Tag: Cato Unbound

The Moral Authority of the State

If everyone judged the state and its agents by the same moral standards that they used for ordinary people, then nearly all of us would be libertarians. Judged in this way, essentially all governments behave appallingly.

“Yes,” comes the standard reply, “but we don’t judge governments by the same standards. The state is different, you see.”

Of course, it’s only fair to ask why that might be the case. This month at Cato Unbound, philosopher Michael Huemer does just that, addressing several of the standard reasons why the state purportedly has license to behave very differently from the rest of us. He finds them all lacking in one way or another.

Huemer’s essay draws on his new book, The Problem of Political Authority, in which he addresses nearly all of the most common justifications for treating the state as a moral agent with legitimate powers beyond those of the rest of us. For those who usually shy away from philosophy, Huemer is an intuitionist—he doesn’t build abstract systems of thought, which may or may not be convincing or even comprehensible. He begins instead with common, widely shared intuitions, in the hope that nearly all of us, whether utilitarians, deontologists, virtue ethicists, agnostics, or otherwise, will find his conclusions compelling.

To discuss with him, we’ve recruited a panel of distinguished thinkers of varying persuasions: George Mason economics professor Bryan Caplan, libertarian scholar-activist Tom G. Palmer, and Binghamton University philosophy professor Nicole Hassoun.

As always, Cato Unbound readers are encouraged to take up our themes, and enter into the conversation on their own websites and blogs, or on other venues. We also welcome your letters. Send them to jkuznicki at cato dot org. Selections may be published at the editors’ option.

Theory and Practice in the Austrian School

This month’s Cato Unbound looks at the Austrian school of economics. Specifically, how do Austrian insights apply to the “real” world—not just theory, but economic history and policy?

In his lead essay, Professor Steven Horwitz argues that Austrian economists are making important and under-appreciated empirical contributions. The Austrian school even stands to teach mainstream economics a good deal about how to conduct empirical work and interpret it properly.

To discuss with Horwitz, we have invited three other distinguished economists, each of whom has been influenced by the Austrian school—while ultimately settling elsewhere methodologically: Bryan Caplan, George A. Selgin, and Antony Davies.

As always, Cato Unbound readers are encouraged to take up our themes, and enter into the conversation on their own websites and blogs, or on other venues. We also welcome your letters. Send them to jkuznicki at cato dot org. Selections may be published at the editors’ option.

This Month at Cato Unbound: A Little Foundational Theory

The October, 2011 issue of Cato Unbound tackles some of the foundational questions of political theory: how do we recognize justice? If it’s not utopia, is it still good enough to command our respect? Or allegiance? How do we know? Who are the members of the political community? How are they chosen? What counts as a “reason” for political action?

If all of this sounds abstract, rest assured that lead essayist Gerald Gaus is both lucid and engaging. He writes:

Liberalism’s founding insight was the recognition in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that controversial religious truths could not be the basis of coercive laws and public policies. The task is now to apply this insight to philosophizing about justice itself. This is an extraordinarily difficult lesson for many. Can it really be that I should not endeavor to ensure that my society conforms to my “knowledge” of justice? (Compare: can it really be that my “knowledge” of God’s will should not structure the social order?)

Gaus argues for a “range of justice”—a range of theories that, while perhaps not perfect by anyone’s standards, are still close enough to demand our respect, especially given the large benefits that come from freely engaged social cooperation.

Discussing with him this month are a panel of three other prominent social theorists. Richard Arneson argues that we tolerate one another not because we’re all pretty close to rational (clearly a lot of us aren’t!)—but because intolerance breeds atrocity. Eric Mack argues that classical liberalism is no mere contending sect; it is the right approach to politics, because it offers the greatest leeway for individuals to choose their own ends in life. And Peter J. Boettke argues that any social system that neglects private property will fail to produce a cooperative society in any sense; without market exchange, individuals will fall into strife over scarce resources.

Obviously I won’t be able to do justice to their arguments here, so please do check out Cato Unbound, where discussion will continue through the end of the month.

Cato Unbound: Are Men in Decline?

This month’s Cato Unbound looks at the intersection of education, work, and gender, and asks: Are men in decline? As women have advanced in education, the workplace, and even politics, some fear that the emerging new economy—or perhaps some other factors—are dragging men down. We’ve all heard talk of the Mancession, and it’s well known that men are in the minority now on many college campuses. How long will the trend continue?

Lead essayist Kay Hymowitz makes the case for male decline; Jessica Bennett, Amanda Hess, and Myriam Miedzian give reasons to be skeptical. Hymowitz replies to her critics. (Men, alas, were so far in decline that I couldn’t find a single one to write for this issue.)

The conversation is just getting started, so be sure to drop by again or subscribe to Cato Unbound so you’ll never miss a post.

This Month at Cato Unbound—What’s Wrong with Expert Predictions

This month’s Cato Unbound looks at the failure of expert forecasting.

When I was very young my father received a book of expert predictions edited by David Wallechinsky, Amy Wallace, and Irving Wallace, titled simply The Book of Predictions. How’d they do? Awfully.

Virtually no one predicted the peaceful end of the Soviet empire. The next big technology was still outer space, not information. Nuclear war and overpopulation vied with exotic environmental disasters to do us in. Want to print a document? Your computer can do that! Just walk to the end of your street, where you’ll find a device called a “printer.” I’ve kept the book, and I’ve been interested in the failure of expert prediction ever since.

This month at Cato Unbound, experts—sorry, we had to—Dan Gardner and Philip Tetlock lay out the evidence against forecasting, along with suggestions for how to improve it. But they conclude that many forms of forecasting, even those that once seemed just on the horizon, will perhaps always remain a dream:

Natural science has discovered in the past half-century that the dream of ever-growing predictive mastery of a deterministic universe may well be just that, a dream. There increasingly appear to be fundamental limits to what we can ever hope to predict. Take the earthquake in Japan. Once upon a time, scientists were confident that as their understanding of geology advanced, so would their ability to predict such disasters. No longer. As with so many natural phenomena, earthquakes are the product of what scientists call “complex systems,” or systems which are more than the sum of their parts. Complex systems are often stable not because there is nothing going on within them but because they contain many dynamic forces pushing against each other in just the right combination to keep everything in place. The stability produced by these interlocking forces can often withstand shocks but even a tiny change in some internal conditional at just the right spot and just the right moment can throw off the internal forces just enough to destabilize the system—and the ground beneath our feet that has been so stable for so long suddenly buckles and heaves in the violent spasm we call an earthquake. Barring new insights that shatter existing paradigms, it will forever be impossible to make time-and-place predictions in such complex systems. The best we can hope to do is get a sense of the probabilities involved. And even that is a tall order.

Human systems like economies are complex systems, with all that entails. And bear in mind that human systems are not made of sand, rock, snowflakes, and the other stuff that behaves so unpredictably in natural systems. They’re made of people: self-aware beings who see, think, talk, and attempt to predict each other’s behavior—and who are continually adapting to each other’s efforts to predict each other’s behavior, adding layer after layer of new calculations and new complexity. All this adds new barriers to accurate prediction.

June 2011 Cato Unbound: Targeted Killing and the Rule of Law

When can the executive lawfully kill?

The rule of law itself depends on getting the answer right. Clearly that answer can’t be “never,” because then even defensive wars would be impossible. And it can’t be “whenever,” because that would be the very antithesis of lawful government. As F. A. Hayek wrote, “if a law gave the government unlimited power to act as it pleased, all its actions would be legal, but it would certainly not be under the rule of law” (p. 205).

The answer must be “sometimes”—but which times are those? In wartime? In peacetime? Against aliens? What about citizens? What role do the courts play? And what about the legislature?

In answer to these questions, Cato Unbound lead essayist Ryan Alford draws on the Anglo-American constitutional tradition, arguing that the killing of a citizen or subject without judicial authorization was so far opposed to our traditional legal safeguards that the American Founders didn’t even bother to prohibit it in the Constitution. And yet, he argues, the case of Anwar al-Awlaqi shows that our government now claims this power anyway. The themes of his essay are explored in much more detail in his forthcoming article in the Utah Law Review.

To discuss with him this month, we’ve lined up a panel of legal and historical experts: John C. Dehn of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Gregory McNeal of Pepperdine University, and Carlton Larson of the University of California at Davis. Each will offer a commentary on Alford’s essay, followed by a discussion among the four on this timely and important subject. Be sure to stop by often, or just subscribe to Cato Unbound’s RSS feed.

As always, Cato Unbound readers are encouraged to take up our themes, and enter into the conversation on their own websites and blogs, or at other venues. Trackbacks are enabled. We also welcome your letters and may publish them at our option. Send them to jkuznicki at cato.org

Peace by the Numbers

If you follow the news, you might never guess that we’re living in a remarkably peaceful era. But we are. The long-term trends say that war is on the decline—combat fatalities, too. If we value world peace, we shouldn’t be complaining. We should be figuring out why these things are happening—and asking how we can keep them going.

Peace, of course, doesn’t often make the news. There’s nothing dramatic to report. Peace doesn’t explode. It doesn’t kill people. It makes for lousy TV.

I’m hoping, however, that peace makes a good topic at Cato Unbound. This month’s lead essay is by Andrew Mack, director of the Human Security Report Project at Simon Fraser University. If we live in a more secure world, he asks, why is it?

Please join us throughout the month for an empirical discussion of peace and war, the demographics of each, and what it is that makes our era an unusually peaceful one.