Thursday, July 19, 2018

Freedom’s Progress?

When it comes to this blog, I don’t like being tied down.  What do I mean?  I have been asked to co-author papers, even books; submit articles to libertarian publications; write my own book; even “clean up my room,” meaning perhaps better organize blog posts to make certain ones easier to find.

I am humbled by such requests, but…I would rather just write.

I also am uncomfortable making big commitments in terms of what I will write.  I feel I have made one by diving into Rothbard’s Libertarian Forum, and although I have taken a break from this I know I will return to it at some point.

Well, I am about to enter this uncomfortable zone again, via Gerard Casey’s exhaustive work.   Approaching 900 pages, Casey explores the progress of freedom (the question mark is deliberate), beginning 200,000 years ago.  At least he is merely going to review human liberty, leaving the freedom of flora and fauna to others!

Anyone who has heard Casey speak knows of his wonderful sense of humor, and certainly this comes through in the Preface.  For example, in response to many Brits not knowing which Duke of Normandy invaded England and became its king, Casey offers:

…as Will Rogers noted, “Everybody is ignorant, only on different subjects…

Per Oscar Wilde:

“In England, at any rate, education produces no effect whatsoever,” before adding, gratefully, “If it did it would prove a serious danger to the upper classes, and probably lead to acts of violence in Grosvenor Square.”

Two out of three teenage Americans can’t place the Civil War within 50 years of its occurrence; one in five cannot say who America fought in World War II. 

Memory is how we transmit virtues and values, and partake of a shared culture.

Of course, a culture is stronger if the memories are accurately transmitted and proper lessons are learned from this.  Far from being a failure of the education establishment, Casey rightly labels this ignorance of history as education’s crowning achievement.

Casey offers four concepts of liberty to contrast with his view of liberty – “thin” liberty as he refers to his view:

Metaphysical Liberty: Metaphysical liberty can be understood as encompassing freedom of the will in some sense or other.

How “free” is free will, if at all?  Whatever one’s view on this matter, much of the social and legal structure of society collapses completely to the extent the concept of free will in action is dissolved.  In any case, this is not the notion of freedom that Casey is chasing in this book.

Liberty as autonomy: where autonomy is to be thought of not merely as the absence of constraint but rather as the ability to set one’s goals in a way that is genuinely in accord with one’s status as a rational being.

…nothing outside of oneself can be allowed to determine one’s actions in any way.

This isn’t what Casey is after, either.  Goods inform our choices; in my way of thinking, reality always gets in the way of my free exercise of actions.

Republican or neo-Roman liberty: …as in the writings of Cicero…one is thought to be free if one is part of and able to participate in a political structure in which no other person has the political or legal power to determine one’s actions.

Sounds kind of like classical liberalism.  So what gives?  While classical liberalism is concerned with the use of force or the threat of its use as the only constraint, this neo-roman concept views that dependence itself is a source and form of constraint.  Not for Casey.

Substantive (or thick) liberty: …not just as the absence of external constraints on my actions outside the scope of the zero-aggression principle but as a lack of anything that limits my actual choices.

I think no clarifying statements are needed for this one.

Casey is focused on thin liberty:

…to the extent that an agent is unconstrained in his actions by force or the threat of force, he is free…

Incapacity to attain a goal is not a constraint; freedom is nothing more than “independence of the arbitrary will of another,” as Hayek puts it.

Thin liberty is defined by “not”: not killing, not injuring, not stealing, etc.  This is justice.  Thick liberty requires, forcefully, helping the poor and disenfranchised.

Casey will explore the slow emergence of the free individual, freeing himself from group identity and groupthink.  While he sees this freedom of the individual as fundamental for libertarians, he offers that “liberty is the lowest of social values, lowest in the sense of being most fundamental, a sine qua non of a human action’s being susceptible of moral evaluation in any way at all.”

Citing Murray Rothbard, “Only an imbecile could ever hold that freedom is the highest or indeed the only principle or end in life.”  Liberty does not automatically mean random individuals living in the wilderness, atomized individuals without any social connection or hierarchy. 


Casey’s book traces history with one focus in mind – the “fitful journey” of liberty.  He realizes and admits that this approach is biased.  So what?  Everyone’s approach to history is biased.  Casey’s is biased toward this singular focus: liberty.  To which I say, thank God: 900 pages is long enough!

Casey has allowed the reader the liberty to read the book in order or skip to any section that catches the reader’s interest.  I will take advantage of this freedom and begin with the chapters that cover the medieval period.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Centrally Planned Decentralization

Either that or an excellent example of a strawman argument.  Or both.

Recently, some of my friends singled out this piece by Jeff Deist, president of the Mises Institute, as truly awful. When I actually read it, however, it seemed like a reasonable presentation of a plausible view.

You know, I always say you can tell about a man by the company he keeps.  While Caplan refers to the piece as “reasonable” and “plausible,” his friends see it as “truly awful.”  What do his friends see as “truly awful”?  We can’t know for sure, other than to perhaps infer something from the lines of Deist’s speech cited by Caplan:

[L]ibertarians are busy promoting universalism even as the world moves in the other direction…. Mecca is not Paris, an Irishman is not an Aboriginal, a Buddhist is not a Rastafarian, a soccer mom is not a Russian…. Or would our time be better spent making the case for political decentralization, secession, and subsidiarity? In other words, should we let Malta be Maltese?

We should prefer states’ rights to federalization in the US, and cheer for the breakup of EU. We should support breakaway movements in places like Catalonia and Scotland and California.

Now maybe these are the parts Caplan finds “reasonable”; maybe these are not the parts Caplan’s friends find “truly awful.”  You might get some sense of this when you find that Caplan is to the left of the United Nations on open borders and immigration.  I leave to you to decide the reason why Caplan’s friends regard Deist’s piece as “truly awful.”

But where is the “centrally planned” stuff hinted at in my title, or the “strawman” introduced shortly thereafter?

The strawman will be found with Caplan’s opening objection – really a rhetorical question:

But does decentralization alone really promote liberty or prosperity?

Now, you know my view: more choices, it’s all about more choices.

But I won’t speak for Deist.  Did anyone say anything about “alone”?  A words search on Deist’s piece yields exactly zero results for the word “alone.”  It doesn’t seem to be a point raised by Deist.

Suppose further, however, that there is zero mobility between these countries. Labor can’t move; capital can’t move. In this scenario, each country seems perfectly able to pursue its policies free of competitive pressure.

Why does Caplan “suppose” this?  Deist certainly doesn’t suppose this in his piece.  I think it is “reasonable” (to borrow that word from Caplan) to “suppose” that some of these decentralized governance entities will support controls on capital and labor to a greater or lesser degree than others…you know, kind of like what happens today.

Why would Deist even think to bother introducing this issue of “mobility,” that this even need be said?  Why does Caplan introduce this?  The questions answer themselves.

So much for the strawman.  The central planning will be found in Caplan’s requirements for this decentralized world offered by Deist:

The story would change, of course, if you combine decentralization with resource mobility.

Government large or small doesn’t matter to Caplan; what matters is “resource [labor and capital] mobility.”  In other words, open borders and open immigration.  Of course, the simplest solution to achieve this is one world government….


From Deist’s speech (and cited by Caplan):

We should, in sum, prefer small to large when it comes to government.

I can’t think of a way to disagree with this from a libertarian standpoint: smaller in size, smaller in geography, smaller in regulations, smaller in military, smaller in population, etc., etc., etc.  Is there anything non-libertarian about “small” as opposed to “big” when it comes to modern government?  Caplan believes so:

If you can decentralize without changing anything else, great.

Impossible.  You can’t change just one thing.  Either Caplan doesn’t understand the reasons why people might want to decentralize (they want “change”; I know this seems too obvious to have to point it out, but there you have it) or he purposely introduces conditions that make decentralization impossible for libertarian support.

Otherwise, hold your applause until you’ve carefully analyzed decentralization’s net effect on liberty and prosperity.

In other words, “liberty and prosperity” must be centrally planned, and defined only as Caplan and other universalist utopians define the terms; based only on their value scale and not the value scale of those who want to decentralize.  Decentralization is only worthwhile if all governments (and all people) first embrace Caplan’s view of “liberty and prosperity.”


Regarding the subject piece by Jeff Deist, I wrote something on it at the time.  You might find it of interest.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

All Men Are Created Equal

I would like to examine a couple of things in this post, different but related.  The first, represented in the title, is this sentiment – perhaps the premier sentiment if one wants to capture, in one phrase, the thinking of the Enlightenment.  The second is a commonly offered sentiment about the NAP, which – it seems to me – is dependent on the first.

Keep in mind, this is my first attempt at stumbling through these concepts in a concise manner; be kind in your feedback.

All Men Are Created Equal

I will walk through the various interpretations of this statement – not chronologically, but from the most inane to the most rational…at least to me, and at least to this point of my thinking (and I will stay out of the “made in God’s image” discussion).

Some background: there was a time in my life when I thought this the most excellent statement upon which one might build a political philosophy; the opening of the Declaration of Independence would rarely leave me with dry eyes.  I would say that I have been cured of this sickness – both by the way that the phrase has been used to suppress excellence and by the result of eliminating natural governance institutions.

So, the most inane: all men are created equal…in ability.  For most thinking people, this can be dispensed with quickly.  The easiest place to see this falsity of this view is in athletics; for some reason, it seems the only (or at least the most) politically correct reason to point to regarding this view.  Mention it in other contexts and count the moments before the lynching.

How about all men are afforded equal opportunity?  Well, we know that there are countless laws on the books to bring this in order to attempt to bring this into fruition…as much as force, fines, and prison can make an unreality real.  But we know this also is not true.  The politically correct example?  Those born into wealth have much greater opportunities than those born into poverty.  This issue points to the reasons why it is easy for law to focus on equal opportunity.  Just remember, it doesn’t apply to the children of wealthy athletes!

Now, for the version that I was settled on for quite some time, the one that seemed most libertarian and grounded in reality as opposed to the previously noted interpretations / applications.  All men are equal under the law.  Yes, I know that it doesn’t apply to politicians, many wealthy and / or connected individuals, etc.  But as an ideal, I thought it couldn’t get much better than this.

I have been giving this some thought on and off for some time; it isn’t so easy to break from something upon which I felt so grounded for much of my life.  Then, recently, the light bulb went on…from darkness to light – well, a light bulb with a dimmer switch.  Or is it a train….

If I was to form the most libertarian statement on this matter, I would say that all men are equally free to live under a law regime of their choosing.  Of course, this runs into practical limitations, most certainly: what if no one else chooses to recognize or live within your law regime? 

Ideally, I would be able to create a law regime of my liking, but we live in a world with other humans.  Just like the market for any product, we don’t have unlimited and perfect choices, we just get to choose from available choices.  This is why I see decentralization as the practical application of the NAP.

I think about the law that I would live under in a libertarian society: the bare minimum law would be the NAP…but would this bare minimum be my choice?  What if I want something more?  It seems to me that everything above bare minimum of the NAP would be agreed to individually, not universally: call it by contract, call it oath, call it HOA rules, call it moral leadership, or call it acceptance of culture and tradition, whatever. 

I want to live in a neighborhood where sex orgies on the front lawn aren’t allowed, where grill-outs and fire pits are common.  You may want a neighborhood that excludes children.  I might be willing to pay some sort of association fees for upkeep and maintenance of the common property.

What about conditions of employment?  Who to hire, who to fire, benefits, etc.  Different people have different desires / requirements. 

So, it seems that “all men equal under the law” requires 100% of law to be made by a third party (however much “law” that is); a “universal” law.  “All men free to live under a law regime of their choosing” would mean 10% of your law is universal (the NAP) and 90% of your law is chosen – which, in practical application means 100% of your law is unique (not universal), as it will not look like the NAP to an outsider.

My point is…in a society of libertarian law, most of the law we would live under will be self-selected (within the limitations of finding others who feel the same as you do).  In other words, we aren’t all created equal under the law; we are equal in our ability to choose our law.

That, it seems to me, is about as libertarian as it gets…and, by the way, it is quite consistent with the philosophy underlying medieval law.

Which brings me to part two of this examination.

Libertarianism is For Everyone

Look, doesn’t everyone want to be secure in their person and property, not be murdered or robbed, have the freedom to exchange, not be artificially limited by others in our choices in life, etc.?

How could anyone answer “no” to this?  But I really don’t care about how someone answers it, what matters is what is meant by these words to different people.  As if in order to demonstrate that even at the extremes of a continuum, libertarians cannot settle on defining “aggression” or applying “punishment,” consider the following example: abortion is not considered murder by many libertarians. 

Imagine, a “non-aggression principle” that allows the most heinous aggression against the most vulnerable and innocent among us.  Some libertarians certainly feel otherwise.  Murdering an unborn child for the supposed crime of trespass?  This is even worse than shooting a child for stealing an apple – again demonstrating well that even at the extremes of the continuum, libertarians cannot settle on such definitions / applications.

Open borders, yes or no?  Intellectual property, yes or no?  The list goes on.  My law might have open borders, yours might not; my law might allow for abortion, yours might not; my law might allow for recognition of intellectual property, yours might not; my law might consider “proportional” what your law considers excessive when it comes to punishment.

Even before we get to the unique conditions people find themselves in around the world, we cannot even come to a “universal law” among western libertarians.

Who am I to tell someone – who lives in a culture, climate, tradition, etc., very different from anything I understand – that my interpretation is his interpretation; that “I have just the law for you”?  Well, beyond saying that libertarian law is law of your own choosing – in reality, via decentralization allowing for the maximum number of choices.

What matters is maximizing choice and having an environment that supports the possibility of individuals making their choice.


If all men are created equal to choose their own law, then to insist that libertarianism is universal is invalid – unless by libertarianism we mean each individual is free to choose his law.  If it is libertarian for each of us to choose our own law, then there is no such thing as a single universal law for all; if libertarianism (as you interpret its application) is universal, then I am not free to choose my own law (and for this, a strongman will be required).

And in this, we find the difference in the decentralization vs. universalist camps.  If it is ever to be found, liberty will only be found in decentralized society and decentralized law.

Friday, July 13, 2018

For Spooner

Spoonman, come together with your hands
Save me, I'm together with your plan
Save me

-        Soundgarden


I will go through your points one by one; I take these from your second post, and haven’t tried to check these against your first…so if I missed something, this is why.  Your comments are indented and italicized.  Other indented comments are mine, taken from the subject post and offered, when necessary, to make clear what I actually wrote.

First, although we have reconciled on the following, I believe some further clarification is in order:

The point of your post was to refute libertarians who offer that agreement by contract would be sufficient to form a libertarian community. I pointed out this is a strawman as no such offer is being made by any serious libertarian.

Two things: first of all (and of lessor importance), I have had direct and personal exchanges with one very prominent (“serious”) libertarian on this topic.  To each of my scenarios or points, he offered a contractual stipulation that would “work.”  His framework was all contract; further to this point, I can think of at least one “serious” libertarian whose “model” suggests just such a framework.  Maybe I am wrong on this, but not about the direct and personal exchange that I had.

Second (and more important), who cares about the “serious” libertarians?  Get three of them in a room and you will have five positions on any point of correct application of the NAP (one reason I have done my best over the last few months to quit debating with any “serious” libertarian).  More important is to have a dialogue and discussion with the many people who might be interested in liberty (as libertarians see it) but choose not to because, to them, most libertarians are kooks.

Now, on to the rest:

Your ‘main objection’ to covenant communities is that they are no different than hiring/electing a strongman.

This was my main objection to Victor’s idea for solving the issue of change to a for-profit corporation’s mission statement by finding the right CEO.  It was not my main objection to the idea of contractual communities.  I introduced the entire section about “for-profit” examples with the following statement:

While less relevant [than the non-profit world], one could also examine the for-profit world.  Why I say “less-relevant”?  The non-profit / foundation world is a world of ideas – an organization is funded and sustained in pursuit of an idea.  Libertarianism is nothing if not an idea.

So, if one considers what I wrote in context, one could not suggest that this was my “main objection.”

You complain that contracts can never capture all possibilities, and I pointed out that neither does old and good law, and asked what the difference was.

It is a good objection, and one for which I don’t think I have a good reply.  As circumstances and technology evolved, there were times that the old and good law was not sufficient.  Maybe I am biased by the benefit that the old and good law was very slow to evolve, providing stability in the law yet leaving room for flexibility given circumstance; that, ultimately, it was the broader community that would decide if the evolution was “good.”

This compared to the more codified law, when once written leaves little possibility for flexibility – only debate (at most) about interpretation; when individualized as in a contract, offers no opportunity for broader acceptance (somewhat necessary if one wants to live in liberty).

In other words, custom might leave more room for flexibility than does codified law.  As long as custom is respected – in other words, “old” is accepted by default unless shown to be deficient in keeping the “good” of the law – this flexibility seems to me to be a benefit.  For the old and good law to work, the nobles must actually be “noble.”  But I guess for a contract to work, all parties must act noble as well.  Alas, we are lacking such men.

In any case, this objection might be your most valid, at least in my opinion.  I am not sure I have a great answer on this.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

The Missing Link

With this post, I will conclude my examination of Nisbet’s book.  After a brief review of the concluding chapters, I will come to the subject hinted at in the title of this post.

The Problem of Liberalism

Nisbet offers that at the same time we prize the gifts (in his view) of liberalism, including…

…equalitarian democracy, moral neutrality, intellectual liberation, secular progress, rationalism, and all the liberating impersonalities of modern industrial and political society.

Admittedly, I do not value all of these as I believe the list corresponds more to today’s liberalism and not classical liberalism.  And in this conflation, we find a bit of a missed connection in Nisbet’s work.

On the other we continue to venerate tradition, secure social status, the corporate hierarchies of kinship, religion and community, and close involvement in clear moral contexts.

He offers that present liberal thought is in crisis, as there is “correspondence between the basic liberal values and the prejudgments and social contexts upon which the historical success of liberalism has been predicated.”

The Contexts of Individuality

No fault is to be found with the declared purposes of individualism.

There is a valid ethical aspect of individualism, yet it loses its mooring when divorced from social organization. 

These qualities that, in their entirety, composed the eighteenth-century liberal image of man were qualities actually inhering to a large extent in a set of institutions and groups, all of which were aspects of human tradition.

Caught up in Newtonian mechanics, these group qualities were atomized – impulses and reason deemed to be innate in man.  As long as the group qualities retained some amount of social functionality, individualism could survive – and in fact did both survive and thrive.  But atomization was eventually to do its work to the remnants of these qualities.

Nisbet comments on the book by Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies:  Popper sees Athens of the 5th century B.C. and the Renaissance in Western Europe as ages of “individualism.”

These are ages, he argues, recently released from the dead hand of tradition, membership, and tribalism.

Consider the following:

[George] Soros used his fortune to create the Open Society Foundations—a network of foundations, partners, and projects in more than 100 countries. Their name and work reflect the influence on Soros’s thinking of the philosophy of Karl Popper, which Soros first encountered at the London School of Economics. In his book Open Society and Its Enemies, Popper argues that no philosophy or ideology is the final arbiter of truth, and that societies can only flourish when they allow for democratic governance, freedom of expression, and respect for individual rights—an approach at the core of the Open Society Foundations’ work.
Enough said about that.

The Contexts of Democracy

Definitions of democracy are as varied as the interests of persons and generations. …but it is, fundamentally, a theory and structure of political power.

This, as opposed to liberalism which historically was to mean immunity from power.  Lincoln’s definition of democracy: government of, by, and for the people “cannot be improved upon.”  The problem is…what does one mean by “people”?

Is it a numerical aggregate of individuals (i.e. Soros “Open Society”), or is it something indistinguishable from a culture – inseparable from family, church, professions and traditions?  Certainly, Lincoln’s war offered a horrendous example of the former; a glimpse of the difference in these two views can be seen in the run-up to and aftermath of the 2016 US presidential election.

The liberal values of autonomy and freedom of personal choice are indispensable to a genuinely free society, but we shall achieve and maintain these only by vesting them in the conditions in which liberal democracy will thrive – diversity of culture, plurality of association, and division of authority.

I hope by now that the context of Nisbet’s work makes clear what he means by these last few words.

The Missing Link

There is something notably missing from Nisbet’s analysis, and this is captured in one of three “Critical Reviews” published at the end of the book; in this case a piece entitled The Enduring Achievement and Unfinished Work of Robert Nisbet, by Jeanne Heffernan Schindler.  I will focus on the “unfinished” part.

At the same time, the prescriptive dimension of Nisbet’s work remains incomplete, needing a more adequate theory of the state, human freedom, and the normative status of social institutions.  In this regard, the social ontology and political vision of Catholic social thought offers the resources necessary to correct and complete Nisbet’s already impressive achievement.

There you have it in a nutshell, and regular readers here will need no further comment to understand this meaning – whether in agreement or not.  Schindler points directly to the weakness – not specifically of “individualism” and modern liberalism, as Nisbet does, but a weakness with roots that are to be found much in an earlier time:

Without the sturdy roots of an inherited tradition, the lone thinker proved himself a weak reed, easily swayed by the current of popular opinion.

A transcendent tradition, one not created anew with every newly created rationalization….or excuse. 

The prescriptive elements in his work are also compelling, but they require fuller development and a more satisfying foundation.  To achieve social pluralism requires moving beyond historical description and sociological analysis to social ontology – that is, to philosophical and theological anthropology.

In the West, this is to be found in the tradition of medieval Europe, the combination and blending of Germanic tradition and the Catholic Church.

In what may provide (for me) a glimpse into a path of developing – within libertarian bounds – a proper and legal defense of culture and tradition.  From the Second Vatican Council and Gaudium et Spes:

Man’s social nature makes it evident that the progress of the human person and the advance of society itself hinge on one another….Since this social life is not something added on to man….(emphasis added)


If this “social life” is inherent in man, might a forced fracturing of this social life not be considered “aggression”?

Yes, I know.  It isn’t physical person or physical property.  But is that really so?  If it is inherent in man, how is this not physical?