Thursday, June 26, 2008

More Hayek

This is a continuation of my previous post on Friedrich Hayek, which gives a bit of context for this one. Previously, I mentioned that, in defense of the idea of a sort of convergence of libertaranism and moderate welfare state liberalism, Will Wilkinson quoted Hayek in The Constitution of Liberty, where Hayek said:

All modern governments have made provision for the indigent, unfortunate and disabled and have concerned themselves with questions of health and the dissemination of knowledge. There is no reason why the volume of these pure service activities should not increase with general growth of wealth. There are common needs that can be satisfied only by collective action and can be thus provided for without restricting individual liberty. It can hardly be denied that, as we grow richer, that minimum of sustenance which the community has always provided for those not able to look after themselves, and which can be provided outside the market, will gradually rise, or that government may, usefully and without doing any harm, assist or even lead in such endeavors. (pp. 257-258)

There’s a problem I see with Hayek, or at least Hayek in the phase of his career in which he wrote The Constitution of Liberty, which I think explains Hayek’s belief that having the government lead the provision of relief for the unfortunate would not entail any restriction of liberty. Ironically, I think this problem is an outgrowth (though not an inevitable or unavoidable one) of one of Hayek’s insights about why interventionism is undesirable. Hayek pointed out that what was needed for the greatest number of people to have the best chance of achieving their goals and desires was a reasonably predictable social environment that makes planning for the future easier. The more interventionist a society is, the harder this becomes- you can’t make secure plans for the future if what’s legal and what’s not is always shifting, or if the laws are so numerous or arcane that what you can and can’t do is unclear, or if the government might decide to seize your property at any moment. Thus, the best course is to ensure security of property rights and strictly limit the government’s ability to expand its power or change the law abruptly.

This is a very good point, and one to keep in mind when you hear people claiming that bigger government creates order. However, there’s a problem, which seems directly related to this valuable insight. In The Constitution of Liberty, Hayek uses a somewhat idiosyncratic definition of “coercion,” in which general legal rules that restrict voluntary action or compel involuntary action are not coercive if they are known in advance and impartially applied, the idea being that you can then easily avoid being jailed or shot by abstaining from actions that you know will result in punishment. Freedom, as Hayek puts it, means “Independence of the arbitrary will of another.” (p.143) (Emphasis added.)

This has a fairly serious problem. As a concept of what “the rule of law” means, it’s quite good. As a concept of “freedom,” it is almost completely empty. Hayek himself demonstrates this fact when he uses this definition of freedom to argue that universal military conscription, of all things, is compatible with being “as independent of the will of another person as men have learned to be in society.” (p. 143) And more generally, the great majority of things libertarians would condemn would not violate people’s freedom under this principle- drug laws, sodomy laws, most forms of economic interventionism (though certain things that explicitly single out certain groups for government privilege, such as farm subsidies, would be prevented), compulsory “national service,” gun control, and so on.

Now, Hayek would not approve of these things- quite the contrary. And Hayek later evolved in his views to support a concept of freedom with more meat to it. But we should keep in mind that when Constitution of Liberty-era Hayek says that a welfare state can be created “without restricting individual liberty, he’s not using “liberty” in a sense that most libertarians (or even non-libertarians) would accept.

Hayek had his great moments too, though, and one of his remarks does a nice job of expressing my approach to advocating freedom. I’ll end on a positive note with one of my favorite quotes, from Hayek’s “The Intellectuals and Socialism”, which beautifully expresses the approach that I consider to be liberty’s best hope:

We must make the building of a free society once more an intellectual adventure, a deed of courage. What we lack is a liberal Utopia, a program which seems neither a mere defense of things as they are nor a diluted kind of socialism, but a truly liberal radicalism which does not spare the susceptibilities of the mighty (including the trade unions), which is not too severely practical, and which does not confine itself to what appears today as politically possible. We need intellectual leaders who are willing to work for an ideal, however small may be the prospects of its early realization. They must be men who are willing to stick to principles and to fight for their full realization, however remote. The practical compromises they must leave to the politicians.

Free trade and freedom of opportunity are ideals which still may arouse the imaginations of large numbers, but a mere "reasonable freedom of trade" or a mere "relaxation of controls" is neither intellectually respectable nor likely to inspire any enthusiasm… Those who have concerned themselves exclusively with what seemed practicable in the existing state of opinion have constantly found that even this had rapidly become politically impossible as the result of changes in a public opinion which they have done nothing to guide. Unless we can make the philosophic foundations of a free society once more a living intellectual issue… the prospects of freedom are indeed dark. But if we can regain that belief in the power of ideas which was the mark of liberalism at its best, the battle is not lost.

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Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Failure is an orphan. So are hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis.

Kevin Carson has a post on remarks made by Matthew Yglesias, in which Yglesias said:

My ideas really are basically the ideas that were at the core of the bipartisan, establishment consensus throughout the Cold War years. And they're ideas that could and should have been the key ideas of center-left think tanks in the post-9/11 world. But that's not what actually happened. Instead, a set of ideas that originally existed as a fringe right-wing position wound up being espoused not only by nearly the entire Republican Party but by a huge swathe of the broader establishment.

One of the annoying things about modern American liberalism is that it is a very powerful ideology that pretends to be powerless or even oppressed. As Carson points out, to a great extent neoconservatism is the “the bipartisan, establishment consensus” of Cold War liberalism (with some liberal Wilsonian crusading idealism thrown in), seeking a new purpose and excuse now that the Communists have had the bad manners to stop being a global menace.

It’s a fact that many people are ignorant of, and one that many others would desperately love to flush down the memory hole, and so cannot be emphasized enough: neoconservatism is an outgrowth of liberalism, not the “fringe right-wing.” It is a commonly repeated cliché among the first generation of neocons that, “I didn’t leave the Democrats, the Democrats left me.” This is quite true: the first neoconservatives were good technocratic liberals (or a bit further left) who became disenchanted with a Democratic Party that they felt had grown insufficiently militaristic and interventionist, insufficiently Zionist, and too tolerant of New Leftists who were gumming up the works of the regulatory/welfare state and against “the bipartisan, establishment consensus” beloved of the neocons and liberals like Yglesias alike. And on the homefront, of course, George W. Bush did not invent the idea of civil liberties abuses himself, as much as many liberals seem to believe or want to believe that he did.

The more I observe it, the more liberal rhetoric of the Bush II era- and especially the hysterical demonization of Bush himself as a unique evil whose policies just sprang forth ex nihilo- strikes me as less an expression of any coherent political philosophy and more a vast collective reaction-formation response. Liberals have been desperate to deny the paternity of their monstrous offspring- and considering what they’ve spawned, it’s hard not to feel a bit of sympathy.

Hard, not impossible.

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Monday, June 23, 2008

Thought on Hayek

I’ve been thinking about Friedrich Hayek since he came up in Will Wilkinson’s discussion of liberal-libertarian alliance, which led me to dip into The Constitution of Liberty for the first time since high school. While I admire Hayek greatly, I think libertarians would do better to take him as a treasure trove of ideas to take from rather than as a model for what libertarianism ought to mean. Will approvingly quoted Hayek in that book, when Hayek wrote:

All modern governments have made provision for the indigent, unfortunate and disabled and have concerned themselves with questions of health and the dissemination of knowledge. There is no reason why the volume of these pure service activities should not increase with general growth of wealth. There are common needs that can be satisfied only by collective action and can be thus provided for without restricting individual liberty. It can hardly be denied that, as we grow richer, that minimum of sustenance which the community has always provided for those not able to look after themselves, and which can be provided outside the market, will gradually rise, or that government may, usefully and without doing any harm, assist or even lead in such endeavors. (pp. 257-258)

On an initial scan I counted no less than five different things in this that are objectionable from a libertarian standpoint, and going over that would be tedious. I repeat the quote because it exemplifies what I see as a serious problem with Hayek.

Hayek had the unfortunate tendency to casually make important concessions to left-wing statism with a simple handwave about how of course there’s nothing objectionable about this or that leftist program, all reasonable people know that. This quote is an example. The Road to Serfdom is also a good example of this, ironically, despite its odd reputation for being the opposite. Leaving aside the more fundamental question, this has the effect of declaring moderate left-liberal statism to be the default state that is accepted without argument or proof, while placing the burden of proof on classical liberals like Hayek-the idea that the state should not act in a given situation is guilty until proven innocent. I suppose it isn’t surprising that Hayek thought that way- he started out as a socialist, was surrounded by a leftist intellectual climate, and was on close terms with many leftists and socialists in his personal and professional life, so it’s no shock that he accepted some of their basic assumptions, even if he strongly rejected their conclusions. Frankly, I’ve often thought that Hayek was too nice for his own intellectual good, and too eager to put his intellectual opponents in the best possible light. As vices go, being excessively nice isn’t a terribly bad one, but Hayek could be so charitable that it blurred his perception, and I suspect that led him to treat Leftist ideas with insufficient skepticism.

Another objectionable unintended consequence of the way Hayek sometimes blithely accepted Leftist premises is that it reinforces one of the key tenets of the Western Left, the privileging of “personal” freedom over “economic” freedom. The personal freedoms the American Left tends to like are made utterly sacrosanct, but merely economic freedoms and a person’s right to the fruits of his own labor are at best respected out of convenience, and more likely not respected at all. I’m not a Randian, but Ayn Rand had a very important virtue: She actually defended economic rights on moral grounds, insisting that a person’s right to control his own labor and the products thereof- in other words, his right to his life- was just as meaningful as his right to call the president a chimp or distribute hardcore pornography or whatever. She put the freedoms that the average person benefits from every day of his life on the same level as the freedoms that are especially dear to the intellectual/opinion-shaping class.

This is getting a bit long, so I’m keeping part two, on Hayek’s conception of “freedom,” for another post in a few days.

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Saturday, June 21, 2008

Lapdog of government

There’s something I’d like to add about the subject of my recent Strike the Root article about Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the police. (Short version: MADD is collaborating with law enforcement to tell teenagers their friends have been killed, then letting them stew in grief for an hour before admitting it was a trick.) I based the article on an account of the MADD program from the San Diego-Union Tribune and it’s worth pointing out the blatant bias by writer Pat Sherman in what is allegedly a straight news article. As both a libertarian and a reporter for a small newspaper, I’m probably unusually sensitive to bias in what is supposed to be news reporting, but in this case the article could hardly be more one-sided and propagandistic if a MADD staffer had written it himself. Leaving aside for now the fact that he just mindlessly regurgitates MADD’s highly questionable statistics, the story opens with:

It was an elaborate hoax, but 36 students at El Camino High pulled it off with potentially life-saving consequences.

The result was a soberingly realistic dramatization about the dangers of drinking and driving, delivered with surprising professionalism.

It concludes with:

[School counselor Lori] Tauber said she is aware that drinking and driving is occurring among the student population.

“I just know in my heart this was worth it,” she said.

In between, we get several paragraphs of Officer Eric Newbury, the mastermind behind the MADD program, righteously going on about the goodness of the program.

Does the author include anything said by anyone who doesn’t think this willful emotional torment of innocent kids was just wonderful? Do we get anything other than pure propaganda at any point? No, because that would entail the onerous work of actually doing your goddamn job as a journalist, which is apparently not something required of employees at the San Diego Union-Tribune.

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Friday, June 20, 2008

Classic Albert Jay Nock

Over at the Mises Institute, their Daily Article is one of my all-time favorites, Albert Jay Nock’s classic essay “Isaiah’s Job.” If you’ve never read it, please go have a look.

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Thursday, June 19, 2008

New Strike the Root article

I've got a new article up at Strike the Root. Have a look.

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Friday, June 13, 2008

Libertarian strategy and the ideological climate

I was pleasantly surprised to see that my post on Will Wilkinson’s proposal for liberal/libertarian alliance drew some interest. My thanks to Will Wilkinson for his response, and to Robert Kaercher for making it one of the links of the day when he was guest editor at Strike the Root.

I’ll probably have some more thoughts on this later, but for now I just want to hit a main point and give a small clarification.. In his response, Will wrote:

I’m not interested in “repudiating” libertarianism’s more radical left-leaning strands — I have a lot of sympathy with elements of Long, Johnson, and Carson’s philosophies.

Here I think I may have written sloppily in my previous post. When I spoke of “repudiating” the more radical strands of libertarian thought, I meant Will’s remarks about the likes of Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard in his previous post, when he wrote:

Misean economics, disinfected of the open-minded empirical consequentialism of Mises’ Liberalism, and filtered through Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard’s peculiar views of rights and coercion delivers a powerfully moralized brief for capitalism that calls into question even taxation for the purpose of financing genuine public goods. That Rothbardians and Randians have wasted so much time fighting with each other on the question of the minimal state versus anarcho-capitalism obscures their unity on a rights-based bulwark against the slide from the welfare state to socialism. Sadly, “libertarianism” has become identified rather strongly with this ideology — an ideology some of the thinkers most strongly identified with libertarianism, like Hayek and Friedman, never shared.

I didn’t mean left-libertarianism specifically, although modern left-libertarianism does have a lot of Rothbard in it. I find the reference to “the open-minded empirical consequentialism of Mises’ Liberalism” somewhat odd. While Ludwig von Mises was certainly a consequentialist, he was renowned/notorious for his refusal to give an inch on politics; whatever the ethical grounding of his political beliefs, in terms of willingness to accept aspects of left-liberalism in ideology or compromise on policy he had more in common with Rothbard and Rand than with Hayek and Friedman.

While I disagree with Will on the underlying principle of the issue, which I might touch on more later- I don’t think coercive transfer payments can be squared with libertarianism, and I think they would tend to corrode the foundations of a classical liberal government- I think our disagreement here has more to with issues of strategy. More specifically, he seems more hopeful about the prospects for meaningful positive change now or in the relatively near future than I am. He writes:

I am interested in promoting a tendency of thought and a set of policy reforms that I think will, as a matter of fact, make people better off.

I agree with this. I differ in that I don’t think, at this moment in time, that positive policy changes beyond very small nibblings at the national state are a plausible outcome, or that any positive change that did occur would be durable, or that libertarians are currently numerous or influential enough to matter politically in any case. I’m far more interested in, as Will puts it, promoting a tendency of thought, which I think is more likely to be achieved by presenting a “purist” libertarianism that is sharply defined from other ideologies, and which will give libertarian efforts a better chance of producing lasting gains by pushing towards an ideological climate where such gains will be possible.

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Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Please to explain...

I was reading about the case of Amelia S., a 17-year old girl from Indiana with clinical depression who fled National Guard boot camp without authorization and returned home. The Guard tried to force her back to training, in defiance of rules regarding people with diagnosed mental disorders. She has now been released due to public pressure, despite the handicap of being forbidden to retain counsel for her own defense due to her age. (Unfortunately, the website for the Catholic Peace Fellowship, where I’ve been following the story, does not seem to have the older posts on Amelia S. archived.)

Which leads to my question. In general, minors have various restrictions on what they can do and the kind of commitments they can undertake. Which leads me to wonder, how in God’s name is it legal for a 17-year old to enlist in the military, even with parental consent? She’s not old enough to legally buy alcohol, smoke, have sex with an adult in some states, buy a gun, or gamble. American law does not consider her mature enough to give meaningful consent to these things, nor to deal with the consequences and responsibilities they entail.

In the eyes of the law, however, she is fully competent to enter a binding contract- one which has criminal penalties for breaking it, no less- committing her to several years of employment in a job that poses a significant risk of death or permanent disability. Could somebody explain how, exactly, that makes sense? Because I keep trying to imagine a universe where this is even remotely sane, and I’ve started to bleed from the eyeballs.

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Saturday, June 07, 2008

In search of dogs to lie down with

Will Wilkinson has what I would consider a deeply misguided post about the alleged affinity between libertarianism and big government welfare statist left-liberalism. It’s sort of the bearded mirror universe double of left-libertarianism; left-libertarians like Long, Johnson, Carson, et al. want to radicalize libertarianism and unite it with the anti-statist elements of the Left, whereas Wilkinson proposes to repudiate libertarianism’s more radical strands and draw closer to the Left’s more statist mainstream elements. Long-time readers of The Superfluous Man know I fly into rages about vital center liberals every three or so posts on this blog, so you can imagine my feelings about that.

I think Wilkinson errs badly in his assumption that libertarians and welfare state liberals are closely related branches of the same “liberal” philosophy. This leads him to suggest that liberals basically want the same things as libertarians, and merely happen to be confused about means; that their contempt for commerce, scorn of individualism, loathing of the voluntary private sector and its “greed,” adoration of the state, and dismissal of the idea that people can make their own decisions will evaporate if they see enough statistics about the positive effects of free trade and other economic liberties. And if you show
Fred Phelps of Westboro Baptist Church fame data showing that most homosexuals are honest, productive members of society, I’m sure he’ll join PFLAG and give the first gay man he sees a big ‘ol hug.

One thing observing politics over the years has convinced me of is this: there are no pragmatic value-free technocrats in the political foxholes. Political philosophies are not just a set of policies; they are collections of ideals, attitudes, emotions, and prejudices. Everyone who takes a serious interest in the subject, and who is not simply a mercenary acting purely out of narrow self-interest, is driven by deep-rooted feelings- things they admire, things they despise, things they love, hate, or are inspired or disgusted by- that guide them, whether they admit it or not, whether they know it or not. (Indeed, “moderates” deluded into thinking of themselves as non-ideological are probably the most tightly shackled to their existing core beliefs, since they lack the self-awareness to examine those beliefs critically.) The edge areas of a person’s beliefs can often be somewhat malleable in the face of empirical data, but the core is far, far harder to shake. It’s possible, but it’s not common and it’s not easy. Plenty of people who thought invading Iraq was a good idea at the time now think it was a mistake, but I’d be shocked if more than a tiny fraction of them have permanently changed their core beliefs on militarism or intervention in general.

When it does happen, it seems much more likely to be because a person’s core values and political ideology are out of sync. Over the course of a few years, I made the trip from law-and-order conservative to classical liberal to minarchist to anarchocapitalist- but my basic attitudes, ideals, and intuitions were always more compatible with libertarianism than conservatism, and my ideological change was primarily the result of losing certain blinders and becoming more consistent with things I already believed. Thus, I find it wildly implausible that people who hold an ideology that has disgust for virtually everything libertarianism holds dear built into its foundation- and modern American liberalism most certainly does- are going to make any significant moves towards less statism, much less move far enough to think of libertarians as allies, especially for the sake of increased economic growth.

Now that libertarians are breaking free of the long-held belief that conservatives were our friends or basically on our side, the last thing we need is to enter an equally self-destructive relationship with an equally incompatible ideology that lacks even the vestigial remnants of libertarian sentiment that conservatism could once boast. Luckily, I can’t imagine many liberals wanting to have us anyway.

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Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Sudha Shenoy, RIP

I was sad to see at the Mises Institute blog that economist and Mises Institute associate Sudha Shenoy has passed away. You can read more posts about her by Lew Rockwell, Thomas DiLorenzo, B.K. Marcus, Sheldon Richman (with comments by Robert Higgs), Sauvik Chakraverti, Ralph Raico, Peter Klein, Chris Sciabarra, and Steve Horwitz. You can also read an interview with her from 2003. Rest in peace.

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Tuesday, June 03, 2008

I use exclamation points excessively!

I just realized that my last three post titles all end in exclamation points. Underneath my mild-mannered exterior lurks a boiling cauldron of rage, apparently. Who would have thought?

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Ron Paul is a stupidhead and his mom dresses him funny!

My middle name is "Drew," and for most of my childhood that's what everyone called me. (And before you become the quadrillionth person to ask: No, it's not short for Andrew.) I'm still called this within my family to prevent confusion, due to the fact that almost every male in my mother's family since the time of the Sumerians has been named "John." I finally switched to using my first name outside the family in high school, because I didn't feel like explaining to 8 different teachers why I went by my middle name.

Anyway, early in elementary school, some budding young wag realized that "Drew" rhymes with "poo." So, for a period of several months, a bunch of the kids called me that. Much mirth ensued.

I bring this up because, after reading Michael Goldfarb's recent post at the Weekly Standard's blog about Ron Paul (Hat tip to the Blog), I find myself longing for the subtle wit of second graders chanting a childish slang term for excrement. ("New Right" actually means "Jew Right?" Brilliant! In your face, Senator Taft!) It had a degree of class, subtlety, and insight that most modern neocons can only dream of reaching.

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Monday, June 02, 2008

Shut up and enjoy your freedom of speech!

Robert Murphy at Crash Landing comments on the following phenomenon:

It always amazes me when someone will complain about the government on some issue, and then some blowhard comes back with, "You're lucky you live in a country where you have the right to criticize the government."

And the guy says it like the critic is a whiny teenager or something complaining to her parents about only getting the $300 cell phone rather than the $500 one she really wanted.

I’ve seen this come from people on both Left and Right. It’s an interesting phenomenon, but it’s not a surprising one. Statism has adapted to the post-Enlightenment world- very few people go around saying that the peasants need to shut up and do what they’re told because freedom is an evil thing that would destroy the beneficent natural hierarchy God has ordained. Plenty of people still believe that (except for the “God” part, usually) but it’s gauche to actually say it now that classical liberalism’s brief period of intellectual ascendancy has made it unfashionable to actually attack freedom explicitly. Instead, one must attack freedom in the name of freedom. On the Left, the idea of positive rights to supplement the supposed “emptiness” of the negative right to life, liberty, and property serves this purpose. On the Right, “freedom” seems to have taken on a purely nationalistic meaning of “not ruled by foreigners”- freedom in the sense in which the Spartans were “free.”

I've frequently noticed that free speech is often used as a legitimizing tool for the government, in much the same way that democracy is; as long as you have free speech, you are supposedly still “free” and have nothing to really object to. (The fact that this defends the right most valuable to academics, journalists, artists, etc. while denigrating every other right is almost certainly not a coincidence. If you start thinking about left-wing statism as an expression of the interests of the intellectual/opinion-shaping class, it starts making a lot more sense.) No matter how utterly oppressed you are, it’s not really oppression or injustice as long as you have the right to bitch about it- and you shouldn’t bitch about it, because the fact that you still have the right to do so proves that you have no cause for serious complaint. Thus, people can declare that freedom is precious- and something we ought to be grateful to our rulers for providing- while pushing a concept of “freedom” that is utterly empty. If people buy it, as many do, they’ll ignore the loss of meaningful freedom to actually govern their own lives, and instead babble endlessly about how precious the mess of pottage they’ve been given as a replacement is.

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