Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘political philosophy’ Category

George Will (Washington Post) has an interesting essay on “progressivism’s ratchet.” His “Cupcake Postulate” illustrates the dynamic: federal school lunch subsidies lead to regulation of food content,which justifies the regulation of competing foods from vending machines, and—finally—whether cupcakes sold at bake sales meet federal standards. Government authority spreads—“the cupcake-policing government” finds “unending excuses for flexing its muscles”– and soon we enter a world where officials exercise little discretion or forethought.

Swollen government has a shriveled brain: By printing and borrowing money, government avoids thinking about its proper scope and actual competence. So it smears mine-resistant armored vehicles and other military marvels across 435 congressional districts because it can.

For those interested in the connection between the regulation of school bake sales, police force militarization, and skepticism regarding foreign policy, Will has some worthwhile insights.

Read Full Post »

The War at Home

Images of warfare abound these days, from Syria, Gaza, northern Iraq…and Ferguson, MO. As Dylan Scott (TPM) notes, the images out of Ferguson have been “harrowing.” “American law enforcement decked out in military fatigues, patrolling the streets in armored vehicles that look like they were plucked out of Afghanistan or Iraq.” 

I have blogged in the past about the distribution of war surplus to domestic police forces via the Department of Defense’s 1033 program (here and here).  Unsurprisingly, Ferguson and St. Louis County have both benefited from the 1033 program. Although precise information is difficult to come by—the Pentagon only releases information on tactical equipment for counties—USA Today has a partial list for St. Louis County, which includes twelve 5.56 mm rifles, six .45 caliber pistols, night vision equipment, vehicles, a trailer, and a generator.

National Journal has some images of the police response in Ferguson, in a piece aptly titled: “What a Militarized Police Force Does to a City.” Terrence McCoy (Washington Post) has an article on the use of tear gas in Ferguson. As McCoy explains:

Despite its ubiquity across the globe and in United States, tear gas is a chemical agent banned in warfare per the Chemical Weapons Convention of 1993, which set forth agreements signed by nearly every nation in the world — including the United States. The catch, however, is that while it’s illegal in war, it’s legal in domestic riot control.

Sven-Eric Jordt, Yale School of Medicine, is quoted as saying: “Tear gas under the Geneva Convention is characterized as a chemical warfare agent, and so it is precluded for use in warfare, but it is used very frequently against civilians. That’s very illogical.”

It is also illogical to provide police forces with military grade equipment based on the urgency of the war on drugs or the war on terror. As recent stories reveal (recounted in a fine piece by Radley Balko, WSJ), SWAT teams and the technology they have been provided through 1033 and Homeland Security grants have been used judiciously to break up illegal poker games at VFW halls, to stop underage drinking in a New Haven bar, and to apprehend Tibetan monks whose visas had expired in Iowa.

Balko concludes: “What would it take to dial back such excessive police measures? The obvious place to start would be ending the federal grants that encourage police forces to acquire gear that is more appropriate for the battlefield. Beyond that, it is crucial to change the culture of militarization in American law enforcement.”

Until that occurs, one fears, the war at home will continue.

Read Full Post »

Hunting Unicorns

Michael Munger has a fun essay (at FEE) on what he calls “the unicorn problem” (i.e., when people make the argument for statism based on a state they can imagine—benevolent, efficient, omniscient—rather than the state that actually exists). Munger’s solution:

  1. Go ahead, make your argument for what you want the State to do, and what you want the State to be in charge of.
  2. Then, go back and look at your statement. Everywhere you said “the State” delete that phrase and replace it with “politicians I actually know, running in electoral systems with voters and interest groups that actually exist.”
  3. If you still believe your statement, then we have something to talk about.

I run into this problem repeatedly with colleagues and students who somehow believe that the state could do all kinds of wonderful things, if only it behaved precisely as they imagined it should. “If only we had a single payer system,” they gush, “we would not have all of the problems of self-interest and greed that one sees in the current system.” That follows, of course, because we know that self-interest and greed have no place in any state we can imagine. It is at this point that I try to identify the underlying category error and introduce them to Buchanan’s argument for symmetry (albeit with little impact).

Munger concludes: “To paraphrase Hayek, then, the curious task of the liberty movement is to persuade citizens that our opponents are the idealistic ones, because they believe in unicorns. They understand very little about the State that they imagine they can design.”

Read Full Post »

At the Daily Beast, Keli Goff has a piece on “Why Blacks Aren’t Libertarians.” In fact, however, she may be a libertarian; at least, nothing in this piece shows why she cannot be. However, she definitely rejects a kind of dogmatic, absolutist libertarianism that she has encountered – and reasonably so, in my view. Here is the rub:

I presented the caller with the same hypothetical I do to so many of my self-professed libertarian friends: I’m injured in a plane or car crash. There is one hospital located in the town in which the crash has taken place. Do you believe the hospital has a right to refuse to treat me on the basis of race, and that the government has no moral or legal imperative to require the hospital to treat me?

One can make a convincing argument that a florist refusing to provide flowers to a same-sex wedding, or an upscale restaurant not welcoming African Americans, aren’t really major civil rights issues. (Frankly, in this day and age, if a restaurant refused to serve me I might use the power of the Internet to help put it out of business, but I wouldn’t see the point in suing someone to serve me when there are plenty of other dining options.) But when it comes to issues like government-mandated access to health care and education for all Americans, there is more at stake.

I would say that the hospital has a legally enforceable duty to accept anyone at imminent risk of death or injury. This is the “safe harbor” exception to the right to exclude that constitutes part of the bundle of private property rights. The safe harbor exception holds that in cases of dire emergency, you lose the right to exclude others from access to your property.

There are at least two important categories of cases here. One consists of cases in which there is no time to obtain consent: my wife is suffering a heart attack, and to save her I have to break into a locked building and take out its defibrillator. We should be able to assume consent in many cases when it is costly to obtain an answer from the property owner, and the foreseeable costs to the property owner are nil (e.g., I will compensate for any damage I cause).

Another category consists of cases in which original appropriation ends up leading to a monopoly, which if exploited could cause severe harm. One such example is Bill Bradford’s old chestnut: you fall out of an apartment window and on the way down grab a flagpole; the owner of the flagpole leans out and demands, “Let go!” Obviously, you have no obligation to let go. Robert Nozick gave an example of appropriating an oasis in the middle of the desert and demanding all the worldly goods of those who pass by in dire thirst.

So it seems clear to me that the hospital example fits into the latter category. If you’re in a life-or-death situation, you must be given access to the hospital. Now, that doesn’t mean you could conscript (enslave) a person to perform surgery on you – the right to exclude from one’s own body admits of no exceptions. And in extremely rare cases, a free society might therefore result in people’s avoidable deaths from lack of care – but of course that sort of thing happens now, all too often.

Now, I don’t know what Ms. Goff means by “government-mandated access to health care and education for all Americans,” but if she means large bureaucracies that provide these services at immense taxpayer cost on an ongoing basis, then she is indeed not a libertarian, as libertarians would not support that agenda. But neither does such an expansive government role in those industries follow from the emergency exception to the right to exclude just explored.

Read Full Post »

The Independent Institute has released a video of a talk given by Ron Paul on April 9, 2014 (“Liberty Defined: The Future of Freedom”).

Some of you may enjoy a little Ron Paul to start those engines this Monday.

Read Full Post »

I was never persuaded by Aristotle’s argument that happiness is the highest good (because it is the only thing that humans seek for its own sake rather than for any other end). The reason I never accepted it is that it is either circular (happiness gets defined as whatever it is you seek for its own sake) or obviously wrong (we sometimes do things for the benefit of others).

On the other hand, Kant’s argument that the only thing that is good without qualification is a good will has always seemed extremely persuasive to me and founded upon a deep, virtually universal moral intuition. If I pursue my own happiness at the expense of what I know to be right, any happiness I thereby win is not a blessing but a curse. We root for the “bad guys” not to profit from their wrongdoing. Further, we judge the rightness or wrongness of actions by the state of someone’s will. If I accidentally save someone falling from a burning house while I am engaged in trying to rob it, my “action” is not praiseworthy: there was no intent to do good. On the other hand, if I try to do the right thing, but the facts later turn out to show that I was mistaken, my actions may be regrettable but not blameworthy. For instance, if I see a man accost a child roughly and interpose myself thinking to stop an aggression, I am not to blame for my action even if it turns out the man was trying to stop a child who’d committed a serious theft, so long as, if I had known the truth, I would have acted differently.

But surely, good intentions are not enough! If I know that my actions will cause harm, but do them anyway under the guise that my intentions are good, my actions are still wrong. Politicians do this all the time, in raising subsidies or the minimum wage or in creating monopolies or in innumerable other ways. So reckless or negligent disregard for the consequences of one’s actions is blameworthy. But you don’t really have good intentions if you are reckless or negligent! A well-intentioned person will try to figure out what is best to do, and then act on that understanding.

So it’s settled: the only good thing is a good will. But wait: there’s another problem. What if I act on a moral principle that is false but which I sincerely believe to be true? Am I acting wrongly if I vote for drug prohibition on the grounds that hard paternalism is sometimes morally justified? Am I acting wrongly if, wrongly believing that hard paternalism is morally justified, I nevertheless vote against drug prohibition? It seems that Kant’s answers must be “no” and “yes,” respectively. And I agree: under some circumstances, it is morally wrong for a sincere paternalist to vote against drug prohibition, even though drug prohibition is, in the final analysis, morally wrong. Whaaa…?

This was the hardest part of Kant’s philosophy (or Adam Smith’s too, actually) for my intro political philosophy students at Buffalo to swallow. And it may be hard for you too, dear reader. Can we make sense of it in such a way that does not lead to absurd conclusions like, “It would be morally wrong for Hitler not to have commanded the Holocaust”?

Reading Jerry Gaus’ Order of Public Reason has helped me to sort out this difficult problem. (He’s drawing heavily on P.F. Strawson here, whose work I had not previously read.) From page 253:

The reasons you have must be accessible to you, and as a real rational agent in a world in which cognitive activity has significant costs, rationality does not demand one keep on with the quest to discover less and less accessible reasons. . . [E]xpert advice and the growth of social knowledge allows increasingly sophisticated and complex conclusions to be accessible as reasons to all with simply an adequate amount of deliberation. Think about all the reasons to believe and act that one has after twenty minutes on WebMD.

To have a reason to act in a certain way requires that reason to be cognitively accessible to you. You are not to blame for failing to act on very subtle reasons that only specialists could know and of which you are justifiably unaware. Then there’s this on page 254:

[T]he practice of morality is not an elite practice such as physics or moral philosophy, but a basic human practice in which all adults who have grasped the Principle of Moral Autonomy are competent. We cannot ascribe to moral agents reason to accept infinite utility calculations, the noumenal self, or the original position. These may be elements of philosophical theories that explain or further justify people’s moral reasons, and the philosophers who advocate them may argue that they are in some way the upshot of what normal moral agents do believe, but they are the result of specialist constructions based on long deliberations, and even their teaching is difficult.

Again, having the wrong moral theory is not blameworthy. Ordinary people can be expected only to act according to their good-faith understandings of their moral duties, having done a “respectable (more…)

Read Full Post »

Martin Luther King, Jr’s “Letter from Birmingham City Jail” remains one of my all-time favorite works of 20th century political philosophy. The moral foundation of the letter is essentially Lockean and Kantian. Those of you who have not yet read it are doing yourselves a disservice by not doing so now. Favorite passage:

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. . .

We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. . . [T]here are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,019 other followers

%d bloggers like this: