Category Archive: Liberty

  1. What Classical Liberals Get Wrong About Political Science

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    Can there be a classical liberal political science?

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

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

    By far the greatest intellectual investment has been in economics.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  2. The Harmony and Balance of Virtue and Liberty

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

    Virtue Is A Necessity

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

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

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

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

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

  3. Debate: Is Ayn Rand right about rights?

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

    Ayn Rand’s Ethical Egoism — Matt Zwolinski

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

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

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

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

    The other kind of “right”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Zwolinski and Rand on Egoism and Rights — Stephen Hicks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Property and Value — Matt Zwolinski

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

    Force and Freedom — Matt Zwolinski

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  4. The skeptics are wrong. Religion and classical liberalism can coexist.

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    Many classical liberals are skeptical of religion because they are skeptical of all claims of power. And what power could be more indefensible than an invisible deity who hands down a set of moral demands, some of which many intelligent and sincere people have interpreted as prima facie illiberal, that are not open to question? Furthermore, many religious rules can seem like they come from power-seeking men, not a loving and just God. For those who care about human freedom, many religious traditions can seem oppressive in a similar manner to the state.

    I do not agree with this critique.

    The problem is that this critique only looks at one side of the equation. A religious worldview frequently holds that the highest moral law, that which commands universal respect, is antecedent to particular forms of human organization, including the state.

    To me, classical liberalism is a limited worldview. It is not a grand metaphysical organizing principle for ordering all aspects of personal and social behavior. Rather, it is a system whose reach extends over only some social, moral, and political truths. Being a classical liberal is about recognizing (positively) that a huge portion of important human activities are not planned, and cannot be planned. It is also about recognizing (normatively) that it’s appropriate not to intervene coercively in many such orders, both because of the deleterious effects of such interventions, and because such interventions trespass against human dignity.

    In addition, classical liberalism is not specific to any code of morality. Whatever the content of the moral law — and the vast majority of individuals, classically liberal or otherwise, believe in such a law — it transcends the particular truths of classical liberalism. This is not to say classical liberalism is immoral, or amoral; far from it! It simply means that there are rights and obligations whose definition and enforcement fall outside of the positive science of spontaneous orders, or the normative science of what conditions ought to underlie spontaneous orders, i.e. which political institutions we ought to live by, to the extent we can rationally choose them.

    Furthermore, even the religious traditions that exhibit (to those who are wary of it) an ancient and musty ecclesiology provide a bulwark against arbitrary coercion. Religious institutions are some of what Alexis de Tocqueville called “intermediary institutions”: the organizations and orders that comprise civil society, placing a buffer between the individual and the state, providing valuable communal needs, and embedding individuals in traditions that are both historically rich and open to new development. To paraphrase Edmund Burke, we need the ‘little platoons’ of civil society — including religious bodies — to make us fully human, and part of that is to protect us from the very, very big platoon in Washington, D.C. (or London, or Paris, or Beijing, or…)

    ‘No gods, no masters’ is a catchy slogan. But it is not a liberal one. If classical liberalism is about discovering the conditions requisite for human flourishing in an spontaneously developing society, then it has to account for what people demand from society — and by that, I just mean other people — at a deep level. One persistent demand is a sense of transcendence and ultimate truth. You can no more stamp this out than you can humanity’s tendency to ‘truck, barter, and exchange’.

  5. Highlights from our Reddit AMA with Professor Lauren Hall

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

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


    Who is your favorite economist, and why?


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


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


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

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


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

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


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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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


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


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


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

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


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


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


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


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

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


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


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


    Where do you see yourself in 10 years work wise?


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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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

  6. Quietly creating freedom: Private communities and special economic zones

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    For the last several centuries, nation-states have dominated the political landscape, and set all the rules for everyone inside them.

    But now two kinds of special jurisdictions — private communities and “Special Economic Zones” — are quietly taking over functions and providing options that traditional polities cannot or will not. This gentle revolution has already brought comparative wealth and better living to millions of people — perhaps including you.

    Special Economic Zones

    In a Special Economic Zone (SEZ), a government creates exceptions to its own rules — a select haven from the status quo that prevails elsewhere in the national territory. The goal, says the World Bank, is to create a “business environment that is intended to be more liberal from a policy perspective and more effective from an administrative perspective than that of the national territory.”

    Learn More: New anti-Airbnb law protects hotels from competition (and violates private property and freedom of exchange)

    Modern SEZs come in many types and sizes. One might offer nothing more than duty-free warehousing of goods in transit, while another might provide an alternative governance regime for an entire metropolitan area.

    Though not SEZs in the modern sense, zones governed by special rules have existed almost as long as government itself. These special jurisdictions have coevolved with the nation-state, usually cooperating, but sometimes competing with it. Although they were pushed into decline for centuries, special jurisdictions never died out, and in recent decades they have enjoyed renewed vigor.

    The antecedents of modern SEZs date from 166 BCE, when Roman authorities made the island of Delos a free port, exempting traders from the usual taxes in order to stimulate local commerce. The Hanseatic League, a confederation of trading cities chartered and loosely governed by the Holy Roman Empire, effectively ruled northern Europe from around 1200 to 1600 CE, hunting down pirates and defeating kings in battle. These proto-SEZs, like primitive mammals, had real bite.

    Early types of special economic zones next appeared among many various and far-flung European colonial outposts, formed as quasi-sovereign sub-governments and typically granted unique trading privileges. Examples include Macau (founded in 1557), Hong Kong (1842), and over 80 treaty ports established throughout China from the mid-1800s onward.

    After the Enlightenment-era explosion of these special jurisdictions, the nation-state began its rise. From the Napoleonic Empire, through two world wars, to the collapse of the communist regimes, it ruled the globe.

    Pushed to the margins, SEZs reached their nadir somewhere around 1900, when the world had only about 11 free ports. SEZs seemed headed for extinction.

    Why SEZs Came Back

    What brought SEZs back from the brink? The United States should get some of the credit.

    Its Foreign Trade Zone (FTZ) program, launched in 1934, offered special exemptions from federal excise taxes and duties. This proved convenient for those who, legally speaking, wanted to be within the jurisdiction of the United States while remaining outside its customs territory. The United States boosted SEZs again in 1948, when Operation Bootstrap made Puerto Rico a free trade zone for U.S. companies engaged not just in trade, the traditional focus of FTZs, but also production.

    Despite those precedents, most commentators date the modern SEZ movement from the industrial free zone established in Shannon, Ireland, in 1959. That early example certainly did seem to set off a wave of similar innovations. Since about the mid-1980s, “the number of newly established zones has grown rapidly in almost all regions, with dramatic growth in developing countries.” Today’s most populous nation-state, China, has proved especially prolific, going from 0 special jurisdictions in 1980 to at least 295 today. About 75% of the world’s countries now host SEZs, which number at least 4,000 and perhaps (if you count all the many single-factory zones) nearly 10,000.

    Private Communities

    The sorts of special jurisdictions closest to everyday people — common interest developments — have become increasingly popular both in the United States and worldwide. In the United States, these take the forms of homeowners’ associations, condominium associations, and cooperative residential communities. Residents have flocked to these private “common interest communities” in recent decades.

    The popularity of common interest communities appears not only in the number of people living in them, as graphed above, but also in their growing size and sophistication. Many common interest developments have grown to the size of small cities.

    Their residents entrust these private communities to provide nearly every service otherwise available from a traditional political municipality. The largest cooperative residential corporation in the United States, Bronx’s Co-Op City, houses more than 50,000 shareholder-tenants. Their mutually owned private corporation provides them with utilities, roads, stores, offices, schools, parks, security, and more.

    Highland Ranch, Colorado, evidently the largest homeowner association (HOA) in the United States, boasts of almost 100,000 residents and 31,000 households on 22,000 acres. Highland Ranch also hosts nearly 1,000 businesses, which employ more than 6,800 people; 19 elementary schools, 4 middle schools, 5 high schools, and numerous daycare facilities; several medical facilities; places of worship serving a variety of faiths; and 70 miles of paved and natural trails, 20 parks, two 18-hole golf courses, and an 8,200-acre backcountry wilderness area. In everything but origin and legal status, these resemble conventional mid-sized cities.

    The success of private communities shows the popular support enjoyed by this very local kind of special jurisdiction.

    Pragmatic Advancements

    Further up, so to speak, at the level of SEZs, official support and encouragement become more common. Even when they reach to the highest level of government, though, the roots of special jurisdictions reach back down to the real world.

    Devotion to theory has not characterized the development of special jurisdictions, which governments have instead adopted largely ad hoc. Extemporizing and learning from experience has driven the largest and arguably most successful field test of special jurisdictions: China during the last several decades.

    Learning from the success of the Crown Colony of Hong Kong, itself a historical accident, the Chinese government began in the 1980s to try (or at least allow) a wild profusion of SEZs. Officials did so not pursuant to theory but (silently) in spite of it, and described their policy as “crossing the river by groping for stones.” This intensely pragmatic, theory-free approach seems to have worked in China. Hundreds of millions of people have escaped poverty in Chinese SEZs.

    It also bears noting that, thanks to the spread of privately developed and managed special jurisdictions, SEZs increasingly escape the charge that they can thrive only thanks to top-down subsidies. These days, special jurisdictions happen only if and when private investors fund them. That sort of objective oversight helps to ensure that special jurisdictions, far from floating on clouds of theory, have a solid grounding in the real world.

    The astonishing growth in SEZs qualifies as a revolution of sorts, but not the usual, political kind. Instead of being imposed by domestic or foreign enemies, this revolution has come from within, allowed or even encouraged by existing authorities.

    Instead of descending from the rarified theories of armchair radicals like Karl Marx, it rises from the bottom up, expressed in the everyday choices of everyday people. The same effect appears at smaller scales, in the proprietary communities that increasingly supplant politically-run municipalities. Instead of merely plugging a few new politicians into the same old offices, SEZs, private communities, and other special jurisdictions have the power to quietly and gently transform governments across the globe.

    For more about the revolution quietly transforming governments bottom-up, inside-out, worldwide, look for Professor Bell’s forthcoming book, “Your Next Government? From the Nation State to Stateless Nations” (Cambridge University Press).

  7. Do government employees have a right to religious liberty?

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    What should happen if a government employee is asked to do something that violates her religious convictions? One possibility is to fire the employee if she won’t do the required task. No one has a right to work for the state, so if an employee can’t fulfill her job duties perhaps she should be replaced with someone who can.

    This might be reasonable in some cases. If an employee is unwilling to fulfill a substantial or critical part of her job, she should be replaced. It makes little sense to permit a religious pacifist to be an infantry commander or a Jehovah’s Witness who objects to blood transfusions to serve as an emergency room doctor.

    Yet in most real cases, as opposed to the imaginary case I discussed in my last post, government employees have raised religious liberty objections to only a few narrow duties, and often these cases involve new tasks brought about by job transfers or shifting public policy. In other words, these employees did not know they would be asked to violate their religious convictions when they accepted their positions.

    For instance, after the Supreme Court struck down state bans on same-sex marriages in Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015, a few county clerks, magistrates, and judges raised religious objections to issuing licenses to same-sex couples or to participating in ceremonies. Several states passed laws protecting such employees, as long as other civic officials are available to provide requested services. Similarly, Congress has passed legislation protecting military chaplains from being required to perform marriages to which they have religious objections.

    Such accommodations are commonplace in other policy areas. Consider the death penalty: since 1994, federal law has protected federal and state employees from being forced to participate in an execution “if such participation is contrary to the moral or religious convictions of the employee.” Surely a corrections officer should not be forced to choose between his job and his moral or religious convictions respecting the taking of human life.

    Less dramatically, long before same-sex marriage became legal in Kentucky, the state permitted clerks to opt out of issuing licenses to which they objected. For instance, a clerk who is a member of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) can refuse to issue hunting licenses, provided that someone else is available to provide this service.

    Finally, at a time when some loud voices are claiming that Islam is not compatible with American values, it seems evident that New York City’s decision to accommodate Muslim police officers who desire to wear a hijab is superior to Philadelphia’s decision to fire a woman for the same “offense.”

    Religious liberty is a fundamental American value. The religious convictions of government employees should be accommodated whenever it is reasonable to do so.

  8. Bryan Caplan: Is immigration a basic human right?

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    Editors Note: On March 16th George Mason University Professor of Economics Bryan Caplan debated Washington University Professor of Philosophy Christopher Wellman on the topic, “Is Immigration a Basic Human Right?” Below is Professor Caplan’s opening statement.

    There are many complaints about governments, but the harshest is, “This government grossly violates human rights.”  The background assumption is that human beings have rights that everyone – including governments – is morally obliged to respect.  When looking at the grossest violators – Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, Maoist China – almost no one denies the validity of the idea of human rights.  But then you have to wonder: Do the governments we know, accept, and even love have clean hands?  Or do they violate human rights, too?

    To answer, we normally apply a simple test: If an individual treated other people the same way the government does, would he clearly be a horrible criminal?  If an individual deliberately kills innocent people, he’s a murderer; if an individual imprisons innocent people, he’s a kidnapper.  A government that does the same violates basic human rights – and it can’t justify its actions by calling innocent people “criminals.”  If someone is peacefully living his life, he’s innocent – whatever the government says.

    What does this have to do with immigration?  Lots.  Since we’re in San Diego, we’ve seen illegal immigrants.  What are the vast majority of them doing?  Working for willing employers.  Renting apartments from willing landlords.  Buying stuff from willing merchants.  Sending money home to their families.  Maybe even sitting next to you in class.  They sure look innocent – even admirable.  But the U.S. government can and does forcibly arrest and exile them to the Third World. Why can’t they all just come legally?  Because exile is the default; they’re all exiled unless the U.S. government makes a rare exception.  This is far less bad than killing or imprisoning them, but it sure looks like a severe human rights violation.  If the U.S. government forbade you to live and work here, wouldn’t that be a severe violation of your human rights?

    You could reasonably object that human rights are not absolute.  While there’s a strong moral presumption against killing, imprisoning, or exiling innocent people, it’s okay to do so if the overall consequences of respecting human rights are clearly awful.  The main problem with this objection is that when social scientists measure the overall consequences of immigration, they’re not clearly awful.  In fact, the overall consequences look totally awesome.  Most notably, standard economic estimates say that letting all the world’s talent flow to wherever it’s most productive would roughly DOUBLE global prosperity.  That’s an extra $75 TRILLION of extra wealth per year.  How is this possible?  Because even the world’s lowest-skill workers produce far more in the First World than they do at home.  Even if all other fears about immigration were bulletproof – which they aren’t – they’re dwarfed by this gargantuan economic gain.  This isn’t trickle-down economics; it’s Niagara Falls economics.

    To effectively defend immigration restrictions, then, saying “Human rights are not absolute” is insufficient.  You need to flatly deny that immigration is a human right – to say that while the illegal immigrants you meet on the street may look innocent, they’re actually guilty as hell.  The most popular argument analogizes illegal immigrants to trespassers.  No one has any right to be here without government permission; it’s our country, so we set the rules.

    The obvious problem with this position is that it justifies a vast range of blatant human rights abuses.  If it’s our country and we set the rules, why can’t we exile citizens, too?  Why can’t we imprison people for saying the wrong thing, practicing the wrong religion, or having kids without government permission?  Saying, “That won’t happen,” dodges the question: If the U.S. government did this to you, would it be violating your human rights or not?

    Prof. Wellman offers a more sophisticated version of this story.  He defends immigration restrictions for “legitimate states” only, on the grounds that immigration restrictions are vital for “freedom of association.”  Unfortunately, we have two conflicting freedoms of association.  I want to be free to associate with foreigners; lots of foreigners want to associate with me.  Immigration restrictions deny us this freedom in the name of all the Americans who don’t want my associates breathing American air.

    Who should prevail?  In his work, Wellman concedes a crucial premise, freely admitting that the popular notion that we all consent to government is a “fiction,” and that “the coercion states invariably employ is nonconsensual and, as such, is extremely difficult to justify.”  We don’t really face a choice between two freedoms of association, but between freedom for real associations we choose to join and freedom for fictional “associations” we’re forced to join.  Unless the overall consequences are clearly awful, the fictional ones should lose.  Freedom of association is only for free associations.

    My critics often tease me, “Should everyone on Earth be free to immigrate into Bryan’s house?”  Their point: Treating immigration as a human right is utopian nonsense.  My reply: There are three competing moral positions on immigration.

    1. Foreigners should be free to live in my house even if I don’t consent – a view held by almost no one.
    2. Foreigners should be free to live in my house if I consent – my view.
    3. Foreigners shouldn’t be free to live in my house even if I do consent – the standard view I’m criticizing.

    Far from being utopian, saying “Immigration is a human right” is just the moderate, common-sense position that when natives and foreigners voluntarily interact, strangers are morally obliged to leave them alone unless the overall consequences are clearly awful.  Even if the stranger happens to be the government – and the government happens to be popular.

    This was originally published at Econlog.

  9. Emma Watson is right. Feminism is about choice.

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    As part of the publicity for her role in the new live-action version of Beauty and the Beast, Emma Watson was photographed for Vanity Fair in a Burberry bolero that left her mostly topless.

    Although the reaction most people had to the spread was probably not very dramatic (maybe you thought, like I did, “cute jacket”), there were more than a few responses on social media that criticized her choice as being at odds with her feminist ideals.

    In her response to the incident, Watson offered up a simple truism about feminism that is more powerful than it might sound:

    Feminism is about giving women choice.

    So, for Hermione’s sake, and in honor of women’s history month, I’d like to talk a little bit about the importance of choice to the expansions of women’s rights that have taken place over the past 200 years.

    How property law restricted women’s choices

    Some of the oldest and most significant restrictions on women’s choice in American history are those that restricted married women’s ability to own property separately from their husbands. The legal tradition underlying these restrictions was coverture, which declared “the very being or legal existence of the woman [to be] suspended during the marriage.”1 A favorite quip of historians of the subject is that these laws created a situation in which husband and wife were one within marriage, and that one was the husband.

    Learn More: Interjurisdictional competition and the Married Women’s Property Act

    Although specifics varied by state, this usually meant that married women could not own land or homes in their own names, sign enforceable contracts, stand for themselves in court, or create wills.

    Further, divorce was extremely limited, making it nearly impossible to dissolve a marriage once entered. Limitations on divorce always hit those in the least happy marriages the hardest. So while many couples doubtless enjoyed happy marriages, those who were in less fortunate circumstances were legally bound to remain trapped within them.

    The upshot of all this is that 19th-century property law and legal practices made it difficult for married women to make some of the most basic decisions about how they wanted to lead their lives.

    Fortunately for our mothers and grandmothers, married women became significantly more empowered with respect to these fundamental decisions over the course of the 19th century. Although old habits die hard, and therefore men’s discretionary decision making power within marriage likely continued as a cultural norm among some communities, nearly all married women in the United States had the legal right to own separate property and keep earnings acquired during marriage by 1920.

    What changed?

    Cultivating equal rights on the factory floor

    Prior to the birth of American industry, most women in the United States would have spent their lives performing some type of domestic labor in a rural farming community. Usually, the women worked on land owned by her husband, father, or other male relative, with any proceeds beyond what the family required for survival accruing to that owner. Textile mills, the first large-scale American factories, offered young women an alternative unlike any they’d seen before.

    In the early textile mills, women were invited to apply the skills they had developed weaving cotton into cloth at home to the large-scale water or steam-powered industrial looms recently constructed in Waltham, Lowell, and other cities across the Northeastern U.S. In exchange, they worked for wages which they had control over spending. They had this control because this new type of work gave them a way to do something not very common at the time: moving away from home without getting married.

    The young women working in these mills attended lectures, wrote for publications edited by other “mill girls,” opened their own bank accounts, made large purchases like furniture and pianos, and lived in residences acquired in their own names. What freedom compared to life on the farm!

    As the American economy continued to grow over the course of the 19th century, opportunities for women to work outside the home continued to expand. The expansion in the range of external options opened new frontiers to women across the country, both in terms of the practical decisions they were able to make and the ideas they were able to encounter. This expanding range of experience proved fertile ground for expansions in women’s rights that would continue to take place through the 20th century.

                          Susan B. Anthony

    Susan B. Anthony, a pioneering activist for many women’s rights causes, including separate property ownership, access to professional careers, equal pay for equal work, and women’s suffrage, grew up surrounded by the adventurous young women working in the early American mills.

    Her father, Daniel Anthony, was the owner of a water-powered textile mill in Pennsylvania that regularly employed female workers, some of whom boarded directly with the Anthony family. Between these experiences and her father’s encouragement of her education, she grew up with a strong conviction in the capability of women that would drive her to work towards expanding the choices available to women in other domains.

    So, if you believe — like Emma Watson and I — that choice is important, take a moment to join me in recognizing how important economic opportunity is for all people to be able to make the most important decisions we face as human beings: who we want to be, and how we want to spend our days.

    This women’s history month, let’s toast to economic opportunity and free choice.

    1Blackstone, W. 1765. Commentaries on the laws of england: Book the first. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, p. 430.

    This piece is related to a paper that won the Gordon Tullock Prize for best paper published by a young scholar in Public Choice in 2016.

  10. 6 women who should be on the $20 bill

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    In honor of Women’s History Month and the fight to get a woman on the $20 bill, we reached out to Learn Liberty professors for suggestions on great women whose achievements should earn them a place on US currency. So, in no particular order, here are five worthy women who should be on twenties:

    Anne Hutchinson

    Submitted by Prof. Sarah Skwire, Anne Hutchinson was an active religious leader and proponent of religious freedom in the American colonies.

    As Prof. Skwire wrote:

    I’d vote for putting Anne Hutchinson on the $20. Her home bible studies, her active preaching, and her theological disputes with established ministers put her into opposition to the Puritan leadership in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. She was convicted of heresy and of being an instrument of the devil, and she was banished from the colony.

    After her banishment, she, her family, and her followers moved to the more religiously tolerant colony of Rhode Island.

    That statue of her in front of the State House in Boston has a plaque that reads:





    20 JULY 1595 [sic]






    A rebel, an annoyer of government officials, a fan of civil liberty, an agitator for religious freedom.… I can’t think of a better person to put on a bill.

    Jeannette Rankin

    Suggested by both Dr. Phil Magness and Prof. Aeon Skoble, Jeannette Rankin was a relentless antiwar activist and the first woman member of Congress.

    Dr. Magness wrote,

    She was the first female elected to Congress, winning her seat almost four years before the extension of womens’ suffrage at the national level (Montana extended the vote to women before the federal government). Rankin’s most famous political cause was her steadfast dedication to pacifism. Rankin voted against the United States’ entry into both world wars, and effectively gave up her seat in Congress twice as the price of opposing patriotic war fervor. The first time resulted in her being redistricted out of her seat in 1918. After returning to politics in 1940, she similarly opposed American entry into World War II on the grounds that it would precipitate a draft and therefore forcibly commit people to fight in a war against their will. Rankin remained a harsh critic of the draft for the remainder of her life. She remained an anti-draft activist into her 90s and organized a march against Lyndon Johnson’s policies during the Vietnam War.

    Rankin’s dedication to peace and individual rights would make her a wonderful candidate for the $20 bill.

    Sally Ride

    Suggested by Prof. Aeon Skoble, Sally Ride was the first American woman to go to outer space. After her career at NASA, she went on to become a physics professor. She also co-wrote several books on space geared towards children with the goal of encouraging them to study science. In 2001, she co-founded Sally Ride Science, which encourages students, especially girls and minority students, to study STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) subjects.

    Dr. Sally Ride’s historic journeys to space and dedication to science education make her a great woman to feature on US twenties.

    Mercy Otis Warren

    Suggested by Prof. Aeon Skoble, Mercy Otis Warren wrote criticisms of royal authority during the American Revolution. She wrote pamphlets, poems, and plays in support of colonists’ rights, and after the war she was a strong anti-Federalist.

    With her outspoken advocacy of colonists’ rights and skeptical attitude towards centralized government at the time of the American Revolution, Mercy Otis Warren would fit in well among the founding fathers currently featured on US bills.

    Harriet Tubman

    As part of the Women On 20s campaign, over 600,000 people cast votes on women to replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill, and Harriet Tubman was the winner. The famed abolitionist and “conductor” of the Underground Railroad helped guide over 300 slaves to freedom. She was also a suffragist, speaking and promoting votes for women.

    In an article entitled “Let Tubman on the Twenty”, Prof. Sarah Skwire wrote:

    Her work, and the work of countless named and unnamed others like her, assured that it is no longer possible legally to exchange a stack of twenty dollar bills for the body and the life and the future of another human being. Her work, and their work, means that the American idea of what constitutes “property” no longer includes other humans.

    It’s not clear when or if we’ll see a woman on the US $20 bill, but there’s no shortage of worthy women whose accomplishments warrant a place of honor on our currency.

  11. Why classical liberals need a research program

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    In my last post, I discussed several important moral features of classical liberalism; this time, I want to discuss classical liberalism as a research program.

    For thinkers like Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek, classical liberalism was first and foremost something to be studied and understood. The basic observation guiding their thinking is that the social world is incredibly complex yet also orderly. Furthermore, that order does not appear to be the product of some centralized coordinating authority. “Coordination without command” is the starting point of classical liberalism: how millions of individuals, each in possession of only a fraction of the knowledge necessary to create order in society, and each acting (generally) in the interests of themselves and their loved ones (rather than “society at large”), somehow produce social arrangements that exhibit a high degree of regularity and intelligibility.

    The market is the classic example of such “spontaneous orders.” There are groups that plan within markets: business firms and households. But no organization or group of organizations plans the market itself. Guided by the price system — itself underpinned by crucial institutions that protect private property rights, enforce contracts, and uphold a non-discriminatory rule of law — the groups that act within markets can “react” to each other’s wants and plans just by looking at market prices.

    If the price of oranges goes up, due to an unexpected frost killing off some of the orange crop, some households and firms will forego purchasing oranges and instead seek to fulfill their wants in other ways. The ones who still purchase oranges at the higher prices will be those who value oranges relatively more, such as hotels that can use orange juice as an input into a higher-price good, like mimosas.

    This give-and-take between buyers and sellers is the order of a market economy. Without a centralized commander, the tug-and-pull of freely adjusting market prices helps most everyone get what they want, in a way that minimizes frustrated plans and conflicts.

    To be sure, a positive appreciation for the complexities of markets and their role in human flourishing often yields a normative judgement that markets ought to be left as unimpeded as possible. Mises, famously, held a “rule utilitarian” ethical position: he favored the discovery and implementation of social rules that tended to maximize human well-being. But in order to discover these rules, he had to first “roll up his sleeves” and do the hard work of developing a rich body of social theory that could help him make sense out of the intricacies of the market and other orders, such as legal or constitutional order. Mises first and foremost was a social scientist devoted to understanding the extent to which human beings could live together peacefully, guided by forces other than sovereign fiat.

    Good classical liberals, then, can only responsibly engage the normative realm of classical liberalism if they appreciate how classically liberal institutions actually work — i.e., how real human beings relate to each other in societies not organized along the lines of a prison or army barracks. Even classical liberals who specialize in the normative aspects of the tradition must be familiar with the developments in market theory, legal theory, and constitutional theory as they have unfolded since the late 18th century.

    Classical liberals can and should be ideological. But they ought not be ideologues. For the former, an appreciation of the social world’s complexities and the institutions that govern it occupy center stage. In other words, human freedom is the conclusion written on the final line, not the assumption written on the first line.

  12. How regulations block economic progress

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    [This article is updated from one that originally appeared in the Mercury News.]

    Several years ago I participated in a colloquium whose title was something like “Advancing Technology: Thinking Outside the Box.” The presentations ranged from the ever-more imaginative uses of robots (fascinating!) to irrigating the Sahara Desert for growing crops that by mid-century could sustain the planet’s burgeoning population (unconvincing).

    My lecture was the most mundane: I proposed that better government regulation would act as what people in the military call a “force multiplier” (a tool that increases the effectiveness of your force) for technological advancement. I also argued that at present, excessively burdensome regulation blunts technological innovation.

    Progressive Policy Institute economists Michael Mandel and Diana Carew observed in a 2013 policy memo that “for each new regulation added to the existing pile, there is a greater possibility for … inefficient company resource allocation, and for reduced ability to invest in innovation.”

    The regulatory burden

    The economic burden of America’s accumulating mountain of regulatory requirements is almost unimaginable: According to a study from the Mercatus Center at George Mason University covering the years from 1977 through 2012, regulation’s drag on the US economy has made the economy a whopping $4 trillion smaller than it otherwise would have been.

    One of the reasons for this massive effect is that, as regulations become more and more complex and burdensome, prospective entrepreneurs and managers must expend more resources on issues related to regulation and thus have less available for innovation and corporate growth.

    The Competitive Enterprise Institute’s report Ten Thousand Commandments 2016 examines many of the government’s own cost estimates (which are notoriously low, because bureaucrats tend to lowball the costs and overstate the benefits of their rules). Nevertheless, the study found that federal regulation alone costs consumers and businesses at least $1.9 trillion every year in compliance costs and lost economic productivity — more than 11 percent of current GDP. According to the author, federal regulation is, in effect, “a hidden tax that amounts to nearly $15,000 per U.S. household each year.”

    The “gatekeeper” regulatory agencies, whose affirmative approvals are necessary before new innovations can be commercialized, are the source of much of the massive burden of regulation. The Food and Drug Administration alone regulates products that account for more than a trillion dollars annually — 25 cents of every consumer dollar.

    The average cost to develop and bring a new drug to market is now about $2.6 billion, but many of the largest drug companies spend significantly more than that — for pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca, the figure is almost $12 billion per drug, and for GlaxoSmithKline, Sanofi, and Roche, it is around $8 billion.

    It might seem counterintuitive that some of the behemoth companies spend the most per approved product; after all, they have the most experience with the processes of clinical testing and negotiating the regulatory maze. The reason is that the biggest companies take the most risks in drug development and, consequently, experience the most failures.

    Too few mistakes

    And that’s not a bad thing; as Phil Knight, the co-founder of Nike, put it, “The trouble in America is not that we are making too many mistakes, but that we are making too few.”

    What he meant is that to discover the Next Big Thing, you need to think outside the box — and inevitably, many of the projects attempted will fail, whether we’re talking about nuclear fusion, new pharmaceuticals, techniques for sequestering CO2, or software to assure the safety of self-driving cars.

    Much existing regulation is superfluous or fails to be cost-effective. In his excellent book Breaking the Vicious Circle, written shortly before he was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court, Stephen Breyer cited an example of expensive, non-cost-effective regulation by the EPA: a ban on asbestos pipe, shingles, coating, and paper, which the most optimistic estimates suggested would prevent seven or eight premature deaths over 13 years — at a cost of approximately a quarter of a billion dollars.

    Breyer observed that such a vast expenditure on regulating uses of asbestos that confer such tiny risks would cause more deaths than it would prevent from the asbestos exposure, simply by reducing the resources available for other public amenities. Nevertheless, political pressures from environmental activists pushed the EPA into making a decision whose net effect was actually to increase health risks.

    Regulatory excesses make it less likely that in any of the sectors in which American scientists and companies have excelled — nanotechnology, materials science, nuclear power, pharmaceuticals, medical devices, biotech and agriculture, to name just a few — we will discover the Next Big Thing.

    The refinement of regulation to make it more evidence-based and cost-effective isn’t as sexy as growing crops in the Sahara, but it could yield tremendous humanitarian and economic benefits in the near-term and for generations to come.

    Regulators won’t do it without significant prodding, so maybe major health-related philanthropies like the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Gates Foundation, and Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative should make it part of their agenda. As wealthy as they are, they and their grantees would benefit from the “force multiplier” effect of smarter, more streamlined, more efficient regulation.