Topic: Political Philosophy

Sunstein, Hayek, and Wikipedia

University of Chicago law professor Cass Sunstein may not be among libertarians’ favorite thinkers, but Sunstein is, in his own way, a strong advocate of individual liberty and free markets.

Hayek fans will enjoy Sunstein’s op-ed in today’s Washington Post, in which he describes how individuals are using computer-age technology to aggregate information. A snippet:

Developing one of the most important ideas of the 20th century, Nobel Prize-winning economist Friedrich Hayek attacked socialist planning on the grounds that no planner could possibly obtain the “dispersed bits” of information held by individual members of society. Hayek insisted that the knowledge of individuals, taken as a whole, is far greater than that of any commission or board, however diligent and expert. The magic of the system of prices and of economic markets is that they incorporate a great deal of diffuse knowledge.

Wikipedia’s entries are not exactly prices, but they do aggregate the widely dispersed information of countless volunteer writers and editors. In this respect, Wikipedia is merely one of many experiments in aggregating knowledge and creativity that have been made possible by new technologies.

Sunstein’s op-ed goes on to discuss intriguing experiments with events futures, which should delight Cato friend Robin Hanson:

But wikis are merely one way to assemble dispersed knowledge. The number of prediction markets has also climbed over the past decade. These markets aggregate information by inviting people to “bet” on future events — the outcome of elections, changes in gross domestic product, the likelihood of a natural disaster or an outbreak of avian flu.

The Economist or The Statist?

A blogger at The Economist has been furiously scratching his head in response to my earlier posts on evolution, trying to understand how an evolutionist such as myself could oppose government mandated instruction in this (and every other) field. I’d like to offer some answers, and at least one factual correction.

First, the correction. The anonymous Economist blogger writes: “We live in a democracy, and most people want their children to be taught scientific truth, or more properly, scientific method.”

In some areas, like elementary physics, that’s undoubtedly true. And I’d be delighted if it were true across the board. It is not. As the polling data I have previously cited demonstrate, either a plurality or an outright majority of Americans (depending on the poll) believe human beings were created by God, in their current form. Most of the rest believe we evolved under God’s guidance. Furthermore, a strong majority of Americans would like to see, at the very least, creationism taught alongside evolution (many probably do not want evolution taught at all – but that option wasn’t offered in the poll question). These beliefs and preferences are not consistent with the teaching of evolutionary theory as understood by the overwhelming majority of biologists.

So the first of my earlier points remains: instruction in a purely naturalistic view of evolution is NOT desired by the majority of the American public, and because the majority has considerable influence over school policy, the teaching of evolution has been hobbled and sidelined in many public schools for generations.

Next, The Economist blogger devises an imaginative but mistaken explanation for my position:

The only way I can make sense of Mr. Coulson’s position is as a form of surrender to fundamentalist Christians: “I don’t agree with you, but I don’t want to upset you, so here’s a compromise whereby I contort my views to support your position.”

The Economist confuses respect for liberty with “surrender.” Recognizing the right of our fellow citizens to disagree with us is a pillar of free societies. That is the insight behind Voltaire’s famous line: ”I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” To anyone who grasps the importance of that principle, no ideological “contortions” are necessary to defend the right of families to make their own educational decisions.

It is troubling that so much of today’s intellectual elite seems to have forgotten the crucial role of individual liberty.

There is also a gross contradiction between the lip service given to the limits of scientific knowledge and the desire to see such knowledge established like a state religion.

While the blogger catches himself in the quote above, moderating the term “scientific truth” with “or more properly, scientific method,” he slips later on, rhetorically asking: “Should the teaching of the truth not be compulsory in education?” [emphasis added]

Here he leaves “the truth” unmodified. We KNOW what the truth is, he seems to say, why SHOULDN’T we force everyone to listen to the Good Word?

But anyone serious about science understands that scientific knowledge is provisional. Induction, on which science rests, is incapable of identifying Truth with a capital ‘T’. Science is by far the best tool we have for making sense of the world, but it isn’t a Truth machine. The rational thing to do is to treat what we learn through science as useful working assumptions – as the best approximation to Truth that we can find. Science, well practiced, is humble.

Statist rationalists are not. They want to compel everyone to be taught the methods and provisional conclusions of science, and that is precisely the opposite of what scientist and philosopher Jacob Bronowski so wisely encouraged us to do. Bronowski exhorted us to imbue politics with the empiricism – and more importantly, the humility – of science. He felt that by keeping in mind the imperfection of all human knowledge we could avoid the absolutism and totalitarianism that brought so much death and suffering in the mid-20th century.

But instead of moderating governments by injecting them with the circumspection of science, rationalist statists seek to inject the absolutism and compulsion of government mandates into the teaching of science.

Before continuing down that unsavory road, I hope that The Economist will pause to consider how a free market in education could advance quality science instruction, show greater respect for the limits of scientific knowledge, and comport better with the founding principles of the United States.

And if they’d like someone to do that, or to debate Dawkins on the merits of compulsory instruction in evolution, I’ll be happy to help. There are areas in which the state must demand conformity, such as adherence to a body of basic laws, but uniformity in the teaching of human origins serves no such essential role in the perpetuation of a free society. On the contrary, granting the state the power to decide and proselytize the “Truth” is a danger to free societies.

The Republican Future

In today’s Washington Examiner, I have a column on future directions for the Republican party. One point:

Republicans need to look to the future: Younger voters are more likely to be libertarian, more likely to accept gay marriage, and more likely to have voted Democratic in 2006.

Republicans need to reach them before the Democrats lock them in. They can do that with an optimistic, inclusive message of liberating people from the dead hand of the federal bureaucracy — a smaller and less intrusive federal government, encouragement of enterprise and economic growth, a government that respects but doesn’t embrace religion, and a de-escalation of the culture wars.

Amazing Grace, How Sweet the Story

Amazing Grace is a beautiful song, but I’ve never been entirely comfortable with it. I didn’t like that line “saved a wretch like me.” I don’t think I’m a wretch. Nor are most of my friends.

But once I learned the story behind the song (with a little help from my friends at the Mackinac Center), I became more sympathetic: John Newton, who wrote Amazing Grace, really was a wretch. Now a new movie is going to bring that story to millions of people.

John Newton was a slave trader and by his own testimony an infidel. He was converted to Christianity but continued in the slave trade. Eventually, however, he renounced that vile life and became an evangelical minister in the Church of England and an abolitionist. “Was blind but now I see,” indeed.

Among the people who heard his preaching was a young member of parliament, William Wilberforce, who was inspired to lead a long campaign for the abolition of slavery – from his maiden speech in 1789 to the final passage of the Abolition Act a month after his death in 1833.

This is one of the greatest stories in history. And now it is the subject of an impressive new movie. I’ve only seen the trailer, but the production values are obviously good, and I’m told that the movie is great. Michael Apted directed. Ioan Gruffudd (best known as Horatio Hornblower) plays Wilberforce. It also features the fine British actors Albert Finney, Rufus Sewell, Ciaran Hinds, Michael Gambon, and Toby Jones. It opens on February 23.

The story of Newton, Wilberforce, abolition, and Amazing Grace is very popular among evangelical Christians. It’s an unambiguous advance for human freedom and dignity in which evangelicals played central roles. And that’s why the movie is produced by Bristol Bay Productions (owned by Philip Anschutz, a billionaire conservative) which also produced Ray. Anschutz owns another film company which produced The Chronicles of Narnia.

If God’s amazing grace caused John Newton to give up slave trading, then who could object? But you don’t have to be a Christian to appreciate what promises to be a well-made movie about this great triumph of liberty.

And for those of us who struggle in the vineyards year after year, trying to secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, the story reminds us that humanity has made great progress toward freedom, that each battle for freedom can be long and seemingly futile, but that the goal is worth time and money and effort.

I was once challenged by a Chicago School economist, who thinks everything can be measured, to name the most important libertarian accomplishment in history. I said it was the abolition of slavery. OK, name another, he replied. “The bringing of power under the rule of law,” I suggested. He wanted to know how you would measure that. But even without a caliper we can see the importance of that accomplishment. We can also see that neither of these is yet a final victory.

May Amazing Grace inspire us to continue working, as long as it takes, to liberate men and women from the arbitrary rule of others and to constrain power with the chains of law.

Cross-posted from Comment is free.

Friedman or Plato?

As noted earlier, today is Milton Friedman Day.  My modest contribution is this essay.

I call this the Fundamental Problem of Political Economy. How do we limit the power that idiots have over us?

One solution, that might be traced to the expression “philosopher-king” associated with Plato, is to hand the reins of government to the best and the brightest. Since the late 19th-century, the Progressive Movement in American politics has championed this approach…

The other way to avoid having our lives run by idiots is to limit the power that others have over us. This is the approach that was embedded in our Constitution, before it was eviscerated by the Progressives. It is the approach for which Milton Friedman was a passionate advocate.

Milton Friedman Day

Milton FriedmanDr. Milton Friedman, who passed away last November at the age of 94, was perhaps the most influential economist of the 20th Century and a champion of liberty. To honor Dr. Friedman, today has been declared Milton Friedman Day – “a celebration of the economist’s positive impact on American life and business, and the spread of the benefits of free markets to nations around the globe.” At 10pm EST tonight, PBS will premiere “The Power of Choice: The Life and Ideas of Milton Friedman,” an exclusive documentary on the remarkable life and free market vision of Milton Friedman. The special, produced for PBS by Free to Choose Media, gives viewers a new understanding of the magnitude of this legendary economist’s influence on the modern world.

The United States Owes Hillary Clinton a Debt

Hillary Clinton’s announcement of her presidential bid has evoked several news stories predicting the demise of the presidential public financing system.

In Buckley v. Valeo, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that spending limits violated the First Amendment. The same decision, however, said that the government could impose spending limits in exchange for public financing of a campaign. The presidential system enacted just after Watergate provided public funding for primary campaigns (on a matching basis) and for the general election. The law established equal spending limits and prohibited private fundraising for the general presidential election for the major party candidates.

McCain-Feingold is also part of this story. That 2002 law liberalized contribution limits a bit which made it easier for strong candidates like Hillary Clinton to raise more money privately than she would receive from the public funding scheme. Of course, she could accept public funding and forego the larger sums she might raise privately. However, her competitors for the nomination – say, Barack Obama or John Edwards – might also be able to raise more money privately, and they would do so to gain an edge in the primaries over Sen.Clinton. The same might well be true of the Republican candidate in the general election. If Sen. Clinton took the public funding and its spending limits, she would be outspent by the GOP nominee. Given all these considerations, Sen. Clinton has decided to forego public funding. Any serious candidate for the presidency in 2008 is likely to make the same decision.

Too much political analysis, you might say. After all, didn’t Congress create the public financing system to prevent corruption of candidates or “level the playing field” for outsiders?  The members of Congress who created public funding ascribed such noble and moral ends to their effort. But the actual purposes of the system were rather less noble and more partisan.

From 1960 to 1974 – the year public funding was created – the Democratic presidential candidates fell increasingly behind their Republican opponents in fundraising. Remember, the public funding scheme required equal spending by both major party candidates in the general election. The law was, in short, a good solution to the emerging Democratic presidential fundraising gap. In The Fallacy of Campaign Finance Reform, I looked at how this equalization affected the two parties after 1974, assuming the trend in fundraising from 1960 continued to 1992. The public funding law cut projected Republican fundraising (and campaign spending) by 60 percent while imposing no limit on expected Democratic donations or expenditures.

From the start, the presidential public funding system was a raw partisan ploy obscured by a moralistic rhetoric. It worked in the sense that some analysts believe the equalization of funding gave the presidency to Jimmy Carter in 1976. But the system has failed otherwise. It has not increased entry into the party primaries compared to the system it replaced. Public funding has forced taxpayers to support candidates they would not support if they had a choice. For that reason, the system has lost 75 percent of its supporters over the years. Now only about 7 percent of taxpayers check off support for the presidential fund. In 1978, 28 percent did so.

That lack of public support means Congress is unlikely to save the system. In any case, Democratic presidential candidates have drawn even with their GOP counterparts in fundraising. The real, partisan reason for the system no longer exists. Soon the system itself will be the first choice of those who finish last. Surely Congress could find a better use for a few hundred million dollars.