Topic: Political Philosophy

The Moral Authority of the State

If everyone judged the state and its agents by the same moral standards that they used for ordinary people, then nearly all of us would be libertarians. Judged in this way, essentially all governments behave appallingly.

“Yes,” comes the standard reply, “but we don’t judge governments by the same standards. The state is different, you see.”

Of course, it’s only fair to ask why that might be the case. This month at Cato Unbound, philosopher Michael Huemer does just that, addressing several of the standard reasons why the state purportedly has license to behave very differently from the rest of us. He finds them all lacking in one way or another.

Huemer’s essay draws on his new book, The Problem of Political Authority, in which he addresses nearly all of the most common justifications for treating the state as a moral agent with legitimate powers beyond those of the rest of us. For those who usually shy away from philosophy, Huemer is an intuitionist—he doesn’t build abstract systems of thought, which may or may not be convincing or even comprehensible. He begins instead with common, widely shared intuitions, in the hope that nearly all of us, whether utilitarians, deontologists, virtue ethicists, agnostics, or otherwise, will find his conclusions compelling.

To discuss with him, we’ve recruited a panel of distinguished thinkers of varying persuasions: George Mason economics professor Bryan Caplan, libertarian scholar-activist Tom G. Palmer, and Binghamton University philosophy professor Nicole Hassoun.

As always, Cato Unbound readers are encouraged to take up our themes, and enter into the conversation on their own websites and blogs, or on other venues. We also welcome your letters. Send them to jkuznicki at cato dot org. Selections may be published at the editors’ option.

Whip Illegitimacy Now (WIN)!

You just know a David Brooks column featuring the refrain, “my dream Obama would…” is going to be exasperating. And it is: especially when he suggests that his “dream Obama” could and should:

… talk obsessively about family structure and social repair. Every week we get another statistic showing how social and income inequality is dividing the nation. …. while childhood obesity is falling among kids whose parents graduated from college, it is still rising among kids whose parents have a high school degree or less.

Because of his upbringing, President Obama is uniquely qualified to talk about family structures. Traditional values are an investment in the young, and he could do what he can to restitch the social fabric.

It’ll be tough to “restitch the social fabric” when you need at least one hand free to bend the arc of history, but no doubt President Obama believes he’s up to the task. Still, why does David Brooks think it would help to have the president “talk obsessively about family structure and social repair”?

Barack Obama has been talking obsessively about capital-‘h’ Hope for nearly a decade, and during his administration, as with his predecessor’s, many more Americans think the country’s on the “wrong track” than think it’s moving in the “right direction.” (.pdf).

The evidence that the presidential “bully pulpit” reliably sways the public’s policy preferences is weak enough, as Ezra Klein documents here. What evidence is there that presidential jawboning about family structures changes anyone’s behavior? Birth rates for unmarried women went down in the era of Monica Lewinsky and Gennifer Flowers, resuming their upward trend under family values president George W. Bush. Do people really make their choices about marriage and family under the influence of presidential rhetoric or with an eye toward the example he sets?

The campaign Brooks envisions would be about as effective as Gerald Ford’s little Whip Inflation Now (WIN) buttons. Maybe it’s time for a little less magical thinking about our presidents. 

Student Essay Contest

Attention high-school and college students: The Moorfield Storey Institute has announced the Vision of Ayn Rand essay contest. Students are invited to submit essays related to issues discussed in the book The Vision of Ayn Rand by Nathaniel Branden.

The book has a fascinating history. For ten years, from 1958 to 1968, Branden delivered lectures on “Basic Principles of Objectivism” at the Nathaniel Branden Institute in New York City and, via tape transcription, to groups in more than 80 cities throughout the United States and abroad. More than 35,000 students attended those lectures. Along with Rand’s books, the lectures helped to create one of the first modern organized libertarian movements. But until 2009, the lectures were never available in printed form. Now they are. Buy the book here.

Back in 2009 I said this in a jacket blurb:

This is the most important work on Objectivism not written by Ayn Rand, available at last in book form. These lectures were delivered by the person closest to Ayn Rand, designated by her as her intellectual heir, often with her sitting in the audience and answering questions about them, and endorsed by her. Rand’s subsequent falling out with Nathaniel Branden over personal matters doesn’t change that. This is the organized, comprehensive treatise on Objectivism that Ayn Rand never wrote. Philosophers, historians, and economists may – and should – debate the claims of Objectivism. In this book they have a systematic work with which to engage. These lectures were also a milestone in libertarian history, as the lecture sessions brought together for the first time large numbers of young people who shared an enthusiasm for Ayn Rand and the individualist philosophy. The lectures were given as taped courses in more than 80 cities, and people drove for miles to listen to them on tape. Wasn’t that a time! 

Stossel Tonight

Tonight at 9 pm on the Fox Business Network, John Stossel interviews a vast array of characters – Gov. Gary Johnson, Rep. Justin Amash, Rep. Dennis Kucinich, Cato Media Fellow Radley Balko, John Bolton, Ann Coulter, and even me – in front of a cast of thousands. Literally. Some 1400 attendees at the Students for Liberty conference joined in asking the questions. As Stossel’s website says,

This week, Stossel does a special show at the 6th annual “Students for Liberty” conference in Washington….

Fireworks fly when Stossel and the mostly libertarian crowd spar with Ann Coulter about gay marriage and drug laws. Coulter is in rare form, passionately denouncing libertarians, and at one point calling Stossel and the crowd out for focusing on drug laws and gay marriage.

It may not make it into the final version, but Coulter said libertarians should stop spending time on, you know, issues of personal freedom and equality under the law and focus on more important issues. Like privatizing the New York City subways. I kid you not.

9 pm ET tonight. Be there.

 

This Week at Libertarianism.org

It’s been a busy week over at Libertarianism.org, Cato’s website exploring the theory and history of liberty. George H. Smith published a new essay in his Excursions series. In this third part of an ongoing look at the history of political philosophy, Smith examines early thinking on political obligation, and how the problem of allegiance was the major concern of John Locke.

When philosophers discuss political obligation they sometimes ignore the crucial distinction between political obligation and political allegiance, despite the fact that many early political debates focused on the latter issue. Political obligation in some form was taken for granted, but this did not answer the crucial question: What makes a government legitimate in the first place?

Read it here.

We also released two new videos. In the first, Walter Williams, speaking at a 1984 Libertarian International conference, explains how the state’s occupational licensing restrictions and other discriminatory laws often prevent minorities from finding gainful employment.

Ronald Dworkin, R.I.P.

The influential legal philosopher has died in London at age 81 (Lawrence Solum, Godfrey Hodgson/Guardian). Adam Liptak’s sharp obituary for the NYT sums up some of the virtues that quickly carried Prof. Dworkin to the academic peaks where he remained through his life: passionately held views, close engagement with the arguments of figures like Hart and Rawls, a flair for exploring complications in a relatively accessible way. Yet Liptak does not stint the view of exasperated critics like judge/scholar Richard Posner: “Dworkin’s dominant bent as a public intellectual,” Posner wrote, “is to polemicize in favor of a standard menu of left-liberal policies.”

I’ve taken a less-than-reverent view of Dworkin’s work myself on occasion, but obituaries make a suitable time to emphasize the positive, and the fact is that over decades of intra-Left legal debates, Dworkin repeatedly took the better side, arguing for the importance of individual rights, free speech and the integrity of law as a discipline in itself. His forceful arguments on First Amendment values were important in preventing the anti-speech feminism of Catherine MacKinnon from becoming the dominant view in American progressive circles. He warned appropriately against the temptation on both left and right to abdicate questions of jurisprudence to simple majoritarianism in one form or another, and argued eloquently on behalf of both formalism and constitutionalism (legal reasoning yields correct answers for adjudicating particular cases, and law is not merely an extension of politics by other means). True, he tended to fill these honorable vessels with very different contents than I or my Cato colleagues might. But better that than to smash the vessels and leave us with no inheritance of law or constitution or legal principle or rights at all, as not a few others on the Left were attempting to do over Dworkin’s long heyday. 

For those who would like to learn more, let me recommend this fine short essay by the late Norman Barry at FEE’s The Freeman sketching out areas where classical liberals might and might not find common ground with the late Prof. Dworkin. 

Matt Yglesias Cools Out the Marks

Ben Smith has a mostly excellent piece titled, “Obama Prepares to Screw His Base”:

[T]he health care overhaul known as ObamaCare [is] calculated to screw his most passionate supporters and to transfer wealth to his worst enemies.

The passionate supporters are the youth, who voted for him by a margin of 60% to 36%, according to exit poll samples of people 29 and under. His enemies are the elderly: Mitt Romney won 56% of the votes from people 65 and over…[W]hat follows may come as an unpleasant surprise to many of the president’s supporters. The provisions required to make any sort of health insurance plan work — not just ObamaCare, but really any plan of its sort — require healthy young people to pay more in health insurance than they consume in services, while the elderly…consume far more than they pay in…[T]his year will be spent laying plans to shift the burden further toward the young…

And so this vast transfer or resources from young to old — just the latest in a long line of these transfers — hasn’t been discussed much because it is totally uncontroversial.

The piece falls shy of totally excellent because Smith incorrectly asserts, contrary to the economics literature, that young people have to subsidize old people for health insurance markets to work. Smith correctly notes that ObamaCare screws young people, but thinks that’s unavoidable, if unfortunate. Since there’s no reason to screw young people at all, ObamaCare is even worse than Smith portrays it.

But Matt Yglesias takes the cake. ObamaCare does not screw the young, he writes. Sure, millions of young adults will pay more for health insurance, even after accounting for ObamaCare’s subsidies. But young adults shouldn’t sweat the triple-digit premium hikes ObamaCare forces them to pay solely for the benefit of subsidizing older people who have more resources than they do. Why? Because today’s young adults will benefit later when ObamaCare does the same for them at the expense of subsequent generations. You know, if they don’t die first. What could go wrong?  

Social scientists have a term to describe the role that people like Yglesias play in a confidence game. It’s called “cooling out the mark.” In his classic 1952 article, sociologist Erving Goffman explains. See if you can find any similarities:

The confidence game – the con, as its practitioners call it – is a way of obtaining money under false pretenses by the exercise of fraud and deceit…

The typical play has typical phases. The potential sucker is first spotted and one member of the working team (called the outside man, steerer, or roper) arranges to make social contact with him. The confidence of the mark is won, and he is given an opportunity to invest his money in a gambling venture which he understands to have been fixed in his favor. The venture, of course, is fixed, but not in his favor. The mark is permitted to win some money and then persuaded to invest more. There is an “accident” or “mistake,” and the mark loses his total investment. The operators then depart in a ceremony that is called the blowoff or sting. They leave the mark but take his money. The mark is expected to go on his way, a little wiser and a lot poorer.

Sometimes, however, a mark is not quite prepared to accept his loss as a gain in experience and to say and do nothing about his venture. He may feel moved to complain to the police or to chase after the operators. In the terminology of the trade, the mark may squawk, beef, or come through. From the operators’ point of view, this kind of behavior is bad for business. It gives the members of the mob a bad reputation with such police as have not yet been fixed and with marks who have not yet been taken. In order to avoid this adverse publicity, an additional phase is sometimes added at the end of the play. It is called cooling the mark out. After the blowoff has occurred, one of the operators stays with the mark and makes an effort to keep the anger of the mark within manageable and sensible proportions. The operator stays behind his team‑mates in the capacity of what might be called a cooler and exercises upon the mark the art of consolation. An attempt is made to define the situation for the mark in a way that makes it easy for him to accept the inevitable and quietly go home. The mark is given instruction in the philosophy of taking a loss.

So remember, young voters. ObamaCare doesn’t screw you. ObamaCare is good for you.

See you next time.