Tag: libertarianism

Tom Palmer on Life, Liberty, and Moral Relativism

Cato senior fellow Tom Palmer is profiled in the Washington Examiner’s Sunday “Credo” column. He talks about the meaning of freedom and about people who have risked their lives to protect the rights of others, and offers some interesting thoughts when asked about “moral relativism”:

You say that for many people, the idea of right and wrong has been degraded in our culture. Why? When did that happen?

The growth of moral relativism is an interesting thing to chart. Allan Bloom at the University of Chicago argued that it was an unintended consequence of a positive development, which was the integration of different races and religions. As that happened, it became the easiest way to tell schoolchildren not to fight by saying, “Everyone and everything is as good as everything else.” It is an easier route to say that there are no moral truths, but the outcome is not more mutual respect. It undermines the foundation of mutual respect.

Moral relativism was a lazy shortcut for a pluralistic society. A better approach is to say you should respect others because they’re human beings, and because they have rights.

Find the whole article here or see it in newspaper-page format on page 34 of the digital edition.

And buy Tom Palmer’s Realizing Freedom: Libertarian Theory, History, and Practice here.

Nozick in the News

Charles Krauthammer writes about “liberal expressions of disdain for the intelligence and emotional maturity of the electorate” and the conceit that “Liberals act in the public interest, while conservatives think only of power, elections, self-aggrandizement and self-interest.” He has plenty of contemporary examples, but he also recalls one from a few years ago:

It is an old liberal theme that conservative ideas, being red in tooth and claw, cannot possibly emerge from any notion of the public good. A 2002 New York Times obituary for philosopher Robert Nozick explained that the strongly libertarian implications of Nozick’s masterwork, “Anarchy, State, and Utopia” “proved comforting to the right, which was grateful for what it embraced as philosophical justification.” The right, you see, is grateful when a bright intellectual can graft some philosophical rationalization onto its thoroughly base and self-regarding politics.

Nozick, of course, was a libertarian, not a conservative, as the more insightful obituary by the philosopher Alan Ryan in the British Independent notes: the book’s ”criticism of social conservatism is at least as devastating as its criticism of the redistributive welfare state.” But Krauthammer is right to note the casual assumption by the New York Times that conservatism desperately needed ”philosophical justification.”

Sunday’s Washington Post contains a related article by political scientist Gerard Alexander: “Why are liberals so condescending?”

Is Justice Kennedy Libertarian?

Early last year, Cato hosted a book forum for Helen Knowles’s The Tie Goes to Freedom: Justice Anthony M. Kennedy on Liberty.  This really is a remarkable book, with an ambitious goal: trying to make coherent sense of the oft-frustrating “swing justice.”  And now I have a lengthy review of it that just came out in the latest issue of the Harvard Journal of Law & Public Politics (where Bob Levy also has an essay, on the aftermath of District of Columbia v. Heller).

Knowles makes the provocative argument that Justice Kennedy’s jurisprudence is “modestly libertarian.”  I think that this argument, in the limited ways Knowles makes it – with respect to free speech, equal protection, and individual dignity – is probably sound.  Still, that deduction is a small discovery considering the broad swath of Supreme Court jurisprudence.  Moreover, it says little about whether Kennedy is faithful to the Constitution, which is a stronger measure of libertarianism (as Randy Barnett described at Cato’s 2008 Constitution Day Conference in his B. Kenneth Simon Lecture in Constitutional Thought, reprinted in the latest Cato Supreme Court Review).

Here’s how I conclude:

Good on speech and race, bad on government power, and ugly on abortion and the death penalty, Justice Kennedy is a sui generis enigma at the heart of the modern Supreme Court.  However new Justice Sonia Sotomayor affects the Court’s dynamics, it is unlikely that Justice Kennedy will shift from his role as the deciding vote in most controversial cases.  Helen Knowles has thus done us a great service in deconstructing Justice Kennedy’s faint-hearted libertarianism and helping us better understand the “sweet mystery” of his jurisprudence.

For details on how I reached this conclusion, read the full review (which you can also download from SSRN).  I should add that Knowles’s book is more useful to us Court-watchers than Frank Colucci’s Justice Kennedy’s Jurisprudence: The Full and Necessary Meaning of Liberty – whose shortcomings I won’t detail but instead refer you to Eric Posner’s thoughtful critique.

Libertarian Surge

David Paul Kuhn at RealClearPolitics sees a surge of libertarianism in the current political scene:

The philosophical casualty of the Great Recession was supposed to be libertarianism. But signs to the contrary are thriving.

Americans are increasingly opposed to activist government programs. The most significant social movement of 2009, the Tea Party protests, grew out of that opposition. Libertarian heroine Ayn Rand is as popular today as ever. Rand’s brilliant and radical laissez faire novel “Atlas Shrugged,” sold roughly 300,000 copies last year, according to BookScan, twice its sales in 2008 and roughly triple annual sales in recent decades.

We are witnessing a conservative libertarian comeback. It’s an oppositional advance, a response to all manners of active-state liberalism since the financial crisis. It’s a pervasive feeling of invasiveness. The factional bastions of traditional libertarianism, like Washington think tank Cato, now have an intangible and awkward alliance with a broad swath of the American electorate….

This limited libertarian resurgence has haunted Obama’s domestic agenda. The fundamental mistake of the Obama administration in 2009 was underestimating the American public’s ongoing tension with active-state liberalism, a fact visible from the outset and one only belatedly confronted by Obama….

Today’s limited libertarian revival is a response to a sense of overreaching elite technocrats as well as fear of an intrusive bureaucracy. Responsiveness is the core impulse. Rand’s radical libertarianism, where man is an ends in himself and the welfare state is fundamentally immoral, was a response to the radically invasive Soviet state that weaned her as a girl. On a drastically less extreme scale, one side of this American debate could not exist without the other. The Obama administration brought with it ambitions of a resurgence of FDR and LBJ’s active-state liberalism. And with it, Obama has revived the enduring American challenge to the state.

I’ve been struck by the fact that two recent profiles in the New York Times magazine — one on Dick Armey and one on the rise of Marco Rubio in Florida — have identified Tea Party protesters as libertarians, which I think is largely right but not generally noticed by pundits who can only hold two concepts (red and blue, conservative and liberal) in their minds at once. It’s not that the Tea Partiers are carrying pro-choice or anti–drug war signs, it’s just that their focus and their energy are, as the Armey profile put it, “libertarian, anti-Washington, old-fashioned get-out-of-my-way-and-I’ll-make-it-on-my-own American self-sufficiency.” They’re up in arms about spending, deficits, bailouts, government handouts, and a government takeover of health care. That’s a populist libertarian spirit.

Kuhn describes the current mood as “conservative libertarianism,” which he contrasts to “traditional libertarianism” that embraces a laissez-faire approach to both economics and personal freedom. He may be right that a lot of the Tea Partiers are not as comprehensively pro-freedom or “anti-government” (really, pro-limited government) as I’d like. But I see some evidence of a social libertarian surge as well, as I wrote back in May. Polls are finding growing support for marijuana legalization and for marriage equality, especially among young people. As young people and independents also become increasingly disillusioned with President Obama’s big-government agenda, this may be a real shift in a libertarian direction. And don’t forget, at 90 days into the Obama administration, Americans preferred smaller government to “more active government” by 66 to 25 percent.

Credit Card Dementia and Boundary Cases

credit cardsThe most interesting libertarian-related conversation I’ve read today comes from Rortybomb, by way of Andrew Sullivan, with commentary by Megan McArdle. Here’s a challenge to libertarians from Rortybomb, aka Mike Konczal:

I want to pitch to the credit card and financial industry a new innovative online survey. It is targeted for older, more mature long-time users of our services. We’ll give a $10 credit for anyone who completes it. Here is a sense of what the questions will look like:

- 1) What is your age?
- 2) What day of the week are you taking this survey?
- 3) Many rewards offered are for people with more active lifestyles: vacations, flights, hotels, rental cars. Do you find that your rewards programs aren’t well suited for your lifestyle?
- 4) What is the current season where you live? Are any seasons harder for you in getting to a branch or ATM machine?
- 5) Would rewards that could be given as gifts to others, especially younger people, be helpful for what you’d like to do with your benefits?
- 6) Would replacing your rewards program with a savings account redeemable for education for your grandchildren be something you’d be interested in?
- 7) Write a sentence you’d like us to hear about anything, good or bad!
- 8 ) How worried are you you’ll leave legal and financial problems for your next-of-kin after your passing?

Did you catch it? Questions 1,2,4,7 are taken from the ‘Mini-mental State Examination’ which is a quick test given by medical professionals to see if a patient is suffering from dementia. (It’s a little blunt, but we can always hire some psychologist and marketers for the final version. They’re cheap to hire.) We can use this test to subtly increase limits, and break out the best automated tricks and traps mechanisms, on those whose dementia lights up in our surveys. Anyone who flags all four can get a giant increase in balance and get their due dates moved to holidays where the Post Office is slowest! We’d have to be very subtle about it, because there are many nanny-staters out there who’d want to coddle citizens here…

I smell money – it’s like walking down a sidewalk and turning a corner and then there is suddenly money all over the sidewalk. One problem with hitting up sick people, single mothers, college kids who didn’t plan well and the cash-constrained poor with fees and traps is that they’re poor. Hitting up people with a lifetime of savings suffering from dementia is some real, serious money we can tap as a revenue source.

Clearly, only an evil person (or a libertarian!) would allow a scam like this one. Megan responds, I think rightly:

I’m not sure why this is supposed to be a hard question for libertarians. I mean, I might argue that preventing people from ripping off the marginally mentally impaired would, in practice, be too difficult. Crafting a rule that prevented companies from identifying people who are marginally impaired might well be impossible – I’m pretty sure that if I wanted to, I could devise subtler tests than “What day of the week is it?” And while the seniors lobby is probably in favor of not ripping off seniors, they’re resolutely against making it harder for seniors to do things like drive or get credit, which is the result that any sufficiently strong rule would probably have.

But it’s pretty much standard libertarian theory that you shouldn’t take advantage of people who do not have the cognitive ability to make contracts. Marginal cases are hard not because we think it’s okay, but because there is disagreement over what constitutes impairment, and the more forcefully you act to protect marginal cases, the more you start treating perfectly able-minded adults like children.

The elderly are a challenge precisely because there’s no obvious point at which you can say: now this previously able adult should be treated like a child. Either you let some people get ripped off, or you infringe the liberty, and the dignity, of people who are still capable of making their own decisions.

I’d add two responses of my own.

First, I can’t believe there’s all that much money to be had here. Anyone who wanders into Tiffany’s and back out again without remembering what they bought is, generally speaking, a bad credit risk. Mildly irresponsible people – those who slightly overspend, then have to make it up later – those are probably great for creditors. Lesson learned: If you’re not demented, don’t be irresponsible. (If you are demented, you’re not going to follow my advice anyway.)

Second, I am always amazed at how border cases are dragged out, again and again, as if they proved something against libertarianism. Border cases – How old before you can vote? How demented before a contract doesn’t bind? – are a problem in all political systems, because all systems start with a presumed community of citizens and/or subjects. We always have to draw boundaries between the in-group and the outliers before we have a polity in the first place.

What makes the classical liberal/libertarian approach so valuable is in fact that it draws so few boundaries. Where other systems depend on class boundaries, race boundaries, religious boundaries, and so forth – with annoying boundary issues at every stop along the way – libertarians make it as simple as I think it can be. We presume that all mentally competent adults are worthy of liberty until they prove themselves otherwise.

The boundary cases are still there, but they are fewer and more tractable. Konczal just wandered into one of them. It proves much less than he thinks.

Ayn Rand Is In

Who would have thought? The Washington Post, which took two months to run a review of the two important new books about Ayn Rand that were published in October, now declares Ayn Rand to be “In” for 2010. Well, technically, in the paper’s annual New Year’s Day Out/In list, it declares “Twihards” (fans of the Twilight series, I take it) to be Out and “Randroids” to be In. But the splashy display in the print paper illustrates “Randroids” with a classic photo of Ayn Rand, the one that graces the cover of Barbara Branden’s biography The Passion of Ayn Rand.

Rand had a pretty good 2009, so it’s impressive that the Post thinks she’ll be bigger in 2010. 

While the renewed interest in Rand has been noticed everywhere from the Times Higher Education Supplement to the Wall Street Journal to the left-wing Campus Progress, William Kristol apparently missed it entirely. He wrote on December 29 about the revival of conservatism in response to the challenge of the Obama administration.

Of course, as conservatives, we also know many of the very best ideas are old ideas. And I’m struck by how many people are rediscovering Hayek’s “The Fatal Conceit,” Irving Kristol’s “Two Cheers for Capitalism,” or Tocqueville’s account of soft despotism in “Democracy in America.”

There are great ideas to be found in that list of books. But as everyone but Kristol has noticed, the author who’s really being rediscovered in this first 18 months or so of financial crisis and government expansion is Ayn Rand. Consider the sales figures for the different books. In 2009 about 2000 copies of The Fatal Conceit were sold. (Kristol should have cited The Road to Serfdom, which sold 21,000, more than double its sales the year before and about six times its sales in 2007, before the financial crisis began.) About 20,000 copies of various editions of Democracy in America. And 300,000 copies of Atlas Shrugged, along with 95,000 copies of The Fountainhead and even 60,000 copies of Anthem. (Two Cheers for Capitalism is out of print, so its rediscoveries can’t be tracked by BookScan.) It’s clearly Ayn Rand who has gotten the most help from the Bush-Paulson-Geithner-Bernanke-Obama-Geithner-Bernanke policies of the past 18 months.

Note: In addition to the new books on Rand from two of the world’s greatest publishers, the revitalized Laissez Faire Books has just published, for the first time in book form, the lectures on Ayn Rand’s philosophy that Nathaniel Branden gave back in the 1960s. Known then as “The Basic Principles of Objectivism,” now published as The Vision of Ayn Rand, these lectures were instrumental in tying Rand’s fiction to philosophy, politics, and economics, and in creating one of the first organized libertarian movements. As I said in a jacket blurb:

This is the most important work on Objectivism not written by Ayn Rand, available at last in book form. These lectures were delivered by the person closest to Ayn Rand, designated by her as her intellectual heir, often with her sitting in the audience and answering questions about them, and endorsed by her. Rand’s subsequent falling out with Nathaniel Branden over personal matters doesn’t change that. This is the organized, comprehensive treatise on Objectivism that Ayn Rand never wrote. Philosophers, historians, and economists may – and should – debate the claims of Objectivism. In this book they have a systematic work with which to engage. These lectures were also a milestone in libertarian history, as the lecture sessions brought together for the first time large numbers of young people who shared an enthusiasm for Ayn Rand and the individualist philosophy. The lectures were given as taped courses in more than 80 cities, and people drove for miles to listen to them on tape. Wasn’t that a time!

Neocons, Progressives, and the Impulse to Bully

Bart Hinkle makes some interesting observations in the Richmond Times-Dispatch about the unfortunate similarities between neoconservatives and progressives. Progressives, he says (and of course they’re not really for progress, so they might better be called left-liberals), spent the Bush years criticizing “bullying,” “heavy-handed meddling,” and even “neoconservative theories of social engineering.” They preferred “soft power.”

Yet turn the subject to domestic policy, and what happens? Progressives eagerly embrace the use of coercive hard power to achieve their aims. Force industry to adopt a cumbersome cap-and-trade policy to reduce carbon emissions? Check. Force the country to adopt a health care “public option”? Check. Threaten people with fines and even prison to impose an individual mandate? Check.

So much for the concern about “social engineering” and well-intentioned but “heavy-handed meddling.” When it comes to domestic policy, progressives are just as eager as neocons are to embrace “expansive dreams” and “gargantuan plans.” Just as hopelessly romantic about what the threat of force can achieve. And just as arrogant about the rightness of wielding it.

After some more critical analysis of the inconsistency of the left, Hinkle concludes:

Of course, everything that has just been said about progressives could be turned with equal validity against conservatives of the talk-radio right – many of whom think Americans should push the rest of the world around, but leave one another the heck alone.

If only there were an alternative to heavy-handed liberals and heavy-handed conservatives…