I am not, nor have I ever been, a golfer. I did golf once, just before the turn of the century, and I disliked it. Nevertheless, I live by a cardinal principle in golfer etiquette: Replace your divots.
A divot, of course, is a chunk of turf that is dislodged by a golf shot, leaving a hole on the course. Golfer etiquette requires that you should put the divot back in the hole if that’s possible. This is a common-sense act of consideration for other golfers because a ball in a hole is hard to hit.
We can readily see that Replace your divots is simply an application of the principle Be considerate of others. And that’s another way of saying, Respect others. You can easily find many appropriate applications of the principle in everyday life.
We can go a step further. If Replace your divots is a worthy principle, then Avoid creating divots in the first place if you can is a worthy corollary. Off the golf course, avoid creating divots would include covering your nose and mouth when you sneeze and cough even when you’re not in the middle of a serious pandemic.
We might be tempted to place this principle within rights theory. For example, the owner of the golf course probably has a rule, a term of use, that you must replace your divots. As a contractual matter, then, you are obligated to do so. Failure to comply is to violate the terms of your contract and hence a violation of the rights of the property owner. This reasoning is also used to show why falsely shouting fire in a theater is wrong.
I have no beef with that take, but there’s more to the story because even if it were not a violation of someone’s contractual rights, it would still be wrong to ignore your divots or falsely shout fire when it could endanger people. (You may shout fire, however, in a crowded online chat room. Context matters.)
Can this moral point be proved? Well, yes, in the sense that Aristotle thought ethics could be validated. Whenever we act we aim at an ultimate good: happiness, the good life, flourishing — call it what you will. We can’t help it because the idea of an ultimate end is baked into the very notion of action, which is the means that gets you there. (Sounds like praxeology, doesn’t it?) “Every art and every kind of inquiry, and likewise every act and purpose, seems to aim at some good: and so it has been well said that the good is that at which everything aims,” Aristotle wrote to launch his Nicomachean Ethics. “If then in what we do there be some end which we wish for on its own account, choosing all the others as means to this, but not every end without exception as a means to something else (for so we should go on ad infinitum, and desire would be left void and objectless),—this evidently will be the good or the best of all things.”
What plausibly (or intuitively) appears to advance flourishing you may reasonably presume to be good. But such presumptions are in principle defeatible by evidence or by a clash with other well-founded moral principles. A Socratic inquiry would uncover such conflicts.
In the Aristotelian and Spinozan sense, the flourishing of rational social animals — that’s us — is advanced by, among other things, reason-based relationships with other people (that is, no force, no injustice). I’m better off surrounded by people who live by reason (even if only by semi-conscious habit) than by irrational people. So I want to encourage other people to be rational, which in part means dealing with them on the basis of reason and respect. QED.
Pascal’s Wager is a familiar idea. It goes something like this: regardless of what you may think about the existence of God, rational cost-benefit analysis says you should sign on. After all, if you do and you’re wrong, what have you lost? But if you don’t and you’re wrong, uh oh — you’re in big trouble, buster. (I’m not saying this makes sense, by the way.)
Something similar has gone on with the coronavirus pandemic and the draconian economic policies embraced by many governors in the United States, best exemplified New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and California Gov. Gavin Newsom. They have made a wager sort of like this: if we don’t shut the economy down and the pandemic fulfills the worst-case scenario, we are all in big trouble; but if we do shut the economic down and the pandemic falls closer to the best-case scenario, what will have been lost?
For those with their eyes open, the answer to this last question is simple: a lot. Forbidding most economic activity has to impose substantial hardship — material and otherwise — on countless people, not to mention future generations. I won’t go into detail, and I shouldn’t need to. Just think about it for a few moments. (See David Henderson’s “End the Lockdowns Now.”) And I haven’t mentioned the future harm from government’s so-called solutions: enormous deficit spending, money creation by the Federal Reserve, and the ratchet (specifically, the Higgs) effect from precedents set..
The point is that it’s easy to “reason” to the policy outcome you want if you list only the real and imagined benefits and ignore all the burdens. This was what Frédéric Bastiat was getting at in his brilliant essay “What Is Seen and What Is Unseen.”
The blunt-instrument policies adopted by many governors were chosen in the dark. Flawed statistical models seemed to shed light, but knowledgeable people questioned the validity of those models from Day One. At any rate, we know more now (though not nearly enough), so it’s time for the lockdown orders to be lifted, liberating society’s widespread entrepreneurial problem-solving process to do its thing.
Trump has vetoed Congress’s effort to keep him from going to war against Iran unilaterally. Nothing remarkable there. We’ve come to expect such things from the fraud who posed as antiwar.
What’s interesting is that Trump has reminded of what a narcissist he is. That fact is so much a part of the landscape that it can be hard to notice these days.
In vetoing the bill passed under the War Powers Resolution, a 1970s post-Vietnam attempt to restore Congress’s exclusive power under the Constitution to make war, Trump said, “This was a very insulting resolution….”
Insulting? That’s why he vetoed it? Apparently Trump is incapable of seeing congressional action he doesn’t like as anything but personal. It’s hard to imagine another president saying this publicly. Other presidents would have pushed back (erroneously) against the constitutional war-powers argument, but they wouldn’t have made it personal, even if they suspected it.
As I’ve often said, Trump is a caricature of the establishment politician, and that’s why the establishment hates him.
Hell, yes! Radical abolitionist anarchist libertarians can — and I say ought to be — incrementalists because, sorry, “abolition now!” is not on the menu today. No contradiction exists in the radical incrementalist or the incrementalist radical.
The reason that no conflict need exist between abolitionism and incrementalism is that the former is an end while the latter is a means:
Incrementalism involves setting (and achieving) incremental goals — taking “baby steps” in one’s chosen direction. Incrementalism is a proposed means.
Abolitionism is the notion that wrongs should be abolished rather than simply minimized (and, at the abstract anarchist extreme — no insult intended, that happens to be where I live myself — that all wrongs must be abolished in order for the abolitionist to claim victory). Abolition is a proposed end or set of ends.
Thus, Knapp adds, “incrementalist means are not only available to “purists” and ‘abolitionists,’ but used by them, and are therefore not available only to ‘pragmatists.'” He also has much to say about “pragmatists,” who turn out to be pretty poor incrementalists.
“It is not from the benevolence of the mask maker, glove maker, or hand-sanitizer maker that we expect our person protective equipment, but from their regard to their own self-interest. We address ourselves not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities, but of their advantages.”
An Associated Press article published a few days ago reported on disagreements among libertarians over what, if anything, the government may properly do about the coronavirus pandemic. My purpose here is not to comment on the quotes from the various libertarians. I prefer to focus on just one sentence by the author, Hillel Italie.
It’s this one: “Libertarian principles of self-reliance and minimal government have been around for centuries.”
Only the part I emphasized — the reference to self-reliance — interests me today.
At first, that term may seen unexceptional — even to many libertarians — in an article about libertarianism. A term like self-reliance (along with rugged individualism) is often associated with the libertarian philosophy, again, even by many libertarians. But is that term really pertinent? Or is it misleading and subversive of public understanding? I say the latter.
It’s certainly true that libertarians believe that people should not rely on the government because government is force (to recall the quote erroneously attributed to George Washington). But by what reasoning does one equate eschewing reliance on the state with self-reliance? Is there nothing else but the self to rely on? Society perhaps? It’s hardly a novel idea. It’s especially not novel among libertarians.
Are libertarians against insurance for their lives, homes, automobiles, and medical needs? I don’t think so. What’s insurance? It’s a large number of people, mostly strangers, pooling their resources in case of a long-shot catastrophic event that would bankrupt any one of the individuals. Insurance is the opposite of self-reliance, but it’s perfectly libertarian.
Are libertarians against voluntary associations for fellowship and other nonmaterial values? I don’t think so.
Is the symbol of libertarianism the hermit, Randy Weaver, or Ted Kaczynski sans letter bombs? Again, I don’t think so.
Can advocates of a political philosophy who spend so much time, ink, and electrons praising free markets, global free trade, specialization, and the division of labor hold self-reliance as a core aspiration? Can the people often described by their opponents as “Adam Smith fundamentalists” be regarded as worshipers of self-reliance. No way! The Wealth of Nations is a paean to social cooperation. Libertarian hero Ludwig von Mises, author of Human Action, nearly called his magnum opus Social Cooperation. That’s the second-most-used phrase in the very long book. What’s the most-used phrase? Division of labor, another way to say “social cooperation.”
I suspect that the term self-reliance actually works as a subtle smear of libertarians. It’s a way to portray them as churlish, “selfish,” antisocial. But as we can see, no grounds exist for that portrayal. When Simon and Garfunkel sang, “I am a rock; I am an island,” they were singing no libertarian anthem — not by a long shot. (Sorry, Neil Diamond, neither was “Solitary Man.”)
Libertarians are in no way advocates of — gotta love this one — atomistic individualism. Rather, they are, as I suggested long ago, better described as champions of molecular individualism. They form associations for all kinds of reasons. (Alexis Tocqueville noticed this feature of early America’s rather libertarian masses.) Even the non-Aristotelians among libertarians agree that human beings are social animals, which means that the individual’s best shot at flourishing is in a society — as a long as it’s a free society, of course.
When libertarians themselves are confused about this matter, they undercut their own case. I have often heard libertarians condemn the welfare state because it discourages self-reliance. I’ve even heard libertarians demonize people who accept food stamps and Medicaid or Social Security benefits.
But that’s not the problem with the welfare state, or the social safety net. The problem is with the armed tax collector, not the recipients.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting a social safety net. It’s telling that when people are free to do so, they set up their own voluntary safety nets.
Before the growth of the national welfare state in the United States, working-class and middle-class Americans hedged against the risky, uncertain future by joining mutual-aid societies, also know as fraternal societies, lodges, and in England, friendly societies. These were not only sources of fellowship; they were also voluntary welfare organizations built on the insurance principle. (They were mostly member-owned societies, rather than for-profit companies.)
In the 19th century and the first few decades of the 20th century, working men and women joined these societies, among other reasons, to obtain various insurance benefits. They paid in when they were healthy and working, and drew benefits when they were not. Societies also paid funeral benefits so that families were not left with large debts when the breadwinner died. Some organizations even kept doctors under contract to provide affordable primary care to their members and families. (The state-linked medical societies did not like this “unfair” competition that lowered their incomes.)
The libertarian case against the welfare state, then, is not that it undermines self-reliance. It’s that the state is 1) coercive and 2) bound to provide an inferior product because it’s a monopoly with captive customers (taxpayers).
Quite possibly, a libertarian may say he has something else in mind by the term self-reliance. He might mean that he thinks for himself. Fair enough. People ought to think for themselves, though even here we must issue a caveat. F. A. Hayek taught us that even someone who thinks for himself benefits by relying on knowledge that other people possess. Society — the market specifically — extends our intellects by enabling us to act on knowledge of which we would otherwise be ignorant. (Prices are carriers of such knowledge.) Yes, we each must sift through what we learn from others, but we could not flourish without that input.
Going back further than Hayek, Aristotle noted that much of what we can reasonably be said to know includes second-hand “reputable beliefs” picked up from society. I’m comfortable in saying I know the earth is spherical, but I could not confirm that personally. To be sure, which of these beliefs are accepted as reasonable is up to each individual; the proof of the pudding will be in the acting. (See Roderick T. Long’s liberating Reason and Value: Aristotle versus Rand.)
Thus for a variety of reasons, self-reliance is no part of the libertarian vision. It’s time we corrected the record.
Today is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Thomas S. Szasz (1920-2012), the most unappreciated libertarian in modern times. Beginning with his book The Myth of Mental Illness in 1961 and proceeding through dozens of books and hundreds of articles, Szasz, a Hungary-born physician and psychiatrist, spent more than half a century analyzing and debunking the myriad violations of individual liberty committed in the name of health, public health, and mental health. He dubbed the union of government and medicine The Therapeutic State.
In this cause, Szasz, who was also a historian and philosopher, not only documented the many ways in which the so-called mentally ill have been persecuted, imprisoned (involuntarily hospitalized), and tortured (drugged, lobotomized, electroshocked, etc.), he also demolished the establishment’s case for the oppression and so-called “treatment” of recreational drug consumers, sellers, and manufacturers; homosexuals; would-be suicides; and other officially disapproved persons. No one was better at exposing the horror of the “war on drugs” — it’s a war on people not drugs, of course — than Szasz. And keep in mind that when he defended the liberty of gays and lesbians, psychiatry still listed homosexuality as a mental illness. (Organized psychiatry voted [sic] it off the list in the 1970s.)
Most relevant to the world today, Szasz insisted on the traditional liberal distinction between personal health and public health, specifically, between conditions that may be harmful only to oneself and conditions that may be harmful to others, such as through a serious, contagious disease. He objected to the illiberal blurring of that line, which has justified interventions against people who have not harmed others and could not do so by, say, breathing on them. No one, Szasz wrote, has the right to declare someone else a patient — whether sick or not — against his will.
Many libertarians have ignored Szasz, who was my friend and mentor, because they have regarded psychiatry as beyond their expertise. But they missed the point. Szasz insisted that libertarian principles pertain even to people who are stigmatized by the medical establishment, which has long been deputized by the state. Until someone threatens to harm or actually harms another person, the state should leave him alone.
Pick up any book by Szasz, including his collections of aphorisms, and you’ll profit immensely. He was a wonderful writer and a fascinating thinker.
I don’t think politicians relish closing down the economy, nor do I think they’ll be eager to do so in the future. For one thing, it’s contrary to their interests. They do what they do because when all you have is a blunt instrument, every problem looks like something that can only be solved with a blunt instrument.
Not so long ago we might have been seeing public-service announcements like this:
For the duration of the pandemic, please use the internet and your cell phone for essential purposes only. It is imperative that we keep the bandwidth open for emergency use. Thank you for your cooperation.
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