Tag: classical liberalism

Michael Sam and the Cost of Discrimination

Classical liberals and libertarians have always sought a world in which people are judged as individuals, not as members of groups. Over the centuries most societies have been arranged as hierarchies, with people assigned to classes by birth. The great liberal historian Henry Sumner Maine wrote that the history of civilization was a movement from a society of status to a society of contract — that is, from a society in which each person was born into his place and was defined by his status to one in which the relationships among individuals are determined by free consent and agreement. Liberals argued for “la carrière ouverte aux talents” (“opportunity to the talented”).

Individuals may also be classified by race, religion, sexual orientation, or other characteristics. One of the great achievements of American society has been the progressive extension of the promises of the Declaration of Independence – life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – to people who had been excluded from them. That process has included the abolition of slavery, the civil rights revolution, the women’s liberation movement, more recently the gay rights movement.

Lately some people have proclaimed victory in the battle for equal treatment of gays and lesbians. Last month a group of gay marriage supporters urged their allies to be magnanimous in the final period of the “hard-won victory over a social order in which LGBT people were fired, harassed, and socially marginalized” and not to seek to punish remaining dissenters from the new perspective.

But this past weekend has reminded us that we haven’t quite achieved “opportunity to the talented.” Michael Sam was the Co-Defensive Player of the Year in the country’s strongest football conference, yet many people wondered if any NFL team would draft the league’s first openly gay player. Turns out they were right to wonder. Here’s a revealing chart published in yesterday’s Washington Post (based on data from pro-football-reference.com and published alongside this article in the print edition but apparently not online).

SEC Defensive Players of the Year

Every other SEC Defensive Player of the Year in the past decade, including the athlete who shared the award this year with Michael Sam, was among the top 33 picks in the draft, and only one was below number 17. Does that mean that being gay cost Michael Sam 232 places in the draft, compared to his Co-Defensive Player of the Year? Maybe not. There are doubts about Sam’s abilities at the professional level. But there are doubts about many of the players who were drafted ahead of him, in the first 248 picks this year. Looking at this chart, I think it’s hard to escape the conclusion that Sam paid a price for being openly gay. That’s why classical liberals – which in this broad sense should encompass most American libertarians, liberals, and conservatives – should continue to press for a society in which the careers are truly open to the talents. That doesn’t mean we need laws, regulations, or mandates. It means that we want to live in a society that is open to talent wherever it appears. As Scott Shackford writes at Reason, Sam’s drafting is “a significant cultural development toward a country that actually doesn’t care about individual sexual orientation. The apathetic should celebrate this development, as it is a harbinger of a future where such revelations become less and less of a big deal.” Let’s continue to look forward to a society in which it’s not news that a Jewish, Catholic, African-American, Mormon, redneck, or gay person achieves a personal goal.

George Smith’s Long-Awaited Book: The System of Liberty

The System of LibertyGeorge H. Smith is one of the best-read, most insightful libertarians living today. He is the author of most of the Cato University Home Study Course, which you should definitely download. He writes a weekly article for Libertarianism.org titled “Excursions into the History of Libertarian Thought.” He is the author of Atheism: The Case Against God (1974), Atheism, Ayn Rand, and Other Heresies (1991), and audio series on “Great Political Thinkers,” “The Meaning of the U.S. Constitution,” and “The Ideas of Liberty.” And finally – finally – he has been persuaded to write down much of what he knows about the history of classical liberal thought in a new book from the Cato Institute and the Cambridge University Press, The System of Liberty: Themes in the History of Classical Liberalism.

It’s a great study of classical liberalism and the relations among such liberal ideas as individualism, natural rights, utilitarianism, self-sovereignty, and what Lord Acton called “the polar star of liberty.” Along the way he answers such criticisms of liberalism as “atomistic individualism” and “social Darwinism.” It’s a college course in political philosophy in just 217 very readable pages. Buy it now for the low low price of $24.95.

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.

The New Hungarian Constitution

My colleagues and I talk a lot about the need for fidelity to our founding document, in part because any power the federal government exercises that’s not listed there is illegitimate and in part because our Constitution is an essentially libertarian (or classical liberal) document.  And part of having a proper, Madisonian view of the Constitution is not to use foreign law to interpret it (or other domestic law).

But it is absolutely appropriate — and good practice — to look to foreign example and experience when drafting a new constitution (or even crafting new legislation).  I find such occasions, when a country comes up with a new founding document — either because it’s a new nation (South Sudan), has undergone regime change (Iraq and Afghanistan recently, Eastern Europe in the 1990s, much of Latin America in the 1980s), or just because (France, periodically) — fascinating.  I wrote my college thesis on comparative constitutionalism and now occasionally peruse the Comparative Constitutions blog (apparently there’s a blog, facebook page, or twitter feed for just about anything).

Which is all a long preface to introducing the new Hungarian constitution (English version here) — intended to correct some lingering deficiencies from the immediate post-Communist one.  There are plenty of good things in this draft, which is due to be voted on by parliament on April 18 (and expected to be adopted due to the governing party’s majority).  It moves in the right direction in many respects on property rights, economic liberties, government transparency, and an independent judiciary, but also contains provisions that would empower the state beyond what is suitable for protecting individual rights (property and otherwise) and provides weak institutional guarantees.

Marion Smith, president of the Common Sense Society (a free-market think tank in Budapest) offered a critique last week in the Wall Street Journal Europe:

The drafters and Mr. Orbán [the prime minister] have committed themselves to Hungary’s future economic sustainability, having already adopted a flat personal income tax of 16% and included a government-spending cap at 50% of GDP in the proposed constitution. At a time when national economies in Europe are collapsing left and right due to years of runaway public spending, Budapest is moving in the right direction.

But the proposed constitution also includes a series of second-generation rights and state objectives that will commit future governments to providing “adequate housing,” “access to work,” “sports,” public education and a state-run pension system to all Hungarians. Whereas natural rights (such as life, liberty and property) are rights that governments protect from infringement by others, positive rights (such as housing and leisure) are things that governments are expected to provide. This redefinition of the nature of rights necessarily and fundamentally alters the relationship between individual and the state and increases the scope of state power. The wealth redistribution necessary to provide these rights undermines the protection of private property.

Moreover, Smith notes, the government seems to get a trump card over private enterprise and civil society:

Their proposed constitution also enables future state intervention into private economic activity on the basis of ill-defined “community objectives.” Specifically, the current draft mandates: “Employees and employers will cooperate in the interest of maintaining the national economy, ensuring jobs and implementing other community objectives.” By including such broad provisions that could justify significant intrusions into private-market exchanges, the draft risks solidifying the sluggish economic policies of Hungary’s past.

The draft compounds these potential problems by providing weak and ill-defined checks on Parliament’s legislative and executive power. The text grants the Constitutional Court final-review power over fiscal, economic and property matters “only if the petition refers exclusively to the right to life and human dignity, the right to the protection of personal data, the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion or the right connected to the Hungarian citizenship.” That restriction not only weakens an important check on Parliament, it also undermines institutional guarantees of individual liberty—including the right to acquire, possess and use property, as well as the right to appeal to justice if those rights are violated by citizen or state.

While the current Hungarian government, a center-right coalition between Fidesz (a sort of nationalist party that has migrated from classical liberalism to conservatism) and the Christian Democrats, might be good on economic freedom (if not necessarily other kinds), imagine what a future center-left/socialist government could do with the powers the new constitution grants. 

Time to go back to the drawing board.  And for Americans — whether Republicans, Democrats, libertarians, or “independents” — this is, as they say, a teachable moment.

Evolution and Liberty

Political scientist Larry Arnhart heads this month’s Cato Unbound. He argues that libertarians need to integrate biological evolution into their thinking about human cultures and even politics.

More provocatively, he claims that the “a Darwinian science of human evolution supports classical liberalism.” This is the case, he argues, even though

market competition differ[s] radically from biological competition. Biological competition is a zero-sum game where the survival of one organism is at the expense of others competing for the same scarce resources. But market competition is a positive-sum game where all the participants can gain from voluntary exchanges with one another. In a liberal society of free markets based on voluntary exchanges, success depends on persuasion rather than coercion, because we must give to others what they want to get what we want. Smith concludes: “It is precisely in a free society that Social Darwinism does not apply.”

Our genes, however, help get us to where we are, and understanding their contribution to the formation of societies and institutions is one of the most important projects in evolutionary biology, helping to bridge the gap between the hard sciences and the social sciences.

To borrow a phrase used by Karl Popper and later by Daniel Dennett, in a free society, we may allow our ideas to die in our stead, in the course of experimenting with them, debating, and innovating within a framework of laws and rights. This ability is made possible by a set of inheritances – genetic, epigenetic, and cultural – that help make us who we are.

As usual, we have a panel of fascinating commentators lined up for the rest of the week, starting with science-blogging superhero PZ Myers, followed by eminent behavioral scientist Herbert Gintis, and rounded out by pathbreaking anthropologist Lionel Tiger. Stop by during the rest of the month for what’s sure to be a stimulating discussion.