Topic: Political Philosophy

Post Script to Reason Letter; Non-Coercive Alternatives to Prohibiting Abortion

I have four acquaintances raising grandchildren as if they were their own.

Some charities will pay a woman’s medical costs if covering such expenses will help her decide to carry the baby to term.

From a libertarian perspective, individuals or charities paying a woman beyond her medical expenses should also be a viable solution. Remuneration would be for the woman’s time and physical effort (labor), not a “purchase price” for the child. The arrangement could stipulate, as surrogate motherhood contracts usually do, that payment is contingent on her putting the child up for adoption.

What about Fetal Rights?

In response to my letter on abortion recently published in Reason Magazine, several people have asked me, “What about fetal rights?” I addressed that issue in my original letter but it was edited out. Below is the letter I submitted with the portions that were deleted in bold.

Libertarian and Mother of Four

As a libertarian and a mother of four, I take issue with Radley Balko’s characterization of the abortion debate in “Getting Beyond Roe” (Aug/Sep) as being about “setting community standards” and that issues such as abortion “are best dealt with in those diverse laboratories of democracy, the states.” Abortion should no more be a question for local politics than slavery.

Community standards are the greatest threat to individual liberty there is. They have led to witch trials, kangaroo courts, censorship and egregious takings through eminent domain. And now Balko would like to let them decide the reproductive fate of women. Our country is not a democracy, not even a federalist democracy, but a constitutional republic — a country in which the Constitution protects individuals against majoritarian trespass. As far as individual rights are concerned, the Constitution is useless if it can’t protect one portion of the population from being forced into involuntary servitude by another, no matter at what level of government the enslavement takes place.

The right to have an abortion per se is not the issue, but the right to self-determination, the right not to be used as a means to an end against one’s will, the right not to be considered a communal resource — in short, the right for women to have the same control over their own bodies and their own fates as men.

Perhaps Roe was decided wrongly, not because it nationalized a right to abortion, but because it was decided in reliance on the wrong precedents. The 13th Amendment is more germane to the abortion debate than the Griswold v. Conn. line of cases and their amorphous right to privacy. Blackmun, in Roe, showed sympathy for the plight of women but also a profound paternalistic disrespect for those very people he was trying to help. To hinge the right of women to control their own bodies on privacy instead of every individual’s right, whether male or female, not to be treated as a public resource indicates a fundamental misunderstanding of what is at stake.

I believe abortion is morally wrong, but I also believe that in a conflict between mother and fetus, a woman’s right must always take precedence. A human being’s rights under the law increase with maturity. That has been the tradition under Anglo-American law as well as world wide for most of history. To suggest that a fetus has the same rights as a mature adult individual borders on the perverse. A woman’s rights should never be placed second to the needs of her fetus. To do so is to treat women first and foremost as communally owned vessels for bringing forth life and only second as autonomous individuals.

For those, like myself, who believe abortion is fraught with moral difficulties, the correct course of action is to teach, communicate, and discuss the importance of valuing human life with our daughters, our female neighbors and our friends. We must help them come to the correct conclusion based on good clear reasoning and the strength of our convictions. To force a woman to carry a pregnancy to term and give birth unwillingly is involuntary servitude, no matter what the rationale. Pregnancy and birth are the most dangerous work most women will ever do. To deprive them of medically feasible means for escaping those dangers, let alone planning their lives, is to treat women with the greatest disrespect.

There is no question that decisions about abortion are horrendously difficult, but just because a decision is difficult doesn’t mean women aren’t fit to make them. Life entails many difficult decisions, often involving life and death. Men make decisions about how to protect their families and their way of life; unfortunately sometimes those decisions involve going to war. Women, like men, make decisions about what is best for their families and their way of life; unfortunately sometimes such decisions involve abortions. Fetuses are potential children, not full grown adults, and women are full grown adults, not children. It is time we start treating each with the respect and dignity they deserve.

I Gave You My Heart, You Gave Me a Pen

I’ve been a John Cusack fan since Sixteen Candles. Thus his recent unflattering comments about Cato kinda sting.

I think Cusack is a smart guy who has been misinformed. As Tom Firey notes, Cato scholars, like Cusack, are keenly interested in making it harder for Congress and the president to start wars. I recently offered a proposal for reforming veterans’ health care. One of the proposal’s main selling points, to my mind, is that it would force Congress to confront many of the costs of war that the current system hides.

I even agree with some of what Cusack said. Cato scholars certainly don’t have “any monopoly on insight into anything.” And I’m sure we come across poorly at times. 

But do Cato scholars really want, as Cusack has written,  ”the total liberation of corporations”? If I were really a corporate tool, would I have just penned an oped where I smeared the entire health care industry as a pack of “rent-seeking weasels”? 

If Cusack could see how poorly we get along with most corporations most of the time, he might give Cato another look.

News Flash: Neocons Hate Ron Paul

So Ron Paul’s record fundraising haul has rattled the cubicles on 17th Street, forcing the Weekly Standard to run a hit piece on him, offering the limp zinger that he’s the “don’t tase me, bro” candidate, named for the fellow who got zapped at a John Kerry event earlier this year*.

It’s not surprising that the neocons hate Ron Paul, for his policy views, of course, but it also seems likely that they’re envious. As Cato’s president Ed Crane and chairman Bill Niskanen pointed out over four years ago

The neoconservative agenda is a particular threat to liberty perhaps greater than the ideologically spent ideas of left-liberalism. Always a movement of bright intellectual leaders, neoconservatism has mostly been a movement with a head but no body. One rarely runs into a neocon on the street.

That’s what makes it so obvious that the Standard’s lament that

Paul supporters organized the event on their own with minimal coordination with the campaign.

is an apt reflection of their envy that an unlikely fellow like Paul has had such a genuinely grassroots groundswell of support, and has been pushed forward by his supporters rather than attempting to cajole them into line. It’s equally funny that an ostensibly conservative magazine criticizes his views not just on foreign policy, but grouses that

He hates the Iraq war. He hates the rest of our foreign policy. He pretty much thinks we shouldn’t have a foreign policy. He hates our bloated and meddlesome federal government. (What’s that they say about stuck clocks?) He hates abortion. He hates the Treasury and floating currency.

That sounds fairly conservative to me. But it’s funny to see the Standard squirm at the realization that the ideas of peace and freedom are rousing the electorate.

*[Update: A reader advises that the tasing incident took place at a John Kerry speaking engagement earlier this year, not in 2004. I regret the error.]

Arabic Lamp of Liberty Re-Lit!

Arabs have had almost no access to the literature and the ideas of liberty….until now. The Misbah al Hurriyya (“Lamp of Liberty”) project of the Cato Institute is bringing Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, Ludwig von Mises, F. A. Hayek, Milton Friedman, and many more thinkers to the Arab public. The team behind the Lamp of Liberty, notably Editor Fadi Haddadin and Business and Promotions Manager Ghaleb Hijazi, have outdone themselves with a newly redesigned website for the project: www.misbahalhurriyya.org.

It’s got more than a new look, though. Now you can see the incredible success of Ghaleb’s syndication of hundreds of articles to the Arab press, find information on Misbah al Hurriyya books, including John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, Ludwig von Mises’s Economic Policy, F. A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, Johan Norberg’s In Defense of Global Capitalism, and the Economic Freedom of the World Report, and browse through hundreds of studies, articles, and essays. The site also features Mudawwanat al Hurriyya (“Blog of Liberty”), an interactive map of economic freedom (in the bottom left corner), policy debates, video streaming of interviews, online books, and much, much more.

Even those who can’t read Arabic will appreciate the ingenuity and brilliant design of the site. And when you know that it’s presenting a positive alternative to the violence, oppression, and poverty that have plagued so much of the Middle East and North Africa, you will know that the positive attractions of what Adam Smith called “the simple system of natural liberty” – rather than more violence and military force – are a powerful response to the ideas of statism and intolerance. Ideas aren’t generally defeated with mere force; ultimately, it takes another idea.

The re-designed Arabic Lamp of Liberty will be joined soon by its Kurdish [www.chiraiazadi.org] and Persian [www.cheragehazadi.org] sister projects. They’re all part of Cato’s Center for Promotion of Human Rights family of projects, including the existing Spanish [www.elcato.org] and Russian [www.cato.ru] projects (each with books, podcasts, websites, and more) and forthcoming Portuguese, Azeri, French, and African (in English, French, and Portuguese) initiatives. Ten team members of the African initiative will meet in Tanzania at the African Resource Bank meeting in a few weeks. Anyone who’s interested in supporting the promotion of libertarian ideas and policies around the world should contact the Institute. (Any funds specified for a particular language or region will be spent only on works in that language or region.)

America’s Future Foundation Panel on Health Care

Last month, I spoke on an AFF panel on health care reform. Click here to listen to the podcast.

It was a good exploration of the health care debate taking place within the free-market movement, and a good companion to my recent National Review Online article where I offer friendly advice to conservatives wrestling with health care reform.

Why the Mechanisms of Inequality Matter

Atlantic blogger Matthew Yglesias argues that it doesn’t matter why income inequality is increasing. According to Matt, as long as higher top tax rates and more downward redistribution won’t much hurt economic performance, then we ought to just go ahead and raise taxes and increase transfers, never mind the mechanisms of rising inequality.

Oftentimes, though, liberals act as if the thing that needs to be done is to prove somehow that inequality has exploded because people are in some sense “cheating” – so you get these long stories about corporate governance and corrupt compensation committees, etc. The problem here, though, is that even if this is true, it could still also be true that the cure – policy interventions into the operation of the market – would be worse than the disease. And, conversely, if you could prove that the rise in inequality was all above board – really was driven entirely by globalization and technological change – nothing about that causal analysis would debunk the idea that we ought to make our tax system more progressive.

The relevant debate isn’t about how we got here, it’s about what would happen if we tried to change things. Some people, of course, think changing things would be immoral. Indeed, there are some people I know who adhere to the bizarre view that one source of injustice in the contemporary United States is that our richest citizens aren’t rich enough. But beyond those people, you have a lot of people who take the view that raising taxes would have dire economic consequences, whereas lowering them would have large benefits. That’s the only debate that really matters in this regard. If the costs to the non-rich of higher taxes on the rich would be small (as I believe), then higher taxes on the rich to provide more benefits to the non-rich makes sense irrespective of why inequality has grown so much whereas if the costs would be high then it doesn’t make sense – again, completely apart from the causal issue.

I think Matt and I agree that the pattern of national incomes is largely morally irrelevant, but for quite different reasons.

From the classical liberal perspective, if today’s pattern is less equal than yesterday’s, but both patterns emerged from billions of individual transactions, each one of which took place on terms agreeable to the parties involved, then there is really nothing left over to evaluate morally. The relevant questions about the distribution of the gains from trade have already been settled in both cases.

Additionally, once we notice that many of these billions of transactions take place between parties of different nationalities – Americans trading with Canadians trading with Chinese, etc. – it becomes obvious that it is extra arbitrary to focus on national patterns of income, as if the nation were a giant factory with profits in need of equitable distribution. Many liberals, even extremely gifted professional liberal economists like Paul Krugman, seem congenitally incapable of thinking carefully about why nation-level equality matters, partly due to the blithe assumption of a fundamentally fallacious economic nationalism that afflicts both popular politics and academic economics.

That said, many welfare liberals are at some level quite sensitive to the fact that if the pattern of national incomes emerged from fair processes, then the argument for taking some people’s money and giving it to others is extremely weak. That is why many of Matt’s fellow travelers are keen to show that the pattern of incomes did not emerge from fair processes. The emphasis in some quarters on the importance of unions is a good example. If you think that strong unions are required to bargain laborers a fair share of their firms’ profits, and that the power of unions has eroded, then it will be natural to think that labor is now receiving an unfairly low wage, which will likely be reflected in nation-level inequality measures. In this case it should be obvious why this mechanism of rising inequality matters: because it matters for both morality and policy. If the problem is labor’s diminishing share of profits due to diminishing bargaining power, then the appropriate response will be measures designed to improve the bargaining position of unions. An increase in taxes and transfers will simply miss the structural cause for moral concern.

I take it (both from his blogging and from personal conversation) that Matt is some kind of utilitarian who really couldn’t care less about matters of fairness or justice – or equality. What Matt cares about is utility. The reason Matt thinks we ought to redistribute “irrespective of why inequality has grown so much,” is simply that he doesn’t care about inequality per se, and so he doesn’t care what caused it. He just suspects that if it were lower, national utility would be higher. If the marginal utility of money is greater for people with less money than for people with more, then we should take money from people with more and give it to people with less, period. Whether or not people acquired their money through fair processes, whether or not they are entitled to it, or have some “right” to it, is simply irrelevant to the question of whether someone ought to take it away from them and give it someone else.

But surely Matt understands that the inability of utilitarianism to acknowledge principled constraints on the way people may use one another is the main reason why most moral philosophers believe utilitarianism to be false. Perhaps Matt thinks these philosophers confused. But if so, then they share their confusion with most Americans, who also don’t believe utility maximization is a good justification for the appropriation of their property. As a matter of practical politics, philosophers don’t matter, but the public does. Which is why Yglesias-style utilitarian arguments for redistribution are non-starters in American politics, while arguments based in structural unfairness have the potential to be powerfully persuasive. If the system is rigged at a deep level against some people, then some redistribution may seem like a good way of balancing the scales. As matter of practical politics, his welfare liberal colleagues are right to keep sniffing around for “cheating” in the system.

Now, as I like to point out, the problem with structural injustice is structural injustice, not the nation-level inequality it may help produce as a side-effect. Which is why I think national Gini coefficients are a distraction, and why programs that lower the national Gini coefficient simply by moving money around make it all-too-easy to ignore the real, hard problems. I suppose a virtue of Matt’s argument for redistribution is that it doesn’t even pretend to be fixing a problem.