Topic: Political Philosophy

P. J. O’Rourke on Moral Progress

For as long as I can remember, conservatives have been bemoaning “moral decline” in America. The reality may be different, as I’ve noted before. And now comes P. J. O’Rourke with a similar reflection. P. J., who has moved from editing an underground newspaper in the ’60s to writing for conservative magazines to cultivating a reputation as a curmudgeon, has a new book titled The Baby Boom: How It Got That Way (And It Wasn’t My Fault) (And I’ll Never Do It Again)

Talking with P. J. about the book, Will Pavia of the Times of London notes (gated page): 

I’m not sure [the baby boomers were] better or worse than the current crop of American teenagers, to judge from some of the things they post on YouTube. O’Rourke disagrees. “I would say there has been a considerable improvement in public morality. It’s probably been going on since the anti-slavery movement at the beginning of the 19th century.” He gives the example of his own son, Cliff. 

“Admittedly, he goes to a little private day school. You know, a gentle place. I don’t think he’s ever been in a fight nor shown any desire to be. Nor have I seen his friends get in fights; it’s not just him. It’s definitely a less violent world, a more tolerant world.”

Less violence and more tolerance is a pretty good slice of morality. Steven Pinker, author of The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, backs up O’Rourke’s intuition in the New York Times:

It’s easy to focus on the idiocies of the present and forget those of the past. But a century ago our greatest writers extolled the beauty and holiness of war. Heroes like Theodore Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Woodrow Wilson avowed racist beliefs that today would make people’s flesh crawl. Women were barred from juries in rape trials because supposedly they would be embarrassed by the testimony. Homosexuality was a felony. At various times, contraception, anesthesia, vaccination, life insurance and blood transfusion were considered immoral. 

Thailand’s Reverse Revolution: Angry Elites Target Democracy

Thailand continues its slow motion political implosion.  The prime minister has been ousted and a new election has been scheduled for July 20, but the latter will settle nothing unless traditional ruling elites are willing to accept a government run by their opponents.  If not, the country risks a violent explosion. 

Bangkok’s politics long leaned authoritarian.  However, in 2001 telecommunications executive Thaksin Shinawatra campaigned as a populist, winning the votes of Thailand’s neglected rural poor to become prime minister. 

Instead of figuring out how to better appeal to the popular majority, his opponents organized the so-called People’s Alliance for Democracy which launched protests to topple his government.  The military ousted the traveling Thaksin in 2006 and tried him in absentia for alleged corruption.  The generals then rewrote the constitution and called new elections.

Michael Sam and the Cost of Discrimination

Classical liberals and libertarians have always sought a world in which people are judged as individuals, not as members of groups. Over the centuries most societies have been arranged as hierarchies, with people assigned to classes by birth. The great liberal historian Henry Sumner Maine wrote that the history of civilization was a movement from a society of status to a society of contract — that is, from a society in which each person was born into his place and was defined by his status to one in which the relationships among individuals are determined by free consent and agreement. Liberals argued for “la carrière ouverte aux talents” (“opportunity to the talented”).

Individuals may also be classified by race, religion, sexual orientation, or other characteristics. One of the great achievements of American society has been the progressive extension of the promises of the Declaration of Independence – life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – to people who had been excluded from them. That process has included the abolition of slavery, the civil rights revolution, the women’s liberation movement, more recently the gay rights movement.

Lately some people have proclaimed victory in the battle for equal treatment of gays and lesbians. Last month a group of gay marriage supporters urged their allies to be magnanimous in the final period of the “hard-won victory over a social order in which LGBT people were fired, harassed, and socially marginalized” and not to seek to punish remaining dissenters from the new perspective.

But this past weekend has reminded us that we haven’t quite achieved “opportunity to the talented.” Michael Sam was the Co-Defensive Player of the Year in the country’s strongest football conference, yet many people wondered if any NFL team would draft the league’s first openly gay player. Turns out they were right to wonder. Here’s a revealing chart published in yesterday’s Washington Post (based on data from pro-football-reference.com and published alongside this article in the print edition but apparently not online).

SEC Defensive Players of the Year

Every other SEC Defensive Player of the Year in the past decade, including the athlete who shared the award this year with Michael Sam, was among the top 33 picks in the draft, and only one was below number 17. Does that mean that being gay cost Michael Sam 232 places in the draft, compared to his Co-Defensive Player of the Year? Maybe not. There are doubts about Sam’s abilities at the professional level. But there are doubts about many of the players who were drafted ahead of him, in the first 248 picks this year. Looking at this chart, I think it’s hard to escape the conclusion that Sam paid a price for being openly gay. That’s why classical liberals – which in this broad sense should encompass most American libertarians, liberals, and conservatives – should continue to press for a society in which the careers are truly open to the talents. That doesn’t mean we need laws, regulations, or mandates. It means that we want to live in a society that is open to talent wherever it appears. As Scott Shackford writes at Reason, Sam’s drafting is “a significant cultural development toward a country that actually doesn’t care about individual sexual orientation. The apathetic should celebrate this development, as it is a harbinger of a future where such revelations become less and less of a big deal.” Let’s continue to look forward to a society in which it’s not news that a Jewish, Catholic, African-American, Mormon, redneck, or gay person achieves a personal goal.

Piketty Should Focus on Increasing the Scope of Markets, Not Expanding the Power of Government

In his best-selling book Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Harvard University Press), French economist Thomas Piketty is concerned with equality of outcome, not equality under a rule of law safeguarding one’s unalienable rights to liberty and property. 

He finds that inequality of income and wealth is increasing as the return on capital assets exceeds the growth of real GDP.  His policy for reducing inequality is to use the power of government to impose very high marginal tax rates on the incomes of the rich and near rich, and also impose an annual wealth tax.  His goal is “to put an end to such incomes.”

Piketty’s leveling schemes in the pursuit of “social justice” would undermine the primacy of property rights under the U.S. Constitution, adversely affect incentives to save and invest, stifle entrepreneurship, and slow economic growth. He seems more interested in penalizing the rich than in thinking of ways to create wealth by expanding opportunities for market exchange.

Is the Constitution Relevant Today?

In the Washington Post, Paul Kane reports that recent experiences with ultra-conservative Senate candidates have made Republican leaders fearful of candidates like Rep. Paul Broun in Georgia. There may be reasons for party leaders or voters to have doubts about Broun, but I hope they aren’t actually concerned about the purported problem that Kane identifies:

Broun is prone to fiery speeches invoking the Founding Fathers and applying those 1789 principles to issues 225 years later.

Seriously? He thinks the Constitution is still the law of the land? And that the framework it established for individual rights and limited government is still relevant today? Do Republican leaders really think that’s a bad message? Or does the Washington Post?

Thomas Jefferson and his followers hailed “the principles of ‘76” or “the spirit of ‘76” in their battles with Federalists. As historian Joseph Ellis put it, “Jefferson’s core conviction was that what might be called ‘the spirit of ‘76’ had repudiated all energetic expressions of government power, most especially power exercised from faraway places, which included London, Philadelphia or Washington.” Good thing there isn’t an actual Jeffersonian running!

But the principles of 1789, or actually of 1787, also protect freedom from government power and are just as essential today as they were at the Founding. The Framers knew their history. They knew that people with power tend to abuse it and to restrict freedom. In his last letter, 50 years after the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson wrote:

All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.

Because they feared the exercise of power, the Framers wrote a Constitution that established a government of delegated, enumerated, and thus limited powers. Then the people insisted on a Bill of Rights to further protect their rights even from the very limited federal government established in the Constitution. Then, after identifying specific rights that individuals retained, they also added, “for greater caution,” as James Madison put it, the Ninth Amendment to clarify that “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”

One would hope that all members of Congress – and voters, and political reporters – believe that those principles and those constitutional rules should be applied to issues of today. Surely the First Amendment remains relevant. And the Fourth. And the limits on unconstrained power in the basic structure of the Constitution. The merits of any particular candidate aside, support of the Constitution and the principles it embodies seems like a good, even minimal, qualification for public office.

Happy Hayek’s Birthday

Today is the 115th anniversary of the birth of F. A. Hayek, who honored the Cato Institute by serving as a Distinguished Senior Fellow, and in whose honor the Institute’s F. A. Hayek Auditorium is named. “It is hardly an exaggeration to refer to the twentieth century as the Hayek century,” John Cassidy wrote in the New Yorker. If we’re lucky, the 21st century will also be a Hayek century.

Hayek spoke at Cato several times.  Before his 1982 Distinguished Lecture, he sat down for an interview with Cato Policy Report.  Here’s another interview by our late board member Jim Blanchard that appeared in Cato Policy Report. Senior fellows Tom Palmer and Gerald O’Driscoll have offered appreciations of his work. O’Driscoll more recently applied Hayek’s business cycle theory to the 2008 financial crisis.

Cato adjunct scholar Ilya Somin ponders Hayek’s continuing relevance in this essay from just before the crisis announced itself last fall. Somin notes that Hayek’s critique of socialism gets most attention from scholars, but his critique of conservatism is also worth pondering.

In 2011, on the occasion of the publication of a definitive edition of Hayek’s great book The Constitution of Liberty, his work was discussed in the Hayek Auditorium by Ronald Hamowy, Bruce Caldwell, Richard Epstein, and George Soros. I discussed that event, with a link to the video and transcript, here, concluding 

Hayek was not just an economist. He also published impressive works on political theory and psychology.

He’s like Marx, only right.

As the world suffers from the aftereffects of another Federal Reserve-created bubble, it’s a good time to reread Hayek on the boom-and-bust cycle. But it’s also a good day to reflect that Hayek lived just long enough to see the demise of the totalitarian socialist system that he spent his life analyzing and criticizing. The world is freer today, partly because of Hayek’s great work.

Liberal Moral Superiority

Nature abhors a vacuum. So in an era of declining attention spans (or so we’re told), as blog posts were growing longer, Twitter came along. That left a vacuum in between that a site called “2paragraphs” is filling—long enough to make a substantive point or two, short enough to be read, “respecting people’s time and intelligence,” its editors say.

Two weeks ago, seeing my post on the Court’s recent affirmative action decision, they asked me to reduce my thoughts to two paragraphs. It killed me to throw out perfectly good prose over which I’d labored mightily, but I did. Today, they asked me to do the same with last week’s post on whether liberal campaign contributors’ pretentions to moral superiority could pass the straight-face test. You’ll find that post epitomized here.