Topic: Political Philosophy

Free Markets, Limited Government, and the Arab World

Today is the second day of the Economic Freedom of the World network meeting in Beirut, at which Cato has an international presence. (The conference is organized by our good friends at the Fraser Institute of Canada and the Jordan office of Germany’s Friedrich Naumann Foundation.)

My colleagues Ghaleb Hijazi and Fadi Haddadin brought from Jordan the beautifully printed and bound full Arabic edition of the Economic Freedom of the World report. The Arabic edition (which will soon be available online) is beautiful and really impressive. They also distributed for the first time the new brochures for Misbahalhurriyya.org, Cato’s Arabic libertarian website and publishing service, as well as other products for Arabic readers. We got a preview yesterday of a series that they helped to produce with Al Jazeera on examples of successful free-market entrepreneurship in the Arab world. They’ll be run on television over the next month.

One of my colleagues gave a really interesting presentation that looked at the roots of Arab economic stagnation, during which he used data to show that it’s not religion, it’s not ethnicity, and it’s not even oil — it’s state-owned oil monopolies that have been responsible since the 1970s for lagging economic performance in the Arab world. (In particular, his data on the difference between Arab OPEC members and Arab non-OPEC members were quite interesting.)

A number of foreign participants, as well as a lot of the Lebanese participants – notably the government ministers – had to cancel their participation in the conference due to security concerns, but for those who did come, it all seems rather peaceful. (On the other hand, given the recent attempts to bring down the government through extra-electoral means, if I were a Lebanese minister, I might not go to a lot of public events, either.) Today’s sessions are focused on auditing the performance of Arab governments and identifying and reducing or eliminating barriers to trade, obstacles to entrepreneurship, and so on.

I walked with some of the other participants (from Turkey, Poland, Russia, Georgia, Jordan, and Canada) to visit the Hezbollah camp in front of the prime minister’s office last night. It was quite an interesting experience. (I posted some photos on my personal website of posters with Hugo Chavez and Hezbollah’s Nasrallah, which seemed popular there.)

This afternoon and over the next few days my colleagues and I will be meeting with newspapers and publishing houses.

Why Rawls is Great!

A few friends and colleagues have asked me why I think Rawls and not, say, Nozick, was the best political philosopher of the 20th Century. What kind of libertarian am I to think that? Well, I certainly think Nozick gets the conclusions right. But I truly think A Theory of Justice is an incredibly rich and profound book that lays out an extremely compelling method for evaluating the moral desirability of basic social and political institutions. Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia is in my opinion one of the most, if not the most, compelling, creative, and pyrotechnically brilliant pieces of extended reasoning in all of 20th Century philosophy. But it famously begins with an unsupported assumption of John Locke-style individual rights. If you don’t accept the assumption, the argument just doesn’t get going.

Rawls, I think, offers a compelling way of justifying something like rights as side-constraints. Now, I don’t think many of Rawls’ conclusions follow from his intermediate premises. For instance, Rawls’ does not take sufficiently seriously his own claim for the moral priority of his First Principle of Justice, “each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others,” over his Second Principle, that inequality in the “distribution” of “primary goods” is justified only if it benefits the least well-off class of citizens. Additionally, even if one accepts Rawls’ second principle (I think it is too strong), his conclusions about how it justifies certain institutions of the modern welfare state don’t follow, given what is known, empirically and theoretically, about economics and political economy. Nevertheless, I think Rawls’ theoretical framework is very close to the right one, and that is an enormous achievement. My own view is very close to that of Richard Epstein in his remembrance of Rawls in the National Review:

The great irony here is that the Rawlsian construct in the end supplies, I believe, the strong intellectual foundation for a political system with which he had only scant affinities: classical liberalism, with strong property rights and limited government. The irony is even greater when Rawls’s work is conjoined with Nozick’s, for the latter recoiled from the formal procedures so championed by Rawls, and used ingenious, if intuitive, arguments to defend the primacy of individual autonomy and private property even though, with the benefit of hindsight, these are more strongly defended by an astute application of the veil-of-ignorance technology.

I think Epstein (and most everyone) over-emphasizes the importance of the “veil of ignorance” in Rawls’ system, but I think he’s close to the bullseye.

It’s worth noting that Hayek himself endorsed the broad outlines of Rawls’ basic theoretical framework. From Law, Legislation, and Liberty, Volume 2: The Mirage of Social Justice, p. 100, Hayek writes:

… there unquestionably … exists a genuine problem of justice in connection with the deliberate design of political institutions, the problem to which Professor John Rawls has recently devoted an important book. [Vol 2 of LL&L was published in 1976.] The fact that I regret and regard as confusing is merely that in this connection he employs the term ’social justice’. But I have no basic quarrel with an author who, before he proceeds to that problem, acknowledges that the task of selecting specific systems or distributions of desired things as just must be “abandoned as mistaken in principle, and it is, in any case, not capable of a definite answer. Rather the principles of justice define the crucial constraints which institutions and joint activities must satisfy if persons engaging in them are to have no complaints about them. If these constraints are satisfied, the resulting distribution, whatever it is, may be accepted as just (or at least not unjust).” This is more or less what I have been trying to argue in this chapter.

Hayek’s claim that the idea of “social justice” is a kind of category error is right on. The pattern of holdings that arise from voluntary cooperative exchange according to just rules is not itself a subject of moral evaluation, and the attempt to “correct” the pattern according to some moral principle requires rules of social interaction that are unjust–a point Nozick makes with great force and lucidity in his section on “How Liberty Upsets Patterns” in Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Rawls’ waffles on this point, distinguishing between “distribution,” which he takes to be the emergent outcome of interaction according to the rules of the “basic structure” of a society’s institutions, and “allocation,” the coercive redistribution of holdings. Rawls claims to be concerned with distribution in this sense, but it’s pretty clear he’s often attempting to justify broad “allocative” powers for the state.

Nevetheless, the depth and scope of what Rawls gets right is incredible. Join that to the fact that his later major work, Political Liberalism–a profound and innovative meditation on the meaning of liberal neutrality in pluralistic societies–has a fairly straightforward libertarian reading (despite his protestations to the contrary), and I think Rawls takes the laurels. Of course, these judgments are complex and depend on how heavily one weighs various valuable aspects of philosophical works, so others might reasonably come to different conclusions. But I think my judgment here is on pretty solid ground.

Special bonus! Who are the greatest political philosophers of the past few centuries, according to my idiosyncratic judgment? 19th C.: Herbert Spencer (maybe the most unjustly maligned thinker ever) by a hair over J.S. Mill and Henry Sidgwick. 18th C.: David Hume over Adam Smith by a nose. 17th C.: Thomas Hobbes by a nose over John Locke, for reasons similar to Rawls vs. Nozick. I also think the Rolling Stones were better than the Beatles.

Is Rawlsekianism the Future?

I see the man every day, but today I can’t go two mouse clicks through the political opinion thinkosphere without tripping over Brink Lindsey, Cato’s own VP for research, and his article on liberal-libertarian fusionism in this week’s New Republic. [Free version at Cato.] Sebastian Mallaby features Brink’s piece in his Washington Post column yesterday, though I think misses the intended audience.

Lindsey is not merely joining the large crowd of disenchanted conservatives who believe that the Republican Party has betrayed its principles – spraying money at farmers, building bridges to nowhere and presiding over the fastest ramp-up in federal spending since Lyndon Johnson. Rather, Lindsey is taking a step further, arguing that libertarians should ditch the Republican Party in favor of the Democrats.

Since the New Republic doesn’t have much of a libertarian readership, I’m pretty sure Brink wasn’t so much saying that libertarians ought to jilt the GOP as he was trying to open up a serious dialogue between libertarians and TNR’s centrist Democrats on our common ground as liberals. The project Brink mentions, melding the best of Rawls and Hayek and identifying feasible policies of a Rawlsekian stripe, is very dear to my heart. The point of my 2005 Cato social security paper was precisely to show that Rawlsian liberal moral concerns are best served by relying on the kinds of market dynamics Hayek’s work illuminated.

Rawls and Hayek were, in my estimation, the greatest social/political thinkers of the 20th Century. Rawls understood markets better than he is given credit for, but no one understood markets better than Hayek. And Hayek was a first-rate political philosopher, but Rawls was king of that hill. If you fortify Rawls’ theory of justice with a Hayekian grasp of the coordinating function of prices, and the dynamics of spontaneous order (or fortify Hayek with Rawls’ rather more intelligible normative framework), you will arrive, as Brink argues in less esoteric terms, at something like a system that gives free rein to the informational and dynamically equilibrating function of market prices, while creating a framework for well-targeted and effective social insurance that mitigates counterproductive incentives. Like Brink, I think this synthesis, when followed fairly to the end, approaches canonical libertarianism more closely than moderate Democrats are comfortable with. But there is a coherent and attractive intellectual position in this neighborhood, and there is more than enough overlap between liberals and libertarians for genuine productive conversation that could generate real political results.

Many bloggers seem to be fixated on the immediate political feasibility of libertarian/liberal fusionism. But I think this misses the point. Feasibility is in part a function of the availability of a well-developed and broadly understood position, and a grasp of the kind of policy that follows from it. Fixating on the status quo balance of interest groups is a great way to go nowhere, or just to drift with the waxing and waning of constituencies wedded to superannuated ideas. I think Brink has opened an important conversation for liberals of all stripes genuinely concerned with helping people successfully exercise their autonomy and lead satisfying, dignified lives. I hope both libertarians and liberals will take seriously the opportunity of learning something from one another, and perhaps discover ideas that can get us closer to our shared goals.

Don’t Know Much about Friedman

It took a little more than a fortnight for someone to appropriate the legacy of Milton Friedman in support of something that the Nobel Laureate probably would have opposed. 

In an article for National Review Online, former Speaker Newt Gingrich and his associate David Merritt call on the nation to “Renew Milton Friedman’s Conservatism.”  Whether chosen by the authors or the editors, that title betrays that someone missed Friedman’s point entirely.  In 1975, an interviewer asked Friedman whether it was fair to describe him as a “conservative economist.”  Here was Friedman’s response:

I never characterize myself as a conservative economist. As I understand the English language, conservative means conserving, keeping things as they are. I don’t want to keep things as they are. The true conservatives today are the people who are in favor of ever bigger government. The people who call themselves liberals today – the New Dealers – they are the true conservatives, because they want to keep going on the same path we’re going on. I would like to dismantle that. I call myself a liberal in the true sense of liberal, in the sense in which it means (inaudible) and pertaining to freedom.

Even more jarring is a policy proposal that the authors seem to associate with Friedman.  Gingrich and Merritt write:

We can transform health and health care to deliver more choices of greater quality at lower costs to every American. And government has a role to play. It can and should build an electronic infrastructure, much like government builds public school buildings.

I see two problems here.  First, Friedman often argued that it would be far preferable were government to stop providing education and instead just finance it.  That suggests he saw no need for government to build the schools.  Second, if Friedman ever took a stand on government provision of health information technologies such as electronic medical records, the lack of which is often regarded as a market failure, I’m not aware of it.  However, I have to suspect that left-leaning economist Brad DeLong more closely captured Friedman’s views on the subject when he wrote:

[Friedman] believed…that where markets failed there were almost always enormous profit opportunities from entrepreneurial redesign of institutions; and that the market system would create new opportunities for trade that would route around market failures.

That view is hardly supportive of having the feds provide health information technologies.

Gingrich and Merritt do not completely misappropriate Friedman’s legacy.  They do argue for a few free-market health care and education proposals. 

Genetic Engineering: The Eugenics of Tomorrow?

I received a request today to comment on the possible dangers of genetic engineering. Michael Crichton’s latest book, Next, explores some of the horrors eugenics could bring, such as the mixing of animal and human DNA. Here are some of my thoughts:

Isaac Asimov, another great science fiction writer, said, “If knowledge can create problems, it is not through ignorance that we can solve them.” 

It is impossible to estimate, let alone know, the balance of good or evil that scientific knowledge will bring. In everything humans do, they are daunted by the principle of unintended consequences, but the answer is not to stop looking for answers. The pursuit of knowledge is the only true path to improving the human condition, yet there are almost as many views on what knowledge should be pursued as there are pursuers. The answer is to proceed cautiously, allowing small steps and small corrections, so with time the truth will show itself.

The best way to ensure caution is to keep government out of the pursuit of knowledge, whether scientific or otherwise. In the private sector, endeavors are supported only by those who believe they are ethical and worthwhile. The more extreme and outlandish the idea, the less likely it is to receive support. When mistakes are made on a small scale, they have small scale effects. Governments, which are run by individuals no less fallible than the rest of humanity, are influenced by bad ideas as much as by good ones. But, unlike the individual mad scientist with a small group of supporters, government mistakes loom larger than life — its policies affect the lives of whole populations.

In the beginning of the 20th century, eugenics was touted as the answer to all of humanity’s problems. Great scientists such as Alexander Graham Bell and Carol Campbell Brigham at first supported eugenics, as did every U.S. president between 1901 and 1933. Many people all over the world worked hard both in their private lives and through government policy to implement its principles. 

Individuals had their own ideas about improving the human gene pool by marrying only superior specimens of humanity. If the eugenics movement had resulted in nothing more than discriminatory marriage practices, the word “eugenics” wouldn’t represent anything more than a silly fad. The reason eugenics has become almost synonymous with mass sterilizations and genocide is because governments got involved.

Genetic engineering may be the answer to many of humanity’s problems or it may be the next eugenics. Let’s keep government out of science and let the advances and mistakes take place in small steps so that humanity can learn from scientific successes and failures on a realistic scale. Only with government intervention do potential mishaps become disastrous tragedies.

New Mexico: Land of Dependence

Found on a New Mexico state web site…

My father-in-law runs the Santa Fe chapter of Habitat for Humanity, a voluntary charity that measures success in terms of how many people it helps to achieve financial independence.  Odd that the state government appears to take pride in doing the opposite. 

The Free Lunch Project may have found its new home.  Crescit eundo, indeed.

Freedom is Breaking Out all Over

Being a libertarian means you’re often the entertainment at cocktail parties.  ‘Let’s have Jim tell us why there should be no traffic lights!  It’ll be a riot!’

Now comes word that seven cities and regions in Europe are doing away with traffic lights and signs - indeed with most traffic regulations.

“The many rules strip us of the most important thing: the ability to be considerate. We’re losing our capacity for socially responsible behavior,” says Dutch traffic guru Hans Monderman, one of the project’s co-founders. “The greater the number of prescriptions, the more people’s sense of personal responsibility dwindles.”

Psychologists have long revealed the senselessness of such exaggerated regulation. About 70 percent of traffic signs are ignored by drivers. What’s more, the glut of prohibitions is tantamount to treating the driver like a child and it also foments resentment. He may stop in front of the crosswalk, but that only makes him feel justified in preventing pedestrians from crossing the street on every other occasion. Every traffic light baits him with the promise of making it over the crossing while the light is still yellow.

“Unsafe is safe”

The result is that drivers find themselves enclosed by a corset of prescriptions, so that they develop a kind of tunnel vision: They’re constantly in search of their own advantage, and their good manners go out the window.

The new traffic model’s advocates believe the only way out of this vicious circle is to give drivers more liberty and encourage them to take responsibility for themselves.

I first read about the weakness of traffic regulation in Regulation magazine and was reminded of the concept by a recent post on TechDirt which seems to have stirred some passion given the 100+ comments.

I’m entirely in favor of a deregulated, human-oriented traffic system - though I am slightly concerned about it diminishing my entertainment value at cocktail parties.