Topic: Political Philosophy

Classical Liberal International Hootenanny

Several hundred friends of liberty have gathered in Guatemala City for the 2006 international meeting of the Mont Pelerin Society.  The Cato Institute is well represented, with numerous Cato authors, adjunct fellows and scholars, officers, board members, and sponsors in attendance.  Right now we’re being treated to a great talk on “Latin American Populism” by the brilliant and insightful Alvaro Vargas Llosa.  The papers are really of a high order and represent a serious intellectual effort by advocates of freedom and limited government to address new and emerging challenges to classical liberalism.  It won’t do just to repeat the same old themes; advocates of individual rights, toleration, free markets, free trade, and limited government have to address new issues and to engage our critics fairly and squarely.  I’m really pleased to see that happening here in Guatemala, among participants who have come from throughout the world, from Mexico and Mongolia, Germany and Ghana, India and Ireland, Jordan and Japan.  (I’ll post a few times on some of the papers and presentations, at least those that strike me as the most interesting.)

Santorum v. the Pursuit of Happiness

I hate to keep picking on Sen. Rick Santorum, but he’s the most articulate and principled opponent of individualism and individual rights since Hillary Clinton first rose to prominence. I noted previously the NPR interview in which he rejected “this whole idea of personal autonomy, … this idea that people should be left alone”:

This whole idea of personal autonomy, well I don’t think most conservatives hold that point of view. Some do. They have this idea that people should be left alone, be able to do whatever they want to do, government should keep our taxes down and keep our regulations low, that we shouldn’t get involved in the bedroom, we shouldn’t get involved in cultural issues. You know, people should do whatever they want. Well, that is not how traditional conservatives view the world and I think most conservatives understand that individuals can’t go it alone. That there is no such society that I am aware of, where we’ve had radical individualism and that it succeeds as a culture.

Now Andrew Sullivan directs our attention to a television interview from the same time last year in which the senator from the home state of Benjamin Franklin and James Wilson denounces America’s Founding idea of “the pursuit of happiness.” If you watch the video, you can hear these classic hits: “This is the mantra of the left: I have a right to do what I want to do” and “We have a whole culture that is focused on immediate gratification and the pursuit of happiness … and it is harming America.”

Santorum has done some good things in the Senate, such as supporting Social Security reform. But conservatives should call him out when he denounces individualism, personal autonomy, and the pursuit of happiness.

The Great Chain of Status?

Last week Henry Farrell over at Crooked Timber objected to the key point of my recent article in Policy (related Cato podcast here), which is that status-seeking need not be a zero-sum game, because there are indefinite dimensions of status competition. (And therefore, the government need do nothing to mitigate the alleged harm of status competition.) It is true that there can only be one winner of every race, but there is no cap on the number or kind of races. The greater the number and variety of races, the more likely it is that everybody will be able to find one in which they can win, place, or at least show. Henry replies:

Wilkinson’s claim implies, unless I misunderstand him badly, that it doesn’t matter very much to me if I’m a despised cubicle rat who can’t afford a nice car and gets sneered at by pretty girls, because when I go home and turn on my PC, I suddenly become a level 75 Night Elf Rogue who Kicks Serious Ass! Now this example is loaded – but it’s loaded to demonstrate a serious sociological point that Wilkinson doesn’t even begin to address. These indefinitely proliferating dimensions of status competition are connected to each other in their own implicit meta-ranking, which is quite well understood by all involved. Being a world-class scrabble-player isn’t likely to win you much respect among people who aren’t themselves competitive scrabble-players; the best you can expect is that someone will write a book that pokes fun at your gastro-intestinal problems . It’s a very different matter if you’re a world class soccer player; you’re liable to be invited to all sorts of fun parties, hit upon by beautiful people, stalked by the paparazzi and the whole shebang. Being a world class blogger is somewhere between the two, albeit certainly much closer to the scrabble-player than the soccer star. Even if you’re king of your own mountain, you’re likely to be quite well aware of the other mountains around you that make yours look in comparison like a low-grade class of a gently sloping foothill, or perhaps even a slightly upraised knob in the middle of a steep declination. You’re similarly aware of those less well-advantaged foothills or knoblets whose owners you can look down upon…. In short, people are highly aware of the relative rankings of their obsessions.

I am unmoved.

I anticipated this objection in a very long blog post back in January. Henry’s argument turns on the claim that “These indefinitely proliferating dimensions of status competition are connected to each other in their own implicit meta-ranking, which is quite well understood by all involved.” I think Henry is wrong that there is shared understanding of the meta-ranking and one’s place in it, and I think he is confusing status, in the sense I was writing about, with fame.

I was talking about status as it is experienced. Higher status correlates with higher concentrations of serotonin, for example, not necessarily because of some objective feature of the world, but because of the subject’s perception (correct or not) of her place in a status hierarchy. Our perception of our place in a status hierarchy is generally constructed from all sort of signals–deference, praise, attention, inattention, mocking–we receive from people in the relevant social group. Henry’s story doesn’t strike me as having anything to do with meta-rankings, but just to do with the fact that at any time there are a number of different status dimensions we care about. If you are, as Henry says, “despised” and “sneered at,” then that may hurt, if you care your status within your office, or with certain pretty girls. But part of my point was that people can and do often arrange their lives to avoid that sort of thing. If they are able to manage it, then the fact that they would be despised and sneered at in other circumstances makes no difference to their status as they experience it.

Here is an example of how I think Henry confuses experienced status and fame. If I am the quarterback of the champion high-school football team in a football-crazy Texas town, my subjective status-meter is likely pegged to the top of the scale. That Peyton Manning is more famous than me, is a better quarterback, makes millions more dollars, and is more likely to impress a random person at a bar, is simply irrelevant. It’s no skin off my back. If I was ever in a room with Peyton Manning, my subjective assessment of my relative standing would no doubt go down. But I’m never in a room with Peyton Manning. In my small pond, I’m a big fish – and I feel like it.

The seminal paper on positional externalities is Robert Frank’s “The Frame of Reference as a Public Good.” I suspect Henry wants to maintain the idea there is a single culture-wide frame of reference against which to evaluate not only our relative position on some dimension of status, but also against which to evaluate the relative position of status dimensions. I think this is exceedingly implausible.

If Henry really thinks there is a widely understood meta-ranking, then he ought to be able to say who is higher-status: Peyton Manning or Chief Justice John Roberts? I happen to think that’s a nonsense question, since there is in fact no common frame of reference against which to compare the status of superstar NFL quarterbacks with superstar judges. Henry is a social democrat political science professor blogger. I’m a libertarian policy wonk blogger. Whose status dimension is higher in the meta-ranking? Obviously, it depends on who you ask. If Henry hangs out with people who confer high status on Henry, and I hang out with people who confer high status on me, then we both experience a sense of high status, and Henry’s doesn’t detract from mine, and vice versa. But suppose, for the sake of argument, that Henry’s dimension is slightly higher in the mysterious zeitgest meta-ranking than mine, but that I rank closer to the top of my dimension. Who’s higher status then? Is the worst player in the NFL higher status than the world’s best Scrabble player? Again: the question is nonsense. There is no common frame of reference.

I’m fully on board with Julian Sanchez’s observation:

I think everyday experience confirms that it’s also emphatically not the case that there is any Great Chain of Being among subcultures. My high school, for instance, was fairly sharply divided into pretty clear cliques with porous but recognizable boundaries. But, contra the 1950s teen movie stereotype, there wasn’t any single ordering of cliques that all of them recognized. Probably the jocks and their hangers on thought it was still 1953, and that they were at the top of the pecking order—the cool kids. But the hippies, the skaters, the computer nerds, the drama kids—they all thought the same thing, ultimately. Just as every faith is the One True Faith to its adherents, every clique is coolest to its members.

The idea that competition for relative position is a zero-sum game that necessarily creates a loser for every winner is the last redoubt of statist egalitarians. The cultural pliability of status, and the fact of our freedom (and responsibility) to opt in and out of status games and to reinterpret the frame of reference against which we judge our lives truly guts the argument. People too often get sucked unwittingly into shiny, culturally salient status races in which we end up suffering, and we too seldom recognize we have the freedom to reevaluate our priorities, and to opt into competing conceptions of a good life better suited to our satisfaction. This is not easy. Once inside a frame of reference for evaluating status, it can be extremely difficult to switch. But it is possible, and it’s much easier if you believe it.

Racing toward Socialism

When Washington Post racing columnist Andrew Beyer says “democracy,” he means “communist country”:

At a time when the populations of Arab countries are seething with resentment against their own leaders, the rulers of Dubai don’t hesitate to engage in self-indulgence on a gargantuan scale. They are unembarrassed that this money is derived from the natural resources of their country – resources that, in a democracy, would belong to the nation.

He’s writing about the use of oil wealth to build a powerful and expensive stable of racehorses. He’s right that in a free society, all that oil wealth wouldn’t belong to a small group of hereditary rulers. But countries that declare that their natural resources “belong to the nation” end up poor countries.

Carrying Liberalization Further

I’m in Tbilisi for our conference on “Freedom, Commerce, and Peace: A Regional Agenda.”  It starts tomorrow evening, but many of the participants are arriving tonight (Tbilisi is a great place, but not the easiest to reach, especially after the Russian government banned all travel between the Russian Federation and Georgia).  What was originally planned for 100 participants has grown to at least 180 (and maybe more).  It’s great to talk to libertarians from so many countries (28 in all) and to feel the excitement for the advancement of freedom.

The keynote speaker tomorrow night will be Nobel Laureate Vernon Smith, who will speak on a topic that has gained greater significance since the Russian blockade on trade and travel with Georgia: “Globalization and Liberty.”  The speakers were chosen for their ability to inspire, as well as for their practical knowledge.  The other banquet speakers will be Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Nogaideli and former Estonian Prime Minister Mart Laar (winner of the Cato Institute’s 2006 Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty).  I’ll be posting occasionally from the conference.

Christian Toleration

I’ve just seen an interesting new book, The Choice Principle: The Biblical Case for Legal Toleration, by Andy G. Olree, who is a graduate of the University of Chicago Law School, where he studied under Richard Epstein and Michael McConnell, and now teaches law at Faulkner University’s Jones School of Law. The book presents an evangelical Christian argument for a legal framework that tolerates most “sinful” choices by individuals.

Olree writes, “The Choice Principle posits that Christians are called to influence law and government in ways that maximize opportunities for human freedom of choice–that is, for individual autonomy.” And he applies that principle in ways that might surprise critics of the religious right, to issues ranging from prostitution and homosexuality to Social Security.

He criticizes Roy Moore, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and James Dobson as “fearmongers” who “simplistically reduce complex societal problems to…the age-old struggle of good versus evil.” But he also takes on more academically serious defenses of enforced morality, devoting an entire chapter to a critique of Princeton professor Robert George’s book Making Men Moral.

Christians and libertarians could learn a lot about each other from reading this book. Or to be more careful with my language: Christian libertarians will find this book an effective presentation of a principle they likely agree with. Non-Christian libertarians and non-libertarian evangelical Christians will find it a provocative challenge.