Monday, June 13, 2016

Can free people make bad choices?

Yes, of course they can.  There is such a thing as a mistake,and there is such a thing as evil. No sane person denies the former and no sensible person denies the latter.  People can make mistakes, and they can commit evil acts.  None of these are necessarily preventable by law.  The only ones that should be prevented are those that violate others' rights, i.e. that initiate force or fraud.  The rest may be immoral, but they are not crimes.

Reason has just published a debate on this issue, contrasting "Virtuous Libertarianism" vs. "Libertine Libertarianism." The gist is the following.  Two political scientists, William Ruger and Jason Sorens, argue that some libertarians -- they term them "libertine libertarians" -- believe that "so long as an act is consensual and respects at least one truth—the inviolability of the person's fundamental right to choose how to use his or her person and property—not only should the law not get involved, but there is also no ground for moral criticism of the act. Values are essentially subjective in more than a descriptive sense but in a normative sense as well."  Ruger and Sorens further contend that this is an error, and propose instead "virtue libertarianism," which recognizes that values aren't subjective.

In the debate, economist Deirdre McCloskey concurs, and economist Steven Horwitz and Reason editor Katherine Mangu-Ward dissent.

A colleague was sufficiently impressed that he emailed this debate to me and maybe twenty or so other professors, including Ruger himself.  Here's my response, which I also cc'd to Drs. McCloskey and Horwitz, both of whom I know.

"Interesting debate, but...

Would it not be simpler to just say that government has no business imposing ethics, and instead ought simply to defend individual rights?  Some unethical things -- murder, rape, robbery, assault, fraud, etc. -- violate others' rights, and those are matters for the police.  Other unethical things, such as having a zillion sex partners or following the wrong religion or drinking oneself to death or being mean, are not matters for the police.

I agree with Ruger & Sorens (and McCloskey), but this is just plain old libertarianism (classical liberalism): the state is only a means to address matters of protection of rights/collective security, and it shouldn't be imposing any particular moral system beyond that.  Those "libertine" libertarians who add the provision "and we can't privately say one moral system is better than another, either" are changing the definition of libertarianism by adding their own personal view of what ethics should be.  They essentially replace "anything that violates rights must be prohibited" with "anything that doesn't violate rights is good," but that substitution has nothing to do with promoting liberty.  They're just smuggling in their own ethical system and pretending it is part of promoting liberty (or maybe fooling themselves into this).

One additional point: Horwitz argues that "libertine libertarianism" is "largely non-existent"  among libertarians, and then ironically proceeds to promote exactly this "non-existent" position with his hypothetical of a promiscuous woman...maybe she's not un-virtuous -- maybe it's just that she, "heaven forbid," likes sex.  As Horwitz himself demonstrates, it's unfortunately not a largely non-existent position, I fear (although most libertarians I know still understand that just because some things shouldn't be outlawed, it doesn't follow that we have to defend them as moral or sensible)."

Horwitz then responded:

"I don’t think the example demonstrates that I have a commitment to “libertine libertarianism” if that means a refusal to make judgments about behavior. My point was that I think R&S have a narrow conception of what might constitute the basis for making judgments about the quality of other people’s judgments, and as KMW notes in her reply, they seem overly concerned with a particular subset of human choices that they single out for judgment.

I explicitly did NOT say we can’t make a moral judgment about a woman with multiple sex partners, or a couple who chooses not to stay together. I suggested that such judgments are more complicated that R&S would have it.  IOW: I object to their attempt to monopolize the high ground on what constitutes a right understanding of virtue.

So I’m not at all convinced I demonstrate the reality of their sorta straw libertarian."

To which I replied:

"Thanks for the comment Steve.  But it strikes me that if one believes in an objective morality, i.e. that there really are such things as right and wrong, then one necessarily must be 'monopolizing' the right understanding of virtue.  People disagree on what the proper morality is; under libertarianism they are free to do so, so long as they don't violate others' rights.  Accepting this doesn't commit libertarians to saying that whatever people choose is right, but I do think there are a number of libertarians who think just that."

Frankly, what else can one conclude from what Horwitz has said?  Almost all ethical systems, including those of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Objectivism, and pretty much every other religion, condemn promiscuity.  So do the ethical systems of atheists, e.g. Ayn Rand and Ludwig von Mises.  Yet in Horwitz' example, that the woman likes promiscuous sex (and has taken precautions against various physical consequences!) should be enough to give libertarians pause.  Good grief!

As for Mangu-Ward's point that Ruger and Sorens are overly concerned with a particular subset of human choices, well, what would one expect?  The debate will necessarily be concerned with a subset of choices, i.e. those that don't involve initiation of force or fraud.

Ruger and Sorens are, of course, right.  But there's no need to invent a new category of libertarianism,  Nothing in libertarianism denies that there can be objective ethical standards.  Neither does libertarianism hold that the only ethical question is whether rights are violated or not, i.e. whether or not a use of force is proper or not.  There are many ethical questions, questions of what behavior is right and what's wrong, that do not deal with violence or rights.  Bad choices, unethical choices, do not necessarily violate rights, but certainly they remain bad, and there's no reason for libertarians to defend them; a libertarian should simply defend one's right to make bad choices.

I'll also note that free people might make bad choices that undermine a free society.  They might become so self-indulgent, irresponsible, uncivil, and so devoted to tricking or otherwise taking advantage of each other that they destroy their society -- all without violating rights.  There's no state solution for this.  Contra progressives and many conservatives, the state cannot make people be moral.  But that doesn't mean we don't know what moral behavior is. Mangu-Ward contends that "a list of virtues suited to a free society—and perhaps more importantly, our ability to identify those virtues in the wild—is historically contingent and tricky to pin down."

No, it's not.  Being self-indulgent, irresponsible, uncivil, and devoted to taking advantage of others is neither historically contingent not hard to pin down.

Liberty is a necessary condition for a successful society and happy people, but not a sufficient condition, because people -- including free ones -- can make bad, immoral choices.

BREAKING NEWS! Unforeseen Contingencies violates EU "law!"

Greetings from Montana.

This notice now appears on the Blogger dashboard:

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The entire staff of Unforeseen Contingencies has examined this carefully, and so far as "we" can tell, the notice appears nowhere on this blog.

Good!  This saves us the trouble of having to delete it. The EU is an idea whose time never was, an idiotic scheme to empower bureaucrats in Brussels.  The EU's main achievements are the Greek bankruptcy and PIIGS, subsidizing endless streams of unemployable Islamist immigrants, subsidizing incompetent French farmers with the Common Agricultural Policy, thumb-twiddling while Putin invaded Ukraine and continues threatening Eastern Europe, and a Nobel prize.  All of these are things that should fill the EU with shame.

But still, the law is the law, so for the record, please see below.

Notice for EU regulators: please go here.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Quick update

I'm in the midst of traveling.  We've finally made it to Montana ("we" includes the entire staff of Unforeseen Contingencies) and should be up an running again soon!

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Excellent piece from Walter Russell Mead

What ails America?  Walter Russell Mead has a very perceptive analysis, succinct and quite thoughtful.  Unless you are a subscriber to The American Interest, clicking will use up your one free article per month.  It's worth it.

A few excerpts:

"The state of our union can be summed up pretty easily: Democratic policy ideas don’t work, and the Republican Party is melting down."


"The more “Democratic” an institution is these days, on the whole the less well it is working. What institution in the United States has been under Democratic control longer and more thoroughly than the failing public school systems of major cities? Or their police departments?

"Yet against the backdrop of failing Democratic policies and institutions, the collapse of the Republican Party into political and intellectual incoherence is all the more striking. The Democrats, for all their inability to achieve their stated end of social progress through their chosen means of good governance, are clearly more competent at the essential business of party management than their GOP rivals. The failures of Democratic governance are so apparent, and the public unhappiness with the cronyism and inequality of interest group liberalism so deep, that organizing an effective opposition should be a fairly easy task—but even that basic objective has eluded the contemporary GOP."


"American culture was originally shaped by a set of Christian and Enlightenment ideas, sometimes in tension with each other, that nevertheless provided a framework for common social and political discussion. We’ve moved away from this classic American synthesis without finding an effective replacement—if indeed a replacement can be found—and both the spiritual and intellectual roots of American life are growing more and more attenuated."

WRM's piece is definitely worth reading.

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Trump goes left

That didn't take long!  Less than 24 hours after it appears Trump has the Republican nomination locked in, he has reversed himself on the minimum wage, said he'd consider Sanders' proposal for a federal minimum wage of $15.00, and declared he will start winning over Sanders' supporters.  If he adopts $15.00, Trump will be left of Hillary Clinton on the issue. (She proposes $12.00.)

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

Cruz quits. Guess what follows.

Cruz made a terrible mistake in quitting.  We are now left with a choice between a radical leftist, Hillary Clinton, and a leftist fascist, Donald Trump.  I don't see much difference between them.  Neither believes in individual liberty.  Both are corrupt, nasty, and vindictive.  I would expect either one to use government agencies to go after enemies.  This is a very dangerous thing.

Cruz quit on the day when Donald Trump claimed Cruz' father assassinated President Kennedy.  Cruz has just turned the Republican nomination over to a lying maniac.  And what kind of people would, today, support Trump?

Not me.  Trump can go to hell, and I hope he does, soon.  May he take his supporters with him.

What follows?  Trump will swing left, and remain crazy.  Heaven knows what his supporters will do, they seem able to absorb anything.  Clinton's supporters are similarly capable of tolerating anything, since it's quite clear the Clintons traded favors for millions in "speaker fees," and Hillary Clinton repeatedly and knowingly violated federal law and compromised national security.  An enormous amount of dirt on Trump is about to surface, and Trump will no longer be given a pass in the media.  I think it will go very badly for him.  I predict, contrary to my January prediction, that Hillary Clinton will win.  I don't know what to make of predictions that a Trump loss would cause the GOP to lose both houses of Congress.  I certainly hope not, but if so, I imagine that the Democrats will try to quickly lock in Supreme Court nominees, gun control, a national health care system, and draconian energy regulations.  Civil war follows any attempt at gun confiscation, and could well follow crackdowns on religious groups that don't surrender on the homosexual issue.

But these specific predictions are just guesses.  What isn't a guess is that if either of these thugs becomes president there'll be trouble.  I can't imagine how the United States could have smooth sailing ahead.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Mike Vanderboegh

Mike Vanderboegh is dying.

I am sorry to write that.  I have followed his excellent blog Sipsey Street Irregulars, for a long time, and all through that time he's had cancer.  It is finally getting him, it appears.  Mike Vanderboegh is a hero.  He's the founder of the Three Percent movement, the loose grouping of those of us who realize that statists are bent on totalitarianism, and are determined never to acquiesce to this. Perhaps we can stop them politically, but if not, just let them try to enslave an armed population.  The name, Three Percent, comes from the percentage of Americans who actively resisted the greatest  military power of the 18th century, George III's Britain.  This tiny band reshaped world history and ushered in the greatest period of liberty the world has ever known.

Vanderboegh, a libertarian and Christian, laid out some very well thought out doctrines for resisting tyranny, both from a moral and philosophical viewpoint, and from a strategic and practical one.  He also is one of two men who exposed and publicized Obama's "Fast and Furious" scheme to ship weapons to Mexico in order to fabricate an excuse for gun control in the U.S. (The other is David Codrea.)  I follow Vanderboegh's writings and communicated with him a bit.  I have learned a great deal from him.  I also have found him to be one of the greatest sources of inspiration; he's a man who is never intimidated and always courageous.  I love his fighting spirit.  It's contagious.

It appears Mike Vanderboegh is in the last days of his life, as his cancer has spread.  While the purpose of my blog has never been to get anyone to do anything, I will ask that any reader who has cash to spare to donate to him (I've done this myself).  If you pray, say one of thanks for him.  And if nothing else, take a second to remember, with gratitude, people who do difficult and dangerous things on behalf of liberty for all of us...and resolve to live up to the standards they've set.

Note: Here's Vanderboegh's original announcement from January of this year. Vanderboegh's son has taken over managing his blog, so it's still up-and-running and happily will remain on the UC blog list.  And be sure to read his Three Percent Catechism here.

Cruz-Fiorina...Freedom has Champions!

My dream is coming true -- my presidential dream ticket, Cruz and Fiorina, is reality!  These two are intelligent, articulate, consistent, and most importantly, principled proponents of individual liberty and strictly limited government.  They are the only candidates left in the race -- perhaps save for a Libertarian also-ran such as Austin Petersen -- for whom this is true.  I am quite excited about this; this is the first time in a very long time that candidates who believe in limited government are still in the race as serious contenders so late in the race.  I stand by my prediction that Ted Cruz will be the next president of the United States.  And if this happens, expect 8 years of President Cruz followed by 8 years of President Fiorina.  And expect a rebirth of liberty, not because they create it, but because they will stop the onslaught of the left and create space to succeed for those of us who are fighting to build a genuinely liberal system.

The Marxist, Sanders, looks to be collapsing.  The fascist strongman, Trump, has mindless followers but a campaign in disarray, and Lewandowski and Manafort battle each other for turf instead of winning delegates.  Trump won't win 1,237 delegates, and Cruz will win the nomination on the second or third ballot. Criminal and Alinskyite Clinton will have no chance, once she is either indicted or confronted with Ted Cruz in a debate.  If she's indicted, her replacement will find a party in chaos, and they'll collapse.  Or so I predict.

Theses are, unquestionably, very dangerous times.  GOP leaders such as the despicable bonehead Boehner and Karl Rove and Fox News are pulling out all all stops to block Cruz.  Trump conceivably could win the Republican nomination, leaving us with a choice between tyrants.  Or a brokered convention could give us a dunce such as Romney or Ryan.  If Obama's DoJ does hand Clinton an indictment and leave us with a Trump vs. Warren or Biden race, nothing is predictable.  Regardless, the only pro-liberty candidates with a chance of winning are Cruz-Fiorina, and for them to be in the race at this stage is very happy news.  It is the first election since at least 1984 for which by this point, late April, a small-government candidate still is in the running.

Cruz-Fiorina -- Unforeseen Contingencies' dream ticket!

Sunday, April 03, 2016

The last 300 years: the anti-liberal enterprise

How to characterize the last 300 years of thought... at least, so far as political philosophy is concerned?

The entire staff of Unforeseen Contingencies agrees it is time to take a break from discussing the 2016 election, and return to matters more philosophical.  Today a friend of mine sent me an interesting historical essay on the rise of American fascism.  I don't know anything about the credentials of R.G. Price (the author), but you can read the piece here. (It is pretty good, and certainly interesting.)

I mostly won't comment on it, except for two points: first, the author's overall interpretation of the last 300 years of intellectual history, and second, the author's claim that the Holodomor (the famine suffered by Ukraine in 1932-33) is a fabrication of Nazi propagandists and William Randolph Hearst.

Regarding the Holodomor, the 1932-1933 famine in Ukraine was not a fiction concocted by Hearst or the Nazis.  As I pointed out to my friend, I lived in Ukraine, and the famine is remembered there – obviously none of my students experienced it, but they knew the family stories and spoke of it.  And it was discussed in public, in the media for example.  The facts weren't in question. Also, The Black Book of Communism, (Courtois et al.) Chapter 8, uses Soviet archival materials to document the famine. Robert Conquest's Harvest of Sorrow documents the famine with other materials.  And there are many other sources that document the 1932 famine.

But that's secondary.  What's all this about 300 years of intellectual history?  In a nutshell, Price argues that the Enlightenment gave rise to (classical) liberalism and capitalism.  This dominated the Western world until crises of capitalism gave rise to socialism (including communism), a reaction against capitalism.  In turn, Price sees fascism (including the American variant espoused by Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt) as a reaction against socialism.

Close, but no cigar.  If the goal is to make sense of things, there's a much simpler and clearer interpretation of the last 300 years of thought.  Here it is.  All political movements after liberalism (libertarianism) are attempts to get rid of unalienable individual rights and return to rule by elites, to re-instate the equivalent of the divine right of kings.

Prior to the Enlightenment, the world was largely dominated by the idea that the king, or emperor, or czar, or chief, or tribal leader, reigned supreme.  Perhaps that's not exactly so; some hunter-gatherers might have had checks on the powers of the chiefs, but you wouldn't want to try explaining these checks to a European king, Russian Czar, Mughal, Chinese, or Japanese emperor, Turkish sultan, or Arab caliph.  The generally acknowledged proper order of things was that the ruler ruled, and everyone else obeyed.

The Enlightenment ruined this "natural order."  The Enlightenment project of applying reason to everything upset it.  Careful thought showed that the claims to authority made by those in power were merely hot air.  To the contrary, individuals have self-ownership; we aren't the property of leaders.  In particular, think of the work of John Locke in his Two Treatises on Government, and the implementation of his ideas by the American founding fathers in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution.  Similarly, the Enlightenment showed that a society based on recognizing and respecting individual rights to self ownership can function well, and in fact much better than one based on centralized power.  In particular, think of the work of Adam Smith, and his Theory of Moral Sentiments and Wealth of Nations.  All of this was the birth of liberalism, a.k.a. libertarianism.  It is, as some political scientists have pointed out, the only genuinely revolutionary idea developed in political philosophy in the last 2,000 years.

This idea is extremely important, it is liberating and -- for those who liked the old system, either because they want to rule or want to be ruled -- problematic and threatening.  Decentralized authority, personal autonomy, freedom of action for the individual, private property rights, free markets -- these are problems for those who would "govern," i.e. substitute their own judgment for that of others in matters pertaining to how those others should live.  Socialism, progressivism, fascism, islamism, some kinds of conservatism, and all the other illiberalisms, are simply reactions against (real) liberalism, attempts to get the genie back into the bottle and restore hierarchy instead of equality of rights, equality before the law.  In other words, socialism (including Marxism), fascism, Nazism, islamism, progressivism, and some forms of conservatism are all attempts to cancel individual rights and restore hierarchical power.  Some are democratic and allow "the people" to vote for the authoritarian leaders (as if voting gives one any real power) and some not -- but all are reactions against individual liberty, i.e. against private property rights applied to all and against free trading on the market as the central organizing principle of society.

This is the big picture of the last 300 years of intellectual history in matters political -- the battle of reason and liberalism against statism in all its forms.  I think it correctly and clearly identifies the fundamental issues.  I can't claim to have invented this analysis -- one can find these ideas in Mises, for example, and Bastiat even , although he predates many of the subsequent illiberalisms.  I've believed something along these lines for a very long time,  but fairly recently I saw this argument -- that   all political philosophies after liberalism (libertarianism) are attempts to get rid of unalienable individual rights and return to rule by elites -- explicitly stated by philosopher John Pepple, and he was citing science fiction writer Sarah Hoyt (I cannot currently find either piece, unfortunately).  I recently had the opportunity to ask noted economist and economic historian Deirdre McCloskey about this thesis, and she agreed that it really does describe political intellectual history since the Enlightenment.  In addition, it dovetails with her argument that the ethics of freedom and markets and personal responsibility -- the bourgeois virtues -- are what led to modern civilization, peace, and prosperity.

With respect to the analysis of R.G. Price mentioned at the outset, socialism was indeed a reaction against the free market individualism of classical liberalism, but so is fascism.  Fascism is very closely related to socialism, including Marxism.  Both are products of reaction against capitalism and against Lockeian individual rights, and both are products of Hegelianism.  It isn't surprising that Mussolini began as a Marxist, or that Hitler and other Nazi leaders observed that they found it easiest to recruit followers from Marxist ranks.  Similarly, note that American progressives have their intellectual roots in the German Historical School, which in turn has its roots in Hegelianism and in nationalist economics, both of which are reactions against reason, the Enlightenment, and the laissez-faire economics that emerged from these.  It's worth noting that prior to the free market doctrines developed by the Physiocrats, Smith, and the Classical economists, the dominant economic system was Mercantilism (in German, Kameralism), the system of rent-seeking and government favoritism that now goes by the misnomer "crony capitalism."  Also contra Price, the "crises of laissez-faire capitalism" (e.g. Great Depression) to which he attributes the rise of socialism were clearly crises of mercantilism, resulting from government interference in the free market.

Mercantilism, socialism, Marxism, fascism, progressivism, crony capitalism ... while they differ in exactly how society should be ruled, all agree that the elites ought to be doing it, and to hell with individual liberty, unalienable rights, strict respect for private property rights, and personal responsibility.  All would replace what Mises calls contractual organization with hierarchical organization, replace voluntary exchange as the fundamental rule in social organization with compulsion.

I think there are reasons why this anti-liberal enterprise will fail.  But that will have to wait for my post on the next 300 years.

Picture: John Locke

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