RCH: The strangest riot in American history

Thus the Astor Place, like every other theater in the United States, was unable to make itself too exclusive. Its founders, like those who founded the republic itself, had to find a way to live with an equality that was democratic in nature. Democratic equality was, and is, a different monster than the equality Europeans had been grappling with since Late Antiquity (the tail end of the Roman Empire). The old equality was based on Christianity and on the feudalistic property rights regimes that undergirded Europe. Democratic equality, on the other hand, is based on notions of self-rule and on capitalistic property rights. Basically, in Western culture, free men and money replaced piety and honor when it came to mutual understandings of equality.

Please, read the rest.

What is ‘Good’? What was Arendt pursuing?

Arendt is not the most consistent or coherent philosopher. Her writings display shades of sentimental as well as stoic rationality. Some might scoff at the progression of her thoughts. But the depth of her emotion is what grants her literature the luminescence that we need in times of moral darkness. The world was left waiting for what could have been a monumental work on political judgement when Arendt passed on before getting a chance to complete the final segment of The Life of Mind. The piece entitled ‘Judgement’ was left with an epigraph:

Victrix causa deis placuit, sed victa Catoni.

Taken from Lucan’s Pharsalia, it translates to ‘the victorious cause pleased the gods, but the defeated one pleases Cato.’ It refers to the Roman philosopher and thinker Cato’s life and beliefs. He chose to commit suicide rather than give in to the faction he thought was ‘wrong’. Thus, what is ‘good’ would remain good even if it is defeated a hundred times. His stoicism and moral stubbornness is perhaps what Arendt wanted us to inculcate as a way of moral disciplining of the mind. But also of relevance is the presumption that there is, in fact, something good that is universal and not subject to fluctuations of regions, religion, class or caste. It is like music? Only humans have the capacity to perceive beats, melody, pitch and a number of other variables that combine to make music as we know it. Irrespective of how isolated or engaged our culture might have been with a globalized world, we carry within us the ability to differentiate good music from bad. What differs is our perception of what is happy from sad. A Balinese music for cremation might sound quite happy and serene to the uninitiated. Similarly, perhaps we possess the capacity to ascertain the ‘good’ pursuits from the bad. While culture, upbringing and circumstances of nature might affect the way we perceive the degree to which we are obligated to act upon the thus discovered moral, no (non-sociopathic) human can deny the existence of the goodness of the moral once confronted with it.

I remember asking my professor once about what he thought was that one universal value in constitutions around the world that need protection from majoritarian attempts at amendment. He answered, without blinking, equality. I knew there was something within the wide array of norms that we associate with equality that I know is a good that commands universality. However, there was enough in the substantive affirmations of equality that had room for reasonable disagreement such that as an unbiased spectator I would not be able to dismiss one side over the other. Perhaps the universal principle requires a Humean recognition or a Kantian deliberation. Either way, that it exists and is worth pursuing is an unquestionable precursor to an Arendtian enquiry into the state of things.

There are some hints as to what she might have thought definitely existed within the set (and let us treat it as a set of values/ideals/principles for nothing if not humility about the extent of our understanding and knowledge) of what is ‘good’. Political freedom features quite prominently into her thought. The freedom to participate in public affairs as equals seems to have a place of prominence for Arendt. Not so much the concept of equality extended to realms outside the political. We are not born equal and cannot and should not try to find a natural occurrence of equality for that would require an unjust comparison of the distinctions and characteristics that distinguish individuals. The last blog post talked about Arendt’s insistence on separating the political from social and personal realms. While identity politics is often engaged to make a case for equality, and Arendt had nothing against the ideal of equality, she believed that it is in the political realm that we needed to affirm the ideal of equality most vehemently and zealously. This is because it affects directly our participation in the political which in turn affects everything about our existence in the world.

A better way to read Arendt is to go meta-psychological on her. Perhaps one of the ‘good’  values within the set is a form of communicative rationality, the desire and pursuance of a method of thinking representatively. And perhaps, just as liberation is a necessary precursor to freedom, so is the engagement of Arendtian judgment to finding that which is ‘good’.

Adam Smith on the character of the American rebels

They are very weak who flatter themselves that, in the state to which things have come, our colonies will be easily conquered by force alone. The persons who now govern the resolutions of what they call their continental congress, feel in themselves at this moment a degree of importance which, perhaps, the greatest subjects in Europe scarce feel. From shopkeepers, tradesmen, and attornies, they are become statesmen and legislators, and are employed in contriving a new form of government for an extensive empire, which, they flatter themselves, will become, and which, indeed, seems very likely to become, one of the greatest and most formidable that ever was in the world. Five hundred different people, perhaps, who in different ways act immediately under the continental congress; and five hundred thousand, perhaps, who act under those five hundred, all feel in the same manner a proportionable rise in their own importance. Almost every individual of the governing party in America fills, at present in his own fancy, a station superior, not only to what he had ever filled before, but to what he had ever expected to fill; and unless some new object of ambition is presented either to him or to his leaders, if he has the ordinary spirit of a man, he will die in defence of that station.

Found here. Today, many people, especially libertarians in the US, celebrate an act of secession from an overbearing empire, but this isn’t really the case of what happened. The colonies wanted more representation in parliament, not independence. London wouldn’t listen. Adam Smith wrote on this, too, in the same book.

Smith and, frankly, the Americans rebels were all federalists as opposed to nationalists. The American rebels wanted to remain part of the United Kingdom because they were British subjects and they were culturally British. Even the non-British subjects of the American colonies felt a loyalty towards London that they did not have for their former homelands in Europe. Smith, for his part, argued that losing the colonies would be expensive but also, I am guessing, because his Scottish background showed him that being an equal part of a larger whole was beneficial for everyone involved. But London wouldn’t listen. As a result, war happened, and London lost a huge, valuable chunk of its realm to hardheadedness.

I am currently reading a book on post-war France. It’s by an American historian at New York University. It’s very good. Paris had a large overseas empire in Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the Caribbean. France’s imperial subjects wanted to remain part of the empire, but they wanted equal representation in parliament. They wanted to send senators, representatives, and judges to Europe, and they wanted senators, representatives, and judges from Europe to govern in their territories. They wanted political equality – isonomia – to be the ideological underpinning of a new French republic. Alas, what the world got instead was “decolonization”: a nightmare of nationalism, ethnic cleansing, coups, autocracy, and poverty through protectionism. I’m still in the process of reading the book. It’s goal is to explain why this happened. I’ll keep you updated.

Small states, secession, and decentralization – three qualifications that layman libertarians (who are still much smarter than conservatives and “liberals”) argue are essential for peace and prosperity – are worthless without some major qualifications. Interconnectedness matters. Political representation matters. What’s more, interconnectedness and political representation in a larger body politic are often better for individual liberty than smallness, secession, and so-called decentralization. Equality matters, but not in the ways that we typically assume.

Here’s more on Adam Smith at NOL. Happy Fourth of July, from Texas.

Some afterthoughts on Rio Paralympics

Paralympics are over, and with them the cycle of Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. Once again the city was able to put up a good show, and thankfully all went well in the Cidade Maravilhosa. But not everything is alright in Rio: even more than the Olympics, the Paralympics were able to show the contradictions between the city where we live everyday and the city of the event: Rio is not welcoming for people with disabilities.

At least in Brazilian Portuguese, political correctness has done a mess with vocabulary concerning the kind of people who compete in Paralympics. We are not supposed to say they are disabled (don’t even think about saying they are crippled!). I think the correct vocabulary today is, as I used, “people with disabilities.” But even that is under political correct scrutiny, so it seems. All this discussion about words springs from cultural Marxism, postmodernism, relativism and the belief that there’s nothing objective beyond our vocabulary. But words can’t hide the reality: Rio is unequal. The way it treats the blind, the lame, and even the elderly or the young, is completely different from the way it treats people in middle-age and more able to walk. And all that despite strong legislation in this area.

One of the greatest debates in political philosophy in the 20th century happened between American philosophers John Rawls and Robert Nozick. Trying to build on classical liberal foundations (but moving to egalitarian liberalism), Rawls pointed out that “equality was supposed to be the moral benchmark for social and political institutions, and that any deviation from equality had to be specially justified.” Nozick answer was that liberty upsets patterns. Even if we have a starting point in society where we have a perfectly equal distribution of goods or assets, the moment that we allow people to be free to make their own choices (as liberalism prescribes) they are going to make choices we cannot possibly predict, and these choices are going to upset any kind of pattern we established in the first place. That happens because each one of us is unique in its own right: each one of us have a specific set of values, preferences and circumstances that upsets any would-be planner. So, if you want to respect human liberty to make choices, you have to give up on any plan for material equality.

Nozick’s answer to Rawls has a lot of Adam Smith in it. In The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) (preceding the more famous Wealth of Nations both in time and argument) Smith presented a character called “man of system.” This person sees society as an architect sees a blueprint for a construction. Smith says such person is “apt to be very wise in his own conceit; and is often so enamored with the supposed beauty of his ideal plan of government that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it.” The problem is that humans have free will, the ability to make choices. And as such, they will upset any blueprint prepared for them. In other words, “individual people are not chess pieces you can move on a board with their dreams and desires ignored.” To the eyes of the would-be planner, “society must be at all times in the highest degree of disorder.”

So, material equality of outcomes (or at least of opportunities) is totally out of reach? Should we disregard it completely? Should the “invisible hand” prevail in spite of the weakest in our society? I don’t think so. Just the opposite! One of the very reasons I find classical liberalism morally appealing is the fact that no economic or political system ever conceived helps the weakest as it does. In other words, contrary to (what seems to me is) the popular belief, classical liberalism defends social justice more than any of its intellectuals alternatives. Answering John Rawls’s famous claim that “a just society will be one whose rules tend to work to the maximum advantage of the least well-off classes,” Friedrich Hayek pointed out exactly this. In The Constitution of Liberty, Hayek agreed with Rawls about the end at which social institutions should aim: the welfare of the least advantaged. He simply disagreed about the means Rawls thought would get us there.

Instead of thinking of us as chess pieces on a board, when can use the analogy of a soccer game (or football, or basketball – suit yourself). The outcome of the game is the result of the player’s individual abilities, but it is also the outcome of the rules. In other words, in a free society, where people are free to choose, the outcomes are not just the result of the innumerable decisions of countless individuals. They are also the result of the rules enforcing property rights, contracts, taxation, and so on. So, it’s important to think about the justice of these rules, as well as the outcomes they might have. The point is that we can embrace a theory of social justice, but that just tells us the end we are heading to, not the means to get there.

Contrary to egalitarians, progressivists and socialists claims, no theory “tends to work to the maximum advantage of the least well-off classes” as classical liberalism does. And that’s a great reason I support it. As I said in the beginning, Rio is very unequal, despite decades of egalitarian policies in the city and in Brazil as a whole. On the other hand, there’s plenty of evidence that classical liberal policies tend to help the very people others accuse it of ignoring. When it comes to doing social justice, it’s important to have not just the heart, but also the mind in the right place. And I believe classical liberal policies are this place.

References:
What’s Right about Social Justice?
Rawls and Nozick on Liberty & Equality
Adam Smith and the Follies of Central Planning
Fight of the Century

Final thoughts on Rio Olympics

Rio Olympics are over, and it seems to me, they are leaving a great impression. Despite all the problems the city and the country faced in recent years, not to mention the fact that Brazil is still a developing country, all ends well for Summer Olympics 2016.

One final comment I would like to make about the events once again relates to Brazilian athletes: Brazil scored an unprecedented 19 in the medal table (7 golds, 6 silvers and 6 bronzes), establishing a new record for itself. Among Brazilian medalists were people like Martine Grael, who won gold in Sailing, 49er FX Women. Martine is the daughter of twice Olympic gold medalist in sailing Torben Grael. Her brother Marco and uncle Lars also sailed in the Olympics. We also had people like Isaquias Queiroz dos Santos, who won Silver in Canoe Sprint, Men’s Canoe Single 1000m, Bronze in Canoe Sprint, Men’s Canoe Single 200m, and again Silver in Canoe Sprint, Men’s Canoe Double 1000m, becoming the first Brazilian athlete to ever win three medals in a single edition of the Olympic Games.

Isaquias was born in a very poor region of Brazil, and has been through great adversity before becoming an Olympic medalist: as a child he poured boiling water on himself and spent a month in hospital recovering; at the age of 5 he was kidnapped and offered up for adoption before being rescued by his mother; at the age of 10 he fell out of a tree and lost a kidney. In his teenage years he severed the top third off his left ring finger. He started training in a social project supported by Brazilian Federal government.

I am pretty sure that this picture happens with athletes and medalists from other countries: on one hand we have medalists like Martine, coming from a well-to-do environment and with a family of athletes who introduced her to the sport. On the other hand we have medalists like Isaquias, who had to face great hardships but was helped by social programs to become an Olympic athlete. Considering that, should the government create more programs to develop more people like Isaquias? Should the government prevent the privileges of people like Martine? Questions like these may sound preposterous to many, but they actually reflect much of the political discussion we have today: should the government help kids from poor families with education, healthcare and other things in order to create a head start? Should the government overtax the rich (and their heritage) in order to create more equality? In other words, what we have here is a discussion of equality versus freedom. In order to talk about that we have to understand what is equality and what is freedom.

There are many senses in which Isaquias and Martine will never be equals: they were born in different places, to different families. They had different life stories. There is a sense in which no two individuals are equal: each one of us is in each one way unique. And that makes us all special in each one way. Of course, when talking about equality most people are thinking about equality of outcome. But they forget (or ignore) that in order to have this kind of equality you need to ignore all the differences between individuals – the very same thing that makes us all unique and special – or to use government force to take from one and give to another. So, unless you are willing to ignore all the differences that make us all unique or to use force against non aggressors, you have to accept at least some income inequality as part of life. The classical liberal answer to that is that we need to be equal before the law: a great part of the liberal project in previous centuries was basically to abolish privileges (private laws) and to make all equally responsible before government. That is an equality we can all have. And we should.

The second point is freedom. Freedom from what? Or to do what? There are at least two kinds of freedom discussed in the context of the liberal revolutions in the 18th and 19th centuries. One is related to John Locke and the Founding Fathers, the other to Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In the Declaration of Independence Thomas Jefferson wrote that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The discussion about this phrase can go really long, but I want to emphasize simply that in Jefferson’s view you have the freedom to pursue your own understanding of happiness. I may completely disagree with what you are choosing for your life, but at the same time I am not to force you in any way to change your choices. I am not to force upon you my brand of happiness, not matter how much I am sure I have the correct one.

Rousseau’s version of freedom is very different: as he famously stated, “whoever refuses to obey the general will shall be compelled to do so by the whole of society, which means nothing more or less than that he will be forced to be free.” In other words, if you are a minority (and especially if you are an individual, the smallest minority possible) people can force upon you their brand of happiness. That is one reason why Rousseau is called “the philosopher of vanity”: he refuses to accept that people see life in a different way from his own. Rousseau’s vision of freedom is connected to his troubled relation with Christianity – where indeed you need to have a relationship with God through Jesus to become free. But the catch is that in Christianity God never forces you. Rousseau’s god is very different, and as such, Rousseaunism is just a Christian heresy.

To conclude, in order to create more income equality you have to destroy the classical liberal version of freedom – or to change to another version that inevitably leads to totalitarianism. As Milton Friedman said, “A society that puts equality — in the sense of equality of outcome — ahead of freedom will end up with neither equality nor freedom. The use of force to achieve equality will destroy freedom, and the force, introduced for good purposes, will end up in the hands of people who use it to promote their own interests.” I just hope we can have more people like Isaquias and Martine, who achieve great goals, sometimes with the help of friends and family, sometimes in completely unpredictable ways.

At a Muslim Wedding

I was on that free diving and fishing trip through Algeria I have written about before. The French, who had seemingly deeply colonized the country, had been gone for a few years. They had left behind their language and many buildings in the big cities and in some other, fertile parts of Algeria. In remote areas though, it was almost as if they had never been there. I was in one of those areas with my then-future-ex-wife (“TFEW”) in our VW camping bus.

It was in the east, in Kabylia, in a small town squeezed between the mountains and the sea. There was a tiny harbor protected by a tiny breakwater that sheltered four or five boats. There was also a café a hundred yards away. A big rock with steep sides emerged within swimming distance of the harbor. The town was a spear fisherman’s dream as well as a vacationer’s dream. It was the kind of place that travel agencies use to arouse you on TV in the winter and never, never deliver.

When we arrived, in the middle of a hot afternoon, there was no human being in sight; even the café was empty. I was an instinctive believer in the adage that it’s easier to ask for forgiveness than for permission even before I heard it spoken. So, we parked at the harbor and had our cheese, bread, and figs lunch. I prepared instant coffee on the stove. I thought I was giving whatever authorities might exist in the town ample time to chase us off if they wished. Nobody came.

Toward evening, I walked to the café where four or five men were sitting and talking quietly. I said Hello in French and they replied in the same language. I could read the curiosity in their eyes but they were too polite to inquire. So, I ordered some tea and explained briefly what I was doing in Algeria. This interested them. Being a fisherman works everywhere as an introduction. Everyone knows what fishing is (unlike “touring,” for example). Every man either is a fisherman or wishes he were. Or has a brother-in-law who is a fisherman. One of the men volunteered that the café served wine. I ordered a glass for myself and offered to treat the men. Only one accepted.

My companion and I has a small dinner under the light of an oil lamp and went to sleep in the back of the bus. In the morning, I quickly located a bakery by smell. There was hot fresh bread. (Good bread is an undeniable gift of French colonialism.) After breakfast; I cinched on a light weight belt and grabbed my speargun; I put on my mask and snorkel and my flippers. I entered the clear water of the harbor and swam to the offshore rock. The sea was bountiful. There were groupers there that did not even know I was a predator and various edible fish that seemed to only have Arabic names. (If you don’t believe me, I have a picture.)

The location was so idyllic that we lingered on. In truth, we didn’t even have anyplace to go in a hurry anyway. We ate fresh fish at every meal, with fresh bread and tomatoes, plus some fruits. There were no authorities. Only the village kids came to visit. They were sweet and full of good questions. We gave them fish. I had become almost an old-timer at the café. One of the guys there told me his name was Pierre. He was the same guy who had accepted a glass of wine the first day; I should have known. I never got the story of why he had stayed behind after all the other French left. Maybe, there was a woman involved. Or, he had no relatives in France. Asking would have been pushy

One morning, early, two older children with solemn expressions came by with a message. There was going to be a wedding the next day and we were invited. We were both flattered and intrigued. The TFEW immediately went into a flurry of activity looking for a suitable present for the bride. It was no easy task because we were camping, with minimalist baggage. Eventually, she found a small silk kerchief that she thought might do because, frankly, the locals seemed so poor. She (and I too) was thinking in terms of what we knew about: American and French weddings, pretty much variations on the same basic model: The bride is the queen and she gets presents, the bride’s mother is the dictator, the groom is a little drunk, so are many of the guests, including children. There is dancing. Most unmarried women are a little or much turned on; single guys try their luck.

On the wedding day, we cleaned up as well as we could, birdbath manner. My companion even washed her hair in cold water. Fortunately, she was wearing it in a very short afro, almost a buzz cut. She put on a light cotton mumu that looked almost ironed. It was a decent, loose garment but with discreet curves in the right areas. I thought she looked more than presentable. I don’t know about myself. I had on clean jeans and my only shirt with a collar. The kids had been vague about time. Around noon, we walked up the steep street with the same children guiding us.

A whole other street, a flat one, had been blocked off and long tables, benches and chairs lined up on the sidewalks. It appeared that our being invited had not been such an extraordinary honor after all. We guessed the whole village was invited and it would have been unseemly to leave the tourists out. (But wait….) However, we saw only male human beings on the street, from boys in short pants to bent old geezers. A band played somewhere close-by but we couldn’t see it and there were no dancers in sight. The action took place behind bed sheets hung from a rope that stretched across the street. We were instructed with smiles to sit down. After a few minutes, young men came bearing enamel basins of food. They placed a piece of mutton next to us on the table oilcloth and a bowl of semolina (grits, more or less) with two spoons. Another boy set a recently rinsed glass full of limonade in front of each of us. We noticed that other guests were waiting for our seats.

We were going to hurry off the table but a tall, handsome man in a dark suit – the only suit in sight – came by. He was the groom and he had taken it to heart to greet us personally, which he did graciously, in perfect French. We were told later that he was a fighter pilot back from training in the Soviet Union who had returned to his native town just to get married. The man was elegant and he had a great deal of presence. He would not have been out of place in an upscale bar in Palo Alto, California where we lived most of the time. I told him that my wife had a small gift she would like to give to the bride in person. He said not to move, that he would send us someone quickly.

After a short time, an older man came to tell my companion to follow him. He took her a few feet away behind a low wall where I could still see her. There, he handed her over to two old crones. One of them had red dyed hair that would not have fooled a blind man ten feet away. The three women walked away through an unlit area but in the direction of a brightly lighted structure where I lost sight of them.

About ten minutes later, the TFEW came back by herself steaming. (I was a grown man; I felt the vibes; I knew the signs.) So, I asked, did you meet the bride and did you give her the present? She said she had and she had and the bride, sitting all made up and coiffed in a gilded armchair, surrounded by her handmaidens, seemed touched. But, she said, you won’t believe what happened before that. Just as we reached the bridal pavilion, one of the two old women held me by the shoulders while the other lunged for my crotch and tried for a grab.

What do you think? Would I make this up? Do I have the talent, the imagination?

Several things. First, yes, of course, this is intended to be a pop-sociological story. It’s a commentary on something. Your guess.

Second, it should be obvious that I liked everyone I met during that stay and in that episode, every single person. That’s more than I can say for the people with whom I cross paths daily in California, for example. And, don’t get me started on the French! (Many of whom are holes in the ice as my decorous granddaughter would say.) Now, I know why I liked them but it’s hard to tell why they were so likable. Everyone in the small town was courteous and generous if he had a chance to be, even if only by offering a glass of hot tea after my long stay underwater. Again, I can’t tell why they were so gracious. Perhaps small towns are like that. Perhaps people used to be generally like that when they live in places small enough to be real communities. I can’t really believe this though because I have read too many stories (beginning with Maupassant’s), seen too many movies, where small town people behave in a completely beastly manner.

In the absence of perfect sampling, I tend to put some faith in cultural redundancy: If blondes keep treating me shabbily, I begin suspecting that there is something wrong with blondes (or about blondes and me). So, I have been treated courteously by Muslims and by people who appeared to be Muslims whenever I spend time in Muslim surroundings, even thousands of miles apart. So, until proven otherwise, I think it’s their culture that makes them friendly. Yet, naturally, I find the crotch grabbing incident and what I take to be its many implications repulsive. I don’t think it would have happened anywhere in the formerly Christian West.

The gesture and its sexual implications have a historical association with Islam, I believe. (See how carefully I chose my words.) Yet, there is almost certainly nowhere in the Islamic Scripture that mandates, commands, or even condones such behavior. Contrary to many Muslim apologists I hear on TV and on radio, that’s not the end of the story, as far as I am concerned, however. You are responsible for the baggage your religion carries. So, there is absolutely nothing in the Christian Scriptures ordering that theological deviants be burned alive. And yet, it happened in Christian lands, over and over again. Historically, it’s a sort of Christian specialty although Christ would not have applauded the practice, I am pretty sure. If you are a Christian, it’s disingenuous to say that burning people alive has nothing to do with you. It’s as much part of your heritage as are the glorious Gothic cathedrals.

And, yes, you are right; I loaded the dice by entitling this story “A Muslim Wedding.” I could have called it equally well: “An Algerian Wedding,” or “A Kabyle Wedding” (for the area), or “An Amazigh Wedding” (after the local people’s ethnicity), even “A Village Wedding.” Was I wrong? You decide.

McCloskey, Western equality, and Europe’s Jews

Warren shot me the following email a few days ago:

Brandon, do you know the name Deirdre McCloskey?

She is a first-rate economist with extensive expertise in history, literature and anthropology.  She recently finished a trilogy, the third volume of which is “Bourgeois Equality.” It’s a fat book but you would be well rewarded for time invested.  You don’t have to read the first two volumes to benefit from the third.

The purpose of the trilogy is to explain why we’re 30 times richer than our forebears of 250 years ago, as best that can be estimated.  Conventional answers like the industrial revolution and rule of law don’t go far enough.  The answer lies in attitudes toward commerce.

I haven’t read McCloskey’s book yet, but it’s been on my amazon wishlist for awhile and thanks to Warren’s prodding it’ll be my next purchase. (Here is all of NOL‘s stuff on McCloskey so far, by the way.)

My first instinct on this topic is to think about Europe’s Jews. Bear with me as I lay out my thoughts.

McCloskey’s book, which as far as I can tell takes readers to the Netherlands and the United Kingdom from the 17th to 19th centuries, is about how Europeans began to reconceptualize equality in a way that was very different from notions of equality in the past.

A very basic summary is that notions of equality in Europe prior to the modern era largely aligned with notions of equality elsewhere in the world. Basically, an established hierarchy based on either inherited land ownership or clerical ranking was justified in all cultures by a religious appeal: “we’re all Christians or Buddhists or Muslims or fill-in-the-blank, so don’t even worry about what we have and you don’t have.” This way of thinking was irrevocably altered in 17th century northwestern Europe. Once I actually read McCloskey’s book, I can give you more details (or, of course, you can just read it yourself).

This argument, that northwestern Europe became free and prosperous because of a change in ideas about equality, is of course very broad and qualitative, but I buy it. The big “however” in this line of reasoning is Europe’s treatment of its Jews.

I forget where I heard the argument before, but somebody or some school of thought has argued that because Europe’s Jews were forced by legislation to go into “dirty trades” like commerce, they became more broadly open-minded than other ethnic groups in Europe and therefore more prosperous. Dutch and British bourgeois culture no doubt had a Jewish influence, and because bourgeois culture is internationalist in scope this Jewish influence must have penetrated other European societies, but anti-Semitism in these other bourgeois centers was more rampant than than it was in the UK and the Netherlands. Why was this?

My main guesses would be “Protestantism” (because Protestants at the time were more open-minded due to being at odds with the Catholic Church), or “the seafaring character of British and Dutch societies.” These are just guesses though. Help me out!

Why Few ‘Social Justice Warriors’ Actually Care About Social Justice

I notice that many people love to defend ‘equality for the sexes’, ‘equality for all ethnicities’, because ‘everyone is beautiful… everyone is awesome… everyone is sacred’. All these sound extremely good, noble and well, but I have realized throughout the years that most of these so-called ‘social justice warriors’ do not truly care about social justice at all as one cannot truly stand for justice without an inquisitive mind.

These people repeat everything that sounds good, but barely put any effort in understanding the issues at hand. They lack the critical faculty to subject ideals to severe critical scrutiny. For this reason, they are extremely susceptible for ideals that at first sight seem wonderful, but that are actually rotten and damaging. They also do not possess enough modesty in how little they know. Most social justice warriors are therefore irrationally and vehemently defending a cause they do not truly understand. The worst thing is that many of them refuse to explore the issues of social justice, to look for underlying evidence to support their arguments, to read, and to learn. Many of them are self-deceivers, and discussions with them often turn out to be a vexation as it is impossible to appeal to their reason.

I agree with Michael Huemer that actually most people who fight for a ‘noble cause’ “are chiefly moved, not by a desire for some noble ideal, but by a desire to perceive themselves as working for the noble ideal – not, for example, by a desire for justice, but by a desire to see themselves as promoting justice” (Huemer, 2012, p. 19). The ultimate test to find out whether a social justice warrior truly cares about justice is to have a rational conversation about issues of justice and see whether he is willing to defend his noble ideals rationally and whether he is open for learning.

Reference
Huemer, M. (2012). In Praise Of Passivity. Studia Humana, 1, 2, pp. 12-18.

The Tyranny of Majoritarianism

Where did the concept of “majority rule” come from? Why should any majority rule over any minority?

Of course the idea of protecting minority rights also exists. It is accepted in the civilized world that minority religions, ethnicities, and cultures should be respected. So evidently the global belief in majoritarianism is not absolute. But overall, the prevailing global political culture in democratic societies is majoritarian. The party which has some majority in an election gets its leaders in the government, and it is able to impose its policies on everybody.

In a voluntary club, it seems natural that the leader be elected by the majority. Everyone in the club agrees about the mission of the club. Suppose it is a hiking club. It does not matter too much who the leader is, so a majority vote seems like the best option. Also, in deciding which location to hike in, majority rules seems sensible. Majority rule provides greater utility than minority rule, and there is general agreement that making more people happy is better than if fewer are happy.

But when it comes to government, majority rule is problematic. First of all, majority rule is based on the persons who may vote, not the whole population. Young children do not vote, and foreign residents do not vote. The adult citizens own the country, so they vote.

People believe in majority rule because they think of the alternative as either dictatorship or a rule by an elite minority. Why should one man or an aristocracy rule over the others? The global political culture now rejects monarchial rule as violating equality. What is not understood is that imposed majority rule also violates equality.

If we accept human equality, that all human beings have an equal moral worth, then the logical conclusion is equal self-governance. No person has a natural right to impose his will on another, because is it morally evil to coercively harm another person. Harm means an invasion into the domain of others, including the harm of restricting the other’s peaceful and honest actions.

When a person becomes employed, or enrolls in an institution such as a university, one does not usually expect democratic governance. The company is a non-democratic hierarchy, in which there is a top boss, lower bosses, and the ordinary workers who are directed. The workers has to comply with rules he may not favor, but the arrangement is voluntary because the worker chose to enter into employment or enrollment, and he may quit.

The equality of the employment situation is the ability of the worker to enter and exit, and the ability of the employer to equally contract with the employee and to terminate the employment. Free association is the basis of equal liberty.

The governance of territory is in accord with human equality when there is freedom of association among the members. Whether a territory is ruled by one man or by a majority does not matter so long as the individuals consent to be governed, so long as they can exit at will. After all, a traveler does not expect a voice in the rules of the places he visits. Whether the location is run by one person or the local majority does not matter to the traveler, so long as he may come and go, and so long as any unusual rules are presented in advance.

We need governing structures, but these can be contractual agreements among equals. We have today voluntary contractual communities such as homeowner associations, road associations, condominiums, cooperatives, and proprietary communities. All neighborhoods could be governed this way, and then the local organizations can form greater associations for public goods with a broader scope. An occasional hermit would not disturb the governing continuum.

Just as local communities would be able to associate, they would have the freedom to disassociate. The problem with imposed majoritarianism is that individuals and communities may not secede, and so they are forced to be dominated by the majority. Minorities are subjected to the law enforcement, schooling, drug laws, civic services, and taxes favored by the majority.

The reform that would establish deep equality would be a constitutional rule that would prohibit only coercive harm to others. Government would not impose costs and restrictions on peaceful and honest action. Contractual communities would be free to have restrictive rules among their own members. Contractual governance is best implemented bottom up, with secession where feasible.

The avoidance of imposed costs implies the absence of taxes on transactions and produced goods. There would be charges for trespass and invasions, such as pollution. In the absence of taxes on labor, capital, and trade, those who hold title to land would have to pay for civic services from the yield of their land, the rent. Ideally, people would understand the logic of equal benefits from the rent generated by nature and community. The deepest equality would consist of both equal self-governance and, as Henry George put it, standing “on equal terms with reference to the bounty of nature.”

Contra Argumentation Ethics

The proposition in argumentation ethics is that “arguing for any political position other than libertarian anarchism is logically inconsistent” (wiki).  This proposition was set forth in 1988 by Professor Hans-Hermann Hoppe of the University of Nevada at Las Vegas. The basic idea is that the non-aggression principle is a premise implied in every argument, and so it cannot be logically denied in any doctrine. The concept of argumentation or discourse ethics had been developed by several German philosophers, such as Jürgen Habermas.

The non-aggression principle is that aggression – the initiation of force or fraud against a person –  is morally evil. The argumentation proposition is that non-aggression is a presupposition of every argument, and so the concept cannot be logically denied within an argument. If a person argues that slavery is justified, the contradiction is that by engaging in argument with another person, he is implying that they are both seeking to arrive at truth by persuasion as equal independent non-slave parties. Since the person who argues for slavery is not using force to make the other person a slave, that implies that he is thereby rejecting slavery. It is then logically and performatively inconsistent for him to argue that enslaving any other person would be justified.

The prevailing argument for a libertarian ethic, based on natural moral law, is based on human nature applied to human action, rather than argumentation. The two premises set forth by John Locke in his Second Treatise of Government are human independence and equality.

Independence is the biological statement that persons think and feel as independent beings. Equality means that human beings have an equal moral worth, which is the basis of Jefferson’s statement that we are created equal, and is the basis of equality before the law. The equality premise is based on the observation that there is no inherent master-slave relation among human beings, and so equality is more consistent with human biology than any inherent moral superiority of any race, sex, or culture.

Hoppe states that concept of human nature is too diffuse to provide a determinate set of premises for natural law. Locke’s premises of independence and equality indeed have fuzzy edges, such as for beings not yet born, but they seem to be clear enough for practical purposes. Libertarians have no consensus on issues such as abortion, capital punishment, land value subsidies, the use of the military, and the justification of imposed government, but argumentation does not resolve such issues either. One needs additional premises to solve issues such as personhood, e.g. under which conditions is a human organism a person with rights. After all, one cannot have discourse with a newly born baby.

The concept of argumentation ethics has been rejected by several libertarian scholars, for example the article in The Journal of Libertarian Studies (Spring 2006) by Robert Murphy and Gene Callahan. They point out that at most, argumention establishes self-ownership only to one’s mind and mouth, and only during the argument. A slave owner can argue with a slave while the slave is in chains, and then murder the slave. The superiority of the slave owner is not refuted by the owner’s asking the slave whether he prefers to be strangled or shot with a bullet.

As pointed out by Murphy and Callahan, a statist may believe that under particular conditions, the initiation of force is justified, even though when this is discussed, the parties are equally in their ability to argue.

Another refutation was made by Jason Brennan in “Hoppe’s Argumentation Ethics Argument Refuted in Under 60 Seconds.” Brennan first presents two definitions. “A liberty right is something that grants me permission to do something. A claim right is something that entails others have obligations, responsibilities, or duties toward me.”

He then writes:

“all I need to avoid a performative contradiction here is for me to have a liberty right to say, ‘I propose such and such.’ I need not presuppose I have a claim right to say ‘I propose such and such.’ Instead, at most, I presuppose that it’s permissible for me to say, ‘I propose such and such’. I also at most presuppose that you have a liberty right to believe what I say. I do not need to presuppose that you have a claim right to believe what I say. However, libertarian self-ownership theory consists of claim rights… Hoppe’s argument illicitly conflates a liberty right with a claim right, and so fails.”

Yet another refutation of argumentation is made in “Justopia” by Justin:

“That flaw is revealed by showing that intent matters. This flaw eliminates the performative contradiction aspect because one cannot, without further information, determine whether many of the statements that Hoppe would claim are performative contradictions actually are performative contradictions.”

The Lockean foundation for natural moral law does not suffer from such flaws. Based on its premises from human nature, the universal ethic has three basic rules:

  1. Acts which are welcomed benefits are good.
  2. All acts, and only those acts, which coercively harm others are evil.
  3. All other acts are neutral.

It is curious why some natural-law libertarians have not accepted Locke’s libertarian ethic and have instead turned to German discourse philosophy. Perhaps the answer involves psychology and sociology rather than pure philosophy. At any rate, argumentation ethics is not the answer.

(This article also appears in http://www.progress.org )

Martin Luther King Jr Day and Civil Rights: A (True?) Libertarian’s Lazy Perspective

History professor and fellow Notewriter Jonathan Bean has an op-ed out in the Daily Caller titled “Civil Rights Are Too Important To Be Left To Special-Interest Advocates.” From the opening paragraph:

“War is too important to be left to the generals,” the saying goes. Similarly, civil rights are too important to be left to professional advocates who champion only their own particular racial, ethnic, or religious causes. Unfortunately, in the “official” civil rights community of today a spirit of inclusiveness may be the exception, not the rule.

Read the rest.

Dr Bean’s post has reminded me of how to best tell the difference between a libertarian and a conservative (overseas readers: here is my reminder to you that, in US parlance, libertarian means liberal): libertarians have a deep, principled commitment to equality that is simply missing in conservative thought.

Libertarians will argue that all individuals are born equal, whereas conservatives will tell you individuals are not. Libertarian notions of equality are thus caught in the middle of two extremes: on the Right you have conservatives who believe that inequality equality is not possible on an individual, regional, national, or international scale and on the Left you have egalitarians who harbor all sorts of utopian pipedreams based on “equality.” These three paradigms are by no means obvious, and sometimes you have to think about the implications of a person’s argument.

The libertarian notion is utopian, as it has never been reached and probably never will be, but it is always within reach and is based upon civil and legal equality rather than some of the asinine notions of the Left. When I say “civil and legal equality” I mean that all human beings are deserving of the same fundamental individual rights. Conservatives don’t believe in this (think about their views on immigrants, for example, or ethnic/religious minorities).

So the libertarian, when faced with a hypothetical that looks at an immigrant who came to the US illegally, will say the immigrant is deserving of the same legal and civil rights as a native. A conservative will not. I know many self-described libertarians will give the second answer, and my response to them would be, “well, I guess you’re a conservative then, and not a libertarian.”

Ouch!

I understand that the complexities of politics in federal democracies make ideological arguments useless, so my only goal with this post is to help readers clarify their own political views. If you don’t support the civil and legal rights of illegal immigrants (for example), you are not a libertarian. I don’t mean to be in such a purge-y mood, but that’s a fairly basic tenet of the creed.

Also, Malcolm X did more for the civil rights of Americans than MLK did. The government chose MLK to represent the civil rights struggle, though, because he never toted a gun in public. Same thing happened in South Asia just before the UK left. Gandhi didn’t have nearly as much influence as the armed insurrections happening all over the subcontinent. Bring it!

Net neutrality? Mail neutrality?

“Net neutrality,” you surely know, is the notion that all internet traffic ought to be treated equally. All it takes is that one little word, “equal,” to send hoards of left-wing morons to the barricades. For those who care to think through the issue, I offer the following.

If net neutrality is a good idea, so is “mail neutrality.” The Post Office should treat all mail equally. No more Priority Mail, not even First Class Mail. Just mail.  No more commuter express lanes on the freeways.  No priority for anybody, anywhere.

Data sent over the internet, or any local network for that matter, is divided into packets which have header information indicating the destination of the packet followed by a block of bytes that is the digital form of the data, whether text, audio, or video; web traffic, email, or ftp. As far as I know there is no provision in the ethernet protocol for priority information, but that isn’t necessary to prioritize packets.

Why should they be prioritized? Because different kinds of traffic have different natural degrees of urgency. email messages are not terribly urgent, but packets of video are, because if the those packets don’t keep coming at a steady pace, the result is irritating pauses and that little spinning circular thingy. If consumers of video want good service, they should pay for it. If email users who are in no hurry are willing to wait a bit and pay less, that’s good too. Markets generally tend to segment in this fashion. Starbucks doesn’t practice coffee neutrality. They offer fancy drinks to those willing to pay for them and plain coffee for those of us who just want the caffeine.

What rules should be set for internet providers? None, except common law prohibition and prosecution of theft and fraud. Let the service providers set their own policies for use of their private property.  In the interests of their bottom line, they will seek out practices that best serve their customers.  The crucial requirement is that politicians and bureaucrats be kept away.

Friends of Liberty and Friends of Montaigne II: Marie de Gournay (Expanding the Liberty Canon series)

Marie Le Jars de Gournay (1565-1646) was a minor aristocrat from Sancerre in central France who became a leading scholar and writer of her time, and an important advocate of women’s liberty through her scholarly career against the dismissive attitude of powerful men of the time, and through her writing in favour of equality between men and women. She was a friend of Michel de Montaigne, one of the great historical advocates of liberty if in a rather enigmatic manner, and he even treated her as an adoptive daughter. After the death of Montaigne, she lived on the Montaigne estate as a guest of the family, while preparing the third edition of Montaigne’s Essays, a contribution to the history of thought and thinking about liberty in itself.

Gournay’s work in the transmission of Montaigne’s thought is though just one episode in a life of writing covering translations of the classics, literary compositions, and essays. Two essays in particular mark important moments in the case for liberty to apply equally between the two sexes: The Ladies’ Complaint and Equality of Men and Women. In these brief, but rich texts, Gournay argues that there can be no liberty, where goods are denied, so since women have been deprived of the goods of equal esteem, there is no liberty.

She points to the frequency and intensity of denial of equal esteem to women and contests it through the examples in which women have been esteemed, or we can see that women have performed great deeds on a level with great men. The argument is very much that of a Renaissance Humanist, that is someone educated in the languages, history, and literature of antiquity, as great expressions of human spirit and with the assumption that these are the greatest expressions of human spirit. Greatness of literary, intellectual, and statecraft in modern languages, modern thought, and modern states, is possible where  continuing from the classical tradition. Since the emphasis is on pagan classical antiquity, the Humanists to some degree placed humanity above Christian theological tradition, though some Christians were also Humanists and secular Humanist achievements to some degree interacted with scholarship of the Hebrew and Greek languages of the Bible, along with the Greek and Latin used by church thinkers.

Gourany’s concerns are largely secular but she does deal with the place of women in the Bible. For the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) She points out that if the Queen of Sheba (often thought to refer to an ancient queen of Yemen, or possibly Sudan) visited King Solomon, because she knew of his great wisdom then she too must have had an interest in wisdom, and had some high level of scholarship, learning, and intellectual work herself.

With regard to the New Testament, she comments on St Paul’s injunction in his Epistles that women be silent in church and not take the role of priest. Gournay argues that Paul was not writing out of contempt for women, but fear that men would be distracted and tempted by women speaking out in church serves whereto as part of the congregation or as priests. The limitation on the role of women is not therefore based on beliefs about the supposed inferiority of women, but control of male desire.

On the role of women in the Bible, Gournay argues that in general we should not argue that it supports an inferior role for women, given that God created both men and women in the beginning, and given that men are commanded to leave their parents in order to find a wife. The connection between man and woman, and the idea that a man’s life is completed by association with a woman, is the main message of Christian scripture for Gournay.

Looking at the more secular aspects of Greek and Roman antiquity, Gournay deals with philosophical and with historical concerns. On the philosophical side she notes the importance that Plato gives to the priestess Diotima (unknown outside Plato’s writings) in his dialogue The Symposium, which appears to recount conversations about love in a dinner and drinking party in Athens attended by some of the leading people of the time.

Plato shows Socrates presenting the views of Diotima as the correct ones on love, and Socrates, the teacher of Plato, always appears in Plato’s dialogues as a representative of truth. So Gournay points out, it must be conceded that Plato claims that his ideas, and those of Socrates, are in some degree dependent on the thought of women of their time. In that case, Aristotle made himself absurd when  he claimed that women were defective and inferior, since he was the student of Plato and therefore was in some way formed by ideas that Plato said came from Diotima.

Plato’s student Aristotle may have claimed women were inferior by nature to men, but Antisthenes, a follower of Socrates regarded women and men as equal in virtue. Gournay also refers to the tradition according to which Aspasia, female companion of the Athenian democratic leader Pericles (admired by Plato and Aristotle though they did not share his democratic principles) was a scholar and thinker of the time. There is a lack of contemporary sources confirming this view, but this applies to much about the antique world, so Gournay’s suggestions about Aspasia are just as strongly founded as many claims about antiquity, and the investigation of tradition is itself an important part of any kind of intellectual history.

Moving onto Roman historiography, Gournay points out the role take by women in the tribes of Germany and Gaul, according to Tacitus. Women serve as judges of dispute and as battlefield participants inciting male warriors to fight fiercely. So she can point to a revered classic source, which suggests that women had roles in ancient France and Germany denied to them in those countries in early modern times. In general, as she points out, the antiques often referred to a tribe of female warriors, known  as Amazons, which may have some historical origin in Scythian tribes from north of the Black Sea.

Gournay uses her formidable Humanist learning to demonstrate the ways in which equality between men and women had been recognised in the ancient past, on some occasions in some places at least. Showing that women have been recognised as equal to men in some contexts is evidence that the lower status of women in many societies is a result of socially embedded prejudices rather than any difference in abilities. As Gournay notes, rectifying denial of rights to women is part of the basis for real enduring liberty.

A Matter of Expectancies

We agree with the opinion that radical social discontent is strongly related to a disappointment of expectancies. The relation emerges from the observation that the most extremist activists are not the most disadvantageous people in society but persons who have a relative wealthy social background and a high level of education. People often believe that radical ideals must be addressed to the poor, because they have “nothing to loose but their chains”, and then get astonished when they find out that most revolutionaries come from the elites. The answer to this puzzle is that political conservatism and radicalism mostly depend on the degree of fulfillment of previous expectancies –or, better, the current expectancy of fulfillment of previous expectancies.

I consider that this contention allows us to translate the Egalitarian claims for a more fair society into the language of the Classical Liberalism. A Classical Liberal view may agree on that every individual deserves to be treated with equal consideration and respect, if this means that the most quantity of expectancies are to be fulfilled only when citizens are equal before the law and the restrictions on individual plans are the minimal necessary for them to coexist. This is all the Egalitarianism that Classical Liberalism can provide.

Notwithstanding, there is an enormous advantage of Classical Liberalism on Egalitarianism about this issue: Classical Liberalism judges every individual plan of life only at a very general and abstract degree (do not kill anyone but in self defense; do not coerce liberty of locomotion of anyone, and so on). On the other hand, Egalitarianism needs to qualify the legitimacy of every individual plan of life in accordance to a particular scale of merit on which there is no guaranteed consensus.

But let us suppose that, due to “the veil of ignorance” which we were behind, we might reasonably agree on a particular scale of merit in order to judge the legitimate limits between each personal plan. We reasonably accepted some particular restrictions in our property and liberty in order to proceed to the redistribution of wealth regulated by the system we agreed on when we were “behind the veil of ignorance”. The problem is that we had accepted an Egalitarian system behind the veil of ignorance, but we formed our personal plans and expectancies when later unveiled.

If this is so, we may expect of every Egalitarian system to be unstable. We are in serious trouble when this instability is attributed not to a lack of freedom, but to an absence of regulation –and that is how markets become both accused of being the oppressing iron cage of liberty and the chaos. The other way is to regard each plan of life as intrinsic valuable as far as it does not interfere with basic aspects of other’s. It is true that expectancies are made from perceptions and that sometimes the system works as the tale of the fox and the grapes. But, at least, every individual will be full responsible not of his chance but of what he does with it. That is a right to fight for: not equality, not even prosperity, but the right to be responsible for one’s own days.

Classifying America: Government’s Power to Define is the Power to Discriminate

In one of the most famous phrases uttered by a Supreme Court justice, Potter Stewart defended his ruling in an obscenity case (1964) by refusing to offer a clear definition. Instead, he stated:

I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be [hard-core pornography]; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.” (emphasis added)

Judges can make such decisions on a case by case basis. Legal concepts don’t lend themselves to strict classifications that can be ruled upon robotically by men and women in black robes.

The administrative apparatus of the U.S. government (federal, state and local) is another matter. Collectively, the bureaucracies of this sprawling Leviathan extract and expend over $6 trillion annually. (For a folksy way of explaining that sum to friends and family, see my essay “The Power of Numbers: Simplify! Simplify!”)

Government spending does not capture the reach and power of U.S. bureaucracies. With so much legislative power delegated to administrative agencies, these agencies have become bureaucratic oligarchs. Regulations, unfunded mandates, distributions and preferences for some groups require detailed, complex, and often arbitrary definitions concocted by “public servants” cloaked in anonymity. These mid-level bureaucrats possess the immense power to define and classify. To define a group as eligible for benefits or preferences is to exclude those outside the group of the same treatment. Equal protection of the law goes out the window as individuals or business in government-defined preferential groups benefit from “affirmative discrimination” while those not-so-defined suffer.

Yet, here is the dirty secret of the State: the definitions upon which so many programs and policies are based are at their root LIES. For example: Congress called upon agencies to use objective criteria to determine the definition of a “small business” or a “disadvantaged group”; yet, mid-level bureaucrats simply made the classifications based on prejudice, convenience or a seat-of-the-pants judgment! We live with the consequences of categories that objectively have little or no meaning. To paraphrase a popular TV show title, the administrative state is a “House of Lies.” Challenging the basis of definition is an effective way of demonstrating that “the Emperor (State) has no clothes” when it purports to aid groups that it made out of thin air.

The problem of defining groups is the “problem with no name” in policy circles. I first encountered this fundamental problem when writing a history of the Small Business Administration (Big Government and Affirmative Action: The Scandalous History of the Small Business Administration, 2001). The agency had tens of billions of dollars to disburse or award annually but first it had to define “small.” [This problem is worldwide—one rather long book discussed the many definitions of “small” enterprise under governments around the world—even in the communist sector! (Hertz, In Search of a Small Business Definition: An Exploration of the Small-business definitions of the U.S., the U.K., Israel and the People’s Republic of China, 1982)] Excerpts from my book highlight the dilemma:

“The small business community fell into the category of a large group with conflicting internal interests. What did a ‘Mom-and-Pop’ grocery have in common with a ‘small’ manufacturer employing hundreds of people in a high-tech industry? At what point did a ‘small’ business become a ‘big’ business?” “The public definition of small business encompassed ‘Mom-and-Pop’ firms with fewer than ten employees, yet SBA size standards included companies with hundreds or even thousands of employees because they were ‘small’ within their industry.”

A company once defined as “small” could retain those benefits even if it grew well beyond the size standard. Who was going to check? Being defined as “small” meant the SBA discriminated against those businesses that were not “small.” So, what is a “big” business to do? Purchase or control a “small” firm defined as such by the government. The subsidiary will front for lucrative contracts “set aside” for small business. (Yes, America’s largest corporations engage in this fraud). This isn’t illegal because the SBA doesn’t routinely remove firms from the “small” category

Aye, there is the rub. In a stinging critique of the SBA’s scandalous behavior, The New Republic put forth “TRB’s law of scandals, which holds that the real outrage isn’t what’s illegal: it’s what’s legal.

The SBA was also an early pioneer in defining racial groups that did not exist under statutory law until agency bureaucrats subverted the Civil Rights Act, which demanded no discrimination based on group status. SBA bureaucrats, together with their counterparts at other agencies, set about transforming a nondiscrimination law into a vehicle of government-sponsored discrimination. There is no better demonstration that we are ruled by bureaucrats than this outright contempt for the plain meaning of the Civil Rights Act passed by Congress and signed by the president.

The use of group definitions is most disturbing when it touches upon race, color, creed or national origin. In Race and Liberty in America: The Essential Reader, 2009), I anthologized the classical liberal struggle for liberty and equality regardless of group status. When Frederick Douglass married a white woman, the Washington Post questioned whether his doing so disrespected “the colored people, who look to you as a leader.” Douglass retorted that his skin color was irrelevant: “I am not an African, as may be seen from my features and hair, and it is equally easy to discern that I am not a Caucasian.” “I conceive that there is no division of races. God Almighty made but one race. . . . You may say that Frederick Douglass considers himself a member of the one race that exists.”

Douglass’s colorblind self-definition epitomized that element of the classical liberal tradition of civil rights—one that even the NAACP held to as late as the 1960s when it rejected all government racial classifications as a step backward toward discrimination.

Yet here we are today with racial classifications that conceal the divisions within the so-called “races.” The SBA ran into this problem in the 1970s. In a rare moment of clarity, someone at the SBA wrote that:

“This principle [of racial classification] could have sweeping implication through the social order. There might also be administrative problems in applying a purely racial or ethnic standard. Would a person who is one-quarter Indian be eligible? One-sixteenth? How is racial background proven? Who is a Spanish-speaking American?”

Who remembers that today’s category of “Hispanic” was preceded by “Spanish-speaking American” and “Spanish-surnamed American”? Do any of these groups have any meaning other than to discriminate for some and against others?

In a recent op-ed, “The Triumph and Trashing of the Civil Rights Act,” I summarized how the revival of racial classifications made possible the division of America into racial blocs.

“This mischief was made possible by the creation of arbitrarily-defined racial categories. The Civil Rights Act did not list any groups by name. Regardless of group status, there was to be no discrimination. Categories such as ‘Negro’ (later Black, African American), Mexican (later Spanish-speaking, Spanish-surnamed and lastly, Hispanic) came after the fact. This process of ‘check boxing’ America began in 1965, when bureaucrats . . . placed racial categories on government forms. Armed with check boxes, bureaucrats, judges and politicians treated individuals differently based on their group status—plainly prohibited by the Civil Rights Act.”

Sadly, the Supreme Court dithers on the issue of whether racial “diversity” practices are constitutional or not. Noting the illogic of racial classification, Justices Scalia and Thomas point out the legal nonsense of courts accepting dubious racial classifications: “Does a half-Latino, half-American Indian have Latino interests, American-Indian interests, both, half of both?” (See my op-ed “Are Some Groups More Equal Than Others?”)

Here is the lie of government classification: definitions that are so vague, broad and absurd (“Spanish-Surnamed?”) beg for mockery. Advocates of liberty need to strike at the root by pointing out the absurdity of classifications underlying so many policies. Arguing about whether the policies are good or bad, help a “group” or not are pointless: if the group doesn’t exist or isn’t worth recognizing, then any further debate is moot!

This rather lengthy post offered two examples of the fallacy and folly of government classification. If “small” business doesn’t exist, then abolish the SBA. If the government can’t define race in a way that captures, in any meaningful sense, the multitude of individuals making up the “group,” then abolish all race-based programs. Restore the Civil Rights Act to that “plain meaning” of no discrimination. Period.

Lastly, this “striking at the root” approach is worth taking in other areas. Time and again, I’ve attended conferences where scholars deliver papers on tax policy. These authors lament that our income tax code isn’t “more progressive.” But what does that mean if the tax code’s definition of money (to be taxed on a nominal basis) is meaningless because it fails to account for huge differences in the real value of the money being taxed? To the IRS, $100,000 income in Carbondale, Illinois is the same as a $100,000 income in San Francisco. In reality, the person in San Francisco has a cost-of-living adjusted income worth $36,700 in Carbondale, IL. Such is the illusion of money earned without reference to its real worth. Ask the “experts” whether the tax code’s inherent inequity ought to be rectified to reflect real income (in purchasing power) and you will get a “deer in the headlight” look.

Everyone” takes for granted what should not be “taken for granted.” “Everyone” knows or accepts the definitions and meanings put forth by a government dressing itself in a cloth of lies and confusion.

Perhaps it is time to be like the small child who pointed out that the Emperor has no clothes. That child saw what was plain as day. We “experts” pontificate about the merits or shortcomings of the “clothes” (policies) when, in fact, there are no clothes.