Tag: political theory

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.

Abortion Is Only the Tip of the Iceberg

Today POLITICO Arena asks:

Given the push by Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) to deny all federal funding to Planned Parenthood, are we seeing the revival of abortion as a major fault line in American politics?

My response:

Opponents of the push to deny federal funding to Planned Parenthood and other abortion providers will try to inflame the debate by characterizing the push as an attack on the Supreme Court’s discovery of a right to abortion. But the issue goes much deeper and is perfectly generalizable: it’s a push to get government out of one more controversial area of life.

Most modern liberals fail to grasp – or ignore – a fundamental principle of political theory, namely, that the more we do collectively, the more liberty is restricted and passions are inflamed. That’s why classical liberals asked government to provide only “public goods” like national defense, law enforcement, and clean air. Abortions are private goods (for some). Under current law, women are free to seek them from willing providers. And others are free to assist those who cannot afford an abortion. But no one should be compelled to provide or pay for another’s abortion. It’s a matter, quite simply, of freedom.

Ross Douthat’s War on Theory

I have been following the reporting out of Egypt with the same interest as other onlookers, and I share their ignorance. I know very little about Egypt and do not feel competent to offer predictions, much less advocate for one or the other position on the questions posed to the United States by events in that country.

While the events themselves are exhilarating to watch, of equal interest to me has been the parade of American commentators who know nothing about Egypt but nonetheless have been providing copious commentary on the subject.  I thought Andrew Exum’s lament on this phenomenon was particularly righteous.  Watching cable news, Exum reports that he was:

absolutely stunned by the willingness of the show’s guests to opine about Egypt without having any actual experience in or expertise on Egypt or the broader Middle East. Is it really that tough to say, “Hey, that’s a great question, Joe, but I am not really the best guy to give the viewers at home a good answer?”

Instead, guest after guest – most of whom are specialists in or pundits on U.S. domestic politics – made these broad, ridiculously sweeping statements about the meaning and direction of the protests.

It is in this context that Ross Douthat continues his war against those who make their foreign policy theories explicit:

Ross Douthat | photo by Josh Haner/The New York Times

The long-term consequences of a more populist and nationalistic Egypt might be better for the United States than the stasis of the Mubarak era, and the terrorism that it helped inspire. But then again they might be worse. There are devils behind every door.

Americans don’t like to admit this. We take refuge in foreign policy systems: liberal internationalism or realpolitik, neoconservatism or noninterventionism. We have theories, and expect the facts to fall into line behind them. Support democracy, and stability will take care of itself. Don’t meddle, and nobody will meddle with you. International institutions will keep the peace. No, balance-of-power politics will do it.

But history makes fools of us all…

Sooner or later, the theories always fail. The world is too complicated for them, and too tragic. History has its upward arcs, but most crises require weighing unknowns against unknowns, and choosing between competing evils.

The fact that theories are imperfect does not make them any less necessary.  We take refuge in foreign policy theories because there is no alternative.  As Ben Friedman pointed out in responding to Douthat previously, it is impossible to have foreign policies without foreign-policy theories.  The same goes for economics, domestic politics, and a whole range of human behavior.  People take (or oppose) various actions based on their expectations about what outcomes the actions will (or will not) produce.  Whether people are conscious of it or not, our expectations are products of our theories.  People disagree about which theories are good and which are bad, but we all have them.