Archive for the ‘Guest Post’ Category

Last time I was here, I had a lot of fun teasing American libertarian readers, at least until the earthquake brought my guest blogging to an abrupt halt.

Support for liberty is a lot like support for GMO-free food. If you survey people, they’ll tell you how much they love it. They might even tell you it’s the most important thing in the world for them. But make them pay $0.50 extra to have it and they’ll choose the next product on the shelf. A few pay extra for the GMO-free tags, but if you’d probably be disappointed if you launched a GMO-free brand based on a survey of how much people claimed to hate genetically modified foods.

Jason Sorens and William Ruger have done great work in showing the substantial differences in experienced freedom across the 50 US States. A lot of libertarians live in New York; New York tends to come last in these surveys. Moving someplace that doesn’t keep trying to ban large sodas would mean giving up easy access to Broadway shows. It’s fine to be a pluralist and to weigh Broadway shows against personal liberties in some great personal utilitarian calculus, but it’s not exactly consistent with ‘Live Free or Die’ rhetoric.*

Absolute differences across American states are perhaps not large enough to make it worth moving. But if that’s the case, what are we to make of libertarian activism in the less-free states? It’s exceptionally unlikely that even the most effective activist in New York could move the state more than a point or two in the ordinal rankings, but that same person could take an oil job in North Dakota and move from worst to first while working there to help make North Dakota even better.

I’ve also argued, and often, that American libertarians should consider moving to New Zealand, which ranks first in the worldwide index weighing civil and economic freedoms. Why not choose to live free, or as free as is possible in the current world?

The Honours thesis I’m supervising this year will examine the price of liberty. The international ranking above gives a nice cross-sectional snapshot of differences in liberty across countries. Some of the measures can be extended backward in time. My student, Chris Read, is going to add these measures to international migration data to estimate the elasticity of migration flows to measured liberty and compare that elasticity to things like expected income differences across countries. Most people are messy pluralists; I’m really curious to see how things here pan out. Hopefully by the end of it, we’ll be able to say “A unit increase in civil liberties, all else equal, has about the same effect on inbound migration as a $X increase in median income.” That X will be close to a revealed preference measure of the price of freedom.

Later this week, I’ll post reassessing some of my Kiwi-enthusiasm in light of the post-earthquake policy experience. I’ve been pretty disappointed with how things here have panned out. We are not as far outside of the asylum as I had thought.

* I count myself as a messy pluralist of this sort too; I’m not trying to disparage it! Freedom matters, other stuff matters too.

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One of the regular Pileus bloggers asked me to elaborate on a claim I made briefly in my earlier discussion of BHL. I had said “there is an intra-libertarian debate [that it is useful to have about philosophical justification: is a system of individual rights ultimately justified because it accrues the best results for the poor, or is it justified for some other reason(s), and has the beneficial characteristic of accruing the best results for the poor?” and suggested I thought it was the latter. The idea that the social order can only be justified if it brings about the best results for the worst off, which is a prominent feature of Rawlsian welfare-state liberalism, has been employed as a rationale for classical-liberal non-redistributionist policies. I certanily like the irony that the chief heuristic of redistributionist theory undermines redistributionist institutions. And, as I said in the orginal post, I appreciate the positive outreach effects of noting that free market policies help everyone prosper, especially the poor. But I am hesitant to agree that the Rawslian principle is why we should have free markets. For one thing, I think we should have free markets for the same reason I think we should be free generally. I do not differentiate “civil liberty” and “economic liberty.” The latter is simply the manifestation-in-transactions of the former. Without the freedom to transact, my “freedom to choose” is pretty superficial. Rawls himself argues that we must have a system of equal freedom to choose and believe and think and speak – rights that cannot be trumped by social utility. It is only trading and acquiring rights that he says can be interfered with. But as Nozick demonstrated, you cannot interfere with transactional freedom without simultaneously interfering with freedom of choice. There are not two kinds of liberty, civil and economic, there’s just liberty (although there are of course different contexts in which we talk about liberty). And I think liberty is a necessary component of human flourishing. Humans cannot achieve virtue and happiness by coercion. “Rights” should be understood as a way to secure the possibility of self-directed activity in the social setting. The social order is thus justified if it is one which protects individual rights, and unjustified otherwise. That is the why of classical liberalism. The fact that classical liberalism and free markets help the poor better than redistributive statism is a great thing, both intrinsically and in terms of explaining its virtues to others. But the justification must be something else, something universal. Put it another way: if everyone were wealthy, would individual rights no longer be important? Of course not.

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Judge Napolitano, an eloquent advocate of liberty, is in fine form here, in his discussion of the relevance of natural law theory to immigration. I was especially pleased with his observation that politicians are at most fair-weather friends of natural law: “This view of the natural law is sweet to the heart and pleasing to the ear when politicians praise it at patriotic events, but it is also a bane to them when it restrains their exercise of the coercive powers of the government.” This is correct- the idea of natural rights, moral rights that are not created by governments, is (for them) a convenient rhetorical device, to be discarded as soon as they perceive that it would be more popular to frame an issue in terms of “practical solutions,” “being realistic,” or “the compromises necessary in a democracy.” Politicians and pundits both left and right do this: on positions they favor, it’s wrong for the government to interfere with the exercise of natural rights, but when the subject is something they oppose, positivism rules. Judge Napolitano surprised a “conservative” talk show host recently by invoking natural rights as a trump against nativist sentiment. Specifically, he argues that “Our fundamental human rights are not conditioned or even conditionable on the laws or traditions of the place where our mothers were physically located when we were born. They are not attenuated because our mothers were not in the United States at the moment of our births. Stated differently, we all possess natural rights, no more and no less than any others. All humans have the full panoply of freedom of choice in areas of personal behavior protected from governmental interference by the natural law, no matter where they were born. Americans are not possessed of more natural rights than non-Americans….” He goes on to show why the government has no right to interfere with freedom of movement. (It furthermore has no right to prevent you or me from hiring whomever we want or selling/renting land to them.) Politicians and pundits on the right aren’t comfortable with the language of natural rights when it comes to issues like marriage or immigration. Their counterparts on the left aren’t comfortable with such language when it comes to issues like self-defense or trading. The Judge gets it. I wonder how the national discussion of rights would go if he had the audience of Paul Krugman, Rachel Maddow, Pat Buchanan.

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One of the most significant developments lately in terms of framing libertarianism has been the advent of the “Bleeding-Heart Libertarian” blog. I know most of the contributors personally (and I’m electronically-acquainted with all of them), and there’s not one I don’t respect. Their mission statement says they are “libertarians who believe that addressing the needs of the economically vulnerable by remedying injustice, engaging in benevolence, fostering mutual aid, and encouraging the flourishing of free markets is both practically and morally important.” The reason that’s a great point to make is that often, people who advocate the moral superiority of the free society are accused of not caring about the poor. One response to that is to bite the bullet and say “right: I don’t care about the poor qua poor, I care about all people qua people, and all people’s rights must be protected.” That’s a legitimate stance, but it’s not hard to see why some critics of liberalism find it less than compelling. So it’s helpful to say, as they do, “no, you don’t get it: we do care about the poor – that’s why we advocate free markets and individual liberty.” To be sure, there is an intra-libertarian debate to have about philosophical justification: is a system of individual rights ultimately justified because it accrues the best results for the poor, or is it justified for some other reason(s), and has the beneficial characteristic of accruing the best results for the poor? This is not unlike Socrates’ second refutation of Euthyphro: the pious is loved by the gods, but that’s an attribute, not a definition. As President Clinton (correctly!) put it, it depends on what the meaning of the word “is” is. I think it’s right and important for political philosophers to have that argument (and for the record, I say it’s the latter), but inasmuch as we ultimately want to persuade as many people as we can of the good sense of our position, I think this sort of debate should not overshadow the many ways in which we can show that good sense.

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I got into an argument with a structural engineer the other day. I was saying that it would be really cool if the Navy had something like the Helicarrier used by SHIELD in the Avengers movie. He was trying to say that it “wouldn’t work” for some kind of technical reasons, like there’s no known power source that could make something that big hover and also be on the thing, and that even if we had one, the blast from the turbines would be so powerful that it would destroy any buildings it happened to fly over. But I replied that this was just his opinion. In my opinion, it would be terrific, and these “technical” objections really shouldn’t override how awesome it would be to have a Helicarrier. He kept insisting that, unlike me, he had spent years studying physics and electromagnetism, and that therefore his “opinion” as to what was or wasn’t technically feasible was better justified than mine, and that my aesthetic preferences really didn’t amount to much in the absence of good reasons. I replied that he doesn’t have perfect knowledge, so my opinion should count just as much, and I reiterated how great it would be: it would greatly enhance naval effectiveness and air superiority, plus it would super-cool so we should just do it and make it work. Who’s to say we couldn’t possibly make it work? He kept going back to the theme that I’m not really qualified to say what would work, whereas he actually was an expert on these things. He said he realized it sounded arrogant when he put it that way, which he didn’t intend, but that he did actually have a PhD from Cal Tech, and that he was only bringing it up to help motivate the point that I didn’t have a rational basis for arguing with him about this.

The above anecdote is fictional, of course, yet it’s analogous to the kinds of arguments economists and political philosophers often find themselves in. The word “rights” can’t just mean whatever you want it to mean, and not every conception of rights will be coherent. In a democratic society, everyone is entitled to have their voice heard, but it’s a mistake to infer from this that everything is up for grabs, that Locke and Marx (or Keynes and Hayek) are “just different opinions.”

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First of all, I would like to thank Grover Cleveland for inviting me to guest-blog this week. I’m also grateful for the opportunity to write the words “I would like to thank Grover Cleveland,” which I would not have predicted I’d ever have reason to do. I thought I would start with some reflections, and will follow up with longer posts. It will be interesting to participate in a blog again: I used to blog at Liberty and Power, but a couple years ago they switched to a platform that garbled comments threads and occasionally ate my posts, and the site was overrun with pop-up ads. But around the same time I was souring on L&P (the platform, not the co-bloggers), I was starting to use Facebook more for sharing and commenting on links pertaining to political philosophy and current events. But that’s not exactly the same thing, since FB threads are a limited group, whereas blogs are open to the public. So, for the week at least, I’m back. By the way, for those of you who were wondering, my first name is pronounced as if it were the more-conventional “Ian.”

I expect I’ll be engaging in some discussion of gun laws, women in combat, immigration, capitalism and the economy. I will likely talk about rights – both constitutional rights and natural rights – and where I see the place of individual liberty. I’ve put a lot of energy into thinking about rights – what they are, what philosophical justifications might ground them, what their role in the social order is. This means I get to argue not only with people who reject the libertarian/classical-liberal project, but also with people who embrace it for different reasons than I do. I am not a political junkie or policy wonk. I used to be: I was the guy who went to the bookstore to buy the Tower Commission report after watching hours of televised coverage of the Iran-Contra hearings. I watched Face the Nation, Meet the Press, and This Week as if it were my religion. But my interest is in applying the philosophical questions of justification and first principles to what’s going on. That’s not to say that I’m unconcerned with the law: I think it matters whether a proposed law is unconstitutional, but I’ll also question whether it’s right. Pet peeve: double-standards and hypocrisy, whether from left or right. So: open borders or closed? Gun bans or gun ownership? Women in combat? TSA, love or hate? Rights or social justice as a criterion for classical-liberalism? Why rights at all? Deleting the state? Stay tuned.

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[Editor's Note: This is a guest post from Mark LeBar, who will soon be joining the Pileus team on a more regular basis.]
Will Wilkinson recently blogged on the “happiness” research that claims to have shown, first, that parenting produces significantly less happy adults than do childless marriages (“kids are a drag”!) and, second, that we are “delusional” when we think that they do make us happy. Wilkinson is unusually credulous of samples of a broad and heterogeneous body of research and a specific study that wildly overreaches what its data show.
Full disclosure: I write this because I am a parent and I am really glad I am. If Wilkinson and John Cloud of Time (who provoked Wilkinson’s post) are right, this is because I am rationalizing to “reduce the cognitive discomfort of holding conflicting ideas”. That might be right. However, it might also be right that holding conflicting ideas and trying to make sense of them is part of what it is to be a real grown-up human being, and that wisdom consists in part of knowing how to resolve conflicts between the impulses that do push moods and attitudes in one way or another.
One problem is that even a casual survey of the actual research seems to suggest far greater heterogeneity in results on these issues than Wilkinson or Cloud admit. Cloud cites a study done by Evenson and Simon which Cloud glosses as showing that “parents are more depressed than non-parents,” when in fact part of the point of Evenson and Simon’s study is to explore the ways that different types of parents (e.g. single parents vs. cohabiting parents, stepparents vs. biological parents) experience depressive effects to differing degrees. And while they conclude that there are no types of parents who experience less depression than childless married folks, there are also numerous categories (e.g. emptynesters) who seem to come out about the same.
A second problem is that none of these studies, anyway, seems to sort on what I would expect to be a significant difference in the experience of parenthood, which is something like the terms under which one comes to be a parent. Many note that throughout much of human history (and still today in some places) children represent a potent form of economic security. With that incentive gone, the motivational picture for having children is more complicated. But some significant number of parents don’t choose parenting, but have (shall we say) parenting thrust upon them as an unanticipated and perhaps undesired consequence of doing other things they are strongly motivated to do. It would be especially unsurprising if levels of anger and depression were higher among such parents than among those who sometimes go to great lengths to have children in part for the anticipated (and perhaps actually perceived) benefits of relationships with their children—relationships that are not replicated or imitated in other forms of human life, and which can be unfathomably rich in emotional content and accomplishment.
A final concern is about what exactly it is that these social scientists are measuring. In particular, are they measuring things that people actually believe they should care about? Things that are of genuine value? As philosophers have known for 2500 years or more, those are quite challenging questions to answer, but many social scientists seem to operate under the principle that you should look for your keys under the lamppost, because that is where the light is, rather than where you lost them. If it is easier to operationalize some conceptions of happiness than others, then that is what we will study, rather than what we think on reflection might really matter.

 The level of discussion of such issues is gradually rising (see for example recent work by philosophers Valerie Tiberius and Daniel Haybron, but I think it will be some time before there are thoughtful measures of the degree to which parenting contributes to good human lives, and I think when it does those measures will reflect of degree of sophistication about how we come to parent that is simply missing from the crude stabs at research now, about which we should be much more skeptical than Wilkinson and Cloud suggest.

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[Editor's Note: This is a guest post from the president of The Fund for American Studies, Roger Ream. TFAS sponsors Pileus.]

Dreyfuss addressing TFAS


The Fund for American Studies welcomed actor Richard Dreyfuss to its offices last night. Dreyfuss, whose movie credits are many, including Jaws, Mr. Holland’s Opus, and The Goodbye Girl (for which he won the Academy Award for Best Actor), has founded the Dreyfuss Initiative in order to “foster a discussion related to the future of America.” 

His message last night was mostly a good one: the American Idea is unique in human history. The concept of a “democratic republican form of government” had never before been tried and doesn’t exist by chance. Such a form of government is hard work and requires each generation to get a civic education that prepares them for active citizenship.  He added that we risk losing sight of the enlightenment values upon which the American idea is based. Our country is now off-track. He observed that he doesn’t really understand what the Republicans and Democrats stand for any more; too often both both parties choose expediency over principle. 

Dreyfuss made a strong and compelling plea for civic education. But his message went off-track when he let his liberalism seep through, as it regularly did. While admitting to be raised as a red diaper baby (“my mother was a socialist, not a communist, because, she said, the donuts were better”), he claims he doesn’t fit the simplistic label “Hollywood liberal.” That may be true, but his opposition to free trade, criticism of the rich, the bankers, and business generally, and a volley of pointed criticism of George W. Bush (not all of it unfounded; though a bit over the top, such as his charge that Bush eviscerated the concept of separation of church and state), made the claim unconvincing.

I left the meeting persuaded, as I was when I arrived, that the lack of civic education is a serious cause for concern. But I also concluded that as serious a problem for America is the lack of economic literacy. Mr. Dreyfuss was living proof of this. He criticized free trade because there are losers, such as auto workers in Flint, Michigan. He defended unions, even though unions are largely responsible for the lost jobs in the auto and steel industries. He blamed bankers for the housing crisis, with no mention of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, or of the public policy decisions that pressured banks to make loans to people who had no business buying houses.

Especially troubling was his criticism of the concept of caveat emptor: let the buyer bewareDreyfuss is worried that this concept, finally put to rest in the twentieth century according to him, has made a comeback. That is a bad thing, in his mind. I interpret this to be an indication of his support for a nanny state. Consumers shouldn’t be expected to take responsibility for their decisions. We need a government that looks after us. To my way of thinking, that is quite to the contrary of the American idea of free and responsible citizens.

Dreyfuss impressed me as well-read and a thoughtful person. He has a genuine love of America and understands that we are a country based on an idea, not on a common nationality, religion, or racial background. He believes in American Exceptionalism and understands that we are losing it. Preserving the American idea takes work, hard work. He is right about that. So I applaud his efforts to spark a conversation that seeks to define why we are unique and what it is that should bind us together as one people. He has great reverence for ideas and achievements of the American founders. But he left me full of doubt that his understanding of the American idea is anywhere close to mine, or for that matter Jefferson’s and Madison’s.

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A New August 4 Movement

[Editor's Note: The following is a guest post from a regular reader of Pileus, who writes under the nom de plume "Voltaire in '08."]

What if an August 4 Movement were to arise after the election of November 2?

On August 4, 1789, deputies at the French National Assembly rose up one after another to renounce the feudal rights, fees, and privileges that they were legally entitled to under current law, as a preliminary to abolishing the feudal regime as a whole.

In doing so, they seized the political initiative from the people, then in the grip of a Great Fear sweeping their country after the recent fall of the Bastille.

A new August 4 Movement would be distinctly American. The people would be seizing initiative from the government.

What if such a movement targeted not welfare or other programs for the poor but Federal middle-class entitlements—Social Security, Medicare, Obamacare, the very ones that dominate our present and future budgets, and that make all other spending disputes look like emptying a swimming pool with a teaspoon?

What if a movement of concerned citizens appealed to their fellows—perhaps in grassroots demonstrations beginning in northern Maine, stretching to southern California, and modeled on the Civil Rights movement of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.—to join them in a collaborative enterprise of moral and civic reform: that of renouncing all future individual rights and claims to these entitlements (in exchange of course for appropriate exemptions and compensations, as with the original August 4)?

Could such a movement serve as a new Declaration of Independence—not from monarchy this time, but from a creeping and corrosive culture of entitlements and bailouts? Would it be enough to reclaim the place of something as out of season as individual responsibility in our politics? Would it help avert not only the fiscal but the civic and constitutional train wrecks that many are now glimpsing over the horizon? Would it supply a peaceful and optimistic answer to a long-term crisis increasingly redolent of pessimism and conflict? Would it provide a fitting channel for the next phase of that uniquely American grassroots civic movement that has so taken everyone by surprise in the past two years? Could it restore America’s place as the world’s premier political and constitutional entrepreneur, perhaps even lending a model for other overburdened polities to contemplate?

Or would it be better to let John Boehner, Harry Reid, and Barack Obama negotiate our future instead?

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