the civil rights movement.

    Join us for a conversation with Professor Rojas on Reddit this Monday, February 20th, at 2:00pm EST, where you can ask him anything!

    UPDATE: The AMA is now live!

  8. Why even mass-murdering white supremacists, like Dylann Roof, should not receive the death penalty

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    If ever there were a strong candidate for the death penalty, it would seem to be Dylann Roof. On June 17, 2015, he committed an unspeakably heinous crime: the cold-blooded killing of nine peaceful worshippers — including the senior pastor and state senator, Clementa Pinckney — in an historic African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina. He did it to further an agenda of white supremacy.

    On December 15, 2016, he was found guilty of 33 federal crimes, including first-degree murder, hate crime, and obstruction of the exercise of religion. Of these 33 crimes, 18 carry the federal death penalty. On January 10, 2017, after just three hours of deliberation, the jury voted to send Roof to death row.

    But even if you support capital punishment for serious felony offenses generally, at least 3 compelling arguments can be made that an exception should be made in this case — that Roof should have received a life term.

    1. Don’t give Dylan Roof what he wants.

    The first argument is that he appears to have wanted to transform his boring life into one of significance as a martyr, and a sentence of death only rewards his self-absorbed, toxic agenda.

    This was not a person with a bright future. The child of a broken home, he attended no fewer than seven schools before dropping out to play video games, take drugs and get drunk. He had worked as a landscaper, but was unemployed at the time of the shooting and had no known romantic involvements and few friendships.

    Better to deprive him of further sensational attention by ensuring years of miserable boredom than to award him with martyrdom in the form of criminal-justice-assisted suicide. The death penalty in this case thus fails to serve the interests of pure justice. If we’re interested in punishing the offender to serve retributive goals, it makes little sense to give him what he wants.

    2. In general, don’t offer martyrdom as a reward for mass murder.

    The second argument against the death sentence in this case is that it may encourage other depressed people with suicidal inclinations to follow Roof’s example. The death sentence thus serves as a counter-deterrent to terrorism and hate crime, at least for some people. In a time of growing alienation among young people, Roof’s sentence could motivate more than a handful of others to engage in similar acts of violent extremism.

    3. Don’t create a dangerous precedent.

    The third argument against capital punishment for Roof is that the jurors in Roof’s case may not have felt comfortable returning to their communities with the impression that they had been lenient to a mass murderer. Thus, in this case, the death sentence may elevate a popular sanction over a principled one.

    Voting for the death sentence may even have offered some of the jurors a sense that they were virtuous for having shown opposition to racial supremacy. It is not obvious that ordinary citizens should be put in such positions.

    Because this is such a widely publicized case, this decision could result in over-use of the death penalty or other distortions of justice in subsequent cases. In other capital cases, jurors might even be less inclined to convict culpable offenders, knowing that they will feel pressure to give the death sentence at the sentencing stage.

    A solution would be to leave sentencing to judicial discretion, but that is not the world in which jurors in federal, and many state, courts live.

    How do we respond to the most serious crimes?

    There are other good reasons not to execute Dylan Roof — reasons that apply to all capital cases: it violates the norms of a just society; it gives the state more authority over life-and-death matters than it should have; it fails to deter; and it brutalizes everyone, sending the signal that it is acceptable to kill people in conditions other than self-defense.

    As a practical matter, the jury’s voting for the death penalty rather than a life sentence in the Roof case does not mean the inevitable execution of Dylann Roof. The jury’s vote is only a recommendation, not a binding commitment for execution by a certain date. The last federal execution was in 2003; today 63 federal inmates are on death row. It is entirely possible that none of the 63 will be executed.

    This doesn’t invalidate the arguments listed above. A degree of martyrdom is achieved by the death sentence, whether carried out or not. Better simply not to opt for the death penalty in the first place in such cases.

    Cases like Dylann Roof’s frustrate our ability to find a just resolution. Nothing the criminal justice system can do to Roof is proportionate to the harm he imposed on his victims, their families, and the community at large. No sanction can bring back the victims or fully compensate the survivors for their losses.

    The death penalty may make us feel good in the short term, allowing us to believe that it was the best that could be done, but this may be an illusion. It may be that the best we can do is grieve and try to move on, as we try to do when natural disasters and other tragedies strike.

  9. Better market-oriented proposals that reduce income inequality

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    I was initially excited to see that progressive Dean Baker has written a piece on “Eight Market-Oriented Proposals That Reduce Income Inequality” for AEI. It begins promisingly by criticizing overly strict occupational licensing for high-skilled workers.  But it then studiously avoids the really big wins.  Namely:

    1. Immigration.  High-skilled immigration reduces conventionally measured inequality by making high-skilled workers more abundant relative to low-skilled workers.  And low-skilled immigration drastically reduces properly measured inequality by moving the absolutely poor to First World prosperity.  Estimates of the size of this effect are vast.

    2. Housing deregulation.  Letting developers build more housing in expensive areas of the country directly reduces inequality by making housing more affordable.  And it indirectly reduces inequality by making it more affordable to live in high-wage areas of the country.  Estimates of the size of this effect are also vast.

    To be fair, Baker does discuss occupational licensing as a barrier to high-skilled immigration.  But that’s only the tip of the immigration iceberg.  And his only “market-oriented proposal” for real estate, bizarrely, is a surtax on vacancy!  On the surface, he’s got a decent case:

    A vacant property tax can have a similar effect on the real estate market to that of reducing unemployment benefits and other supports on wages.

    But this misses the bigger picture: A vacancy tax also reduces the incentive to build housing in the first place, so it’s a lot more like a tax on firing workers than a reduction in unemployment benefits.  In the short-run, such a tax saves jobs, but in the long-run, it makes employers nervous about hiring.  A vacancy tax, similarly, keeps rental units on the market during bad times, but reduces the long-run payoff for construction.  Baker is flatly wrong to say, “Unlike most taxes, all the side effects of this tax are positive.”

    Governments around the world willfully create poverty and inequality.  I’m glad to see Baker calling attention to these ugly facts.  But focusing on relatively minor and not-so-market-oriented examples spreads the false impression that government-sponsored poverty and inequality is but a marginal issue.  Alas!

    This piece was originally posted at Econlog.

  10. Was Jeremy Bentham a Classical Liberal at heart?

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    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.”

  11. Civil servants should not lose their jobs for committing thought crimes.

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    A government commission has recommended that a civil servant be removed from his post because of his thoughts. A scene from George Orwell’s 1984 or the dystopian novel Kallocain? Alas, no. Welcome to present-day Oregon.

    On January 25, 2016, Oregon’s Commission on Judicial Fitness and Disability recommended that Judge Vance Day be removed as a Marion County judge for, among other things, declining to officiate same-sex weddings. Central to the opinion is the Commission’s finding that Judge Day is “a Christian whose firmly held religious beliefs include defining marriage as only between a woman and a man.” (The Commission found that Judge Day violated eight counts of the Oregon Code of Judicial Conduct; this article considers only one of them, although there are serious questions about the others.)

    In Oregon, as in most states, “performing marriages is not a mandatory judicial duty.” Judges may solemnize weddings, but they are not required to do so. Judge Day opted to participate in marriage ceremonies upon occasion after he was appointed to the bench in August 2011.

    On May 19, 2014, a federal judge overturned Oregon’s ban on same-sex marriage. Because of his sincerely held religious objections to same-sex marriage, Judge Day instructed his staff to inform same-sex couples that he was unavailable to solemnize their marriages. In November 2014, he removed himself from the Marion County list of wedding officiants.

    The Commission concedes that Judge Day’s plan to be “unavailable” for same-sex wedding ceremonies was not implemented. He never actually refused to officiate a wedding ceremony because of a couple’s sexual orientation.

    Even quasi-judicial proceedings usually require that there be a real case and controversy. Advisory opinions are not permitted. Yet the lack of an actual case did not keep the Commission from reaching a conclusion in this matter, one that seems to turn on its findings about Judge Vance’s religious beliefs. The Commission’s opinion violates basic canons of due process, and it impermissibly creates a religious test for office.

    The United States Constitution prohibits religious tests for federal offices, and in Torcaso v. Watkins (1961), the U.S. Supreme Court declared the few remaining religious tests for state offices to be unconstitutional. But Oregon did not need to wait for the Supreme Court’s decision. Indeed, its 1857 constitution goes beyond its federal counterpart by stipulating (in Article I, sections 3, 4, and 6) that

    • “No law shall in any case whatever control the free exercise, and enjoyment of religeous [sic] opinions, or interfere with the rights of conscience”;
    • “No religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office of trust or profit”; and
    • “No person shall be rendered incompetent as a witness, or juror in consequence of his opinions on matters of religeon [sic]; nor be questioned in any Court of Justice touching his religeous [sic] belief to affect the weight of his testimony.”

    Judge Day’s religious convictions may be unpopular, but as Justice Kennedy averred in Obergefell v. Hodges (2015), which legalized same-sex marriage nationwide, they are constitutionally protected:

    It must be emphasized that religions, and those who adhere to religious doctrines, may continue to advocate with utmost, sincere conviction that, by divine precepts, same-sex marriage should not be condoned. The First Amendment ensures that religious organizations and persons are given proper protection as they seek to teach the principles that are so fulfilling and so central to their lives and faiths, and to their own deep aspirations to continue the family structure they have long revered.

    Judge Day has a right to his convictions regarding same-sex marriage, and the Oregon Commission on Judicial Fitness and Disability cannot create a religious test for office that excludes persons of faith who hold such views.

    This is not to say that Judge Day may discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation when conducting his judicial duties. But there is no reason to believe that he did, and there are good reasons in the record to believe he did not.

    Judge Day’s case would have been more difficult if Oregon required judges to solemnize weddings, and if he had, in fact, refused to do so for same-sex couples. My next post will explore this sort of conflict. But this is an easy case. We live in the United States of America, not Oceania or Worldstate. Civil servants should not lose their jobs for committing thought crimes.

  12. What if we are not racists after all?

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    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.

    Unconscious Biases

    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.