Posts Tagged ‘liberty’

Pileus blogger Jason Sorens is the founder of the Free State Project.   Thus our regular readers may be interested in hearing about the progress of his baby in this article in the June edition of Reason magazine.  Like libertarian academics before him such as Milton Friedman, Sorens is both an idealist and a realist – which is part of the reason for the FSP’s success.  Sorens talks about that in this nice section of the Reason piece:

Sorens thinks the project’s success stems partly from its modest approach. “The whole point behind the FSP was to avoid utopianism,” he says. Rather than trying to “build this new society,” he says, Free Staters “opted instead for incrementalism, making small but noticeable, meaningful changes.” Building an entire new world requires a massive investment before anybody sees results, big or small. The Free State Project already has won victories without spending much money or ripping up social architecture.

At a recent Porcfest (a summer gathering of Free Staters and fellow travelers), it was fun to see our friend and colleague treated like a rock star.  May the legend – and the FSP – grow!

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A recently published paper by Ravi Iyer and coauthors on the “libertarian personality” has been getting a great deal of attention. To recap the findings,

Compared to self-identified liberals and conservatives, libertarians showed 1) stronger endorsement of individual liberty as their foremost guiding principle, and weaker endorsement of all other moral principles; 2) a relatively cerebral as opposed to emotional cognitive style; and 3) lower interdependence and social relatedness. As predicted by intuitionist theories concerning the origins of moral reasoning, libertarian values showed convergent relationships with libertarian emotional dispositions and social preferences.

Like conservatives, libertarians apparently tend to have little truck with moral values like compassion, while like liberals, they tend to despise values like loyalty. The only thing that matters to them, allegedly, is freedom. Furthermore, libertarians are cold utilitarians: in the “trolley problem,” they show themselves more willing than liberals and conservatives to kill an innocent person to save a larger number of people. In addition, the authors find that “libertarians were the only group to report valuing pragmatic, non-moral traits more than moral traits. Libertarians may hesitate to view traits that engender obligations to others (e.g. loyal, generous, sympathetic) as important parts of who they are because such traits imply being altruistic.”

Put it all together, and libertarians sound like a distasteful bunch. Indeed, “distasteful” is putting it rather too weakly. Libertarians look to be amoral.

Now, Ilya Somin has some trenchant criticisms of the study, which we should bear in mind. Still, if the study is unbiased — and I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the findings did hold in the population of self-identified libertarians, it points to some serious problems in how libertarianism, at least popular libertarianism, conceives of itself.

As we never tire of noting here at Pileus, (more…)

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It looks as though the Yuri Wright affair may finally now, mercifully, be over. Yuri Wright is a senior in high school; but not just any student at not just any high school: he was a nationally recruited cornerback at football powerhouse Don Bosco in New Jersey—or at least he was until recently, when Bosco expelled him.

What a life he was having. Colleges from around the country, including Michigan, Notre Dame, Colorado, Wisconsin, and many others, all wanted him. Then, suddenly, Michgan pulled its offer. Why? It turned out that he, like most other high school students, had a Twitter account. And for lo these last many months, he had been tweeting regularly, even during time he was ostensibly in school. What was he tweeting? Well, I will not recount or reproduce the tweets for you; though he closed his original account, screenshots were retained by many media outlets and are widely available on the internet. Be forewarned, however: They are vile. They discuss sexual acts graphically, they use disgusting language to describe women, they are obscene, profane, pornographic, they use derogatory racial epithets, and on and on. And it is not just one objectional tweet: there are lots of them, over a period of months.

When they were “discovered”—although he had some 1,600 followers, so it was not as if they were exactly private, and, quite frankly, I find the claim by Don Bosco to have been unaware of their content hard to believe—Michigan pulled its offer; other schools, like my alma mater Notre Dame, were apparently considering pulling their offer as well. Don Bosco then decided to expell him. Again, I am not particularly impressed with Bosco’s assumption of moral high ground. It cost them almost nothing: the football season is already over, and Yuri was probably on scholarship to Bosco anyway; so there was no downside to them to expelling him in January. Since Yuri has now opted to attend Colorado, the affair seems to be over, at least for the time being.

There are many lessons one might learn from this episode. One is that nothing on the internet is private. Nothing. Ever. Another lesson: whatever is once on the internet is there forever. So anything you write you should imagine that literally every person on the planet will read: Do you still want to write it?

But this was a high school student, not an adult. So some argued that he should be forgiven, given a second chance. I read many people saying things like, “hey, that’s how all high school students talk these days—especially boys in New Jersey!” I also read claims that his words were offensive only to older-generation white people who were unfamiliar with hip-hop culture or the language in some rap music. Some Notre Dame fans who had wanted him to commit there argued that Notre Dame’s Catholic mission requires it not only to forgive a mistake but also to teach virtue, so perhaps Notre Dame had a moral obligation to keep recruiting him, in the hopes that it could turn him into a virtuous person.

Right. Let’s not kid ourselves. Notre Dame would not even sniff an applicant who had displayed that kind of spectacularly questionable character and judgment—unless he was a spectacular football player. And it was not “a” mistake: it was months of display of very low character. It is moreover simply not true that all high schoolers talk like that. Not all high school boys view women like that; not all teenagers see the world and the races like that. To claim otherwise is an affront and slander to the vast majority of good kids out there—yes, even in New Jersey! And it is all still repellent and wrong regardless. Accepting it as inevitable or expected merely increases its occurrence, which is the opposite of what we should want.

That suggests the lesson I think this affair indicates. We are all about tolerance and freedom, as we should be, because it is required by the respect we should show to the decisions that free people make. But respecting the decisions that free people make requires not one thing but two: It requires not only giving people the liberty to act on the basis of their decisions, but it also requires holding them responsible for the consequences of their decisions. We often forget that second part—understandably so, since it is often unpleasant. But it is precisely as much entailed by respect for individual agency as respecting liberty to act is. Punishing people who act wrongly just is respecting their individual agency.

Shielding people from the unpleasant consequences of their decisions does them no favors. Not only does it inferfere with the process of developing good judgment, for that can happen only on the basis of feedback; but it disrespects their agency as not, in fact, up to the demands of liberty.

Now in Yuri Wright’s case, he is in that nether-realm between boyhood and manhood, so he is still developing his character and his judgment. And by the outward signs, things have not been going well. The fact that he has now already returned to tweeting with a brand new account, without taking even a short-term moratorium to reflect on his his life, is also not an encouraging sign. What better time, then, to hold him accountable for his actions, to make clear to him that those aspects of his character are unacceptable, and that bad judgment suffers bad consequences. Otherwise the feedback he gets will be all the wrong kind, and we might find that his judgment leads him to even worse places in the future.

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English poet John Milton (1608-1674) with some thoughts on the English Revolution that might be helpful for those contemplating or participating in the Arab Spring?

That a nation should be so valorous and courageous to win their liberty in the field, and when they have won it, should be so heartless and unwise in their counsels, as not to know how to use it, value it, what to do with it, or with themselves; but after ten or twelve years’ prosperous war and contestation with tyranny, basely and besottedly to run their necks again into the yoke which they have broken . . .

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1. In the below video, Senator Rand Paul criticizes John Pistole and his TSA for their ham-fisted and invasive pat-downs, especially on children.

Senator Paul makes several good points. What struck me in particular, however, is one part of Mr. Pistole’s response. He said that pat-downs on children and seniors are driven—and, apparently, justified—by bona fide intelligence: he knows of a case in which a child under twelve was used as a suicide bomber, and another in which a 65-year-old couple were suicide bombers as well.

Isn’t this exactly the kind of invidious stereotyping and discrimination that prevents the TSA from targeting Muslim males for enhanced scrutiny? The argument given against targeting Muslim males is that not all Muslim males are terrorists. It does not follow from the fact that some tiny proportion of them is that therefore they are all suspespects, so targeting all of them for enhanced scrutiny is prejudice.

Yet here is a case in which Mr. Pistole apparently thinks that because a single child was allegedly once used as an attempted suicide bomber, therefore all children are equally suspicious and must be subjected to enhanced scrutiny. Moreover, because two seniors allegedly attempted to become suicide bombers, therefore all seniors are equally suspicious and the TSA is justified in patting them down too.

Well, Mr. Pistole, which is it? Is assuming that a trait that belongs to some members of a group therefore belongs to all members of the group morally acceptable, or not?

2. In other TSA news, my nomination for American Hero of the Week: Andrea Fornella Abbott of Clarkesville, Tennessee. According to this report, while traveling through the Memphis airport, Ms. Abbott would not allow the TSA goons to molest—er, enhancedly pat down—her daughter. When she refused, they reminded her that they, not she, will be the ones who will decide what is “inappropriate touching,” thank you very much, and she may now just be quiet and stand over there while they have their way with her daughter.

Apparently Ms. Abbott refused, vociferiously. Upon reconsideration, the TSA agents recognized that she was not under suspicion of any crime, that they had no evidence of criminal behavior on her or her daughter’s part, that in a free society people have a right to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures that shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized, and that it is just plain sick to grope minors anyway, so they relented and let her go on her way.

Uh, no. They arrested her on the charge of “disorderly conduct” and put her in jail. For defending her fundamental liberty, for defending the bodily integrity of her daughter, even in the face of arrest, and for giving the rest of us passive and docile ennablers a reminder of what is at stake and an example to follow, I salute Ms. Abbott.

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On Monday we will celebrate the 235th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. This is one of the few official holidays that I actually celebrate, one of the few that I think everyone in America should celebrate. I plan to spend time with family, and to talk about what is in the Declaration, its logical structure (modus ponens), what was at stake, and why it mattered. I also plan to light fireworks. In one of the cruelest of ironies, many places in America prohibit the lighting of fireworks on Independence Day—all the more reason, I think, to light them.

Whatever you do on this day, and however you celebrate it, I have one request to make: Do not call it “the Fourth.” Do not wish people “happy Fourth of July” or just “happy Fourth.” We are not celebrating the fourth day of July. We are celebrating our independence. The word “fourth” is shorter and easier to say than “independence,” I will allow. But the corruption of the latter into the former tends, ever so slightly, to obscure why we celebrate this day. It does not matter that it is in the summer, that it is in July, that it is on the fourth day of that month. What matters is that brave men declared, and were prepared to fight for, their independence from an overreaching government.

The final sentence from the Declaration is: “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm Reliance on the Protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.”

Rarely have more powerful, and more signifying, words been uttered. Many of the men who signed the Declaration paid their fortunes or their lives—or both—for having done so: But they did not sacrifice their sacred honor. What would you have done if you had been alive then? Would you have signed? Would you have fought—literally fought—for your independence?

I frequently ask students what they would be willing to sign a Declaration for, and what they would be willing to fight for. The most common answer is a shrug of the shoulders. Not much of anything. Ho-hum. Whatever. One student told me recently, “Our generation just doesn’t think like that.” I pray she is wrong, but I fear she is not. Look around the world: the threats to liberty today are as great as they have ever been.

The day may well come when we, even we, in America may have to ask ourselves: Where is the line? When will we decide that the infringements on our liberty, and on our independence, have grown too great? When our property can be taken by the government without our consent and given to other citizens? When we can be stopped while traveling and be subjected to full body searches for any reason or no reason—when even our children and our infirm can be physically groped and searched? When officials may demand justification for every dollar we earn, every dollar we save, every dollar we spend? When every association, transaction, agreement, or partnership we form is subject to review by officials, may be voided by officials, may be altered by officials? When fifty percent of the fruits of our labors is taken by government and redistributed according to its wisdom?

Perhaps you do not think that the infringements on your liberties here in America, as surprisingly numerous and extensive as they have become, warrant yet your own declaration of independence. Perhaps you say, rightly, that people in some other countries have it much worse. Fair enough. Where, then, for you is the line? What would government officials have to do to you—to you personally—for you to declare publicly and with resolve, “this now has gone too far”? What would it take for you to decide that you now need to claim your independence, your native, natural, God-given freedom as an independent sovereign consciousness, as a protector of your own liberty and that of your family and your fellow citizens, and be prepared to face whatever consequences might ensue?

Our country exists, and the extraordinarily rare scope of freedom we Americans have enjoyed with such complacency exists, in no small part because of those men who risked their lives and fortunes two hundred thirty five years ago to declare independence from tyrannical and unjust rule. That is the cause for our celebration. And the question it demands we ask today is what each of us too is called to do in the service not only of our own freedom, but that of our fellow citizens and of future generations.

Happy Independence Day.

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Pileus blogger Jason Sorens recently released his co-authored study “Freedom in the 50 States.” This is now the second edition of the report, and it has deservedly generated a lot of attention. Even Paul Krugman has added his two cents.

At Salon.com, Andrew Leonard criticizes the report under the sarcastic headline, “Why do liberals hate freedom so much?” Because the Mercatus Center, which sponsored the research that led to the report, has received funding from the Koch Foundation, by a long chain of guilt-by-association reasoning, Leonard implies that the intent of the report is not really to gather and present data that provide an objective, quantifiable measure of both economic and personal freedom in each state, but is rather simply to bash liberals. A rather egocentric view of the world, that.

Of course, even if Leonard’s insinuations were true, that the study were part of Charles and David Koch’s nefarious plot to, well, extend economic and personal freedom, that fact would have no bearing on whether its findings were true. Attacking an author, or an author’s (alleged) motives, does not defeat the author’s argument. Philosophy 101: the ad hominem fallacy is . . . a fallacy.

But Leonard raises two other objections. The first:

[According to the report,] Most Americans are not free. A telling example: In the Mercatus rankings the two states blessed by the highest freedom quotient boast a combined population of a little over 2 million—South Dakota and New Hampshire (the latter of which, admittedly, went for Obama in 2008). The bottom three states were New York, New Jersey and California, which have a combined population of over 65 million.

Sixty-five million Americans in just three states cower under a totalitarian shadow! That’s a little distressing!

(Why “admittedly”? Is Leonard aiming to provide analysis, or advocacy? But that is by the by.)

As analysis, this is quite weak. Sorens and his co-author William Ruger claim that there are real differences between the least “free” and most “free” states in their report, but they do not claim that even residents of the, by their measure, “least free” state, New York, face anything like what people in, say, North Korea face. Although there are real relative differences among the states, no place in America is under a “totalitarian shadow.” To say otherwise is just moral posturing.

More substantively, however, one need not believe that their conception of economic and personal “freedom” is the only or the best one. They provide an explicit definition of their terms; they provide explanations and justifications for the metrics they use; and their data are openly available. If they make an error in their math or their reasoning, that should be simple enough to discover and point out. Leonard does not do that.

Leonard apparently wants to define “freedom” differently. Fair enough. He unfortunately is not as explicit about his own preferred definition as Sorens and Ruger are. Yet Leonard does, perhaps inadvertantly, disclose a clue about what his definition of freedom would be. He writes:

But from my perspective, not having access to universal healthcare is an imposition on my freedom. The fact that for most Americans healthcare is tied to one’s employer is a dread shackle limiting the freedom of movement of every worker. How much more liberated would we all be if we could switch jobs or work for ourselves without the fear that at any moment we might be crippled by an exorbitantly expensive health emergency? Similarly, a state requirement that employers offer paid parental leave (another black mark against California) clearly frees me to be a better father to my newborn. I’d really love to see what would happen to internal migration patterns in the United States if all the big blue states had universal single-payer healthcare, while everyone else was left at the mercy of a completely unregulated private market. That civil war would end rather quickly, I suspect. [Leonard's emphasis]

So his objection is that Sorens and Ruger do not consider the enjoyment of government-provided health care as an element of freedom, along with government-mandated (paid, presumably) parental leave from work. How much freer would Leonard be if he did not have to pay for his own health care? How much freer would he be if he did not have to work to support his family, but could instead simply spend time with his family?

How much freer indeed. The life Leonard wants for himself has its attractions. It is the life of an old-fashioned aristocrat, of a manorly lord. Leonard has the freedom of leisure to be a gentleman, pursuing properly gentlemanly ends—not the ignominious and base life of a man who has to actually work to support himself in the lifestyle he chooses. 

Now, Leonard has the feigned greatness of soul to allow that he would like this life of gentlemanly leisure for “all” of us. But that is dishonesty. He knows as well as anyone that we cannot all be leisured gentlemen. Someone will actually have to labor to provide the goods and services off which the gentlemen will live. Who are those people making his life free? Who are the people providing him his health care, paying his bills while he takes time off to romp with the kids, bearing the costs generated by his insousciant skipping from one activity to the next as he follows his bliss?

And now we see the real import of the “freedom” Leonard wants. It is the freedom of the pharaoh: the serfs, whom I never deign to see and whom I never condescend to consider, will labor to provide me the comforts and enjoyments and leisure I require. I am not held responsible for them—that would be beneath me.

I believe that is not only a loathsome attitude, but it is a morally reprehensible position. Mr. Leonard, you have no right to live off the fruits of others’ labor. Yes, it would increase your freedom if you could command others to work for you, but yours is a moral code that entitles one group of people to live at the expense of unwilling others, that requires one group of people to be held responsible for the leisurely lifestyle of another, that treats one group as superior to others and fails to respect the inherent dignity of the members of the other group as independent moral agents and indeed as fully human.

Realizing that we are not entitled to others’ labor, and that we are ourselves responsible for the choices—and the consequences of the choices—that we make is bracing and can be, depending on where our moral heads were to begin with, startling. But it is the only way to respect human dignity, both in ourselves and in others. And it implies the only freedom worth the name.

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Listening to the American citizens claiming that they don’t mind the pornographic body scanners or the “enhanced” pat-downs, as long as those conducting them are from the government and as long as it’s for “safety” and for “security,” I am reminded of this quote from Jefferson:

Dependence begets subservience and venality, suffocates the germ of virtue, and prepares fit tools for the designs of ambition. (Notes on the State of Virginia, 1787, Query 19)

You may recall the experiments Philip Zimbardo ran at Stanford University in 1971, in which student test subjects were randomly assigned roles as either prison guards or prisoners, and they were asked to play out these roles in an artificial setting in a building on Yale’s campus. The results were famously horrific: the “guards” became authoritarian and brutal, the “prisoners” tremulous and subservient. Why did the “guards” act to cruelly? Why didn’t the “prisoners” just leave (the doors were all unlocked)?

Zimbardo’s experiments were conducted a decade after Stanley Millgram’s famous experiment at Yale University in which he asked subjects to administer electric shocks to others, in an effort to see how far subjects would be willing to go in obedience to authority. The answer: much, much too far.

People argue about what these experiments really showed, but one thing I believe they reflect is people’s disheartening inclination to listen to whatever someone in authority tells them. That inclination is almost as strong, pervasive, and reliable as is the inclination for people to fully exploit and indeed abuse any authority or power they are given. Everyone from the lowest clerk in an office to the president of the United States will jealously guard his authority, and can be counted on to expand the scope of his power indefinitely until it reaches a point of resistance.

That observation of the natural course of human nature—obedience and subservience to authority, on the one hand, and a correlated steady and increasing exercise of power and authority, on the other—are what led some of the leading figures at America’s founding to think that the best safeguard of liberty and independence is simply not to have the apparatus of power and authority exist in the first place. If there is such an apparatus, one can count on some people seeking it out and using it to the fullest possible extent; one can also count on others bowing to it. Since both of those are evils, the only practical way to limit them is to minimize the opportunity for power in the first place. Hence: limited government.

If, to quote Jefferson again, the “natural progress of things is for liberty to yield and government to gain ground,” then we should not be surprised to discover either that our government is relentlessly expanding its power or that many of our fellow citizens are content to docilely accept, even energetically welcome, orders from their masters. Perhaps that means that a free republic was doomed to fail because it was just too foreign to deep elements of human nature.

Perhaps this dispiriting and disheartening conclusion is true. But, but, but: reflecting further on this situation, and on my own place in it, I am reminded of another famous speech, this one given in St. John’s Church in Richmond, Virginia, on March 23, 1775. Re-reading it now, I am struck by how remarkably it captures not only the situation today but also my own sentiments. I recommend the whole speech, but I will close this post with only its thundering conclusion:

Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!

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There is a lot of talk these days about the need for enlightened and educated people to help guide—nudgeif you will—people’s choices. Academics especially have a penchant for believing it their right, perhaps even their humanitarian duty, to protect others from their own bad decisions.

Albert Jay Nock called this a “monstrous itch” to run other people’s lives, and he argued that, although adorned with benevolent language and intentions, this itch can lead to enforcement with totalitarian ferocity. There seems no end to what people will do, no moral lines or boundaries or principles they will not cross, if they believe they are doing it “for your own good.” Hence “monstrous.”

As an academic I encounter this impulse regularly, but it was not until I came to live and work in the New York City area that I fully appreciated it. Here is how the conversation often goes:

Enlightened Person: “We know that [fill in the blank---activity x, y, z] is bad [good] for people, so we have to help people who aren’t educated to make the right choices.”

Me: “What do you mean by ‘help’ them?”

EP: “We have to educate them to make good choices.”

Me: “What if they still make the ‘wrong’ choices after you’ve ‘educated’ them?”

EP: “We owe it to them to help them.”

Me: “Do you include yourself in that?”

EP: “What do you mean?”

Me: “Do you think people should ‘help’ you make the right choices, out of fear you might make the wrong ones?”

EP: “Oh, no, I’m already educated. I mean the uneducated people.”

Me: “Who do you have in mind?”

EP: “Like people in the South.”

The discussion then usually continues with a tale of horror at what the Enlightened Person has read about or seen on TV happens in the South: the things they’d teach in school if left to their own devices, the things they teach in their churches, the food they eat, the guns they own, and so on. This is a Backward People, the EP is sure, and they are sorely in need of the benevolent guidance.

I am in an unusual position to appreciate this attitude. I grew up in the Chicago area, where the attitude is far less common, and I spent ten years living in Alabama—which is really the belly of the beast, the lowest of the low, for New Yorkers. Indeed, it is for some people in Alabama too: the University of Alabama, where I used to teach, had—and I presume still has—a fair number of faculty who came to UA specifically to bring, as they saw it, enlightenment to these backward, benighted bigots. The people in the state of Alabama, who pay a large portion of the budget of the university, usually had no idea in what contempt many of the faculty hold them.

So I have been struck at how much elitism there is in the New York area, and how much condecension there is toward—well, toward just about all non-New Yorkers—but especially toward the South. The South occupies its own special plane of low in the eyes of New Yorkers, filled, as they are sure it is, with all the worst dregs of humankind, a veritable cess pool of racism, ignorance, troglodytic tastes, barbaric impulses, and destructive vice.

Yet for all that I think the New Englanders need the Southerners—and especially those New Englanders who have that “monstrous itch” that Nock talked about. The reason: the South is always the ready-to-hand example of why enlightened people need to rule. One look at the South will show you that the EPs are obviously, and desperately, needed.

I call this argument form the reductio ad Nascaram: Individual liberty is fine and excellent, but only for those fit to enjoy it properly; just as parents must limit the choices of their children, so too must the enlightened limit the choices of the benighted. So individual freedom should be respected until we get to the point on the human continuum where intellectual development is so lacking that it compromises personhood. Locke said that point was when the people we are talking about are children, madmen, or “ideots”; for contemporary enlightened persons, it is when the people we are talking about are Southerners.  

As long, then, as there are people, like those in the South, who continue to make such horrendously bad choices, there will be a need for others, like us, to guide, nudge, even require or restrict, them to make good choices—for their own good.

What would so many of the enlightened people do if it were not for the South? There is so much work still to be done, so many nudges yet to be made, so much work for the philosopher kings. Thank God for the South!


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U.S.S. Liberty

With many international observers focused on the Cheonan incident in Korea which killed 46 South Korean sailors, it is a good time to remember another tragedy at sea – and one that has become a pretty much forgotten episode in American history. 

On June 8, 1967, the U.S.S. Liberty – a Navy electronic  intelligence ship sailing in international waters off the coast of Egypt – was attacked by Israeli planes.  The assault killed 34 Americans with many more wounded.  The Israelis claimed it was an accident due to the mistaken belief that the ship was an enemy warship.  The U.S. government agreed it was an accident. 

Whether it was an accident or a deliberate Israeli attack is an on-going debate despite official inquiries on both sides. 

For what it is worth (proceed with caution!), here is Wikipedia’s entry:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USS_Liberty_incident.

Note: I am not suggesting the two cases are equivalent.  I’m merely remembering an international episode in American history that involved the tragic loss of life at sea.

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A conversation with a student prompts this question:

Suppose all the countries in the world today are arrayed before you like spaces on a craps table. You have to put all your chips on one country. The time horizon is your life span, plus that of your children, plus that of your grandchildren. Allowing reasonable overlap and life expectancy, let’s suppose that horizon is 100 years. So: if you have to put all your chips in a single bet on one country’s success from 2010–2110, which country do you choose?

Let’s make this question personal. You are a responsible and conscientious person, and you take seriously your obligation to do the best for your family that you can. Decisions you make about where to live will have an enormous effect on your, your children’s, and your grandchildren’s life prospects. So this decision is about you and your family: the “chips” are all of your economic, social, and family capital. The question is not only about money; it is about everything.

In 1810, I think the clear choice would have been England. In 1910, I think the clear choice would have been the United States. In 2010, however, I think—I fear—there are two good reasons not to be bullish on the United States:

(1) Our looming fiscal crisis is worse than in many other countries because we do not have us to free-ride on. My pessimistic prediction, unless our course is dramatically changed, is that we will see a series of international bailouts: the EU’s bailout of Greece will be only the first in a series; when the EU begins to teeter, the US will bail it out, as it will have done for several states within the US. When the US begins to teeter, its multiple layers of astronomical debt, with no back-ups, bailouts, or cushions available, its fiscal collapse may come swiftly and painfully.

(2) The United States will be one of the primary targets for various kinds of antagonisms, terrorist and otherwise. And as Marc Steyn has said, a falling camel attracts many knives. My emendation: a big falling camel—indeed, the biggest, baddest, most resented falling camel—will attract all the knives.

So which country do you think offers the best prospects of liberty and prosperity for you and your family over the next 100 years?

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I’ve always found this to be one of Adam Smith’s most powerful quotations:

Little else is requisite to carry a state to the highest degree of opulence from the lowest barbarism, but peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice: all the rest being brought about by the natural course of things.

But is Smith right?  Well, not exactly.  These policies or “institutions” are certainly a good start.  But I’d argue that certain types of virtue, mores, character, and values are also vital preconditions for opulence.  Indeed, one might argue that these variables are prior conditions for the peace, easy taxes, and administration consistent with both a long-lasting free society and the opulence that flows from it.  And they are hardly natural but things that take a lot of effort, education, and wisdom to develop/build.  Individuals, families, churches, and other civic associations are the forges of these things.  Unfortunately, the state often acts in ways destructive of them – an unintended consequence of the smothering love of the leviathan.

I tread in dangerous waters here given that Jim Otteson, my fellow blogger here at Pileus, has clearly spent a few more moments thinking about Smith than I have!  Perhaps a signed copy will enlighten me if I’m wrong. ;-)

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