Posts Tagged ‘Libertarianism’

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.

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You have to admire the sheer gall of a man who defends compulsory national service on libertarian grounds. Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry does so in this month’s Cato Unbound. What really got my attention was this bit:

Libertarians think it’s legitimate for the state to use violence to take people’s money. If you don’t think taxation is legitimate, you are an anarchist, not a libertarian.

Well, military service is a form of in-kind taxation. Money is time. That’s what it is. When I buy a loaf of bread, I exchange a little bit of my time for a little bit of the baker’s time.

Perhaps it’s only legitimate for the state to take our time in the form of money and not in its original form, but we know that it’s not true.

Oh really?! When libertarianism really emerged as a distinct political force in the 1970s, it was thought that libertarianism excluded taxation that was not consented to (so homeowners’ association fees would be fine, for instance). The Libertarian Party platform long called for the abolition of taxation (and may still). Indeed, Robert Nozick argued that taxation is wrong for the same reason that slavery (“compulsory service”) is wrong. (Not, note, that taxation is morally equivalent to slavery or a species of slavery.) Gobry seems to accept Nozick’s claim that if slavery is always wrong, taxation is also always wrong, but by denying the consequent, is able to deny the antecedent.

But the bottom line is that you don’t have to be an anarchist to think that non-consented-to taxation is always impermissible.

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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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Over at Bleeding Heart Libertarians, there have been some interesting posts recently on moralized and non-moralized conceptions of freedom. Jason Brennan says defining liberty to mean only negative liberty is “linguistic revisionism” without philosophic import. He then makes the case that bleeding-heart libertarianism (or Rawlsianism or various other non-traditionally-libertarian conceptions of property rights) does not necessarily violate the “non-aggression axiom.” Finally, he argues against moralized conceptions of freedom. I agree with the first two posts but not the last one.

It’s true that people use “freedom” to mean different things. Hobbes infamously defined it as the absence of physical constraint. Jason prefers something like “ability to realize one’s ends.” Both of these definitions are non-moralized. As Jason makes clear, positive liberty is not only not good by definition, it is not always good. My freedom to swing my fist into your nose unprovoked does not deserve respect — but it’s still freedom, in this non-moralized sense.

Now, Jason is absolutely right that nothing substantive turns on how we define our terms. He’s also right that simply defining freedom as justice (that which is, in the final analysis, right) abuses ordinary language and is tautological. On the other hand, I will note a tension between the claim that positive liberty is not always good and this claim:

The thing that Marxists and others mean by “positive liberty” is valuable and worth promoting. One of the best arguments for classical liberal institutions is that as a matter of fact they do a good job getting people positive liberty.

But if positive liberty is not only not good-by-definition but is also not good-by-inference, then the mere fact that a system tends to promote positive liberty is not a point in that system’s favor. The fact that system X makes it easy for people to swing their fists into other people’s faces whenever they want, thus helping them achieve their ends, is not a point in favor of the justice of system X. Now, the claim might be that swinging fists into people’s faces hurts the positive liberty of those victims, and I agree — but I don’t agree that we can simply sum up positive liberties across people and truthfully say that everyone ought to try to maximize that sum. That’s a controversial moral claim. Indeed, Matt Zwolinski refutes the view strongly here, and even says, “No serious libertarian intellectuals think about libertarianism in terms of maximizing liberty.” I don’t know how this statement squares with what Jason says he and David Schmidtz are arguing about how we ought to evaluate the regime of negative liberty.

Furthermore, I don’t think we can rule out all moralized conceptions of freedom as tautological. People in ordinary language use freedom in a moralized but non-tautological sense all the time. When someone says, “I can say what I want, it’s a free country,” she’s not saying, “It’s a country where I can realize my ends.” She’s saying something like, “In this country, we are not supposed to be subject to the arbitrary domination of others’ wills.” Freedom as non-domination means a great deal to people, arguably more than the mere ability to realize one’s own ends. The reason slavery is so repugnant is not really that it makes the slave unhappy, but that it enshrines an extreme form of inequality and domination. (I’m making a substantive, controversial moral claim here.)

But freedom as non-domination is also not the whole of justice. Marxists like G.A. Cohen arguably accept non-domination just as much as libertarian anarchists like Murray Rothbard. They just disagree about the proper conception of property rights, which also belongs to the domain of justice. Now, if you are persuaded about the libertarian account of property rights, then a Marxist regime imposed without consent looks like unjust domination, un-freedom. Still, even if we read back into “freedom” claims about justice, freedom-as-non-domination is not tautological: it doesn’t simply define freedom as justice. Yet it is a moralized conception of freedom common in everyday discourse.


Jason Brennan responds by e-mail:

Thanks for posting that. Does this clear up things?

1. I don’t literally mean that positive liberty is always good, but rather that it tends to be good and tends to be worth promoting. Schmidtz and I talk at some length in BHOL about how there’s not clear measure of positive liberty, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make good estimates. If people are living longer, have more options, have more money, have more technology, etc, they will usually have more positive liberty.

2. I prefer to use non-moralized definitions of liberty: Neg lib = absence of obstacles, pos lib = power or capacity. But Schmidtz and I note that in common language, we often mean much more specific ideas when we use the terms “liberty” or “freedom”. If someone says, “X is a free country,” we assume she means they protect a wide range of negative liberties. My raise gave me the freedom to enjoy life, we assume she means positive liberty as capacity/power. And so on.

Schmidtz and I would agree with Matt Z and Nozick that negative rights are side constraints–we shouldn’t have a utilitarianism of rights. But negative and positive liberty are different. Negative liberty first and foremost should be respected, and then promoted. Positive liberty is to be promoted (when it’s good, and if doing so is consistent with our rights).

My response to Jason:

Thanks for the response. It clarifies a great deal. I clearly misread your position on positive freedom. I can’t quarrel with your description of the conceptual landscape below. Substantively, too, we’re not far apart, though I don’t think it’s generally morally impermissible to refrain from promoting the positive liberty of humanity in general (for instance, in order to focus on one’s own life projects).

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In case you haven’t heard, libertarians on the ‘Net have been having another one of those more-heating-than-enlightening internecine debates, this one sparked by a video by Julie Borowski on why there aren’t more libertarian women. Sarah Skwire and Steve Horwitz responded on Bleeding Heart Libertarians, accusing Ms. Borowski of “slut shaming” and generally denigrating women by assailing the consumerism and sex obsessions of certain women’s magazines. Tom Woods slapped back in defense of the original video, and Cathy Reisenwitz made a video response celebrating “sex, butts, and orgasms” as part and parcel of libertarianism (HT: Spatial Orientation).

When will libertarians learn that “libertinism” (do whatever you want so long as you don’t hurt anyone else, whether shooting up heroin or engaging in casual sex) is not in any way logically implied by “libertarianism,” a political theory of robust individual rights and a limited state? Supporting adults’ right to engage in casual, recreational, voluntary sex has precisely nothing to do with judging that behavior to be wise or even morally justified. Libertinism implies sexual libertarianism, but the converse is false.

In addition, castigating supporters of traditional sexual mores as “slut shamers” (whatever that means) seems no more likely to win converts to libertarianism than was Ms. Borowski’s generalization that women are captives to popular culture.

Libertarians, just like everyone else, can and should debate the ethics and prudential value of sexual relationships of various kinds — and for what it’s worth, my views are probably more liberal than Ms. Borowski’s on those questions — but they must not denigrate those who disagree as themselves morally suspect.

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They’re riding high in the polls, passing the Liberal Democrats in some of them, but is the United Kingdom Independence Party philosophically libertarian? Alex Massie says no. Ed West says yes.

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At Bleeding Heart Libertarians, Kevin Vallier has an interesting piece on the failure of “Enlightenment libertarianism” and the case for “post-Enlightenment libertarianism.” While I agree fully with Dr. Vallier’s critique of libertarian dogmatism in the Randian and Rothbardian modes, I have considerably more difficulty with the public-reason liberalism he associates with “post-Enlightenment” thinking.

You can’t prove a complete political or moral philosophy apodictically from self-evident axioms. That much is obvious. Somewhere along the way, you are going to have to make contestable assumptions. What Rand, Rothbard, and deductivist dogmatists of all stripes forget is a basic Humean (Enlightenment thinker!) humility about what reason is really good for. Reason helps us check whether arguments are valid, following inevitably from their premises, and whether premises are more or less likely to be true, by matching them against our observations of the external world or our internal moral compass (intuition). But any set of statements that is self-evidently or necessarily true is not going to have much substantive import or be widely applicable to the world we experience. The role of moral and political philosophy should therefore be to make clear the assumptions on which different normative judgments must rest and to assess the plausibility of those assumptions. Like any other political philosophy, libertarianism rests on contestable assumptions — ones I happen to regard as fairly plausible, but contestable nevertheless.

But what about “public reason” methodology — does that allow us a way out of the limitations inherent to intuition and deduction? As Dr. Vallier puts it: “The post-Enlightenment view still aspires to show that our diverse reasoning can lead us to converge on public principles that protect human freedom, but its aspirations are chastened. The fact of reasonable pluralism explains why many liberals have become public reason liberals, because treating others as free and equal requires admitting that the free use of practical reason leads in many different directions.”

As someone who occasionally reads contemporary political philosophy but is far from an expert, my novice’s take is that public-reason liberalism does not give us much purchase on controversial moral questions in Western societies. To the extent that public-reason philosophers are merely making modus vivendi, Augsburg-style arguments for liberalism, those arguments are potentially valuable as far as they go, but they cannot go far. Of course, public-reason theorists don’t think they are making mere modus vivendi arguments. But the more they diverge from mere modus vivendi argument (which has to be guided by empirical research, I might add), the more they tread into controversial moral territory of the “bad, old Enlightenment” rationality.

Take Rawls’ Political Liberalism for example. It’s been over a decade since I’ve read it, but I recall finding it far less persuasive than A Theory of Justice. Rawls, you change your methodology radically and just happen to end up reaching almost exactly the same conclusions (albeit with less scope for liberty)? Come on! There seem to be numerous controversial moral assumptions sneaked into his argument despite the overt concern for overlapping consensus among moral communities that radically disagree. Rawls’ theory of justice couldn’t even find overlapping consensus among the members of his own department.

So it seems to me we are stuck with the bad, old way of reasoning because there is no alternative. But certainly a little humility and open-mindedness are in order.

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Matt Zwolinski and John Tomasi have a thought-provoking piece entitled, “A Bleeding Heart History of Libertarianism,” in the latest Cato Unbound. They criticize postwar libertarians (specifically mentioning Mises, Rand, and Rothbard) for seeing property rights as absolute and, in their view, regarding the welfare of the working poor as irrelevant to moral justifications for capitalism:

In the remainder of this essay, we will discuss one particular way that neoclassical liberalism has a better grounding in the libertarian intellectual tradition than the libertarianism of Mises, Rand, and Rothbard. It is not the only contrast, but one of the clearest and most important differences between these two schools of libertarian thought has to do with the proper nature of concern for, and obligation to, the working poor. On this issue, the neoclassical liberal position is that the fate of the class who labor at the lowest end of the pay scale under capitalism is an essential element in the moral justification of that system. And this position, we will argue, has a far more solid grounding in the libertarian intellectual tradition than the justificatory indifference to which the postwar libertarians are committed.

They go on to cite John Locke, Adam Smith, and Herbert Spencer (yes, Spencer!) as classical liberals who would be more sympathetic to the neoclassical-liberal project of justifying markets partly on the basis of their consequences for the welfare of the least well off. However, they also argue, plausibly, that Rand and Rothbard in particular were not indifferent to the fate of the poor, simply that they viewed the coincidence of respect for individual property rights and a better life for all as a happy fortuity. (Mises was more of a consequentialist and perhaps after all a comfortable fit within neoclassical liberalism.)

I would stress that (more…)

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Political libertarians are a motley lot in terms of their moral philosophies. There are three dominant strands – utilitarians like Milton Friedman, deontologists like Robert Nozick, and teleologists like Ayn Rand – but I’ve also met egoists, postmodernists, and Rawls-style egalitarian consequentialists. In debates over moral foundations, Randians often ally themselves with the deontologists in support of “natural rights” (a bit of a misnomer, as deontologists prefer not to locate the source of rights in “nature” but in reason).

Critical Review editor Jeffrey Friedman, a utilitarian, used to say that rights libertarians are more dogmatic than utilitarians on questions of social science. He was extremely skeptical of the line of argument, commonly found in Rothbard, that libertarian policy X is justified on the grounds of both liberty and utility. What are the chances that the world just happens to line up in such a way that perfect justice and liberty also maximize social welfare in every instance? He calls himself a “post-libertarian” in part because he believes that the empirical evidence is unsettled as to the frontiers of the proper (i.e., utility-maximizing) roles of government. And he believes that it is a mark in favor of utilitarianism as a moral philosophy that rights libertarians are extremely reluctant to admit that any of their policy conclusions might not maximize social welfare.

Now, I would make several points in response. First, (more…)

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I agreed with the first half of Jessica Flanigan’s essay on “A Feminist Libertarian Dilemma,” but then nearly choked on my invisible coffee when I read this:

Bleeding heart libertarianism doesn’t rule out public policies that help women with families succeed in the workforce, like affordable public childcare, subsidized family leave, elder care, or a universal basic income.

So how exactly does bleeding-heart libertarianism differ from mushy-pated, Swedish-style social democracy?

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  • Libertarianism.org – Finally! A non-technical, one-stop shop for the major ideas in the philosophical tradition of liberty. Cato Institute project.
  • Governance Without a State: Policies and Politics in Areas of Limited Statehood (Columbia UP) – File under “order in anarchy.” Mostly European scholars giving somewhat different takes than you get with the UK-US “economics of anarchy” research. Nothing blindingly new to students of Olson, Ostrom, and Axelrod, and many of the contributions simply address political economy issues in developing countries, not “failed states” or “anarchies” strictly defined, but the chapters by Schuppert and Chojnacki & Branovic are worth reading.

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An owner who isn’t trying to rob the public treasury blind is a rarity in this day of pro sports.  Thus it was really nice to see Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban say this about a parade celebrating the Mavs’ win over the (hated, thanks to LBJ) Heat:

“We’ll do it,” Cuban said early Monday morning. “All I told them was — Terdema Ussery, our president — you plan the parade. I’ll pay for it because I don’t think it’s right for the city to have to pay for it. And let’s just have some fun.”

Unfortunately, we can only give the Mavs one cheer.  According to this aggregation of news stories on the arena, the place the Mavs play in was partially funded by coerced taxpayer money.  Specifically, Dallas taxes hotels and rental cars to help pay for this modern form of the Roman circus.  To partially defend Cuban, he was not the owner of the team when the stadium bill was passed.

Speaking of Cuban, he is a bit of a libertarian – so his stance on the parade fits quite nicely with his philosophical views.  I love when stated and revealed preferences match!  Here is what he said about government and politicians in 2007 (before he voted for President Obama – ouch!):

I’m not a Republican. I’m not a Democrat. Although I like to tell people I’m a Libertarian, I’m really not. I’m unaffiliated with any political party. In fact I can’t think of anything good that comes from political parties because they do just one thing, politics.

When I vote in any local or state election, I vote for the candidate who I think will do the least. Not the least of anything specific, just the least amount of everything. The perfect candidate for me would be one that would walk around kissing babies. I think we have enough state and federals. We have 200+ years of making local and state laws. That’s enough.

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In a few hours, polls open in the United Kingdom for local and devolved elections and for a referendum on moving to a new electoral system, Instant Runoff Voting, which Brits and Aussies insist on calling, undescriptively, “alternative vote” (AV). This referendum came about as a demand of the Liberal Democrats, who held the balance of power in the hung parliament elected last year. The Conservatives agreed to hold the referendum but have campaigned against it. The Lib Dems, for their part, prefer proportional representation with multi-member constituencies, but decided AV was better than nothing. (Lib Dem leader and deputy prime minister Nick Clegg is on record as having called AV a “miserable little compromise.”) The Labour Party is split on the reform.

Indeed, AV has many flaws. Compared to the plurality, single-member-district system used in the US, UK, and Canada currently (sometimes called, somewhat inaccurately, “first past the post”), it should at least get rid of the wasted vote problem, in which voters decide to vote for the lesser of two evils because their favored candidate cannot win. But it does so at the price of removing small third parties’ blackmail power. For instance, in the US a Libertarian would have no chance of winning, arguably even if AV were the electoral system. But at least under the current system, a Libertarian candidate can take away votes from a Republican (usually, but not always, Libertarians siphon more votes from Republicans than Democrats) and cause the Republican to lose a tight race. Therefore, Republicans at least occasionally have to pay lip service to Libertarian causes to keep those votes.

Within the UK context, AV would essentially mean a “permanent progressive majority” for the foreseeable future, since (more…)

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The dynamics of American conservatism are fascinating. As those who have read some of the key accounts (my recommendation remains George Nash’s The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America) remember the efforts of Frank Meyer to promote fusionism in the early 1960s, an effort that was reinforced by the existential threat posed by the USSR. One might argue (following Nash and others) that Reagan was a great fusionist figure who could appeal to various factions. Social conservatives loved his emphasis on traditional values. Neocons embraced his defense policy and rejection of détente. Libertarians were attracted by the promise of reducing the role of government, revivifying markets, and controlling regulatory sprawl. Even if we question (as I do) his long-term legacy, I remain impressed by Reagan’s capacity to be like St. Paul, all things to all men.

With Reagan’s passing from the scene and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the conservative movement seemed to enter an extended period in the wilderness. The War on Terror could never serve the same role as Cold War. While George W. Bush appealed to the neocons and (at least initially) to social conservatives, his breathless expansion of entitlements and the constraints placed on civil liberties via the War on Terror proved repellant to libertarians while Iraq and nation-building alienated paleocons.

There appears to be growing disunity among the factions that were once united, however temporarily, under the banner of fusionism. Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) is doing his best to mobilize social conservatives with his efforts to defund Planned Parenthood, much to the disquiet of fiscal conservatives who would rather not muddy the waters (and the 2012) elections with hot-button social issues. And while some high profile libertarians have received a good deal of attention on entitlements and defense spending cuts, there is little evidence that the GOP took them seriously enough to incorporate their ideas into the so-called Pledge to America.

A few months back, Grover Cleveland had some thought provoking posts of fusionism. Perhaps it is time to return to those debates and consider whether fusionism has a future. Is it possible in a world without a unifying figure like Reagan or an existential threat comparable to the Soviet Unions?

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To my knowledge, HB 569 is the first bill ever drafted and introduced in a legislature that would abolish government marriage licensing. The bill is the brainchild of libertarian Republican members of the New Hampshire state house. Currently, New Hampshire has same-sex marriage, but with the current Republican supermajority in both houses of the legislature, that policy is in serious jeopardy.

The libertarian position on marriage is that it is a contract that should be recognized and applied by the courts, but that the government has no business, in general, decreeing who may or may not make the contract or imposing any prior conditions, as licensure does. (There is a libertarian case against recognizing consensual adult incestuous relationships.)

While some conservatives are making positive noises about HB 569, it has come under harsh attack from the left. Check out this discussion at the shrill left-wing site bluehampshire.com if you have the stomach. Democrats are insisting that the bill “abolishes marriage,” because (more…)

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At AmCon, James Banks gives his take on the Christopher Beam piece in New York magazine on libertarianism. Like many other critics of the piece, Banks believes Beam focuses too much on the fringes of the movement. However, Banks still argues that libertarianism has inherent “limits”:

[I]t is still difficult to imagine a robust libertarian movement in the United States (at least in a form of which the Cato or Independent Institute would fully endorse). Libertarians might have the best ideas when it comes to the legalization of marijuana, the TSA, or the Federal Reserve. A central problems for libertarians is one of outreach rather than policy… The larger problem for libertarians, though, is more substantive: because they are so vigilant in their opposition to expansive government, libertarians often end up overemphasizing its significance. This mistake does not show up in their specific policy proposals, however, and thus libertarian institutions that emphasize policy over political activism fare better; libertarian politics, however, often end up embodied in initiatives like the Free State Project that have difficulty germinating into a mass movement.

It’s hard to know what to make of this critique, which I hear frequently from both left and right. Libertarians are politically inept, supposedly. In this variant, libertarians are good at making their case for specific policies, which certain politicians may pick up piecemeal, but they can’t create “mass movements.”

I think there are two things to say about this. First, political ineptness on the part of libertarians doesn’t have anything to do with the validity of the ideas. It’s unclear whether Banks himself makes this argument, but I have often heard variants of the argument: “You libertarians are just so far out of the mainstream; I can’t see how your views could possibly be right.”

Second, I question whether the lack of a libertarian “mass movement” is libertarians’ fault and whether libertarians really are all that politically inept. Libertarianism is still a relatively new ideology and by all accounts one of the most successful new ideologies in the U.S., other than perhaps the green movement (and I would argue that the green movement’s close alliance with standard-issue liberalism has set that movement back significantly). Breaking out of standard left-right thinking requires close attention to politics and, more importantly, political theory. That is not something that the vast majority of voters will ever undertake. Given the inherent limitations of a rationally ignorant electorate, libertarians actually seem to have outsize influence on public policy and electoral politics.

The example of the Free State Project helps make the point. The FSP was never intended to be a “mass movement” across the country as a whole. Rather, it was (is) aimed at highly self-conscious, activist libertarians who wanted to make a bigger political difference in their lifetimes. The FSP recruits these people to the state that the FSP membership has chosen, New Hampshire. The FSP actually doesn’t undertake any political activities in New Hampshire as an organization, but individual migrants do. And in fact we do see an emerging libertarian/classical liberal “mass movement” in New Hampshire. The NH Liberty Alliance is one of the most influential public-interest lobbies in the state, the NH Republican Liberty Caucus is one of the strongest state affiliates in the country and recently elected a state senator, at least a dozen self-consciously libertarian state representatives have been elected (that’s the tally of FSP movers alone) and one of them is now in state house leadership, and in a recent 2012 presidential poll 7% of NH Republicans and independents volunteered Ron Paul as their most likely choice, fifth out of the field, ahead of Pawlenty, Barbour, and Santorum. Is libertarianism the dominant ideology of New Hampshire? Of course not. But a strong movement exists. We shouldn’t expect most Americans to be activist libertarian ideologues, but then, we shouldn’t expect most Americans to be activist conservative, liberal, or green ideologues either.

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A principal tenet of libertarianism—perhaps even the first principle of libertarianism—is an injunction against initiating violence. Whatever else you do, you may not harm unwilling others. John Locke, John Stuart Mill, Herbert Spencer, Robert Nozick, and many others—I as wellhave all subscribed to some version of this principle as a starting point. 

Yet Adam Smith in The Theory of Moral Sentiments raises an interesting case that might suggest limited exceptions to the principle. Smith argues that resentment is the sentiment that underlies the proper condemnation of injustice: An injustice arouses resentment, and can properly lead one to take action against the injustice. At one point during his discussion of justified resentment, Smith writes:

Upon some occasions we are sensible that this passion [i.e., resentment], which is generally too strong, may likewise be too weak. We sometimes complain that a particular person shows too little spirit, and has too little sense of the injuries that have been done to him; and we are as ready to despise him for the defect, as to hate him for the excess of this passion. (TMS II.i.5.8)

Smith’s claim that people sometimes show “too little spirit” seems right to me. There are many occasions on which we might reasonably think that a person should have faced a challenge, should have confronted a bully, or should have risen to someone’s defense, and we judged the person negatively when he did not. Indeed, numerous sitcoms and movies have been built on this premise. One of my favorite classic movies, My Bodyguard, takes this lesson as its central theme, and we all cheer when the bullies are finally confronted. (Here is the climactic scene. I bet your heart swells too when Linderman finally takes on Mike and Clifford gives Moody what’s been long coming to him.)

This indicates the possible libertarian conundrum I have in mind: Sometimes people should confront bullies, and sometimes that requires, well, a punch in the nose. Proper resentment, in other words, can justify taking action against others. And this sometimes holds even when the “injustice” against which one is acting has not included physical violence. Sometimes just threats can justify a punch in the nose, and sometimes—under just the right circumstances—even mere words can.

President Andrew Jackson, for example, fought many duels to defend his wife’s honor. He had married Rachel before her prior marriage to an abusive man was finally complete, which meant that for a time their marriage was bigamous. Although the president and Rachel re-married after her divorce was completed, the fact that she was for a time technically married to two men was raised and used against President Jackson again and again. He would not stand for it when it was. If someone suggested that his wife was less than noble, he would ask the person to take it back—or meet him outside to settle the issue in the time-honored, gentlemanly way. President Jackson almost lost his life more than once defending his wife’s honor.

In these cases, President Jackson was acting in response only to words, not phyiscal violence or even the threat of physical violence. But wasn’t he right to do so? Wouldn’t we have judged him harshly had he not acted to defend his wife’s honor? This is a special case, but I think there might be a more general principle at work: Sometimes one should rise to defend another’s honor.

The news program “20/20″ has been airing a series of “What Would You Do?” segments in which they stage scenarios with actors in front of unsuspecting random people to see what they would do. In one segment, they have a man publicly and loudly berating a woman (both are actors). The man does not assault her, but he gets in her face and shouts derogatory and demeaning things. What do passersby do? What should they do? Some act and some do not, but everyone seems to believe that one should do something. Exactly what one should do depends on a lot of factors, but I suggest that there are easily-imagined scenarios in which what a passerby should do is punch the man in the nose.

One more thought, this one even more speculative. In most places in America today, physical violence of any kind is frowned upon as indicative of an earlier, unenlightened, more barbaric age. Yet I wonder whether the fact that people know with a high degree of certainty that they will get no punch in the nose no matter what they say has not contributed to the general coarsening of manners. People today may say the vilest things with relative impunity, and so increasingly more of them do. If, by contrast, they knew they ran a real risk of the punch in the nose if they used coarse language or manners publicly, might that not act as a disincentive to do so—and a greater disincentive than the mere risk of having another use vile language aimed at oneself?

I am not suggesting, then, we should all begin punching one another in the nose. But I am suggesting that showing “too little spirit” can indeed be a vice, and moreover that there are times when a punch in the nose might be just what a situation calls for.


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Ron Paul has stepped into the continuing saga of the “ground zero mosque” with what seems to me to be a reasonable statement, albeit one that will not earn him too many friends on the Right.

Congressman Paul reduces things to their essentials:

The debate should have provided the conservative defenders of property rights with a perfect example of how the right to own property also protects the 1st Amendment rights of assembly and religion by supporting the building of the mosque.

The statement includes a direct shot at the Right and the Left

Conservatives are once again, unfortunately, failing to defend private property rights, a policy we claim to cherish. In addition conservatives missed a chance to challenge the hypocrisy of the left which now claims they defend property rights of Muslims, yet rarely if ever, the property rights of American private businesses.

Defending the controversial use of property should be no more difficult than defending the 1st Amendment principle of defending controversial speech. But many conservatives and liberals do not want to diminish the hatred for Islam–the driving emotion that keeps us in the wars in the Middle East and Central Asia.

Paul has little patience for the “sunshine patriots on both the right and the left who are all for freedom, as long as there’s no controversy and nobody is offended. The list of “sunshine patriots” now includes one Rand Paul, who hopes to become the Senator from Kentucky.

Is Ron Paul correct on this issue? From a libertarian perspective, it would appear that one could reach no other conclusion.  Or am I missing something?

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In 2008, Harvard Economist Jeffrey Frankel made sense of Hank Paulson’s response to the financial collapse by noting: “They say there are no atheists in a foxhole. Well, there are no libertarians in a financial crisis, either.”

One can question whether the first aphorism should lead one to eschew atheism or foxholes.  But Frankel, nonetheless, has a point. Many pundits who had celebrated the marvels of markets during good times found themselves stipulating (1) markets fail, and (2) when they do, there is a justification for a muscular state role. Whether this foxhole conversion is justified is itself an interesting question. But I would like to turn to a larger question: is the success of libertarianism, at least in its contemporary guise, dependent on good economic times?

Yes, I know there were examples of committed libertarians during the Great Depression (Nock comes instantly to mind). But in the postwar period, there has been a dramatic increase in the level of government spending both in terms of GDP and—far more strikingly—in terms of per capita spending. The state assumed an ever greater role in subsidizing individual consumption (often in relatively invisible ways via tax expenditures).  Pundits could speak of a Republican revolution, but they would have to note that the rugged individuals that populated Reagan’s and Bush’s American enjoyed a level of public benefits that were a multiple of what was made available in the Roosevelt-Johnson-Carter administrations they vilified.

A few years ago—before the financial crisis took hold—there was a scattering of publications by libertarians that seemed to make the following argument, albeit at times only implicitly.

(1). We have greater material abundance than ever before

(2). Greater material abundance means far more consumption options

(3). Having greater consumption options is an important part of having greater freedom

Hence, we have never been freer—we have never had more liberty—than today.

Yes, consumption options are good and yes, having more things is better than having fewer things. But I am not certain that there isn’t a slight of hand here. I would argue that the years 2000-2007 did provide greater consumption options. But, at the same time, I would argue that there was a diminution of liberty thanks, in large part, to the neocon war party and the steps it was willing to take to advance domestic security. The state expanded, the debt grew, individual liberties were sacrificed…but we could buy all kinds of cool stuff on the web.

If liberty is simply another name for social permissiveness combined with maximum consumption options, we could afford to be libertarians, or at least convince ourselves that we were libertarians. So as I sit in an airport typing away on my MacBook and enjoying free wireless, I would like to offer some questions to ponder on this fine July weekend:

Is contemporary libertarianism dependent on prosperity?

If so, will the dire economic conditions and fiscal challenges of the next several decades force a return to an older form of libertarianism?

If so, will this paleo-libertarianism be attractive to a population that has equated liberty with boundless consumption?

Grover has promised to unveil a series of postings on some of the internal tensions of libertarianism. This would seem to be one well worth exploring.

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Our esteemed ringleader Mr. Cleveland has prodded me to do a post on “children’s rights,” following last week’s discussion of abortion. My musings here are largely based on a paper (PDF) I did a number of years ago.

What do parents owe their children? And may these obligations be legally enforced? Most of us rightly think that children are unlike adults in two ways. First, children have a right to positive provision that adults may not enjoy. Parents have a duty (that ought to be legally enforced) to provide for their children’s basic welfare. Allowing your child to starve or expelling it into the street like a trespasser is both morally wrong and punishable. Second, parents (and perhaps the state) enjoy the right and indeed obligation to treat their children paternalistically in order to guide their development to full rationality. They have the duty and therefore right (“ought” implies “may”) to prevent their children from, e.g., taking harmful drugs or having sex before the age of maturity. Libertarians would certainly say that no one has the right to prevent sane adults from doing these things. So how do we justify this moral distinction between children and adults?

Rights are correlative with obligations. So if children have a right to provision, parents have a duty to provide it. But to whom? Are parents’ duties actually to their children as such? Ordinarily, we think of rights as alienable, i.e., you can waive them if you want. But children don’t have the ability to consent to waiving their rights. So there’s still something a bit weird here. And what about parents’ duty/right to treat children paternalistically? Do children have a duty to obey their parents?

My answer is no, children do not have a duty to obey their parents. First, many children are too young to understand moral duties, so clearly they can have no moral duties. Second, children did not consent to being born or to living in the family in which they find themselves. So how can you acquire a positive obligation to obey someone else if you never did anything positive to assume such an obligation? And how could such an obligation, if it exists, suddenly disappear at maturity?

I would argue that children have rights in virtue of the rationality they will eventually enjoy. If raised tolerably well, children will grow into fully rational, capable adults with the regular panoply of natural rights.(*) Children as children may not know what their best interests are, but as adults they will. If those interests are compromised, it is ultimately the mature, self-aware adult who suffers. (The transition from childhood to maturity is gradual and continuous, but I’m using binary categories here for clarity.)

Parents have a duty to promote the development of their children into rational, capable adults. Depriving them of the necessities of life and of intellectual development violates their children’s rights. Moreover, parents have a duty to try to protect their children from their own harmful behaviors, and any positive action that anyone else may undertake to harm a child’s basic interests is wrong. On this basis, it is appropriate for a government to enforce “age of consent” laws for sex, drugs, etc. to prevent harms accruing to children who don’t know any better, and to buttress the parents’ right to safeguard their children’s development. The children may not realize any harm now, but the self-aware adults who they will become will.(**)

That selfsame respect for the rationality of a person that requires us to treat children paternalistically requires us to treat adults nonpaternalistically. Libertarianism, as a distinctive moral philosophy of natural rights, only makes sense if we draw clear distinctions among rational persons, not-yet-rational persons, and nonrational nonpersons. Treating adults paternalistically is wrong precisely because it is like treating them like children, the not-yet-rational. It disrespects them as persons. Utilitarianism, by contrast, makes no distinctions on the basis of rationality: both children and adults may be treated paternalistically. As a matter of practice, children probably require more paternalistic treatment than adults, but whenever adults tend to make systematic errors about their own interests, it’s appropriate on utilitarian grounds for others (the government) to “nudge” them in the right direction – libertarians reject this view. In the end, then, what seemed like a paradox for libertarianism – different rights for adults and children – turns out to be essential to the core of the philosophy.

(*)It may be argued that normal adults aren’t rational all the time. But what I mean by “rational” here is that a person has the capability for logical reflection and comprehension of moral rights and duties. This doesn’t mean that the capability is always exercised.

(**)Ages of consent are admittedly arbitrary, and there may be some children below the age of consent who are mature enough to make rational decisions about the prohibited behaviors. Ideally, I would favor a high age of consent to protect the rights of even “late bloomers,” along with a judicial emancipation procedure that would allow people below the age of consent to acquire some or all of the rights of maturity.


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This is the first installment in a series on the tensions within both libertarian thought and the libertarian movement.  Today I will focus on abortion – though, as I will explain below, this might seem an odd choice of topics for this series if you spend a lot of time around many movement libertarians.


Listening to or reading the works of many movement libertarians, you would think that there was an unambiguous libertarian position on abortion.  Namely, that libertarians are by definition pro-choice.  Indeed, I have been told repeatedly by such libertarians that “we”  have to be against laws restricting the ability of women to seek an abortion.  More frequently, this position is just assumed during any conversation that touches the subject.

Thus it was with no surprise that I read Michael Moynihan, on Reason magazine’s website, recently stating unequivocally:  “I have very libertarian views on abortion”  (I’m not picking on Moynihan, he just provided the umpteenth example of such talk by movement libertarians).*  As it is clear here, Moynihan and others who say such things believe that there is a libertarian stance on the subject – on par with the libertarian view on, say, forced enslavement or income tax withholding (just joking about that last one — and btw, thanks Uncle Miltie for that “innovation”!).   

This represents either a serious misunderstanding of libertarianism or an overly broad conception of it that goes beyond politics.  Libertarianism – in the “statist” way I define it - is not opposed to any law restricting what an individual can do.  Properly understood, it is a thin political theory that sanctions only those laws that relate to the fundamental protection of an individual’s property rights, broadly understood (either because individuals have natural rights or because of a rule-utilitarian position that generates such rights). 

Therefore, in the area of abortion, all hangs on the definition of when life begins, whether an unborn child/fetus has rights or when it gains them, and therefore when a life warrants protection by the state.  As a limited theory of politics, libertarianism cannot answer these questions and thus really has little to say on its own about whether abortion should be legal or illegal.  We as individual libertarians can only answer these questions by importing exogenous ethical or scientific theories.   

Therefore, libertarianism is properly ecumenical on abortion.  While this is admittedly too black and white, one could argue that if you think life exists/rights inhere at conception, as a libertarian you should favor at least some level of government protecting the rights of the unborn.  If you think life exists/rights inhere at birth, as a libertarian you should be opposed to laws restricting acccess to abortion.  But both arguments are good libertarian arguments once you import your understanding of when an individual life begins/gains rights.  And thus we should not be surprised that there are libertarians on both sides of the issue.  So while the Reason crowd seems to be more pro-choice, Ron Paul is pro-life and there is a group called Libertarians for Life.  However, pro-lifers are underrepresented among movement libertarians in my experience.

So please stop saying that there is a libertarian position on abortion – whether you are pro-life or pro-choice, pro-abortion or anti-choice, or anything else for that matter.   

*  And you’ll see by the comments on Moynihan’s post that non-movement libertarians frequently disagree.

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I just returned from the seventh annual Porcupine Freedom Festival in Lancaster, N.H. (see the Daily Caller profile here). PorcFest is the annual summer event of the Free State Project (the New Hampshire Liberty Forum is the FSP’s winter event). Unlike the Liberty Forum, the emphasis at PorcFest is on community building and socializing rather than speakers and formal discussions, but there are a few speakers every year. This year, Gary Johnson, former governor of New Mexico and founder of the Our America Initiative, was the concluding speaker. For the anti-political anarchists, there were also speakers like podcaster-author Stefan Molyneux and tax rebel Larken Rose. Radio host Ernie Hancock, who invented the “Ron Paul Revolution” logo, was also there.

PorcFest 2010 ComicThere’s a good bit of speculation around Gary Johnson as the possible “Ron Paul of 2012.” A libertarian-leaning Republican, Johnson vetoed 750 bills as governor (not counting line-item vetoes), never raised taxes, favors withdrawing from Iraq and Afghanistan, and advocates the legalization of marijuana. Unfortunately, his name recognition in the general population is very low, and he hasn’t cultivated as many constituencies as Paul, such as the John Birch Society. However, he does not suffer from some of the drawbacks that Paul did, such as the quirky advocacy of the gold standard and the “blowback” theory of 9/11 that gave him such trouble in the debates. (For what it’s worth, I agree with both Paul’s position that the government should withdraw more or less entirely from currency and banking markets and the argument that U.S. foreign policy was one of the causes of bin Laden’s attacks on the U.S.) As a speaker, Johnson might not be considered “dynamic,” but he is more direct and to-the-point than Paul, who tends to wax philosophical (not that there’s anything wrong with that). His personality is easy-going and straightforward, unlike most politicians I’ve met, who as a class lean rather toward “blowhard.”

I also spoke with a reporter from The New Republic, who asked me mostly about Johnson’s fanbase in the libertarian campoutgroup and chances in New Hampshire should he decide to run in 2012. If Johnson were to run, I think he would enjoy near-unanimous support among Free Staters who engage the political process, just as Paul did. Now, Paul has been around a lot longer, and it’s difficult to imagine that Johnson would enjoy quite the sheer enthusiasm and cult following that Paul did – but with Ron Paul’s blessing and full-throated support, he should be able to do just as well in raising money. If, as I suspect, he also does better among mainstream Republicans, he could do pretty well in terms of vote share. He has two terms of executive experience, unlike Paul and many other potential candidates for the nomination, and the party should be in a relatively libertarian mood by then. Tea Party types are politically homeless right now; while they tend to support either Sarah Palin or Ron Paul, there’s also a consensus among conservatives that neither of these would be an effective candidate in the general election. Johnson could expect to receive vociferous attacks from neoconservatives and hawks in general, but my sense is that their standing in the Republican base has declined. By 2012, Afghanistan and Iraq will be firmly Obama’s wars, and if both wars are still ongoing then (a fairly good bet), then many more libertarians who initially supported Afghanistan (like myself), will turn quite a bit more skeptical.

Turning to the title of this post, I’ll mention a few things about the state of play in New Hampshire. By reports that I’ve gotten, 27 or 2821-28 Free Staters are running for state office this year, including the four who won last time. (By “Free Staters” I’m referring purely to people who have moved to New Hampshire from elsewhere; there are many more local allies in and seeking office.) Most of them are running as Republicans, but several as Democrats. The feeling among most political observers is that Republicans are favored to take back both houses of the legislature. The conservative Democratic governor, John Lynch, is also looking vulnerable for the first time since his election in 2004. Republican candidate Jack Kimball (one of several) gave a short speech at PorcFest; he seems to be a down-the-line conservative, but the issues he emphasized were 10th Amendment state sovereignty and strong support for the 2nd Amendment. Lynch has also been primaried by a very strongly liberal representative, Tim Robertson (several people of sober mind have characterized Robertson as “virtually a communist”), who is upset at Lynch’s veto of medical marijuana. Robertson has no chance in the primary, but his candidacy points up the cracks in the NH Dems’ base.

One interesting story cropped up on the newswires this past week that relates in more ways than one to the FSP. A husband and wife who are Houston Libertarian Party activists were harassed by police, in part because of a pill that dropped onto the seat (a prescription medication). In most states, you can be prosecuted for having any prescription medicine outside its original container unless a registered physician or nurse put it there (including those pill boxes!), and in some states it’s a felony. The linked story reports that the victims are considering moving to New Hampshire as part of the Free State Project. It turns out that this plan of theirs would make sense for more reasons than one. Representative Joel Winters, who moved from Florida, authored a bill that removed such penalties in New Hampshire, and it was passed by the legislature and signed into law. Just one example among many of policy changes that have happened in New Hampshire due to the work of Free Staters…


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In the third and final installment of this series (part 1 here, part 2 here), I investigate the truth of that hackneyed Margaret Mead quotation, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Is that really true when it comes to libertarians? To recap, in parts 1 and 2 of this series, I investigated whether votes for Ron Paul, per capita donations to Ron Paul, Libertarian presidential votes in 1996-2004, and Libertarian presidential votes in 2008 all correlate together at the state level. If they do consistently track together across the states, that fact implies that there is some underlying factor explaining all of them. It turns out that they do correlate together rather strongly, and I interpret the extracted common factor as the size of the liberty bloc in each state. So the question is – does this liberty bloc have any real influence on politics, or does its minority status doom it to irrelevance?

To test the political influence of libertarians, I model state respect for individual freedom as a function of libertarian constituency, liberal constituency, political institutions, and some demographic controls. In short, I’m trying to find out whether states with more libertarians are freer. The standard and most plausible way to interpret a correlation between state ideology and policy is causal: libertarians influence the political process in their states. It is also possible that libertarians tend to move to states that are freer to begin with, but most of us are not that footloose. Many of us end up stuck in places like New York. (Cough.)

The dependent variable in this regression model is state-level freedom, including both economic and personal freedom, as measured by the “Ruger-Sorens Index” (RSI) in our study “Freedom in the 50 States.” However, I’m going to use the latest and greatest data that haven’t been published yet (next version of the study coming out in January). This is the regression equation:

“Unionization” is the percentage of workers covered by collective bargaining contracts in 1977 (I chose an early year because freedom can have reciprocal effects on unionization), “PctBlack” is the percentage of the state population that is black (the reason for including this variable is to capture well-known “racial threat” dynamics, whereby whites in states that have larger black populations are more racist), and “LegProf” is legislative professionalism, a technical term for how similar a state legislature is to Congress in terms of salary, staff, and session length. I expect states with more union members and racists to be less free, and states with well-paid legislators, large legislative staffs, and long sessions to be less free. Both the “liberal” and “libertarian” variables (defined in part 2 of this series) have been rescaled from 0 to 1.

Here are the results:

Regression with robust standard errors                 Number of obs =      50
F(  6,    43) =   23.16
Prob > F      =  0.0000
R-squared     =  0.7344
Root MSE      =  .11918

|               Robust
freedom     |      Coef.   Std. Err.      t    P>|t|     [95% Conf. Interval]
libertarian |   .1731908   .0760284     2.28   0.028     .0198649    .3265167
liberal     |   .5440847   .2185759     2.49   0.017     .1032845    .9848849
liberalsq   |  -.8819435   .1994393    -4.42   0.000    -1.284151   -.4797358
union77     |   -.010695   .0028045    -3.81   0.000    -.0163508   -.0050391
estbkpct    |  -.0055999   .0019713    -2.84   0.007    -.0095754   -.0016244
legprof     |    -.37702   .1805852    -2.09   0.043    -.7412048   -.0128351
_cons       |   .9625205   .0842816    11.42   0.000     .7925504    1.132491

All my hypotheses are confirmed, and most interestingly, we see that states with more libertarians are freer. The effect of liberalism on freedom is less clear from a quick look at the table, so a plot will be more effective. Here is how liberalism affects freedom, when all other variables are set to their means:

So a little bit of liberalism might help, but a lot really hurts. Incidentally, I also tried including urbanization rate and percentage religious/Christian/evangelical, but none of those variables had any effect on freedom. The common perception among libertarians that more urbanized areas are less free is simply not true, once you control for things like unionization and liberal ideology.

To conclude, then, libertarians do make a difference, though not as much as liberals and conservatives make. If Idaho had only as many libertarians as Illinois, it would no longer be the fifth-freest state in the country; instead, it would be only about as free as Florida, Iowa, or North Dakota, slotting in at #11. If it had only as many libertarians as the least libertarian state, Mississippi, Idaho would be very close to Utah, around #20.


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David Bernstein has an eminently reasonable take on private-sector anti-discrimination law over at Cato Unbound. Excerpt:

[T]o say the least, segregation and exclusion of African Americans in public places in the South wasn’t entirely a voluntary choice of business owners.  Jim Crow segregation involved the equivalent of a white supremacist cartel.  The cartel was enforced not just by overt government regulation like segregation laws, but also by the implicit threat of private violence and extra-legal harassment of anyone who challenged the racist status quo.  This violence and extra-legal harassment was often undertaken with the approval of local officials; the latter, in fact, were often the perpetrators.

To break the southern Jim Crow cartel there were two options: (1) a federal law invalidating Jim Crow laws, along with a massive federal takeover of local government to prevent violence and threats against, and extralegal harassment of, those who chose to integrate; or (2) a federal law banning discrimination by private parties, so that threats of violence and harassment would generally be met with an appeal to the potential victim’s obligation to obey federal law.  The former option was arguably more appealing from a libertarian perspective, but it was completely impractical.

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This post is the first part of a Nate Silver-esque miniseries of posts reporting the results of statistical analysis on a macropolitics topic: the size of the “liberty constituency” in each state. Essentially, what I’m trying to estimate here is the relative percentage of the voting population in each state that would consistently prefer libertarian candidates. It’s similar to what David Boaz and David Kirby have done to estimate the “libertarian vote” nationally, but the main differences are that a) I am ranking states, not giving an absolute percentage for the nation as a whole; and b) the numbers are based on actual voting and donation behavior, rather than responses to questions about issue positions.

Readers should be careful not to interpret these results as giving a ranking of the “most libertarian states.” Any such designation would have to be based on an examination of the entire ideological distribution of voters. We cannot assume identical distributions in each state. To take an extreme example, imagine a state composed of 20% hardcore anarcho-capitalists and 80% stark raving Hitler lovers. Would this be a more or less libertarian state than one comprised of 15% moderate libertarians, 15% populists, 35% conservatives, and 35% liberals? Probably less. I’m only measuring the proportions of libertarians in each state.

The three indicators I will use are: vote percentage for libertarian candidates in the 2008 presidential general election (Bob Barr, Ron Paul in Louisiana only (where he was on the ballot), and George Phillies in New Hampshire (where he was on the ballot)); per capita donors to the Ron Paul presidential campaign (from ronpaulgraphs.com); and “adjusted” percentage vote for Ron Paul in the 2008 presidential primaries. Of course, many if not most libertarians did not vote for or donate to any of these candidates. However, the size of the libertarian constituency in each state should correlate strongly with the percentage of voters that did. That’s all we need to come up with a relative ranking of states on size of libertarian constituency.

The first step I want to take is to adjust Ron Paul’s 2008 primary results for state institutional context. Some states have caucuses or conventions rather than primaries, and of course these elections took place at different points in the electoral cycle. Ron Paul did much better in caucuses and conventions than primaries, because his supporters were particularly motivated compared to the rest of the Republican field. He also did better when turnout was lower. Two states that held conventions, Hawaii and Wyoming, do not have results available. If a state held both caucuses/conventions and a primary, I use the primary results.

I took the log of Ron Paul’s percentage of the vote in each state (plus D.C.) and regressed it on an estimate of turnout (total votes cast divided by population – an ideal denominator would be registered voters, but that would be difficult to acquire for all 50 states, and it should make very little difference to the results), a dummy variable for caucus/convention, a dummy variable for whether the election was held after McCain clinched, and the log of the number of candidates in the race. (Taking the log of the dependent variable is necessary to make it impossible for predicted vote share to fall below zero and to ensure normality. I also tested for heteroskedasticity in this regression and found no evidence of it.) These are the results:

lnrp     |      Coef.   Std. Err.      t    P>|t|     [95% Conf. Interval]
turnout  |  -.0070837   .0221658    -0.32   0.751     -.051756    .0375885
caucus   |   1.060498   .1955968     5.42   0.000     .6662991    1.454698
clinched |   .6133622   .1627105     3.77   0.000     .2854407    .9412838
lncand   |  -.2069483   .1333964    -1.55   0.128     -.475791    .0618944
_cons    |   1.999169   .2588205     7.72   0.000     1.477551    2.520788

Controlling for everything else, turnout actually does not predict Ron Paul’s vote share, but the results demonstrate that Paul did much better in caucuses than primaries and after McCain had clinched – and perhaps when the number of candidates on the ballot was smaller, although this result is not quite statistically significant. These last two results suggest that Paul was a protest vote for some people, and/or that some rather pro-Paul voters ended up going for one of the other candidates when it might have made a difference, and an agreeable alternative candidate was in the race (for instance, some libertarians supported Fred Thompson and Rudy Giuliani).

Now that we have estimated the effects of electoral institutions, we can adjust Ron Paul’s vote shares in each state accordingly and come up with a prediction of just how “pro-Ron Paul” each state was. Let us assume that every state had the exact same electoral institutions: primary not caucus, pre-clinching, with 5 candidates in the race, and a turnout of 6.27%. These are the median values on each variable. An “average” state (right on the regression line) would be predicted to give Ron Paul 5.06% of the vote under these conditions. We can add to this each state’s residual from the regression above (and convert out of logarithms) to get the percentage of the vote that Ron Paul would have won in that state under these conditions.

Here are the results:

State Prediction
New Hampshire 11.19589
Idaho 10.77407
South Dakota 8.623769
Washington 8.184763
District of Columbia 7.824208
Montana 7.780539
Pennsylvania 7.763993
Michigan 7.200534
North Dakota 7.124513
Maine 6.846468
New York 6.721992
Maryland 6.68655
Oregon 6.681799
Vermont 6.418495
Louisiana 6.35258
California 6.294377
Tennessee 6.275179
New Mexico 6.256058
Rhode Island 6.05923
Nebraska 5.881125
Alaska 5.555577
Illinois 5.435824
Missouri 5.199485
Nevada 5.072649
Minnesota 5.00343
Arkansas 4.858305
New Jersey 4.845448
Virginia 4.657678
Wisconsin 4.583703
Texas 4.53022
Ohio 4.441385
Arizona 4.346241
South Carolina 4.294139
Delaware 4.239972
Oklahoma 4.010873
Connecticut 4.000432
Kansas 3.990187
Indiana 3.976637
Iowa 3.830344
Kentucky 3.772909
Florida 3.756037
North Carolina 3.704741
Georgia 3.390078
Utah 3.010131
Massachusetts 2.954111
West Virginia 2.91586
Alabama 2.855571
Colorado 2.666248
Mississippi 1.943739

New Hampshire and Idaho were the most pro-Ron Paul states, while Mississippi was the least. These results give us some insight into the composition of the Republican Party in each state. States with a more “establishment” bent, especially those in the South, gave fewer votes to Ron Paul, while states with more of an anti-Washington bent gave him more votes. Ron Paul’s good score in the District of Columbia helps demonstrate my point about ideological distributions. D.C. is a hostile place to libertarianism overall, but there is a small contingent of very politically aware libertarians there, and they made a noticeable mark on the (tiny) Republican primary there.

Of course, this is just one of three indicators I will use to compile an aggregate measure of size of the liberty constituency in each state. If there are some quirks in these data (I am surprised by how low Colorado scored), they should drop out when combined with other, independent measures of the concept. I will discuss how that can be done in Part 2 of the series.


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Libertarians tend to like political decentralization and the principle of subsidiarity (” do everything at the lowest feasible level”). The standard reasoning is that decentralization provides a check on government, especially when combined with mobility across jurisdictions. Thus, if one jurisdiction becomes too overbearing, people can flee to a more welcoming environment, and this possibility will actually prevent governments from running roughshod over their citizens’ liberties, for fear of losing their tax base. Dressed up in the language of rational-choice institutionalism, this is all Barry Weingast’s “market-preserving federalism” model really is.

I would like to posit that, under certain conditions, decentralization can in and of itself represent an increase in freedom, even if government does not shrink as a consequence (even if it grows!).

The argument

Why do radical libertarians think that taxation is theft? Presumably because taxation takes away citizens’ justly acquired property without their consent. But what if they did consent, e.g., through a social contract? Then taxation would be fine, so long as it is levied pursuant to the terms of the contract. But – “I didn’t sign no stinkin’ social contract!” Fair enough, neither have most people – and, eliding a long stream of philosophical argument, it ultimately seems clear that the arguments for empirical anarchism (“very few existing governments have a moral right to rule”) are compelling.

But could a government established illegitimately come to enjoy some legitimacy after a certain period, during which it has performed certain actions? Think about property entitlements. The long history of theft, extortion, and murder in human societies might seem to render virtually all property entitlements illegitimate. But then there are good reasons to think that the moral stain of illegitimate transfer eventually fades as the victims die out and the holdings are transferred justly to subsequent generations. Thus, property entitlements that are illegitimate in origin can eventually be “redeemed.”

In the same way, governments are generally not established by initial unanimous consent (the Mayflower Compact was an interesting historical exception). Therefore, they are morally illegitimate because they violate the rights of nonconsenters. But can governments eventually become legitimate through the establishment of consent? Clearly, no government (that I know of) has ever tried to obtain the signatures of all its citizens to a constitution after the fact. But surely, living under a government can, under some circumstances, convey consent. John Locke’s theory of tacit consent to government holds that “enjoying the dominions of a commonwealth” makes you morally subject to that government – you must obey its laws, or at least not interfere with their enforcement. This theory is inadequate when applied to national states, however, for their very size makes emigration impractical for most. It doesn’t really count as consent if you have no choice.

But what about a condominium association? Let’s suppose a CA was established improperly without all the proper signatures, but carried on governing. It was a morally illegitimate government at its founding. But if you continue to live there for a certain period of time without making a complaint, it seems fair to infer that you have consented to the arrangement. In these circumstances, tacit consent does seem to do some work. Why? Because a condominium association is so small, territorially, that it is easy to leave if you do not like it.

Now replace “condominium association” with “municipal government.” It is reasonably easy to move across municipal jurisdictions. I would venture to guess that there are many towns across the United States where, if all adults were surveyed, none of them would volunteer the belief that their municipal government is illegitimate and has no right to rule. In effect, these town governments enjoy unanimous consent to the basic contract (this does not mean, of course, that there is unanimous consent to every decision the local government makes – but all that matters for “right to rule” is unanimous consent to the basic procedures by which decisions are made).

So if radical libertarians were to go into a town like this and proclaim that resistance to local taxation is just, or that enforcement of ordinances against, say, houses of prostitution is wicked, they would be in the wrong. These policies would not necessarily be violating anyone’s rights, because everyone has consented to the town government’s right to make these decisions. (As an aside, libertarians would probably make more headway with their ideas if they openly acknowledged that local communities should have the right to zone out crack dealerships and brothels, thus cutting the legs out from under the easiest and most unfair reductios of libertarianism.)

In conclusion, decentralization, by placing political decisions in the hands of small-scale governments, can, under conditions of good mobility and respect for basic integrity of the person, inherently improve liberty. “Big government” at the local level need not be unjust, because it often enjoys the consent of the governed. Libertarians need not be complete anarchists, just radical decentralists.

UPDATE: In the comments, Mark LeBar poses a strong challenge to my view that really existing local governments enjoy a moral right to rule. In response, I concede that the right to rule is somewhat impeached by the lack of express consent, but maintain that what matters most is the contents of residents’ “choice sets,” i.e., their real ability to withhold or withdraw consent by moving. In practice, what an impeached right to rule may mean is that there are certain, very fundamental rights that citizens cannot give up except through express consent under conditions of a highly favorable choice set, while there are other rights that may reasonably be considered to be alienated simply through residence and absence of explicit dissent. Local governments would then enjoy a right to rule in the latter areas, but not the former. Levying low taxes might fit the latter category, while imprisoning private drug users might fit the former. This is admittedly a bit arbitrary & not totally satisfactory. Nevertheless, I don’t think I need the strong claim that local governments enjoy any kind of right to rule in order to make the weaker claim that limitations on freedom enacted by local governments are inherently less oppressive (if not totally non-oppressive) than the same limitations enacted by higher-level governments.

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There have been some remarkably interesting posts and comments as of late regarding libertarianism. Some of them emerged in various postings on Rand Paul. Damon Linker, for example, congratulated Jason on diverging from “absolute libertarian principles” and approvingly posted Bruce Barlett’s take on Rand Paul:

“I don’t believe Rand is a racist; I think he is a fool who is suffering from the foolish consistency syndrome that affects all libertarians. They believe that freedom consists of one thing and one thing only–freedom from governmental constraint. Therefore, it is illogical to them that any increase in government power could ever expand freedom.”

The consistency syndrome is, indeed, common. It may stem from the fact that libertarians rarely [never] carry the weight of political power. Rather than having to make concrete decisions about how to address a complex problem in real time with limited information, resource constraints, and blunt policy tools, they often have the luxury of working within the confines of thought experiments constructed of simplifying assumptions and freed from historical context.

Name a problem, I got a solution. It will begin as follows:

“Assume we have perfectly functioning markets and perfectly delineated property rights. Assume, furthermore, that individuals behave rationally. Then we can eliminate [fill in blank with social or economic problem of your choice].”

Alright. This is a lovely posture to strike among academics and in the classroom.

But now comes the hard part. We will never have perfectly functioning markets and we will never have perfectly delineated property rights. Human nature is fixed and flawed and there is little reason to expect that rationality will prevail relative to the passions. Moreover, we have vexing problems and social pathologies that have been created or exacerbated by a long history of poor policy decisions. There is no way to cut the Gordian knot. There is no way to return to the original position. There are massive issues of path-dependency.

We see these problems in the financial mess. We see these problems in the current debacle in the Gulf of Mexico (and we certainly saw it with Katrina). The persistence of intergenerational poverty and the looming entitlement crisis (ditto).

So here is the challenge: assuming that what I have said in the above paragraphs is correct, what is the role of libertarians? How can libertarians be mindful of not falling into the consistency syndrome while still offering something of value to the policy debates and political discourse more generally?

What can and cannot be compromised in this quest?

My fear is that libertarianism could [has] degenerate[d] into:

  1. A set of insular debates grounded in a set of simplifying assumptions shared by the “tinfoil hat” crowd (or the remnant, to be more positive) but of no real relevance to flesh-and-blood policy problems
  2. A way for those who are more conservative in their political orientations to remain hip among their liberal friends (Hey, I believe we should legalize drugs and prostitution! Gay marriage? The state should not marry anyone!]
  3. The limited insight that, given the option, markets are preferable to non-market solutions. Beyond that, one can still embrace the welfare-regulatory-entitlement state in all its glory.
  4. Mere muckraking.  Focusing attention on government incompetence without simultaneously offering viable alternatives that could be implemented under existing constraints.

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This post is simply meant to draw readers’ attention to the interesting conversation going on in the comment thread on the “Property and Serfdom” post below. Kyle Baxter asks:

If the original distribution is unjust (e.g. it depended on the violation of rights), but at some point just rules for trade were implemented (ones based on rights), does that make the resulting distributions increasingly just as you move away from the original distribution? That is, if 2009 is the “original” distribution date, but just rules are implemented in 2010, does 2020′s distribution become more just? 2030′s more so, and 2040′s even more just?

What implications do our answers to these questions have for our theory of property rights, and given a particular theory of property rights, for contemporary issues such as land reform and reparations?

And Mark Lebar makes the important point that emergency scenarios don’t necessarily show that rights aren’t absolute, merely that rights over tangible goods are bundles that can be apportioned differently in different circumstances.

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The distinguishing characteristic of classical liberalism from other liberalisms is its view of property rights. On the classical liberal account, a distribution of property is just if it is a consequence of just transfer, where transfer is generally just if and only if voluntary or appropriately compensatory for wrongs. As Nozick noted, this unpatterned, “side constraints” view of justice differs from the patterned, “end-state” view of justice found inAnarchy, State, and Utopia Rawls, for whom property should be redistributed as necessary to maximize the position of the “representative least advantaged person.”

Nozick did not address the issue of how property may legitimately be acquired in the first place. Locke believed that just acquisition occurred through “mixing one’s labor” with the earth. Locke also had a famous proviso, that just acquisition must leave “enough and as good” for others, to avoid waste. (However, at one point in the Second Treatise Locke seems to argue that the proviso becomes a dead letter once a society invents money.)

Nozick argues that the initial distribution does not matter, because “liberty upsets patterns.” He makes this point with the famous Wilt Chamberlain example. Imagine a world in which everyone has exactly equal resources. Now suppose that one man, Wilt Chamberlain, is exceptionally talented at basketball. People will come to watch Wilt Chamberlain play basketball and will voluntarily transfer a small sum, say $0.25, to him for this privilege. Very quickly, the old pattern of equality disappears as Wilt Chamberlain accumulates resources. To re-establish that pattern would require undoing the voluntary transfers that people have made to Wilt Chamberlain.

But is Nozick necessarily right that initial distribution doesn’t matter? What about property rights in land? If one person establishes control over a vast range of productive land, then on standard libertarian accounts the owner may require virtually any conditions (s)he might like in exchange for allowing others access to that land. Thus, the landowner may require would-be tenants to yield one-third of the value of their production and perhaps to make themselves available for security duty as well. By enjoying the fruits of others’ labor, the landowner is able to continue in enjoyment of the demesne and pass it down to future generations to do the same.

Are absolute property rights in land a road to serfdom? Or may property rights occasionally be set aside for other interests? If we allow that property rights are not always absolute, does our theory collapse into utilitarianism or egalitarianism, or can we build theoretical terraces on that slippery slope?

Nozick’s own theory has some intellectual resources to address this problem. Nozick adapts the Lockean Proviso to argue that appropriations may be set aside when they literally make others with access to them worse off than they would have been had the resource remained unowned and open-access. “Setting aside” the appropriation presumably means that current distributions may also be altered, perhaps temporarily.

Consider the following two scenarios. The first comes from a debate in Liberty magazine a number of years ago; the second comes from is rather like a discussion I recall from David Friedman’s book The Machinery of Freedom (corrected per David Friedman’s comment below).

Scenario A

Scenario B

You fall from a window of one of the top stories of a tall building. As you hurtle toward certain death, you reach out and grab a flagpole sticking out of another window, breaking your fall. The owner of the flagpole observes you clinging on for dear life and says, “I am the owner of that flagpole; let go!”

Should you let go?

In this scenario, you are the neighbor of a mad scientist who likes to sample the atmosphere around your house and test for the presence of the DNA of other humans. He knows that you and other neighbors will sometimes pass his house or breathe in its general direction, and as a result microscopic molecules containing their DNA float over his property line, invading his property. As an extreme hypochondriac, he cannot bear the thought of this happening.

He issues a decree to the entire neighborhood, including you: No one is to venture outside and exhale, and even exhaling indoors is risky, because the microscopic particles could find their way out of chimneys and other crevices and onto his property. If anyone’s DNA is found on his property, he threatens to defend himself from the trespass by all legitimate means.

Do you have a moral obligation to stop breathing?

Presumably anyone not blinded by ideology will answer “no” to these questions, conceding that property rights are not absolute. In the former case, at the moment of your hanging to the flagpole by dear life, the scheme of private property rights makes you worse off. Thus, by Nozick’s standard, it seems you have the right to expropriate the use of the flagpole until you no longer need it. At that point, let us surmise, the flagpole should revert to its original owner, and you should make compensation for any damages to it. In the second scenario, the mad scientist is engaging in illegitimate expropriation by trying to force other people to stop breathing, which would make them worse off than they would be if the scheme of private property rights did not exist.

This application of the Proviso is attractive because it imports some utilitarian-esque concerns (the scheme of private property rights must make everyone better off than they would be in the primeval world of open-access commons), while retaining the intuitively desirable features of libertarianism, most notably the right to dispose of your property as you see fit under almost all circumstances. Nevertheless, it requires giving up the fiction of absolute property rights and perhaps even opens the door to a kind of universal income guarantee as compensation for the private appropriation of land. Enter the left-libertarianism of Michael Otsuka, Hillel Steiner, Peter Vallentyne, and Philippe Van Parijs.

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Brett Barkely writing in Econ Journal Watch:

Large budget deficits represent a burden on the future, and debt accumulation eventually poses great problems. Economists writing for the public can either highlight such truths, neglect the issue, or try to allay worries or excuse or justify large budget deficits (as anti-recession policy, for example). Economists affiliated or aligned with one of the parties may be suspected of changing their positions on budgets deficits to serve their favored party or win favor with its constituency. This paper investigates selected economists, to see whether their tune changes when the party holding the White House changes. Six economists are found to change their tune—Paul Krugman in a significant way, Alan Blinder in a moderate way, and Martin Feldstein, Murray Weidenbaum, Paul Samuelson, and Robert Solow in a minor way—while eleven are found to be fairly consistent.

But at least he provides a moment of righteous indignation.  We all need that from time to time.

Another article in the same issue argues that “economic enlightenment” is not correlated with education.  Conservatives and libertarians are much more enlightened according to the study (though the definition of enlightenment is pretty much: are you conservative or libertarian?– not that there is anything wrong with that), but within each ideological group the education effects are flat.  Sorta interesting.  Also, regular WalMart shoppers and Nascar fans are more enlightened than the comparison groups.  Seriously, I’m not making this up (though I am wondering if this issue of the journal was written by the Onion Staff).

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From a recent interview with Andrew Bacevich:

When it comes to foreign and defense policy, authentic conservatives are wary of utopian schemes, sensitive to the need to husband power, and have an aversion to war. That tends to make them anti-interventionists and to favor the use of force only as a last resort.

Ditto for libertarians.  I have a hard time understanding libertarian imperialism.   Libertarians, in particular those influenced by British classical liberals, are generally wary of utopian schemes (especially when government is the driver) and appreciate the importance of unintended consequences (ending up harming those we are trying to help, “blowback” in foreign policy, and the rise in the power of the state that correlates with war being three of them).  They are also suspicious of social change at the point of a gun.  So why aren’t these elements of the libertarian mindset that are continually applied to domestic government intervention also applied to foreign intervention?     

HT: Dan McCarthy

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It is no original insight to note that ecologists and economists both derive equilibrium theories from the Darwinian assumption of natural selection of the traits of successful replicators – organisms for ecologists, firms for economists. Like an ecosystem, the economy is an “emergent” or “spontaneous” order, in which the decentralized actions of countless individuals generate a complex system with properties irreducible to those actions. Michael Polanyi and F.A. Hayek distinguish these spontaneous orders from planned orders, in which a system’s operation is guided or designed by a central engineer, and argue that spontaneous economic orders yield greater social welfare over the long run than planned ones.

Similarly, naturalists find that undisturbed ecosystems find their own equilibrium, in which each organism, as if guided by an invisible hand, seems to approach perfect adaptation to its niche relative to all other organisms. Extirpating one species or introducing another risks upsetting the equilibrium and extirpating more species. Since emergent orders are characterized by “tacit knowledge” unavailable to the outsider, we cannot easily replace them with designed orders that function “as if” spontaneous. Thus, the precise consequences of disturbing an ecosystem are as unpredictable as the precise consequences of disturbing a market (Bastiat’s “That Which Is Seen, and That Which Is Not Seen” is relevant here).

The principal difference between economic and ecologic orders is that the former are composed of more-or-less rationally choosing actors, many of whom are consciously considering the ultimate equilibrium that will obtain in a given market, while the latter are composed of nonrational organisms behaving according to evolved instinct. What this means in practice is that we should expect economic orders to approach equilibrium more nearly and more quickly than ecologic orders, which must wait for generations of organisms to survive and reproduce before desirable traits are passed on. Nonrational organisms seem to learn less about assuring their collective survival over their own lifetimes than do humans.

These considerations tell us that human engineering or central planning of an ecosystem is unlikely to work for the benefit of the inhabitants. Attempting to engineer nature to our advantage will have unintended, adverse consequences for the stability of nature. Why should we care about the stability of nature? Because we are part of it. While the ultimate consequences of disturbing nature in any given case are unclear, we know that there will be consequences, more likely adverse than not.

Clearly, maintaining nature in an absolutely pristine state everywhere is not an option. But then, nor is total spontaneous order in the economic sphere (unless one is an anarchist). Moreover, both economies and ecosystems can survive and adapt to ongoing disturbance, although they may not reach peak performance. However, these considerations do indicate, contra Ron Bailey, that some kind of “precautionary principle” might make sense for both ecological and economic planning. We might do well to build into our institutions and way of life a substantial but rebuttable bias against trying to re-engineer nature or the economy.

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I’m interested in people’s opinions on the new Arizona anti-immigration law.  I have a hard time coming to a consensus in my own mind about the immigration issue and laws like the one Arizona passed.

My civil libertarian mind hates the police state and harassment of anyone—citizen or otherwise.

My rule-of-law mind hates that we mostly look the other way when our immigration laws are flouted—not just by the immigrants crossing the border, but by businesses who hire them and by local governments who provide them sanctuary from the law.

My utilitarian economist mind realizes how essential low-wage immigrant labor is to our economy.  A sudden extraction of illegal immigrants (not that that is possible) would be disastrous, economically speaking.

My selfish elitist mind realizes that I am part of the socioeconomic class that benefits most from this immigrant labor, since I don’t face much wage competition from them (though American academics do face a lot of pressure from educated immigrants in both obtaining jobs and getting into graduate schools).

My partisan political mind understands the importance of the Latino vote in the future.  Even a small-brained Republican like George W. realized this and tried to avoid alienating Hispanics.  Of course even smaller-brained Republican Congressmen have succeeded in sticking a racist knife into the party’s future.  Democrats (who, ironically, rely much more on electoral support from the unskilled laborers who are the principal losers from illegal immigration) just get to sit back and laugh as the Republicans do themselves in.

My cosmopolitan egalitarian mind hates that ugly racism underlying the anti-immigration view and sees open immigration as lifting at least some people around the world out of poverty.

My Christian mind is cognizant that many of these illegal immigrants are surely among “the least of these” that Christ talked about when he said, “For I was an hungered and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger and ye took me in.” (Matt. 25:35)  I generally don’t like to use religious arguments as policy justifications, since the things that determine private morality often cannot justify public policy,  but I have to say these biblical verses definitely come to mind.

So what is a civil-liberatarian-rule-of-law-utilitarian-economist-selfish-elitest-Republican-cosmopolitan-egalitarian-Christian to do?

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I thought I’d pen a brief response to Sven’s provocative opening salvo against moral philosophy, “I Want It All, Baby!” Now, I’m not a philosopher, but I like to play one on the Internet. (Actually, I almost went into a philosophy Ph.D. program, but in the end the infamously dire job market in that discipline deterred me.)

As I see it, moral philosophy is the derivation of valid principles for normative judgment, where normative judgment is the making of (true) statements about whether particular types of conduct are and are not justifiable. Now, I don’t see how making normative judgments without a unified, underlying principle or rule is possible.

After all, we can’t have it all – we can’t have a society that combines perfect liberty, perfect equality, and absolute security. We have to make tradeoffs, but on what basis do we make those tradeoffs? We have to have a principle! To be precise, we have to have one and only one principle. If there are multiple moral principles, they can always come into conflict, and we will have to rely on a more fundamental principle to adjudicate the conflict.

More fundamentally, I just don’t think it’s quite right to view moral judgment as a process of making tradeoffs among values. This point of view implicitly assumes that we’re trying to maximize some kind of function, in which our values (liberty, equality, security, etc.) are variables. That sounds a lot like stealth utilitarianism. Defending utilitarianism is fine, but it should be done forthrightly, not slipped in through the back door. Are liberty, equality, and security  valuable only insofar as they promote the aggregate happiness of Homo sapiens (or perhaps the entire animal kingdom?).

Rather, most defenders of liberty and equality see these terms as shorthand for principles of justice (any view that fails to equate “security” with a form of “liberty” is just confused). Thus, a Marxist sees the employment contract as inherently and necessarily wrong and exploitative, while a libertarian sees that same relationship as an inviolable exercise of liberty. I don’t see any way these different positions can be “weighed and balanced.” They can only be reasoned back to first principles.

On a final note, moral philosophy makes progress by tracing first-order arguments about justice back to their atomic particles, the basic principles on which they are based. It is deductive, not inductive, so we should not hold it to the same standard of progress as inductive science. By its proper standard, moral philosophy has actually made great strides over the centuries.

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David Boaz, Executive Vice President of the Cato Institute, answers this question in a well-timed reposting of an excellent older piece from the Cato Policy Report.  In it, Boaz argues that “libertarians are not, in any serious sense, ‘anti-government.'”  Instead, libertarians favor “a limited government that attends to its necessary and proper function.”  Or more specifically, Boaz argues:

Libertarians generally support a government formed by the consent of the governed and designed to achieve certain limited purposes. Both the form of government and the limits on its powers should be specified in a constitution, and the challenge in any society is to keep government constrained and limited so that individuals can prosper and solve problems in a free and civil society.  Thus libertarians are not “anti-government.” Libertarians support limited, constitutional government—limited not just in size but, of far greater importance, in the scope of its powers.

I am largely in agreement with Boaz’s main point here.  Indeed, I have frequently argued in the past that libertarians should want a strong (in terms of “state capacity”) but very limited (in terms of what the state does) government.  A government that is not all that limited in terms of its ends threatens tyranny.  Unfortunately, there are many examples of such states.  But a government that has little state capacity will not be able to accomplish its proper role of securing itself and the property rights (broadly understood) of its citizens against both foreign and domestic threats.  See many failed states such as Somalia and Afghanistan, as well as the numerous states in history that have failed to build sufficient forces to deter or defend against foreign enemies.


This understanding means that libertarianism is an explicitly “statist” political theory.  I’m comfortable with that – though it means I can’t have fun by jeering my leftist friends as “statists.”

However, Boaz’s point isn’t completely accurate given that there are rival specifications of libertarianism.  Indeed, I’ve been sneered at in the past by many self-described libertarians who argue that libertarianism includes anarchists or is properly a form of anarchism (and thus I should call myself a classical liberal instead of a libertarian).  Moreover, Boaz’s own collection of libertarian writings, titled The Libertarian Reader, includes a piece by Lysander Spooner – an “anti-government” anarchist.

So if some libertarians are anarchists and given that anarchists are anti-government, this broader tent libertarianism would have both “pro-government” and “anti-government” wings – thus complicating Boaz’s story.

But back to Boaz and why he wrote (and reposted) his piece in the first place.  Boaz wants average folks  – often confused by the binary and simplistic talk of the media – to understand that libertarians are not to be misidentified as or lumped in with racists or terrorists who want to use violence against other groups within society or against the U.S. government.  Well, his point here is correct for us “statist” libertarians – but it is also true for all of the “anti-government” anarcho-capitalists I’ve met through the years.  They seek peaceful change or wish to be benignly ignored.  Moreover, they despise racism as a collectivist and anti-individualist view.  And they certainly aren’t interested in using violence against other innocent citizens since that would violate their core non-coercion principle.

So, it is possible that being “anti-government” alone isn’t all that bad and so maybe we should focus on simply educating people that the larger problem with some current “anti-government” types is that they are stupid racists or terrorists?  Maybe.  But given that the media likes to tell simple Manichean stories  – and that people rationally utilize heuristics – Boaz is probably right to try and distance libertarianism from the “anti-government” tag even if some libertarians would contest his definition of the term.

Lastly, I will note that I would prefer that libertarianism be distinguished sharply from anarchism, even so-called libertarian anarchism or anarcho-capitalism.  It is much more analytically useful to do so since the issue of the philosophical legitimacy of the state is at the heart of the debate between these two and separates them into political and anti-political theories.

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