Tag: political philosophy

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.

Just a Cog in the National Project

Brad Thompson’s excellent new book, Neoconservatism: An Obituary for an Idea, adroitly dissects this pernicious political philosophy.  He has received some criticism for attempting to demonstrate that Leo Strauss, the philosophical godfather of so many neocons, had a certain sympathy with fascism.  Indeed, while stating that he is not saying neoconservatives have fascist designs, Thompson does suggest that their philosophy could pave the way to a kind of “soft fascism.”  Far be it from me to pass judgment on such academic debate, but it is interesting to consider the following from the noted neocon columnist for the New York Times, David Brooks, writing in that paper on March 10:

Citizenship, after all, is built on an awareness that we are not all that special but are, instead, enmeshed in a common enterprise.  Our lives are given meaning by the service we supply to the nation.  I wonder if Americans are unwilling to support the sacrifices that will be required to avert fiscal catastrophe in part because they are less conscious of themselves as components of a national project.

The Public Isn’t Buying

Today POLITICO Arena asks:

Angry Left Obama’s bête noir?

My response:

Would the president help himself by making a clearer ideological declaration – as many on the “professional left” are asking him to do? Hardly. POLITICO tells us this morning that those “professionals” lament “the president’s reluctance to be a Democratic version of Ronald Reagan, who spoke without apology about his vaulting ideological ambitions.” One of those professionals, Robert Reich, urges Obama to present “a clear and convincing narrative into which all the various initiatives neatly fit, so that the public can make sense of everything that’s done.”

The public is quite capable of making sense of everything that’s been done. It’s doing it, and it doesn’t like what it sees. Reagan spoke boldly about his vision because it arose directly from fundamental American principles – individual liberty, free markets, and limited constitutional government. Obama avoids presenting “a clear and convincing narrative” because if he stated his vision more clearly it would be even less convincing than it already is.

Thus, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs was right to complain about the criticism’s coming from members of the professional left, who spend their lives cloistered in academia, the mainstream media, and other such redoubts, talking to each other. But Gibbs’s problem is deeper: It’s the product, not the pitch.