Category Archive: Philosophers

  1. Rawls the Irrelevant

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    As editor of Cato Unbound, I don’t actively take sides. Here, though, I’m going to be a bit polemical. My thesis is simple: If you want to square libertarianism with social justice, John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice is probably not a book you should reach for.

    As the term is usually used, the advocates of “social justice” are not Rawlseans. You will not win them by quoting Rawls. You will not win them by thinking like Rawls. They know what they want, and Rawls isn’t it. Rawls is for the milquetoasts of the academy; social justice is radical stuff. Whatever their origins, the two have diverged, and there’s no sense denying it.

    (This leaves aside Rawls’ effect on libertarianism proper, which Todd Seavey has aptly described as “attaching a washing machine to a soufflé.” The only way to improve would be to specify, more elegantly than I’m doing right now, that the free market is the washing machine, a durable good that benefits everyone; and Rawls is the soufflé, a fragile, delectable confection, enjoyed for half a minute by a well-stuffed class of elites.)

    Now we may certainly debate the merits of Rawls’ system (I say it’s flawed) but we should recognize that Rawls is tangential to the debate about libertarianism and social justice.1

    Rawls’ distinctive move in political theory was to recommend a shift in strategy. Those who are most concerned with the poor should reject both egalitarianism and utilitarianism, he argued. In their place he urged a maximin strategy, in which inequality of wealth would be tolerated, and even welcomed, on the condition that relative disparities in wealth always worked to the absolute benefit of the poor.

    I’d like to ask the libertarians who are keen on Rawls: Have you ever tried pointing out the absolute wealth of the American poor? Have you ever mentioned this fact to a progressive? And did their hair not immediately catch fire?

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

    For decades, the U.S. Census Bureau has reported that over 30 million Americans were living in “poverty,” but the bureau’s definition of poverty differs widely from that held by most Americans. In fact, other government surveys show that most of the persons whom the government defines as “in poverty” are not poor in any ordinary sense of the term. The overwhelming majority of the poor have air conditioning, cable TV, and a host of other modern amenities. They are well housed, have an adequate and reasonably steady supply of food, and have met their other basic needs, including medical care. Some poor Americans do experience significant hardships, including temporary food shortages or inadequate housing, but these individuals are a minority within the overall poverty population. Poverty remains an issue of serious social concern, but accurate information about that problem is essential in crafting wise public policy. Exaggeration and misinformation about poverty obscure the nature, extent, and causes of real material deprivation, thereby hampering the development of well-targeted, effective programs to reduce the problem.

    To a rounding error, this is what Rawls would demand. Note that the absolute wealth of our poor is virtually unprecedented in all of human history. It’s an accomplishment shared only by those countries that have adopted a significant measure of free market economics, or, at best, by a few others who piggybacked on the free market’s creative success while adding almost nothing of value themselves.

    The overwhelming majority of the poor in the United States enjoy technological wonders that didn’t even exist a few decades ago. Outside the free market/liberal democratic synthesis, essentially no other social system has ever delivered as much — because almost none of them can produce a steady stream of new technological innovations in the first place, let alone distribute them to the poor.

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

    Forgetting, then, that most American poor really do eat cake. Also forgetting that the very notion of the poor eating cake was unthinkably absurd for all of human history. That’s why it became a catchphrase — because it was absurd. And yet our poor eat cake while talking on a video phone and watching their choice of movies on a flat-screen TV.

    This really ought to count for something, but somehow it never does. And if giving the poor a lifestyle that would have been the merest science fiction in the 1960s doesn’t count for anything — then what on earth would?

    In one sense, the poor are entitled to as much as possible. And I mean that sincerely. Were I able, I would give every American a salary of $200,000 a year — in real terms, not inflationary funny-money. I would put everyone in today’s much-hated one percent. And why stop there? Let’s have free clothes from Prada. Free meals from Le Bernardin. And biological immortality. And a fully functional U.S.S. Enterprise. Because hey, why not?

    Where we could find all that wealth, God only knows. But the problems are technological, not philosophical. Nothing in justice forbids everyone from growing arbitrarily wealthy, provided they come by it peaceably and honestly.

    But what is social justice, then? It’s the kind of justice demanded by socialism. We might want to say that market institutions can provide it. We might want to say a lot of things about markets. We think markets are good; naturally, we want to promote them. But we should not lose sight of what markets actually are. Or of who our real audience is. This stuff isn’t going to convince socialists, and we’re kidding ourselves if we think that it will.

    The type of justice demanded by socialism is neither the type favored by libertarians — that of continuous, undirected, uncoerced economic activity — nor the type favored by Rawlseans — too complex to set off neatly with dashes. Social justice appears to mean (1) an ever-greater equality of outcome through forced wealth transfer and/or state-run economies; (2) a prediction — surely falsifiable — that forced transfers enhance the dignity and autonomy of the poor, (3) state-subsidized status enhancement for members of aggrieved groups, and (4) never mind about the absolute holdings of the poor, already.

    That’s also why I will never be a socialist, and why I will always be skeptical of social justice.

    The advocates of social justice do not like it that the poor have surprisingly large holdings in absolute terms. Point it out to them, and they grow resentful or condescending. (“Well… but… it’s not really very nice cake…”) All these consumer goods dull the sense of envy, and that sense needs to be sharpened if we’re going to force the equality of outcome.

    But you never make more cake by slicing it up differently. When cake goes to the hungriest, you don’t encourage baking; you encourage whining about hunger. How do you make more cake? Even the baker can’t answer that question in any detail. It’s a product, so far as we can tell, only of the market process, of specialization and gains from trade, of local knowledge and market discipline.

    That discipline now yields a productivity unheard of in all of human history. That’s something we and the Rawlseans both might learn from. But it’s not a thing beloved by the advocates of social justice.

    1 On that tangent: I find Rawls incompatible with libertarianism in part because Rawlsean thinking is too quick to bless the status quo. It is, as I suggest above, too conservative for libertarianism, which ought to be a radical political movement. Libertarianism should always begin at or near the question, “Why is there some government rather than no government?” Libertarians may be anarchists or minarchists, but they should never take government as either a matter of course or as one of indifference.

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

  2. A (Revised) Theory of Justice

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    I’ll admit it: I’m a Rawls guy. I consider Rawls’s A Theory of Justice to be one of the most compelling pieces of political philosophy ever written, grounded in one of the most convincing justificatory arguments ever crafted. But I’m also a libertarian. This presents something of a problem: although Rawls is part of the liberal tradition, he is arguably the pinnacle of the “high” liberal tradition, which is a far cry from the “classical” side I’m more comfortable with. Indeed, Rawls maintained that out of five possible political orders—laissez-faire capitalism, welfare-state capitalism, state socialism, liberal (market) socialism, and property-owning democracy—only two such orders would be justified by the argument he sets forth: market socialism and property-owning democracy. (John Rawls, Justice as Fairness: A Restatement, 136-138.) Given my commitment to Rawlsian political philosophy and my staunch libertarian leanings, a pressing question arises: what gives?

    Before explaining away the apparent contradiction I need to give a brief summary of Rawls’s overall argument from A Theory of Justice. Rawls saw himself as continuing the social contract tradition found in Locke, Rousseau, and Kant, though with a higher level of sophistication and abstraction than his historical predecessors possessed. In doing so he saw the social contract as a hypothetical contract: the principles of justice are the principles we would agree to if faced with an original bargaining position subject to certain constraints. The major constraint of the original position is that we consider potential political orders while behind a veil of ignorance: that is, we can’t know our particular position in society—whether we’re rich or poor, black or white, insanely talented or disappointingly average, hardworking or in a perennial state of torpor, religious or an atheist. In doing so we get rid of features Rawls considers to be morally arbitrary while also removing personal bias: after all, there is something suspect about billionaires arguing that capital gains taxes are unjust, as there is when the impecunious argue for radical egalitarianism.

    The resulting principles of justice agreed to in the original position are as follows: First, each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberties compatible with a similar scheme of liberties for others. Rawls says those basic liberties are the right to vote and hold office, liberty of conscience and freedom of thought, freedom of speech and assembly, as well as the right to hold personal (not productive) property. (A Theory of Justice, 53.) Second (and this is an incomplete summary), social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are to the greatest expected benefit of the least advantaged. (Ibid., 72.) This principle requires that we think about economic inequalities by first imagining a perfect state of equality. Deviation from this perfect state of equality is justified only if the least advantaged in this new state of inequality are better off than they would be in the original state of perfect equality. As a final note, we need to recognize one more salient feature of the two principles of justice: namely, that they are in lexical order. By this Rawls means to say that “infringement of the basic equal liberties protected by the first principle cannot be justified, or compensated for, by greater social and economic advantages.” (Ibid., 54.) In other words, we can’t go about messing with people’s basic liberties in order to make those worst off in society better off, as required by the second principle. The basic liberties are fixed.

    Given these two principles of justice, how can we go about marrying Rawlsian political philosophy with libertarianism? There are two ways, both of which I endorse, both of which, to be fair, face problems of their own. First, we can take a route similar to John Tomasi’s in his excellent new book Free Market Fairness, though I do diverge with him in significant ways. This approach argues that Rawls’s list of basic liberties enumerated in the first principle is lacking. What should also be included is “thick economic liberties,” which includes (by my estimation) the freedom of contract, the right to own private productive property, as well as the right to keep most of the fruits of one’s labor. If these liberties were included then—given the lexical ordering of the principles of justice—it would follow that the pursuit of the satisfaction of the second principle through setting up redistributive institutions would be greatly handicapped, for we cannot do anything that violates our now-present economic rights. Thus, in shifting the content of the first principle we protect economic liberties while limiting the significance and scope of redistribution.

    This approach is not without problems, though. One key feature of Rawls’s understanding of the basic liberties (particularly the political ones) is that it is not sufficient that we simply have them; we also must be able to realize their “fair value.” By this, Rawls means that we must be able to meaningfully exercise these rights. As an example, it is true that I have the right to run for political office. But given that I am a poor graduate student, and given that running for office costs a great deal of money, it is probably true that I cannot exercise this right in a meaningful way—that is, the fair value of my right is not realized. One of the reasons, cites Rawls, that the fair value of rights is often not realized is due to wealth inequality: “While it may appear … that citizens’ basic rights and liberties are effectively equal … social and economic inequalities in background institutions are ordinarily so large that those with great wealth and position usually control political life and enact legislation and social policies that advance their interests.” (Justice as Fairness: A Restatement, 148. ) And he’s probably right about this: massive wealth inequalities allow some individuals to exercise their rights more effectively than others. As such, there is a tension between wealth inequality and the realization of the fair value of the basic liberties enumerated in the first principle of justice.

    The problem here is that if we are to achieve fair value for everyone’s basic liberties then we will probably need to do something about massive wealth inequalities—but we can’t, because we have just included thick economic liberties as basic liberties, which would mean that we would have to violate our newfound thick economic liberties in order to reach a state of distribution that allows for the fair value of our other basic liberties to be realized. This would mean, to put it in Orwellian terms, that some basic liberties are more equal than others. And the problems don’t stop there. Can a poor person realize the fair value of their right to own private productive property (if we are to include thick economic liberties as those whose fair value must be realized)? Probably not—after all, it costs a lot to buy a factory. As such, does the inclusion of thick economic liberties coupled with the fair value criterion require us to redistribute so we can allow the fair value of our new thick economic liberties to be realized? If the answer is yes, then it seems like we would be in the peculiar position of having to violate our newfound thick economic liberties in order to, in a sense, realize them. These problems are not incorrigible, though. Two solutions come to mind: we can lexically order the basic liberties as we did the two principles of justice, or we can get rid of the fair value criterion, and only require that we protect basic liberties in a formal, less robust sense.

    Here is the second way we can marry Rawls’s political philosophy with libertarianism: We can keep the basic structure of the two principles of justice the same, and simply make an economic argument. We can argue that the political order best satisfying the second principle of justice is a free market capitalistic order—that, as a matter of fact, the worst off will be best off if we let the market run its course. This would essentially result in libertarians echoing Milton Friedman’s pithy line that a rising tide raises all boats. As someone who lacks formal economic training, there is not much I can say about this type of argument. This, though, is actually one of the argument’s weaknesses: Given the incredible lack of agreement we see among professional economists, it is doubtful that we can ever be sure what economic system will indeed best satisfy the second principle of justice. Thus, there will always be indeterminacy as to whether this argument is correct or not due to its reliance on empirical facts—an indeterminacy that could (presumably) be avoided with a knock-down philosophical argument, as the above approach requires.

    In this essay I presented two ways one can reconcile Rawls’s political philosophy with libertarianism. As someone who broadly endorses the Rawslian approach to political philosophy I also endorse the two arguments presented in this paper. In the spirit of fairness I also tried to highlight the problems both these approaches encounter. I think this is an important thing to do. There is no perfect argument, as of yet, establishing libertarianism as the best, or most just, political order. By doing exercises like this—by presenting various arguments in support of libertarianism while also being open and honest about their weaknesses—we can hopefully make philosophical progress through constructive discussion, and, at times, through trial by fire. In the end, libertarianism as a whole will be better off.

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

  3. Was Jeremy Bentham a Classical Liberal at heart?

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    Jeremy Bentham was born on Feb. 15th, 1748, in Spitalfields, England. One of the main early advocates of utilitarianism — the ethical view that, roughly, an act is right insofar as it promotes happiness, and wrong insofar as it does not — he is best known for his view that “it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong.”

    This impersonal, aggregative approach to ethics might seem to be a far cry from the individualism of classical liberalism. The impression that Bentham’s work lies outside the classical liberal tradition might be reinforced by the knowledge that in one of his major works, “Anarchical Fallacies,” he trenchantly criticized the view that persons had natural rights. And in fact, Bentham produced as one of his students Robert Owen, one of the founders of utopian socialism.

    But Bentham himself was very much an individualist, and, as such, belongs firmly in the classical liberal tradition. Bentham’s opposition to natural rights (which he termed “nonsense on stilts”) stemmed from his view that the basis of morality was the value of happiness. For Bentham, this could be measured (through the “hedonic calculus”) with different types of happiness being ranked according to such factors as their duration and intensity. (It is important to note that for Bentham the happiness of all creatures mattered morally, not just that of humans.)

    Bentham’s approach to morality was thus nothing if not empirical, and so insofar as it is true that certain institutional structures are more conducive to widespread well-being than others (e.g., markets, secure private property rights, and the rule of law) these would be supported by him.

    But we need not rely on such indirect evidence to usher Bentham into the ranks of great classical liberals. In an age when (male) homosexuality was not only morally condemned but criminalized in England, Bentham wrote against the persecution of gay men, although he kept his essay on the topic (“On Offenses Against Oneself”) private and unpublished. He also argued (in “Defense of Usury”) in favor of economic liberty, holding that no-one “of ripe years and of sound mind, acting freely, and with his eyes open, ought to be hindered … from making such bargain … as he thinks fit.” And, of course, he was one of the primary mentors of John Stuart Mill, the great classical liberal author of On Liberty.

    Bentham died in 1832, in Westminster, leaving behind some 30 million words of work on philosophy, law, economics, and politics. He also left behind his preserved body, which is now on display at University College, London. According to an urban myth, he still attends faculty meetings, where he is recorded as being “present, but not voting.”

  4. Immanuel Kant: Philosopher of Freedom

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    If you want to understand the moral basis of a free society, there might be no better place to start than the thought of Immanuel Kant. He is the most significant and widely discussed moral philosopher in history. And he was self-consciously an Enlightenment liberal who believed in limited government and maximum freedom.

    Let’s take a look at the elements of his moral and political argument for freedom.

    I. The Good Will and the Moral Law

    In his first work of moral philosophy, The Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant tries to systematize our common moral intuitions in order to give us a method for deciding moral controversies — that is, issues where our consciences or intuitions might disagree with others’ or not speak clearly.

    He notes that the only unconditionally good thing in the world, according to common understanding, is a good will. Good fortune, health, and even happiness broadly understood are not unconditionally good, because when married to a bad will they become a source of condemnation for an impartial spectator. We don’t applaud the evil man who achieves his goals and rides off into the sunset savoring his victory. We condemn him and hope his plans are frustrated. No, more important than being happy is to be worthy of happiness, that is, to have a good will.

    On this point, the Objectivist founder Ayn Rand misinterpreted Kant. She believed he was what she called an “altruist,” who thought it was praiseworthy to sacrifice happiness. Kant believes, as most of us do, that happiness should not motivate us to the exclusion of duty. Obedience to the moral law — duty — is the most important thing, but happiness is also desirable.

    Kant notes that an important assumption necessary for moral responsibility is the idea that we human beings give the moral law to our own wills. We say to ourselves, “This is the right thing to do, and so I will do it.” We don’t know how it is possible for us to freely determine our own wills, but it must be possible for us if we are to consider ourselves as morally responsible beings.

    II. The Categorical Imperative

    The moral law takes the form of an unconditional or categorical imperative. It says, for instance, “Do not murder, even if you can achieve your goals by doing so.” It’s not a hypothetical imperative like “if you don’t want to burn your hand, don’t touch the hot stove,” or “if you don’t want to go to jail, don’t murder.” It commands our wills regardless of what our particular goals are.

    Kant thinks all particular moral commands can be summed up in a fundamental, categorical imperative. It takes three forms. I’ll mention two of them here.

    One form of the categorical imperative focuses on the notion that human beings are special because of our capacity for moral responsibility. Kant assumes that this capacity gives each individual human being a dignity, not a price. What that means is that we must not trade off the legitimate rights and interests of any human being for anything else. We must not treat other people or ourselves as means only to some other end, but always as ends in ourselves.

    The other, perhaps more frequently cited, form of the imperative is highly abstract: “Always act according to that maxim that you can will as a universal law of nature.” In other words, think about the principle or rule that justifies your action; then figure out whether it’s universalizable. If so, it is an acceptable principle or rule for you to follow; if not, it is not. “Steal when I can gain an advantage thereby” is not universalizable because it implies that others may steal from me, that is, take what I own against my will. But I cannot will against my own will.

    III. Rights and Freedoms

    Now, this understanding of the dignity of the individual human being implies that persons have rights, in other words, that we have an enforceable duty to respect the freedoms of all persons.

    So we can’t trample on the freedoms of one person to help one or many others (contra the “act utilitarians”). For instance, it would be wrong to kill one healthy person to distribute her organs to several sick people, even if doing so was necessary to save two or more lives. Each person has a dignity that must not be trampled, no matter what.

    [Pullquote text=”Each person has a dignity that must not be trampled, no matter what.”]

    (Another misunderstanding of Kant says that he thinks your intentions are the only thing that matter and you can ignore the consequences of your actions. To the contrary, to ignore consequences is to act with ill intent. Consequentialists differ from Kant in believing that only aggregate consequences of actions need be taken into account. Kant’s political theory is individualist, while consequentialist theories are inevitably collectivist.)

    In an essay titled “Theory and Practice” (short for a much longer title), Kant gives an overview of his political theory. Once a civil state has been established to secure our rights, he says,

    No one can compel me to be happy in accordance with his conception of the welfare of others, for each may seek his happiness in whatever way he sees fit, so long as he does not infringe upon the freedom of others to pursue a similar end which can be reconciled with the freedom of everyone else within a general workable law — i.e. he must accord to others the same right as he enjoys himself.

    Kant therefore endorses the law of equal freedom, that everyone should have maximum freedom to pursue happiness consistent with the like freedom of everyone else, or what some libertarians have called the “Non-Aggression Principle.” This principle applies under government, not just in the state of nature.

    The equal freedom of each subject in a civil state, Kant says, “is, however, perfectly consistent with the utmost inequality of the mass in the degree of its possessions, whether these take the form of physical or mental superiority over others, or of fortuitous external property and of particular rights (of which there may be many) with respect to others.” Kant is no Rawlsian; he is a classical liberal who realizes that liberty upsets patterns and should be preserved in spite of (or because of) that.

    In the same essay, Kant endorses Locke’s view of the social contract. A legitimate state with a right to rule can emerge only after unanimous consent to the initial contract. To do otherwise would be to violate the non-consenters’ rights. We now know that unanimous consent to the social contract has rarely occurred in human history, and so Kant’s strong theory of individual rights sets us up for a rejection of political authority.

    If we reject political authority, the largest state we can possibly justify is a minimal state, and, according to some, not even that.

    IV. Kantian Liberalism

    Kant’s moral philosophy justifies extremely strong individual rights against coercion. The only justification for coercion in his philosophy seems to be defense of self or others. His ideal government therefore seems to be extremely limited and to allow for the free play of citizens’ imaginations, enterprise, and experiments in living.

    Kant does take some strange positions on particular moral positions. He has an odd view of marriage as a kind of mutual servitude, he denies that there is a right to resist an unjust sovereign, and he thinks lying is always wrong, no matter what. I find that Kant is most persuasive at his most abstract, when he deals with fundamental philosophical issues.

    Whatever your opinion of his work, Immanuel Kant deserves to be widely read by classical liberals and libertarians. His contributions to liberalism are important and still underappreciated.

  5. Crony-in-Chief: Donald Trump epitomizes Ayn Rand’s “Aristocracy of Pull.”

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    After Donald Trump announced a number of cabinet picks who happen to be fans of Ayn Rand, a flurry of articles appeared claiming that Trump intended to create an Objectivist cabal within his administration.

    Ayn Rand-acolyte Donald Trump stacks his cabinet with fellow Objectivists,” proclaimed one article. Would that it were so. The novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand, whose birthday is today, was a passionate champion of individual freedom and laissez-faire capitalism and a fierce opponent of authoritarianism. For her, government exists solely to protect our rights, not to meddle in the economy or to direct our private lives.

    A president who truly understood Rand’s philosophy would not be cozying up to Putin, bullying companies to keep manufacturing plants in the United States, or promising “insurance for everybody” among many other things Trump has said and done.

    And while it’s certainly welcome news that several of Trump’s cabinet picks admire Rand, it’s not surprising. Her novel Atlas Shrugged depicts a world in decline as it slowly strangles its most productive members. The novel celebrates the intelligent and creative individuals who produce wealth, many of whom are businessmen. So it makes sense that businessmen like Rex Tillerson and Andy Puzder would be among the novel’s millions of fans.

    But a handful of fans in the administration hardly signals that Trump’s would be an “Ayn Rand” administration. The claims about Rand’s influence in the administration are vastly overblown.

    Pull-Peddling Cronies

    Even so, there is at least one parallel we can draw between a Trump administration and Rand’s novels, although it’s not favorable to Trump. As a businessman and a politician, Trump epitomizes a phenomenon that Rand harshly criticized throughout her career, especially in Atlas Shrugged. Rand called it “pull peddling.” The popular term today is “cronyism.” But the phenomenon is the same: attempting to succeed, not through production and trade, but by trading influence and favors with politicians and bureaucrats.

    Cronyism has been a big issue in recent years among many thinkers and politicians on the Right, who have criticized “big government” because it often favors some groups and individuals over others or “picks winners and losers.”

    Commentators on the Left, too, often complain about influence peddling, money in politics, and special interests, all of which are offered as hallmarks of corruption in government. And by all indications, Trump was elected in part because he was somehow seen as a political “outsider” who will “drain the swamp.”

    But as the vague phrase “drain the swamp” shows, there’s a lot more concern over cronyism, corruption, and related issues than there is clarity about what the problem actually is and how to solve it.

    Ayn Rand has unique and clarifying views on the subject. With Trump in office, the problem she identified is going to get worse. Rand’s birthday is a good time to review her unique explanation of, and cure for, the problem.

    The Problem: Unlimited Government

    The first question we need to be clear about is: What, exactly, is the problem we’re trying to solve? “Drain the swamp,” “throw the bums out,” “clean up Washington,” “outsiders” vs. “insiders” — these are all platitudes that can mean almost anything to anyone.

    Are lobbyists the problem? Trump and his advisers seem to think so. They’ve vowed to keep lobbyists out of the administration, and Trump has signed an order forbidding all members of his administration from lobbying for 5 years.

    It’s not clear whether these plans will succeed, but why should we care? Lobbyists are individuals hired to represent others with business before government. We might lament the existence of this profession, but blaming lobbyists for lobbying is like blaming lawyers for lawsuits. Everyone seems to complain about them right up until the moment that they want one.

    The same goes for complaints about the clients of lobbyists — the hated “special interests.” Presidents since at least Teddy Roosevelt have vowed to run them out of Washington yet, today, interest groups abound. Some lobby for higher taxes, some for lower taxes. Some lobby for more entitlements, some for fewer or for more fiscal responsibility in entitlement programs. Some lobby for business, some for labor, some for more regulations on both. Some lobby for freer trade, some for trade restrictions. The list goes on and on. Are they all bad?

    The question we should ask is, Why do people organize into interest groups and lobby government in the first place?

    The popular answer among free-market advocates is that government has too much to offer, which creates an incentive for people to tap their “cronies” in government to ensure that government offers it to them. Shrink government, the argument goes, and we will solve the problem.

    Veronique de Rugy, senior fellow at the Mercatus Center, describes cronyism in these terms:

    This is how cronyism works: A company wants a special privilege from the government in exchange for political support in future elections. If the company is wealthy enough or is backed by powerful-enough interest groups, the company will get its way and politicians will get another private-sector ally. The few cronies “win” at the expense of everyone else.

    (Another term for this is “rent seeking,” and many other people define it roughly the same way.)

    There’s a lot of truth to this view. Our bloated government has vast power over our lives and trillions of dollars worth of “favors” to dole out, and a seemingly endless stream of people and groups clamor to win those “favors.” As a lawyer who opposes campaign finance laws, I’ve often said that the problem is not that money controls politics, it’s that politics controls money — and property, and business, and much of our private lives as well.

    Still, we need to be more precise. “Favors,” “benefits,” and “privileges” are too vague a way to describe what government has to offer. Among other things, these terms just raise another question: Which benefits, favors, or privileges should government offer? Indeed, many people have asked that question of cronyism’s critics. Here’s how the Los Angeles Times put it in an editorial responding to the effort by some Republicans to shut down the Export-Import Bank:

    Governments regularly intervene in markets in the name of public safety, economic growth or consumer protection, drawing squawks of protest whenever one interest is advanced at the expense of others. But a policy that’s outrageous to one faction — for example, the government subsidies for wind, solar and battery power that have drawn fire on the right — may in fact be a welcome effort to achieve an important societal objective.

    It’s a valid point. Without a way to tell what government should and should not do, whose interests it should or should not serve, complaints about cronyism look like little more than partisan politics. When government favors the groups or policies you like, that’s good government in action. When it doesn’t, that’s cronyism.

    Government Force and Legal Plunder

    In Rand’s view, there is a serious problem to criticize, but few free-market advocates are clear about exactly what it is. Simply put, the problem is the misuse of the power that government possesses, which is force. Government is the institution that possesses a legal monopoly on the use of force.

    The question we need to grapple with is, how should it use that power?

    Using terms like “favors,” “privileges,” and “benefits” to describe what government is doing when cronyism occurs is not just too vague, it’s far too benign. These terms obscure the fact that what people are competing for when they engage in cronyism is the “privilege” of legally using force to take what others have earned or to prevent them from contracting or associating with others. When groups lobby for entitlements — whether it’s more social security or Medicare or subsidies for businesses — they are essentially asking government to take that money by force from taxpayers who earned it and to give it to someone else. Call it what you want, but it ultimately amounts to stealing.

    When individuals in a given profession lobby for occupational licensing laws, they are asking government to grant a select group of people a kind of monopoly status that prevents others who don’t meet their standards from competing with them — that is, from contracting with willing customers to do business.

    These are just two examples of how government takes money and property or prevents individuals from voluntarily dealing with one another. There are many, many more. Both Democrats and Republicans favor these sorts of laws and willingly participate in a system in which trading on this power has become commonplace.

    “Rent seeking” doesn’t capture what is really going on. Neither, really, does “cronyism.” They’re both too tame.

    A far better term is the one used by nineteenth-century French economist Frederic Bastiat: “legal plunder.” Rand uses the term “political pull” to describe those who “succeed” by convincing friends in government to use the law to plunder others or to prevent them from competing.

    And she uses the phrase “the Aristocracy of Pull,” which is the title of a whole chapter in Atlas Shrugged, to describe a society in which political pull, rather than production and trade, has become the rule. It’s a society that resembles feudalism, in which people compete to gain the favor of government officials in much the same way that people in feudal times competed for the favor of the king so they could use that power to rule over one another and plunder as they pleased.

    The cause, for Rand, is not the size of government, but what we allow it to do. When we allow government to use the force it possesses to go beyond protecting our rights, we arm individuals to plunder one another and turn what would otherwise be limited instances of corruption or criminality into a systemic problem.

    For example, when politicians promise to increase social security or to make education “free,” they are promising to take more of the incomes of taxpayers to pay for these welfare programs. When they promise to favor unions with more labor laws or to increase the minimum wage, they are promising to restrict businesses’ right to contract freely with willing workers. When they promise to “keep jobs in America,” they are promising to impose tariffs on companies that import foreign goods. The rule in such a system becomes: plunder or be plundered. What choice does anyone have but to organize themselves into pressure groups, hire lobbyists, and join the fray?

    Rand memorably describes this process in the famous “money speech” in Atlas Shrugged:

    But when a society establishes criminals-by-right and looters-by-law — men who use force to seize the wealth of disarmed victims — then money becomes its creators’ avenger. Such looters believe it safe to rob defenseless men, once they’ve passed a law to disarm them. But their loot becomes the magnet for other looters, who get it from them as they got it. Then the race goes, not to the ablest at production, but to those most ruthless at brutality. When force is the standard, the murderer wins over the pickpocket. And then that society vanishes, in a spread of ruins and slaughter.

    Observe what kind of people thrive in such a society and who their victims are. There’s a big difference between the two, and Rand never failed to make a moral distinction between them.

    Wealth Creators vs. Wealth Appropriators

    In the early 1990s, Atlantic City resident Vera Coking found herself in the sights of a developer who wanted to turn the property on which she lived into a casino parking lot. The developer made what he thought was a good offer, but she refused. The developer became incensed, and instead of further trying to convince Coking to sell or finding other land, he did what a certain kind of businessman has increasingly been able to do in modern times. He pursued a political “solution.” He convinced a city redevelopment agency to use the power of eminent domain to force Coking to sell.

    The developer was Donald Trump. His ensuing legal battle with Coking, which he lost, was the first of a number of controversies in recent decades over the use of eminent domain to take property from one private party and give it to another.

    Most people can see that there’s a profound moral distinction between the Trumps and their cronies in government on the one hand and people like Vera Coking on the other. One side is using law to force the other to give up what is rightfully theirs. To be blunt, one side is stealing from the other.

    But the victims of the use of eminent domain often lobby government officials to save their property just as vigorously as others do to take it. Should we refer to all of them as “special interests” and damn them for seeking government “favors”? The answer should be obvious.

    But if that’s true, why do we fail to make that distinction when the two sides are businesses — as many do when they criticize “Wall Street,” or the financial industry as a whole, or when they complain about “crony capitalism” — as though capitalism as such is the problem? Not all businesses engage in pull-peddling, and many have no choice but to deal with government or to lobby in self-defense.

    John Allison, the former CEO of BB&T bank (and a former board member of the Ayn Rand Institute, where I work), refused to finance transactions that involved the use of eminent domain after the Supreme Court issued its now-infamous decision in Kelo v. City of New London, which upheld the use of eminent domain to transfer property from one private party to another. Later, Allison lobbied against the TARP fund program after the financial crisis, only to be pressured by government regulators into accepting the funds. In an industry as heavily regulated as banking, there’s little a particular bank can do to avoid a situation like that.

    Another example came to light in 2015, when a number of news articles ran stories on United Airlines’s so-called “Chairman’s Flight.” This was a flight from Newark to Columbia, South Carolina, that United continued to run long after it became clear it was a money-loser. Why do that? It turns out the chairman of the Port Authority, which controls access to all the ports in New York and New Jersey, had a vacation home near Columbia. During negotiations over airport fees, he made it clear that he wanted United to keep the flight, so United decided not to cancel it. Most of the news stories blamed United for influence-peddling. Only Holman Jenkins of the Wall Street Journal called it what it was: extortion by the Port Authority chairman.

    The point is, there’s a profound moral difference between trying to use government to plunder others and engaging with it essentially in self-defense. It’s the same difference between a mobster running a protection racket and his victims. And there’s an equally profound moral difference between people who survive through production and trade, and those who survive by political pull.

    Rand spells out this latter difference in an essay called “The Money Making Personality:”

    The Money-Maker is the discoverer who translates his discovery into material goods. In an industrial society with a complex division of labor, it may be one man or a partnership of two: the scientist who discovers new knowledge and the entrepreneur — the businessman — who discovers how to use that knowledge, how to organize material resources and human labor into an enterprise producing marketable goods.

    The Money-Appropriator is an entirely different type of man. He is essentially noncreative — and his basic goal is to acquire an unearned share of the wealth created by others. He seeks to get rich, not by conquering nature, but by manipulating men, not by intellectual effort, but by social maneuvering. He does not produce, he redistributes: he merely switches the wealth already in existence from the pockets of its owners to his own.

    The Money-Appropriator may become a politician — or a businessman who “cuts corners” — or that destructive product of a “mixed economy”: the businessman who grows rich by means of government favors, such as special privileges, subsidies, franchises; that is, grows rich by means of legalized force.

    In Atlas Shrugged, Rand shows these two types in action through characters like steel magnate Hank Rearden and railroad executive Dagny Taggart, two brilliant and productive business people who carry a crumbling world on their shoulders. On the opposite end of the spectrum are Orren Boyle, a competitor of Rearden’s, and Jim Taggart, Dagny’s brother and CEO of the railroad where she works. Both constantly scheme to win special franchises and government contracts from their friends in Washington and to heap regulations on productive businesses like Rearden’s. Rearden is forced to hire a lobbyist in Washington to try to keep the bureaucrats off of his back.

    When we damn “special interests” or businesses in general for cronyism, we end up grouping the Reardens in with the Orren Boyles, which only excuses the behavior of the latter and damns the former. This attitude treats the thug and his victim as morally equivalent. Indeed, this attitude makes it seem like success in business is as much a function of whom you know in Washington as it is how intelligent or productive you are.

    It is unfortunately true that many businesses use political pull, and many are a mixture of money-makers and money-appropriators. So it can seem like success is a matter of government connections. But it’s not true in a fundamental sense. The wealth that makes our modern world amazing — the iPhones, computers, cars, medical advances and much more — can only be created through intelligence, ingenuity, creativity and hard work.

    Government does not create wealth. It can use the force it possesses to protect the property and freedom of those who create wealth and who deal with each other civilly, through trade and persuasion; or it can use that force to plunder the innocent and productive, which is not sustainable over the long run. What principle defines the distinction between these two types of government?

    The Solution: A Government Limited by the Principle of Rights

    As I noted earlier, the common view about cronyism is that it is a function of “big” government and that the solution is to “shrink” or “limit” government. But that just leads to the question: what’s the limiting principle?

    True, a government that does less has less opportunity to plunder the innocent and productive, but a small government can be as unjust to individuals as a large one. And we ought to consider how we got to the point that government is so large. If we don’t limit government’s power in principle, pressure group warfare will inevitably cause it to grow, as individuals and groups, seeing government use the force of law to redistribute wealth and restrict competition, ask it to do the same for them.

    The common response is that government should act for the “good of the public” rather than for the narrow interests of private parties. The Los Angeles Times editorial quoted above expresses this view. “What’s truly crony capitalism,” says the Times, “is when the government confuses private interests with public ones.”

    Most people who criticize cronyism today from across the political spectrum hold the same view. The idea that government’s job is to serve “the public interest” has been embedded in political thought for well over a century.

    Rand rejects the whole idea of the “public interest” as vague, at best, and destructive, at worst. As she says in an essay called “The Pull Peddlers”:

    So long as a concept such as “the public interest” … is regarded as a valid principle to guide legislation — lobbies and pressure groups will necessarily continue to exist. Since there is no such entity as “the public,” since the public is merely a number of individuals, the idea that “the public interest” supersedes private interests and rights, can have but one meaning: that the interests and rights of some individuals takes precedence over the interests and rights of others.

    If so, then all men and all private groups have to fight to the death for the privilege of being regarded as “the public.” The government’s policy has to swing like an erratic pendulum from group to group, hitting some and favoring others, at the whim of any given moment — and so grotesque a profession as lobbying (selling “influence”) becomes a full-time job. If parasitism, favoritism, corruption, and greed for the unearned did not exist, a mixed economy [a mixture of freedom and economic controls] would bring them into existence.

    It’s tempting to blame politicians for pull-peddling, and certainly there are many who willingly participate and advocate laws that plunder others. But, as Rand argues, politicians as such are not to blame, as even the most honest of government officials could not follow a standard like “the public interest”:

    The worst aspect of it is not that such a power can be used dishonestly, but that it cannot be used honestly. The wisest man in the world, with the purest integrity cannot find a criterion for the just, equitable, rational application of an unjust, inequitable, irrational principle. The best that an honest official can do is to accept no material bribe for his arbitrary decision; but this does not make his decision and its consequences more just or less calamitous.

    To make the point more concrete, Which is in the public interest, the jobs and products produced by, say, logging and mining companies — or preserving the land they use for public parks? For that matter, why are public parks supposedly in “the public interest”? As Peter Schwartz points out in his book In Defense of Selfishness, more people attend private amusement parks like Disneyland each year than national parks. Should government subsidize Disney?

    To pick another example, Why is raising the minimum wage in “the public interest” but not cheap goods or the rights of business owners and their employees to negotiate their wages freely? It seems easy to argue that a casino parking lot in Atlantic City is not “in the public interest,” but would most citizens of Atlantic City agree, especially when more casinos likely mean more jobs and economic growth in the city?

    There are no rational answers to any of these questions, because “the public interest” is an inherently irrational standard to guide government action. The only approach when a standard like that governs is to put the question to the political process, which naturally leads people to pump millions into political campaigns and lobbying to ensure that their interests prevail.

    Rand’s answer is to limit government strictly to protecting rights and nothing more. The principle of rights, for Rand, keeps government connected to the reason we need government in the first place: to protect our ability to live by protecting our freedom to think and produce, cooperate and trade with others, and pursue our own happiness. As Rand put it in Atlas Shrugged (through the words of protagonist John Galt):

    Rights are conditions of existence required by man’s nature for his proper survival. If man is to live on earth, it is right for him to use his mind, it is right to act on his own free judgment, it is right to work for his values and to keep the product of his work. If life on earth is his purpose, he has a right to live as a rational being: nature forbids him the irrational. Any group, any gang, any nation that attempts to negate man’s rights, is wrong, which means: is evil, which means: is anti-life.

    A government that uses the force it possesses to do anything more than protect rights necessarily ends up violating them. The reason is that force is only effective at stopping people from functioning or taking what they have produced or own. Force can therefore be used either to stop criminals or to act like them.

    The principle, then, is that only those who initiate force against others — in short, those who act as criminals — violate rights and are subject to retaliation by government. So long as individuals respect each other’s rights by refraining from initiating force against one another — so long as they deal with each other on the basis of reason, persuasion, voluntary association, and trade — government should have no authority to interfere in their affairs.

    When it violates this principle of rights, cronyism, corruption, pressure group warfare and mutual plunder are the results.

    There’s much more to say about Rand’s view of rights and government. Readers can find more in essays such as “Man’s Rights,” “The Nature of Government,” and “What Is Capitalism?” and in Atlas Shrugged.


    In 1962, Rand wrote the following in an essay called “The Cold Civil War”:

    A man who is tied cannot run a race against men who are free: he must either demand that his bonds be removed or that the other contestants be tied as well. If men choose the second, the economic race slows down to a walk, then to a stagger, then to a crawl — and then they all collapse at the goal posts of a Very Old Frontier: the totalitarian state. No one is the winner but the government.

    The phrase “Very Old Frontier” was a play on the Kennedy administration’s “New Frontier,” a program of economic subsidies, entitlements and other regulations that Rand saw as statist and which, like many other political programs and trends, she believed was leading America toward totalitarianism. Throughout Rand’s career, many people saw her warnings as overblown.

    We have now inaugurated as 45th president of the United States a man who regularly threatens businesses with regulation and confiscatory taxation if they don’t follow his preferred policies or run their businesses as he sees fit. A recent headline in USA Today captured the reaction among many businesses: “Companies pile on job announcements to avoid Trump’s wrath.”

    Are Rand’s warnings that our government increasingly resembles an authoritarian regime — one that issues dictates and commands to individuals and businesses, who then have to pay homage to the government like courtiers in a king’s court — really overblown? Read Atlas Shrugged and her other writings and decide for yourself.

  6. Liberalism reconstructed for a world divided

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    So 2016 is limping to an end with an assassination of an ambassador, another “inspired” attack on innocents at a Christmas market, and the formal election of a master crony-capitalist to the office of the presidency of the United States.  We have angry tweets, mean tweets, and self-congratulatory tweets defining our age.  But our age requires something different.

    The liberal project must be reconstructed for a world divided by ethnic, linguistic, religious, nationalist, and economic class.  The liberal project has always been an evolving project, not fixed in time.  It has taken on different meanings at different historical junctures.  Now is no different, and to do the necessary reconstruction, there must be no divide between the humanities and the social sciences.  Philosophy without economics is daydreaming, and economics without philosophy has no purpose, and both without politics are sterile intellectual exercises.

    In this reconstruction, we may draw inspiration from Smith and Hume, Mises and Hayek, Friedman and Buchanan, Nozick, etc., but repeating their answers to the problems of their day will not work.  We live in the post-colonial and post-communist era, where the neoconservative project of a ‘world order’ has only exacerbated the social tensions that define our age.

    This post is designed for one purpose — to encourage young scholars of classical liberalism — be they philosophers, political scientists, economists, historians, sociologists, etc. — to pick up this challenge and apply all their talents to be students of our civilization.  If the best and the brightest don’t pick up the challenge because of academic conformity methodologically, analytically, ideologically, then the necessary reconstruction will not occur.  Note I am not saying “restatement”, I am saying reconstruction.

    My career as an academic political economist began with studying the history, collapse and transition from socialism in the former Soviet Union, it then switched to the institutional lessons to be learned from the failure of development planning in Africa, Latin America and Asia.  This has led to studies on economic calculation and complex coordination; institutional infrastructure and economic development; endogenous rule formation and analytical anarchism; and social epistemology and comparative institutional analysis.  But, these are at best inputs into a study that seeks to addresses the problems that plague our world and the reconstructed liberal project.

    We have serious problems that require serious attention.  Let’s get to work.

    This piece was originally published at Coordination Problem.

  7. Schools of thought in classical liberalism

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    Classical liberals all agree that government should be limited, but they disagree about how they get to that conclusion. I want to approach these differences by looking at three different questions that anyone concerned about the role of government should care about.

    1. What is the methodology or the philosophy that will determine what the role of government is?
    2. Why should government be limited? Should it be limited because of the consequences of government actions or because people have natural rights?
    3. What is the legitimate role of government? What should governments do, and what should government not do?

    I’m going to ask those three questions with reference to five different schools of thought. All these schools are classical liberal, and all believe that liberty is the most important political value, but they disagree on these three fundamental questions.

    Milton Friedman and the Chicago School


    The Chicago School of Economics approached the questions above by using an empirical methodology. That is, they were all about testing the power of theories.

    To test a theory, the Chicago School economists would present a hypothesis (e.g. if you increase the minimum wage, lower-skilled workers will find it more difficult to find employment) and test it with empirical evidence.

    Why Limited Government?

    The Chicago School believe that there is such a thing as market failure—markets sometimes fail—but that there’s also such a thing as government failure. And they claim that usually government failure is much greater than market failure.

    In much public debate about the role of government, politicians will identify a market failure and assume that a perfect government can come in and solve that problem. The Chicago School says that’s not right. We need to compare imperfect markets, with all the imperfections they have, with imperfect government, with all of their imperfections. The Chicago School believes that when you do these two things, government failure is usually much greater than market failure.

    Underlying this claim is the observation that there is a gap between the intentions of policymakers and the actual results of what they advocate. Sometimes policies even lead to the opposite to that of which was intended. For example, the idea of rent control is to provide more housing opportunities for poor people. But by reducing the price of rental property, you actually reduce the supply of rental property, which makes it more difficult for poor people to find housing. It has the opposite effect to what’s intended.

    And why is there this gap between intentions and consequences? The Chicago School argues it’s because of policymakers’ failure to take into account the importance of self-interest in explaining peoples’ behavior. They ignore human nature.

    Then there are many other government policies that, while they might actually achieve their intended goals, also have negative, unintended consequences. For example, some people do benefit from raising the minimum wage, but large numbers of people can’t get jobs at all because of it. And so we need to compare both the positive consequences, which were intended, and the negative, unintended consequences.

    Role of Government

    Milton Friedman identifies four main areas of government responsibility.

    1. Protection: We need a military to provide us with defense against our foreign enemies and a police force to protect us from criminals.
    1. Administration of justice: If you live in a society with other people, people will inevitably come into conflict with one another. One possible way of resolving any sort of conflict is by beating up the other person. Presumably, though, we don’t want to live in a society where every time there is a disagreement, we try and have a physical fight with the other person. So we want some neutral arbiter that is not connected with either side to say who was right and who was wrong. It’s the job of the government to provide courts for this service
    1. Public Goods and Negative Externalities: There are some things that the marketplace simply cannot provide satisfactorily, and the government has a role in providing them.Public goods have two characteristics. One, you can’t exclude people from benefiting from them. And two, they are “nonrival”, meaning the fact that I consume more of it does not mean that you have less of the product.

      The classic example of a public good is defense. Suppose that I didn’t want to pay my taxes towards defense. The problem is a) that the American military are going to defend me whether I want it to or not. I can’t be excluded from American defense. And b) it’s nonrival. The protection of me doesn’t mean any less protection for anyone else. This would not work in a voluntary system because people would simply not contribute to public goods, preferring to free-ride.

      Negative externalities occur when interactions between people have consequences for third parties. The classic case of that is pollution, where my production of a good produces pollution, which then affects the people who live in my neighborhood. The Chicago School says that we need some way of controlling these negative externalities.

      More controversially, Milton Friedman argued that the poor are a negative externality. We don’t want to live in a society where there are people begging and starving on the streets. Therefore, Friedman argues for some form of social safety net.

    1. Protecting the irresponsible: The classic case of where it is appropriate for government to care for those who cannot look after themselves is children. Normally we can allow parents to make these decisions, but we still have to keep an eye. Not all adults treat children properly.

    The Chicago School approach to the role of government is often called the Social Market Approach. Friedman believes that while governments do have some responsibilities, they should use market mechanisms as much as possible to achieve these ends. So, for example, it is a responsibility of government to make sure every child is educated, but that does not mean that government has to provide the schools. Government could give vouchers or support private schooling. While government has a social responsibility, it doesn’t necessarily have to directly provide in order to meet that social responsibility.

    The Public Choice School


    The approach of the School of Public Choice to the question of how we decide the role of government is to look for a “social contract”. Supposing you’ve got rational individuals together and they had to decide what they would do, how would they set up a form of government? What would they universally agree upon?

    Public Choice scholars start with the question of what would happen if we had no state at all. They believe it would look something like English philosopher Thomas Hobbes’s “state of nature”. Hobbes said that life without a government is “nasty, brutish, and short.” Without a government, humans could basically do three things: produce things, steal other people’s things, or spend time protecting their things.

    Because life in the state of nature wouldn’t be very pleasant, it would be in the self-interest of everyone to create a body that would protect the things that we produce. With a protective government body, we could spend a lot more energy producing things. We would be wealthier. We wouldn’t need to spend so many resources protecting ourselves. So it’s argued that rational individuals, thinking about what sort of government they would want, would create a government whose responsibility was to protect our life and property.

    Why Limited Government?

    In economics, we assume that people are motivated by their own self-interest, and Public Choice scholars say that people behave exactly the same way in the political realm as they do in the economic realm.

    What their self-interest drives them to do, however, may not be the same. In economics, we tend to look for income and wealth to identify people’s self-interest. In politics, your self-interest is getting elected and reelected to public office. Politicians do that by promising goodies to particular groups. Vote for me, and I will protect your Social Security! Vote for me, and I will reduce your student loans! Vote for me, and I will support your farms! So it’s in the vested self-interest of politicians to promise goodies to particular groups within society.

    Government bureaucrats are also self-interested. It’s in the interest of bureaucrats to have a bigger government. The more government there is, the more income they probably have and the more power they have. The bigger their offices are.

    Interest groups are self-interested as well. They look to manipulate government to work to their benefit. To use an economic term, they are rent-seekers. They try to get the rules written in such a way that makes it more difficult, for example, for a competitor to enter into the market and compete with them.

    So the problem for the Public Choice School is that most political actors have a vested interest in growing government well beyond what people agree on in the social contract. That’s why they think government needs to be limited—to prevent it from going well beyond what the proper role of government should be.

    Role of Government

    So what should the role of government be in that context? It’s often described as the public goods state. The public goods state has two responsibilities.

    1. Protection: It should protect individual rights, especially our property.
    2. Production: It needs to provide public goods and deal with externalities

    It is not the responsibility of the state—public choice argues—to have any form of welfare state; that goes well beyond the social contract.

    So why does government tend to grow far beyond that which people would reasonably agree to under the social contract? For example, why does the federal government in the United States do so much more than the limited and enumerated powers established in the U.S. Constitution? The public choice school explains this with the concept of concentrated benefits and dispersed cost. That is, the benefits of a government program concentrate in the hands of a relatively small number of people while the costs of those programs are spread out among a larger group of people.

    Let’s take agricultural policy for example. Only about 3 percent of the population in the United States is engaged in agriculture. 97 percent are not. But when it comes to deciding agricultural policy, these 3 percent, they really, really care about it. It would determine who they vote for. It would determine who they campaign for. It would determine who they will give money for.

    The 3 percent would throw cow manure over politicians who don’t support agricultural subsidies and tariffs that make it difficult to import food from outside the United States. The 97 percent of us all lose by this. We lose because we pay higher taxes to subsidize this. We lose because the tariffs mean that we pay more for the food we buy in the supermarkets.

    You would think that, in a democracy, a policy that is in the interest of 3 percent and against the interest of 97 percent would fail. But every attempt to do away with these agriculture supports has failed. And that’s because those who really care about it really care about it. They’re active on the issue.

    The rest of us, the population who loses by it, don’t even think about agricultural policy. But even if we did think about it, the losses for each one of us amount to only a couple of dollars a week. We’re not going to get politically active on that issue. So when it comes to debating agricultural policy, it’s the small 3 percent that determine what those policies should be. According to public choice, this is true of most government laws and programs. It is driven by the small number of people, by the concentrated beneficiaries of that policy, and not at all by those who pay the costs—consumers and tax payers.

    The Austrian School


    The Austrian School of economics actually approaches limited government with two different methodologies, propounded by the two leading Austrian School figures—Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek.

    When arguing for limited government, Friedrich Hayek tends to emphasize the limits of knowledge and reason. He’s much more willing to give deference to tradition, to how social and legal rules have evolved over a period of time. So, for example, he’s much more interested in the concept of a spontaneous order, how we come to work together without any central planner that tells us how we should behave. He’s interested in the common law, how traditional law has developed over the ages.

    Hayek is cautious about self-evident proofs that, for example, the Founders of the United States Constitution examined. He thinks that much of the order that we do see in society was the result of human action, but not of human design. Take the English language, for example: no group or institution decided this is what the English language was meant to be; it’s something that has naturally evolved over time. But we recognize what the rules of the language are, and we can live with those sorts of rules.

    Ludwig von Mises had a totally different approach. He adopts what’s called a priori deductive reasoning. He believes that we can identify certain truths about human behavior, what he calls axioms, and that we can discover these axioms through our experience and through the use of reason:

    1. Human action is purposeful. That is, humans seek to achieve certain goals. Actions are neither random nor predetermined. We can identify what people’s goals are and what it is they’re trying to achieve through their actions.
    2. Individuals are the only actors. The technical term for this is “methodological individualism”. In so much political debate, we tend to say, “France does this” or “London does that.” Of course, it’s not all the French people acting, but a small number of ministers at the top of the French government deciding to act. Actions are only conducted by individuals; they’re not conducted by broad groups.
    1. Value is in the eye of the beholder. This is the so-called “subjective theory of value”. That is, things do not have value in themselves, but only that to which people attribute to it. For example, I think rap is crap, but some people like rap. Some people think it’s a good thing. There’s no objective value to rap.

    You often hear a criticism of economists that they know the price of everything and the value of nothing. But that assumes that we can know what the value is of something. But that is impossible. The value for the same thing can be different for different people.

    Mises argues that simply using our reason, we can identify these axioms or these truths.

    Why Limited Government?

    Now, Mises and Hayek tend to agree about why government should be limited: because government policymakers lack the knowledge to:

    1. Understand what the goals are of regular people.
    2. Work out what the best means are for people to achieve these goals.

    That’s why the Soviet Union collapsed. It wasn’t able to know what people wanted, and even if it did, it wouldn’t know how to achieve those wants. The Austrian School takes a consequentialist view—that the consequences of government action are often bad.

    Role of Government

    When it comes to the question about the role of the state though, Hayek and Mises again diverge. Hayek says the criteria for deciding what government should do is what he calls the “rule of law”, by which he means that there are certain general principles that we should apply to any government action or any piece of legislation. In the United States, for example, the Supreme Court will often look at the law passed by Congress and signed by the president and strike it down under the U.S. Constitution.

    Hayek argues that every society should have general principles that we should apply to every government action and every citizen, without exception. But in America, it’s very common for the U.S. Congress to pass a law which applies to everyone but themselves.

    A classic example is the Americans with Disabilities Act. The law says that all buildings need to adjust in a certain way to enable disabled access. During the debate on the bill, however, they realized it would cost the U.S. Congress hundreds of millions of dollars to adapt Capitol Hill to meet those standards. So they excluded themselves from that bill. That’s an example of inequality before the law.

    Another example would be earmarks, where government offers money to a particular company in a particular way. Hayek argues that this should be considered illegitimate because it goes against the rule of law.

    Hayek does believe that some form of limited welfare state can be justified by following the rule of law. Ludwig van Mises, however, concludes that there should only be a minimal state. That is, the job of government is solely and exclusively to guarantee the protection of life, health, liberty, and private property. There’s no role for the welfare state—only a minimal state.

    Natural Rights

    America has a strong tradition of natural rights going back to the American founding. They were strongly influenced by the ideas of John Locke, who believed these natural rights came from God. And we saw that expressed in the Declaration of Independence.

    Perhaps two of the most famous natural rights thinkers in the classical liberal tradition are Ayn Rand and Robert Nozick. Ayn Rand is famous for being a novelist, but she also wrote lots of philosophy. She is probably best known for her book Atlas Shrugged. Robert Nozick was a Harvard philosopher who wrote a famous book called Anarchy, State, and Utopia.


    Rand is associated with what she called “objectivism”. She believed that there was an objective reality and an objective morality, that we can discover reality and morality by the use of reason. We know that it is in the nature of man to want to live, to want to survive. In order for people to live, in order for people to survive, they have to have certain natural rights. That is, natural rights exist for the goal or purpose of human beings. This is called a “teleological” explanation.

    Robert Nozick also believed in natural rights. He believed that by pursuing rational self-interest, you would not violate the natural rights of others. He assumed that rights exist and examined the consequences of that assumption. In this view, natural rights takes a so-called “deontological” approach. Natural rights tell us the limits of what we should do. For example, “thou shall not kill” is a clear moral principle that tells us that we should protect the rights of people not to be killed.

    Why Limited Government?

    Rand and Nozick both agree that the problem with government is that it violates our natural rights. It is immoral to use force to obtain your goals. Capitalism, they argue, is the only moral economic system. It is based on voluntary exchange—not coercion.

    Role of Government

    According to both Rand and Nozick, the ideal government is a minimal state whose sole purpose is to protect our natural rights. Nozick specifies that there should be a minimal state against force, theft, and fraud. He also argues that the enforcement of contracts is justified. Anything beyond that role is illegitimate because it violates people’s rights.

    He also talks about defending capitalist acts between consenting adults. As long as the people involved are agreeing voluntarily, they should be allowed to do whatever they want to do. The result of this is that the state should only be designed to protect us. So the state should provide a military to defend us. It should provide a police to defend us against criminals. It should provide a court to avoid conflict between people. And that is it. There’s no justification for any form of government beyond that, such as a welfare state.


    So now we’re going to look at Murray Rothbard, David Friedman, and the anarcho-capitalists. Murray Rothbard is famous for his book For a New Liberty. David Friedman, Milton Friedman’s son, wrote a book called The Machinery of Freedom.


    Murray Rothbard defended his anarchist position on the basis of natural rights. In that sense, he was similar to Rand and Nozick. But he was also strongly influenced by Mises and the Austrian School, and he developed what he called the “non-coercive axiom” or the “non-coercive truth”: that it is always wrong to use force except in self-defense. Rothbard argues that this is the principle we should use to establish what government should do.

    David Friedman approaches anarchism from a different point of view: empirical analysis. He compares the relative efficiency of leaving things to the market with the relative efficiency of leaving it to the government.

    And while Rothbard and Friedman used two very different methodologies—one based on natural rights and one based on consequences—they both believe there should be no state at all.

    Why Limited Government?

    The classic definition of a state comes from German sociologist Max Weber. A state is an institution which claims a monopoly of a legitimate use of force over a given territory. So within a society that a government covers, nobody but the government is allowed to use force.

    Rothbard criticized this because he said that this means that governments violate our rights. They obtain what they want through coercive means. If we don’t do what the government wants, they will throw us in prison. So, for example, he says that taxation is theft. If somebody came along and took 25 percent or 40 percent of our income and said “if you don’t give it to me I’m going to put you in jail,” we would call that person a thief and a criminal. Rothbard asks why we behave any differently when it’s the state that demands 25 percent or 40 percent of our income.

    David Friedman, taking his efficiency approach, says the state is inevitably inefficient—that the market is always going to be more efficient than government. Friedman argues that the market can even provide things that most people assume that only government can do—like defense or provision of roads—most efficiently.

    So they conclude that the best society is one of anarchy, one without any government at all. According to Rothbard, government is illegitimate—it has no specific moral claim on us or our property. And according to Friedman, it’s inefficient—it cannot provide the goods and services that the market is able to provide at a lower cost.

    Role of Government

    Both Rothbard and Friedman argue that we tend to forget that there are often private solutions to public problems. For example, there are more people employed in the private security sector than employed by the police force. Most people are protected by private institutions not the police. We just tend to ignore that. We ignore the fact that many disputes between businesses don’t go to our state courts. In fact, many business disputes are settled in private arbitration courts because state courts are so slow; they’re so inefficient; they’re so unreliable. Many businesses will prefer to use private arbitration agencies to do this.

    They also argue that even if you believe in the idea of a minimal state, if you create a minimal state it will never stay minimal. It will be unstable. And it will most likely grow and grow and grow. This is why they favor anarchism—no state whatsoever.

    Conclusion: What’s Your View?

    So what’s your view about what the role of government should be? What’s your criteria for deciding what you think government should do? What’s your methodology? What’s your philosophy?

    Why do you think government should be limited? Do you think it should be limited because of the consequences of government action? Do you think it should be limited because government infringes on your natural rights?

    And what do you think the role of government should be? Do you think there’s no role for government? Are you an anarchist? Do you believe the role of government should be minimal—that it should only provide the army, the police, and the courts but nothing else? Do you believe that there are certain public goods like defense, like dealing with externalities such as the environment? Do you believe that there’s a social-market economy, that there is a responsibility for dealing with the poorest within society? That we need some sort of basic welfare state such as making sure every child can go to school?

    Or do you believe in non-classical liberal views about the role of the state? Is it the job of the state to promote a virtuous society, as some conservatives would argue? Do you think it’s the job of the state to create equality, as many people would argue on the left.

    Are you a socialist? Do you believe that the government should either own or control all aspects of the economy? Or are you—I hope not—a totalitarian, a fascist, or a communist who believes that the government should control every aspect of life?

    The question is—what’s your view about the role of government?

  8. Getting Good Results vs Doing the Right Thing

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    Would you tell a lie to protect someone from harm? Would you sign off on torture to prevent a bomb attack? If you want to look into the ethical aspects of personal and political decisions, you need to start with the basics, and one of the most basic ideas in moral philosophy is the distinction between consequentialism and deontology. These two schools of ethics identify different aspects of decisions as morally important, and lead to very different ways of looking at ethical issues — including freedom and liberty.


    Consequentialism tells us to judge decisions by the goodness of their outcomes (or consequences). If there are two (or more) options to choose from, the one with the better (or best) outcome is the morally right choice to make. This is too vague, however, because it doesn’t tell us what about outcomes makes one choice “better” than others. Once we narrow down what “good” or “better” means, we get specific versions of consequentialism based on a particular definition of goodness.

    The most well-known version of consequentialism is utilitarianism, which picks out the ethical choice according to the overall “utility” (roughly, happiness or well-being) it creates. A key aspect of utilitarianism is that overall utility is the sum of each individual’s utility, which implies that each individual’s utility counts exactly as much as everyone else’s. This lends utilitarianism an intrinsic sense of moral equality that was very controversial in the 18th and 19th centuries when Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, both social reformers, popularized it.

    (Not all forms of consequentialism have this property; for instance, prioritarianism recommends placing more weight on the less advantaged in society so they receive more policy attention than utilitarianism would give them.)

    One problem that many people find with utilitarianism — and consequentialism in general — is that it can recommend actions that seem to violate commonsense morality. While acts like lying and cheating would normally be held by utilitarians to be immoral because they usually end up leading to bad outcomes, utilitarians may regard individual cases of both to be good if they lead to good outcomes in those specific cases — and as we all know, it’s very easy to think of situations where this seems to be the case. At the same time, though, we tend to think that lying and cheating, regardless of the outcomes they might generate in specific cases, are simply wrong.


    This is the kind of judgment that a deontologist would make. Deontology finds moral value in an act itself rather than the outcome it leads to. Deontology is usually expressed in rules, principles, or duties that proclaim certain acts to be moral or not.

    For example, most deontologists would regard lying and cheating to be wrong as a matter of principle, regardless of whether they led to better outcomes in select cases. (A version of utilitarianism known as rule utilitarianism also makes general judgments about actions, but based on their usual outcomes rather than the moral nature of the actions themselves.)

    As with consequentialism, there are numerous varieties of deontology, but by far the most commonly cited is that of Immanuel Kant, who grounded his duty-based system of ethics in the autonomy and dignity of the person and the respect they demand from all persons (as well as the government). To Kant, lying is wrong because it uses those being lied to merely as a means to the ends of the liar, without considering those being lied to as valuable in themselves. This determination is based on Kant’s infamous categorical imperative, a formula for generating duties, while W.D. Ross, another prominent deontologist, held that duties were based on simple intuitions about right and wrong.

    Of course, deontology has its share of critics too. Just as consequentialists can ignore strong moral intuitions about right and wrong, deontologists can stand too firm on rules and duties and be insensitive to actual harm, as reflected in the Latin phrase fiat justitia ruat cælum: “Let justice be done though the heavens fall.” Sometimes maintaining a principled stand can be too costly, at which point consequences demand to be considered.

    This consideration is included in threshold deontology, which says to reconsider rules and duties when the costs reach a dangerously high level. (Think of the “ticking bomb” scenario cited in debates about torture, which is often proposed to outweigh deontological rules against the practice.)

    The Good versus the Right

    Despite their differences, consequentialists and deontologists do agree on many things, such as the immorality of lying, stealing, and killing. More important, however, they do so for different reasons that stem from their unique perspectives.

    For example, a utilitarian may say theft in general is bad because it deprives people of their property and makes them anxious about their security, while a deontologist would say that theft is wrong because it violates property rights, which people have a duty to observe. This difference in perspective is often stated in terms of “the good versus the right,” because when these two ethical schools conflict, it is usually a case which a decision promises better outcomes but violates a duty or principle in the process.

    Consequentialism and deontology are useful not only for looking at personal decisions but also for breaking down the ethics of government policy and societal institutions. For example, the current debate over surveillance can be cast as a conflict between safety (which is an outcome that can be increased) and privacy (which is a principle that has to be maintained).

    This is a quick and easy way to frame the debate, but this is only scratching the surface of a complex issue with consequentialist and deontological elements on both sides.

    Liberty and Ethics

    Both ethical approaches have also been used to support individual liberty, but again for different reasons. Consequentialists focus on the wealth and happiness that free markets and societies create, while deontologists emphasize the greater respect for the rights and dignity of individuals that liberty promotes.

    While both positions can be used to support liberty, they sometimes split on specific policies, such as the proper scope of the state and whether taxes should be optimized or eliminated. Again, the proper extent of liberty is a complex issue that can’t be summarized so easily, but nonetheless it starts with the core issues of the good and the right, stemming from consequentialism and deontology — part of the basics of moral philosophy.

  9. Here are 7 lesser-known classical liberal thinkers for your World Philosophy Day

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    Today is World Philosophy Day, and what better way to celebrate than to give a nod to a few lesser-known philosophers associated with the classical liberal tradition. You may know the Hayeks and Nozicks and Lockes of the world, but have you heard of these seven liberty-loving thinkers?

    1. Herbert Spencer
    Recommended reading: Social Statics

    A polymath, Herbert Spencer was originally known for his writing on biology. He coined the phrase “survival of the fittest,” used to describe the process of natural selection. Spencer rose to prominence by extending the lessons of biological evolution to politics and sociology.

    Libertarian historian Brian Doherty writes in his tome Radicals for Capitalism that libertarian political theorist Murray Rothbard once described Spencer’s work Social Statics as “the greatest single work of libertarian political philosophy ever written.” In Social Statics, Spencer writes that one has a moral obligation to support charities, considering them “the highest forms of social evolution.” Spencer was ahead of his time in other ways as well, self-identifying as a “radical feminist” advocating for “complete suffrage” and a “right to ignore the state.”

    2. Benjamin Tucker
    Recommended reading: Individual Liberty

    Benjamin Tucker was a 19th century American writer, editor, and publisher, and a self-proclaimed “individualist anarchist”. Tucker is probably best known for his periodical plainly titled Liberty, which ran for nearly 30 years. Feminist thinker Wendy McElroy would go on to describe Liberty as “widely considered to be the finest individualist-anarchist periodical ever issued in the English language.”

    Liberty would eventually showcase the writings of some of the most influential political thinkers of its time, including fellow individualist anarchist Lysander Spooner as well as English translations of Friedrich Nietzsche. Tucker was influenced by and attempted to synthesize the political theories of Herbert Spencer, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and others. He would describe this philosophical anarchism as “anarcho-socialism” predating Marxist definitions of socialism.

    3. Lysander Spooner
    Recommended reading: No Treason: The Constitution of No Authority

    It’s hard to determine where to begin when discussing Lysander Spooner. There’s his hugely successful first class mail company that successfully competed with the United States Postal Service to the point that the USPS had to lower their cost for postage in order to compete. That is, until Congress passed legislation effectively banning people from competing with the USPS.

    Or perhaps we could talk about his work as an abolitionist? Or as an advocate for women’s suffrage? Spooner’s underratedness is underscored by his forward-thinking nature. A 19th century lawyer, entrepreneur, essayist, pamphleteer, abolitionist, and labor movement-supporting anarchist, Spooner is the personification of everything we love about the rugged individualism of early America. He’s probably best known for his highly quotable essay on the illegitimacy of the U.S. Constitution titled No Treason: The Constitution of No Authority.

    4. Isabel Paterson
    Recommended reading: The God of the Machine

    Isabel Paterson was a journalist, novelist, literary critic, and political philosopher. Canadian born, Paterson became an American citizen later in her life. She got her professional start as an editor for a Washington-based paper but would go on to write a regular column for the New York Herald Tribune where she wrote on a variety of topics, including the Harlem Renaissance, the New Deal, and the Great Depression.

    During her tenure at the Herald Tribune she acted as mentor to an up and coming Ayn Rand. Rand and Paterson became ideological allies, using their platforms to promote the other. Rand described Paterson’s magnum opus The God of the Machine as “the best and most complete statement of the basic principles of our side, and the greatest defense of capitalism I have ever read. It does for capitalism what Das Kapital did for the Reds.”

    5. Gustave de Molinari
    Recommended reading: The Production of Security

    Belgian Gustave de Molinari is the intellectual heir to the philosophy of free trade as espoused by Frederic Bastiat. Shortly before Bastiat’s death in 1850, Molinari published The Production of Security, one of the first works to lay out a theoretical framework for markets as a viable alternative to the coercive state. Murray Rothbard writes in the preface of the 1977 English translation that The Production of Security is the “first presentation anywhere in human history of what is now called anarcho-capitalism.”

    Following the death of Bastiat, Molinari became the leading voice for free markets in France in the latter half of the 19th century. Molinari lives on today as the namesake for the market anarchist Molinari Institute.

    6. William Lloyd Garrison
    Recommended reading: Archive of the The Liberator

    William Lloyd Garrison is best known for his work calling for an end to the institution of slavery in the United States. Garrison was the editor and co-founder of the abolitionist newspaper The Liberator. He was also one of the co-founders of the American Anti-Slavery Society.

    Following the abolishment of slavery at the conclusion of the Civil War, Garrison went on to become a major player in the movement for women’s suffrage almost a century before women would finally attain the right to vote.

    7. Auberon Herbert
    Recommended reading: A Politician in Trouble About His Soul

    Auberon Herbert was a 19th century writer, philosopher, and individualist. During his time in Parliament he was an outspoken advocate of secularism, especially as it related to public education. Following political life, he was an avid supporter of the aforementioned Herbert Spencer. He would later dub his Spencerian-like flavor of individualism as “voluntaryism.”

    Ever critical of the political system and the behavior it rewards, Herbert was a vocal critic of political parties. In his best known book, A Politician in Trouble about his Soul, Herbert advocated a radical laissez-faire ideology that argued for “voluntary taxation.” Herbert also started a monthly paper titled The Organ of Voluntary Taxation and the Voluntary State, which ran for 11 years.

    So there you have it. Seven lesser known classical liberal theorists who were united by the common goal of human liberation. The classical liberal tradition is a rich one with a vibrant and diverse cast of individuals dating as far back as the 18th century. Their writings and interactions with one another are woven together over centuries, resulting in a compelling and, in some cases, a surprisingly prophetic argument for individual autonomy. Many of them were the earliest advocates of abolitionism and women’s suffrage, while others were creating theoretical frameworks for anarchist societies well before the First World War.

  10. Yet another comically bad caricature of libertarianism

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    I was eating lunch today, a colleague of mine brought to my attention an article in Jacobin Magazine entitled “A Philosophy for the Propertied” – urging us to reject libertarianism as a utopian fantasy. My first response to my colleague was that I was too busy to make a full response, but then I wrote, “who am I kidding, I’ll have a look.” I predicted, just for fun, that most of what I’d find wrong in the piece would be based on misconception or caricature.

    I was correct. What follows are more than a dozen serious problems with the piece.

    Item 1: “right-wing libertarianism.”  Libertarianism isn’t “right-wing” in any meaningful sense of the term. We’re not hawks. We don’t base our positions on religious fundamentalism. We oppose the surveillance state and indeed all government violations of civil liberties. We oppose all censorship. We oppose the drug war. We were for same-sex marriage, and LGBT equality generally, more than 40 years before the Democratic party got on the bandwagon. We oppose subsidies and bailouts to big business, and indeed special privilege for the well-connected in general. So: Not right-wing.

    Item 2: “What is libertarianism? The question is fraught, and dwelling on it is unlikely to be productive”  Translation: I will deliberately avoid defining it so as to avoid the obvious reply that this is all straw-man and caricature.

    Item 2a:  “To hear them tell it” – no quotations or references follow. At this point I’m already  convinced that the author is arguing deliberately dishonestly, and if I were grading this would be more than halfway to already knowing it’s inadequate: You can’t say “I will now argue against X” and then not quote from X at all.

    Item 2b: “they exalt” – ok, so we’ll paper over cracks in the argument with rhetorical devices. Noted.

    Item 3: “Libertarianism is a species of utopian political thinking.”  Nope. We’re not the ones who imagine that power can be entrusted to people as long as they’re the right people. We’re the ones who try to push for structures in which the damage that venal people can do is minimized. We’re the ones who pay attention to what sorts of incentives are provided by different policies and institutions. Of all the political philosophies, we’re the least utopian. Again, author quotes no one.

    Item 4: “free activity of individuals whose interactions are mediated by the market and uninhibited by anything other than their own volition.” Wrong again. The boundary condition is not one’s own volition, it’s the equal respect for the rights of others. Locke specifically differentiates liberty from licentiousness. Which libertarians say “do whatever you please”?  More evidence that this author is either arguing dishonestly or is unaware of most libertarian thought.

    Item 5: “it can’t solve collective action problems like environmental degradation and global warming.” Actually, many libertarians concern themselves with these issues. “Can’t solve” seems to imply that some other philosophy has some easy solution which we petulantly ignore. But that’s false also. Any purported solution that pretends there are no trade-offs is fantasy. “Just ban x” has a history of being a terrible answer to all such problems. People are whipped into a frenzy about the dangers of x, often falsely, and then the ban on x entails unintended consequences which are often even worse, and frequently create black markets in x.

    Item 6: Halfway through, the one quotation I’ve seen so far is from another article in Jacobin criticizing libertarianism.

    Item 7: Notes that libertarians are skeptical of unfettered democracy – a line of argument that’s as old as Plato, and was responsible for the U.S. Constitution not being characterized by direct democracy. You can spin criticism of democracy as sinister, but it actually is the case that unfettered democracy is not what the framers had in mind, as even a cursory skimming of the Federalist Papers reveals. Pure majoritarianism is indefensible. If the author wants to argue about that, fine, but it’s hardly unique to libertarianism to be skeptical of it. Then: “One popular libertarian solution”  – finally a citation to an actual libertarian author!  No quotes of course, just a link, but the person is actually a living libertarian philosopher, Jason Brennan. But “popular solution” is wrong – the work in question is brand new, and while some libertarians like Brennan’s work others do not (I have not read the book yet myself). So, calling this a “popular solution” tells me first of all that the author is amazingly unfamiliar with libertarian thought, and secondly that he’s picking a particularly controversial new book and presenting it as “they all think this.”

    Item 8: A weird segue into criticizing Habermas and Rawls – who aren’t libertarians.

    Item 9: “Unencumbered by the social commitments of contemporary liberalism, libertarianism quickly goes beyond the depoliticized inertia of deliberative theory and actively advocates the dismantling of institutions that are publicly accountable” Lots of wrong packed in here. The first 5 words are already wrong – libertarianism is profoundly informed by the social aspects of human existence. That’s a concern as old as Smith. But the whole sentence is wrong – it’s not that we should dismantle institutions that are publicly accountable (again who says this?  No one quoted) but that the status quo is generally not composed of such institutions. The grain lobby gets subsidies for its members via the processes we have now – that’s not “public accountability.”

    Item 10: “For libertarian theorists, democratic oversight is an immoral abrogation of individual rights.”  Yes, we do say that – and I’m terrified of people who disagree with it. This is an insight as old as Mill, with roots in Plato. That the majority doesn’t like me doing x is not sufficient justification for using coercion to prevent me doing x. Only if my doing x violates someone else’s equal rights, e.g. by hurting him or her, would coercion be justified.

    Item 11: “Far from denouncing coercion, libertarians celebrate it” – quotes would help. Name one libertarian who celebrates coercion. That’s literally the opposite of what we say. See item 10: coercion is only justified to prevent action that violates the equal rights of others. So, I can’t go hit a person and take his car, although if I tried to do this, that person would be justified in hitting me back to prevent me taking his car. Aggression is bad, self-defense is permissible. That the author would say this is further proof of outright distortion.

    Item 12: “libertarianism is a philosophy concerned with the defense of individual property owners” – says this like it’s a bad thing!  This is precisely what the powerless need – an institutional structure that looks out for them, that regards their rights as no less important than the rights of the rich and powerful. Suzette Kelo lost her home because some wealthy developer wanted it. She needed more, not less, protection of property rights. Also, when we say “property,” we mean (as did Locke) one’s life – we have a property right in ourselves. Eric Garner and Philando Castile needed more, not less, protection of property rights. Where property rights aren’t respected, it is the rich and powerful who benefit – always. You cannot name one society where this isn’t case.

    Item 13: “libertarians advocate for conservatism” – No. See F. A. Hayek’s essay entitled “Why I Am Not a Conservative.” Go ahead, I’ll wait.

    Item 14: “libertarians advocate for capitulation to elites” – where?  It’s getting pretty tiresome noting that none of these claims refer to any actual sources except the reference to Brennan’s new book. Anyway, we don’t advocate capitulating to anyone. We’re the pro-freedom team, the ones with “Don’t Tread on Me” bumper stickers. It’s the impositions of arrogant elites that we reject, not endorse.

    Conclusion: author seems upset about one new book by a libertarian philosophy professor but either has no understanding whatsoever of libertarianism or is afraid of honest argumentation, seeing as how no other sources canonical or otherwise are cited – no Smith, Locke, Mill, Hayek, Nozick – just a bunch of unjustified assertions, straw man, caricature, and deliberate distortion. Sadly, I find this to be the case 90% of the time.

    On the one hand, we have a lot more work to do explaining our ideas about peace, freedom, and prosperity to others. But on the other hand, if opponents either refuse to read what we write or deliberately misrepresent it, what good will it do?  Perhaps more of the former will help counteract the latter.

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

  11. Did the Ancient Greeks Believe in Freedom?

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    The ancient Greeks left a wealth of knowledge through their surviving writings on a wide variety of themes, including science, logic, philosophy, literature, and the arts.

    In addition, the city-state of Athens is considered the birthplace of intellectual freedom and democracy – lasting legacies that helped to mold the ideas that have influenced the development of Western civilization.

    But, in comparison, their discussions on economics were often few and almost always relatively unsystematic. A primary reason for this is the fact that, for the ancient Greeks, questions concerning “economics” were considered subservient to other themes considered far more crucial to human life and society.

    For the Greek philosophers and social thinkers, the central themes were questions of “justice,” “virtue,” “the good,” and “the beautiful.” What today we call “economic” questions and problems were relegated to a narrow corner of evaluating how economic institutions and organization could be designed or modified to serve these “higher” ends or goals.

    The Greek View of the Society over the Individual

    An extension of this is the general view that the ancient Greeks had concerning the individual in society. For them, the individual was dependent upon the society in which he was born for all that he could become as a person. That is, the community nurtured and molded the individual into a “civilized” human being.

    The society took precedence, or priority, over the individual. The individual was born, lived, and died. The society and the State, however, they believed, lived on.

    The more modern conception of man as a free, autonomous agent who chooses his own ends, selects his own means to attain his desired ends, and in general lives for himself, was an alien notion to the mind of the ancient Greeks.

    One of the leading defenders of individual liberty in early nineteenth century Europe was the French social philosopher, Benjamin Constant (1767-1830). In 1819, he delivered a famous lecture in Paris on, “The Liberty of the Ancients Compared with that of the Moderns.

    He said that among the ancient Greeks, such as in the city-state of Athens, “freedom” was understood to mean the right of the free citizen to participate in the political deliberations of city affairs, including speaking, debating, and voting. But once the deliberations were over and a vote was taken, the individual was a “slave” to the majority decisions of his fellow citizens. Explained Constant:

    The aim of the ancients was the sharing of [political] power among the citizens of the fatherland: this is what they called liberty. [But] the citizen, almost always sovereign in public affairs, was a slave in all his private relations.

    As a citizen, he decided peace and war, as a private individual, he was constrained, watched and repressed in all his movements; as a member of the collective body, he interrogated, dismissed, condemned, beggared, exiled, or sentenced to death his magistrates and superiors; as a subject of the collective body he could be deprived of his status, stripped of his privileges, banished, put to death, by the discretionary will of the whole to which he belonged …

    The ancients, as Condorcet says, had no notion of individual rights. Men were, so to speak, merely machines, whose gears and cog-wheels were regulated by the law … The individual was in some way lost in the nation, the citizen in the city.

    Benjamin Constant compared this “liberty of the ancients” with that of the “moderns” – that is, the conception and ideal of liberty popular in his own time in the early decades of the nineteenth century.

    Now, he said, the idea of freedom was the right of the individual to be left alone. The individual was at liberty to guide his own life, choose his own goals, and pursue any ambitions and career that he might want. He could form any interpersonal associations he chose, or could follow his own way by himself.

    Political liberty was an important part of freedom, Benjamin Constant argued. But the essence of liberty for the “moderns” was the right of the individual to live his own life as he desired, with no interference or “dictate” by political minorities or majorities. Constant explained:

    … what an Englishman, a Frenchman, and a citizen of the United States of America understand today by the word ‘liberty.’ For each of them it is the right to be subjected to the laws, and to be neither arrested, detained, put to death or maltreated in any way by the arbitrary will of one or more individuals. It is the right of everyone to express their opinion, choose a profession and practice it, to dispose of property, and even to abuse it; to come and go without permission, and without having to account for their motives or undertakings. It is everyone’s right to associate with other individuals, either to discuss their interests, or to profess the religion which they and their associates prefer, or even simply to occupy their days or hours in a way which is most compatible with their inclinations and whims.

    Slavery Demeaned Honest Labor and Weakened Incentives

    It is also important to remember that Greek society and the ancient Greek economy was based on slave labor. This resulted in two outcomes:

    First, anything involving manual labor, and the common working for a living, as well as the day-to-day dealing in money and the exchanging of goods and services, was considered beneath a cultured and free citizen of a Greek city-state. It distracted the Greek citizen from his first and highest duty: participation and interest in the political, philosophical, and artistic affairs of his city-state. This did not make for an intellectual climate conducive to making questions of economic relationships and institutions a respectable field for serious reflection and thought.

    Second, the use of slave labor diminished any motives or incentives on the part of the thinking, free citizen to concern himself with questions of how to economize and more efficiently use labor. Since, once captured and sold into slavery, a slave could not refuse to work or demand higher wages or better work conditions, or search out better employment opportunities, there was little motive for developing ways to more effectively employ labor through better social or market arrangements.

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

  12. John Locke’s Top 5 Radical Political Ideas

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    John Locke turns 384 years old today, making this an unusually appropriate occasion for reflecting upon his legacy as a political philosopher.  Further, because this is the internet, I propose we make a list of, say, five features of Locke’s political thought that remain particularly important for students interested in the liberal tradition.

    Natural Equality

    It is difficult today to imagine a time when the notion of the universal equality of mankind was radical or dangerous—that “all men are created equal” resides first among our self-evident truths.  Yet, for Locke and his contemporaries, little could be more radical or more dangerous than the idea that “Creatures of the same species and rank” should not be born into relations of subjection or domination.  Locke was not the first to articulate the idea of natural equality, of course, but his formulation in the opening pages of the Second Treatise placed equality at the very foundation of liberal political thought.


    Locke’s theory of property, found primarily in Chapter Five of the Second Treatise, is important and curious in a number of ways.  Because we are obligated to preserve ourselves, because the earth is given to men in common, and, Locke argues, because labor is the means by which we convert the earth into sustenance, we each have a natural right to acquire private property by “mixing” our labor with the earth.  This represents, in the first place, a natural law account of the origin of property and thereby supplies a kind of conceptual brake against the purely conventional accounts of property found in Hobbes and elsewhere.

    More curiously, Locke attaches an individual duty to labor to his conception of good citizenship. Locke writes that God gave the earth to “the Industrious and Rational (and Labour was to be his Title to it).”

    Finally, Locke’s account of property helps flesh out a conception of mankind as, by their very nature, owners—that what it means to be a well-functioning member of society is precisely to administer, protect, and otherwise tend to those things—life, liberty, and material stuff among them—over which one exerts ownership.


    In the context of the Second Treatise, the notion of consent functions as a solution to a thorny and longstanding problem: if we are all born equally free and equal—or, put another way, if we are born into a world without natural or divinely-inspired relations of subjection—then how is political authority possible at all? Locke’s answer in the Second Treatise is that legitimate political authority—understood as the power to coerce others without violating their natural rights—can be generated by an act of consent.

    As with our discussion of natural equality, it isn’t easy to imagine a conceptual space in which consent isn’t the primary (if not sole) engine of political legitimacy—we in liberal societies tend to look askance at any relationship considered to be non-consensual or non-voluntary.  The function of consent in Locke’s political thought remains vital to our conceptions of liberal morality.


    Locke’s discussion of the “dissolution” of government does not appear until the final chapter of the Second Treatise, but there’s a real sense in which the question of the right of revolution permeates the entire work. That societies, aggrieved minority groups, and even private individuals might resist government actors (violently, if necessary): this was an altogether new and radical idea in Locke’s day and, arguably, remains so in our own.


    Locke further developed his thoughts on the limits of government power in a subsequent exchange with church authorities on the topic of forced religious uniformity.  In A Letter Concerning Toleration, published in 1689, Locke presents a number of arguments against forced religious conformity.  Two of these are of particular interest: on the one hand, Locke argues that religious faith rests outside the purview of political society—that the religious beliefs of its citizens is not the business of government; on the other hand, he argues, political power refers to physical force, and true belief simply cannot be forced.

    And there you have it—five irresistible reasons to honor Locke’s 384th birthday by picking up the nearest copy of his political works.  So, by all means, mix your labor with these ideas and make them your own!