Category Archive: Liberty

  1. The right to refuse service? Business owners and gay marriage

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    Debating Religious Liberty and Discrimination, by John Corvino, Ryan T. Anderson, and Sherif Girgis, Oxford University Press, 352 pages, $21.95

    Steve Tennes, an orchard owner in Michigan, recently refused to host a same-sex wedding on his property, instead referring the couple to another orchard.

    Business owners have profound incentives to serve customers. It is a rare proprietor who will turn away a paying customer because of a religious conviction.

    Yet over the past few years, several business owners like Tennes have done just that. These men and women believe their faith prohibits them from participating in same-sex wedding ceremonies.

    Contrary to popular belief, what Tennes did is perfectly legal in Michigan. The Great Lakes State, like about half of the states, has no law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

    But the Michigan town of East Lansing, where Tennes brings his produce to the farmers’ market, has a local ordinance prohibiting such conduct. Because Tennes will not host same-sex weddings at his orchard, the city banned him from selling fruit at its market. He responded by suing the town for violating his religious freedom. Litigation is ongoing.

    Such cases are at the heart of Debating Religious Liberty and Discrimination, a new point-counterpoint book by John Corvino, Ryan T. Anderson, and Sheriff Girgis. All three authors value religious liberty and oppose unjust discrimination. But as they point out in their joint introduction, “The devil is in the details.”

    The Case for Limiting Religious Exemptions

    Corvino begins the debate by providing a reasonable case for severely limiting religious exemptions. In good libertarian fashion, he contends that laws restrict liberty and so they shouldn’t be passed unless there are very good reasons to do so. If such reasons exist, all citizens should have to follow the laws regardless of their religious convictions.

    So, for instance, his solution to the problem of Native Americans who feel compelled to use peyote in religious ceremonies is not to exempt them from laws banning its use but to eliminate the law altogether. Then anyone, religious or not, can use peyote for whatever reasons they desire.

    Corvino doesn’t like religious exemptions, but he doesn’t reject them altogether. He concedes, for instance, that the state should not compel citizens to kill. If the nation is conscripting soldiers, pacifists should be offered an alternative to military service. Similarly, medical professionals should not be forced to participate in abortions or euthanasia. These accommodations should be available to religious and nonreligious citizens alike.

    Other than in issues of life and death, most accommodations would disappear in Corvino’s ideal world. This is not to say he is entirely unsympathetic to florists, bakers, orchard owners, and others who believe they should not participate in same-sex wedding ceremonies. He suggests three different ways in which they could be protected without religious accommodations. His preferred method is to revise antidiscrimination laws to exclude small firms that offer expressive or wedding-related services.

    The Case for Religion as a Basic Human Good

    Anderson and Girgis, by way of contrast, make a robust but accessible philosophical argument for the importance of religious liberty. Drawing from the philosopher John Finnis’s work, they contend that religion is a “basic human good” and that the purpose of the state is to “protect the ability of people to pursue all the basic goods.”

    Anderson and Girgis recognize that no right is absolute. If the state has a compelling reason to prevent a religiously motivated action, it may do so. With respect to discrimination, they propose that antidiscrimination laws should trump religiously motivated actions only when private treatment of a particular group imposes material and/or social harms that the law can best cure, and the particular proposed antidiscrimination provision is drawn narrowly enough to (1) suppress interactions that inflict those material and social harms, (2) avoid banning too many legitimate or harmless interactions, and (3) avoid treading too far onto other interests like conscience, religion, and speech.

    Applying this test would protect the orchard owners, bakers, and florists who have been sued or prosecuted under antidiscrimination laws. But it would not exempt every religiously motivated action; for example, racial discrimination could still be prohibited.

    There is much, much more to this book. Collectively, the essays provide an excellent overview of the main issues in cases involving religious liberty and antidiscrimination statutes. Both sides offer reasonable and well-articulated arguments to support their positions.

    Far too often, debates about these matters degenerate quickly into impugning motives and calling names. A critically important contribution of the book is that Corvino, Anderson, and Girgis show that people with deeply held convictions can have a rational argument about controversial issues.

  2. What Charles Darwin owes Adam Smith

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    The following is a lightly edited, slightly condensed transcript of the talk “Adam Darwin: Emergent Order in Biology and Economics,” presented by Matt Ridley at the Adam Smith Institute in 2012.

    I’ve called my lecture “Adam Darwin” to stress how congruent the philosophies of Adam Smith and Charles Darwin are. The common theme, of course, is emergence — the idea that order and complexity can be bottom-up phenomena; both economies and ecosystems emerge. But my purpose really is to explore not just the history and evolution of this shared idea but its future: to show that in the age of the Internet, Adam-Darwinism is the key to understanding how the world will change.

    The Common Ancestry of Evolution and Economics

    Darwin’s debt to the political economists is considerable. He spent formative years in Edinburgh among the ghosts of Hume, Hutchinson, Ferguson, and Smith. When he was at Cambridge in 1829, he wrote, “My studies consist in Adam Smith and Locke.” At his grandfather Josiah Wedgwood’s house in Staffordshire, Darwin often met the lawyer and laissez-faire politician Sir James Mackintosh, whose daughter married Charles’s brother-in-law (and had an affair with his brother).

    On the Beagle, he read the naturalist Henri Milne-Edwards, who took Adam Smith’s notion of the division of labor and applied it to the organs of the body. After seeing a Brazilian rainforest, Darwin promptly reapplied the same idea to the division of labor among specialized species in an ecosystem: “The advantage of diversification in the inhabitants of the same region is in fact the same as that of the physiological division of labor in the organs of the same individual body — subject so well elucidated by Milne-Edwards.”

    Back in England in the 1830s, through his brother Erasmus, Darwin fell in with the radical feminist and novelist Harriet Martineau, who had shot to fame because of her series of short fictional books called Illustrations of Political Economy. These were intended to educate people in the ideas of Adam Smith, “whose excellence,” she once said, “is marvelous.” I believe it was probably at Martineau’s suggestion that, in October 1838, Darwin came to reread Malthus (a person with whom Martineau was on very close terms) and to have his famous insight that death must be a non-random and therefore selective force.

    Parenthetically, it’s worth recalling the role of anti-slavery in bringing Martineau and Darwin together. Darwin’s grandfather Josiah Wedgwood was one of the leaders and organizers of the anti-slavery movement, a friend of Wilberforce, and the maker of the famous medallion “Am I not a man and a brother?” which was the emblem of the anti-slavery movement. Charles Darwin’s aunt Sara gave more money to the anti-slavery movement than any woman in Britain. Darwin had been horrified by what he called, “The heart-sickening atrocities of slavery in Brazil.” Abolition was almost the family business. Meanwhile, Harriet Martineau had just toured America speaking against slavery and had become so notorious that there were plans to lynch her in South Carolina.

    Today, to a bien pensant intellectual, it might seem surprising to find such a left-wing cause alongside such a right-wing enthusiasm for markets, but it should not be. So long is the shadow cast by the top-down determinism of Karl Marx, with his proposal that the state should be the source of reform and welfare, that it’s often forgotten how radical the economic liberalism of the political economists seemed in the 1830s. In those days, to be suspicious of a strong state was to be left-wing (and, if you’ll forgive the pun, quite right, too).

    Today, generally, Adam Smith is claimed by the right, Darwin by the left. In the American red states, where Smith’s emergent decentralized philosophy is all the rage, Darwin is often reviled for his contradiction of dirigiste creationism. In the average British university by contrast, you will find fervent believers in the emergent decentralized properties of genomes and ecosystems, who nonetheless demand dirigiste policy to bring order to the economy and society. Yet, if the market needs no central planner, why should life need an intelligent designer, or vice versa?

    Ideas evolved by descent and modification just as species do, and the idea of emergence is no exception. Darwin at least partly got the idea from the political economists, who got it from the empirical philosophers. To put it crudely, Locke and Newton begat Hume and Voltaire, who begat Hutchinson and Smith, who begat Malthus and Ricardo, who begat Darwin and Wallace. Darwin’s central proposition was that faithful reproduction, occasional random variation, and selective survival, can be a surprisingly progressive and cumulative force. It can gradually build things of immense complexity. Indeed, it can make something far more complex than a conscious deliberate designer ever could. With apologies to William Paley and Richard Dawkins, it can make a watchmaker.

    Each time a baby is conceived, 20,000 genes turn each other on and off, in a symphony of great precision, building a brain of 10 trillion synapses, each refined and remodeled by early and continuing experience. To posit an immense intelligence capable of comprehending such a scheme, rather than a historical emergent process, is merely to exacerbate the problem — who designed the designer?

    Likewise, as Leonard Reed pointed out, each time that the pencil is purchased, tens of thousands of different people collaborate to supply the wood, the graphite, the knowledge, and the energy, without any one of them knowing how to make a pencil. Says Smith, if you like, “This came about by bottom-up emergence, not top-down dirigism.” In both cases, nobody’s in charge, and crucially, nobody needs to understand what’s being done.

    Why Innovation Happens

    So far, I’m treading a well trodden path in the steps of Herbert Spencer, Frederick Hayek, Karl Popper, and many others who’ve explored the parallels between evolutionary and economic theory. But the story has grown a lot more interesting in the last few years, I think, because of developments in field of cultural and technological evolution. Thanks especially to the work of three anthropologists — Rob Boyd, Pete Richardson, and Joe Henrich — we are beginning now to understand the extraordinary close parallels between how our bodies evolved and how our tools and rules evolve. Innovation is an evolutionary process. That’s not just a metaphor, it’s a precise description. I need you to re-examine a lot of your assumptions about how innovation happens to disenthrall yourself of what you already know.

    First, innovation happens mainly by trial and error. It’s a tinkering process, and it usually starts with technology, not science, by the way, as Terrence Keeley has shown. The trial and error may happen between firms, between designs, between people, but it happens. If you look at the tail planes of early airplanes, there’s a lot of trial and error, there’s a lot of different designs being tried and eventually one is decided.

    Exchange is crucial to innovation, and innovation accelerates in societies that open themselves up to internal and external exchange through trade and communication — Ancient Greece, Song China, Renaissance Italy, 16th century Holland, 19th century Britain — whereas innovation falters in countries that close themselves off from trade — Ming China, Nero’s India, Communist Albania, North Korea.

    More ever, every innovation, as Brian Arthur has argued, is a combination of other innovations. As L.T.C. Rolt, the historian of engineering put it, “The motorcar looks as if it was sired by the bicycle out of the horse carriage.” My favorite example of this phenomenon is the pill camera, which takes a picture of your insides on the way through. It came about after a conversation between a gastroenterologist and a guided missile designer.

    Adam Smith in other words, has the answer to an evolutionary puzzle: what caused the sudden emergence of behaviorally modern human beings in Africa in the past hundred thousand years or so? In that surprisingly anthropological first chapter of The Wealth of Nations, Smith saw so clearly that what was special about human beings was that they exchanged and specialized.

    Neanderthals didn’t do this — they only ever used local materials. In this cave in Georgia, the Neanderthals used local stone for their tools. They never used tools from any distance away, from any Neanderthal sites. But when modern human beings move into this very same area, you find stone from many miles away being used to make the tools, as well as local stone. That means that moderns had access to ideas, as well as materials from far away. Just as sex gives a species access to innovations anywhere in its species, so exchange gives you access to innovation anywhere in your species.

    When did it first happen? When was trade invented? At the moment, the oldest evidence is from about a 120,000 years ago. That’s when obsidian axes in Ethiopia and snail-shell beads in Algeria start traveling long distances. These beads are made from marine shells, but they’re found a hundred miles inland. And we know from modern Aborigines in Australia that long-distance movement of man-made objects happens by trade, not migration. So it’s not that people are walking all the way to the Mediterranean and picking up shells and walking all the way back again; they’re getting them hand-to-hand by trade.

    Now that’s 120,000 years ago — ten times as old as agriculture — but I suspect it goes back further still. There’s a curious flowering of sophisticated tool kits in Africa around a 160,000 years ago, in a seashore dwelling population, as evidenced by excavations at a place called “Pinnacle Point.” It came and went, but careful modeling by some anthropologists at the University College London suggests that this might be a demographic phenomenon: a rich food supply led to a dense population, which led to a rich toolkit. But that’s only going to be true if there is exchange going on, if the ideas are having sex — dense populations of rabbits don’t get better tools. Once exchange and specialization are happening, cultural evolution accelerates if population density rises, and decelerates if it falls.

    We can see this clearly from more recent archeology in a study by Melanie Klien and Rob Boyd. In the Pacific, in pre-Western contact times, the sophistication of fishing tackle depends on the amount of trading contact between islands. Isolated islands, control for island size, will have simpler fishing tackle than well-connected islands. And indeed, if you cut people off from exchange networks, human progress not only stalls, it can go backwards.

    The best example of this is Tasmania, which became an island ten thousand years ago when sea levels rose. Not only did the Tasmanians not get innovations that happened after this time, such as the boomerang, they actually dis-invented many of their existing tools. They gave up making bone tools altogether, for example. As Joe Henrich has argued, the reason for this is that their population was too small to sustain the specialization needed to collaborate in the making of some of these tools. Their collective brain was not big enough — nothing to do with their individual brains, it’s the collective intelligence that counts.

    As a control for this idea, notice that the same thing did not happen in Tierra Del Fuego. The Fuegan Indians continue to progress technologically. The reason for this is that the Magellan Strait is narrower than the Bass Strait, so trade continued and the Feugan Indians had access to a collective brain the size of South America. Whereas, as the Tasmanians had access to a collective brain only the size of Tasmania.

    The Collectivism of Markets

    Now for me one of the most fascinating implications of this understanding of the collective brain is just how touchy-feely liberal it is. I’m constantly being told that to believe in markets is to believe in selfishness and greed. Yet I think the very opposite is true. The more people are immersed in markets, the more they collaborate, the more they share, the more they work for each other. In a fascinating series of experiments, Joe Henrich and his colleagues showed that people who play ultimatum games — a game invented by economists to try and bring out selfishness and cooperation — play them more selfishly in more isolated and self-sufficient hunter-gatherer societies, and less so in more market-integrated societies.

    History shows that market-oriented, bottom-up societies are kinder, gentler, less likely to go to war, more likely to look after their poor, more likely to patronize the arts, and more likely to look after the environment than societies run by the state. Hong Kong versus Mao’s China, 16th century Holland versus Louis the XIV’s France, 20th century America versus Stalin’s Russia, the ancient Greeks versus the ancient Egyptians, the Italian city-states versus the Italian papal-states, South Korea versus North Korea, even today’s American versus today’s France, and so on.

    As Voltaire said, “Go into the London stock exchange and you will see representatives of all nations gathered there for the service of mankind. There the Jew, the Mohammedan, and the Christian deal with each other as if they were of the same religion, and give the name of infidel only to those who go bankrupt.”

    As Deirdre McCloskey reminds us, we must not slip into apologizing for markets, for saying they are necessary despite their cruelties. We should embrace them precisely because they make people less selfish, and they make life more collective, less individualistic. The entire drift of human history has been to make us less self-sufficient and more dependent on others to provide what we consume and to consume what we provide. We’ve moved from consuming only as widely as we produce to being much more specialized as producers and much more diversified as consumers.

    That’s the very source of prosperity and innovation. It’s time to reclaim the word “collectivism” from the statists on the left. The whole point of the market is that it does indeed “collectivize” society, but from the bottom-up, not the top-down. We surely know by now after endless experiments that a powerful state encourages selfishness.

    Let me end with an optimistic note. If I’m right, that exchange is the source of innovation, then I believe that the invention of the Internet, with its capacity to enable ideas to have sex faster and more promiscuously than ever, must be raising the innovation rate. And since innovation creates prosperity by lowering the time it takes to fulfill needs, then the astonishingly rapid lifting of humanity out of poverty that has happened all over the world, particularly in the last 20 years, can surely only accelerate. Indeed, it is accelerating. Much of Africa is now enjoying Asian Tiger-style growth. Child mortality is plummeting at a rate of five percent a year in Africa. In Silicon Valley recently, Vivek Wadhwa showed me a $35 tablet computer that will shortly be selling in India. Think what will be invented when a billion Indians are online.

    In terms of human prosperity, therefore, we ain’t seen nothing yet. And because prosperity is an emergent property, an inevitable side effect of human exchange, we could not stop it even if we wanted to. All we could do is divert it elsewhere on the planet (which is what we in Europe seem intent on doing). “Adam Darwin” did not invent emergence: his was an idea that emerged when it was ripe. And like so many good ideas, it was already being applied long before it was even understood. And so I give you Adam-Darwinism as the key to the future.

  3. Reddit AMA with Economist and Iconoclast, Professor Bryan Caplan

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    Bryan Caplan is a Professor of Economics at George Mason University. He is a prolific blogger and author of three books: The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies (2007), Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think (2011), and the forthcoming The Case Against Education.

    Professor Caplan has appeared in the New York Times,  Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post, and has appeared on ABC, Fox News, MSNBC, and C-SPAN. He recently appeared on The Rubin Report in association with Learn Liberty, and starred in the Learn Liberty video series: Econ Chronicles.

    Mark your calendar and join us for a rousing conversation at this Tuesday, June 20th at 3:00pm ET where you’ll have the chance to chat with Professor Caplan and ask him anything!

    Update: The AMA is now live!

  4. What’s wrong with gun control? The same thing that’s wrong with immigration restrictions.

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    A common argument for restricting immigration to the United States and other developed countries — maybe even the most plausible one — runs like this. Opening the borders will bring in people who will consume more public services than they pay for in taxes and who will vote for more statist politicians who support those public services. The result will be less freedom for everyone in the long run. Therefore, many conservatives say, immigration control is a regrettable but necessary step to securing freedom.

    Meanwhile, a common argument for restricting gun ownership in the United States and other developed countries — maybe even the most plausible one — runs like this. Opening the market to the free sale and possession of guns will allow criminals to get their hands on deadly weapons, perhaps through theft if not legal purchase, resulting in more murder and less freedom in the long run. Therefore, many progressives say, gun control is a regrettable but necessary step to securing freedom.

    These common arguments for restricting immigration and restricting gun ownership are surprisingly similar in form. They show us that the reason why fierce immigration control advocates are generally not also fierce gun control advocates (and vice versa) has more to do with ideological confirmation bias than sound logic.

    Furthermore, both these arguments make a questionable implicit assumption: that it is morally acceptable to take away the freedoms of some people to secure the more important freedoms of others.

    When is it morally acceptable to restrict freedom?

    In some emergency scenarios, we might be tempted to agree with this assumption. For instance, it might be morally acceptable for you to steal my car to prevent a murder across town. I’m not sure this is true, but let’s concede for now that it might be true. Even if it is true, we generally think that you still need to return my car once you no longer need it to prevent the murder, and that you need to compensate me for any damages and trouble you caused.

    Few of us would think it acceptable to set up a standing policy of car theft for murder prevention. Should we have a permanent division of the police to go around stealing cars when they think they’re necessary for otherwise legitimate police work? Surely not.

    Furthermore, virtually everyone would agree that  stealing the car would have to be the least invasive way of preventing the murder. If there’s a way to prevent the murder that doesn’t involve stealing at all, like using your own car or paying a willing driver, you must not steal.

    Can violating one freedom promote another, greater freedom?

    The advocates of immigration- and gun-control policies seem to think we should have a standing law-enforcement body to go around violating freedoms in the hope that a greater gain in freedom will happen down the road. How is this different in principle from setting up a division of the police for commandeering cars — or a division of the military for commandeering homes, a practice of the 18th century British army banned by the Third Amendment to the US Constitution?

    Even if violating some people’s rights to protect more people’s rights through standing enforcement agencies is morally acceptable in principle, advocates of such measures need to show that the violation of freedoms will actually work in the way that they claim. The burden of proof is on them; it isn’t okay to take away freedoms systematically on the basis of mere speculation — only on hard, indisputable evidence.

    In the case of immigration and guns, that evidence is thin and disputable. Legal immigrants are, on the best evidence, a small net fiscal burden to existing US taxpayers, on average.[1] Is stopping a small net fiscal burden a greater gain to freedom than the loss of freedom associated with immigration law enforcement? That seems unlikely.

    Are there alternative solutions that don’t violate freedom?

    Moreover, an alternative, less invasive solution to the fiscal burden problem would be to make immigrants ineligible for more programs. In the same way, a less invasive solution to the problem of immigrant votes for statists would be to make earning the right to vote more difficult than obtaining the right to live and work in the United States. It is also questionable whether immigrants tend to vote for statists; certainly, anti-immigrant rhetoric from the right makes immigrants less likely to vote for right-wing parties.

    On guns, there is a big debate in the literature, but there are just as many high-quality studies finding that gun regulations increase violent crime as there are studies that find that they reduce violent crime. Many find no effect at all, and one points out that different modeling assumptions have a substantial effect on study results, such that basing a policy decision on any particular model is dangerous. Even if gun laws did reduce crime a little, we don’t know whether other, less intrusive methods of reducing crime, such as supporting mental health treatment, would work just as well.

    The principal arguments for restricting immigration and for restricting guns both depend at minimum on the assumption that it is acceptable to take away some people’s freedoms on an ongoing basis whenever doing so preserves greater or more important freedoms. This assumption implies some absurd conclusions, such as it being okay for police to steal cars for their work rather than buy them.

    A weaker, more plausible premise, that it is acceptable to take away freedoms if doing so is the least invasive available means for preserving greater freedoms, still cannot justify immigration and gun laws, because less invasive means for solving the supposed ills of immigration and gun ownership do exist. Moreover, the evidence is thin as to whether immigration- and gun-control laws even promote greater freedom at all — more likely, they simply reduce freedom.

    [1] A careful analysis of native- and immigrant-headed households in New Jersey found that, looking at just state and local public sectors, “native households in New Jersey bear a total net fiscal burden of $232 per native household from the fact that the average immigrant-headed household receives $1,484 per immigrant household more in state and local services than it contributes in state and local taxes.” In California, “the average native household contributes a fiscal surplus of $283 per household to fund a fiscal deficit of $831 per immigrant-headed household.” However, immigrants are a net contributor at the federal level: $127 per immigrant household in California and $520 per immigrant household in New Jersey. That still works out to a small net fiscal burden from immigrant households.

  5. Highlights from our Reddit AMA with Professor Sarah Burns

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    Did you miss our recent Reddit AMA with Professor Sarah Burns of RIT’s political science department? You can find the whole conversation here, or check out some of the highlights below.

    Dr. Burns is a regular contributor to the Learn Liberty Blog, and starred in our series on America’s Founding.



    Hi, thanks for doing an AMA! I’ve got a fairly straight forward question:

    Do you believe that our inherent cultural paradigms have an impact on the acceptance of liberalism? And if so, how is globalization and the internet working to change/alter our cultural paradigms and attitudes with regards to liberalism?


    That’s a big question! It’s also hard to answer without first addressing what you mean by liberal. Classical liberalism focuses on rights protection, limited government, and free markets. Presently in the United States, people connect the term “liberal” to people like Bernie Sanders who favors expanding rights protection, providing a government safety net and protecting American workers. Ideologically, it’s pretty much night and day! I would say that there is a core element of the American identity that holds firm to classical liberalism and an element that sees government as a check on the more volativle elements of a free market system. For that reason, if you think that free markets make goods cheaper which benefits all levels of society, you would favor globalization. Comparatively, if you think it causes a concentration of wealth and the exportation of jobs, you’d agree with Bernie Sanders. The internet provides a means for individuals to engage in confirmation bias. The more you see that globalization provides a net benefit, the more you support it. The more you see that globalization causes problems, the more you oppose it.


    If you could rewrite the Constitution what would you keep? What would you get rid of? What would you add?


    A dream come true!

    I’ll do my top three:

    1.  I would give Congress the teeth it needs to control the use of force. Presently the power to declare war doesn’t stop presidents from starting wars.

    2.  I would get rid of the 17th Amendment. States need a say in the federal government in order to stop the federal government from gobbling up state power.

    3.  Find a way to deal with parties. They aren’t accounted for in the Constitution.


    Professor Burns, you mentioned that throughout the years the Founders and their followers had endured great hardships without altering the Constitution. Considering that the left has now joined the right in clamoring for a Constitutional Convention, do you think that will now occur and what do you think the outcome could be?


    If the Civll War didn’t cause a Constitutional Convention I doubt we’ll see one now. You’d need a really big catalyst to cause one.


    How do you think the 2016 election cycle will impact future presidential elections?


    That’s a big question. First of all, everyone has to throw out the old playbook. Gone are the days when you can say money and organization wins elections. Hillary outspent and out-organized but still lost. We also may need to rethink our addiction on polling. I think it was horrible how people went after pollsters after the election when they correctly predicted that there was a margin of error that could lead to Trump’s win. It’s not their fault it happened. There may have been, however, some people who saw the polls and decided to stay home and/or vote. That’s giving statistics far too much power over our democracy. We also see the growth of populism in the United States. This is the first time since Andrew Jackson that a truly populist candidate made it to the White House. Populism has an extremely dangerous element. It’s rooted in passions and therefore somewhat immune to rational argument. That’s one of the reasons we see Trump support among his base remaining solid. They love him no matter what he does. I suppose I’ll say I hope that our institutions will do a good job of correcting for this excess of democracy (that can be bad as well). Those are my top take aways.


    1.  What are some of the reasons why Congress has chosen not to declare war in the past 70 years? Does this play a role in the aggregation of power to the presidency that both parties have played a role in?

    2.  What is a workable framework towards developing a better separation of powers on the issue of war powers? Should we take an originalist view of the presidency or should this better be understood in the context of modern warfare?


    1.  The short and blunt answer is that Congress has shirked its constitutional responsibility. It’s in their interest to let the president sink or swim on his own and critique him from the sidelines. It does play a role in the collection of power in the presidency. Structurally the Constitution creates a system when one branch checks the other. It isn’t surprising that presidents want more power over war. What’s surprising is that Congress has given it to them.

    2.  Congress needs real teeth and skin in the game. They need a more powerful way to check unilateral presidential war making. The power of the purse doesn’t work because it looks like they’re taking money away from our troops. They can’t stop presidents from initiating hostilities because presidents know Congress wants to avoid holding the executive accountable. If the president didn’t have discretionary spending to allow the initiation of hostilities without congressional assent, they would go to war way less. That could cause some issues for defense but those can be worked out. That would give Congress teeth and skin in the game. They voted to give the president the money he needs to engage in the military operation. They’re on the hook if it goes poorly as well. I think that framework stays true to the “invitation to struggle” created by the Constitution while acknowledging that modern warfare is different.


    What is the closest historical analog for the current US political climate?


    It’s similar to the turn of the 20th century. There was a real concentration of wealth (it was called the Gilded Age) and the working class had a lot of problems. There were calls to create unions to protect “the little guy” while a small fraction of the population got richer and richer. It was also an era of globalization as we were becoming more and more connected to other markets. There were populist movements and nationalism, just like we have today. There were also people arguing in favor of more globalization and freer trade.


    What are the historical indicators of impending revolt, legal or otherwise, when authoritarian type leaders in America, or abroad are removed by the people?


    I’m not sure what a legal revolt would look like, lots of lawyers and judges walking out of court rooms? I kid.

    Traditionally, Americans have been very gun-shy around revolutions. They liked their own but after that they didn’t really support a lot of democratic movements for a while. I would also say that besides a few examples in the first half of the twentieth century, most developed Western democracies correct their problems through elections rather than revolutions. Typically for a revolution to occur there have to be very bad states (that do not provide basic services) without enough money to buy off the electorate (this happens in what are called rentier states; the government will give money to people in order to stop them from trying to create a more democratic government). Overall, I would say the history of revolutions is not a happy one. Most of the time, the state falls into anarchy (such as many of the states after the Arab Spring) or tyranny (such as France and Russia after their revolutions).


    As the Baby Boomers continue to retire/die what do you think the future of our government will look like as more Millennials replace them?


    I wouldn’t count out the Baby Boomers yet. There are still a lot of them and older voters vote. For that reason politicians pay attention to them. Moreover, life-expectancy has increased dramatically. That said, Millennials will likely go through the same cycle as Boomers. Presently they are more iconoclastic; as they grow up they’ll worry more about mortgages and educations; later they’ll wag their finger at the youngins’ who don’t have any respect or ambition. We (I’m a Millenial) can’t even claim that we’re the first to worry about the environment. Boomers beat us to that. Similarly the Gen-Xers can claim that the difference between life before and after internet was much more important than life before and after smartphones.


    Do you think it’s dangerous that people are pro-Trump regardless of what he does?


    There is an element of passion that sits at the heart of all democracies. After all, Madison in Federalist Paper #10 said we have to control the problem of faction rather than eliminate it. Trump’s devoted base could be considered a faction by some. As such, as long as our institutions check and balance each other, the passion of his supporters will not be the only thing guiding policy outcomes.


    Do you support the Paw Print petition for the changing of Dinning Dollars to Destler Doubloons?




  6. Full Debate: Is Immigration a Human Right?

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    Bryan Caplan and Christopher Wellman debate immigration. Is there a human right to immigrate to any country in the world?

    Debate sponsored by IHS, the John Templeton Foundation, and University of San Diego’s Center for Ethics, Economics, and Public Policy.

  7. Is victim culture spreading beyond the university?

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    I’ve received a lot of great, thought-provoking feedback about my recent article on the culture of victimhood. My argument in that post was that many American universities like Yale are descending into a victim culture, in which insults are treated as major, political threats to historically marginalized groups, which require an administrative or legal crackdown.

    Victim culture threatens to undermine the important modern achievement of a dignity culture, in which insults are treated as minor, personal affronts to individuals, affronts that should be addressed quietly or even ignored.

    And while members of various minority groups at Yale certainly experience a sundry of insults in their daily lives, I doubt that in the aggregate, they are less privileged than, say, a white male born into poverty in rural West Virginia.

    But while Yale minority students are undeniably privileged, I would certainly not say the same about most members of minority groups. Robust correlations undeniably exist between race and poverty, due partially to discrimination.

    My problem is that the students in the Yale Halloween costume protest video seem to think that their minority status is the only aspect of their identity that matters — that cognitive ability and the fact that they are receiving a top-tier education don’t matter.

    Moreover, this is ultimately an empirical question: would people prefer to be members of a minority group while possessing above-average intelligence and above-average educational and economic opportunities? Or would they prefer to be members of a majority group while possessing average or below-average intelligence and having its accompanying economic and educational opportunities?

    I suspect most people would prefer the former, but I’m willing to be proven wrong. In fact, my lab will begin investigating this question in the fall. Stay tuned.

    Is victim culture unique to college campuses?

    Some readers objected to my characterization of victim culture and its associated lack of respect for viewpoint diversity as unique to college campuses. As one commenter put it, “If you think this culture hasn’t permeated every level of business then you have been in academia too long friend. HR in modern companies is a joke and reflects exactly what you write about.”

    This commenter makes a fair point, and it’s certainly true that my own experience is primarily in academia. My only reply is that the feedback loop in the private sector is much more direct, so firms have an incentive to keep the nonsense to a minimum. It seems to me that this is less true for universities, but I may be wrong.

    Another commenter argued that it was inappropriate to paint this generation (I suppose we’re calling them Millennials?) with a broad brush and that they are in no way unique. Here, I disagree.

    The best data we have on this question (to my knowledge) come from the Pew Research Center, which indicates that US millennials report a unique hostility to the concept of free speech. Specifically, they are open to the idea that speech offensive to minority groups should be censored. This hostility is by no means definitive evidence of the victimhood culture thesis, but I think it speaks volumes.

    Free speech improves the human condition.

    Past generations of protesters — here, I am referring primarily to the civil rights movement and the antiwar protesters of the 1960s — explicitly favored free speech. They did so by necessity, as their left-wing views were in opposition to the views of those in power.

    As journalist, activist, and Yale alum Jonathan Rauch has argued in his excellent book Kindly Inquisitors: The New Attacks on Free Thought (and elsewhere), freedom of expression has been necessary for the advancement of minority rights; the disadvantaged are more likely to benefit from a free, open, and peaceful exchange of ideas than to be harmed by it.

    When self-appointed oracles of social orthodoxy loudly demand that speech be restricted, I can only assume that they (a) know nothing of history, or (b) are more interested in assuring themselves of their own virtue (and broadcasting it as loudly as possible) than they are concerned with the human condition.

    I should insert a statement that I omitted from my original post for the sake of brevity: private colleges have every right to restrict speech. Along the same lines, I have every right to tell my children that I will not pay for them to attend such institutions (and yes, this includes both Yale and Liberty University — I’m an equal-opportunity shill for free expression). Public institutions are bound to abide by the First Amendment, so that’s another story. Either way, an institution that blocks the expression of controversial ideas (or allows them to be blocked) is hardly one of “higher education.”

    Who should constrain free speech — and when?

    Finally, the one question no one has been able to answer in all the discussion on my last piece is as follows: If speech must be constrained, who is to do the constraining? Decades (if not centuries) of jurisprudence and scholarly attention have failed to produce a reasonable answer, which suggests to me that one is not to be found.

    Still, we can draw an obvious line: when the speech directly and purposively incites physical violence, it should be prohibited.

    Yes, words can cause psychological distress, but this is largely dependent on perception and individual differences and is categorically different from physical aggression. A simple example is instructive: Would you rather be punched in the face or called an ethnic slur?

    Neither is pleasant. Both are reprehensible. But only the former should be prohibited.

  8. F.A. Hayek accomplished several careers’ worth of economic achievements in one lifetime

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    F.A. Hayek would have celebrated his 118th birthday today. When he passed away in 1992, he left behind a prodigious body of work on several discrete issues.

    Hayek was the 20th century’s most prominent developer of the Austrian business cycle theory. He extended Mises’s argument about the impossibility of economic calculation under socialism in his classic essay “The Use of Knowledge in Society” and in the papers that were collected into Individualism and Economic Order in 1948.

    As a student, he developed the basis of a cognitive theory, which he revised and published in 1952 in The Sensory Order. He wrote extensively on the method of the social sciences in The Counter-Revolution of Science, also published in 1952 and one of his most important statements on the subject.

    Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, he developed a body of social theory about knowledge and competition. These became The Constitution of Liberty (originally published in 1960) and Law, Legislation, and Liberty, released in three volumes during the 1970s. He was awarded the Nobel Prize, which he shared with Gunnar Myrdal, in 1974.

    Each of these separate bodies of work would constitute a monumental achievement. Hayek did it all over the course of a single career that established him as one of the most important social thinkers of the 20th century. He was most famous, however, for his 1944 book The Road to Serfdom, a more popular treatment of many of the ideas expressed in Individualism and Economic Order that had a deep and profound effect on the English-speaking world.

    Its theme — that statism, socialism, and the erosion of economic liberty meant the erosion of political and civil liberty — was a brilliant exposition of classical liberal ideas and a rank heresy to the established intellectual order. It is through The Road to Serfdom — which was condensed by Reader’s Digest and circulated (in its condensed form) by the Book of the Month Club — that Hayek likely had his biggest effect on public policy.

    The Hayekian Tradition

    There is a rich and vibrant body of scholarship in the Hayekian tradition — what Peter Boettke calls “mainline” (as opposed to “mainstream”) economics — a tradition that builds on the original insights of Adam Smith and Ludwig von Mises and that would later find application and expression in the work of Nobel laureates Milton Friedman, James Buchanan, Douglass North, Vernon Smith, and Elinor Ostrom. Hayek’s ideas are not the curios of intellectual history. They remain fresh and applicable to a wide array of settings where they are being used today by scholars in several disciplines.

    Hayek (and Mises, and many others) was vindicated in a sense by the demise of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Still, his insights have not made full inroads into scholarship and public policy. Liberty and prosperity are hardly the natural outcome of political orders, and they are under constant threat from some who mean well and others who do not.

    The world is certainly a better place, though, because F.A. Hayek explored and explained the institutional foundations of a free and prosperous society. For this we should be grateful.


  9. Islam and classical liberalism: Are they compatible?

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    At first glance, classical liberalism and Islam may seem not just incompatible, but in complete opposition.

    Classical liberalism is a political philosophy that aims at maximizing individual freedom. Islam, on the other hand, is a religion that stresses “submission” and “obedience.”

    Moreover, today’s predominantly Muslim societies are not beacons of liberty — to put it lightly. The Muslim world is full of dictatorships, some of which — such as Iran or Saudi Arabia — justify themselves with references to Islam. According to Freedom House, a Washington-based think tank that measures freedom in the world, among the nearly 50 Muslim-majority states on the globe, only one, Tunisia, ranks as free.

    All this has led some classical liberals and libertarians to consider Islam as an enemy of liberty — in fact, the biggest threat to liberty in the 21st century. In my view, however, they are making a mistake. They are looking at the most rigid, bigoted, and aggressive manifestations of contemporary Islam and then judging a whole religion accordingly.

    With the same logic, one could have had a very negative view of Christianity a thousand years ago by looking at its most rigid, bigoted, and aggressive manifestations — such as the Inquisition that tortured and killed “heretics,” or the crusaders who slaughtered “infidels.” The same Christianity, however, also gave us thinkers like John Locke and Adam Smith who saw liberty as a divine gift. Islam is a similarly diverse religion, and while its own Dark Age is at its zenith now, Islam also has classical liberal interpretations that give hope for the future.

    The Basics

    Just like Judaism and Christianity, Islam is an Abrahamic religion. It is based on the belief that the whole universe is created and sustained by an all-powerful, all-knowing God who guides humanity through prophets and revelations. Islam, in fact, honors the preexisting monotheistic religions, claiming that it completed them with the final revelation given to the Prophet Muhammad, which is the Qur’an.

    The Qur’an — just like the Bible — has various commandments that interfere in human lives: Do not worship idols. Do not eat pork. Do not consume intoxicants. Do not have extramarital sex. Do not eat or drink during the day throughout the holy month of Ramadan. And so on. Are these commandments, by definition, encroachments on human liberty?

    The answer depends on whether these commandments are moral or legal. In other words, is refraining from intoxicants — alcohol, drugs — a moral commandment that the individual Muslim may (or may not) decide to follow? Or it is a legal dictum that will be imposed on every individual?

    If Islamic commandments are moral categories, then there is no clash with classical liberalism. Just like observant Jews in Western society who only eat kosher foods or who rest on the Sabbath, Muslims can freely chose to be observant. Conservative Muslim women can freely choose to cover their heads, for example, and that would be the way they experience liberty.

    However, if Islamic commandments are legal categories, then the Qur’an seemingly justifies states like Saudi Arabia or Iran, which impose their vision of an “Islamic way of life” by law. They force women to cover their heads and punish people for engaging in “immoral behavior,” or spreading “false religions.” These states also criminalize acts they view as apostasy or blasphemy, leading to dramatic violations of freedom of religion and freedom of speech.

    The key issue, therefore, is whether Islam is a religion to be voluntarily followed by individuals and communities in a free society, or a legal system to be imposed by a theocratic state.

    “No Compulsion in Religion”

    On this key issue, I must confess that the classical mainstream interpretations of Islam tend toward theocracy. Since the very beginning of Islam, Muslims had political power, and divine commandments evolved into earthly law broadly called the Sharia.

    In that classical age of Islam — say, from the 7th century to the 19th century — there was at least one gain in terms of liberty: Muslim states did not have a single law of the land. They rather had multiple legal systems to which individuals would be subject based on their religion. In the Ottoman Empire, for example, the Sharia was binding on Muslims, whereas Christians and Jews had their own laws. While alcohol was forbidden to Muslims, it was allowed for Christians.

    In the modern era, theocratic states such as Saudi Arabia have taken a much worse step by making the Sharia the law of the land. That is how Islamic commandments became binding on non-Muslims as well. Thus, Christians visiting Saudi Arabia from abroad may not drink or even possess alcohol — or, alas, even a copy of the Bible — for example, and are subject to imprisonment for violating the law.

    Yet in the same modern era, there have also emerged reformist Muslims who call for revisiting this whole idea of state religion. These reformists — my humble self being among them — argue that the marriage of Islam and the state is just an accident of history, not a requirement of religion.

    They emphasize a key Qur’anic verse, “Let there be no compulsion in religion” (2:258), and argue that the Sharia must be reinterpreted in light of this principle. Compulsion, they add, breeds not genuine religiosity but only hypocrisy. Jihad, they argue, is only a justification for defensive and just war, not a warrant for aggression and conquest.

    This reformist argument makes sense to many Muslims around the world and is promoted by plenty of scholars, intellectuals, movements, and parties. (Tunisia’s recent success was made possible partly because its main pro-Islamic party, En-Nahda, is led by Rashid Ghannouchi — a prominent Islamic scholar who takes the “no compulsion in religion” principle seriously.)

    The Limited Muslim State

    While Muslim reformists argue against certain aspects of the Islamic tradition, they embrace other aspects of it. One of them is a little-noticed but crucial feature of the Sharia: It was not a law devised by state power. It was rather a law devised by religious scholars who were often independent of state power.

    That is why and how, throughout the long centuries of classical Islam, the Sharia often acted as a constraint on arbitrary rule and became the guardian of rights. (It is not an accident that in Arabic, the term “law” translates as huquq, which literally means “rights.”) The rights that the Sharia protected included property rights. This protection was crucial at time when despotic states could typically plunder wealth at will.

    In a tell-tale episode, when Alaud-din Khilji, a fourteenth-century Muslim ruler in India, wanted to overtax his wealthy Hindu subjects, he was dissuaded by his top scholar because doing so would violate the property rights recognized by Islam. “Whenever I want to consolidate my rule,” Khilji complained, “someone tells me that this is against the Sharia.”

    To further consolidate the protection of private property, medieval Islamic scholars developed a version of the legal doctrine of trusts. This allowed the transmission of wealth across generations through the creation of the charitable foundation, the waqf, which was legally immune from governmental interference. The result was a vigorous civil society, including charities, hospitals, and schools, all supported by the private foundations that were under the Sharia’s protection.

    The medieval Muslim state, in other words, was a state limited by law. Thanks to the sanctity and independence of the Sharia, a form of checks and balances was established that allowed nonstate institutions to flourish. If there was a big secret to Islam’s much-praised golden age, it was this notion of a limited state.

    Today, what are we supposed to understand from this whole legacy of the Sharia? A good answer comes from a theory developed by a 14th-century Islamic scholar named Imam Shatibi. He studied all injunctions of the Sharia and reasoned that the “intentions” behind all of them could be rendered to the protection of five values: religion, life, property, intellect, and lineage. Reformist Muslims often take these “five intentions” of the Sharia as the guiding light and argue that any state that protects them — and is constrained by them — is welcome regardless of whether it is “Islamic” or not.

    Islamic Capitalism

    There is one more area to consider: the economy. What kind of economy does Islam envision? Answers among Muslims vary, as there are defenders of so-called “Islamic socialism.” Others, however, argue that if there is a specific Islamic model of the economy, it is certainly capitalism.

    This argument for capitalism is partly rooted in the life of the Prophet Muhammad. Before the beginning of his religious mission at the age of 40 in the city of Mecca, he was a successful merchant. This meant that he saw the blessings of trade and understood the mechanisms of the market. No wonder he has many recorded sayings in which he promotes trade and praises the “honest merchant.”

    The same spirit can be found in the Qur’an. It is quite notable that the longest verse of the Qur’an (2:282) is about how to write a proper loan contract with the right witnesses.

    In a remarkable episode in Prophet Muhammad’s life, we also read that he was asked by his faithful believers to regulate the increasing prices in the marketplace. He responded negatively, saying: “Only God controls the prices.” Some later commentators have seen a spirit here similar to Adam Smith’s invisible hand.

    The protrade spirit of Islam’s prophet and scripture led to the rise of a financial and commercial capitalism in the Middle East in the early centuries of Islam. Some inventions of this “Islamic capitalism” were later borrowed by Europeans. (That is why, for example, the English word “check” comes from the Arabic word saqq, which means “written document.”)

    In his remarkable book Early Islam and the Birth of Capitalism, economist Benedikt Koehler documents all these economic achievements of Islam. “The roots of Chicago economics,” he even argues, “lie in seventh century Medina.”

    The decline of this medieval Islamic capitalism — due to many factors, including wars, invasions, and the change in trade routes — led to the overall decline of Muslim civilization. The Muslim world stagnated, lagged behind, and ultimately panicked in the face of a much more advanced West. It is a trauma that is still alive and kicking. And the solution lies in revitalizing the capitalist creativity of Islam’s golden age.

    Muslim Liberals

    None of this means that classical liberalism is a popular idea among Muslims today. Quite the contrary — there are very powerful illiberal, statist, autocratic trends among Muslims, not to mention the violent extremists that threaten us all.

    But a defense of classical liberalism on Islamic grounds is possible — and is not unheard of. Many Muslims, especially those living in the West, accept classical liberal ideas intuitively. Moreover, there are initiatives dedicated to this cause, such the Minaret of Freedom and Muslims for Liberty in the United States, the Islamic Renaissance Front in Malaysia, and the Liberal Islam Network in Indonesia. They are led by Muslims who are serious about their faith and who are genuine in their commitment to liberty.

    Such pious Muslims can usher a reform in Islam toward “no compulsion in religion” and freedom for all. This concept of freedom is not something that will be poised against God. Quite the contrary: it is a freedom that is bestowed by God.

  10. Reddit AMA with Professor Sarah Burns, scholar of the American founding

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    Sarah Burns is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the Rochester Institute of Technology.  Her research examines the intersection of political liberalization and American constitutional development with an eye toward policy implications for democratization across the globe. 

    Professor Burns was featured in Learn Liberty’s America’s Founding series. She has also written on American history (1), American foreign policy (2,3), elections (4,5), and constitutionalism (6) for the Learn Liberty Blog.

    Join us for a conversation on Reddit this Tuesday, May 9th at 3:30pm ET, where you can ask her anything!

    UPDATE: The AMA is now live!

  11. Confident Pluralism: Reinvigorating the freedom of association

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    Washington University law professor John Inazu has written an important new book. Confident Pluralism advocates for a robust understanding of pluralism that requires toleration and equal treatment of a wide range of groups; including, it is sadly necessary to say, unpopular ones.

    The first half of the book offers an excellent critique of the United States Supreme Court’s assault on pluralism over the past 40 years. Inazu demonstrates that justices have emasculated the First Amendment’s protection of the right to freely assemble by reducing it to either intimate association or expressive association.

    Intimate association, such as spousal and parent-child relationships, should surely be protected. And the same is true with groups that engage in expressive activity, such as having a parade to support a particular cause. But if these are all that the freedom of assembly protects, the ability of individuals to associate in other ways may be severely curtailed.

    So, for instance, the Supreme Court has held that First Amendment does not enable groups like the leadership training organization Jaycees to limit their membership to men. Relatedly, it concluded that a student chapter of the Christian Legal Society may not require leaders to share the organization’s values.

    Rejecting the reasoning behind these cases, Inazu instead contends for the principle that “government officials should not interfere with the membership, leadership, or internal practices of a voluntary group absent a clearly articulated and precisely defined compelling interest.”

    Inazu also argues that when “the government offers generally available resources (financial or otherwise) to facilitate a diversity of viewpoints and ideas, it should not limit those resources based on its own orthodoxy.” For example, religious institutions, such as the one at which I teach, should not be denied the same tax exempt status available to other universities because of their theological convictions and standards.

    In the last half of the book Inazu discusses three civic aspirations: tolerance, humility, and patience. He reminds readers that tolerance is derived from the Latin tolero, which “primarily connotes the enduring of something” (87). True tolerance does not require us to approve of beliefs or practices that we find unacceptable. Rather, we should accept the legitimacy of groups with widely divergent views, even as we attempt to convince them that their beliefs are wrong.

    And, of course, we should be open to the possibility that we may need to alter our convictions. Civic humility “recognizes that our human faculties are inherently limited — our ability to think, reason, and reflect is less than perfect, a limitation that leaves open the possibility that we are wrong.” It doesn’t take a vivid imagination to see that if Trump lovers and Trump haters each had a little more humility, our civic discourse would be far more civil.

    Civic discourse should be civil, and it certainly shouldn’t end. We are far better off when groups with widely varying ideologies patiently attempt to convince each other that they are correct. Conversely, those who wish to change minds without embracing the value of patience give in far too readily to the use of coercion and force.

    Confident Pluralism deserves to be widely read by academic and lay audiences alike. And as one who upon occasion leads undergraduate book discussion groups, I highly recommend it for that purpose.