Topic: Political Philosophy


Jonathan Chait comments on the University of Missouri failure:

The upsurge of political correctness is not just greasy-kid stuff, and it’s not just a bunch of weird, unfortunate events that somehow keep happening over and over. It’s the expression of a political culture with consistent norms, and philosophical premises that happen to be incompatible with liberalism. The reason every Marxist government in the history of the world turned massively repressive is not because they all had the misfortune of being hijacked by murderous thugs. It’s that the ideology itself prioritizes class justice over individual rights and makes no allowance for legitimate disagreement.

Chait deserves praise. I had thought the time was past – long past – when a committed Social Democrat could hold liberal views on the freedom of speech. Time to jettison my prior beliefs about Jonathan Chait. But he is pretty much alone, no?

I see political correctness in this instance as an outgrowth of egalitarianism, a worldview that sees everywhere only oppressors and the oppressed. The former can have no rights that the latter are bound to respect, and thus it makes perfect sense, as the law professor Owen Fiss once proposed, to “restrict the speech of some elements of our society in order to enhance the relative voice of others.”

Free speech needs support from the political left. It is hard to see how such support might be revived.

Whatever Happened to the Left’s Love of Free Speech?

There was a time in America when the Left could be counted on to defend free speech. But as countless examples today demonstrate, those days are long gone. From campus speech codes to campaign finance to prosecutorial threats against climate change critics and more, the evidence is as fresh as this morning’s newspapers.

Campus assaults have been so well documented by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) that they need no elaboration here. But the latest campaign finance “reform”—“until the court reverses its decision in Citizens United”—can be found championed in an op-ed in this morning’s Washington Post by such stalwarts of the Left as Yale Law School’s Bruce Ackerman and Ian Ayers. On Tuesday last, it seems, Seattle voters approved a measure that would “give” each registered voter a $100 “democracy voucher” that could be spent “for only one purpose—to support their favorite candidates for municipal office.” The city can of course “give” that $100 voucher only if it first “takes” the $100 from its taxpayers, which it will do in all the unequal ways that modern tax systems exhibit. Thus is the political speech of private individuals reduced by forcing the funds they might otherwise direct to candidates of their choice to be redirected through this public funding scheme to candidates they may oppose.

But that inroad on free speech pales in comparison to recent attacks on what most Americans would have thought were the free speech rights of climate skeptics, the RICO-ing of whom my colleague Walter Olson has been covering—along with the machinations of New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. The latest from the latter is all over the papers today, the Post’s headline reading “Exxon investigated over climate change research.” The Left has already browbeaten Exxon Mobil into ending its funding for think tanks and advocacy organizations that express climate change skepticism. Now, however, it’s getting more serious, with Schneiderman issuing a subpoena that focuses, we’re told, “on whether Exxon Mobil intentionally clouded public debate about science and hid from investors the risks that climate change could pose to its business.” “Clouded?” What, a debate that is crystal clear? That of course is what the environmental establishment would like as to believe.

And circling back to the academy, so too, apparently, would one Naomi Oreskes, a professor of the history of science at Harvard University and a critic of Exxon who laments that we haven’t yet implemented a carbon tax. There are many reasons we haven’t, she tells the Post, but a significant one “is the role of Exxon Mobil and others in fomenting disinformation, undermining public support for such initiatives, and lobbying against policies that would have begun to decrease our fossil fuel dependency.” And this from a professor of the history of science, the annals of which are littered with the corpses of “settled science.” Clearly, if we don’t stop this speaking and lobbying, we could have one more corpse.

New Video Guide to Libertarianism

I hope everybody’s read my book The Libertarian Mind. Not to mention the companion volume The Libertarian Reader.

But for those who prefer listening or watching videos to reading, I’m excited to announce my new online Introduction to Libertarianism, the first of several Guides to libertarian ideas produced by Each Guide will include an introductory video, a series of video lectures, and a featured book, along with additional reading lists, essays, and links to other materials. Here’s a peek:

Coming soon: Guides on such topics as economics, political philosophy, and public policy, generally with a short original book to accompany the videos. For the Introduction to Libertarianism, the accompanying book is The Libertarian Mind. The 14 short lectures – 10 to 20 minutes each – track the sections of the book:

The Early Roots of Libertarianism

The Classical Liberal Era

The Modern Libertarian Revival

What Rights Do We Have?

The Dignity of the Individual

Pluralism and Toleration

Law and the Constitution

Civil Society

Networks of Trust

The Market Process

The Seen and the Unseen and International Trade

What Big Government Is All About

Public Choice

The Obsolete State

My colleagues at and I have tried to create the best available introduction to libertarianism here in 2015. And by the way, even though it’s called “Introduction,” I think almost any libertarian will find some new and interesting material in both the lectures and The Libertarian Mind.

Read the book! And check out the video lectures at 

Curb Your Enthusiasm: Down with the “Joyful Campaign”

I have a piece running in the Federalist this week on the notion that presidential candidates should campaign “joyfully,” as Jeb Bush ever more desperately insists that he is. It’s not clear why we’re supposed to want joyful candidates, but that seems to be the prevailing norm. Hardly a week goes by without reporters needling the contestants: are you having fun yet? I wrote the column before former Senator Fred Thompson passed away on Sunday, but it occurred to me that his failed 2008 run is a perfect illustration of how perverse the cult of campaign-trail positivity has become. 

By almost any measure, Thompson had a full life: a Watergate Committee counsel whose questioning revealed the existence of the White House tapes; U.S. senator from Tennessee; “Law and Order,” “The Hunt for Red October,” “Die Hard 2.” But his short-lived presidential campaign isn’t part of the highlight reel. The Tenneseean put it gently in their obituary: “Mr. Thompson underwhelmed” in his 2008 bid. The press was harsher when Thompson dropped out of the race. “You must show an interest in running for the most powerful office in the world to gain that office,” John Dickerson scolded in Slatebut “The press copies of his daily schedule always looked like they’d been handed out with a couple of the pages missing. The candidate seemed like he might just show up for events in Fred08sweatpants.” “As his hopes cratered,” Politico chided, “the former Tennessee senator increasingly voiced his displeasure with a process he plainly loathed. Thompson’s stump speech became mostly a bitter expression of grievance against what was expected of him or any White House hopeful.” Ha: what a weird old grouch! I mean, the guy’s an actor, and he still couldn’t fake it! What’s wrong with him?

And yet, earlier generations of Americans would have viewed Thompson’s reticence as reassuring. As the political scientist Richard J. Ellis explained in an insightful 2003 article, “The Joy of Power: Changing Conceptions of the Presidential Office,” early American political culture took it as self-evident that anyone who seemed to relish the idea of wielding power over others couldn’t be trusted with it. “Presidential candidates largely stayed home in dignified silence,” he wrote, “ready to serve if called by the people….Distrusting demagoguery and tyranny, the dutiful presidency demanded dignity, reserve and self-denial from its presidents.”

What the Washington Post Gets Wrong about Free Markets

This morning, the Washington Post ran an op-ed titled, “How free markets make us fatter, poorer and less happy.” Actually, the data suggest the exact opposite: free markets make us healthier, richer and happier. 

Free markets make us healthier 

First, the authors argue that free markets result in an abundance of temptations, such as candy and fattening food, and that encourages obesity. Obesity is a problem, but let’s put matters in proper perspective. The best proximate measure of the health of a nation is life expectancy. That is increasing. In fact, Americans have never lived longer. 

Moreover, a ban on fatty foods raises questions about personal freedom and responsibility. We allow people to buy alcohol, but discourage them from drinking and driving. Why not allow for sale of fatty foodstuffs, while discouraging gluttony through, for example, increased medical insurance premiums?   

The free market has been amazingly successful in increasing food production across the globe. In 1962, people in 51 countries consumed fewer than 2,000 calories per person per day. By 2011 that number fell to one (Zambia). All the while, life expectancy around the world has increased. 

Free markets make us richer

How Bernie Sanders Is Like Ron Paul

How Bernie Sanders and Ron Paul are alike:

    1. Both ran for president in their 70s, without any encouragement from pundits, politicians, or political operatives.
    2. Both were far more interested in talking about ideas and policies than in criticizing their opponents. (Though I don’t recall Paul taking valuable debate time to defend his chief opponent on her most vulnerable point. Sanders not only drew applause for saying there was no point in talking about Hillary Clinton’s private email server, he raised more than a million dollars during the debate by sending out an email with video of his grant of absolution.)
    3. Both Ron Paul and Bernie Sanders exploded on the internet during an early debate. Google searches for Ron Paul shot up when he and Rudy Giuliani had a heated confrontation over the causes of the 9/11 attacks in the May 15, 2007, Republican debate. Sanders gained three times as many Twitter followers as Clinton during last night’s debate.
    4. Each was the most noninterventionist and least prohibitionist candidate on their respective stages – though that’s a low bar. Sanders sounded pretty noninterventionist, but then continued: “When our country is threatened, or when our allies are threatened, I believe that we need coalitions to come together to address the major crises of this country. I do not support the United States getting involved in unilateral action.” The United States has alliances across the world, so that’s a fairly open-ended commitment. And imprudent intervention is not made much more prudent by having a coalition.

How Bernie Sanders and Ron Paul are different:

    1. Capitalism vs. socialism.

Whole Milk and Humility

Dr. Melik: This morning for breakfast he requested something called “wheat germ, organic honey and tiger’s milk.”

Dr. Aragon: [chuckling] Oh, yes. Those are the charmed substances that some years ago were thought to contain life-preserving properties.

Dr. Melik: You mean there was no deep fat? No steak or cream pies or… hot fudge?

Dr. Aragon: Those were thought to be unhealthy… precisely the opposite of what we now know to be true.

Science hasn’t yet advanced as far as Woody Allen imagined in the movie Sleeper. But the Washington Post does report on its front page today, as the House Agriculture Committee holds a hearing on the government’s official Dietary Guidelines, that decades of government warnings about whole milk may have been in error. 

In fact, research published in recent years indicates that the opposite might be true: millions might have been better off had they stuck with whole milk.

Scientists who tallied diet and health records for several thousand patients over ten years found, for example, that contrary to the government advice, people who consumed more milk fat had lower incidence of heart disease.

By warning people against full-fat dairy foods, the U.S. is “losing a huge opportunity for the prevention of disease,” said Marcia Otto, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Texas, and the lead author of large studies published in 2012 and 2013, which were funded by government and academic institutions, not the industry. “What we have learned over the last decade is that certain foods that are high in fat seem to be beneficial.”

The Post’s Peter Whoriskey notes that some scientists objected early on that a thin body of research was being turned into dogma:

“The vibrant certainty of scientists claiming to be authorities on these matters is disturbing,” George V. Mann, a biochemist at Vanderbilt’s med school wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine [in 1977].

Ambitious scientists and food companies, he said, had “transformed [a] fragile hypothesis into treatment dogma.”

And not just dogma but also government pressure, official Dietary Guidelines, food labeling regulations, government support for particular lines of research, bans on whole milk in school lunches, taxes and regulations to crack down on saturated fats and then on trans fats and salt. Earlier today Walter Olson noted numerous past examples of bad government advice on nutrition.

It’s understandable that some scientific studies turn out to be wrong. Science is a process of trial and error, hypothesis and testing. Some studies are bad, some turn out to have missed complicating factors, some just point in the wrong direction. I have no criticism of scientists’ efforts to find evidence about good nutrition and to report what they (think they) have learned. My concern is that we not use government coercion to tip the scales either in research or in actual bans and mandates and Official Science. Let scientists conduct research, let other scientists examine it, let journalists report it, let doctors give us advice. But let’s keep nutrition – and much else – in the realm of persuasion, not force. First, because it’s wrong to use force against peaceful people, and second, because we might be wrong.

This last point reflects the humility that is an essential part of the libertarian worldview. As I wrote in The Libertarian Mind:

Libertarians are sometimes criticized for being too “extreme,” for having a “dogmatic” view of the role of government. In fact, their firm commitment to the full protection of individual rights and a strictly limited government reflects their fundamental humility. One reason to oppose the establishment of religion or any other morality is that we recognize the very real possibility that our own views may be wrong. Libertarians support a free market and widely dispersed property ownership because they know that the odds of a monopolist finding a great new advance for civilization are slim. Hayek stressed the crucial significance of human ignorance throughout his work. In The Constitution of Liberty, he wrote, “The case for individual freedom rests chiefly on the recognition of the inevitable ignorance of all of us concerning a great many of the factors on which the achievement of our ends and welfare depends…. Liberty is essential in order to leave room for the unforeseeable and unpredictable.” The nineteenth-century American libertarian Lillian Harman, rejecting state control of marriage and family, wrote in Liberty in 1895, “If I should be able to bring the entire world to live exactly as I live at present, what would that avail me in ten years, when as I hope, I shall have a broader knowledge of life, and my life therefore probably changed?” Ignorance, humility, toleration—not exactly a ringing battle cry, but an important argument for limiting the role of coercion in society.

Today’s scientific hypotheses may be wrong. Better, then, not to make them law.