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What Social Animals Owe to Each Other

Sunday, February 27, 2022

Don't Let the US Foreign Policy Elite Off the Hook

It would be unwise in the extreme to let our horror at Putin's invasion of Ukraine to permit us to forget the many ways in which the U.S. foreign policy establishment for over 20 years set the stage for what's happing now.

Friday, February 25, 2022

Ten Favorite Books

Keith Knight, host of the Don't Tread on Anyone podcast, interviewed me about ten of my favorite books. 

TGIF: On Privilege

One of the most abused words in English is privilege. Observe how indiscriminately this word is spoken and written. For example, in some quarters, all straight white men -- without exception -- are said to be privileged, which seems absurd.

Practically all we hear about these days is privilege, who has it and who doesn't. Well, not exactly -- because those who are said not to have it are often called "underprivileged." I think it was the late P. T. Bauer, the great free-market development economist, who pointed out how peculiar a word that is. Underprivileged? Wouldn't that mean insufficiently privileged? An insufficiently privileged person is nevertheless privileged, no? Apart from the problem of measuring and comparing privileges among people, is that what people really mean by the word? I think not.

Semantics aside, we face a more serious matter with the concept, namely, that vastly disparate things are tossed into that bin. Some alleged privileges are not privileges at all. Rather, they indicate the absence of unjust impediments, mostly imposed by the state. In those cases we should focus not on the unimpeded but on those who are unjustly burdened. The unimpeded are not privileged; they are just free (at least in that one respect). Those whom the state burdens are unfree.

For example, if black people and other members of minorities are more likely than white people to be harassed by the police for trifles or nothing at all, that is an outrageous injustice against the victims. But the unharassed white people are not thereby privileged, not even in a relative sense. In that respect, they are as they should be. The problem is that everyone else is not in the same position. The lack of equal treatment, as unjust as it is, does not necessarily indicate the presence of privilege.

Again, if a privilege is something granted that the recipient has no inherent right to, then not being harassed by the police is in no way a privilege. No one deserves to be harassed by the cops. On the contrary, one has a right not to be harassed. (Not every contact with the police counts as harassment, of course. If one is stopped from accosting an innocent person, the aggressor cannot be said to have been harassed.)

This doesn't mean privilege does not exist. Our society is rife with it. But it behooves us to be clear on its nature. As I said, a privilege is something bestowed to which the recipient has no inherent right. Privileges, then, come in two forms: legitimate and illegitimate. If parents give their child an allowance that he or she can use freely, we might call that a privilege. But it is legitimate because the money is the parents to give as they wish. On the other hand, if the government grants a cash subsidy to a firm or industry, it is illegitimate because the politicians give away other people's money to which they have no right. Using the threat of force, they transfer wealth from its producers to nonproducers. This is true of all government transfers, no matter how elevated the politicians' motives might be.

For a long time, state governments and the federal government provided low-interest loans and mortgage insurance to white homebuyers only. Those governments not only treated the two groups unequally, but they also positively subsidized the whites. Whites unjustly got a leg up, while blacks were ignored or worse. That was scandalous race-based government privilege with long-term consequences.

Not all subsidies are outright cash grants. If the government does a crony industry or firm a favor by imposing a tax (tariff) on imports, that too is a privilege. Ultimately, the unjust burden is imposed on consumers, who will pay higher prices, which is the purpose of the tariff, Foreign firms will also be unjustly harmed. The domestic recipients of the privilege have no right to the loot.

Another form of privilege is a government regulation of peaceful commerce that is more easily borne by large companies than small ones.

The early 19th-century French classical liberal economists understood that government by its very nature as the taxing authority is a dispenser of privileges and the source of class conflict. The conflict, obviously, is between what the liberals called the tax-payers and the tax-eaters. In the liberals' eyes, all industrious people, including unsubsidized organizers of business firms, were in the tax-paying class, while those who lived off of them rather than working were tax-eaters. The latter class did not consist of the poor by and large, but rather the cronies of government officials or the king. (Marx acknowledged his debt to these bourgeois liberals for originating class theory, but he either misunderstood it or intentionally twisted it to put all business owners, not just the cronies, in the parasitic class.)

Without reservation, we should favor the repeal of all actual state privileges, while also calling for an end to all the burdens that the state imposes on anyone. We can do all this without regarding the unburdened as privileged.

Thursday, February 24, 2022

Change of Pace

It's certainly a change to have a major country other than the United States committing an invasion.


Vladimir Putin's invasion and bombing of Ukraine deserve the condemnation of all decent people. Regardless of what has been going on over there, Putin did not have to do it. He had a moral obligation to deal with the issues properly. His actions cannot be excused.

Wednesday, February 23, 2022

Russia, China, Iran, and the U.S.

At this tense moment it is important to realize that the hardliners on both sides of any geopolitical rivalry are de facto allies. They need each other in their struggles against their domestic pro-diplomacy, antiwar opposition. So when the hardliners ascend on one side, their counterparts on the other side also ascend. If they could, they'd grab a beer together after work.

Tuesday, February 22, 2022

Why Provoke Putin?

No one I know who criticizes America's post-Cold War policy toward Russia -- including the U.S. position on Ukraine -- thinks Vladimir Putin is a good guy. Indeed, the case against U.S. bellicosity toward Russia in no way depends on a favorable view of the Russian ruler. On the contrary, it is because Putin is who he is (an aggrieved nationalist) and because of Russia's place in history that the U.S. policy of ignoring, when not belittling, Russia's security concerns is so dangerous. Russia's history -- including multiple invasions from the west -- is what it is, and that huge nuclear power isn't going anywhere, no matter what America's warmongers would like. Neither are its neighbors going to relocate anytime soon. So a regional modus vivendi is imperative. If the U.S. government continues to stand in the way -- remember the U.S.-backed coup against the elected Ukrainian government in 2014 and the repeated eastward expansion of NATO since the Cold War -- it is an agent of war, not peace.

See Peter Hitchens's take.

Language and Reality

Language doesn't block us from direct cognitive contact with reality. It facilitates that contact. Philosophers who express disagreement, by that fact alone, can't help but confirm it.

Friday, February 18, 2022

TGIF: Licensing the Fringe

Big Tech's incredible promise to rid its platforms of "misinformation and disinformation" is not only a chimera that will harm the most gullible, but it is also an unwitting grant of power and credibility to some of the dodgiest elements online.

That claim might sound familiar. We opponents of drug prohibition and other anti-vice laws often point out that when the government outlaws a product or service that people want, it does not disappear. It simply moves into the shadows where it will be handled by less-than-honorable people because law-abiding types will be averse to supplying the black market. Consumers suffer as quality control diminishes, and recourse to the courts for bad-dealing is off-limits. Think of the 1920s alcohol prohibition in America, with its boost to organized crime. Black markets are like a government monopoly grant to the unsavory. 

The same sort of thing will happen as Big Tech, pushed by politicians, restricts and excludes people who are accused of trafficking in bad information, actual and alleged, about health and other highly contentious and hotly debated matters. The suppressed information will not vanish. It will be left to others, some of whom will be less scrupulous about misleading listeners. Those others will have a powerful lever handed to them by the private "censors." They will be able to tell their followers: "If Big Tech and the government want to suppress information about, say, Covid, what else will they suppress -- indeed, what have they already suppressed?"

Also, attempts to stifle the open exploration of even dubious ideas inevitably emit the stench of fear. That's self-defeating. "What are the censors and the ruling elite afraid of?" it will be asked. "If the claims being hushed up could be refuted, they would have been. But instead, they are being driven from public scrutiny. That speaks volumes."

Is that the message the private "censors" want to send the public?

In other words, the promise to cleanse the internet of officially pooh-poohed claims, assertions, and opinions would invigorate all manner of conspiracy theorists with perhaps not-so-good political intentions. This happens already. It happened during the 2020 election and with Trump's unsupported post-election declaration that he had been robbed of the presidency.

I wouldn't call an indirect boost to the credibility of the fringiest voices benign.

It's a civil libertarian cliche that the way to defeat "bad speech" is with good speech. Nuggets like that become cliches precisely because they are true; they have stood the test of time. Let's also remember that some good speech will invariably be suppressed in the efforts to suppress the "bad."

This self-defeating nature of Big-Tech/Big Government "censorship" can also be seen in our rampant cancel/de-platforming culture. When heterodox speakers are driven from college campuses or other venues, the same boost is given to those quarters that are awarded a de facto monopoly in "forbidden ideas," whether those ideas are about race, the immutability of biological sex and its consequences for gender, or whatever. Again, conspiracy theorists, who may be too casual about the truth and falsehood of ideas, are given a boost they could not have earned in the open marketplace of ideas.

Tuesday, February 15, 2022

Class Conflict

Not everyone has the luxury of endless navel-gazing in search of his or her true identity. Some people are too busy worrying about whether they or their loved ones will be shot on the way to the grocery.

Sunday, February 13, 2022

Thought Experiment

You're about to be mugged, with a likelihood of grievous bodily harm or death. You see two buttons. One will produce a city cop to prevent the mugging. The other will abolish the state in its entirety and instantaneously.

Which do you push?

Friday, February 11, 2022

TGIF: More Voices, Please

If the social media and other high-tech companies, whether under pressure from the state or not, were to lead people to believe that, starting today, only accurate information will get through their gatekeepers, would the public, especially the most gullible, really be better off?

How so? How would it do people any favors to have them think that everything they read or have access to through Google, Facebook, Twitter, Spotify, etc. is good solid information rather than disinformation or misinformation? (Question: when the establishment media "reported" day after day over four years that Vladimir Putin had interfered with the 2016 presidential election to put his puppet in power, was that misinformation or disinformation?)

Of course the gatekeepers couldn't guarantee any such thing. They're not omniscient, especially when you remember on whom they will be relying for "the truth": government agents and their officially approved scientific and other experts -- the very source of so much demonstrable misinformation and disinformation on a whole range of subjects. Do you want to hear only from Dr. Fauci on Covid? Or Michael Mann on climate? Etc. Etc. Etc. (For proof of the CDC's disingenuousness, see this video.)

We absolutely need a variety of voices and viewpoints if we -- individually and cooperatively -- are to make good decisions for ourselves and our families in a world of unfolding yet always imperfect knowledge. Free speech is not a luxury that sometimes we can't afford. It's a bloody necessity at all times!

Do we need Joe Rogan? I don't, but I'm only me and I refuse to speak for anyone else. I've seen only a few brief segments of his program, but from my impression of him, I'd say Justin Amash had it right on Twitter:

People trust @joerogan not because he’s always right, but because he’s transparent, curious, gracious, humble about knowledge, and willing to consider perspectives that challenge and reshape his own thinking.

Spotify and the other platforms of course should be free to associate with anyone they want. And others have a perfect right to dissociate with those platforms as they see fit. We're talking here not what anyone has a legal right to do but what anyone ought to do or not do. One thing we can say for sure is that the politicians and their spokespeople ought to butt out. If anyone does not have free-speech rights when it comes to these matters, it's the people who hold and speak for state power. It's established in case law that government officials may not indirectly censor via winks, nods, and veiled threats directed at private companies. (See Glenn Greenwald's video commentary.)

By the way, if you're watching Joe Rogan for medical or diet or any kind of specialized advice that you can unblinkingly accept and act on, I've got news for you: you have bigger problems than a free-wheeling internet.

A further-by-the-way: it is absurd that certain words are simply unspeakable under any circumstances, as though we lived when people believed they could cast spells on others. There is a world of difference between directly using a slur word (as the word using is usually meant) and discussing how other people have used it. Would it really be impossible for a college English department to have a class on the history of taboo words? Is this society going crazy? If you treat young people, including college students, like babies, they might never grow up. An effective immune system, including the psychological immune system, cannot develop robustness -- or antifragility -- if it never is stressed.

And that brings up an important related matter. If people are so stupid that we can't have Rogan and others freely doing what they want online, why are those same stupid people urged to vote every two, four, and six years? It was Frédéric Bastiat who wondered how people could be such idiots every day of the year except election day. To be consistent, those who would suppress speech should be honest and come out against representative democracy. At least their story would have some coherence -- but not entirely. Because we might have to wonder how they managed to get out of the Platonic shadowy cave the rest of us are stuck in. But never mind that.

Look at how the enemies of free speech want to have it both ways. If you point out that Fauci has said different things at different times, they will say, "Of course! What's wrong with that? Fauci learned new facts as time went on, changed his positions, and updated the public."

But there's more to the story than that. Imagine that at time t Fauci says that vaccines will keep you from getting Covid. Then at t' he says, "Correction. You can still get it, although not as bad as you would have if you were unvaccinated." What's left out of this account is that at t, other people -- credentialed people -- had offered reasons to question Fauci's claim. If the would-be censors had had their way, the doubters would have been silenced for trafficking in disinformation. No one would have heard that Fauci's t statement might have been misleading or incomplete. We would have had to wait until t' to learn from Fauci himself that his earlier claims were "inoperative."

That sort of thing would be dangerous anytime, but it's especially so in a pandemic, when new facts come to light daily and even hourly.

Can life in a sea of free and conflicting voices be confusing? Hell, yeah. But you know what's worse? One Official Voice. That's essentially what we had in the golden era of three boring television networks, ABC, CBS, NBC, and one really boring television network, PBS. Return to those days? No thank you.

Centuries ago the liberal advocates of religious freedom were also admonished that a society could not function with the divisive free exercise of religion, including religious speech. The censors were wrong. The public-health establishment's and legacy media's special pleading in all this is too palpable to need elaboration.

Tuesday, February 08, 2022

Bastiat Foresees 1/6

"As long as it is admitted that the law may be diverted from its true purpose—that it may violate property instead of protecting it—then everyone will want to participate in making the law, either to protect himself against plunder or to use it for plunder. Political questions will always be prejudicial, dominant, and all-absorbing. There will be fighting at the door of the Legislative Palace, and the struggle within will be no less furious."
Frédéric Bastiat, The Law (1850)

Socialized Medicine Ain't Freedom

The emergence of a pro-Enlightenment, pro-reason, anti-woke left, with its eloquent declarations in favor of freedom, is welcome indeed. But this political force still has some way to go. It is disappointing to hear the same people who effectively and properly debunk the power elite in so many ways, including its Covid policies, nevertheless stop regularly to endorse Medicare for all, or single-payer health care, or better, socialized medicine. If you understand what's wrong with a system that enables a power elite to use the state to impose its will, how in the world can you also call for putting all medical care under that elite's control? Who do they think would ultimately run it? The people?

The only thing answer I can come up with is that the anti-woke left thinks socialized medicine is the only alternative to what we have now, which they call "the free market." In fact, what we have is fascized medicine. My reference to fascism is not an emotional outburst; it's technical Fascism as devised by Mussolini is a system of total government control of the production of goods and services with a facade of private ownership. A free market in health care couldn't be more different from what we have today.

If we can disabuse the anti-woke left of its screwy notion about America's health care and insurance system -- by pointing out the many ways the government prevents the market from working -- we might get them to abandon socialized medicine. One can only hope.

Monday, February 07, 2022

Better Off -- Really?

If the social media and other high-tech companies, pushed by the state, were to lead people to believe that, starting today, only accurate information will get the through their gatekeepers, would the public, especially the most gullible, really be better off?

Sunday, February 06, 2022

P -> Q

If there were no truth (or Truth, as it is sometimes derisively put), we would have no need ever to revise our beliefs.

Saturday, February 05, 2022

A Modest Proposal

Perhaps there should be a penalty for thinkers who violate the law of parsimony.

Friday, February 04, 2022

Government Education Chickens Return Again to the Roost

If you favor a government-controlled virtual monopoly in schooling, don't be surprised when a school board removes Maus, the award-winning graphic novel about the Holocaust, from an eighth-grade class that covers the Holocaust from a language-arts perspective. If you are appalled by this news from McMinn County, Tennessee, maybe you should favor placing schools in a truly free and competitive marketplace, where entrepreneurs would have no institutional barriers to offering innovative forms of education. (For details see my Separating School and State.)

TGIF: Disagreement without Conflict

Chandran Kukathas

I'll admit it: I'm a natural-rights guy. I think you can get to individual rights, including the right to property, from within the ancient Greek eudaimonist (virtue ethics) and Spinozist tradition.

But here's a separate point: rights-talk may not be the best way to bring unconvinced people over to the libertarian view of the good society. Heresy? I hope not.

This video interview with Chandran Kukathas, author of The Libertarian Archipelago, got me thinking about this subject. Kukathas (whom I've written about here and here) starts with what ought to be obvious to everyone: people disagree about all kinds of things. As he writes in his book:

In a world of moral and cultural diversity one of the subjects over which there is dispute, and even conflict, is the subject of justice. Different peoples, or groups, or communities, have different views or conceptions of justice. In these circumstances the question is: how can people live together freely when there is this sort of moral diversity?"

Even when they agree on ends, they often disagree about the means to those ends. Disagreement is here, has always been here, and ain't going anywhere.

So what, you ask? What does that have to do with winning adherents to the libertarian view of the good society? It has a lot to do with it. Much modern libertarian thinking has been shaped by theorists who at least implied that the way to a free society is to get widespread if not universal agreement about rights and hence justice -- in other words, assent to a libertarian law code deduced from the nonaggression principle. (Some even think the agreement must extend to other philosophical matters like metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, aesthetics.) As a libertarian I came up  (long ago) in that tradition. But now I wonder about its strategic, but not its truth, value.

If disagreement is and will be ubiquitous, how in hell can we hope for widespread agreement on a detailed code of law or rights theory? We can't hope for that, and we should stop acting as though we can because it looks to be a time-waster. It's been tried, so we must learn there are no magic words to do the trick.

Does that leave us in despair? Have we no hope for liberty? Maybe not. Chandran Kukathas gives us reason to hope.

Since broad disagreement is not going away, the most we can work for is an environment characterized as disagreement without conflict. I'm not a utopian. Conflict isn't going anywhere either, but it can be minimized through liberal institutions based on freedom of association within the current national territories, the "live and let live" principle, which would not require territory-wide agreement to a detailed doctrine. In other words, if we can't get universal agreement to a code of justice, how about to the principle of "mutual toleration"?

In this age of extreme and acrimonious polarization, doesn't that sound like a strategic approach worth pursuing? If no monopoly state is available, Group A won't have to live in fear that Group B will seize it and impose its preferences, and thus Group A won't have to seize the state apparatus first in self-defense.

Some may object to putting rights-talk on the shelf in favor of something less "pure." They may insist that in America, home of the Declaration of Independence with its stirring lines about inalienable rights that predate government, rights talk resonates as it does nowhere else.

That was my first thought. But then I remembered how the list of things that Americans are said to have a right to has grown exponentially over the decades. No one has been able to find the right incantation to stop, much less, reverse that growth. Believe me, many people have tried. And once you give flight to even legitimate rights-talk, you have no control over where it goes and what form it takes. Once "counterfeit rights" gain currency, we enter the realm of rights-balancing. And guess who's in charge of that.

So, Kukathas writes in The Liberal Archipelago, "The primary question of politics is not about justice or rights but about power, who may have it, and what may be done with it. Views about rights or about justice may have a significant bearing on any answer to this question, but this remains the important question."

As a consequence, Kukathas continues, "The principles of a free society describe not a hierarchy of superior and subordinate authorities but an archipelago of competing and overlapping jurisdictions." (Emphasis added. That is an extremely important adjective because it indicates that the authorities do not have monopolies even within "their" territories, suggesting a polycentric approach to law and governance.)

Kukathas clearly does not buy James Madison's famous line in Federalist 51: "In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself."

Thus those who value liberty must cultivate a distrust of power of all kinds. Kukathas says in the interview that the government is always a they that "co-opts us on a regular basis," and never a we. "In a free society ... only the freedom to associate is fundamental." The freedom of exit of course is the corollary.

As you might expect, Kukathas challenges the conventional view of what even constitutes the good society. He is "skeptical" about the need for "social unity," suggesting it

is not nearly as important as has been intimated. On the contrary, the good society is not something confined by the boundaries needed to make it one. Political authority is necessary in any good society; but political authority should be understood as something which has a place in the good society, rather than as something which circumscribes it.

In opposition to the body-politic metaphor, Kukathas offers a metaphor "of society as an archipelago of different communities operating in a sea of mutual toleration.... [T]he liberal archipelago is a society of societies which is neither the creation nor the object of control of any single authority, though it is a form of order in which authorities function under laws which are themselves beyond the reach of any singular power.

Importantly, he adds, "Implicit in this is a rejection of nationalism, and of the idea that we should start with the assumption that the nation-state is the 'society' which is properly the object of concern when we ask what is a free society."

Summing up in the interview, Kukathas says,

Having asked how can a diversity of peoples live together freely given their differences, [my theory] asserts that the answer lies in the way authority is allocated. More particularly, it argues that in a free society -- which is to say, a liberal society -- there will be a multiplicity of authorities, each independent of the others, and sustained by the acquiescence of its subjects. A liberal society is marked by respect for the independence of other authorities, and a reluctance to intervene in their affairs.

That reluctance would be reinforced by the fact that people who might like to control other people's peaceful conduct would have to pay out of pocket for the pleasure. They would not be able to socialize the cost by imposing it on a large number of otherwise indifferent taxpayers. The more something costs, the less people tend to buy. Call it libertarianism by default.

That seems like a vision that could win wide assent.

TGIF -- The Goal Is Freedom -- appears on Fridays.

Thursday, February 03, 2022

Include Me Out

If inclusion means including boys and men in girls-and-women-only spaces, then (as movie producer Samuel Goldwyn was to have said) include me out.

Wednesday, February 02, 2022

Reason Has Limits, But What Doesn't?

It is not a criticism of reason to acknowledge that no reasoning person or group can have a synoptic view of the world or of society that would enable him or it to rationally plan everything. The faculty of reason is packaged within individual human beings, and no mountaintop exists from which one could see and know all that it would take to plan a society or an economy in the interest of all its participants. The result of attempting to do so would inevitably be what Ludwig von Mises called "planned chaos." This is what F. A. Hayek, Mises's student, also worked so hard to explain.

But when individuals operate and cooperate in a free society and marketplace, their small portion of knowledge, articulated and tacit, becomes accessible to all, mostly through the price system. Mises and Hayek showed this in the great socialist-calculation debate of the '20s and '30s.

Reason is powerfully efficacious in that it enables us to perceive and understand the world that exists independently of us. It's a time-consuming, effortful, and piecemeal pursuit that is subject to never-ending rebuttal, refutation, and revision. Does reason have limits? Of course. Everything has limits. A is A means that A is not non-A. But that is hardly a criticism of reason. It's an invitation to understanding and a notice to avoid what Hayek called the "abuse of reason." (See his The Counter-Revolution of Science: Studies on the Abuse of Reason.) 

Tuesday, February 01, 2022

Is Reality Really Real?

Human beings act. Moreover, they act with remarkable success much of the time in big and small ways. Think of the inventions and discoveries ranging from life-easing to life-saving. Think of the micro accomplishments that individuals enjoy in their lives every day. 

That seems to suggest two alternative stories. First, that reality is just a figment of our individual, tribal, or collective imagination. And second, that reality is real, objective, out there -- and that we rational animals can touch it, apprehend it, harness it if we exert the mental effort.

I submit the first story is completely implausible, not to mention self-contradictory. That leaves the second standing.