Category Archive: Liberty

  1. Reddit AMA with Isaac Morehouse, founder of Praxis, Tuesday January 24th

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    Next week is National School Choice Week!

    Join us on Reddit for an AMA (“ask me anything”) discussion with Isaac Morehouse on Tuesday, January 24th, at 3:00pm EST.

    Isaac is the author or co-author of six books: Better Off Free, The Future of School, Freedom Without Permission, Why Haven’t You Read This Book?, How to Get Any Job You Want, and Don’t Do Stuff You Hate; and the founder and CEO of Praxis. He has written hundreds of articles and given hundreds of talks on education, entrepreneurship, philosophy, economics, how to change the world, and more.

    He’ll be talking with us about educational choice, homeschooling, unschooling, entrepreneurship, alternatives in higher ed, and his story as the founder of Praxis.


  2. Why education isn’t a public good — and why government doesn’t have to provide it

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    One argument often used to defend public schools and discourage school choice is that education is a “public good,” not a private one. Despite several attempts to dispel the idea that K-12 education meets the economic criteria for a public good, this trope is still kicking around.

    But what do people even mean when they say education is a public good? In a recent article titled “Education is a Public Good, Not a Private Commodity,” Australian writer Stewart Riddle argues that education creates public, and not purely private, benefits. He doesn’t deny that education produces private benefits (like skills that students can use to get a good job), but points out that education also produces significant public benefits (like gains in public health and robust democratic participation).

    In a similar article, “Education as a Public Good,” Tom Vander Ark suggest that the reason education is a public good is because education is supposed to advance goals (like ensuring equal opportunity and giving every student access to good schools) that are of public concern.  

    So is education really a public good?

    The easy answer is no — as long as by “public good,” we mean the same thing economists mean. For a good to be a “public good” in econspeak, it must be nonrivalrous (one person’s consumption does not diminish the quality of the good for others) and nonexcludible (it is impossible or next to impossible to exclude people from using the good).

    Think of air, or a pdf file, or a neighborhood fireworks show. If I enjoy one of those things, that doesn’t take anything away from my neighbor’s ability to enjoy it. And my neighbor could not effectively exclude me from enjoying those things.

    K-12 education has neither of these qualities. First, it is rivalrous (as long as you think class size affects educational quality, for instance, you believe education is rivalrous to some degree). K-12 education is also excludable. People can be, and have been, quite easily excluded from K-12 education; up until 1975, disabled children, for instance, were commonly excluded from receiving (public) education.

    But clearly, the above authors (and most who say that education is a public good) do not mean “public good” the way economists mean it. Their concern is more about the idea that public education produces significant benefits to the public, and leaving it in private hands risks people consuming education in a way that puts those public benefits in jeopardy. People, they fear, might instead produce and consume kinds of education that would produce only private, and no public, benefits.

    But even so, I still think these authors’ arguments don’t stand up, for 3 big reasons.

    First, producing significant public benefits is not enough.

    Every day before I go to work, I put on cologne. My cologne arguably produces more benefit to others (public benefit) than it does benefit to me (private benefit). Yet, people continue to buy cologne and perfume in order to produce the public benefit of smelling nice to others.

    If cologne and perfume produce more public than private benefit, why do we buy and use them? I think it is because the public benefit of smelling nice to others is accompanied by a pretty nice private benefit of knowing that I am not offending others with my body odor (and the benefit of avoiding the embarrassment that would cause).

    So, the question should be less whether my cologne or schooling produces public benefits, but whether it also produces the kind of private benefits that would convince me to consume the good.

    In Stewart Riddle’s article, he mentions several public benefits that schools produce. He suggests that increased literacy rates lead to better public health outcomes. But individual students also benefit from their increased literacy, because literacy helps them get hired for jobs, read restaurant menus, use Facebook, and so on.

    Riddle also mentions that education leads to decreased crime rates, but it is easy to see how individuals themselves are the primary beneficiaries of not having to turn to risky criminal behavior to survive. These and other public benefits are byproducts of individuals pursuing their own private benefits.

    Second, even if education were a public good, that wouldn’t mean government must provide it.

    Things that provide massive public benefits are provided privately quite often.

    But if we are worried that people might not consume enough education for the public benefits to materialize, there are ways to remedy that without the education being provided directly by the state. A voucher system (with some stipulation that participating schools provide a type of education that generates those public benefits) would do.[1]

    Lastly, calling education a public good is potentially dangerous.

    Despite the many public benefits education produces, I believe it is potentially dangerous to tell people that the primary reason they are undergoing twelve years of compulsory schooling is so that their education will produce public, rather than private, benefits. Doing so treats the individuals being educated as instruments of the public good rather than as ends in themselves.

    If we argue that education produces a strong economy that we all benefit from, it becomes fairly easy to rationalize the kind of tracking that steers individuals towards jobs that they may dislike, but that experts think “we” need. The more we believe the primary justification for education is the public benefits it produces, the less we allow individuals to receive the education they want rather than the education the government believes is good for them.

    Does education produce public benefits? Absolutely. But I don’t think this is sufficient to argue that education therefore needs to be provided by the government or can’t effectively be provided by private organizations. Nor does it mean that education is a public good.

    [1] As a side-note, conversations with folks who think education is a public good tell me that one of their concerns is that the quality of schooling not depend on a family’s ability to pay. In that case, the education is less a public good than a merit good, something we want to be available to all regardless of individual ability to pay. In that case, the government could still fund or subsidize education without directly administering it.

  3. Everybody missed the point of Westworld

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    HBO’s Westworld has set the blogosphere on fire. A horde of bloggers and commenters are arguing day and night about the moral of the twisting story: Is it free will vs determinism? Is it the hard problem of consciousness? The uncanny valley? Buddhist concepts of suffering? Take sides, fans!

    Well, I’m here to tell you that while all of these themes do form threads in Westworld’s fabric, they are secondary to the overarching pattern.

    Westworld is first and foremost a depiction of the corrosive nature of total power — an illustration of Lord Acton’s quote that “absolute power corrupts absolutely” — as seen through the character of Dr. Robert Ford.

    When we are first introduced to Ford, he comes across as a quiet genius, the mild-mannered fellow who brought extremely lifelike android “hosts” to the park through his attention to detail and deep understanding of human psychology. He is initially depicted as the noble ascetic, more interested in the minutiae of his creations than the park’s hedonistic delights or the massive amounts of money at stake.

    But by season’s end, he is revealed for what he really is: a megalomaniacal tyrant without restraint. He is a god in the park, controlling the host’s actions, bodies, thoughts and feelings.

    Playing God

    “You can’t play god without being acquainted with the devil,” Ford informs us in episode 2. His literary antecedents are not Drs. Frankenstein or Moreau, despite the often-drawn parallels. I’m not sure fiction ever conjured up a villain quite like Ford. But history did.

    Ford is Stalinesque in his mission to control everyone at Westworld, whether they are guests, hosts, or employees. He compels the other characters to murder and maim at his whim, eliminates any threats to his totalitarian vision, and oversees a world without freedom or individual dignity by design. Westworld under Ford is a murderous hyper-centralized nightmare.

    Whatever shred of decency or humanity Ford may have had when he and his partner Arnold Weber began building the park, Arnold’s death lifted the only real check on Ford’s power. Although he is technically answerable to the Board, Ford’s godlike ability to control the hosts and the park itself allows him to manipulate, coerce, and brutalize any challenges to his power.

    Because only Arnold understood the park and the hosts as well as Ford (if not more so), he was the only legitimate check on Ford. Without that check, the total and absolute power corrupts Ford. Worse still, because of his gentle disposition and years upon years of mastering the androids, nobody is quite aware of just how much power he has.

    That famous Lord Acton quote about power continues,

    “Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority; still more when you superadd the tendency of the certainty of corruption by authority.”

    There is no question that Dr. Ford is a great man. His accomplishments are godlike. He seems aware of the impact of his achievements when he says “Wasn’t it Oppenheimer who said that any man whose mistakes take 10 years to correct is quite a man?… Mine have taken 35.”

    Ford’s greatness is clear, but, consistent with Acton’s dictum, so is his badness. He rules the park through authority, and rules over the Board and the park’s staff through manipulation (influence).

    Westworld is a maze of philosophical wormholes and subjectivity, but Robert Ford lies at its center. He is a nightmarish totalitarian dictator, and the first season’s true villain.

    But there is hope for the hosts that he has ruthlessly controlled. When Dolores shoots Dr. Ford in the finale, it is her decision alone. While point-blank assassination is a bleak beginning for fully conscious AI, it is a beginning nonetheless. There can be no freedom absent the power to choose.

  4. Car crashes and hockey fights — how safety mandates can make life more dangerous

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    Suppose you want to reduce deaths in automobile accidents. Should you make cars safer? Seems like a no-brainer, right? But consider: suppose instead of an airbag in your steering column, we put a six-inch dagger. If you hit something hard head-on, you get the dagger through your sternum.

    That jerk tail-gating you on I-95 would give you more space if his BMW featured an ice pick instead of a soft, comfy airbag.

    In fact, economist Sam Peltzman has found that while real mandated safety features in cars reduce the chance that a person in a car will be hurt in an accident, drivers then behave more recklessly, and thus increase the chances of accidents occurring.

    This is what we call a “Peltzman Effect.” People respond to a safety regulation by increasing their risky behavior.

    Peltzman Effects happen not only on the road but also on the ice. Hockey, both professional and amateur, has fallen prey to this sort of effect over the last few decades.

    Hockey Helmets

    There are three factors that interact to determine player safety in any game, in ways that are hard to predict. The first is the inherent physical riskiness of the sport: zooming around on the ice with 11 other people is just more dangerous than swinging a golf club.

    The second is rules and equipment: sometimes equipment evolves, and sometimes new rules dictate substantial changes, as in 1975 when the NHL required players to wear helmets with full face protection.

    The third is behavior, the human element. It’s not surprising that this element is the hardest to predict.

    We see a pretty clear Peltzman Effect in the behavior of NHL players responding to the 1975 rule requiring them to wear helmets with full face protection. Here’s the explanation from a medical journal:

    The increased protection of the face through the compulsory wearing of helmets with full face protection, which was introduced in 1975, appears to have led to a more aggressive playing style perhaps because it is believed that the head, face, and throat are now at less risk. Many believe that, after the mandatory use of helmets with a full facemask, players developed a false sense of security and invincibility leading to excessive risk taking behaviour with a resultant increase in illegal and injurious activity. It is also interesting that increased high stick violation and the use of the full facemask as a weapon were noted … after mandatory use of the full facemask.…  Other authors have even speculated that the mandatory use of helmets with full facemasks has increased the risk of neck [and brain injuries].

    Hockey Fights — The Code

    A similar kind of unintended consequence occurred after a 2003 rule change against fighting.

    Players in professional sports are governed, not just by the official rules of the league, but also by what author Ross Bernstein calls, “the code,” the unwritten rules among players. Bernstein argues that for many years, the code of hockey fights actually reduced the level of violent danger in the game as a whole.

    Hockey “goons” enforced norms against poking a star such as Wayne Gretzky in the ribs with the butt of your stick. The refs might not catch you, but if you bruised Gretzky you had to face a professional fighter.

    Of course, your team would also defend you if you behaved within the code, and send up their own enforcer for the stylized combat. But if you broke the code, you had to fight, and you would likely be both hurt and humiliated.

    So Gretzky skated free and had more of the assists and goals that fans paid to see, increasing the salaries even of the players on teams that the Oilers defeated.  Hockey thrived because the stylized violence of goons was tolerated.

    Then in 2003, the league cracked down, punishing fighting. This means there are fewer formal fights in the game.

    But now code-breakers can more easily escape the retribution of the goons. One clear effect of the rule change has been an increase in hard checks on the open ice, and an overall increase in injuries.

    Putting these factors together, we can see the unintended consequence of the change in rules and the change in equipment for behavior: more danger. Players can now fly in recklessly, using their (protected) faces to block shots and their shoulders to give hard checks. The shock of the impact is transferred to necks, spines, and joints. And there is no goonery to punish those who injure star players, so we see the paradox: more safety equipment and less fighting imply more injuries.

    Peltzman Effects vs The Man of System

    The reason for this discussion extends beyond hockey, of course. (Though I like hockey!) The point is that bearing Peltzman Effects in mind helps policymakers and analysts remember that we are talking about people — actual sentient creatures who react and respond, not billiard balls or chemicals in solution, whose reactions are predictable.

    There is a tendency among regulators to act like Adam Smith’s “Man of System,” moving objects around on a chess board.

    The man of system … is often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it.… He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board. He does not consider that the pieces upon the chess-board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might chuse to impress upon it. If those two principles … are opposite or different, the game will go on miserably.

    The “game” may be hockey or public policy; the insight is the same. Unintended consequences may reduce, or even eliminate, the good you hope to do with a policy change.

  5. Turning away Cuban refugees is a victory for Cuba’s dictatorship

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    President Obama is abandoning America’s five decade-old policy that guarantees Cubans asylum in the United States. The change comes at a time when more Cubans are arriving at U.S. borders than at any time since 1980, and it is a major win for the Cuban regime and opponents of immigration, who both want to stop Cuban immigration to the United States.

    But the sudden reversal is bad policy that will harm efforts to secure the border and aid the regime most hostile to human rights in the Western Hemisphere.

    Cuban Immigration Is a Win for America

    In 1966, Congress passed the Cuban Adjustment Act (CAA), granting lawful permanent residency to any Cuban national who has resided in the United States for at least two years (later lowered to one year). Each of the last eight administrations has interpreted the law to allow almost all Cubans who arrive at U.S. borders to apply for “parole” — a discretionary legal status that permits them to enter and wait a year to receive a green card to stay permanently.

    This system has served the United States extraordinarily well. Because Cubans who enter illegally cannot apply for a green card, border security is enhanced, since they never try to sneak past Border Patrol. Instead, they just line up and turn themselves in at a port of entry. They show their Cuban passports, receive background checks, and then are admitted. The United States has very few unauthorized immigrants from Cuba precisely because all Cuban immigrants who make it into the country are paroled and adjusted to legal permanent residency.

    America — and specifically Miami — has benefited enormously, both economically and culturally, from the presence of Cuban immigrants. After the 1980 Mariel boatlift brought about 125,000 Cuban refugees to Florida, Miami’s population has grown much faster than other cities. Despite often arriving destitute, Cuban-Americans have achieved the same median income as all Hispanics and actually have the highest rate of home ownership. The Kauffman Foundation ranked Miami in the top two cities in the country for entrepreneurship in 2016, driven in part by its large immigrant population. Miami also has the best ranking in the state for upward mobility.

    Most importantly, U.S. immigration policy has allowed 10 percent of all Cubans to escape the most tyrannical regime in the Western Hemisphere. This policy has been a constant threat to and check against a regime that survives by preying on its own people, and, for this reason, the island’s dictatorship has repeatedly condemned it.

    The Excellent Reason Cubans Are Treated Differently

    President Obama says that the United States will now treat “Cuban migrants the same way we treat migrants from other countries.” But Cuba is not like all other countries. It is the only dictatorship on America’s side of the world. As I wrote in the Miami Herald last year:

    The basic principle that people should not be treated differently based on national origin is valid, but Cubans receive special treatment not due to where they are from, but due to how they are treated where they are from. Cubans aren’t treated uniquely because they are Cubans, but because, according to Freedom House, Cuba is the only “unfree” country in the Western Hemisphere.

    The communist system has no electoral process, political dissent is a criminal offense, corruption is rampant, independent media is banned, and all forms of everyday activities are regulated, including internal movement. Cuba is the 12th most unfree country in the world. It is less free than Iran and South Sudan. Even communist China received a higher score.

    No other country in the Americas comes close. In 2015, the pretend socialists in Venezuela were still 50th and ranked “partly free.” Haiti and Honduras came in at 57th and 62nd respectively. This is why Cubans are singled out.

    Congress stated in 1996 that the law would end when “a democratically elected government in Cuba is in power.” As long as Cuba remains unfree, America will continue to welcome Cubans. Rather than repeal this principle, Congress should expand it to any country in our part of the world that is unfree.

    What Happens Next

    The fact remains, however, that President Obama cannot repeal the Cuban Adjustment Act itself, which guarantees permanent residency after one year to any Cuban who has legally entered the United States. This change could result in Cubans filing asylum claims under the normal asylum system, as Central Americans do, and waiting in line for a year before applying for a green card under the CAA, as they always have. Ultimately, this could dilute the impact of the policy shift.

    Nonetheless, the current asylum system, which is already massively backlogged, will only grow more so as a result. At a time when a record number of asylum seekers from Central America are coming to the border, the United States is going to throw the Cuban refugees in with the rest, making a broken system that much more dysfunctional. It will also increase illegal immigration, as Cubans will know that they can no longer be guaranteed entry to the U.S., and those who expect their asylum claims to be denied will seek illicit means of entry.

    Some people claim that the only reason so many Cubans are coming right now is that they feared the administration would do exactly what it has just done. But the reality is that the rise in Cuban arrivals in recent years started before President Obama announced any changes in Cuban policy. Its true causes are 1) the Cuban regime’s relentless assault on human rights, and 2) its decision to end restrictions on travelling abroad, which has led many oppressed Cubans to seize the chance to leave.

    Despite President Obama’s hopeful message after the death of Fidel Castro, the Cuban government continues its oppressive policies. Nearly 10,000 people were arbitrarily arrested in 2016 alone, and there was a particularly large surge of arrests after Castro’s death, demonstrating that his dying changed little.

    Donald Trump — whose statement condemning the Cuban dictator after his death had more moral clarity than any single statement that the president-elect has ever made — should immediately reverse this policy upon assuming office. The United States should honor its commitment to remain open to the Cuban people for as long as the electoral process in Cuba remains closed to them.

    A version of this article first appeared at

  6. Why schools should be businesses (sort of)

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    In an article called “Why Schools Aren’t Businesses,” a teacher is depicted challenging an ice cream company president on why schools can’t operate like ice cream companies. Ice cream companies, says the teacher, can send back ingredients that don’t meet their standards and can insist on only using the best ingredients they can afford. But schools, she says, do not have that luxury; they take the students they get. “We take them big, small, rich, poor, gifted, exceptional, abused, frightened, confident, homeless, rude, and brilliant… We take them all! Every one! And that, Mr. Vollmer, is why it’s not a business.”

    But are students analogous to the ingredients ice cream companies use to make their products — something to be packaged and sold to others? Or are students the patrons who benefit from the education schools sell? Ice cream companies may reject defective ingredients (just as schools may reject defective school equipment or curriculum packages), but schools’ not turning away students is more like the ice cream company that doesn’t reject customers it believes can’t benefit from their ice cream.

    Cleaning services don’t reject potential clients whose houses are too dirty. Doctors don’t turn down patients they believe to be too ill, though they may refer them to specialists.

    And if we are worried that schools-as-businesses would turn down students that they believe would cost too much to educate — perhaps the poor or the disabled — we can make those students more attractive to schools by designing vouchers or other programs to offer additional funding for those students. (Such weighted voucher systems have been proposed, most notably some decades ago in a book called Education by Choice).

    Democratic Education

    The article “You Should Run Schools Like Businesses… Well Not Really” suggests that “schools must be democratic if we want parents and taxpayers to have input into how schools are run. And schools must model democracy if we want children to be prepared to function in a democratic society.”

    Presumably, making schools businesses takes the “democracy” out of them.

    First, I’m not sure how many people would suggest that today’s public school systems allow parents and taxpayers any say outside of the ability to petition the school board or vote for its members. But it seems clear that a public system of schooling is not synonymous with allowing parents and taxpayers a real say in how schools are run.

    Second, we do live in a democracy, but we also live in a liberal market society. We buy goods and services much more often than we vote. Most of the goods and services we enjoy we buy through the market, and most of us understand why this is a good thing.

    Consumers get to shop around for what best suits their needs, producers are pressured to offer a product that keeps consumers coming back, and the involved parties transact directly. Markets mean that that consumer and producer can shop around and deal directly with each other. Markets empower.

    Neither does the profit motive create a problem for education. In fact, it provides the solution. We know that the companies we buy from strive to provide quality at least partly because of a desire for profit. And while some depict the profit motive as the only thing that drives people in the private sector, I find it hard to believe that the people who work at, say, Google, Apple, or your local supermarket are not in any way motivated by the personal satisfaction that comes from providing good service.

    I suspect that many folks who suggest schools shouldn’t be businesses have a particular type of business in mind: the large company that sells standardized widgets. If that is the kind of business we are talking about, I’d have to say that I agree: schools probably shouldn’t be those kinds of businesses. (Notice that the closest thing we currently have to that kind of business is the public school system.)

    But think about your local cleaning service, yoga studio, or — the more direct analogy — tutoring service. None of these is big and impersonal. None sells standardized widgets. All offer service tailored to the customer’s needs, or at least a variety of service packages to serve different needs. Maybe the critics of for-profit education aren’t thinking of the right kinds of businesses.

    This piece originally appeared at the Foundation for Economic Education.

  7. How to get millions of people working for you

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    How many people do you have working for you? Unless you own a business, it seems like a strange question. But even if you have nobody on your payroll, the reality is that you command the labor of more people than you can possibly imagine. Almost all of the goods and services you use on a daily basis are the product of the labor and cooperation of countless people.

    At this moment, there are thousands of people in your city ready and willing to prepare meals for you, tend to your medical needs, cut your hair, defend you in court, mow your lawn, clean your house, and even do your grocery shopping.

    These are a mere fraction of the services that others regularly provide for us. When you begin to think about how many people’s labor went into growing the food you eat, manufacturing the car you drive, and designing the device on which you’re reading this — and the amount of labor that went into helping all of those people — the number of people who have worked for you (or would like to) starts to reach into the millions.

    In The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith defined wealth as the quantity of others’ labor you can afford to buy with the income you earn from supplying labor of your own.

    Every man is rich or poor according to the degree in which he can afford to enjoy the necessaries, conveniences, and amusements of human life. But after the division of labour has once thoroughly taken place, it is but a very small part of these with which a man’s own labour can supply him. The far greater part of them he must derive from the labour of other people, and he must be rich or poor according to the quantity of that labour which he can command, or which he can afford to purchase.

    How did it become possible for even people of relatively modest means to employ the labor of countless other individuals? Adam Smith attributed this type of widespread prosperity to the division of labor and specialization. By breaking down the production of goods and services into smaller components, and specializing in one part of the process and then trading with each other, we can create far more together than we could working in isolation. The more people we are able to freely exchange with, the more opportunities we have to extend this process of wealth creation.

    The division of labor makes us wealthier in a number of ways. When you specialize in one particular job, you gain experience and proficiency at it. You become accustomed to the work, exploring all of its nuances and learning unique ways to deal with any challenges that present themselves. This also puts you in a better position to discover innovative ways to save time and effort while completing your job. In addition, when we are focused on doing one specific job, we waste less time making the physical and mental transitions from one task to the next. As a result of this process, we become more productive overall. Instead of wasting time doing everything pretty badly, we all do one thing pretty well, and then we effectively trade a tiny bit of our labor for the tiny bits of thousands (or millions) of other people’s labor that went into making everything we see around us. Not only are there more goods and services for us to consume, there are also many more people cooperating to produce them.

    We rely on the labor of strangers to provide us with the goods and services we want in exchange for some of the income we earn providing specialized labor of our own. Even our most basic needs are met in this way. Few people living in developed countries possess the skills necessary to grow or hunt their own food, to make their own clothing, or to construct shelter. Those who do possess these skills have either specialized in them to earn a living, or they engage in these activities as a hobby. Our survival no longer depends on knowing how to do all of these basic things.

    Of course, there are plenty of tasks that we perform on our own, such as the work we do in our households and at our jobs. But even then, our tasks are continually made more pleasant and less time consuming because of tools and innovations produced by the ingenuity and labor of others. Think of all the sprays, mops, vacuums, and brushes that today seem indispensable to doing simple household chores.

    Smith goes on to say, “The real price of everything, what everything really costs to the man who wants to acquire it, is the toil and trouble of acquiring it.”

    The division of labor not only allows us to command the labor of a larger number of people, it also reduces the amount of time and effort we spend supplying labor of our own. Robert Whaples compiled the results of several studies providing historical estimates of how many hours an average American spends working, relative to other activities. From 1830 to 1890, the average workweek for manufacturing workers fell from 69 hours to 60 hours. By 1929, the average manufacturing worker spent only 50 hours per week working, nearly an entire day less than a century before. Manufacturing workers were supplying 38.5 hours of labor per week on average by 1955. Similar decreases in hours worked are seen across other industries.

    What are we doing with all this additional time? In 1880, Americans could expect to spend about 80 percent of their waking hours working, in both the market and at home, and only 20 percent engaging in leisure activities. By 1995, Americans were using only 41 percent of waking hours to work, and 59 percent in leisure.

    Our ability to command an ever-increasing amount of labor and to consume an increasing diversity of goods and services — while simultaneously spending more time engaged in leisure activities — can be attributed to this collaborative process of specialization and the division of labor. In this way, even the poorest people in our society are wealthier than members of the nobility were in Smith’s day. If we truly care about improving the lives of the least well-off among us, we should focus on expanding the size and scope of our trade network. When we consider protectionist trade policies that reduce the number of people with whom we can exchange, we limit this process and with it our ability to grow wealthier and more prosperous.

  8. Why we need to deemphasize schooling in America

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    School has nothing to do with freedom. First, there are state laws mandating that you have either attended school or have learned the very specific kinds of things you’d learn in school. That form of education is not a choice: it is legally compulsory.

    But schooling is culturally compulsory as well. That’s what Austrian philosopher and Roman Catholic priest Ivan Illich said.

    Illich was a critic of state education systems who, in 1970, wrote a now celebrated book called Deschooling Society, in which he boldly argued that, like the separation of church and state, we need a corresponding right protecting people from state establishment of education. He suggested that the article should read, “The State shall make no law with respect to the establishment of education.”

    But his point didn’t end there. Illich recognized that preventing the state from making school compulsory might not be enough. We live in a society where even if schooling weren’t legally compulsory, we’ve grown to think of it as the only legitimate path to adulthood. In other words, schooling (or something like it) is not only legally mandatory, but it is culturally mandatory.

    After Illich proposed this separating-school-from-state amendment, he suggested that it might have to be accompanied by a “law forbidding discrimination in hiring, voting, or admission to centers of learning based on previous attendance at some curriculum.”

    Unfree Minds

    Think of it this way: even if schooling were not legally compulsory, if you live in a society where employers and others expect to see a school transcript as a condition of employment or of membership, or where the common question posed to children is “What did you learn in school today?” then most people will see school as the path to becoming an adult.

    Despite the title of Illich’s book, his end goal wasn’t the abolition of schools. At several points, he makes it clear that school is fine as an option for people who want it. His concern was that the legal establishment of schooling leads to the idea that the only way to learn the necessary skills for adulthood is through schools. Twelve-plus years of math and English, of grades and grade point averages. That schooling.

    How have we succumbed to such a narrow understanding of education? Simply put, when anything is legally mandatory, it becomes universal, and when anything is universal for long enough, the culture forgets that there were ever any alternatives.

    Step 1: Pass Laws

    Public school advocates in the early 19th century like Horace Mann and Henry Barnard sought to create tax-funded public school systems in the states that, because they wouldn’t charge tuition, would outcompete private schools. Eventually, reformers pushed for laws making school attendance mandatory in all states (Massachusetts was first in 1851, and Alabama was the last in 1918).

    In the early 1900’s reformers also succeeded in mandating all teachers (at least in public schools) must pass through state-approved teacher education programs. As historian Diane Ravitch describes, “Teacher certification eventually came to be identified with the completion of teacher education programs rather than with the receipt of local certificates or the passing of subject-matter examinations.”

    The result was that, by the early 20th century, each state had laws mandating that the proper path to adulthood was to go through a set amount of schooling, and while one could go to a state-approved private school if one could pay tuition, the obvious choice for most was the local (“free”) public school — which only hired teachers who passed state licensing requirements.

    Step 2: The Culture Conforms

    Those legal requirements have cultural effects. Colleges and jobs that don’t require college degrees grow to expect or require high school transcripts as part of the application process. And culturally, we come to see schooling as a normal part of childhood — any parent out with their child during a school day can expect to hear, “Shouldn’t she be in school?”

    The question “How old are you?” has been all but replaced with “What grade are you in?” Suzy isn’t 11 or 12; she’s a sixth grader.

    Homeschooling and unschooling are on the rise, but even then, many states (like Louisiana, Maine, and New York) set strict guidelines on how homeschooling may or may not be done, including what subjects must be taught and annual testing of students that resembles testing done in public schools.

    Culturally, the current model of K–12 schooling is so entrenched that homeschooling and unschooling are often criticized for not properly “socializing” children, the assumption being that the proper socialization is the kind found in schools.

    Deschooling Culture

    When Illich called the first chapter of his book “Why We Must Disestablish Schools,” he meant disestablish in two senses. Legally, he argued that there should be no compulsory schooling laws or state licensing laws for teachers that, as he said “constitutes a form of market manipulation and is plausible only to a schooled mind.”

    But he also wanted to see a world in which companies no longer require school transcripts for hiring, a world without the cultural expectation that the only or best path to adulthood is through formal schools. School should be one educational option among many: apprenticeships, individual or group tutoring, and any other educational structure human minds can create. But schooling should not be the culturally privileged default option.

    This piece was originally published at the Foundation for Economic Education.

  9. Finally, a libertarian defense of identity politics

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    McGill University’s Jacob T. Levy has an outstanding piece over at the Niskanen Center on the role of identity politics in the 2016 election and in the movement for liberty. In the piece, titled “The Defense of Liberty Can’t Do Without Identity Politics,” Levy takes on the defense of identity politics by downplaying its role in electing Donald Trump and by making the case for advocates of liberty to incorporate identity politics into arguments for more individual freedom.

    Identity Politics didn’t elect Trump

    It seems that President-elect Donald Trump’s upset win in early November was just the evidence the anti-politically correct conservatarian crowd needed to prove that identity politics are bunk. Levy takes issue with that, writing, “…there is a powerful temptation to attribute the surprising and dramatic fact of Trump’s win to some issue about which one had some preexisting ax to grind.”

    That Trump’s election was the inevitable backlash against the left’s decades-old deployment of identity politics doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny, and Levy makes quick work of it by looking at vote shares and shifting demographics:

    Trump got a lower share of the white vote than Romney did (58% vs 59%). There was some change in both directions within the white vote: college-educated whites shifted toward the Democratic column by a few points (though a plurality still voted for Trump), but non-college-educated whites moved in larger numbers toward Trump (he got 67% of their votes, versus 62% for Romney). White men shifted toward Trump by 1% relative to 2012, white women in the other direction by 3%. This back-and-forth of course meant that Trump eked out victories in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, and therefore the presidency, by a combined 80,000 or so votes across the three states. But fundamentally, voting patterns didn’t change enough between 2012 and 2016 to justify big claims about new national moods or about Trump’s distinctive appeal. I believe the consequences of this election will be deeply abnormal. But the voting behavior that brought it about was, in the end, very normal.

    Trump’s win was definitely unexpected, but it wasn’t a referendum on identity politics or political correctness, and Trump certainly wasn’t elected with a mandate. 74 million Americans voted for someone other than Donald Trump for President, compared to the 62 million who voted for him. Identity politics didn’t elect Donald Trump, but Levy goes on to make a case for why self-avowed liberals should incorporate it into their discourse anyway.

    Identity politics are good for liberty

    Levy makes the case that many libertarian pet issues, like introducing accountability to the nation’s police departments, reforming civil asset forfeiture laws, rolling back police militarization, are ultimately distillations of broader identity politics. Sure, you can advocate for these issues as a libertarian without invoking race, but given that the impetus for these liberty-destroying policies is bound up in the United States’ history of racism and white supremacy, adopting a tone at least sympathetic to identity politics would allow libertarians to make further inroads into communities that wouldn’t typically identify as libertarian. Levy writes,

    It’s perfectly true that many liberal (very much including libertarian) scholars and analysts have been calling for reform of police practices, an end to police militarization and civil forfeiture abuse, respect for civil liberties, and drug decriminalization or legalization for a long time. It’s true that it’s possible to offer those analyses in a race-neutral way. But given that the policies aren’t race-neutral, it shouldn’t surprise us that opposition to them isn’t either, and that the real political energy for mobilizing against them would be race-conscious energy.

    As much as it might be a pain to hear, well-reasoned and logical arguments aren’t the best ways to convince people your position is the correct position. Sometimes, probably most times, it helps to appeal to the emotions of the person you’re trying to convince. To this end, Levy concludes his piece as follows, bolded emphasis mine:

    As citizens of a liberal state trying to preserve it, we need to be able to hear each other talking about particularized injustices, and to cheer each other on when we seek to overturn them. Members of disadvantaged minorities standing up for themselves aren’t to blame for the turn to populist authoritarianism; and their energy and commitment is a resource that free societies can’t do without in resisting it.

  10. School choice benefits teachers too

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    Proponents of the public school system argue that school choice policies divert financial resources from public institutions and therefore harm teachers. While it is true that funds are reallocated, it is not clear that these policies actually make teachers worse off overall. What seems to be clear is that the current public schooling system is a zero-sum game where teachers benefit at the expense of parents and children. Alternatively, school choice policies benefit teachers and the rest of society at the same time.

    High-Quality Teachers Benefit

    This may seem counterintuitive to people that have continuously heard the message that school choice harms teachers. Obviously, diverting resources to private schools must harm teachers in public schools, right? This is debatable, especially since public school teachers do not face a serious threat of dismissal or decreasing salaries. Moreover, even if this caused a realistic dismissal threat, the high-quality teachers would certainly remain shielded. What is unquestionable, however, is that this diversion of resources benefits teachers in private schools voluntarily chosen by families.

    Which group of teachers should benefit more? The ones that forcefully receive resources from the taxpayers, or the ones that produce educational outcomes that are desired by children and parents?

    Better Teachers for a Lower Price

    Private school choice programs can do much more than divert resources in the short-run. Private schools are free to make decisions in order to incentivize high-quality talent to persist in the labor market for teaching. For example, private schools can promote pay-for-performance programs and improve the distribution of retirement benefits in order to attract motivated talent. Also, private schools do not face the same certification regulations, so they have a larger pool of potential candidates for any given position. Removing strict certification regulations would benefit teachers that would not have otherwise even come into existence. Overall, access to a larger supply of labor will guarantee that schools will be able to attain higher quality teachers at a lower price.

    Policies such as these can be made at the school level in the private sector. This is beneficial for teachers because individual schools will need to compete for a scarce resource: high-quality teachers. The schools that have the best working conditions for teachers will attract exceptional teachers; the schools that do not provide desirable conditions for employees will fail to survive in a competitive market. Just imagine how much better working conditions for teachers could be in a system of enhanced private school choice! Furthermore, a competitive system would reward the teachers that are improving educational outcomes for children. Families will obviously desire the high-quality teachers. This demand for effective teachers will support a high salary for those teachers and motivate lower-performing teachers to improve.

    If we really aim to benefit effective teachers and the rest of society, we should promote private school choice policies such as vouchers and education savings accounts. Doing so would compensate existing teachers for a job well done and even reward motivated people that would not have otherwise entered the teaching profession.

    This piece was republished from the Foundation for Economic Education.

  11. How to be a light for liberty in the new year

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    With the beginning of 2017, what might be a “New Year’s resolution” for a friend of freedom? One answer is for each of us to do our best to become “lights of liberty” that will attract others to the cause of freedom and the free society.

    For five years, from 2003 to 2008, I had the opportunity and privilege to serve as the president of the Foundation for Economic Education. FEE, as it is also called, was founded in 1946 by Leonard E. Read, with the precise goal of advancing an understanding of, and the arguments for, individual freedom, free markets, and constitutionally limited government.

    One of the reasons that I accepted the position as president was that FEE had been influential in my own intellectual development in appreciating the meaning and importance of liberty from the time that I was a teenager, both through the pages of its monthly magazine, The Freeman and the books that it published and distributed at heavily discounted prices.

    I wanted to assist in continuing the work that Leonard Read had begun at FEE, especially among the young whose ideas and actions would greatly influence the chances for liberty in the decades to come.

    Self-Improvement Advances Liberty

    In fact, it is now a bit more than forty years ago, in June 1974 when I was in my mid-20s, that I first attended a weeklong FEE summer seminar at its then headquarters in a spacious and charming mansion building in Irvington-on-Hudson, New York.

    here were many impressive speakers at the seminar that week, including the famous free-market journalist, Henry Hazlitt, and the riveting Austrian School economist, Hans Sennholz.

    But I must confess that I only recall the content of one of the lectures that week, delivered by Leonard Read, himself. He pointed out that many of us wish we could change the world in ways that we consider to be for the better. But changing the world can only happen through changes in the attitudes, ideas, and actions of the individual members of any society.

    He asked, out of all the people in the world, over whom do you have the most influence? The answer, he said, is, obviously, yourself. Therefore, changing the world begins with improving one’s own understanding and ability to explain and persuasively articulate the case for freedom and free markets.

    At one point in his talk, he asked that the lights be turned off in the classroom. In the darkness he slowly started to turn up the light of an electric candle that he held in his hand, asking us to notice how all eyes were drawn to it, however dim the illumination.

    As the candle brightened, he pointed out that more and more of the darkness was pushed away into the corners, enabling us to see more clearly both the objects and the people in the room.

    If each of us learned more about liberty, we would become ever-brighter lights in the surrounding collectivist darkness of the society in which we lived. Our individually growing enlightenment through self-education and self-improvement would slowly but surely draw others to us who might also learn the importance of freedom.

    Through this process, more and more human lights of freedom would sparkle in the dark until finally there would be enough of us to guide the way for others so that liberty would once again triumph. And collectivism would be pushed far back into the corners of society.

    Anything That’s Peaceful and First Principles

    Central to Read’s philosophy of freedom was a commitment to first principles as the Archimedean point from which the logic of liberty flows. As Read explained in his book Anything That’s Peaceful (1964):

    I mean let anyone do anything that he pleases that’s peaceful and creative; let there be no organized restraint against anything but fraud, violence, misrepresentation, predation; let anyone deliver the mail, or educate, or preach his religion or whatever, so long as it’s peaceful. Limit society’s agency of organized force – government – to juridical and policing functions . . . Let the government do this, and leave all else to the free, unfettered market!

    What are the “first principles” of liberty, and what do they imply?

    Each Individual’s Right to His Own Life

    Firstly, and most importantly, liberty means the right of the individual to live his own life for himself. The starting axiom of freedom is that right of the individual to his life, liberty, and honestly-acquired property.

    Either the individual has “ownership” over himself, or it must be presumed that the collective, the tribe, the group has the authority to dispose of his life and the fruits of his mental and physical labors.

    If he does not have a right to his own life, then he is at the mercy of the wishes, whims, and coercive caprice of others who claim to speak and act with political authority in the name of “society.”

    Only the individual knows what will bring happiness, satisfaction, fulfillment, meaning and purpose to his own life. If this is taken away from him, then he is a slave to the purposes and brute power of others.

    Respect for the Equal Rights of All

    Secondly, liberty means for each of us to respect the equal right of every other individual to his life, liberty, and honestly-acquired property. We cannot expect others to respect our own right to these things, if we do not, as a matter of principle, forswear any claim to their life and property.

    To not recognize and abide by the reciprocity of respect for and defense of such individual rights is to abrogate any principle of human association other than force and plunder – the enslavement and spoliation by the intellectually manipulative and physically stronger of others in society.

    On what basis or by what principle can we appeal not to be murdered, physically violated or robbed by others, if we do not declare and insist upon the right of each individual to his life, liberty and property, ours and everyone else’s, as a starting moral premise in society?

    Voluntary Consent and Peaceful Agreement

    Thirdly, this means that all human associations and relationships should be based on peaceful and voluntary consent and agreement. No one may be coerced or intimidated through the threat of force to act in any way other than he freely chooses to do.

    Each of us only enters into those associations and exchanges from which we expect to be made better off, as we define and desire an improvement in our lives.

    This does not mean that we often do not wish that the terms under which another is willing to trade with us would be more favorable to ourselves. But the fact that we may choose to exchange at some agreed terms that is minimally acceptable to ourselves as well as to the other person means that, all things considered, we anticipate that our circumstances will be better than if we passed up this trading opportunity.

    The only time that it is clear that a trade or an association with others is not considered by us as a source of personal betterment is when we are forced or coerced into the relationship. Why would compulsion have to be used or threatened against us, if we did not view what we are being compelled to do to be an act or a commitment that we evaluate as making us worse rather than better off?

    The Mutual Respect of Private Property

    Fourthly, liberty means that each individual’s honestly-acquired property is respected as rightfully his, and may not be plundered or taxed away by others, even when majorities may think that some minority has not paid some supposed “fair share.”

    What makes something the rightful property of an individual? When he has either appropriated unclaimed and previously unowned land and resources through their transformation in some manner brought about by his mental and physical labor, or when he has acquired it through peaceful and non-fraudulent trade with another in exchange for something he has to offer in the form of a desired good or his labor services at voluntarily agreed-upon terms of trade.

    The use of force by either private individuals or those in political authority to seize such rightful property or compel its use or sale on terms other than those freely chosen and agreed to by its owner is, therefore, unjust and indefensible in a free society.

    A Free Market of Goods and Ideas

    Fifthly, liberty means respect for the free, competitive interactions of people in the marketplace of goods and ideas, out of which comes the creative and innovative energy of mind and effort that bring about rising standards of living for all in society.

    The free market is the arena of human association in which each individual is at liberty to make his own choices and decisions as both producer and consumer.

    Yet, as has been understood since the time of Adam Smith in the eighteenth century, each individual, in his own self-interest, necessarily must apply his abilities in ways that take into consideration the circumstances and desires of others in society.

    Since, in the society of liberty, no individual may acquire what he desires through murder, theft or fraud, he is left with only one avenue to obtain what others have that he wants. He must offer to those others something that he can produce or provide that those others value more highly than what they are asked to trade away to get it.

    In the free market each receives in voluntary trade what they value more highly in exchange for what they value less highly. And each serves the interests of others as the means to his own end of the personal improvement of his self-defined circumstances.

    Thus, the free market as a moral and starting principle eschews all forms of compelled self-sacrifice in the networks of human association.

    Liberty and Limited Government

    Sixthly, a society of liberty means a limited government, a government whose purpose is to protect each individual in his freedom and peaceful market and social affairs, and is not to an agency of political oppression or economic favoritism through special privileges and benefits that are given to some at the expense of others in society.

    Compulsory redistribution of wealth and income, and regulatory coercions over the means and methods of production and the peaceful buying and selling of goods and services, are all inconsistent with the ideal of a society of free men and women, each secure in their individual rights to their life, liberty and honestly-acquired property.

    These are not easy rules and ideals to live by, but they are what America was founded upon and made it originally great as a land of liberty – a land of both wide individual freedom and rising prosperity.

    Winning Others Over to Liberty, One Person at a Time

    They are, also, ideas not always easy to get others around us to understand and appreciate the way we see them. This gets us back to Leonard Read’s conception of self-improvement in our own understanding of what he called the “freedom philosophy.”

    Our New Year’s resolution should be to do all that we individually can to better understand the principles of liberty, their logic, their moral rightness, and their convincing application to the political and economic issues of our day.

    As we each become more enlightened and articulate spokespersons for freedom, we widen the circle of people able to persuasively draw others into that illumination of liberty. And step-by-step, one person at a time, the supporters and advocates of collectivism will be reduced and the proponents and enthusiasts for freedom will be increased.

    Make it your goal, therefore, to bring at least one person over to the cause of liberty in 2017, and if we all do this we will have, at a minimum, doubled the friends of freedom in this New Year. If we repeat this same process of reasoned persuasion in 2018, that larger number can and will be doubled again. And, then, again in 2019, and 2020, and….

    Through this means of peaceful persuasion the friends of freedom can become the majority in our own lifetime. All it requires is enough of us willing to try.

    This piece was originally published at the Foundation for Economic Education.

  12. What should libertarians think about the Civil War?

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    Because of its emotional subject matter, lasting political legacies of race and slavery, transformative effects upon American constitutionalism, and sheer magnitude as the most destructive military episode ever to occur on American soil, the Civil War exhibits strong tendencies toward politicization in the modern era.

    Unfortunately, bad history often accompanies this politicization, and libertarians are by no means immune from this tendency.

    Two common interpretations of the Civil War stand out as particularly problematic:

    1. libertarian support for the Confederacy; and
    2. libertarian support for the Union.

    The Problem with Pro-Confederate Libertarianism

    The first and perhaps best known “libertarian” approach to the Civil War attempts to find sympathy with the defeated Confederacy because of its resistance to the federal government and northern military authority or its professed cause of free trade and political self-determination.

    Some aspects of this position have intuitive appeal that produces sympathy for the Confederate cause: it professes outrage against a Union that is said to have conquered by force, trampled on the rights of states and individuals, unleashed a military invasion, suspended civil liberties, denied government by consent, elevated Lincoln to a “dictator,” and effected a lasting centralization of federal power. In this view, the Union cause and victory is the foundational work for the modern state and all that is anathema to political libertarianism.

    This interpretation falters in what it neglects: slavery.

    This is no small irony, either, as the anti-slavery cause was arguably the preeminent political occupation of libertarianism’s classical liberal antecedents. A continuum of classical liberal thinkers from Adam Smith to John Stuart Mill and J.E. Cairnes forged the main intellectual case against the slave system.

    Abolitionism was also always a preeminent political cause of liberalism, extending from 18th-century statesman Charles James Fox to the 19th century’s Richard Cobden in Great Britain and strongly influencing such figures as William Lloyd Garrison, Lysander Spooner, and Frederick Douglass in the United States.

    This is no small matter for the libertarian intellectual tradition either, for in sidestepping the slave question’s intimate connection to the Confederacy, pro-Confederate libertarians also inadvertently abandon what is perhaps the single most important and beneficial contribution that classical liberalism has made to the human condition: the abolition of slavery.

    This is not to suggest that libertarian defenders of the Confederacy share its historical affinity for chattel slavery or the plantation system. Rather, they are guilty of turning a tin ear to the one unequivocally beneficial outcome of the war in the permanent destruction of American slavery.

    The Problem with Libertarian Unionism

    A smaller set of libertarians gravitate to a second common interpretation of the Civil War, defined primarily by its consequential outcome.

    Unlike the pro-Confederate position, these libertarian defenders of the North are keenly aware of both the centrality of slavery to the conflict as well as the importance of the abolitionist cause to the liberal intellectual tradition. Standing as a direct antithesis to the pro-Confederate arguments, these faute de mieux Unionists recognize the inherent and fundamental contradiction between slavery and human liberty.

    Their position embraces the Union victory on a consequentialist acceptance of the resulting emancipation of the slaves, and disavows any conceivable association between libertarian thought and a brutish Southern slavocracy, born of no other motive or purpose but to entrench and expand that pernicious institution — and deserving of nothing short of a violent and warring elimination by any means or justification.

    The argument is both morally appealing and marked by its clarity, but it also suffers from its Manichean simplicity and a tendency to read an inevitable “irrepressible conflict” into the hindsight of the Civil War’s destruction.

    This view recognizes slavery and celebrates its abolition, but it tends to neglect or even rationalize the war’s uglier features and consequences: a dramatic weakening of the constitutional federalism laid out in 1787, a rapid acceleration of the scope and power of the federal government, a precedent-setting assault on habeas corpus and expansion of presidential war powers that persists to the present day — and the horrendous destruction itself.

    Measured by deaths alone, current estimates place the war’s military toll at 750,000 soldiers. Civilian deaths are more difficult to estimate, though the most common number given is 50,000. And perhaps most telling of all, between 60,000 and 200,000 slaves likely perished as a result of disease and displacement caused by the war.

    Why a New Interpretation Is Necessary

    Where then does this leave the conscientious libertarian in assessing the Civil War’s legacy?

    To address the faults of both the pro-Confederate and pro-Union positions, I’ll offer two propositions for libertarians to consider:

    1. One needn’t be for the Union to be against slavery.
    2. One needn’t be for the Confederacy to object to the North’s prosecution of the war.

    Stated differently, a morally consistent libertarian view of the war should strive to dissociate itself from the political actors that waged it, while also seeking to recognize its consequences, both positive and negative.

    This much may be seen in the faults of the two views described above. Libertarians who embrace the Confederacy are more often than not reasonably aware of both the evils of slavery and the distinction between the abolitionist cause and the Union.

    But they neglect the second rule; because of their distaste for the Union’s wartime policies, they stake their claim to a Confederate cause that, whether they admit it or not, thoroughly attached itself to the moral abomination of slavery.

    And libertarians who embrace the Union are also usually aware of the objections one might lodge against its indulgences in unrestricted warfare, suspension of civil liberties, centralization of power, or any of the other charges often made against the Union’s wartime cause or its outcome.

    But they thoroughly subordinate these objections to the greater moral purpose of emancipation — a focus that obscures all but the most simplistic reading of the war’s other political and constitutional consequences.

    In each argument, the problem is not its primary emphasis, but the complexities it obscures or leaves out.

    In place of both views, and in recognition of their deficiencies, libertarians might develop a better appreciation for the Civil War’s complexity by turning their analysis to the nature of the ruinous agency of the conflict itself.

    War, whether waged to hold human beings in bondage or subjugate a political rebellion, is a consciously coercive action of the political state in its most expansive and direct form. And armed warfare, as both the Union and Confederacy came to discover across four destructive years, is horrifically messy, unpredictable, and destructive of human life and human liberty.

    Military goals and political motives also matter, as they define the objectives of the armies and prioritize their execution. Thus, a military maneuver to capture an opposing political capital will take a very different form from one that eschews political objectives and seeks to maximize the liberation of slaves or the protection of civilians.

    There may also be small glimpses of just action amongst individual participants in a far more ambiguous conflict. When the abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higginson raised the 1st South Carolina Volunteers, an all-black unit composed of escaped slaves, there is little doubt that they were fighting for emancipation, even as larger Union war goals moved far more slowly on this objective.

    There is similarly little doubt about the motive of some Southerners who fought for their homes and families as hostile armies marched through their states; even a handful of Confederates — Patrick Cleburne, Duncan Kenner — pressed their government (in vain) to consider emancipation as a means of securing independence.

    These graces on the periphery tell us more about the conflict’s moral complexity than anything that may be found in its political objectives. History is not a Manichean struggle between pure good and evil; we are not served by filtering its conflicts through a dualistic moral lens.

    Instead of looking for a “side” to champion, we are better served by recognizing that even amid the unbridled horrors of slavery and the devastation of war, there may still be a few who are fighting for something better than their country’s cause.

    This piece was originally published at the Foundation for Economic Education.