Category Archive: Rights
Comments Off on The Long History of Music Piracy
When you’re a historian, people expect you to write history. So, twelve years ago, when I told people I was writing a dissertation about music piracy, the typical response was, “But… that’s not history.”
I couldn’t blame them. The dirt was still fresh on Napster’s grave at the time, and challenges to online services such as Grokster, Limewire, and even YouTube were still wending their way through the courts. The days of using cassettes to make mixtapes or lurching to press the “record” button to capture songs from the radio were not far behind. If anything, a few older folks might have dim memories of shaggy-haired hippies swapping Grateful Dead bootlegs in the 1970s.
All of this seemed too fresh to be “History” in the way of Adolf Hitler and the Peloponnesian War and the like. But, in fact, piracy has a history as long as sound recording — even as long as written music itself. Jazzheads swapped copies of shellac discs in the 1930s, and shady operators even copied music in the wax cylinder era of the 1910s. Sheet music was bootlegged in the nineteenth century, just as printed materials had been since Gutenberg unleashed the printing press four hundred years earlier.
Music, though, has proven more vexing to regulate than other copyrighted works. A piece of sheet music is cheaper and easier to photocopy than an entire book. And anyone can play his own version of a song in a way that another writer cannot “play” The Grapes of Wrath. American copyright law did not even cover music until 1831 — originally, only books, maps, and charts were protected.
As a matter of fact, I discovered that sound recordings were not protected in the United States until 1972. How could this be?
The Enlightenment Origins of American Copyright
Part of the reason lay in the United States Constitution itself. Our founding document is a notoriously succinct one, outlining the structure of government and spelling out a handful of basic responsibilities for federal authorities — one of which was copyright. The founders empowered Congress:
To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.
Children of the Enlightenment, the founders believed that the spread of knowledge contributed to the public good, and government ought to encourage it. (As Thomas Jefferson put it in 1813, “He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.”) Thus, government should incentivize “Authors and Inventors” to create — but rights to their works should also be “limited,” so as not to strangle the free exchange of art and ideas.
And when they said “limited,” they meant it. The first copyright term lasted a measly fourteen years, and Congress only reluctantly added new kinds of works — written music, photography, film — to the scope of copyright over the course of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Seeing copyright as a monopoly, a sort of necessary evil, they were loath to expand its domain unless absolutely necessary.
The Trouble with Music… and Sound
The fate of sound recording shows how true this is. After Thomas Edison worked out the first truly effective method for inscribing and replaying sound waves in 1877, an era of freewheeling piracy ensued. By 1905, Congress was besieged by songwriters, music publishers, and “talking machine” companies with cries for help. Famous composers such as Victor Herbert and John Philip Sousa pled their case, citing the unfairness that a band of rogues profited off their works. (Of course, Sousa also slyly conceded, “I can compose better if I get a thousand dollars than I can for six hundred.”)
But there was a rub. How exactly would copyright reform work? The songwriters were mad because the companies making disks, wax cylinders, and player piano rolls used their music without authorization or compensation; they demanded both. The talking machine companies wanted to record performances of the written music for free. If forced to pay royalties to composers, then they wanted to have a copyright for their own recordings too.
Congressmen were perplexed. If Sousa owns the copyright for his written composition, then how could the talking machine company own a separate copyright for a recorded performance of it? Isn’t it the same music? What if two different companies recorded two different versions of the same song? Were there copyrights for each recording?
The debate may seem technical, arcane, even alien to twenty-first century ears, but the politicians contemplated the question long before there were music videos or sampling or remixes. It seems obvious to us today that Frank Sinatra and Sid Vicious’s versions of “My Way” are two distinct works. Obviously, one work — a song — can exist in an almost infinite number of unique permutations.
Muddling through in the Age of Jazz
Congress decided to punt on the issue (as it does) — and it turned out to be a good deal for songwriters, record companies, and consumers. With the Copyright Act of 1909, lawmakers set up a system that let songwriters and music publishers earn a royalty when their songs were recorded — but the rate for each “use” (each disk or piano roll manufactured and sold) was a flat one, set by the government. And artists and labels were more or less free to record versions of songs as they pleased.
What Congress did not decide to do was to provide copyright for sound recordings themselves. It was just too confusing, and in the Progressive Era, anti-monopoly sentiment remained strong in American society. Copyright still looked like too much of a monopoly.
The curious result was that sound recordings seemed to lack copyright protection — and pirates noticed. For decades, bootleggers operated in the shadows of the US economy, recording live performances of operas, copying out-of-print jazz and blues records for connoisseurs, and sometimes simply making a quick buck. (The Mafia occasionally pirated pop hits, though many bootleggers were just enthusiasts of hard-to-find music.) Throughout, they could point to the law and say they were not violating it — because sound recordings weren’t protected under the Copyright Act.
The arguments may seem flimsy, but both courts and lawmakers struggled from the 1930s to the 1960s to figure out how to square the circle. Sometimes judges ruled against bootleggers under the doctrine of “unfair competition,” arguing that the pirates freeloaded off the original label’s financial investment in producing and promoting a record. (By making a record or an artist popular, judges reasoned, the label generated “good will” with the public, which the pirate unfairly exploited.)
The Rise of Stronger, Longer Copyright
But the problem remained, since Congress was still reluctant to act on copyright reform. It took the outbreak of widespread bootlegging in the rock counterculture of the 1960s to push the issue to the front burner. Armed with cassette tapes, hippie bootleggers copied unreleased Bob Dylan recordings (“the basement tapes”) and captured Jimi Hendrix concerts for an eager youth audience.
Finally, in 1971, Congress passed a law that provided record labels with protection for their products. And in 1973, the Supreme Court ruled that states could pass their own anti-piracy laws, even though copyright had traditionally been understood as a responsibility of the federal government, and state laws potentially allowed infinite protection for recordings — arguably violating the “limited times” provision of the Constitution.
In a deindustrializing America of the 1970s, though, the cries of the record industry resonated — as did those of other “information” businesses. Makers of albums and movies and software argued that their firms needed protection more than ever in a post-industrial economy, where information was the currency of the age.
The old anti-monopoly sentiments of the Progressive Era melted like butter. Beginning in 1976, Congress embarked on a program that lengthened the term of copyright from 56 years to the life of the author plus 50 years; increased penalties for infringement; and expanded the scope of what could be copyrighted and patented (for example, software and genetically modified organisms). Congress even arbitrarily added 20 years to the length of copyright in 1998 — a law critics dubbed the “Mickey Mouse Protection Act,” since the beloved cartoon character’s copyright was about to lapse at the time.
The Future of Piracy
Where does this story leave us today — in a post-Napster world of YouTube, SoundCloud, and BitTorrent? A fan could illegally download Prince’s entire discography within minutes of the artist’s passing in 2016, but he or she could not stream his songs on Spotify because the Purple One had the legal right to keep them off all streaming platforms.
Prince’s case illustrates the paradox: copyright is stronger and longer than it has ever been before, and yet it is arguably flouted more often than ever too. The US economy still generates a great deal of “information,” but information travels more or less freely. One could argue that the postindustrial economy thrives on the very fact that it is as easy as pressing ctrl-C to copy a word, image, or sound.
America and the world could do with a bit more of the anti-monopoly spirit of old. I do not need the incentive of a lengthy copyright term to write. (If I live another 50 years, the copyright for this article would not lapse until 2137. Is that really necessary?) And the penalties for copyright infringement do not need to be so punitive that so-called “copyright trolls” can use the law to intimidate a lowly blog out of existence with extortionate demands for using a photo without permission.
Congress once actually had it right — as hard as those words are to type. Copyright ought to be a pragmatic bargain between artists, business, and consumers that promotes creativity, not a right of vast scope, consequence, and duration that stifles it. Hopefully lawmakers will realize that less state-enforced monopoly power, rather than more, would be good for both the economy of innovation and the public interest as a whole.
Comments Off on Debate: Is Ayn Rand right about rights?
[Here, Professor Matt Zwolinski provides three essays that argue there are problems with Ayn Rand’s Objectivist philosophy. After each, Professor Stephen Hicks responds with an essay of his own that clarifies and defends the Objectivist point of view.]
Ayn Rand’s Ethical Egoism — Matt Zwolinski
Ayn Rand is, quite famously, an advocate of ethical egoism — the idea that each individual’s own life is the ultimate standard of value for that individual. She is also, quite famously, an advocate of individual rights — the idea that each individual has a morally protected sphere of freedom against which other individuals must not intrude. Figuring out how, or whether, these two things fit together is one of the major puzzles involved in making sense of Rand’s philosophy. If my life is the standard of morality, then why should I refrain from interfering with your freedom if doing so will advance my interests?
In her “synoptic statement” on rights, Rand makes the following series of claims:
If man is to live on earth, it is right for him to use his mind, it is right to act on his own free judgment, it is right to work for his values and to keep the product of his work. If life on earth is his purpose, he has a right to live as a rational being: nature forbids him the irrational.
But there seems to be a fallacy of equivocation going on here. In the first three uses, Rand uses the term “right” to assert that certain actions are morally permissible (it’s not wrong to do them) or even obligatory (it would be wrong not to do them).[i] So, for example, when Rand says that it is right for man to work for his values, she seems to mean at least that it is not wrong for him to do so, and perhaps more strongly that it would be wrong for him not to do so.
The other kind of “right”
Rand’s fourth usage of the word “right,” however, is significantly different. When she says that man “has a right” to live as a rational being, she is not merely saying that it is right for man to live as a rational being. She is saying that man has a right to live as a rational being. And these are two very different claims.
To have a right is to have a certain kind of claim against others. That claim could be a purely moral one (in which case the right is a moral right), or it could be one enforceable by law (in which case it is a legal right). It could be a claim against others that they perform certain positive actions such as repaying a debt (in which case it is a positive right), or it might simply be a claim that others refrain from performing certain kinds of actions like taking one’s property without one’s consent (in which case it is a negative right).
The important point, for our purposes, is that rights in this sense are claims on other people. To say that one person, A, has a right against another, B, doesn’t say much at all about what it would be wrong or right for A herself to do. What it says, instead, is that it would be wrong for B to act (or fail to act) toward A in certain ways.
If any person has a right, then as a matter of moral logic, some other person must have a corresponding obligation.
And this is the puzzle for Rand and her followers: Where exactly are these obligations supposed to come from? In order to remain consistent with egoism, it seems that Rand must claim that A’s right against B must be grounded not in A’s interests, but in B’s. In other words, B only has an obligation to refrain from interfering with A if it is good for B to do so. But as Mike Huemer has argued, it’s very hard to see why this restraint will always turn out to be in best interests of B.
It certainly doesn’t look that way in “lifeboat” cases like the situation described in Joel Feinberg’s story of the lost hiker — cases that I think are not as easily dismissed as Rand believed them to be. But we don’t need to go to the lifeboat to find cases that give us reason to doubt Rand’s claim. Even in ordinary life, there would seem to be plenty of situations in which B can advance his real, rationally defensible interests by violating A’s rights: stealing her lost wallet, lying on a resume he submits to her business, or littering on her property.
Objectivists must, for each and every one of these cases, deny either that (1) the action is actually a rights violation, or (2) that B’s interests would actually be advanced by the violation. In certain cases, this might work — B might not correctly anticipate the guilt he will feel after stealing, or his chances of being punished. But whether the expected costs of a rights-violation outweigh the expected benefits is an empirical question. And as far as I can tell, neither Rand nor her followers have given us sufficient reason to believe that the answer to that question is always going to be that they do.
Zwolinski and Rand on Egoism and Rights — Stephen Hicks
Two points are most important here, one about content and one about method.
At first sight, rights do seem egoistic: I have a right to my life, my liberty, my property, and as a matter of robust, jealously-guarded principle I want those rights to be respected by others.
Rand in particular argues that our rights are based in our needs and capacities as human beings. Human life is a process of thinking, producing, and consuming, and to survive and flourish each individual must take responsibility for the process. The creation and consumption of human value requires freedom of thought and freedom of action — individuals need to think and discover what is good for them, they need to act on their knowledge to produce those good things, and they need to consume the goods they produce.
In a social context, other people can be beneficial to the process: we can learn from each other, act jointly to be more productive, and trade to mutual advantage as consumers.
But other people can also be threats to the process: censorship, kidnapping, enslavement, theft, and so on undercut the affected individual’s ability to think, act, and consume. Those actions are therefore social wrongs, on principle, so their opposites are social rights.
That is what Rand means in the lines in which right is repeated, which Professor Zwolinski sees as problematic (paragraph 2): rights are a type of moral principle; they are part of a family of concepts that link individual right to social right to political right. The connection is maintaining the identification of what is moral in each increasingly-narrow context.
But, as Zwolinski questions (paragraph 6), why does it follow egoistically that I should respect others’ rights? I want my rights to be respected by others, yes — but why should I want others’ rights to be respected by me? Where does the principled commitment to universal and symmetrical application come from?
Rand argues that as human beings we are not able to survive by instinct or by range-of-the-moment action. We are rational beings, and we survive and flourish by making principled, categorical identifications and acting on them. I need to be self-responsible. I need to be productive. I need to plan long-range. And I need to do all of that in a world in which much of my living is social. So what principles should I adopt in my dealings with others?
So the relevant questions about respecting others’ rights are these:
- Can I recognize that others are humans?
- Can I recognize that they have the same general needs?
- Can I understand that, as a general rule, their respecting certain principles in their dealings with me is good for me?
- Can I understand that, as a general rule, my respecting certain principles in my dealings with them is good for them?
- Can I understand that both or all of us will be better off if certain principles are respected?
- Can I grasp that the same facts that make those principles right for me also make them right for others?
Rand’s answer to all of those questions is Yes. Moral self-education, then, hopefully guided and encouraged by good parenting and other socialization, is a matter of thinking through those questions and testing various answers to them in one’s dealings with family members, neighborhood kids, schoolmates, and others as one grows—until one is in a position to conceptualize and commit to principles as a mature individual.
Rational egoism is thus Rand’s grounding of political rights.
(This is not yet to presuppose answers to questions about emergency situations, whether to be a selective predator, how to deal with non-respecters of rights, determining degrees of violations of rights, or the status those not capable of grasping principles. Rand’s theory of rights is about contextual principles applied with practical wisdom; it’s not one of contextless absolutes to be mechanically followed. So more needs to be said.)
The emphasis on rational above indicates that for Rand epistemological matters are central to normative issues, for Rand is in a minority of thinkers who so emphasize the importance of fundamental philosophy. This brings us to a second important point.
Permissible to Whom?
In characterizing Rand’s position, Zwolinski asks at one point (paragraph 3) whether the claim of rights is to be interpreted as permissible or obligatory. That distinction should give us pause, for what kind of morality frames things in terms of permissions and obligations?
If we are to speak of permissible, then we should ask from whom we are seeking permission; and if we are to speak of obligatory, then we should ask to whom or what we are so obligated. Yet if we know anything about Rand’s ethics, then we should sense that we such a taxonomy is alien to it.
The point is that when interpreting a thinker’s position, it is weak methodology to state a thinker’s claim, interpret it by a distinction taken from some other philosophical framework, note that the resulting mix makes no sense, and then criticize the original claim.
Other moralities’ distinctions may be useful in criticizing a thinker’s position after one has figured out what it is. But when initially trying to interpret a position, we should beware of importing highly abstract distinctions from foreign moral theories.
Property and Value — Matt Zwolinski
Ayn Rand was a firm believer in property rights, holding them to be essentially a corollary of the right to life. After all, if the right to life is a right to act in order to preserve one’s life, then this right would be ineffectual if man did not also have the right to the product of his action — to that which he has produced.
The problem is that everything we produce is, ultimately, made out of raw materials that were not themselves produced by anybody. So even if it’s easy to justify why I should be morally entitled to the cake I’ve baked out of the flour and butter I owned, it’s not so easy to justify why I should be morally entitled to the patch of land I simply found and quickly put a fence around. In political philosophy, this is known as the problem of “original appropriation.”
The problem of original appropriation strikes many philosophers as serious because of the seemingly zero-sum nature of natural resources. There’s only so much land to go around. Therefore, whatever land you take and claim as your own leaves less land for me. Your interests might be served by your act of appropriation, but mine seem to be set back. Original appropriation, it has seemed to many philosophers, involves a real conflict of interests between the appropriators and everyone else.
Now, I think there are ways out of this problem — the most promising of which is developed in a wonderful essay by David Schmidtz. But Rand herself never grapples with the problem directly.
I suspect the reason why is that she didn’t see it as a genuinely serious problem. Rand did not believe that land and other natural resources were the true source of value. And thus, one person’s appropriation of some of that stuff did not really set back the interests of others in any serious way.
Mind and Value
For Rand, man’s mind is the fundamental source of values that sustain his life.
Physical stuff by itself can be no aid in man’s survival unless it is first understood by the mind and then put to work through deliberate, rational, productive action. Before man figured out what to do with it, crude oil was a pollutant, not a value. It was the human mind that transformed oil from an annoyance into a resource.
I think that there is a tremendously important insight in this analysis of value. But I also think it’s possible to stretch that insight too far. And I think that Rand, unfortunately, is guilty of doing precisely this.
After all, even if it’s true that nothing of value would exist without the human mind, it’s equally true that nothing (or at least almost nothing) of value would exist without physical resources for the mind to operate on. Both the human mind and physical resources are thus necessary for the production of value. Objective value is an aspect of reality in relation to man. So without the reality, or without the man, there is no value.
Thus, even if we accept Rand’s idea that natural resources have no intrinsic value in themselves, we must nevertheless recognize that they are a necessary component in the production of value. And so when we take those natural resources and put a fence around them, we are depriving others of something important. We are depriving non-owners of the liberty they once possessed to use that resource in their own productive activities. We are imposing upon them an obligation to refrain from using that resource without our consent — an obligation that we will enforce with the use of physical violence, if necessary. And this calls for justification.
I am enthusiastic supporter of property rights. And thus I do believe that such justification can be provided. But — and here I return to my earlier point about rights and egoism — providing a justification to one person of another person’s property right in X would seem to require doing more than simply showing how such rights are good for the first person. Since A’s property right imposes an obligation on B, we need to show how such an obligation is good for B as well. If A’s property right in X is good for A but bad for B, then for B to respect that right would be an act of self-sacrifice, and fundamentally incompatible with his rational pursuit of his own self-interest.
Property Rights and Value: Zwolinski and Rand and Locke and Rousseau — Stephen Hicks
Professor Matt Zwolinski raises a fun and deep issue about property rights. It has a long history before Rand, with Locke and Rousseau staking out near-opposite positions, and with post-Rand thinkers such as Robert Nozick and David Schmidtz making strong contributions.
Why did Rand not engage with it? I agree with Zwolinski that from the perspective of her robust creation ethic, it is either trivial or a non-problem. So the question is whether it really is a problem and/or a more serious one than she judged.
Value results from raw materials plus human agency. How much comes from each? Raw materials can be more or less plentiful, and human agency can be more or less creative. So we can play around with the variables by considering examples.
- A writer uses 1,000 sheets of paper to write a great novel. In this case, the raw material is plentiful and the contribution of human creativity is huge, so we are not inclined to complain that her taking 1,000 sheets of paper leaves less available for the rest of us.
- A hiker discovers easily accessible platinum deposits in unowned territory, stakes it out, and becomes rich after relatively minimal effort. In this case, the raw material is relatively scarce and the contribution of human creativity is much less, so we are more likely to hear complaints that his appropriation is questionable.
So if one emphasizes the value-adding power of human creativity, as Rand and her great near-contemporary Julian Simon are noteworthy for doing, then one acquires an opportunity mindset. The issue of raw materials becomes more trivial, as intelligent people can always create value out of what is available.
But if one is struck by a relative scarcity of certain raw materials, then, as Zwolinski points out, one is pushed into a zero-sum mindset, and that mindset tends to seeing others’ gains as its deprivations and others’ rights as imposing unwanted obligations.
Perspectives on Property
Two points are worth making here, so let’s work with the most popular example—land—to get to the core assumptions, for as always in philosophy the basic assumptions are the most important.
Suppose I look at the Manhattan skyline, as Rand did from her apartment. Do I see opportunities for me, given what others have done with the land? Or do I see deprivation, as others got to Manhattan Island long before I did and acquired it all for themselves? If I scale out to the United States as a whole, I find that almost half of its land is owned by local, state, and federal governments and the rest by private individuals and organizations — all of it acquired long before I immigrated. Should I say that opportunities have been taken away from me and/or that obligations have been imposed on me?
The first important point about such examples is one made by Locke in the Second Treatise, where he states that “he who appropriates land to himself by his labour, does not lessen but increase the common stock of mankind.” (I see Schmidtz as working out in more welcome detail what was only sketched by Locke.)
If, for example I had arrived in 1600 in what is now New York, then some opportunities would have been available to me then that are not available now. True. But some opportunities are available now that were not available then. At which time was the net value of the opportunities greater? If the net opportunities are greater now, then the language of deprivation and imposition is misplaced. (And if my goal is to acquire land in New York, then that opportunity is still available to me, as it has a lively real-estate market.) So property rights are win-win, contrary to the zero-sum thinkers.
But here is what I take to be the second and deeper point. We can speak of the mutually-beneficial nature of property rights, and that is a value of them to each of us. But that value of property rights should not be taken as part of the justification for initial appropriation, because raw materials in their unowned state are not items to which anyone has a claim.
Here we can take Rousseau as the foil, with his famous line against appropriators that initially “the fruits of the earth belong to us all.” His assertion is that, prior to property rights, we all have a claim in common to everything that exists, so anyone who appropriates incurs an obligation to make good on his or her lessening the common stock held by the rest of us.
But initially the raw materials of the universe are unowned, not owned in common, which means that nobody has any sort of claim to them with respect to anyone else. It’s the difference between saying:
- The raw materials are unowned, so everybody has a claim to them.
- The initial raw materials are unowned, so nobody has a claim to them.
To put the point in metaphysical terms, when one comes into existence, one has no claims on anything in the world. A just-born child has no entitlements with respect to the world at large, including both the as-yet unowned raw materials and the properties of others.
The child’s parents have obligations to provide for it on its growth journey to adulthood, but the governing assumption is that everything has to be earned. That includes that first breath of air the child appropriates from the commons by his or her own effort—for which the child need present no justification. At the same time, the preexisting property arrangements are not an imposition upon the just-born child that must be justified to the child.
Force and Freedom — Matt Zwolinski
Ayn Rand endorses a form of the libertarian “nonaggression principle,” which holds that the use of force should properly be banished from human relationships. For Rand, force is evil because it prevents individuals from acting according to the dictates of their own reason.
Thus, force violates man’s fundamental right to life — his right to act in pursuit of his values according to his own judgments, uncompelled by the judgment of any other. As Rand puts it, “To violate man’s rights means to compel him to act against his own judgment, or to expropriate his values. Basically, there is only one way to do it: the use of physical force.”
For Rand, then, “the basic political principle of the Objectivist ethics is: no man may initiate the use of physical force against others.” But how exactly are we to understand the meaning of the key term “force” in this principle?
Traditionally, libertarians and Objectivists have taken one of two broad approaches to defining “force.” One approach, which we can call the “moralized approach,” defines force in terms of an underlying theory of rights. The other approach, the “nonmoralized approach,” defines force in a way that makes no essential reference to rights or other moral terms.
To see the difference, imagine a case in which A violates B’s rights, but does so without so much as physically touching B. Perhaps B leaves his car unlocked on the street, and A lets himself in and drives away with it. Has A initiated force against B? If we accept the nonmoralized definition of force, we will have to say “no.” After all, A didn’t touch B at all. The only way we can explain the way in which A’s action affects B is in terms of the property right B has in his car. But if this is our basis for claiming that A has initiated force against B, then we are implicitly relying on a moralized definition of force. A’s action initiates force against B because it violates B’s (moral) rights.
It matters a great deal which of these understandings Objectivists rely on to inform the nonaggression principle. But neither understanding is entirely without its own peculiar difficulties. If, for instance, we accept a nonmoralized definition of force, then we abandon the tight, conceptual connection between force and the violation of rights, and must accept the possibility that some violations of rights will not involve the initiation of force, and the possibility that some cases of the initiation of force will not involve rights-violations.
And this means that we must take seriously the socialist argument that property rights themselves involve the initiation of force. After all, if I put a fence around a piece of land and threaten to arrest anybody who walks across it without my consent, it certainly looks like I’m initiating force when I grab a peaceful trespasser and slap a pair of handcuffs on him. The only way to deny that my action constitutes the initiation of force, it seems, is to argue that it was really the trespasser who initiated force. But that move is available only if we abandon the nonmoralized conception of force, and adopt a moralized understanding instead.
Suppose we do that. Adopting a moralized definition of force allows us to explain why the individual who steals someone’s car is initiating force, and why the landowner who enforces his property right isn’t. So, so far, so good. But the moralized approach to force comes with a serious drawback of its own.
For if we define the initiation of force in terms of the violation of rights, then we cannot define the violation of rights in terms of the initiation of force, lest we be guilty of circular argument. In other words, if we say that force is just any activity that violates individual rights, we cannot turn around and then say that our rights are to be understood in terms of freedom from the initiation of force.
Both ways of understanding force, then, appear to generate problems for Rand’s use of the nonaggression principle. And Rand’s frequent claim that force severs the connection between man’s mind and his actions seems to lead to further difficulties: Is the claim that force eliminates our ability to act on the dictates of our reason or merely that it limits it? The former claim is quite implausible, but the latter forces us to notice that a great number of other things also limit this ability, such as, well, other people’s property rights.
As I have argued at greater length elsewhere, the non-aggression principle is a poor basis on which to build a libertarian philosophy. But for the reasons described above, Rand’s invocation of it appears to be especially problematic.
Force, Rights, and Zwolinski’s Questions for Rand — Stephen Hicks
Let’s start with four scenarios involving a man running on a field who is suddenly tackled to the ground by another man.
- The tackler, it turns out, was a policeman, and the tackled man was escaping from a house he had burgled.
- The tackler, it turns out, was a defensive football player, and the tackled man was an offensive football player carrying the ball.
- The tackler and tackled were playing football, but the tackled man was outside the field’s white borderline when he was hit by the tackler.
- The tackled man was jogger and the tackler was a weirdo who liked randomly assaulting people.
In case 1, the tackled goes to jail. In case 2, the tackler and tackled try again. In case 3, the tackler’s team is penalized. In case 4, the tackler goes to jail.
Professor Zwolinski’s questions about force and rights again raise issues of content and method. Let’s focus on the method issues, as they are more relevant to his apparent puzzles. Zwolinski is in at least broad agreement with Rand that individual rights exist but has questions about how she derives them that seem to me driven by a methodological tangle.
In the four scenarios above, the physical actions are identical — one man tackles another to the ground — yet they have very different consequences. Understanding why those consequences are normatively appropriate requires attending to the broader complex context within which those actions and consequences occurred.
That in turn means that the proper place to start is not by specifying contextless definitions of force (e.g., as moralized or non-moralized) and then trying to deduce correct answers about particular circumstances. The method is not to present an abstract dichotomy of definitions, ask for a commitment to either, and then find a problematic case for whichever one is chosen.
Zwolinski is certainly correct that non-moralized definitions won’t work, and his objection here seems a variation on the classic Is-Ought problem: if we define force only non-morally, then we will face a gap when we want to define rights as moral principles. And at the same time we of course should heed Zwolinski’s warning about using moralized concepts in circular ways.
But the key content point is that all human action is “moralized.” We are always in a context of judging good and bad, right and wrong, better or worse. Consequently, by the time we get to high philosophy and are identifying principles such as rights, we are deeply embedded in moralized contexts.
(In his closing paragraph, Zwolinski was perhaps speaking loosely in saying that the NAP is a poor principle upon which to base a libertarian philosophy. But certainly Rand’s invocation of something like an NAP is not basic to her philosophy. It’s not even basic to her ethics or to her social philosophy. Rather it is a derivative, specifying a bridge principle between ethics and social philosophy and politics.)
Actions necessary for human life
Yet as Zwolinski also properly states, Rand begins by specifying the individual actions that are necessary for human life (thinking, production, etc.). She identifies ways in which others’ actions can be beneficial to our lives (teaching, friendship, economic trade, etc.). Then she identifies the types of actions by others that interfere with those necessary actions — and within that very broad category she identify the subset of interferences that are major enough to justify physical retaliation (theft, rape, kidnapping, assault, etc.).
The process is empirical, and at each stage of identification an argument from cases is necessary to establish the principle involved. We see this argument, for example, among philosophers about defining that final category of cases in which the retaliatory principle kicks in — where exactly is the demarcation?
John Stuart Mill offers the broader Harm Principle (On Liberty, I.9) while Rand specifies the narrow initiation-of-physical-force principle. Mill eschews the rights label while Rand embraces it. But the method for both is inductive by investigating a large number of particular cases and abstracting the relevant similarities and differences. Or to put it in modern-philosophy epistemological terms, their approach is empirical-and-bottom-up-abstraction — rather than rationalist-abstract-definitions-and-downward-branching-decision-trees.
But even here “initiation of force” is all by itself not a definitive guide, as many initiations of force are legitimate. Parent initiate force regularly with their infants — every time the kid’s diaper needs changing he or she is man-handled (or woman-handled) without consent.
Boxers are encouraged to initiate massive physical force upon each other until the bell rings. If you see your girlfriend about to step in the path of an onrushing bus, you will grab her and haul her back.
So we always need to identify what legitimate values are being pursued or possessed and by what means. Then we can exercise judgment whether the initiation of physical force in a particular case is an inappropriate interference with that legitimate pursuit or possession.
[i] This is what analytic philosophers refer to as the “deontic status” of an action.
Comments Off on How to stop politicians from gerrymandering
Elected officials are regularly tempted to exercise their power in ways that benefit themselves and their friends at the public expense. A good example is gerrymandering, the practice of drawing district lines to help ensure a desired result in future elections. Both parties do it, and the practice dates far back in history.
Gerrymandering often results in strangely shaped political districts in which it is very difficult for voters to unseat incumbent politicians.
In a classic single-party gerrymander, the party in power packs opposition voters densely into as few districts as possible, thus enabling its own voters to lead by a comfortable margin in a maximum of districts. When a legislature is under split party control, the theme is often bipartisan connivance: you protect your incumbents and we’ll protect ours. Third-party and independent voters, as is so common in our system, have no one looking out for their interests.
Some other strategic political purposes can be served by gerrymandering: Weak incumbents can be spared scrutiny of their performance by assigning
them tracts that fall short of being coherent political communities,
perhaps combined slivers of multiple metropolitan areas with little in common. It’s expensive and time-consuming for a challenger to campaign or advertise against an incumbent in such a district. Party bosses can also punish their own party’s lawmakers for being too independent-minded by drawing them unfavorable districts.
The process feeds apathy. Residents who have not even figured out which district they are in are less likely to keep track of how well their representative is serving their interests.
The Constitutional Background
Our Constitution puts states in charge of apportioning their own legislatures, while dividing the corresponding power as to congressional districts between them and Congress. The Supreme Court’s one-person-one-vote rulings require equal or nearly so population in districts within a state. The Voting Rights Act of 1965, following the Equal Protection Clause, bans districting done for a racially discriminatory purpose, which adds a sometimes-complex overlay of requirements.
Although the Supreme Court has been urged to ban politically motivated gerrymandering, it has thus far declined to do so. Its rationale: it could identify no principled and objective standard to apply that would not draw it into a multitude of complicated local disputes.
Fortunately, ideas for reforming gerrymandering are many. They fall into two main categories:
- Rules on who is responsible for drawing district lines
- Rules directing the shape or extent of districts
Who should draw the lines?
One of the ideas that recurs most frequently is to make the process bipartisan, or at least avoid empaneling a majority of loyalists from a single party. The second largest party thus winds up in a negotiating position, perhaps with one or more neutrals or tie-breaking votes in between.
A newer trend, which has caught on especially in Western states in recent years, is to entrust redistricting to a more fully independent commission of citizens not holding office. Elected officials themselves, their families, and political pros are frequently excluded.
In a category of its own is the system used in Iowa (as well as many countries outside the U.S.). It assigns redistricting to the same nonpartisan civil service staff that provides legislative services such as bill analysis at the capitol. Although Iowa’s system is often praised for its fair results, it may owe some of that success to features of the local political scene not replicated everywhere. For example, Iowa has a fairly even party balance and a legislative staff whose nonpartisan bona fides are accepted by lawmakers of both parties.
Under any of these systems, the law can go further by prescribing the powerful step of “blinding” the line-drawers to politics – that is, directing them not to consider such factors as current party registration, past voting records, or the residence of any individual, such as an incumbent.
What should districts look like?
The most essential task in reform is to provide clear and objective rules for governing how districts are drawn. The three most widely accepted standards are as follows:
All parts of a district should touch. Although this seems obvious, careful language helps prevent such tricks as circuitous connections over water.
Intuition tells us the difference between a district shaped like a turtle and one shaped like a tapeworm. But trusting to intuition is not necessary: at least two mathematical measures of compactness are widely employed. Colorado’s constitution prescribes the “total-perimeter test”: “Each district shall be as compact in area as possible and the aggregate linear distance of all district boundaries shall be as short as possible.” Other states use a “radius” or “length/width” test.
Where possible, districts should respect the boundaries of smaller political subdivisions, such as counties and towns. One convenient measure of congruence is the number of county or town splits in a plan, with lower numbers ordinarily better.
Other criteria are sometimes prescribed, but if too many are introduced, and if the commission is given latitude to balance among them, then a dangerous degree of discretion is reintroduced into the process.
The Role of Technology
Technologically, gerrymandering is a bit of an arms race. Politicians with access to so-called big data can now efficiently sort voters down to precincts, city blocks, and even buildings. That is why the problem will get worse absent correction. Yet quantitative methods hold out hope for the reform side as well, and not only by providing objective, replicable measures of goals like compactness.
Geographic information systems (GIS) methods now allow members of the public using inexpensive software to analyze the full data set behind a map. In several states, that has meant members of the public could offer maps of their own or make well-informed critiques of legislators’ proposed maps. In one triumph for citizen data use, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court invalidated a map drawn by lawmakers as clearly inferior to a map that had been submitted independently by an Allentown piano teacher.
Redistricting reform makes sense as a safeguard against the entrenchment and insulation of a permanent political class. Voters should choose legislators, not the other way around.
 (Article I, Section 4 of the Constitution: “The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations.”)
Comments Off on Highlights from our Reddit AMA with Professor Lauren Hall
If you missed the Reddit AMA with Professor Lauren Hall last week, fear not! We’ve taken the liberty of compiling some of the highlights for your viewing pleasure. You can check out the whole thing here.
Dr. Hall is associate professor of political science at Rochester Institute of Technology. She is the author of Family and the Politics of Moderation (Baylor University Press, 2014), regular contributor to the Learn Liberty Blog, and has appeared on Learn Liberty in Choice and Change: How to Close the Gender Gap and Bridging the Gender Gap: The Problems with Parental Leave.
Comments Off on Do government employees have a right to religious liberty?
What should happen if a government employee is asked to do something that violates her religious convictions? One possibility is to fire the employee if she won’t do the required task. No one has a right to work for the state, so if an employee can’t fulfill her job duties perhaps she should be replaced with someone who can.
This might be reasonable in some cases. If an employee is unwilling to fulfill a substantial or critical part of her job, she should be replaced. It makes little sense to permit a religious pacifist to be an infantry commander or a Jehovah’s Witness who objects to blood transfusions to serve as an emergency room doctor.
Yet in most real cases, as opposed to the imaginary case I discussed in my last post, government employees have raised religious liberty objections to only a few narrow duties, and often these cases involve new tasks brought about by job transfers or shifting public policy. In other words, these employees did not know they would be asked to violate their religious convictions when they accepted their positions.
For instance, after the Supreme Court struck down state bans on same-sex marriages in Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015, a few county clerks, magistrates, and judges raised religious objections to issuing licenses to same-sex couples or to participating in ceremonies. Several states passed laws protecting such employees, as long as other civic officials are available to provide requested services. Similarly, Congress has passed legislation protecting military chaplains from being required to perform marriages to which they have religious objections.
Such accommodations are commonplace in other policy areas. Consider the death penalty: since 1994, federal law has protected federal and state employees from being forced to participate in an execution “if such participation is contrary to the moral or religious convictions of the employee.” Surely a corrections officer should not be forced to choose between his job and his moral or religious convictions respecting the taking of human life.
Less dramatically, long before same-sex marriage became legal in Kentucky, the state permitted clerks to opt out of issuing licenses to which they objected. For instance, a clerk who is a member of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) can refuse to issue hunting licenses, provided that someone else is available to provide this service.
Finally, at a time when some loud voices are claiming that Islam is not compatible with American values, it seems evident that New York City’s decision to accommodate Muslim police officers who desire to wear a hijab is superior to Philadelphia’s decision to fire a woman for the same “offense.”
Religious liberty is a fundamental American value. The religious convictions of government employees should be accommodated whenever it is reasonable to do so.
Comments Off on Bryan Caplan: Is immigration a basic human right?
Editors Note: On March 16th George Mason University Professor of Economics Bryan Caplan debated Washington University Professor of Philosophy Christopher Wellman on the topic, “Is Immigration a Basic Human Right?” Below is Professor Caplan’s opening statement.
There are many complaints about governments, but the harshest is, “This government grossly violates human rights.” The background assumption is that human beings have rights that everyone – including governments – is morally obliged to respect. When looking at the grossest violators – Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, Maoist China – almost no one denies the validity of the idea of human rights. But then you have to wonder: Do the governments we know, accept, and even love have clean hands? Or do they violate human rights, too?
To answer, we normally apply a simple test: If an individual treated other people the same way the government does, would he clearly be a horrible criminal? If an individual deliberately kills innocent people, he’s a murderer; if an individual imprisons innocent people, he’s a kidnapper. A government that does the same violates basic human rights – and it can’t justify its actions by calling innocent people “criminals.” If someone is peacefully living his life, he’s innocent – whatever the government says.
What does this have to do with immigration? Lots. Since we’re in San Diego, we’ve seen illegal immigrants. What are the vast majority of them doing? Working for willing employers. Renting apartments from willing landlords. Buying stuff from willing merchants. Sending money home to their families. Maybe even sitting next to you in class. They sure look innocent – even admirable. But the U.S. government can and does forcibly arrest and exile them to the Third World. Why can’t they all just come legally? Because exile is the default; they’re all exiled unless the U.S. government makes a rare exception. This is far less bad than killing or imprisoning them, but it sure looks like a severe human rights violation. If the U.S. government forbade you to live and work here, wouldn’t that be a severe violation of your human rights?
You could reasonably object that human rights are not absolute. While there’s a strong moral presumption against killing, imprisoning, or exiling innocent people, it’s okay to do so if the overall consequences of respecting human rights are clearly awful. The main problem with this objection is that when social scientists measure the overall consequences of immigration, they’re not clearly awful. In fact, the overall consequences look totally awesome. Most notably, standard economic estimates say that letting all the world’s talent flow to wherever it’s most productive would roughly DOUBLE global prosperity. That’s an extra $75 TRILLION of extra wealth per year. How is this possible? Because even the world’s lowest-skill workers produce far more in the First World than they do at home. Even if all other fears about immigration were bulletproof – which they aren’t – they’re dwarfed by this gargantuan economic gain. This isn’t trickle-down economics; it’s Niagara Falls economics.
To effectively defend immigration restrictions, then, saying “Human rights are not absolute” is insufficient. You need to flatly deny that immigration is a human right – to say that while the illegal immigrants you meet on the street may look innocent, they’re actually guilty as hell. The most popular argument analogizes illegal immigrants to trespassers. No one has any right to be here without government permission; it’s our country, so we set the rules.
The obvious problem with this position is that it justifies a vast range of blatant human rights abuses. If it’s our country and we set the rules, why can’t we exile citizens, too? Why can’t we imprison people for saying the wrong thing, practicing the wrong religion, or having kids without government permission? Saying, “That won’t happen,” dodges the question: If the U.S. government did this to you, would it be violating your human rights or not?
Prof. Wellman offers a more sophisticated version of this story. He defends immigration restrictions for “legitimate states” only, on the grounds that immigration restrictions are vital for “freedom of association.” Unfortunately, we have two conflicting freedoms of association. I want to be free to associate with foreigners; lots of foreigners want to associate with me. Immigration restrictions deny us this freedom in the name of all the Americans who don’t want my associates breathing American air.
Who should prevail? In his work, Wellman concedes a crucial premise, freely admitting that the popular notion that we all consent to government is a “fiction,” and that “the coercion states invariably employ is nonconsensual and, as such, is extremely difficult to justify.” We don’t really face a choice between two freedoms of association, but between freedom for real associations we choose to join and freedom for fictional “associations” we’re forced to join. Unless the overall consequences are clearly awful, the fictional ones should lose. Freedom of association is only for free associations.
My critics often tease me, “Should everyone on Earth be free to immigrate into Bryan’s house?” Their point: Treating immigration as a human right is utopian nonsense. My reply: There are three competing moral positions on immigration.
- Foreigners should be free to live in my house even if I don’t consent – a view held by almost no one.
- Foreigners should be free to live in my house if I consent – my view.
- Foreigners shouldn’t be free to live in my house even if I do consent – the standard view I’m criticizing.
Far from being utopian, saying “Immigration is a human right” is just the moderate, common-sense position that when natives and foreigners voluntarily interact, strangers are morally obliged to leave them alone unless the overall consequences are clearly awful. Even if the stranger happens to be the government – and the government happens to be popular.
Comments Off on Emma Watson is right. Feminism is about choice.
As part of the publicity for her role in the new live-action version of Beauty and the Beast, Emma Watson was photographed for Vanity Fair in a Burberry bolero that left her mostly topless.
Although the reaction most people had to the spread was probably not very dramatic (maybe you thought, like I did, “cute jacket”), there were more than a few responses on social media that criticized her choice as being at odds with her feminist ideals.
In her response to the incident, Watson offered up a simple truism about feminism that is more powerful than it might sound:
Feminism is about giving women choice.
So, for Hermione’s sake, and in honor of women’s history month, I’d like to talk a little bit about the importance of choice to the expansions of women’s rights that have taken place over the past 200 years.
How property law restricted women’s choices
Some of the oldest and most significant restrictions on women’s choice in American history are those that restricted married women’s ability to own property separately from their husbands. The legal tradition underlying these restrictions was coverture, which declared “the very being or legal existence of the woman [to be] suspended during the marriage.”1 A favorite quip of historians of the subject is that these laws created a situation in which husband and wife were one within marriage, and that one was the husband.
Although specifics varied by state, this usually meant that married women could not own land or homes in their own names, sign enforceable contracts, stand for themselves in court, or create wills.
Further, divorce was extremely limited, making it nearly impossible to dissolve a marriage once entered. Limitations on divorce always hit those in the least happy marriages the hardest. So while many couples doubtless enjoyed happy marriages, those who were in less fortunate circumstances were legally bound to remain trapped within them.
The upshot of all this is that 19th-century property law and legal practices made it difficult for married women to make some of the most basic decisions about how they wanted to lead their lives.
Fortunately for our mothers and grandmothers, married women became significantly more empowered with respect to these fundamental decisions over the course of the 19th century. Although old habits die hard, and therefore men’s discretionary decision making power within marriage likely continued as a cultural norm among some communities, nearly all married women in the United States had the legal right to own separate property and keep earnings acquired during marriage by 1920.
Cultivating equal rights on the factory floor
Prior to the birth of American industry, most women in the United States would have spent their lives performing some type of domestic labor in a rural farming community. Usually, the women worked on land owned by her husband, father, or other male relative, with any proceeds beyond what the family required for survival accruing to that owner. Textile mills, the first large-scale American factories, offered young women an alternative unlike any they’d seen before.
In the early textile mills, women were invited to apply the skills they had developed weaving cotton into cloth at home to the large-scale water or steam-powered industrial looms recently constructed in Waltham, Lowell, and other cities across the Northeastern U.S. In exchange, they worked for wages which they had control over spending. They had this control because this new type of work gave them a way to do something not very common at the time: moving away from home without getting married.
The young women working in these mills attended lectures, wrote for publications edited by other “mill girls,” opened their own bank accounts, made large purchases like furniture and pianos, and lived in residences acquired in their own names. What freedom compared to life on the farm!
As the American economy continued to grow over the course of the 19th century, opportunities for women to work outside the home continued to expand. The expansion in the range of external options opened new frontiers to women across the country, both in terms of the practical decisions they were able to make and the ideas they were able to encounter. This expanding range of experience proved fertile ground for expansions in women’s rights that would continue to take place through the 20th century.
Susan B. Anthony, a pioneering activist for many women’s rights causes, including separate property ownership, access to professional careers, equal pay for equal work, and women’s suffrage, grew up surrounded by the adventurous young women working in the early American mills.
Her father, Daniel Anthony, was the owner of a water-powered textile mill in Pennsylvania that regularly employed female workers, some of whom boarded directly with the Anthony family. Between these experiences and her father’s encouragement of her education, she grew up with a strong conviction in the capability of women that would drive her to work towards expanding the choices available to women in other domains.
So, if you believe — like Emma Watson and I — that choice is important, take a moment to join me in recognizing how important economic opportunity is for all people to be able to make the most important decisions we face as human beings: who we want to be, and how we want to spend our days.
This women’s history month, let’s toast to economic opportunity and free choice.
1Blackstone, W. 1765. Commentaries on the laws of england: Book the first. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, p. 430.
This piece is related to a paper that won the Gordon Tullock Prize for best paper published by a young scholar in Public Choice in 2016.
Comments Off on 6 women who should be on the $20 bill
In honor of Women’s History Month and the fight to get a woman on the $20 bill, we reached out to Learn Liberty professors for suggestions on great women whose achievements should earn them a place on US currency. So, in no particular order, here are five worthy women who should be on twenties:
Submitted by Prof. Sarah Skwire, Anne Hutchinson was an active religious leader and proponent of religious freedom in the American colonies.
As Prof. Skwire wrote:
I’d vote for putting Anne Hutchinson on the $20. Her home bible studies, her active preaching, and her theological disputes with established ministers put her into opposition to the Puritan leadership in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. She was convicted of heresy and of being an instrument of the devil, and she was banished from the colony.
After her banishment, she, her family, and her followers moved to the more religiously tolerant colony of Rhode Island.
That statue of her in front of the State House in Boston has a plaque that reads:
IN MEMORY OF
ANNE MARBURY HUTCHINSON
BAPTIZED AT ALFORD
20 JULY 1595 [sic]
KILLED BY THE INDIANS
AT EAST CHESTER NEW YORK 1643
OF CIVIL LIBERTY
AND RELIGIOUS TOLERATION
A rebel, an annoyer of government officials, a fan of civil liberty, an agitator for religious freedom.… I can’t think of a better person to put on a bill.
Suggested by both Dr. Phil Magness and Prof. Aeon Skoble, Jeannette Rankin was a relentless antiwar activist and the first woman member of Congress.
Dr. Magness wrote,
She was the first female elected to Congress, winning her seat almost four years before the extension of womens’ suffrage at the national level (Montana extended the vote to women before the federal government). Rankin’s most famous political cause was her steadfast dedication to pacifism. Rankin voted against the United States’ entry into both world wars, and effectively gave up her seat in Congress twice as the price of opposing patriotic war fervor. The first time resulted in her being redistricted out of her seat in 1918. After returning to politics in 1940, she similarly opposed American entry into World War II on the grounds that it would precipitate a draft and therefore forcibly commit people to fight in a war against their will. Rankin remained a harsh critic of the draft for the remainder of her life. She remained an anti-draft activist into her 90s and organized a march against Lyndon Johnson’s policies during the Vietnam War.
Rankin’s dedication to peace and individual rights would make her a wonderful candidate for the $20 bill.
Suggested by Prof. Aeon Skoble, Sally Ride was the first American woman to go to outer space. After her career at NASA, she went on to become a physics professor. She also co-wrote several books on space geared towards children with the goal of encouraging them to study science. In 2001, she co-founded Sally Ride Science, which encourages students, especially girls and minority students, to study STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) subjects.
Dr. Sally Ride’s historic journeys to space and dedication to science education make her a great woman to feature on US twenties.
Mercy Otis Warren
Suggested by Prof. Aeon Skoble, Mercy Otis Warren wrote criticisms of royal authority during the American Revolution. She wrote pamphlets, poems, and plays in support of colonists’ rights, and after the war she was a strong anti-Federalist.
With her outspoken advocacy of colonists’ rights and skeptical attitude towards centralized government at the time of the American Revolution, Mercy Otis Warren would fit in well among the founding fathers currently featured on US bills.
As part of the Women On 20s campaign, over 600,000 people cast votes on women to replace Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill, and Harriet Tubman was the winner. The famed abolitionist and “conductor” of the Underground Railroad helped guide over 300 slaves to freedom. She was also a suffragist, speaking and promoting votes for women.
In an article entitled “Let Tubman on the Twenty”, Prof. Sarah Skwire wrote:
Her work, and the work of countless named and unnamed others like her, assured that it is no longer possible legally to exchange a stack of twenty dollar bills for the body and the life and the future of another human being. Her work, and their work, means that the American idea of what constitutes “property” no longer includes other humans.
It’s not clear when or if we’ll see a woman on the US $20 bill, but there’s no shortage of worthy women whose accomplishments warrant a place of honor on our currency.
Comments Off on The classical liberal case against nationalist immigration restrictions
If any part of liberalism needs revitalizing, it’s the case for liberalizing immigration.
Nationalists on the left and right argue that easing immigration restrictions would make Americans worse off. During the Democratic primaries, Bernie Sanders criticized open borders as a “right-wing proposal” that would “make everybody in America poorer.” And of course Donald Trump is calling for “an impenetrable physical wall on the southern border” to protect “the jobs, wages and security of the American people.” He has even floated the idea of an “ideological screening test” to ensure that the U.S. only admits those “who share our values and respect our people.” His executive orders banning citizens of five Muslim-majority countries from even setting foot in the U.S. seems to reflect this idea, and have met judicial resistance on the ironic grounds that they violate the values of the American people embodied in the constitutional guarantee of religion liberty.
Trump’s stance on immigration exemplifies a broader cultural and economic nationalism. His chief strategist, Steve Bannon, has argued that capitalism and “the underpinnings of the Judeo-Christian west” are in crisis. According to this worldview, we have to build a wall around the American economy and culture as a matter of self-preservation. Congressman Steve King expressed this view recently in a controversial tweet:
Wilders understands that culture and demographics are our destiny. We can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies. https://t.co/4nxLipafWO
— Steve King (@SteveKingIA) March 12, 2017
Trump, Bannon, and conservatives like King are wrong. We have overwhelming economic and cultural reasons to move toward a more open country. Indeed, some of Trump’s and Bannon’s own (professed) principles push in that direction. For instance, both tout lean government and robust capitalism. Trump says that “people flourish under a minimum government burden.” Bannon claims that “We are strong capitalists. And we believe in the benefits of capitalism. And, particularly, the harder-nosed the capitalism, the better.”
Yet restrictive immigration controls empower the state to suppress market competition and dictate how people may spend their money and allocate their labor. This is the opposite of capitalism. Literally.
Immigration Restrictions Are an Attack on Economic Liberty
Small-government, hard-nosed capitalism is flatly inconsistent with outlawing the buying and selling of labor. It shouldn’t matter where the laborer is born.
For example, I’m a fan of the Philadelphia 76ers (unfortunately) and I’m eager to buy tickets to watch their rookie Ben Simmons play. And I’m sure that Simmons is equally eager to take my money. This is as capitalist as it gets: voluntary exchange for mutual benefit. Sure, Simmons is Australian, but so what? The free exchange of goods and services doesn’t suddenly become a bad idea because the provider moved across a border. Simmons plays in Philadelphia because it makes him better off, and fans pay to watch Simmons in Philadelphia because it makes them better off. That Simmons flew across an ocean to get there changes nothing of ethical or economic significance.
Restricting Immigration Hurts the Economy and Is a Bad Way to Help Poorer Workers
Maybe this is an unfair example. Simmons competes for a job with other millionaires, whereas Trump’s stated concern is immigration’s impact on poorer American workers. When immigrants enter the United States, they increase the supply of low-skilled labor and thus drive down the wages of low-skilled American workers.
I’ll note up front that the extent to which immigrants directly compete with American workers is probably oversold. Immigrants tend to have different skill sets and job preferences than native-born Americans; as such, they tend to complement rather than displace domestic workers. For instance, low-skilled immigrants are overrepresented in construction and agricultural work and underrepresented in government, education, and social services. As you’d expect, immigrants are less familiar with local languages and customs than native-born workers, giving the latter a leg up in competitions for jobs that require these skills. Recent studies suggest that immigration even results in a small long-term increase in the wages of native-born workers.
Still, it’s important to acknowledge the possibility that increased immigration will be bad for certain native-born American workers. In particular, those lower-skilled workers who do directly compete with immigrant labor can expect to see their wages drop by roughly 5%. But restricting immigration is the wrong way to solve this problem.
Liberal Immigration Saves Millions from Desperate Poverty
First, the benefits of liberalized immigration to the global poor are so overwhelming that it is flatly unethical to withhold them. Second, restricting immigration is a comparatively inefficient method of benefiting low-wage American workers.
Philosopher Peter Singer explains that the world’s poorest people suffer from a deprivation far graver than anything experienced by even poor Americans:
In wealthy societies, most poverty is relative. People feel poor because many of the good things they see advertised on television are beyond their budget — but they do have a television. In the United States, 97 percent of those classified by the Census Bureau as poor own a color TV. Three quarters of them own a car. Three quarters of them have air conditioning. Three quarters of them have a VCR or DVD player. All have access to health care. I am not quoting these figures in order to deny that the poor in the United States face genuine difficulties. Nevertheless, for most, these difficulties are of a different order than those of the world’s poorest people. The 1.4 billion people living in extreme poverty are poor by an absolute standard tied to the most basic human needs. They are likely to be hungry for at least part of each year. Even if they can get enough food to fill their stomachs, they will probably be malnourished because their diet lacks essential nutrients. In children, malnutrition stunts growth and can cause permanent brain damage. The poor may not be able to afford to send their children to school. Even minimal health care services are usually beyond their means.
Only one policy has been shown to effectively bring the global poor up to the living standards of the global rich: allow them to move across borders, toward economic opportunity.
The economist Michael Clemens writes, “Migrants from developing countries to the United States typically raise their real living standards by hundreds of percent, and by over 1,000 percent for the poorest people from the poorest countries. No other development policy realized within developing countries is able to generate anything close to this degree of convergence [between the earnings of people born in poor countries and those born in rich countries].”
If someone is too poor to afford enough food to avert brain damage, it is morally indefensible to deprive them of the opportunity to increase their income by over 1,000%, especially when the cost of doing so is making someone hundreds of times richer about 5% poorer. That’s like cutting in front of someone dying of thirst because you want that last bottle of Aquafina to brush your teeth.
Safety Nets Are a Better Way to Help Poorer Americans
In any case, there are better ways to protect the economic well-being of poorer Americans than restricting immigration. A free market solution to a drop in wages or employment isn’t heavy-handed regulation of the labor market. Instead, let firms compete to figure out the most efficient ways of doing business and then directly compensate those workers who are made worse off. The compensation could take the form of government safety nets like unemployment benefits or the earned income tax credit.
Trump’s first pick for labor secretary, Andy Puzder, is a fast-food executive who favors automation to keep production costs down. When McDonald’s installs automated kiosks, it worsens the labor market position of low-skilled American workers. But it also lowers the costs of a Big Mac, leaving consumers with more money to spend on other goods and services produced by other workers. Immigration has a similar economic effect. Insofar as immigration drives down production costs, Americans will have more disposable income to spend at Starbucks, where they’ll probably be served by a native-born barista with knowledge of the local language and customs.
What’s more, the economic gains from immigration can be taxed to fund the safety net for displaced workers.
Immigration Doesn’t Threaten American Values. Cultural Tests Do.
But what if liberalizing immigration kills the goose that lays the golden egg? As Bannon might put it, we have to compromise pure capitalist principles in order to save the “the underpinnings of the Judeo-Christian west” that, in his view, make capitalism possible.
One reason to be skeptical of this position is that American culture has allegedly been under siege by immigrants for decades (if not centuries), and the worry never seems to pan out.
In fact, despite Bannon’s talk of the “Judeo-Christian west,” Americans haven’t always been keen on Jewish immigration. For instance, a 1940 proposal to resettle Jewish refugees in Alaska met with resistance in Congress because of the familiar-sounding fear that “these foreigners cannot be assimilated in Alaska, and will constitute a threat to our American civilization.” And in the 19th century, “many native-born Americans regarded Catholic immigrants as an ideological and racial threat.”
Those worries were clearly unfounded. And they’re equally unfounded today. Studies of today’s immigrants find that they too tend to adopt liberal political values.
But suppose, for argument’s sake, that Bannon is right and the United States is facing a cultural crisis. There’s a bedrock moral issue at stake: how does a liberal society like the United States confront cultural and ideological challenges? Does it enlist the power of the state to forcibly exclude dissenting viewpoints or does it engage them?
Historically at least, it’s been the latter. Dissent from liberal values needn’t come from across the border. We permit Nazis to march in Illinois and the Westboro Baptist Church to picket soldiers’ funerals. These are not groups “who share our values and respect our people.” Nevertheless, they’re free to speak, protest, and assemble within our borders. A command-and-control culture is as contrary to American values as a command-and-control economy. It’s not the state’s job to regulate away bad ideas any more than it’s the state’s job to regulate away cassette tapes and Blockbuster videos. The American way is to defeat bad ideas in what Oliver Wendell Holmes called “the competition of the market.”
Indeed, if the nationalist concern is to preserve “our values,” then I see no good reason to ignore homegrown cultural threats. If we’re going to start a program of ideological screening, why do it halfway? Let’s implement an ideological screening test for books to ensure that they contain only content that “shares our values and respects our people.” Parents influence their children’s values, so maybe you should be required to take the test before the state lets you become a parent. Presumably journalists, teachers, religious leaders, and voters will all need to be screened before they can get to work, too. After all, these people are at least as capable as immigrants of disrupting American culture.
Yet we find the prospect of these ideological screening tests chilling. A liberal society worthy of the name refuses on principle to take illiberal means to liberal ends. And this means resisting the call to use armed guards, razor wire, and religious profiling to stop peaceful people from working toward a better life in our country.
Comments Off on Promises and the right to resist injustice
I’ve been working on a project called When All Else Fails: Resistance to State Injustice. The thesis is of the book is simple: We have exactly the same rights of self-defense and defense of others against state injustice that we have against civilians. In the later chapters, I argue this holds true even if you are an agent of the government. (For instance, if a democratic president is about to commit an atrocity, his government-appointed bodyguards have the right to shoot him.)
However, one argument for the other side goes roughly as follows:
Government agents promise to follow orders. In virtue of making such promises and voluntarily accepting their roles, they become fiduciaries of the government. Thus, they have duties to perform unjust actions, or, at the very least, they may not sabotage or interfere with certain other government agents who commit injustice.
The problem with arguments like this is that they misunderstand how promises work. They also misunderstand what it means to become a fiduciary.
Suppose I say, “I, Jason Brennan, being of sound mind, promise to obey my frequent co-author Peter Jaworski in all things.” Suppose Peter and I sign a contract—I agree to follow his orders and in exchange, he pays me $10,000 a month. Now, such a contract might indeed obligate me to do some things. If Peter demands I refrain from watching House of Cards, the contract obligates me to follow. But suppose Peter says, “I demand you murder an innocent Syrian child, and, in addition, that you stop feeding your own children.” I have no duty to obey Peter here; on the contrary, my pre-existing duties to avoid killing innocent children and to feed my own children trump my promise.
Now one might believe that promises to governments are different. But unless we have a good argument to that effect, we don’t have any reason to believe it. If I promise to obey the president, and the president then tells me to murder a Syrian child, I don’t acquire a duty to kill the child, and the child’s rights do not disappear. That’s not how rights work. Rights are stringent side constraints held against other people. They do not disappear because you make a complicated promise to someone with a fancy title.
Before you make a promise, there are some actions you are forbidden to do, some you are obligated to do, and others that are morally optional. What promises can do is move some of the optional actions into the forbidden or obligatory categories. But they don’t move actions out of the forbidden or obligatory categories.
The fact that government agents have promised to obey the government does not excuse them when they obey unjust orders, nor does it relieve them of moral culpability for following those orders. This is a misunderstanding of how promises work.
Similar remarks apply to becoming someone’s fiduciary. Suppose I’m a lawyer. I have no obligation to defend a stranger. But when I become that person’s lawyer, I do acquire new obligations to help that person. However, I may not, e.g., threaten to murder the DA’s kids in order to get him to drop charges against my client. A parent cannot bash the knees of the kids on the rival basketball team to helps his kids win. A manager cannot dump toxins in the local park to maximize the profits of his shareholders. Fiduciary duties are like promises–you don’t lose your pre-existing duties in virtue of becoming a fiduciary.
Now, promises can change the moral status of optional actions. Acting in self-defense or in defense of others is often, if not always, optional. Thus, we might ask: can one lose the right to engage in optional self-defense or defense of others in virtue of making a promise to follow orders?
Frankly, that seems implausible. Suppose Batman and Superman are walking down the street. Superman says, “Batman, I’m thinking about retiring. But I know you’d prefer that I keep saving people. So, I propose an exchange. I’ll spend one more year doing heroic deeds, but only if you promise to do something for me right now. Don’t worry—I won’t ask you to do anything you are forbidden to do or required not to do.” Suppose Batman agrees. Then Superman says, “Ha! Gotcha! What I’m going to do right now is murder that kid over there. And, as you agree, according to the correct moral theory, saving that kid from me would have been supererogatory rather than obligatory for you. So, ha ha, now you have a duty not to stop me!” In this case, it doesn’t seem like Batman has acquired a duty not to interfere with Superman. Rather, it seems that Batman’s promise did not relieve him of the right to defend others. Or, if Superman had said he planned to kill Batman instead, it seems permissible for Batman to defend himself, despite his promise.
Comments Off on History, progress, and the fate of gay marriage
One of my least popular beliefs is that legally recognized same-sex marriage is likely temporary.
The argument is simple: the Supreme Court is divided. The justices who are in favor are the oldest members of the Court. The sitting president (or perhaps vice-president) will probably appoint their replacements. The new justices will reverse the decision, perhaps by vitiating marriage rights even for existing couples.
After that, the law is a powerful teacher. Supreme Court rulings tend to be venerated, and people usually absorb the moral norms that these decisions express. The exceptions are so rare that you and I both can probably count them on one hand, and our lists will be identical. A generation will grow up learning that same-sex marriage was a weird, failed, early-21st century experiment. Some may want to re-fight an old battle, but most will not.
Worst of all, I don’t think there’s much we can do about it. The choices that produce my scenario seem to have already been made. Now we’re just waiting for the consequences.
Examples of purported but regressed progress are frequent, although they tend to be forgotten. The Equal Rights Amendment. The abolition of the death penalty. Prohibition. And pretty soon (probably) Obamacare. Maybe one day legal abortion will join this list, too. All were hailed as inevitable and irreversible progress. Supposedly.
Yeah, I’m a hoot at parties, I know.
Now, I happen to support same-sex marriage — what’s more, I am actually in a same-sex marriage. (This is also why I won’t bet on the scenario I’ve just described: betting against one’s marriage is the kind of foolishness you find in Act I of a tragedy.) And this isn’t offered as an exercise in self-pity: I’m a historian, and I propose to criticize a particular type of narrative.
I might be wrong about same-sex marriage — counterarguments and reassurances exist — but it will not do, however, to reply that “while the arc of the moral universe is long, it bends toward justice.”
It is terrifying — and distasteful, and maybe a bit rude — to pick at such a cheerful proverb. But it’s rather a cold comfort, isn’t it?
Of course, I want a moral arc that bends toward justice. I want it in much the same way that a Christian wants Heaven. I want it in defiance of all reason, and in defiance of all evidence. I want the calendar year itself to reassure me, in my every earnest belief. I want to think that we have come this far… and therefore justice.
Yet whatever hopes I might place in the progress of history, I can’t help but notice that everyone else is doing just the same thing I am. They’re placing their hopes in progress, in history, in the arc of the moral universe — only they’re quite different hopes from my own. And who knows: perhaps one day marriage will be made pure again, for heterosexuals only, the way that history herself intended it. Maybe they’ll find a cure for those who suffer from my particular condition, and then we’ll all congratulate ourselves on how terribly much progress we’ve made.
The social conservatives and I are trusting in radically different futures, but it’s the same basic gesture. The problem with the arc of the moral universe isn’t that it’s long, it’s that everybody has one, and they all lead somewhere different.
Now, it’s possible that there is something healthy about acting with a view to our far posterity, at least within certain limits. A belief in the slow, gradual, eventual perfectibility of mankind might make us all better people. It allows us to be optimistic, while keeping us patient. It may lead us to a more careful, critical weighing of our values, or even a deeper consideration of the values of others. It may draw our attention to due process, and due process is always important: we should all run, of course, from anyone who expects perfection next week.
Its comfort, then, lies in allowing us to keep our hopes. Its coldness lies in the realization that everyone else gets to keep nurturing their filthy hopes, too.
Immanuel Kant once wrote to Moses Mendelssohn, “Every member in the series of generations to which I belong … is, in fact, prompted by his sense of duty so to act in reference to posterity that they may always become better, and the possibility of this must be assumed.”
Imagine that: a German Christian reassuring a German Jew of the reality of historical progress. History plays some pretty sick jokes, doesn’t it?
But how else should I act, if not in reference to a posterity that might recognize and improve on my efforts? Then again, how else can I act?
These questions are in considerable tension. The former presupposes a choice; the latter denies it. “How should I act?” says that it’s up to me to create the world that I would live in. “How else can I act?” reminds us that everyone else is doing exactly the same, because they can’t do otherwise: if the future belongs to everyone, then the future belongs to no one.
In the face of modern evil, the impulse is natural, perhaps, to embrace nihilism: the arc of history is a myth, and justice is too, and all that’s left are the lulz. Laughter is the only intense emotional response that you never have to take seriously:
Trolling reflects a profound lack of sincerity, even a hostility to sincerity. It allows the speaker to make an offensive declaration and then insist that his or her (usually his) statement was just intended to make you mad — that you’re the real fool for taking this seriously. The speaker gets to say the thing and also gets to deny responsibility for it. The troll believes that people who care about things are chumps and that the only wise way to go through the world is with a level of ironic detachment that borders on nihilism. Trolling isn’t just about being offensive. It’s about being gleefully offensive.
This seems to be where a lot of people are right now. Exhausted by the progressives’ expansive but deflated claims about the meaning of history, the right would prefer to have no sincerity at all about anything — least of all about what it really believes.
But it’s a bad reasons fallacy to infer nihilism when a particular account of the good doesn’t work, or, as is often the case, when we just disagree about the specific contents of the good.
We’d better hope there’s still justice, I suppose, even if the current year isn’t actively making it happen. Still, the vindication that we desire cannot come from history. To ask history to provide or guide us toward a perfect justice is to ask for an end to history itself, one in which we deprive the future of the freedom to act. Placing our trust in history also presumes that we are in a deep sense infallible: we’ve set up history as exactly the worst kind of deity, the god who conveniently shares all of our prejudices. As Ludwig von Mises put it:
The outstanding fact about history is that it is a succession of events that nobody anticipated before they occurred. What the most far-seeing statesmen and businessmen divine is at most conditions as they will develop in the near future, in a period in which by and large no radical changes in ideologies and in general conditions will take place…. The fallacy inherent in predicting the course of history is that the prophets assume no ideas will ever possess the minds of men but those they themselves already know of.
New ideas occur all the time. Old ones are not guaranteed of enduring, even if we judge them as good. To participate in justice is to participate in a process of weighing the strange and the familiar, and to subject not just others’ ideas to critique, but also necessarily our own. Some key part of justice is more than just hoping that our ideas get written on the world. We must also consider that our ideas may be mistaken.
It is therefore wrong to look to the results of history — as we happen to judge them — and seek within this judgment the foundations of justice, which are located elsewhere, and which will not be found in this way. History may coincide with our present ideas of justice, and we can work to make this so, but that’s the most that can be said about it.
And yet it remains exceedingly difficult to proceed if one does not begin as follows: I affirm that justice is not the mere rule of the strongest, and it’s not the rule of the most-like-me. And I affirm that it’s worth seeking out and trying to achieve. Even if history is heading in no particular direction, we still can, and we must. And so: which direction shall it be?
Comments Off on Mary Wollstonecraft: Libertarian Feminist
Almost two centuries before the women’s lib movement and a full century before the suffragettes, not all women were quiet subordinates to men. In this 1996 essay, historian Jim Powell provides us with an illuminating account of the brilliant Mary Wollstonecraft, an 18th-century author and philosopher who never minced her words in defense of equal rights for women. She lived only 38 years but left behind a principled legacy any lover of liberty can embrace.
Wollstonecraft’s case for equal rights was not a collectivist one; it was, as Powell explains, a deeply individualist one. Rights, she felt, do not come from governments. They belong to each and every person by virtue of their birth and their nature. They do not belong to groups and should never pit any group of individuals against another group. And the recognition of rights never absolves anybody of the responsibility for their own individual lives.
One gets the clear impression from her writings that were Wollstonecraft alive today, she might have some cogent advice along these lines for activists of all kinds: politics may be the route to change bad laws and enforce genuine rights, but once that’s accomplished, politicians have no more responsibility to peaceful individuals in society than to leave them alone. — Lawrence W. Reed
In Western Europe during the late 18th century, single women had little protection under the law, and married women lost their legal identity. Women couldn’t retain a lawyer, sign a contract, inherit property, vote, or have rights over their children.
As Oxford law professor William Blackstone noted in his influential Commentaries on the Laws of England (1758): “The husband and wife are one person in law; that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband: under whose wing, protection and cover, she performs every thing.”
Then along came passionate, bold Mary Wollstonecraft, who caused a sensation by writing A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). She declared that both women and men were human beings endowed with inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. She called for women to become educated. She insisted women should be free to enter business, pursue professional careers, and vote if they wished. “I speak of the improvement and emancipation of the whole sex,” she declared. “Let woman share the rights, and she will emulate the virtues of man; for she must grow more perfect when emancipated.”
Wollstonecraft inspired people because she spoke from the heart. Although she was reasonably well-read, she drew more from her own tumultuous experience. “There is certainly an original defect in my mind,” she confessed, “for the cruelest experience will not eradicate the foolish tendency I have to cherish, and expect to meet with, romantic tenderness.”
She dared do what no other woman had done, namely, pursue a career as a full-time professional writer on serious subjects without an aristocratic sponsor. “I am then going to be the first of a new genus,” she reflected. It was a harsh struggle, because women were traditionally cherished for their domestic service, not their minds. Wollstonecraft developed her skills on meager earnings. She dressed plainly. She seldom ate meat. When she had wine, it was in a teacup, because she couldn’t afford a wine glass.
Contemporaries noted Wollstonecraft’s provocative presence — thin, medium height, brown hair, haunting brown eyes, and a soft voice. “Mary was, without being a dazzling beauty … of a charming grace,” recalled a German admirer. “Her face, so full of expression, presented a style of beauty beyond that of merely regular features. There was enchantment in her glance, her voice, and her movements.”
Mary Wollstonecraft was born April 27, 1759, in London. She was the second child and eldest daughter of Elizabeth Dixon, who hailed from Ballyshannon, Ireland. Mary’s father, Edward John Wollstonecraft, was a handkerchief weaver. He decided to become a gentleman farmer after he got an inheritance from his father, a master weaver and residential real estate developer, but farming was a bust. The family moved seven times in 10 years as their finances deteriorated. Edward drank heavily, and Mary often had to protect her mother from his violent outbursts. She had rocky relations with her siblings.
Mary’s formal schooling was limited, but one of her friends in Hoxton, outside London, had a respectable library, and Mary spent considerable time exploring it. Through these friends, she met Fanny Blood, two years older and skilled at sewing, drawing, watercolors, and the piano. She inspired Mary to take initiative cultivating her mind.
Spurred by family financial problems, Mary resolved to somehow make her own way. She pursued the usual opportunities open to smart but poor young women. At 19, she got a job as live-in helper for a wealthy widow who proved to be a difficult taskmaster.
Three years later, in 1781, Mary tried and failed to establish a school at Islington, North London. Then Mary, Fanny, and Mary’s sisters, Eliza and Everina, started a school nearby at Newington Green. After initial success, that, too, failed. She then worked as a governess for an Irish family and saw firsthand the idleness of landed aristocrats. These discouraging experiences were compounded by the death of Fanny Blood from tuberculosis. After Mary’s mother died in 1782, she — not her oldest brother — assumed primary responsibility for taking care of her volatile father.
Meanwhile, through her Newington school experience, Wollstonecraft met many local Dissenters whose religious beliefs put them outside the tax-supported Anglican Church. Among these Dissenters was minister and moral philosopher Richard Price, who was in touch with Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Marquis de Condorcet, and other radical thinkers of the day. Wollstonecraft also met scientist Joseph Priestley, schoolteacher John Hewlett, and Sarah Burgh, widow of radical author James Burgh. Although Wollstonecraft retained her faith in the Anglican Church, she stood out as a maverick and became good friends with these people.
Dissenters promoted reform of Britain’s cozy political system. The House of Lords consisted of aristocrats who inherited their positions. The House of Commons was chosen by the very few males who were enfranchised—just 15,000, about one-half percent of adult males —determined the outcome of an election. The Test and Corporation Acts disenfranchised religious Dissenters. Moreover, no town had gained the right to representation since 1678, which meant that dynamos of the Industrial Revolution like Birmingham and Manchester were excluded.
The Influence of Joseph Johnson
Hewlett encouraged Wollstonecraft to write a pamphlet on education and submit it to Joseph Johnson, the radical publisher and bookseller with a shop at St. Paul’s Churchyard. He was known as a visionary entrepreneur who backed a number of unknowns including the poet-printmaker William Blake. Johnson published works by Joseph Priestley and poets William Cowper and William Wordsworth, too. He distributed materials for Unitarians.
Hewlett’s suggestion turned out to be a lifeline because, as Wollstonecraft biographer Claire Tomalin explained, “Mary was homeless again, without a job or a reference; she had nothing to live on, and she was in debt to several people. She had no marriage prospects. She was 28, with a face that looked as though it had settled permanently into lines of severity and depression around the fierce eyes … her most remarkable trait was still that she had refused to learn the techniques whereby women in her situation usually attempted to make life tolerable for themselves: flattery, docility, resignation to the will of man, or God, or their social superiors, or all three.”
Johnson told Wollstonecraft that she had talent and could succeed if she worked hard. He published her pamphlet in 1786 as Thoughts on the Education of Daughters; with Reflections on Female Conduct, in the More Important Duties of Life. Sales were negligible, but the work launched Wollstonecraft’s literary career. She sent her author’s fee to the impoverished Blood family and redoubled her efforts. “I must exert my understanding to procure an independence and render myself useful,” she wrote. “To make the task easier, I ought to store my mind with knowledge — The seed time is passing away.”
By 1788, Johnson offered her steady work. She translated books from French and German into English. She served as an assistant editor and writer for his new journal, The Analytical Review. She contributed to it until her death, perhaps as many as 200 articles on fiction, education, sermons, travelogues, and children’s books.
Johnson was a good man. He helped Wollstonecraft find lodgings. He advanced her money when needed. He dealt with her creditors. He helped her cope with her father’s chaotic situation. He calmed her bouts of depression. “You are my only friend,” she confided, “the only person I am intimate with — I never had a father, or a brother — you have been both to me.”
Wollstonecraft met more radicals who visited Johnson, including William Blake, Swiss painter Henry Fuseli, and Johnson’s publishing partner, Thomas Christie. On one occasion, she met philosopher William Godwin and Thomas Paine, the Englishman who helped inspire the American Revolution by writing Common Sense. Wollstonecraft dominated the conversation. “I heard her very frequently,” Godwin recalled, “when I wished to hear Paine.”
The French Revolution
The outbreak of the French Revolution in July 1789 triggered explosive controversy. In November, Richard Price gave a talk before the Society for Commemorating the Glorious Revolution of 1688, defending the right of French people to rebel and suggesting that English people should be able to choose their rulers — an obvious challenge to the hereditary monarchy. This alarmed Edmund Burke, a member of Parliament previously known for having defended the American Revolution. Burke wrote Reflections on the Revolution in France (November 1790), a rhetorically brilliant attack on natural rights and a defense of monarchy and aristocracy.
Burke’s ideas as well as his swipes at Price made Wollstonecraft indignant. Drawing on the ideas of John Locke and Price, she rushed into print with A Vindication of the Rights of Men, among the earliest of some 30 replies to Burke. Although this polemic was repetitious and disorganized, and Wollstonecraft overdid her attacks on Burke as vain, unprincipled, and insensitive — she had an impact. She faulted Burke for being blind to poverty: “Misery, to reach your heart, I perceived, must have its cap and bells.” She denounced injustices of the British constitution which evolved during the “dark days of ignorance, when the minds of men were shackled by the grossest prejudices and most immoral superstition.” She singled out the aristocratic practice of passing family wealth to the eldest son: “the only security of property that nature authorizes and reason sanctions is, the right a man has to enjoy the acquisitions which his talents and industry have acquired; and to bequeath them to whom he chooses.”
She lashed out at arbitrary government power:
Security of property! Behold, in a few words, the definition of English liberty.… But softly — it is only the property of the rich that is secure; the man who lives by the sweat of his brow has no asylum from oppression; the strong man may enter — when was the castle of the poor sacred? — and the base informer steal him from the family that depend on his industry for subsistence.… I cannot avoid expressing my surprise that when you recommended our form of government as a model, you did not caution the French against the arbitrary custom of pressing men for the sea service.
Wollstonecraft’s work, and everyone else’s for that matter, was later dwarfed by Thomas Paine’s far more powerful reply to Burke — The Rights of Man — but she established herself as an author to reckon with.
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman
She had generally supposed that when revolutionaries spoke of “man,” they were using shorthand for all humanity. Then on September 10, 1791, Talleyrand, former Bishop of Autun, advocated government schools that would end at eighth grade for girls but continue on for boys. This made clear to Wollstonecraft that despite all the talk about equal rights, the French Revolution wasn’t intended to help women much. She began planning her most famous work, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. She wrote for more than three months and was finished January 3, 1792. Johnson published it in three volumes.
She despised the government class. “Taxes on the very necessaries of life,” she wrote, “enable an endless tribe of idle princes and princesses to pass with stupid pomp before a gaping crowd, who almost worship the very parade which costs them so dear.”
She specifically cited laws that “make an absurd unit of a man and his wife; and then, by the easy transition of only considering him as responsible, she is reduced to a mere cipher … how can a being be generous who has nothing of its own? or virtuous who is not free?”
Wollstonecraft issued an early call for women’s suffrage: “I really think that women ought to have representatives, instead of being arbitrarily governed without having any direct share allowed them in the deliberations of government.”
Wollstonecraft attacked those like collectivist Jean-Jacques Rousseau who wanted to keep women down. He had written, “The education of the women should always be relative to the men. To please, to be useful to us, to make us love and esteem them, to educate us when young, and take care of us when grown up, to advise, to console us, to render our lives easy and agreeable; these are the duties of women at all times, and what they should be taught in their infancy.”
Wollstonecraft believed education could be the salvation of women: “the exercise of their understanding is necessary, there is no other foundation for independence of character; I mean explicitly to say that they must bow only to the authority of reason, instead of being the modest slaves of opinion.” She insisted women should be taught serious subjects like reading, writing, arithmetic, botany, natural history, and moral philosophy. She recommended vigorous physical exercise to help stimulate the mind.
To be sure, she had a naive faith that the same governments that restricted women could inexplicably be trusted to run schools uplifting women. Twentieth-century government schools have been catastrophes for women as well as men, graduating large numbers at high cost without the most fundamental skills.
Wollstonecraft called for eliminating obstacles to the advancement of women. “Liberty is the mother of virtue,” she asserted, “and if women be, by their very constitution, slaves, and not allowed to breathe the sharp invigorating air of freedom, they must ever languish like exotics, and be reckoned beautiful flaws of nature.”
She envisioned a future when women could pursue virtually any career opportunities: “Though I consider that women in the common walks of life are called to fulfill the duties of wives and mothers, by religion and reason, I cannot help lamenting that women of a superior cast have not a road open by which they can pursue more extensive plans of usefulness and independence.” Finally: “How many women thus waste life away the prey of discontent, who might have practiced as physicians, regulated a farm, managed a shop, and stood erect, supported by their own industry, instead of hanging their heads surcharged with the dew of sensibility.”
With A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft emerged in a class by herself. She went beyond her contemporary Catherine Macaulay who had written passionately about educating women. Wollstonecraft was opposed by “Bluestockings” like Hannah More, Elizabeth Montagu, and Hester Chapone who had fared well by making the most of the subordinate position of women. A succession of women novelists — Fanny Burney, Clara Reeve, Charlotte Smith, and Elizabeth Inchbald, for instance — had portrayed women who achieved heroic moral stature, but they didn’t always celebrate women with brains.
A Vindication of the Rights of Woman sold out within a year, and Johnson issued a second edition. An American edition and translations into French and German followed.
Wollstonecraft crossed the English Channel so she could see the French Revolution for herself. She was welcomed by expatriates such as the American patriot Joel Barlow, English poet Helen Maria Williams, and Thomas Paine. She sided with liberal Girondists who, including Marquis de Condorcet, favored a constitutionally limited government and equal rights for women. But she was horrified at how fast the totalitarian Jacobins seized power and launched the Reign of Terror.
Wollstonecraft dreamed that someday men and women would nurture each other as equals. “The man who can be contented to live with a pretty, useful companion, without a mind, has lost in voluptuous gratifications a taste for more refined enjoyments,” she wrote, “he has never felt the calm satisfaction that refreshes the parched heart like the silent dew of heaven — of being beloved by one who could understand him.”
Alas, she had an agonizing time applying these ideas to her own life. She became infatuated with the eccentric genius Henry Fuseli, but he was married and brushed her off after extended flirtation. While still in France, she fell in love with an American adventurer named Gilbert Imlay, who was always looking for a scheme to strike it rich. They had a daughter, Fanny, but he lost interest in both of them and walked out. Wollstonecraft attempted suicide twice. After the second incident, when she was being dragged out of the Thames, she renewed her resolve: “it appears to me impossible that I shall cease to exist, or that this active, restless spirit, equally alive to joy and sorrow, should only be organized dust. Surely something resides in this heart that is not perishable — and life is more than a dream.”
While recovering from despair over Imlay, she took a three-month break with Fanny in Scandinavia and produced one of her most poignant works, Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark. The letters were addressed to the unnamed American father of her child. They provide a travelogue laced with commentary on politics, philosophy, and her personal life. After witnessing the French Terror, she tempered her hopes for social change:
An ardent affection for the human race makes enthusiastic characters eager to produce alterations in laws and governments prematurely. To render them useful and permanent, they must be the growth of each particular soil, and the gradual fruit of the ripening understanding of the nation, matured by time, not forced by an unnatural fermentation.
Throughout the book, Wollstonecraft struggled to cope with her grief about Imlay, and she conveyed an immediacy and tenderness that touches the heart. “If ever there was a book calculated to make a man in love with its author, this appears to me to be the book,” remarked William Godwin.
Relationship with William Godwin
Wollstonecraft decided to pursue her acquaintance with Godwin, calling on him April 14, 1796. He had a large head, deep-set eyes, and a thin voice. “He seems to have had some charm which his enemies could not detect or his friends define, but which had a real influence on those who attained his close friendship,” reported Godwin biographer George Woodcock.
Like Wollstonecraft, he had started a school, but his ideas were too radical, and the effort failed. His literary career had begun with a dull political biography, a book of sermons and some potboiler novels. Then London publisher George Robinson offered to pay Godwin enough of an advance that he could work out his philosophy. The result was Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793), describing his vision of a harmonious society without laws or war. The book established him as England’s foremost radical thinker.
Godwin courageously spoke out against the British government’s campaign to suppress the Corresponding Societies, which were debating clubs interested in revolutionary ideas. Godwin wrote public letters supporting defendants. He charged that the government’s campaign was illegal since none of the defendants had committed revolutionary acts of violence. These writings won widespread sympathy for the defendants, and further prosecution was abandoned.
At the time Wollstonecraft called, Godwin was a 42-year-old bachelor courting Amelia Alderson, a doctor’s daughter. But he was intrigued with Wollstonecraft, despite his initial impression that she talked too much. He invited her to a dinner party the following week. Included were James Mackintosh and Dr. Samuel Parr, both of whom had written rebuttals to Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France.
After Alderson rejected Godwin, he became more responsive to Wollstonecraft, and her passion overwhelmed him. “It was friendship melting into love,” he recalled. But Wollstonecraft was haunted by fear of another betrayal. Godwin reassured her that he longed for a relationship between equals. Her passion surged again. “It is a sublime tranquility,” she wrote him, “I have felt it in your arms.” By December, she was pregnant. Both Wollstonecraft and Godwin had criticized marriage as a vehicle for exploitation, but they tied the knot on March 29, 1797. She rejoiced that she had found true love at last.
She went into labor during the early morning of Wednesday, August 30, 1797. She was attended by one Mrs. Blenkinsop, an experienced midwife. After 11:00 that night, a daughter was born — Mary, who grew up to be Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein. For a while, it appeared things were fine, but three hours later, Mrs. Blenkinsop notified Godwin that the placenta still hadn’t come out of the womb. The longer the placenta remained, the greater the risk of infection. Godwin called a Dr. Poignand, who succeeded in removing much of the placenta. Wollstonecraft reported that the procedure was the most excruciatingly painful experience of her life.
That Sunday, she began suffering chills, an ominous sign of infection. Doctors offered wine to help ease the pain and tried other measures to stimulate her body to eject the remains of the placenta. Wollstonecraft continued to decline. She died Sunday morning, September 10, 1797. Godwin was so overcome that he didn’t attend the funeral, held at St. Pancras church where they had been married just five months before. She was buried in the churchyard.
Soon afterwards, ever-loyal publisher Joseph Johnson issued Godwin’s edition of the Posthumous Works of the Author of a Vindication of the Rights of Woman, together with Godwin’s candid memoir about her. Although Godwin believed telling all would boost her reputation, it unleashed a firestorm of controversy, and her unsettled personal life became an easy excuse to belittle her ideas.
But as author Virginia Woolf remarked about Wollstonecraft decades later, “We hear her voice and trace her influence even now among the living.” American crusaders for equal rights like Margaret Fuller, Lucretia Mott, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were all inspired by A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.
In recent years, the women’s movement has become linked with preferential treatment and hatred of men. Today, happily, more people are rediscovering Mary Wollstonecraft, who established the individualist roots of equal rights. She took responsibility for her life. She educated herself. She showed how a woman can succeed with her wits. She urged everyone to achieve his or her human potential. She spoke out for vital economic liberties. She demanded justice. She championed relationships based on mutual respect and love.