Archive for the ‘Political Philosophy’ Category

Liberty and Faction

Thursday, December 3rd, 2020

Here is a great line from James Madison: “Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires. But it could not be less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency.”

What is a faction? “By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.”

Madison also has some very modern-sounding views about biases and motivated reasoning: “As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed. As long as the connection subsists between his reason and his self-love, his opinions and his passions will have a reciprocal influence on each other; and the former will be objects to which the latter will attach themselves.”

However, I would say that reason is not possible unless it is motivated by some sort of interest, so “self-love” is not automatically a biasing factor, as Madison has it. There is simply no such thing as interest-free reason.

Another remarkable line: “An attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power . . . [has] divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good.”

And: “So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts.”

And: “Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm.”

And: “[A] pure democracy, by which I mean a society consisting of a small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction. A common passion or interest will, in almost every case, be felt by a majority of the whole; a communication and concert result from the form of government itself; and there is nothing to check the inducements to sacrifice the weaker party or an obnoxious individual. Hence it is that such democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.”

Then comes Madison’s classic defense of republican government.

Notably, Madison warns against “A rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project.”

Eying Egalitarianism

Monday, November 30th, 2020

Here’s a note from Jason Brennan’s intro to political philosophy: “[G. A.] Cohen [Self-Ownership, Freedom, and Equality (New York: Cambridge University Press] 1995, pp. 229–44, takes [Robert Nozick’s] bait and wonders about redistributing eyes. Cecile Fabre, Whose Body Is It Anyway? (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), argues for the forced redistribution of eyes and other organs.”

Enoch Against Public Reason

Monday, November 30th, 2020

When philosopher Jason Brennan posted a “meme” suggesting that David Enoch had knocked out “public reason,” I figured I’d see what’s up. SSRN has the abstract and paper, “Against Public Reason.” The paper is officially published in the first volume of Oxford Studies in Political Philosophy. (Eric Mack also has an essay in there about rights, fyi.)

Brennan has his own critique of Rawls in his great intro to political philosophy.

Enoch is concerned particularly with versions of public reasoning that entail “some requirement to justify political principles to each of those subject to them as a necessary condition for legitimacy.” In this view, “all public-reason accounts must involve some idealization”—and that’s the problem. He writes, “I insist that the relevant reason for action is the content of the principle, not that we accept it.” I agree with that, but I think that some people use the term “public reason” to describe other sorts of theories that aren’t subject to Enoch’s critiques.

Socialism on a Spectrum

Sunday, July 26th, 2020

My Tweet: “Here’s an analogy I think is helpful. Everyone has some psychopathic traits, but a psychopath is someone who scores very high for most psychopathic traits. Similarly, many societies (including ours) have some traits of socialism and fascism but are neither socialist nor fascist.” It’s not a perfect analogy, of course. I think psychopaths stay remain at pretty much the same level of psychopathy (at least after a certain point) throughout their lives, whereas societies change. Also, whereas some psychopathic traits are or can be positive for people, I want to say that traits of socialism and fascism always are bad. But then I may have trouble talking about things like roads and the welfare state.

Huemer on Democracy

Saturday, July 25th, 2020

“It is the masses who harbor anti-democratic attitudes. Democratic values are the province of the elites. It is the elites who must protect those values from the masses.” So says Michael Huemer.

Huemer worries that, these days, “we have a great democratization of information,” and this is destroying our culture. “Now that the masses are participating in content-generation and -distribution too, they’re bringing everyone down to their level,” he writes.

Racism and Anti-Intellectualism on the Left

Wednesday, July 15th, 2020

A document from the National Museum of African American History & Culture overtly embraces racism and anti-intellectualism, asserting that “white culture” entails individualism, “emphasis on the scientific method” and “objective, rational linear thinking,” a belief that “hard work is the key to success,” and a “future orientation”—along with a bunch of other things that are either mixed, neutral, or bad. This is a package deal of epic proportions. It constitutes an extraordinary smear of the many great Black scientists (not to mention hard-working people in all fields) of history and of today. It is also comically self-refuting; for example, is it an objective fact that “white culture” entails those things, or is that merely the subjective preference of the author? If the latter (as it obviously is), why should we believe any of it?

In related news: “Museum Curator Resigns After He Is Accused of Racism for Saying He Would Still Collect Art From White Men.”

Hoppe’s Libertarianism

Tuesday, July 14th, 2020

In his Getting Libertarianism Right, Hans-Hermann Hoppe insists “”your existence and well-being depends decisively . . . especially on the continued existence of white heterosexual male dominated societies.” And that’s a good illustration of why I don’t call myself a libertarian.

In other libertarian news, Tom Woods defends his record, saying he’s “long since emerged from my paleoconservative phase.”

The Crime of Breathing

Tuesday, July 14th, 2020

Man’s aggressive cough toward woman on Aspen trail prompts misdemeanor charge.” This is an interesting story illustrating the contextual nature of rights. What a jerk this guy (allegedly) was!

Liberty and Existential Risk

Monday, July 13th, 2020

Michael Huemer points out that libertarians have a hard time theoretically dealing with existential risk.

Brooks on Liberalism

Monday, July 13th, 2020

According to David Brooks, liberalism promotes emotionless rationality, atomized individuals, and base self-“interest” detached from moral meaning. Of course that is nonsense, and Brooks does not name a single liberal who advocates such things.

Brooks is right about some things. He writes, “We have to have the open exchange of views that is the essence of liberalism.” And he advocates a “morality of personalism,” an “effort to see the full depth and complexity of each human person.” But of course that just is an aspect of liberalism properly conceived.

Goldberg on Locke

Saturday, July 11th, 2020

Jonah Goldberg has an interesting article out, “The Most Serious Attacks on the Founding Come From the Right.” One of Goldberg’s claims is that John Locke, although very influential on the American Founding, was not as influential as often assumed: “There’s ample evidence that his work in epistemology and psychology—then called ‘natural philosophy’—impressed the Founders greatly. But the Second Treatise on Government . . . simply wasn’t the Book That Changed Everything. I don’t say any of this to disparage Locke, but simply to note that Locke reflected ideas and principles that were already thick on the ground at the time.” He cites an article by Oscar and Lilian Handlin along these lines.

Goldberg also defends (classical) liberalism in his Newsweek column. He makes a lot of great points, but I think he concedes too much ground here: “There are a myriad downsides to radical individualism. America’s troubles today are inextricably linked with the breakdown of the family, local institutions, communities, organized religion and social trust.” What we might call atomistic individualism has always been a straw man version of individualism.

An aside: Goldberg mentions an article by Joseph Stengel on the origins of the Fourth Amendment.

Illegal Adoption Scheme

Thursday, June 25th, 2020

This is a bizarre case: “A former elected official in Arizona [Paul Petersen] who paid pregnant women as much as $10,000 to travel to the United States illegally to give up their newborn children for adoption pleaded guilty on Wednesday to a federal human smuggling conspiracy charge, the authorities said.” I suspect this case will give libertarian theorists fits if they look into it.

Liberty and Pandemics

Monday, June 22nd, 2020

Various people who work for, and who are associated with, the Ayn Rand Institute have been working up some very interesting ideas on government’s proper role in a pandemic. Here I address a new article by Onkar Ghate on the topic and a summary op-ed by Ben Bayer. The upshot: Government should play an active role in protecting people from infection by others, should have spelled-out and delimited powers in this area, and should not resort to wide-scale lockdowns.

Bayer writes, “The freedom that matters is the individual’s right to be free from the physical interference of others. This means freedom from murder, robbery, battery, and the threat of infection from another’s disease. So a government dedicated to protecting liberty rightly has the power to quarantine individuals who threaten to infect others with a dangerous disease.”

Ghate takes the now-common view that government properly tests people for infectious diseases (of sufficient severity), traces contacts, and quarantines the likely infectious.

So these Objectivists definitely do not take a libertarian anti-government stance. And they lay out an expansive concept of “interference” against which government properly acts that includes even unintentional infection.

Sources on Libertarian Anarchy

Thursday, June 18th, 2020

I think libertarian anarchy is wrong (actually incoherent), but I try to follow anarchist thinking as it’s prevalent in libertarianism. (I don’t consider myself a libertarian, either, but I find common cause with many libertarians.)

Roy A. Childs, Jr., has out a book compiling his essays on anarchy, Anarchism & Justice.

Michael Huemer participates in a documentary, The Monopoly on Violence.

Deneen Critiques Libertarians

Thursday, June 18th, 2020

Patrick Deneen begins, “Washington Post columnist George Will has added his voice to that of Brad Thompson in decrying the rise of an un-American conservative authoritarianism, represented, among others, by such thinkers as Adrian Vermeule, Sohrab Ahmari, and yours truly.” It’s no secret that I side with Will and Thompson.

Deneen argues that common-good Christianity, perhaps even more than Lockeanism, drove early American ideas.

Deneen then lets loose on his libertarian(ish) opponents: “Libertarianism has never been present in any actual operable political form during America’s history.  Indeed, as a school of thought, a pure form of philosophical libertarianism was not a significant presence in American history until its articulation as Social Darwinism in the early 20th century–including its attraction to eugenics–and did not appear as an economic school of thought until the mid-twentieth century under the influence of several foreign thinkers, F. A. Hayek and von Mises (and later, Ayn Rand).” Well, Ayn Rand, who bristled at the comparison of her ideas to libertarianism, was a U.S. citizen, as was Mises. And anyway who cares whether ideas are “foreign”? Regarding Deneen’s take on libertarianism, David Boaz asks, “Have you ever seen anybody pour more error and libel into one sentence?”

Brink Lindsey on Libertarians and Pandemics

Friday, June 12th, 2020

Brink Lindsey rightly points out that libertarianism (at least a dominant form of it) is anti-government: “The modern libertarian movement . . . is dedicated to the proposition that the contemporary American state is illegitimate and contemptible. In the libertarian view, government is congenitally incapable of doing anything well, the public sphere is by its very nature dysfunctional and morally tainted.”

Lindsey finds the libertarian position obviously absurd and argues we obviously need effective government: “When public safety is threatened, whether by war or disease, our dependence on government becomes immediately and viscerally obvious. There are no Centers for Disease Control in the private sector. There is no possibility of swiftly identifying the virus, and launching a crash program to develop tests, treatments, and vaccines, without massive government support for medical research. And for those tests, treatments, and vaccines to be effective, their distribution cannot be restricted by ability to pay; government must step in to ensure wide availability. In addition, vigorous use of the government’s emergency powers–banning large public gatherings, temporarily shutting down schools and businesses, issuing stay-at-home orders, quarantining the sick and those exposed to them–has been needed to help contain the outbreak. When a highly contagious and fatal disease can spread before its victims even show symptoms, the libertarian ethos of personal responsibility–do what you want, and bear the consequences for good or ill–leads not to mass flourishing but to mass death. Only the government has the power and resources to internalize the externalities of contagion and coordinate a rational response.”

The problem is that Lindsey pitches a large and aggressive positive-welfare government as the only alternative to no government.

The Objectivists (who very strongly reject libertarianism) have laid out a reasonable third path. One Objectivist publication runs the article, “‘Big Government’ Is Not the Problem.” The idea is that government needs to vigorously protect people from others who would harm them. More recently, Objectivists have argued that government has a legitimate role to play in keeping people safe from others carrying infectious diseases (see video conversations involving Gregory Salmieri, Amesh Adalja, Yaron Brook, and Ben Bayer). So government is perfectly within its proper guardrails in providing testing, setting up quarantines, and so on. I do think this line of thinking generates a lot of questions in terms of where to properly draw the lines delimiting government action.

Lindsey asserts that a free market could not otherwise counter a pandemic, but he just presumes this without evidence or serious argument. I want to offer a few reasons to think he might be wrong.

  1. Bill Gates has spent enormous sums of money fighting infectious diseases around the world, now including COVID-19. Tyler Cowen leads a group to provide fast grants to researchers working on the problem. So it is obviously not the case that only government can address externalities in this positive way (as opposed to strictly playing a protective role). The interesting question is whether government is needed at all for it, and, if so, to what degree.
  2. Firms have enormous financial incentives to stay open. The problem is that, in most cases, private testing has been literally illegal. The CDC and FDA derailed early testing efforts. In Colorado, only recently (within the past few weeks) could people get tested for COVID-19 without a doctor’s prescription, and testing was limited to people with symptoms. You can’t outlaw private testing and then blame the market for not providing private testing.
  3. Largely through a system of state laws, American government has imposed serious price controls during emergencies. This substantially throttles the market response and arguably is largely to blame for shortages in masks and other important products.
  4. Government has so royally screwed up health payments by turning health insurance largely into an employer-paid and prepaid system that it’s really absurd to measure a free healthcare market by today’s mostly-government-controlled “market.”

Libertarians for Police Reform

Saturday, June 6th, 2020

Libertarians long have been at the forefront of calling for criminal justice reform. Back in the 1990s I read a Cato report criticizing the drug war. Walter Olsen reviews some of Cato’s work on the matter.

Jeffrey Miron has out a new article, “Police Violence and the Racist Drug War.”