Libertarians and Pragmatists on Democracy Part 3: Pragmatists on Democracy as a Way of Life

eNote: This is part of a series on democracy. It is assumed the reader is familiar with part one, defining democracy, and part two, summarizing classical liberal perspectives on democracy. In this section, we’ll analyze how pragmatists conceive of democracy as a broader philosophy. The final post will argue that a dialectical synthesis of libertarianism and pragmatism on democracy will yield an argument in favor of market anarchy.

As classical liberals have pointed out throughout history, particularly in since the mid-nineteenth century, democracy as a system of political decision-making can be extremely dangerous to individual liberty and social prosperity. It could lead to tyranny of the majority, it may be characterized in practice as the rule of the ignorant and irrational and yield awful policy, and it leads to a reification of the state as the just “voice of the people” which can cause further tyranny. For these reasons, there is a very strong argument from moving away from constitutions which rely primarily on democratic means for decision making for the protection of individual liberty. The natural question is: what is our current democratic regime to be replaced with?

To answer this question, perhaps it is worth examining what is admirable in democracy. Thus far, I have mostly been referring to democracy in the second sense mentioned in the introductory section (henceforth referred to, for want of a better term, political democracy), as a means of political decision making. However, there is also the fourth sense which, although related, is distinct from political democracy which may be called philosophical democracy. To further explore this meaning of democracy, and perhaps give an answer to the aforementioned question, it is worth engaging with the thought of some of the most strident defenders of democracy: the American pragmatists.

Pragmatists on Philosophical Democracy

The writings of John Dewey and Sidney Hook are exemplars of philosophical democracy (though certainly others in this tradition are as well). Dewey, in his 1888 essay “The Ethics of Democracy,” specifically argues against Henry Maine’s view that “democracy is only a form of government.” Dewey explicitly defines democracy as a much broader “way of life,” as he says in his 1937 work “Democracy and Education:”

Democracy is much broader than a special political form, a method of conducting government, of making laws, and carrying on government administration by means of popular suffrage and elected officials. It is that, of course. But it is something broader and deeper than that. The political and governmental phase of democracy is a means, the best means so far found, for realizing ends that lie in the wide domain of human relationships and the development of human personality. It is, as we often say, though perhaps without appreciating all that is involved in the saying, a way of life, social and individual. The keynote of democracy as a way of life may be expressed, it seems to me, as the necessity for the participation of every mature human being in the formation of the values that regulate the living of men together: which is necessary from the standpoint of both the general social welfare and the development of human beings as individuals.

Indeed, Dewey’s emphasis on how democracy allows for participation in the formation of social values is a common thread throughout his entire political philosophy. In his earlier days, he was deeply influenced by the Hegelian notion of society as a “social organism” (although, in his later work he became a bit more cautious about the collectivist and possible authoritarian implications of this doctrine; see his 1939 essay “I Believe”). In 1888, he argued that democracy, by allowing participation of all, “approaches most nearly the ideal of all social organization; that in which the individual and society are organic to each other.” He explains:

In every other form of government there are individuals who are not organs of the common will, who are outside of the political society in which they live and are, in effect, aliens to that which should be their own commonwealth. Not participating in the expression of the common will, they do not embody themselves. Having no share in society, society has none in them.

…The government is not made up of those who hold office, or who sit in the legislature. It consists of every member of political society. And this is true of democracy, not less, but more, than of other forms. The democratic formula that government derives its powers from the consent of the governed…means that in democracy, at all events, the governors and the governed are not two classes, but two aspects of the same fact—the fact of the possession of a unified and articulate will.

Thus, Dewey argues that “Democracy, in a word, is a social, that is to say, an ethical conception, and upon its ethical significance is based its significance as governmental.”

Dewey expands upon the sense in which Democracy is an “ethical conception” in his much later work “Creative Democracy: The Task Before Us,” in which he characterizes democracy as a “personal way of individual life” (his emphasis). In this sense, democracy is not only to be found in institutions but in “free gatherings of neighbors on the street corner to discuss back and forth what is read in uncensored news of the day, and in gathering of friends in living rooms of houses and apartments to converse freely with one another.”

The sense in which democracy is a personal way of life is characterized by what Dewey calls the “democratic faith.” There are two elements to this democratic faith, one is faith in “the possibilities of human nature.” That is, faith that “every human being, independent of the quality or range of his personal endowment, has the right to equal opportunity with every other person for the development of whatever gift he has.” Second, is a “faith in the capacity for human beings for intelligent judgment and action if proper conditions are fostered.” These two faiths combine to make democracy an overarching philosophy that characterized by “belief in the ability of human experience to generate the aims and methods by which further experience will grow in ordered richness.” It can be seen, then, how these faiths may be found in not so much the political institution of democracy but in every day deliberative discussion and face-to-face encounters like neighbors and friends discussing news.

Sidney Hook in his 1938 essay “The Democratic Way of Life” further expands on the ethical character of democracy as a personal way of life. He argues that there are “three related values which are central to democracy as a way of life.” Those are the “belief that every individual should be regarded as possessing intrinsic worth or dignity,” the “belief in the value of difference, variety and uniqueness,” and, to mediate between such values, a belief in “the method of intelligence, of critical scientific inquiry.”

In regards to that last value, it could be said that for Dewey and Hook participatory democracy is not only a “way of life” or an “ethic,” but also a social epistemology. He argues in “Democracy and Education” that, although intelligence is unevenly distributed among individuals, “it is the democratic faith that it is sufficiently general so that each individual has something to contribute and value of each contribution can be assessed only as it enters into the final pooled intelligence constituted by the contributions of all.” He says in Liberalism and Social Action that rapid changes in society “have to be directed” and “controlled that it will move in some end in accordance with the principles of life, since life itself is development.” For Dewey, taking advantage of the dispersed intelligence through the democratic process is essentially the application of the scientific method to political problems. Indeed, the idea of democratic experimentalism comes to the forefront in this philosophical conception of democracy precisely because of Dewey’s epistemological commitments to the scientific method.

Thus, democracy in this pragmatist sense is a personal philosophy and social epistemology that accepts scientific deliberation, humanism, and pluralism as necessary conditions for growth of individuals and society as a whole.

Dewey on Political Democracy

Of course, the pragmatists not only conceived of democracy as a way of life but defended democratic institutions. What is striking about this is how Dewey characterizes political democracy as a means to the aspirations of philosophical democracy rather than an end itself. Indeed, he writes in “Democracy and Administration” that the institutions of political democracy “are not a final end and a final value. They are to be judged on the basis of their contribution to end.” The end here, of course, is the extent to which it allows individuals to participate in the formation of social values and the defense of liberty necessary for such participation.

Recall that in The Constitution of Liberty Hayek also conceived of political democracy as an end, and there is a striking similarity between Dewey and Hayek on this point. One may be tempted to say that the ends they are seeking are entirely different as Hayek is seeking individual liberty. However, this is not necessarily the case, as Dewey argued in Liberalism and Social Action that the end of liberalism is “a social organization that will make possible the effective liberty and opportunity for personal growth in mind and spirit of all individuals.”

To be sure, Dewey’s and Hayek’s conceptions of what constitutes liberty are very different: Hayek specifically cites Dewey as conceptually confusing “power” with “liberty” for accepting a positive rather than negative conception of liberty. For Hayek, liberty simply means “the absence of coercion.” For Dewey, liberty means “the liberation of individuals so that realization of their capacities may be the law of their life.” However, what at first seems to be two contradictory beliefs in liberty are not necessarily contradictory. One may say, with Dewey, that positive liberties are necessary so that individuals may grow in mind and spirit and participate in the formation of social values, but agree with Hayek that a necessary prerequisite for such liberties is absence of coercion. Indeed, this defense of negative liberty for the sake of positive liberty is precisely the stance many modern neoclassical liberals take, most notably Jason Brennan and David Schmidt. Thus, Dewey’s and Hayek’s views on democracy as a means to the end of liberty are quite possibly complementary. (This is not to be confused with claiming they really said the same thing, which they clearly did not.)

Dewey defends democracy as the most effective means to this end on the basis that “no man or limited set of men is [sic] wise enough or good enough to rule others without their consent[.]” Political democracy is understood by the pragmatists, as Sidney Hook says, to be a society “where the government rests upon the freely given consent of the governed.” This consent (which Hook acknowledges is not in complete existence in reality) is given through voting.

Criticisms of the Pragmatist Incorporation of Political Democracy

The pragmatist conception of philosophical democracy is certainly admirable from a classical liberal standpoint. Its emphasis on dispersed knowledge, its call for liberal tolerance of diversity, its humanistic respect for the dignity of every individual, and its use of a broadly scientific (though not scientistic) approach to social issues are all well in line with classical liberalism’s goals. However, clearly the incorporation of political democracy as the political ideal by the pragmatists would irk many classical liberals and especially modern libertarians. In fact, I would argue that political democracy in practice is somewhat antithetical to the philosophical aspirations of the pragmatists.

There are four ways in which political democracy undermines the aspirations of philosophical democracy. First, in no meaningful sense could it be said that political democracy has the consent of the governed. Second, political democracy in practice is in no meaningful sense actually an application of intelligence and the scientific method to political issues in practice. Third, the centralization of political authority and planning in democracies undermines Dewey’s point that intelligence is distributed throughout society (particularly in his extremely interventionist views on economics). Finally, the democratic process undermines the mutual respect of individual human dignity philosophical democracy exalts.

Both Dewey and Hook argue that political democracy’s legitimacy and its epistemic superiority rest on its ability to take the freely given consent of the governed through the electoral process. Dewey is, at best, vague on what this means, but Hook is a bit more explicit in “The Democratic Way of Life:”

In saying that government rests upon the “consent” of the governed, it is meant that at certain fixed periods its policies are submitted to the governed for approval or disapproval. By “freely given” consent of the governed is meant that no coercion, direct or indirect, is brought to bear upon the governed to elicit their approval or disapproval. A government that “rests upon” the freely given consent of the governed is one that in fact abides by the expression of this approval or disapproval.

Hook gives three conditions of how this consent must be reached. First, the method of giving consent must not be obstructed (in this case, free elections without coerced voting). Second, there can be no economic threats to political dissenters, so the economic policy must be controlled through political means. Third, there can be no monopoly in education or the press. I argue, though the third may be reached in political democracy, the first two are nearly impossible to be achieved in political democracies.

On the first point, it is highly dubious that voting is truly a method of consent in the first place. Michael Huemer in The Problem of Political Authority identifies three arguments that are typically given to claim democracy has the consent of the governed. First, “naïve majoritarianism,” which believes that if all vote or have the opportunity to vote in an election the majority has just authority to govern as they please. Second, deliberative democracy, which holds that if participants can publicly reason about their proposals, have an equal voice, and a consensus can be aimed at, the resulting consensus or majority vote is just. Third, equality from authority which holds that treating others as equals means we must respect democratic decisions. Though neither Hook nor Dewey explicitly explain why they think a vote constitutes consent, it is safe to say that their beliefs fall somewhere between naïve majoritarianism and deliberative democracy, thus it is worth rehashing Huemer’s arguments against those views. (The equality argument is mostly irrelevant for present purposes.)

Against naïve majoritarianism, Huemer asks us what if such a principle were applied to everyday situations through a thought experiment of a number of friends trying to decide who pays for the tab in bar. Imagine that, against your wishes, everyone among your friends says they should take a vote on who should pay for the bar tab, and they happen to choose you. Are you morally obligated to pay the tab? Do your friends have the right to forcibly take your money away from you and pay the tab? Our intuition says no and that this isn’t really consensual, so why, Huemer asks us, is it any different with political institutions?

The more interesting argument Huemer takes up is Joshua Cohen’s conception of deliberative democracy, which certainly bears some similarity to the pragmatists. Huemer characterizes Cohen’s notion of deliberative democracy as bearing the following features:

  1. Participants take their deliberation to be capable of determining action and to be unconstrained by any prior norms
  2. Participants offer reasons for their proposals, with the (correct) expectation that those reasons alone will determine the fate of the proposals.
  3. Each participant has an equal voice.
  4. The deliberation aims at consensus, however if consensus is not achieved, it is decided by voting.

First of all, as Huemer notes, there is little reason why deliberation in democratic institutions should legitimize the claim that participants have consented to the results. If we return to the bar tab example, imagine if we just added the stipulation that before the vote was taken everyone gives you reasons and arguments about why you should pay the tab, fail to convince you, and still vote that you pay for it. Nothing changes in terms of your consent to their taking your money. Indeed, the fact that government coercion involves deliberation is irrelevant to whether that coercion was consented to.

However, there is a second reason why the argument for political authority from deliberative democracy fails, and this brings me to my second argument against the application of political democracy for the ends of pragmatist philosophical democracy. Dewey and Hook, as well as Cohen, act as if democratic discourse is actually deliberative as if reasons are actually given, as if everyone participates in the process. Dewey likens this process to the scientific method, holding that it is the “intelligence” that can control and direct changes in society.

This is decidedly not the case in any actual modern democracy. As public choice theorists note, the incentives facing voters is not to apply their intelligence and knowledge to voting, they instead vote as rationally ignorant. Further, contrary to Dewey’s democratic faith in the ability of people to make good decisions voting, they are systemically biased and irrational, as Bryan Caplan argued in The Myth of the Rational Voter. The result is not the controlled, experimental, scientific deliberation and discourse the pragmatists describe, but rule of an ignorant, irrational majority. How one can look at the cacophonic caterwauling in political discourse, the superficial pomp and circumstance of the electoral process, the irrational partisanship that low-information ideological voters possess, and the sensationalism of media coverage and call it “deliberative” or “intelligent” in any sense is quite beyond me. It seems that democracy is more like cheap pornography than science and deliberation, deliberative democracy and intelligence in the scientific method of actual democratic institutions is a myth.

Further, the idea that everyone has an equal say in any existing democracy is, at best, absurd. A fraction of the population votes and their votes are controlled by an even smaller fraction of the population in the press, policy research, and who controls campaign ads. The actual policies are not controlled by elections, but by backroom deals and bureaucracies in modern democracies. As public choice theory teaches us, this makes policy in democracy the whim of special interests who contribute to the politician’s campaigns, who engage in rent-seeking and regulatory capture, not the majority and this certainly undermines the idea that anyone has an equal say in political democracies.

Hook has another condition of consent for political democracies, that there is no indirect economic coercion. He elaborates on this point:

There are less obvious but no less effective ways of coercively influencing the expression of consent. A threat, for example, to deprived the governed of their jobs or means of livelihood, by a group which has the power to do so, would undermine a democracy even if its name were retained. In fact, every overt form of economic pressure, since it is experienced directly by the individual and since so many other phases of his life are dependent upon economic security, is an overt challenge to democracy…Where it cannot influence the expression of consent, it may subvert or prevent its execution. This is particularly true in modern social instruments of production, necessary for the livelihood of many, are privately own by the few…Genuine political democracy, therefore, entails the right of the governed, through their representatives, to control economic policy.

My strong disagreement with Hook here brings me to my third point, that political democracy’s tendencies towards centralization are antithetical to Hook and Dewey’s arguments that philosophical democracy acknowledges and takes advantage of the dispersed intelligence among individuals. Anyone schooled in public choice theory immediately sees the problem with Hook’s analysis that government policy controlling economics is necessary to reduce indirect economic coercion. As the concept of “concentrated benefits, dispersed cost” shows, the reality is that when policy is controlled by the government in democracies a select few special interests have the incentive to use government policy to their ends at the expense of the public good. In other words, what Hook calls “economic democracy” is undemocratic in every way due to the public choice problems embedded in the democratic process for selecting economic policy. Further, Hook’s point about unequal distribution of wealth needing to be subverted by state intervention is far off the mark; that exact state intervention is what causes such centralization of wealth in the first place.

But this brings me to my broader point about how political democracy is inconsistent with Dewey’s assertion that “it is the democratic faith that it is sufficiently general so that each individual has something to contribute and value of each contribution can be assessed only as it enters into the final pooled intelligence constituted by the contributions of all[.]” Political democracy has resulted in the centralization of decision making into ever larger governments by an increasingly elite group of bureaucrats, politicians, and special interests. This is not taking advantage of the intelligent contributions of each individual.

Further, Dewey’s general views on economic policy and favoring for big government that were bordering on socialism at times and were definitely in favor of progressive state intervention, are at odds with his broader epistemic commitments which are closely linked to philosophical democracy. This may be seen by directly comparing Dewey on these points with Hayek.

In a great paper entitled “Hayek’s Challenge to Dewey,” Alan Reynolds points out that both Hayek and Dewey have very similar epistemic views and both derive their political views from their respective epistemologies. However, Hayek’s and Dewey’s respective visions of liberalism are very different. Hayek counts himself in the old classical liberal tradition which seeks limited government to maximize individual negative liberty, while Dewey, despite acknowledging this older liberalism’s success at progress in the past, sees classical liberalism as an obstacle in Liberalism and Social Action and says it should be replaced with a “renascent liberalism” that embraces large government policies to guarantee positive liberties.

Yet, as Reynolds notes, both Hayek and Dewey have similar epistemologies, and his analysis is worth quoting at length on this point:

Dewey constantly argues that the philosophical tradition, starting with Plato but achieving its sharpest articulation with Descartes, portrayed humans as fundamentally rational beings, whose rationality has a single universal structure and is capable of detaching itself from experience to grasp universal truths.  Dewey instead puts forward a radically different view, in which knowledge is fallible, limited, social, embodied, and contextual.  He argues against the “old notion that intelligence is a ready-made possession of individuals.”   This view is a “purely individualistic notion of intelligence” that fails to recognize the social character of intelligence.   Knowledge, for Dewey, is not primarily acquired and developed in detachment from social interactions, but is embodied in them.  We live “in an environment in which the cumulative intelligence of a multitude of cooperating individuals is embodied.”   This means that knowledge is much broader than the articulation of it found in the philosophical tradition.  Dewey’s conception of knowledge, according to Posner, “includes tacit (‘how to’) knowledge as well as the articulate knowledge acquired by formal reasoning and systematic empirical methods, for both are useful.”   Knowledge is not confined to the articulate and explicit, but includes the knowledge weaved into the emotions, common sense, know-how, and intuition.   This broader sense of knowledge is not reducible to the articulate and explicit.

…Hayek’s vision of epistemology similarly deflates the pretensions of human rationality and broadens out our notion of knowledge to include those practical aspects of our know-how that remains unthematized (and possibly unthematizable).  Hayek offers a distinction between two opposing conceptions of “the place which reason plays in human affairs.”   There is the Enlightenment (and specifically Cartesian) view that “assumes that Reason, with a capital R, is always fully and equally available to all humans and that everything which man achieves is the direct result of, and therefore subject to, the control of individual reason.”   In contrast to this rationalist epistemology, he offers what he refers to as his evolutionist, “antirationalist approach,” which “regards man not as a highly rational and intelligent but as a very irrational and fallible being, whose individual errors are corrected only the course of a social process, and which aims at making the best of a very imperfect material.”   Human reason is able to provide the on-the-ground knowledge that helps to navigate particular contexts and situations – and this knowledge will be overwhelmingly what we might call “practical knowledge,” or know-how, which is not easy to formalize into know-that type information.  It is false (and potentially dangerous) to view humans as beings that are specially equipped to access universal truth via universal reason; contrarily, we are creatures that can navigate certain kinds of situations via practical problem-solving.  A great deal of this knowledge is “tacit, inarticulable, and therefore uncommunicable.”   In this view, “man has achieved what he has in spite of the fact that he is only partly guided by reason, and that his individual reason is very limited and imperfect.”   This rejection of Cartesian-inspired rationalism, and defense of an anti-rationalistic, fallibilist epistemology, is central to Hayek’s picture of the individual and the limits of knowledge.

Unlike Dewey, Hayek continually applies this critique of a hyper-inflated view of reason to government policy where Dewey stops short. Hayek’s point that our knowledge is inarticulate, incomplete, and fallible means that no man or group of men possess the knowledge to design an economy. Instead, we must rely on the decentralized decision making of the price system, on the spontaneous order of markets to allocate resources. Any attempts to design, plan, or control an economy are destined to fail due to this fundamental knowledge problem so closely linked to Hayek’s critique of Enlightenment rationalism that Dewey shares. Reynolds comments:

This assumption that socialist planning is possible and desirable relies, I argue, on the following moves on Dewey’s part: (1) Dewey throws out bad Enlightenment “Reason” and puts in its place the notion of “intelligence;” and (2) although “intelligence” does not harbor the pretenses of coming into contact with absolute truth like “Reason” does, it is still powerful enough to be capable of successfully planning and guiding the economy.  While Hayek joins Dewey in step (1) (deflating the pretensions of Reason), Hayek would rightly be concerned with step (2).  For Hayek, the shift from Enlightenment “Reason” to fallible “intelligence” should make us far more skeptical about the possibility and desirability of economic planning.  If Deweyans took Hayek seriously, they might find themselves in agreement with Richard Rorty when he asks the Left to “stop talking about the ‘anticapitalist struggle,’” and content itself with “sticking to small experimental ways of alleviating misery and overcoming injustice.”

It is a little strange, however, that Dewey failed to anticipate this Hayekian challenge. He does acknowledge in Liberalism and Social Action does acknowledge the very Hayekian point that “society in general is served by the unplanned coincidence of the consequences of a vast multitude of efforts put forth by individuals without reference to any social end” as a “new formulation” in classical liberalism. Further, his criticisms of aristocracy and the progressive tendency to over-rely on technocratic experts for government administration come close to Hayekian knowledge problem critiques of socialism at times. However, Dewey’s excessive focus on the historical abuses of early industrial state capitalism blinded him to the potential for markets to be a spectacular coordinating mechanism.

Getting off the topic of economics and back to democracy, it is clear that political democracy’s tendency to centralize everything and apply a one-size-fits-all approach to social problems based off of majority rule are at odds with the social epistemology of Deweyan philosophical democracy.

The final reason why political democracy fails to meet the end of philosophical democracy is it undermines the democratic faith in the dignity of humans, and deliberative discussion and hermeneutical openness to opposing opinions necessary for such a faith. Turn on cable news while covering a political issue or read the comments of the majority of internet political forums and you’ll be hard-pressed to find any examples of people respecting the dignity of “the other side.” Indeed, Jonathan Haidt notes in The Righteous Mind that political discussion tends to go ugly do to the way our minds process morality. Michael Huemer notes just how irrational political discourse in modern democracies can so often get. This bodes ill for any political project that seeks to use outright public debate (as opposed to dialogue) to be “deliberative,” especially pragmatist democracy.

Yet there’s another sense in which modern political democracy completely undermines the dignity of the human person. Modern democracies lead to a false identification of the state with “the will of the people,” a false identification Dewey himself bought in his earlier writings though repudiated after the rise of totalitarianism. Any individual who goes against the state, then, is going against “the people,” all of humanity. Often times, these people are written off with such labels as “unpatriotic,” “irrational,” “anti-democratic” (in the first sense as a meaningless insult) and the sort. That seems completely contrary to respecting the dignity of each individual, and to openness in dialogue and deliberation with other opinions that Dewey wants to embrace.

As we have seen, on almost every aspect political democracy fails to deliver the promises of philosophical democracy extolled by the pragmatists. Dewey himself did acknowledge in a later essay entitled “I Believe” that “democratic institutions are no guarantee for the existence no guarantee for the existence of democratic individuals.” Further, he insists that democratic institutions are a means to the philosophical ends and “are to be judged on the basis of their contribution to end[.]” It seems that it is not inconsistent, in light of recent evidence from public choice theory and experience, to oppose political democracy from a pragmatist perspective yet still embrace Dewey’s broadly “democratic” philosophical commitments.

Of course, Dewey would reject completely separating the means of democracy from the intended ends. As he wrote in an essay called “Democracy is Radical,” “The fundamental principle of democracy is that the ends of freedom and individuality for all can be attained only by the means that accord with those ends.” Further, he was immensely critical of Trotsky and revolutionary radicals for their attitude that the means justify the ends.

What is needed, then, is an alternative set of political institutions to democracy that can approximate the pragmatist philosophical aspirations of humanism, pluralism, open dialogue and serious scientific inquiry that are also consistent with individuality and liberty. In the next post, I will argue that this set of institutions can likely be found in market anarchism with a polycentric legal system.

Objective Moral Rules

“Moral realism” is the proposition that objective moral rules exist. A moral rule assigns a moral value (good, evil, or neutral) to an act done by a person. A moral rule, such as “theft is evil,” is intended as a fact.

Moral realism is non-nihilist and non-relativist. Nihilists and relativists believe that no act is inherently good or evil, that there is no morality beyond personal and cultural beliefs. Moral realism is based on an ontology, a way to show that an objective morality exists.

The existence of an objective and universal ethic cannot be based on intuition. Intuition consists of ideas believed without conscious thinking. What people think of as intuition is heavily influenced by the prevailing culture. One person’s intuition may tell him that gambling is bad, while other may think that gambling is harmless fun.

Many ontologies of morality have been proposed. The one I think is warranted in reason is the natural moral law proposed by John Locke, although he did not present a derivation. In my judgment, the ontology consistent with Locke is as follows.

1. There are criteria that are necessary for the existence of a universal ethic. The ethic has to be universal to all persons, comprehensive to all acts, non-arbitrary in its premises, and logically consistent. If one presents an ethic which fits these criteria, then the universal ethic exists.

2. The premises of natural moral law are the biological independence of individual thinking and feeling, the moral equality of persons, and the existence of a personal ethic in each person’s mind. The first two were proposed by John Locke in his Second Treatise of Government. The equality premise is based on the common observation that there is in human nature no inherent basis for one group of persons to be superior masters over a second, inferior, group.

3. The derivation of natural moral law, as expressed by the universal ethic, provides rules for the three moral values (good, evil, and neutral). Good acts are welcomed benefits. Evil acts coercively harm others, as invasions, in contrast to merely offensive acts that depend only on the beliefs and values of those affected. All other acts are morally neutral.

Those who reject moral realism ask about the fact-value problem, the proposition that one cannot derive a moral value from any observed fact. The answer is that the universal ethic does not create any values. The values are held by individuals, in accordance with the third premise, the existence of personal ethics. The universal ethic is a production function which inputs individual moral values (good, evil, and neutral) and transforms them into universal ethic moral values. For example, if a theft takes place, the individual moral value is that it is evil, and since the theft is an invasion, a coercive harm, this individual value becomes a universal ethic value.

If, in contrast, a person observes someone who is walking naked on his property, and judges that to be evil, the universal ethic inputs that value and makes it neutral for the universal ethic, since that is an offense rather than an invasion into another’s property.

Therefore, the natural moral law does not generate values from facts, but rather, produces natural moral law values by inputting personal values and then applying its rules to output universal-ethic values.

Some skeptics reject natural-law moral realism because its premise of personal equality cannot be proven true the way that, say, the law of gravity is shown to be true. The proposition that there is in human nature no inherent master/slave relationships can be observed and inferred, but the conclusion is not apodictic, i.e. absolutely certain. However, the alternative is either supremacism, the alleged superiority of some religion or creed, or else nihilism, the absence of any transcendent morality, and either one leads to war.

The purpose of the universal ethic is the moral basis of proper governance, and since to my knowledge, nobody has come up with a superior moral idea, the ontology is good enough for the practical purpose of providing social peace and harmony with nature.

Assisted Suicide and the Catholic Church

News item: the California legislature has passed a bill loosening prohibition of assisted suicide. No word from the governor as to whether he’ll sign the bill. I expect he will. I certainly hope so.

I trust no one on this site favors drug prohibition. To be consistent, we must oppose restrictions on medicinal drugs (commonly called “ethical”), not just recreational drugs. As things stand, the government forcefully suppresses purchases of certain drugs. We in the U.S. are forbidden from buying any medicinal drug that is deemed to require FDA approval but has not yet gotten it. Approved drugs are available only if prescribed by a licensed physician. And of course some drugs are freely available over the counter.

Our opposition to drug prohibition is grounded in the most basic human right: control of our own bodies. As competent adults, our choice of what we ingest is nobody else’s business, period. It matters not whether we take drugs to counter illness, enjoy a high, or indeed, to end it all.

Of course, suicide is not something to take lightly. If someone close to us is contemplating suicide, we have an ethical duty to reach out to them and help them find alternatives, if they exist. But we have no right to use violence to restrain them, nor do government agents.

The Catholic Church is leading the opposition to this bill, and has shown its seamiest side in doing so. They are perfectly happy to see terminally ill people forced to endure agony. This is Exhibit A for Ayn Rand’s characterization of the Catholic Church as profoundly anti-life.

A quick thought on justice

I thirst for justice. Sometimes it nearly gets me killed.

Driving in Long Island traffic gives me many opportunities to exercise my justice muscle which just reduces my life expectancy by that much more. This whole “turn the other cheek” thing is health advice, not an ethical rule. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t want to live in a world without justice. But as an individual I need to work on tempering my own craving. I need to quiet that voice deep in head that shouts “THEY MUST PAY!”

This desire for justice seems to be part of human nature. I’d bet that it’s an essential part of hunter-gatherer society. But in the society where I can perceive all sorts of injustices, it can lead me astray. I’m glad I’m not allowed to be a vigilante because I’d almost certainly kill myself in the process.

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 )

The GOP as a Homosexual Cabal

Reading the capital letters between the stately lines of today’s Wall Street Journal, I conclude that Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert paid 3.5 million dollars in hush money to a blackmailer with whom he had homosexual relations before he joined Congress. (They may also have been pedophilic relations.) As the WSJ relates, Hastert’s elevation to the Speakership was followed by a period when he was reproached for his limp handling of  the case of Mark Foley, a Florida Republican (GOP) who admitted to sending sexually charged messages to a House page (un page, en Francais). The page was a handsome young man.

All this leads me to wonder whether the GOP – for which I normally vote –  was not for a while simply a homosexual conspiracy. I might not mind but I would have liked to know. And I don’t like this closet business (I don’t mind simple discretion.)

All this wondering leads me to wonder whether gay activists will claim Hastert as one of their own. Of course, it’s disturbing that the politically active element of the gay movement did not claim Foley, as they have failed largely to claim thousands of pedophile priests. Yes, of course, gays are not necessarily pedophile but male pedophiles who specialize entirely in boys are homosexuals, it seems to me. I think a male homosexual is a man or boy who is sexually stimulated by other men or boys. Shoot me!

Dear Greeks:

I hear you can’t pay your debts again. I am a little sorry but you brought it on yourselves. A few reminders.

Your country is a democracy. The way you got into this pickle is through the stupid, self-indulgent policies of those you elected. You did it again in your last election by bringing to power a bragging leftist party in the old Stalinist mold. What did you think they would do: Frighten the European Union, The International Monetary Fund (Number one stockholder the US), Germany, the world, into submission, into erasing your debt? Think!

The reason Germany is your principal creditor is that one of your previous governments begged Germany for help and it agreed to help. The Germans did not cram loan after loan down your throat; you asked. The big sillies thought you would be honorable and pay up as agreed. Do you care about your future reputation, your honor, your children’s future ability to walk in the world with their heads up? Here is a basic rule of politeness which is also a moral rule: When somebody gives you a hand, you don’t bite it viciously.

There are several reasons your government can’t pay its debts. One reason is that your political class is corrupt trough and through. Another is that you are reluctant to pay taxes the way normal people do in the European Union. Too many Greeks want to work and pretend-work for the government instead of doing real work. And your government still owns stuff no government anywhere should ever own because governments always make a mess of running them, resorts, among others.

Another reason why your government can’t pay its bills is that your country is genuinely poor for a European country. There too, you have a lot of explaining to do. For one thing, you have been living above your means for a long time, pretending you were more or less like Danes, or Germans. Well, the truth is that you are not, not even close; Danes and Germans are very productive; you are not. So, you should not have ever expected to work short weeks and to take long summer vacations, like Danes and Germans. Such privileges do not come automatically with membership in the Union, you know. You should look over the border on the despised neighbors, the Turks, instead. They don’t pretend to themselves that they are already rich; they go to work early and they close their shops late. Many of them work six days a weeks. Over the past ten years, the growth rates of their economy has left yours in the dust. Coincidence?

And you only make yourself even more scorned with your treatment of others. The real horrors that Nazi Germany inflicted on Greece more than 70 years ago are not much of an excuse anymore. A previous government of yours, an elected government, accepted reparations a long time ago. And, by the way, in 1945, Germany was much more devastated than Greece, and still in 1948. See where the Germans are now, and where you are? Any comment?

And do you ever wonder why the Estonians, in the stultifying Soviet prison for fitly years, never ask for new loans to pay back older loans? And how long anyway did you expect German workers to work until age 69 so your public servants could continue to retire at 63? Are you out of your minds?

One last thing: You are not exactly Classical Greece. Stop wrapping yourselves in Aristotle’s toga. Really study Socrates. He chose to die than cheat even a little. Neither he nor Aristotle was a whiner. That’s why they are still remembered and honored.

In the end, I wish you well. Everyone can unlearn bad habits and learn basic rationality, even late in life. I hope you soon leave that club where you don’t belong. I hope further that you can make your way back. Begin by getting up at 6 every morning. Also, learn the obvious: socialism does not work well for rich countries; it’s miserable for poor countries.

Around the Web: Notewriters Edition

Woah, it’s been a slow week here at NOL. I can’t speak for anybody else, but I’ve been busy. Michelangelo and Edwin have both recently had their work published by the Cato Institute, and that’s cool.

I wish, of course, that my fellow Notewriters would toot their own horns a little more often, especially on the blog, but rest assured loyal readers, we’re staying busy.

How to think like an individualist

Postmodernism is disposed of incisively. “Just as Western politicians and generals annex foreign lands, postcolonial theorists argue, so Western intellectuals impose their knowledge on the rest of the world,” Malik writes. But Western philosophy does not replicate the ways and methods of Western imperialism. Its criteria and methods, but also its values, are completely different. So is its relationship to the non-European world, which is not one of subjugation and annexation, but of interaction and accommodation. The key concepts of Western secular modernity that are hardest to contest – universalism, democracy and individual liberty – were not, in reality, products of Western imperialism, and are actually not compatible with it. Anti-colonialism in modern times is as much a product of Western philosophy as of non-European thought, or more so. There are also other key Western ideas, such as Marx’s critique of capitalism, that have demonstrated an impressively wide appeal in every part of the globe but remain as much contested today in the West as anywhere else.

Kenan Malik stole all my ideas. I guess I should start applying for insurance salesman positions, eh? Read the rest, by Jonathan Israel. But wait, there’s more.

Any nation that has an official religious establishment faces the problem of “standardizing” the religion to satisfy the demands of the establishment. Note that the law [passed by Austria’s parliament forcing Austrian Muslim organizations to use a German-language Qur’an] doesn’t outright ban competing translations of the Qur’an, but gives the official imprimatur of the Austrian government to an approved translation. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to Austrians to distinguish the rights-protecting and religious-establishment-establishing functions of the state, and to dump the latter over the side. But I suspect it hasn’t occurred to the Austrian Parliament because it hasn’t quite occurred to Austrian Muslims, either. There are perks to be had if you accept government sponsorship of your religion: once you’re enticed by them, it becomes hard not to do a deal with the Devil to keep them in place. I don’t know about the standardized German translation, but my translation of the Qur’an suggests that seduction is the Devil’s AOS.

This is from the infamous Irfan Khawaja over at Policy of Truth. Read it.

Guantanamo: A Conservative Moral Blind Spot

A current Guantanamo detainee, Mohamedou Slahi, just published a book about his ordeal. The book is redacted of course but it still tells an arresting story.

M. Slahi was captured in 2000. He has been held in detention, mostly at Guantanamo prison since 2002 but in other places too . The motive was that he supposedly helped recruit three of the 9/11 hijackers and that he was involved in other terror plots in the US and Canada (unidentified plots.).

According to CNN:

Slahi admits to traveling to Afghanistan to fight in the early 1990s, when the US. was supporting the mujahedin in their fight against the Soviet Union. He pledged allegiance to al Qaeda in 1991 but claims he broke ties with the group shortly after.

He was in fact never convicted. He was not even formally charged with anything. Slahi has spent 13 years in custody, most of his young adulthood. If he is indeed a terrorist, I say, Bravo and let’s keep him there until the current conflict between violent jihadists and the US comes to an end. Terror jihadists can’t plant bombs in hotels while they are in Guantanamo. And, by the way, I am not squeamish about what those who protect us must do to people we suspect of having information important to our safety. I sometimes even deplore that we do to them is not imaginative enough. And, I think that the recent allegations to the effect that torture produces nothing of interest are absurd on their face.

But what if the guy is an innocent shepherd, or fisherman, or traveling salesman found in the wrong place? What if he is a victim of a vendetta by the corrupt police of his own country who delivered him over? What if he was simply sold to our intelligence services? What if, in short, he is has no more been involved in terrorism than I have? The question arises in Slahi’s case because the authorities had thirteen years to produce enough information, from him and from others, to charge him. They can’t even give good reasons why they think he is a terrorist in some way, shape or form. It shouldn’t be that hard. If he so much as lend his cellphone to a terrorist I am for giving him the longest sentence available. or simply to keep him until the end of hostilities (perhaps one century).

And if having fought in Afghanistan and having pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda at some point are his crimes, charge him, try him promptly even by a military commission, or declare formally, publicly that he is a prisoner not protected by the Geneva Conventions, because he was caught engaged in hostile action against the US while out of uniform and fighting for no constituted government. How difficult can this be?

I am concerned, because, as a libertarian conservative, I am quite certain that any government bureaucracy will usually cover its ass in preference to doing the morally right thing. (The American Revolution was largely fought against precisely this kind of abuse.) Is it possible that the Pentagon or some other government agency wants to keep this man imprisoned in order to hide their mistakes of thirteen years ago? I believe that to ask the question is to answer it.

This kind of issue is becoming more pressing instead of vanishing little by little because it looks like 9/11 what just the opening course. It looks like we are in this struggle against violent jihadism for the long run. Again, I am not proposing we go soft on terrorism. I worry that we are becoming used to government arbitrariness and mindless cruelty. I suspect that conservatives are often conflating their dislike of the president’s soft touch and indecision about terrorism with neglect of fairness and humanity. I fear we are becoming less American.

Let me ask again: What if this man, and some others in Guantanamo, have done absolutely nothing against us?

Of course, I hope the US will keep Guantanamo prison open as long as necessary. In fact, I expect fresh planeloads of real terrorist from Syria and Iraq to come in soon. I really hope that Congress will have the intestinal fortitude to call President Obama’s bluff on closing the prison. Congress has the means to stop it if it wants to.

Charlie Hebdo: Todos, nadie, uno.

La primera reacción pública frente al atentando a los integrantes de la redacción de la publicación satírica Charlie Hebdo fue acudir a la identificación con la víctima: “Je suis Charlie Hebdo”. En menos de 48 hs. se comenzaron a escuchar los primeros distanciamientos: no todos querían identificarse con Charlie Hebdo, ya que eran pocos los que adherían por entero a su línea editorial. En estos casos, lo más delicado reside en las razones para expresar una u otra posición.

La identificación de la comunidad con la víctima de un atentado es un requisito que hace a la legitimación de la persecución penal contra quienes hayan perpetrado el atentado. En este sentido, es correcto decir “yo soy Charlie Hebdo”, ya que esto implica afirmar que la víctima del atentado pertenece a nuestra comunidad y es la comunidad la que ha sido agredida en la persona de la víctima. Si el estado –en este caso el Estado Francés- se encuentra legitimado para iniciar la persecución penal de tal atentado es porque el agredido se encuentra dentro de la comunidad protegida por aquél. Por otra parte, dado el cariz político del crimen, si le da el rango de cuestión de estado es porque es la autoridad del mismo la que ha sido desafiada: alguien distinto al propio estado se está atribuyendo la autoridad para decidir qué tratamiento público debe dársele a las opiniones molestas. Recién aquí es cuando entra a jugar el tema de la libertad de expresión.

La libertad de expresión en tanto que garantía individual solamente es relevante cuando lo que se expresa es una opinión con la que disentimos: La opinión de “otro”, en el sentido de completamente ajeno a uno mismo, un “otro” que expresa lo que no queremos escuchar. Cuando nadie discutía la proveniencia divina de la autoridad de los reyes, el cuestionamiento público a los mismos constituía una profanación de una repugnancia semejante a la que hoy sufre un feligrés cuando debe soportar una afrenta a su religión. Los reyes entendían que, -expresándolo en el lenguaje de hoy- en esos casos no se había hecho un ejercicio “responsable” de la libertad de expresión o que la misma “no estaba para eso”.

Por el contrario: que la libertad de expresión sea efectivamente una garantía depende de que quien exprese una opinión sumamente ofensiva contra un tercero o contra la autoridad no pueda ser legalmente perseguido por el estado por haberla emitido (por supuesto, estamos hablando de “opiniones”, no de “enunciación pública de planes” contra un tercero o la autoridad). La libertad de expresión protege aquello que dice “el otro”, aquello que no queremos escuchar. En este sentido, para poder predicar de un sistema jurídico que éste respeta la libertad de expresión, “Charlie Hebdo” tiene que ser otro, enteramente distinto a nosotros, y no ser molestado por el estado a causa de sus opiniones aún pese a aquéllo.

Ahora bien, cuando un grupo armado atenta contra un ciudadano porque se considera agraviado por las opiniones vertidas por éste no está atentando contra la libertad de expresión directamente, si no contra la vida de sus víctimas y contra la soberanía del estado que reconoce la libertad de expresión de sus ciudadanos (es decir, atenta contra la libertad de expresión sólo mediatamente). A los efectos de la vida de las víctimas del atentado “todos somos Charlie Hebdo”. En cuanto a la relación del estado que reconoce la libertad de expresión de sus ciudadanos “no todos son Charlie Hebdo” y es cuando “uno solo lo es” cuando más se pone a prueba el respeto de la libertad de expresión por parte del estado. Este respeto tiene dos aspectos: frente a los ciudadanos se manifiesta como una obligación de abstención frente a las opiniones expresadas; frente a quienes desafían mediante la violencia física tal sistema de valores, en la persecución legal y política de los mismos. Nótese que no resulta necesario que “todos seamos Charlie Hebdo” para que el estado garantice la libertad de expresión en este doble aspecto (abstención frente al ciudadano e intervención frente al agresor). Es más, solamente podemos decir con seguridad que garantiza la libertad de expresión cuando Charlie Hebdo es enteramente el otro.

En resumen, la persecución jurídica, en el plano del derecho penal, del atentado se activa con la agresión sobre la vida de las víctimas del mismo. En tanto la persecución política –en el marco de un estado de derecho, se entiende- se pone en movimiento con el desafío a la autoridad pública que implicó el uso de la violencia física con la finalidad de imponer la abrogación de la libertad de expresión. Que seamos o no seamos Charlie Hebdo depende de cuál de los dos aspectos estemos considerando: para el primero es necesario que lo seamos todos, para lo segundo alcanza con que lo sea uno solo.


Previamente publicado en  de @IHUMEorg

Hayek on Human Rights Day

It turns out it’s Human Rights Day today! I came across a call on Twitter: “Don’t fight for your rights. Fight for equal rights.” This reminded me of an argument from Hayek: “If we knew how freedom would be used, the case for it would largely disappear…. the importance of our being free to do a particular thing has nothing to do with the question of whether we or the majority are ever likely to make use of that particular possibility… The freedom that will be used by only one man in a million may be more important to society and more beneficial to the majority than any freedom that we all use.

This thought entered my brain when I was in a Constitution of Liberty reading group back in San Jose and has been percolating ever since. It has profound implications for how we think of freedom as a concept, and especially for how we should think about the sorts of liberties we want to support. I think the second part is obvious: even if I don’t need the freedom to own a business (for example), I’m far better off in a world where immigrants are allowed to start businesses like eBay. The same is true for more controversial liberties… we simply don’t know who ought to have the rights necessary to transform the world, and we don’t know what those rights are. So we should be prepared to err on the side of giving “too many” people “too many” liberties.

The first part (the implications for how we think of freedom as a concept) is a bit trickier. Hayek is arguing that the rights we all have aren’t terribly important. That is, it’s the marginal rights that matter. We all have the right to life. It’s important, but it’s not going anywhere anyways. If we want to improve the future, we need to keep an eye to things within our control; we could revoke the right to life (you know what I mean… that other thing is a whole different can of worms and you should write your own blog post about it…), but that’s not even on the table. What we need to be concerned with is those rights that we could conceivably lose because they don’t seem that important.

For example: women should be allowed to sign contracts, own property, and start businesses. We all know that to be the case based on our sense of fairness. But Hayek bolsters that argument: we should want that set of rights to be held by as many people as possible regardless of sex and possibly even regardless of species (District 9 and Planet of the Apes are two movies that would be very different if we attached rights to sentience rather than humanity). We don’t want rights to only go to people we care about, we want them to go to people who can use those rights to make the world better.

Expanding the Liberty Canon: Tacitus on Barbarian Liberty

Cornelius Tacitus was a Roman senator and historian from the early Roman Empire. Some details of his life are oddly evasive given his high status in the Roman system and his fame as a writer. It is not known what his first name was (Romans had three names), but Gaius and Publius are the most widely accepted hypotheses. It is not clear where he was born except that it was some distance from the city of Rome. Southern France (or Gaul) or northern Italy are the most widely accepted hypotheses. His exact dates of birth and death are not known, but he lived from about 56 to 117CE.

Tacitus was one of the great antique historians and prose stylists. He deserves to be read by liberty enthusiasts for the record he provides of ideas of liberty in Rome, as well as for reasons of literary appreciation and general historical knowledge. His historical work includes the Annals and the Histories, which are a major source of information about the history of the early Roman empire, as well as of the political attitudes of the traditional Roman ruling class at that time.

There is some overlap between the Histories and the Annals, and the texts under discussion in the present post, which are On Agricola and On Germany, but the first two texts will be covered in a later post. I have already had a lot to say about the republicanism of the Athenians and the Romans, so it is time to consider how the ancients conceived of liberty in the ‘barbarian’ nations, those nations lacking the cities, literary, and unified legal-political systems known to Greek and Roman writers.

Another topic to be considered later is how the ancient republicans understood good rule in a monarchy (the Cyropaedia of Xenophon from ancient Athens is the most obvious example), and deals with the education of the Persian king Cyrus. There is some overlap between the topics of wise monarchy and barbarian liberty, particularly if we look at how these ideas evolve over time, something that will be explained at the end of this post.

Tacitus’ general position on Roman politics was that of an aristocrat and enthusiast for the Republic, who despised many of the early emperors, but was at least willing to give credit to those emperors he believed were behaving with respect regarding the aristocracy and old republican values. In particular, Tacitus gives a negative view of the personality and means of rule used by the second emperor Tiberius, a far more scathing impression of the following emperor Caligula, and a generally horrified impression of Roman leaders and the culture of Rome until the time of Nerva and Nerva’s successor Trajan. Nerva and Trajan are the first two of the Five Good Emperors, also including Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius.

That sequence is conventionally regarded as the highpoint of the Roman Empire before a decline which ends in the fifth century fall of the West and the formation of Hellenic despotism in the East. That is not exactly a view universally accepted by historians now, and I do not refer to it to endorse it, but to refer to a very powerful story influencing the understanding of history and the fate of states over the centuries.

Anyway, Tactitus did much to form the earlier part of that time-honoured if now much criticised historical understanding. It seems to me that it is as least correct to see some substantial, if very variable, respect for republican forms and manners until the death of Marcus Aurelius, though supreme power had been premised on control of the military since Julius Caesar’s time. After Marcus Aurelius, maybe some republican legacy remains in that the Senate in Rome always has some influence, but that influence looks weak compared with that of the power of the military, which decided the name of the emperor in times of uncertainty or became the source of coups by would be emperors.

Tacitus’s republican-inspired criticisms of emperors who humiliated or ignored the Senate were not a wish for popular government; this was a distinctly aristocratic wish for liberty for those who deserved to exercise liberty, combined with nostalgia for a stern public morality of self-restraint and courage associated with the memory of the early Republic. Tacitus’ objections to unrestrained emperor rule were partly of mild behaviour towards slaves and the promotion of freedmen over free men.

The freedman had a particular legal status in Rome: as a slave emancipated from slavery, but still bound to render services to the master who freed him (I’m excluding women here as they do not enter into the politics of the time) and who could be taken back into slavery if he failed to recognise his obligations. So only the children of a freedman were truly free and they were still of socially low status, at least according to the old aristocratic families in the Senate.

Emperors were happy to give important jobs to freedmen who owed them particular loyalty, rather than aristocrats who might believe in their own rights independent of the emperor. So Tacitus, along with other senators, was very much in favour of a state, a kind of republic under an emperor, ruled by free men, on the understanding that only a very limited class of men deserved freedom, understood as the right to exercise political power as well as non-political legal rights.

One way in which Tacitus examines an alternative to the apparent decadence of Rome was with reference to the barbarian subjects or enemies of Rome. He was particularly concerned with two groups of barbarians, Britons and Germans. He discusses the Britons as part of his tribute to his father-in-law Agricola, the Roman governor of ‘Britannia’ (England, Wales and a very variable part of Scotland) who consolidated the conquest undertaken by the Emperor Claudius.

As Tacitus notes, Julius Caesar failed to conquer Britannia, so noting the limitation of the effective founder of the Emperor system, though its formal start is associated with the consolidation of powers and titles, new and old, by Caesar’s successor Augustus. Tacitus is also referring to the difficulties of conquering the Britons, who had a fierceness lacking in the Roman legions (disciplined and brave in battle as they were).

Tacitus’ praise for his father-in-law is enhanced by and feeds into recognition of the difficulties of subduing the fiercely independent people of this terribly cold, rainy, and foggy land at the edge of the Roman world. As Tacitus notes, resistance to Rome first came from a queen, Boudicca, occupying a role of political and military leadership closed to Roman women. Tacitus has little else to say about this situation, but at least has acknowledged a form of struggle for liberty under a woman beyond any episode of Roman history.

The biggest voice for British love of liberty is given to Calgacus leading opposition to Rome in the highlands of Britannia. Tacitus attributes a speech to him, which is likely to have much more to do with Tacitus’ own imagination and political sensibility than anything the historical Calgacus ever said. We will never be sure about this, but in any case Tacitus gives an important example of some deep ambiguities in Roman thinking about liberty and their own civilisation.

Calgacus condemns the greed for wealth of the Romans and portrays them as only exercising power through enslaved peoples rather than their own courage and merit. The reference to “enslaved peoples” is to people politically and militarily subdued by the Romans, with most remaining above slave status, rather than the enslavement in the strongest sense of every individual within a people.

The liberty the Britons are depending on comes from a simple moral struggle to defend family and immediate community from foreign domination, not from a wish to enslave others. Calgacus recognises the remoteness of Brittania from Rome and from Roman civilisation, making their struggle a struggle of wilderness, mountains, and places by the sea against a gigantic continental force, fighting with nothing to lose except the liberty of simple peoples with simple lives.

Tacitus is giving voice to a mentality he admires though coming from a people who deserved to be slaves because they failed to throw off Roman mastery. That is partly a matter of war, which Tacitus implies through Calgacus, the Britons lacked talent for over time as opposed to a capacity for isolated surprise victories. Tacitus both admires the courage of the barbarians and despises their lack of discipline. The real source of their slavery though is the luxury that Roman rule brings to Britannia (in practice this can only apply to a minority of urban dwellers and larger to a minority Romanised upper class within that category), so that the Britons forget liberty as they enjoy the fine living of Roman civilisations.

Tacitus himself enjoyed that fine living while continuing an idealisation of Britons as simple, hardy, brave people, which in early history even applied to aristocrats who were small property owners, farming their own land. Tacitus both wished to keep his privileged life and use the ideal of simple republican virtue against the emperors and those corrupted by emperors.

Tacitus wrote on the difficult to conquer but finally conquered Britons and also on the impossible to conquer Germans. The Germans again resisted Caesar, but unlike the Britons resisted a succession of Roman Emperors. Like the Britons, the Germans are portrayed as living at the edge of the liveable world, in this case surrounded by forests and swamps with no gold or metal and little in the way of farming. The lack of gold and silver marks the Germans as mere barbarians, but also makes them free of the corruption the Romans had suffered.

Tacitus discusses the political situation of the Germans as variable as they are divided between many tribes, but generally they have a strong monarchy or a monarch who appears to largely exist to lead in war rather than dominate the society. The latter kind of monarch tends to rule through freedmen according to Tacitus, so duplicating the tendency of Roman emperors to keep political power way from those who fit to exercise liberty and leave it to the slavish in nature.

The Germans are portrayed as brave but with reference to family and immediate community, who are all present in battle (including the women) rather than to the state, or ‘public thing’ (‘res publica’), which is how Romans understood their own state at any time, republican strictly speaking, or imperial in forms. Again Tacitus shows a mixture of contempt for the backwardness of it, and admiration for the so far uncorrupted bravery on behalf of the little world of everyday life. The emotional passion of the Germans is also admired, but regarded as inferior overall to the discipline and self-control of a proper Roman aristocrat like Agricola.

Significantly, Tacitus thinks the kind of Stoic self-control and extreme rationality, discussed from the political point of view in an earlier post on Seneca, is going too far. Despite the influence of Stoic thinking on the Roman upper class and Seneca’s association with resistance to evil emperors, Tacitus wants some passion leftover from the barbarian mentality, as part of the makeup of the Roman ruling class. Their liberty requires passion as well as self-restraint.

As indicated at the beginning of this piece, over time there is some convergence between Tacitus’ respect for barbarian liberty and Xenophon’s interest in good kingship in a ‘barbarian’ (as in non-Greek, though not as in backward) state, that is the Persian Empire.

This is the outcome of the Medieval dominance of monarchy as a political form in western and central Europe, combined with increasing knowledge of ancient republican ideals as knowledge of Latin increases in the Middle Ages, followed by increasing knowledge of Greek in the Renaissance.

The social and political structure of Medieval states, in which there are still some city republics, where monarchies allow self-government to city merchants, and find it necessary to consult estates, or assemblies, of nobles, clergy, and merchants, the cult of aristocratic-knightly prowess in war, and independence of barons from kings, all suggest ways in which European monarchs, aristocrats, and intellectuals pick up on republican ideas and apply them to a monarchy.

Enlightenment ideas of liberty themselves dealt with the tension and combination of Roman order and barbarian spirit. The most sustained attempt to turn this into a philosophy of history, state, and law, can be found in Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws, which emphasises that the Roman Empire in the west was overwhelmed by Germanic tribes and succeeded by Germanic kings, with particular emphasis on France.

Early Frankish-German kings and aristocrats brought Germanic laws and customs to Roman Gaul, but some elements of Roman law survived particularly in the church. The Roman law was fully revived in the thirteenth century in a process strongly established with the growing power of the French monarchy and the emergence of a French nation. So for Montesquieu, the French monarchy of his time rested on a mix of Germanic liberty, which was primitive republican in origin, given the limited role of early German kings, under a monarchy and aristocracy that was Germanic and origin, and in which Roman law provided an ordered structure for liberty.

The Roman component, like the Germanic component, was republican in origin. Montesquieu himself is taken in both republican and monarchist ways, and he was looking at how the two come together in complex interactions in European history to create liberty with increasing commerce and moral sensitivity, under law, as he knew it. Adam Smith was also very sensitive to this historical complexity of law and liberty, looking back to both the Graeco-Roman and barbarian republics with various mixtures of admiration and concern. He was certainly aware of the Tacitus style of neo-republican contempt for those supposed unworthy of liberty and feared that modern republics might engage in the same polarisation between full citizens and the excluded.

Local Citizenship

In his latest blog over in, my usual stamping grounds, Nathan Smith discusses the need for citizenship to be voluntary. I agree with Nathan Smith wholeheartedly here. What value is citizenship if a man is forced to have it? A fellow citizen is someone you should be willing to share a meal with during the bests of time. A fellow citizen is someone you should be willing to trust in the trenches during times of war. A meal is never pleasant when your company is forced to be there, and I for one wouldn’t want to fight alongside an unwilling ally.

If citizenship is to be voluntary however the offer of citizenship should also be voluntary.  That is to say that a polity should be able to decide who it wishes to offer citizenship to. United States immigration law currently adds new citizens without much consultation to current citizens on whether they wish to accept newcomers. This is a plain violation of the right to free association.

It is for this reason that I disagree on granting US citizenship to its current illegal alien population. It is true that on occasion a majority of the US public favors granting a pathway to citizenship to the illegal alien population, but even during the best of times a substantial portion are opposed to it. I cannot see a justification to force someone to associate with another in political union when alternatives exist. To be fair, I also oppose granting citizenship to newborn babies regardless of whether their parents are recent Pakistani migrants or from Nebraska.

I favor instead replacing national citizenship in the United States with local citizenship. Cities are small enough that disgruntled minorities can easily move to somewhere more favorable to their views. City formation is also fluid enough that they can be broken up much more easily than their larger counterparts.

By no means is my proposal to radically change citizenship. The concept of citizenship was born in the Greek polis, and carried into the modern era through the Italian city-states and, to a lesser extent, the Swiss cantons and the Hanseatic League cities. Movement towards local citizenship would be the return to tradition, not a departure from it.

It was only after the French Revolution that we saw the rise of national citizenship as an idea in the western world. Arguably in the United States local citizenship was important up till the passage of the 14th amendment, which allowed the federal government to effectively nationalize citizenship.

We can already see early signs of local citizenship regaining popularity. In my home city of Los Angeles local citizenship is offered to residents who can prove they have a ‘stake’ in the future of the city. Stakeholder status is independent of migrant status and allows one to both vote and run in local elections. Stakeholder status can be achieved by showing that one lives, works, or owns property in Los Angeles.

Article 9, Section 906 of the Los Angeles City Charter readers:

“(2) neighborhood council membership will be open to everyone who lives, works or owns property in the area (stakeholders);”

In New York State there is a proposed bill, ‘The New York is Home Act’, that would grant New York state citizenship to those who have paid state taxes, have no substantial criminal record, and lived in the state for a certain number of years. This proposal is independent of one’s federal migration status.

The European Union also offers a model on how local citizenship can exist in union with federal citizenship. I favor this model the least as the EU regulates the obligations of member states towards federal citizens so heavily that the difference between local citizenships are becoming increasingly marginal. I fear that the ultimate outcome will be that, as in the United States, federal citizenship in Europe will simply become national citizenship.

My ideal world is composed of three pillars (1) local citizenship, (2) open borders, and (3) a common market. Cities could elect who they wish to grant the privilege of being involved in political life, and individuals themselves would be free to decide which city, if any, they would wish to join. There would still be those who felt they were being forced to politically associate but, an open borders regime coupled with fluid city formation and a common market, should allow this number to be minimized.

In his latest blog post on world government Brandon Christensen implicitly discusses world citizenship. I have previously aired my disagreement with Christensen on the issue of world government, but feel obliged to point out that the matter of citizenship is also one of the areas that leave me skeptical of world government. Namely my concerns are that:

(1) World citizenship would force all of humanity to associate politically, even if we rather not.

(2) World citizenship would create free rider problems among political actors. Why should one forgo the costs of becoming informed on political issues if their marginal effect on world issues is close to nill? Meanwhile larger governments, even if initially federal in nature, have a nasty tendency to increasingly take over local affairs. We need only look at the progression of transportation and education in the United States from being local affairs to federal ones.

On my to do list is to explore what the optimal amount of citizens is and a more detailed response to Christensen on the issue of world government. On the off chance that I should die before I can write the latter response, let me state for the record that I am actually quite supportive of international agreements such as NAFTA that bring us closer to a common market. I am even in favor of formalizing the loose federation that composes the western world. Where I stray is that I prefer an international order where powers like the Chinese and Russian spheres are strong enough to compete with the west.

P.P.S. I offer apologies if I drop off here and there. I lurk the consortium daily, and if I don’t reply it is because I’ve not yet mastered time management as well as others.

Into the ear of every anarchist that sleeps but doesn’t dream…

We must sing, We must sing,We must sing…



There is no libertarian art.

Well, that is a slight exaggeration, but not much of one. Art is a vital part to any social movement and it is one area where libertarians suffer immensely. Sure there are libertarian leaning authors such as Robert Heinlein and modern Austrian economic art like the guys over at but for the most part there are few non-academic ways to inspire potential libertarians.

This is a problem I lament when I am feeling negative about the prospects for a free society which, to be fair, is usually the case. Sometimes reading an article about Intellectual Property just isn’t enough to get the passion flowing.

“But Wait!” You say, “you failed to mention the author who brought tens of thousands of people into the libertarian fold. The late, the great, the Ayn Rand!”


….yea about that.


I don’t like Ayn Rand. There, I said it. Bring out the pitchforks and tie me to a Rearden Steel railroad track if you must but I stand by my statement. Now I know what you are all thinking: “But her works exemplify the individual freedoms that a libertarian society should strive for!” or “Dagny is a strong independent woman who don’t need no government!”

Yes, I am aware, but it isn’t Ayn Rand the author I dislike. Actually it isn’t even Ayn Rand the person that I dislike. I don’t like the idea of Ayn Rand. The metaphysical zeitgeist that surrounds and worships her throughout every circle of the libertarian movement from Walter Block to Milton Friedman to every other subscriber on

All too often I have had to argue about libertarianism through the lens of someone whose only exposure to the philosophy is Ayn Rand and the objectivist selfishness that nearly everyone associates with capitalism. In short, I think she is bad for libertarianism and provides no end of ammunition that can be used against those of us with a more nuanced moral/ethical position.

Here is the kicker though. I have not read a single Ayn Rand novel. Not Anthem, not the Fountainhead, and especially not her magnum opus Atlas Shrugged. My knowledge of her works (outside of objectivist philosophy) comes mostly through a bit of osmosis during many diatribes in my conversion to libertarian thought and the first few chapters of Anthem I read in high school before being bored to tears.

I feel that my lack of personal experience with the work of Ayn Rand is a great injustice to someone so influential to many (but certainly not all) of the ideals that I hold so dear and maybe, just maybe, I can siphon off some of the passion that so many others feel when reading her novels.

So it is my objective to spend the next several weeks (months perhaps) reading Atlas Shrugged along with you, the faithful readers here at, and recording chapter based summaries of my thoughts, opinions, and analysis from a literary, ethical, and philosophical standpoint. These will be full of personal anecdotes and armchair analysis so be prepared for a tumultuous ride through one of the “great?” works of the 20th century.

Part one of many comes tomorrow morning.