Be Our Guest: “Government: The Great Post-Christian Swindle”

Jack Curtis is back as our guest, and with a thoughtful vengeance:

It is no coincidence that Reformed Judeo-Christian culture has led the explosion of human progress in recent centuries; it both set up the church as society’s and government’s visible conscience, and by reversing sovereignty from king to people, freed incalculable individual effort into the more productive directions celebrated by Adam Smith in his The Wealth of Nations. The first provided a foundation for the reduced corruption and enhanced public trust that advance economic progress; the second accelerated human achievement. Tales of extraordinary human accomplishment have always centered upon motivated individuals, ordered serfdom has never been considered very productive and slavery, least of all. This is a reality typically brushed off by those selling the idea that alterations of government structure can be used to alter innate human behavior. The idea however, remains an enduring political swindle enshrined among public educators naturally interested in producing complaisant citizens for their employer.

Read the rest, and don’t forget to add your own thoughts. As always, feel free to Be Our Guest

Black-and-white libertarianism

I was hanging out in my daughter’s room the other day and noticed a new picture of her on the wall. My daughter is nearly 3 now, but that photo showed to me a person who will someday be a young girl, a woman, a daughter-in-law, a college student, a worker, and, if all goes accordingly, a grandmother or at least a sassy old lady who plays too much bingo down at the local Methodist church.

A little later on that same night, after the kids were tucked in and sleeping and I was on this damned computer doing NOL stuff, I thought about liberty and what it might mean to my daughter, and also about how the meaning of liberty has changed over time in my own mind.

For starters, “liberty” is kind of a corny term now. It’s becoming archaic. “Freedom” has started to become a corny word, too. (Its cause is not helped by American politicians using the term “freedom” to describe Washington’s overseas ambitions.)

Knowing what I know now about the libertarian movement in the United States, I don’t think I will introduce my daughter to the formal movement. No summer seminars, no Reason subscription, no Ayn Rand moment where I hand her Atlas Shrugged and tell her how much that book has changed my life.

I think a better avenue for discovering her freedom will be to encourage her to go to the best college she can get in to (sorry Rick), figure out a way to be grateful for employment, and read plenty of literature and science fiction.

The formal libertarian atmosphere probably won’t be around in the same way it was for us. Will it be more decentralized or more centralized? I don’t know how academic it will be, either. I hope it’s somewhat academic, with more of an emphasis on history and culture rather than economics and philosophy. The think tanks and foundations will still be around. They’ll still be dirty and they’ll still better than the alternatives. We had FEE and IHS. FEE has already fallen off the map. IHS might still be around, but it will have plenty of competition.

What if my daughter discovers my notes on liberty? Will she be proud? Will she giggle? Or worse: Will she be embarrassed? Will she become a libertarian if she stumbles across my writings? It’s too early to say. That photo, though, of a little human being smiling back at me in black-and-white, was profound. She is my daughter, sure, but she is someone different than me. She is her own self.


  1. The stoic grief of the Gold Star Mothers John McKay, American Conservative
  2. “My body, my choice” Ilya Somin, Volokh Conspiracy
  3. “Frontier” history has gotten much better, no thanks to David McCullough Rebecca Onion, Slate
  4. The loss of a symbol of civilization Nick Nielsen, The View from Oregon


  1. Freedom isn’t free Robin Hanson, Overcoming Bias
  2. The embarrassment of riches Brian Doherty, Reason
  3. American hegemony and imperial control Emma Ashford, War on the Rocks
  4. On prison nurseries Naomi Schaefer Riley, National Affairs


  1. The case for empathy Elizabeth Segal, Aeon
  2. Christianity: an internationalist perspective Ross Douthat, New York Times
  3. Who’ll defend freedom? Chris Dillow, Stumbling & Mumbling
  4. Judy Shelton speaks up for the gold standard David Glasner, Uneasy Money

Merry Liberty Christmas!

Christmas, as I hope everybody (at least in the West) still knows is Jesus’ birthday. I don’t want to spend too much time here talking about how it is very unlikely that Jesus was born on December 25, and how this date was probably just chosen at some point in the late Ancient times/Early Medieval times to Christianize European pagans. The Bible never specifies when Jesus was born (although it does offer some hints), and so, some very devout Christians over history (Puritans, for example) thought that we should not even celebrate Christmas. The gospel according to John doesn’t even talk about Jesus’ birth. In it, Jesus simply appears as a grown man. The same thing happens in Mark’s gospel. Matthew and Luke give accounts of Jesus’ birth, with Luke being more detailed. So, ½ of our gospels don’t seem to be very interested in Jesus’ life before he was about 30 years old. Someone has said (and I think somewhat appropriately) that the gospels are accounts of Jesus passion (his death and resurrection) with long introductions.

But anyways! I don’t think that celebrating Christmas is bad, not at all! I believe it is a good occasion to remember Jesus, the founder of Western civilization. May we like it or not, the West is profoundly linked to Christianity. Christianism begin as little more than a small and persecuted Jewish sect, but eventually became the main religion in Europe (and northern Africa, and the Near East), and from there to the World. Some might say (and I think that sadly they might be right) that today Europe lives in a post-Christian era, but we should not forget that someday in the past to be European and to be Christian were basically synonyms. And I also believe that we, professing Christians or not, should be thankful to Christianity in a number of ways. I am very convinced that it was thanks to Christianity, especially after the Reformation, that we have many of the things that we, as liberty-lovers, are thankful for, such as science, capitalism and lots of individual liberty.

Of course, from the human perspective, the link between Christianism and West is merely accidental. I myself, as a Brazilian, am not sure if I classify as a Westerner. Maybe I am from the far West? It is very clear that for many decades now Christianism is moving to the global south: Latin America, Africa, Asia, and I hope not to be forgetting anyone. And I think that is just beautiful! I don’t believe that there is one essential Christian culture. Instead, I believe that culture is an essential human phenomenon and that Christianism can give a new birth to cultures, just as it does to individuals, bringing forward what they have best and leaving behind the bad stuff.

Sadly, the very places where Christianism is growing the most today are usually also the places where Christians suffer more persecution. Although we tend to connect the first few centuries of Christianism with martyrdom, with people being crucified, thrown to the beasts and the like, the fact is that the 20th century had more martyrs than any other century before. It is also sad for me that most people, including Christians and liberty-lovers, tend to ignore this. In the last few weeks, I heard of at least two churches being closed in China, with all members being taken to jail. I wish that people who care about freedom paid more attention to this. I also wish that people who care about Human Rights did the same. Some people are worried about gay couples not getting wedding cakes from Christian bakers, but they don’t seem to have the same concern about Chinese Christians being thrown in jail just because they are Christians.

Speaking of which, I want to be very honest and say that Marxism (or post-Marxism, or cultural Marxism) can easily become a religion. Marx is a prophet, The Capital is a holy book, the proletariat (or any oppressed minority, for the modern left) is both Messiah and holy people, a future communist utopia is Heaven. I believe that it was a Catholic apologist who said that “the problem with not believing in God is that we start to believe in any dumb thing – including in ourselves”. The problem with Marxism as a religion is the same problem I see with every other religion apart from Biblical Christianity: it is performance driven. It is about what you do. And as so, it can create a slippery slope in your heart. You become self-righteous and judgmental (in a bad way) of people outside your faith-group or even people inside your faith-group who you consider not holy enough. Of course, Christians are not exempt from this either, but I believe we have the right medicine for this.

As much as I believe that the New Left is one of the greatest problems in the West today and that several forms of totalitarianism are one of the main problems elsewhere, I don’t believe that libertarianism or conservatism are in themselves the solution. I became a libertarian (or a conservative-libertarian) because I am first a Christian. My first question was “what the Bible has to say about politics and economics”? I believe that somewhere in the libertarian camp we have the best answer for that. I believe the Bible teaches that very small and simple governments and market freedom are the answer. However, I would say that this is just partly the answer.

The way that I see it, the conflict between the left and the right is very much a conflict between Rousseau and Locke, or a conflict between two kinds of freedom. For Rousseau, you are only free when you are your true inner self. If necessary, the community can make an intervention to force you to become who you truly are. For Locke, you are free when you can make your own choices, regardless if they look good for others. As libertarians like to say, a crime without a victim is not a crime.

I believe this is also a basic conflict between modern western culture and more tradition culture – the conflict between collectivism and individualism. My answer as a Christian (and a libertarian) is that we should not force people to be Christians. That would, at best, produce external conformity – which is actually really bad. My understanding is that, as long as they are not predictably and willfully hurting others, people should be let free to do whatever they want. And I do mean whatever. On the other hand, I don’t think that this is good – or as good as it can be. Ironically, I believe that Rousseau is onto something important: you are only truly free when you are who you are really supposed to be.

One great irony or paradox in Christianism is that you are only truly free when you are a slave to God. Understanding 1st-century slavery helps to get the analogy better. God bought us for a price. We belong to him. However, God is not satisfied with having us as slaves. Instead, he adopts us as sons. That is the (I believe) famous parable of the prodigal son: a son abandons his father and loses all his money. He comes back hoping to become a slave in his father’s house. His father takes him back as a son. So, Jesus gives us a new identity as sons of God. And I do mean sons, and not sons and daughters or children. In the 1st century daughters had no inheritance, but in Christ, we all share of it. So that is our true identity if we walk after Christ. And that is when we are truly free.

I don’t want to force anybody to be Christian. I believe that one of the greatest mistakes in Christian history was exactly that: to force people to become Christian. As I said, religion can easily create a slippery slope in the heart, and Christianism is not necessarily an exception. But while other religions are about what we do, Christianism in its essence has at least the potential to be what has been done for us. And that is truly humbling. And I believe this has important political implications: we pray for all. We hope for the best. We trust in God. We respect others.

So Merry Christmas to all! I hope that this is a time for remembering the birthday boy, and what he did, especially on the cross. And that we can all work for a world freer, where people can become Christians – if they choose so.

Liberalism, Democracy, and Polarization

Is polarization a threat to democracy and what is the liberal position on this?

As I pointed out in Degrees of Freedom, most liberals have a preference for democracy. Modern-day democracy – with universal suffrage, a representative parliament, and elected officials – has been developed over the course of the twentieth century. The idea has its roots in antiquity, the Italian city states of the Renaissance, and several forms for shared political decision-making in Scandinavia, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and England. Democracy is not a liberal “invention,” but the term ‘liberal democracy’ has taken firm root. This is true because modern democracy is based on liberal ideas, such as the principle of “one man, one vote,” protection of the classical rights of man, peaceful change of political leadership, and other rules that characterize the constitutional state.

Remarkably, the majority of liberals embraced the idea of democracy only late in the nineteenth century. They also saw dangers of majority decision making to individual liberty, as Alexis de Tocqueville famously pointed out in Democracy in America. Still, to liberals democracy is better than alternatives, such as autocracy or absolute monarchy. This is not unlike Sir Winston Churchill’s quip “it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government, except all the others that have been tried.” Yet there is a bit more to it for liberals. It is has proven to be a method that provides a decent, if imperfect, guarantee for the protection of individual freedom and the peaceful change of government.

Of course there is ample room for discussion inside and beyond academia about numerous different issues, such as the proper rules of democracy, different forms of democracy, the role of constitutions in democracy, whether referenda are a threat or a useful addition to representative democratic government, the roles of parties, party systems, and political leaders, et cetera. These are not the topic here.

In the context of the election of President Trump, but also before that, both inside and outside the US, there is a wide debate on the alleged polarization in society. By this is meant the hardening of standpoints of (often) two large opposing groups in society, who do not want to cooperate to solve the issues of the day, but instead do everything they can to oppose the other side. Consensus seeking is a swear word for those polarized groups, and a sign of weakness.

There appears less consensus on a number of issues now than in the past. Yet this is a questionable assumption. In the US it has been going on for a long time now, certainly in the ethical and immaterial area, think about abortion, the role of the church in society, or freedom of speech of radical groups. Yet most (Western) societies have been polarized in the past along other lines, like the socialist-liberal divide, the liberalization of societies in the 1960s and 1970s, or more recent debates about Islam and integration. Current commentators claim something radically different is going on today. But I doubt it, it seems just a lack of historical awareness on their side. I can’t wait for some decent academic research into this, including historical comparisons.

As a side note: a different but far more problematic example of polarization is gerrymandering (changing the borders of legislative districts to favour a certain party). This has been going on for decades and can be seen as using legal procedures to rob people not of their actual voting rights, but of their meaningful voting rights. Curiously, this does not figure prominently in the current debates…

The (classical) liberal position on polarization is simple. Fighting for, or opposing a certain viewpoint, is just a matter of individual right to free speech. This also includes using law and legislation, existing procedures, et cetera. The most important thing is that in the act of polarizing there cannot be a threat to another person’s individual liberty, including the classical rights to life, free speech, and free association, among others. Of course, not all is black and white, but on the whole, if these rules are respected I fail to see how polarization is threat to democracy, or why polarization cannot be aligned with liberalism.

INDIA: A case study in the demise of representative democracy

India of 1947 had battled decades of colonialism to embrace self-rule. Whatever divisions seeped through party ranks, coalesced – and how beautifully – to fight for the right the people to a democracy. Having a common enemy helped. Compounded by the ability of the political leaders of that time to weave magic through words, connecting the plights of the millions to the queen-ship of one propelled movements across the breadth of the Indian subcontinent. While much has been said of the academic prowess as well as the oratory skills of the Founders, it was their ability to connect across barriers of identity that ultimately pushed the wheel. How dearly they protected their freedom of speech, expression and press is perhaps telling of the importance they assigned to being connected with those they had chosen to represent. How is it then that a deeply flawed election system and disjointed lines of public communication yielded one of the biggest civil disobedience movements the world had ever seen?

In terms of representation and reach, India 2018 is better abled than India 1947. And yet, it fell upon the unelected shoulders of four men and one woman to correct a deeply violent, colonial and bigoted law. The right to sexual identity was granted by five cis heterosexual individuals; the ones in need of representation reduced to being mere petitioners. India celebrated breaking off one more shackle, the Judiciary reveled in being the harbinger of liberal values to the Indian legal system yet one more time and the Parliament, as always, stayed mum. It is not that either of the institutions have embraced staunch anti/pro liberal positions. The Indian judiciary has its share of misogynists much like the Parliament. Misogyny is not illegal. But what is illegal is the Parliament’s distance from her electorate. Even if one were to contend that a majority of India does not support homosexuality, the increasing momentum of the movement should have propelled an informed debate within and without the Parliament. Instead, the government chose to not object to the petitions filed in favor of decriminalizing homosexuality as if that is the extent of the responsibility they owe to the LGBTQ community of the country. The distance between a judicial decriminalization of homosexuality and one done through a legislative device is the distance between a populist democracy and a representative one. The counter-majoritarian difficulty seems almost trivial when democratic institutions lose their representative character.

The biggest reason behind the rising legitimacy of an essentially non-democratic institution as the Judiciary is not a power grab by the Supreme Court judges. Howsoever activist they might get, the requirement of giving a reasoned decision tempers their emotions. The Indian Parliament, on the other hand, has come to rely on this increasing politicization of the judiciary to avoid political battles that might require concessions from their mostly unreasoned manifestos. The result is a lack of deliberation that is disturbingly dismal for a democracy as huge as India. The requirements of representation have come to be restricted to a periodical holding of elections. Members of Parliament are neither Burkean agents nor Pateman’s representatives. They are a political class unto themselves working towards a steady demise of the largest democracy in the world.

Eye Candy: travel advice for Dutch citizens

NOL Dutch travel advice
Click here to zoom

Interesting map, for a few reasons. The United States is in green, which means there are “no special safety risks” to worry about. What I take this to mean is that as long as you stay out of, say, North Sacramento, or East Austin, when the sun goes down you’ll be safe.

The “pay attention, safety risks” label makes quite a big jump in my conceptual understanding of this map. What this warning means is that if you are particularly stupid, you won’t end up getting mugged and losing your wallet (like you would in green areas), you will instead end up losing your life or being kidnapped for ransom (or slavery).

This is quite a big jump, but it makes perfect sense, especially if you think about the jump in terms of inequality and, more abstractly, freedom.


  1. What is the ‘-dom’ in ‘freedom’? John Kelly, OxfordWords
  2. Does Trump Have a Point About Europe? Jeffrey Stacey, Duck of Minerva
  3. When Racism Is Fit to Print Andrew Sullivan, Daily Intelligencer
  4. How deep is the decline of the West? John Gray, New Statesman


  1. The illiberal conception of freedom Nick Nielsen, The View from Oregon
  2. The echoes of Chinese exclusion (immigration) Irene Hsu, New Republic
  3. The Middle Kingdom: all under heaven? George Walden, American Interest
  4. Have we forgotten how to die? Julie-Marie Strange, Times Literary Supplement

Freedom of Religion Secures Other Rights As Well

Ethan’s post on “The Why of Religious Freedom” inspired me to add one more to his list of reasons why freedom of religion deserves special treatment and protection. The freedom of religion preserves other freedoms we hold dear. Even those who do not wish to belong to an organized religion or to hold strong religious opinions have their freedoms secured because of the protection granted to religious freedom.

Freedom of religion, the first freedom protected by the US Constitution’s First Amendment, is part of having freedom of speech. Imagine a country where you could say anything you wanted, except those ideas and principles you hold most dear to your heart. How free would you feel your speech actually is? If you have freedom of the press and can print any opinion or argument you care to, unless it is about your conscience, how free is your press? To say that you may express your political opinion and vote unless you have religious reasons for that opinion similarly denies the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment.

Freedom of religion is also a guarantor of freedom of assembly. This last weekend while in Atlanta for the Teaching Professor Conference in Atlanta, my colleagues and I toured Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s church and neighborhood. The civil rights movement for many years worked through the churches because it was the only place African Americans were freely allowed to assemble together in many areas. As they assembled, they had the freedom to speak out against the injustices and oppressions they faced and work together to overcome them.​

As Rev. King put it, “Freedom is like life. It cannot be had in installments. Freedom is indivisible – we have it all, or we are not free” (The Case Against “Tokenism”). To extend that argument, when we say ‘freedom of religion’ it is the people who are free, free to believe how they will, to speak and gather and act according to their beliefs freely. In “The Ethical Demands For Integration,” Rev. King argued:

“A denial of freedom to an individual is a denial of life itself. The very character of the life of man demands freedom. In speaking of freedom … I am not talking of the freedom of a thing called the will [or in our case, religion]. The very phrase, freedom of the will [religion], abstracts freedom from the person to make it an object; and an object almost by definition is not free. But freedom cannot thus be abstracted from the person … . So I am speaking of the freedom of man, the whole man.”

If we cannot be free in our religious thoughts and exercise – whether connected with an organized religion or not – we cannot be a free people.

Pot smoking and freedom: ‘Murica!

My latest Tuesday column over at RealClearHistory takes aim at the history of marijuana in the United States. I’ve got a 600 word limit, but hopefully I packed in plenty of info. Here’s an excerpt:

During the much-loathed Prohibition era (1920-33), marijuana was targeted along with alcohol and other substances deemed immoral by bootleggers and Baptists. Unlike alcohol, which was re-legalized in 1933, marijuana ended up in a legal limbo that continues to this day. The legal, political, economic, and cultural battles surrounding marijuana use in the United States have helped shape three generations of lawyers, businesspeople, activists, academics, and medical professionals. Thanks to the questions posed by marijuana prohibition, rigorous and creative arguments in favor of the drug’s legalization have contributed to a better understanding of our federal system of government, of Judeo-Christian morality, and non-Western ethical systems (pot-smoking “Buddhists” are practically cliche today), of the human body and especially the brain, of global trading networks throughout history, and of intercultural exchange and communication. Freedom still defines us as a society. Freedom binds Americans together. Freedom drives our conversations and our institutional actors. This may be difficult to remember as the news cycle grows ever more sensational, but this quiet, humble truth still remains.

Please, read the rest.

Worth a gander

  1. the term ‘hippie trail’ began to circulate in the late 1960s: it referred principally to the long route from London (or sometimes Amsterdam) to Katmandu.| The Protestant Reformation and freedom of conscience

  2. Flags, Chinese Pirates, and the American Navy | Naval power and trade

  3. Xi Jinping is looking more and more like Mao | The legacy of autocratic rule in China

  4. that time when North Korea saved Benin from a coup led by mercenaries | The re-privatization of security

  5. how Brexit has reopened old Irish wounds | Credit and the Great Famine of Ireland

An argument against Net Neutrality

First off, Comcast sucks. Seriously, screw those guys.

But let’s assume a can opener and see if that doesn’t help us find a deeper root problem. The can opener is competition in the ISP network. Let’s consider how the issue of Net Neutrality (NN) would play out in a world where your choice of ISP looked more like your choice of grocery store. Maybe a local district is set up to manage a basic grid and ISPs bid for usage of infrastructure (i.e. cities take a page out of the FCC’s playbook on spectrum rights). Maybe some technological advance makes it easy to set up decentralized wireless infrastructure. But let’s imagine that world.

Let me also assume a bit of regulation. The goal is to create some simple rules that make the market work a bit better. Two regulations that I’d like to see are 1) a requirement that ISPs have a public list of any websites they restrict access to*, and 2) a limitation on how complicated end user agreements can be. I’m not sure these things would be possible in my anarchist utopia, but in a second best world of governments I’m pretty comfortable with them.

Let’s also create a default contracts for content providers with ISPs. “Unless otherwise agreed to, content providers (e.g. YouTube, my crazy uncle Larry, the cafe around the corner, etc.) relationship with ISPs is assumed to take the following form:…” An important clause would be “access/speed/etc. to your content will meet ______ specifications and cannot be negatively altered at the request of any third party.”

A similar default contract could be written for ISPs and end users. “Universal access under ____________ conditions will be provided and cannot be negatively altered at the request of any third party.”

Explicitly and publicly setting neutral defaults means we can get NN by default, but allow people the freedom to exchange their way out of it.

Do we need, or even want, mandated NN in that world? There are some clear potential gains to a non-neutral Internet. Bandwidth is a scarce resource, and some websites use an awful lot of it. YouTube and Netflix are great, but they’re like a fleet of delivery trucks creating traffic on the Information Super Highway. Letting them pay ISPs for preferred access is like creating a toll lane that can help finance increased capacity.

Replacing NN with genuine competition means that consumers who value Netflix can pay for faster streaming on that while (essentially) agreeing to use less of the net’s bandwidth for other stuff. We should encourage faster content, even if it means that some content gets that extra speed before the rest.

Competing ISPs would cater to the preferences and values of various niches. Some would seem benign: educational ISPs that provide streamlined access to content from the Smithsonian while mirroring Wikipedia content on their volunteer servers. Bandwidth for sites outside the network might come at some price per gigabyte, or it might be unlimited.

Other ISPs might be tailored for information junkies with absolutely every website made available at whatever speed you’re willing to pay for. Family friendly ISPs would refuse to allow porn on their part of the network (unsuccessfully, I suspect), but couldn’t stop other ISPs from anything. Obnoxious hate group ISPs would probably exist too.

There would be plenty of bad to go along with the good, just like there is in a neutral network.

I’m okay with allowing ISPs to restrict access to some content as long as they’re honest about it. The Internet might not provide a universal forum for all voices, but that’s already the case. If you can’t pay for server space and bandwidth, then your voice can only be heard on other people’s parts of the Internet. Some of those people will let you say whatever you want (like the YouTube comments section), but others are free to ban you.

Similarly, big companies will be in a better position to provide their content, but that’s already the case too. Currently they can spend more on advertising, or spend more on servers that are physically closer to their audience. A non-neutral net opens up one more margin of competition: paying for preferred treatment. This means less need to inefficiently invest physical resources for the same preferred treatment. (Hey, a non-neutral net is Green!)

There might be reason to still be somewhat worried about the free speech implications of a non-neutral net. As consumers, we might prefer networks that suppress dissident voices. And those dissident voices might (in the aggregate) be providing a public good that we’d be getting less of. (I think that’s a bit of a stretch, but I think plenty of smart people would take the point seriously.) If that’s the case, then let’s have the Postal Service branch out to provide modestly priced, moderate speed Internet access to whoever wants it. Not great if you want to do anything ambitious like play Counter Strike or create a major news network, but plenty fine for reading the news and checking controversial websites.

tl;dr: I can imagine a world without Net Neutrality that provides better Internet service and better economizes on the resources necessary to keep the Information Super Highway moving. But it’s not the world we currently live in. What’s missing is genuine market competition. To get there would require gutting much of the existing regulatory frameworks and replacing it with a much lighter touch.

What I’m talking about seems like a bit of a pipe dream from where we’re sitting. But if we could take the political moment of the Net Neutrality movement and redirect it, we could plausibly have a free and competitive Internet within a generation.

*Or maybe some description about how they filter out websites… something like a non-proprietary description of their parental filters for ISPs that (attempt to) refuse adult content access.