Tag: philosophy

More Hayek Sightings

The long Hayek Week continues, a full two weeks after Cato’s all-star panel on The Constitution of Liberty. The Washington Post today features George Mason University professor Russell Roberts and his Hayek-Keynes rap videos.

And by reading the actual print edition of the New York Times Book Review, I discovered that the same issue that included Francis Fukuyama’s review of the The Constitution of Liberty last Sunday also included a letter from one David Beffert of Washington, D.C., coincidentally responding to a review of Fukuyama’s own new book. Beffert wrote:

I enjoyed Michael Lind’s April 17 review of Francis Fukuyama’s important new book, “The Origins of Political Order.” But even as someone who prefers John Maynard Keynes and Karl Polanyi to F. A. Hayek, I still feel compelled to defend Hayek from Lind’s mischaracterization. While I agree with Fukuyama’s argument that, as Lind puts it, “a strong and capable state has always been a precondition for a flourishing capitalist economy,” Hayek can hardly be accused of trying “to explain society in terms of Homo economicus.” A doctor of law and political science, Hayek afforded the state a central role in his philosophy — specifically, he saw the Rechtsstaat, constitutional government enforcing the rule of law, as a guarantor of liberty and a functioning capitalist order. In that sense he, like Fukuyama, is closer to the 19th-century sociological tradition than to neoclassical economists, who would appear to be Lind’s real target.

Speaking of misconceptions about Hayek, if you Google “soros hayek,” the first item that comes up is a page of letters in the Atlantic Monthly taking Soros to task for misunderstanding Hayek – in 1997. Tadd Wilson argues:

Soros cites Hayek as an advocate of laissez-faire and then goes on to reject laissez-faire economics on the grounds that it is a dogmatic system at once claiming and demanding perfect knowledge and equilibrium. Of course, Hayek’s major contribution to economics was his critique of scientific assumptions in equilibrium-based economics. In a nutshell, Hayek argues that the market process relies on contextual, personal knowledge to coordinate the activities of millions of individual participants – a vaguely Popperian notion. Soros misses Hayek’s crucial point.

This is much the same criticism that Bruce Caldwell made of Soros’s understanding of Hayek two weeks ago. Considering the many complaints that were raised about Fukuyama’s understanding of Hayek, we can only ask: Why can’t the Times get someone like, say, David Beffert or Tadd Wilson to review Hayek?

By the way, if you Google Hayek, you’ll discover that it’s a big week for Salma Hayek, too. They’re not related, but you can find a slightly dated comparison here.

Take Off the Blinders: Diversity Demands Educational Freedom

Yesterday, FoxNews.com posted a story on what appears to be a growing problem for public school systems across the country: accommodating Muslim holidays. Unfortunately, the report didn’t contain the solution to the problem. It did, though, contain a very succinct discussion of the root of the problem; an example of the good intent that causes people to ignore the problem; and the kind of “solution” that is ultimately at odds with the most basic of American values.

A quote from New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg captured the essence of the problem:

One of the problems you have with a diverse city is that if you close the schools for every single holiday, there won’t be any school.

There you have the basic conundrum in a nutshell: Whenever you have a diverse population – whether in a hamlet, city, state, or nation – and everyone has to support a single system of government schools, you cannot possibly treat all people – or even most of them – equally. Either there are winners and losers, or nobody gets anything.

Understanding why public schooling  can’t handle diversity – why, simply, one size can’t fit all – is really basic common sense. So why isn’t there more outrage over, or even just recognition of, the utter illogic of our education system? Mohamed Elibiary, President and CEO of the Freedom and Justice Foundation, illustrated the attitude that likely causes lots of Americans to wear blinders:

I’m a little torn. I want Muslims to be getting the same recognition as other Americans, but at the same time I don’t want to see public education systems be a battleground between religious identities, because then we’re missing the point of why we have a public education system to begin with.

No doubt many people truly believe as Elibiary does: that a major purpose of public schooling is to bring diverse people together and, by doing so, unify them. It’s a fine intention, but also a classic case of intent not matching reality. Indeed, the reality is often very much the opposite. Rather than unifying people, public schooling has repeatedly forced religious conflict (as well as conflict over race, ethnicity, political philosophy, curriculum, and on and on).

It started almost on Day One, when Horace Mann, a Unitarian, was locked in conflict with Calvinists over what kind of Protestantism the state’s nascent “common schools” would teach. When Roman Catholics began arriving in America in large numbers, battles – sometimes deadly – erupted over who would get what kind of Christianity in the public schools. When Tennessee outlawed the teaching of evolution, the Scopes “Monkey Trial” fired the first big blast in the war over the teaching of human origins, a fight we are still very much in. In the latter part of the twentieth century, the fighting moved to what, if any, religious expression is permissible in public schools. And now, we’re getting fired up over whose holidays will get the most deference from government schools. It almost seems like war without end.

Finally, the article gropes at – but doesn’t grab – the solution to our education and diversity problem. Says Georgetown University professor Bradley Blakeman:

That’s the beauty of having a school district responsive to the localities as opposed to blanket rules that affect multiple jurisdictions, states or even countries. One size doesn’t fit all when it comes to these kinds of rules and regulations. We’re not a homogeneous nation, which makes us so great.

Blakeman is heading in the right direction (even as federal policy pushes us the opposite way): The closer that control of education gets to individual people, the more easily it can be tailored to unique needs, values, and desires. Unfortunately, Blakeman fails to identify the obvious last step: completely decoupling government funding from provision of education. In other words, instituting universal educational choice. Making matters worse, Blakeman for all intents and purposes concludes that as long as decisions are made at the local level, and the majority gets its way, everything is fine:

A school should reflect the beliefs and practices of the community that they serve. And if school boards are sensitive to their populations, that’s fine, provided the decisions of the board reflect the majority opinion of its community.

It may sound harsh, but one way to describe this is simply ”tyranny of the majority” – whatever the majority wants, it gets, as long as it is the local majority. It’s a solution that completely ignores that ours is not supposed to be a nation of majority rule, but rule of law that protects individual freedom. And, of course, one of the most basic protections is the prohibition on government tipping the scales in favor of one religion, two religions, or no religion at all. 

This solution also fails, by the way, to address the problem at hand: School districts – not states or Washington – having to accommodate diverse populations. In other words, ”local control” is ultimately no solution at all.

Universal choice is, quite simply, the only system of education compatible with the most basic of American values – individual liberty – and the only way to avoid constant, divisive battles over who will get what out of the schools. Hopefully, people will come to realize that before our conflicts get even worse.

You Can Laugh All You Want To, But I’ve Got My Philosophy

There’s an interesting back-and-forth between Dan Foster at National Review and Ezra Klein at the Washington Post over whether there’s a symmetry between libertarian (or conservative) preference for smaller government and progressive advocacy for a larger or more active one.  Ezra wants to maintain that the former is “philosophical”—one might use the more loaded “ideological”—in a way that the latter is not.  And his argument has some intuitive appeal, but I think ultimately misfires:

But like a lot of people, I actually don’t have an abstract preference for either bigger government or smaller government. If we made the Defense Department a lot smaller, or reformed the health-care system so that we were getting a deal more akin to European countries, or got the federal government out of farm subsidies, that would be fine with me, even as the government would shrink. A lot of conservatives believe, I think, that their philosophical preference for small government is counterbalanced by other people’s philosophical preference for big government. But that’s not true: Their philosophical preference for small government is counterbalanced by other people’s practical preference for larger government in certain areas where it seems to make sense.

Now, this much I take to be true: Ezra and other progressives, talk show rhetoric notwithstanding, don’t have some abstract desire to increase the size and power of government independently of particular functions they want government to serve.  But that doesn’t mean his contrast between his “practical preference” for larger government “where it seems to make sense” and the “philosophical preference for small goverment” will fly.  As long as we’re invoking philosophy, it may be useful to deploy the hoary distinction ethicists often make between teleological and deontological principles—very crudely, the distinction between principles that specify ends or goals, and principles that specify rules that constrain our pursuit of ends or goals.

In a teleological frame, the asymmetry Ezra is positing makes a certain amount of sense. Progressives’ desire for larger government is mostly instrumental, while libertarians and conservatives seem to treat smaller government as an end in itself. But I think this is somewhat misleading. You could also say that Ezra and I both favor a government exactly large enough to accomplish its legitimate functions, albeit with very different views of what those functions are. In part this difference is “practical”—or at any rate, empirical—on both sides: Neither of us, presumably, think the government should squander taxpayer money on ineffective programs, but we have different background views about the relative effectiveness of government and civil society at achieving worthy aims.

But flipping explicitly into a deontological frame, we can see another difference—and here I think there is a real symmetry. You could say that where we differ is in how much weight we give the citizen’s prima facie claim against coercive interference. I think that claim ought to have quite a lot of weight, such that there are a relatively small number of public goods sufficiently vital to justify overriding the presumption against interference. Even assuming we agreed on the probable utilitarian benefit of some particular government program, I think it is fair to say Ezra gives a lot less presumptive weight to such claims. If you do not see anything seriously morally problematic about compelling people to contribute to projects and goals that (granting assumptions about efficacy, for the sake of argument) seem broadly worthy, you’ll be inclined to see government as an all-purpose mechanism for remedying a whole array of social problems. Which particular problems justify larger government will then be determined by “practical” considerations, but the background premise about the weight of the claim against compulsion is going to be exactly as “philosophical” for the progressive as for the libertarian or the conservative.