Libertarianism

Privacy and the Constitution

“[B]oth the [‘]liberals[‘] and the conservatives misunderstand privacy. The conservatives engage in a narrow and unnatural reading of the Constitution in order to avoid seeing what they do not wish to see, while the [‘]liberals[‘] find in the Constitution not penumbras but a Rorschach test that reveals only what they wish to see. In both cases it comes down to an inkblot. Both approaches allow their adherents to disparage most freedoms and exalt the few freedoms allowed by their respective moral and political philosophies.”

“Dissolving the Inkblot: Privacy as Property Right,”
Cato Policy Report, Jan-Feb 1993

TGIF: Parents Should Govern Their Kids’ Education

How clear are these opening words of the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”?

Judging by the U.S. Supreme Court’s many ventures into this area, we’d have to say not very clear at all. There’s a lesson in that. Constitutions don’t interpret themselves. People do, and the line between interpreting and making law is not as bright as we’re told.

The latest Court decision in the matter, Carson v. Makin, is instructive in that regard. The 6-3 decision — Republican appointees made up the majority, Democratic appointees the minority — struck down Maine’s exclusion of religious schools from a program that provides tax-funded tuition assistance to all parents who live in school districts that do not provide “free, public” secondary education. That’s over half the districts. Maine, according to the Court, is the most rural state in the country. Who knew?

Under the program, those parents can spend the money at another district’s school or at an academically accredited “nonsectarian” private school. The plaintiffs, two families, argued that this restriction violates both the Free-exercise clause and the establishment clause of the First Amendment, along with the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The U.S. district and appellate courts had sided with the state.

The six justices of the majority held that the exclusion of sectarian schools violated the guarantee of the free exercise of religion despite the fact that religion permeated the regular curriculum. (Remember, these were state-approved schools academically.) But the minority justices said the exclusion violated the prohibition on the establishment of religion because the money would go to schools that used it to teach their particular faiths. It was establishment clause v. free-exercise clause.

So who is right? Can that question be answered? Chief Justice John Roberts’s majority opinion and the dissenting opinions by retiring Justice Stephen Breyer and Justice Sonia Sotomayor point to many Court precedents that seem to support their conflicting positions. But the precedents aren’t much help because one can always say that an earlier case differed in an important way from the current one.

Leaving aside one’s background philosophy, all of the arguments seem plausible and consistent with the constitutional text. One might appeal to historical materials, but my hunch is you can find disagreements there too. There’s a lesson in all this, one captured by legal scholar John Hasnas in “The Myth of the Rule of Law.” (A discussion of Hasnas’s paper is here.)

Hasnas’s point is that considering how statutes and constitutions are written and the contradictory case law, judges and lawyers can start at Point A and reach virtually whatever destination they wish. Each individual’s compass will be ideological. This, Hasnas insists, is not the notion of the rule of law taught in grade school or law school, but the rule of men and women. He writes:

The fact is that there is no such thing as a government of law and not people. The law is an amalgam of contradictory rules and counter-rules expressed in inherently vague language that can yield a legitimate legal argument for any desired conclusion. For this reason, as long as the law remains a state monopoly, it will always reflect the political ideology of those invested with decisionmaking power. [Emphasis added. Hasnas favors judicial competition, or polycentric law.]

So what are we to make of the ruling? I’ll cut to the chase before doubling back. Consistent with Hasnas’s thesis, both the majority and the minority think its path is consistent with a desired religious neutrality. The majority holds that neutrality lies in not excluding religious schools from Maine’s program because all eligible parents would be treated the same, while the minority holds that neutrality requires excluding religious schools.

Truth be told, I prefer the ruling to the Court’s alternative, but let’s get clear on some preliminaries first. The root of the conflict that produced this case is government schooling itself. Ironically, the early government-school movement presented the misnamed “public school” as the way to prevent conflict over religion. How’s that worked out, Horace Mann? (See my book Separating School and State: How to Liberate America’s Families.)

Simply put, any government involvement in education infringes the liberty not only of parents but also of nonparent taxpayers, who are forced to support the government’s schools. And let’s be specific: government involvement violates freedom of conscience and not just material property rights. Even before the dawn of wokeness, many taxpayers disliked how the government schools taught even unobjectionable subjects.

The case against government schooling is bolstered by the well-known fact that coercive monopolies are inherently bad deals. They deliver poor quality at unnecessarily high prices. As bureaucratic organizations, they are interested in preserving their perks rather than serving their ostensible “customers.”

So it’s no coincidence that the government’s schools are rotten; the more marginalized the community, the more rotten they are. This is a disgrace because the education establishment has sabotaged poorer people, many of whom suffer the legacy of long-standing official injustices, and kept them from ensuring better lives for their children. If you want to understand intergenerational poverty and cultural shortcomings, think “public schools.”

What we should strive for, then, is parental free choice in a competitive education marketplace. Competition is the universal solvent. (James Tooley and Pauline Dixon, among others, have demolished the claim that poorer people would be worse off in a free education market.)

As more people have come to understand the benefits of free choice, they have proposed steps by which parents could take their kids out of the rotten system. Unfortunately but understandably, reformers have supported incremental changes that still left the state and local governments with a huge amount of power over schooling. I say “understandably” because a proposal to replace government schooling with a free and competitive marketplace (which would include nonprofit institutions) is a hard sell in the current context, although it may be getting easier. One objection to the incremental approach, besides continued government compulsion, is that the radical approach would be shelved in favor of the more-attainable program.

At any rate, various programs — vouchers, tuition tax credits, third-party scholarship tax credits — were set up to help parents escape to some extent the clutches of the school bureaucracy. The Maine program was different because it was only for children living in school districts without secondary schools. In effect, the state told parents they could take the money that would have been spent on a local high school and use it at the accredited school of their choice. The only restriction aside from its being state-accredited was that it be nonsectarian. That seems unfair to religious parents, who regard their religious faith as integral to their education even in secular subjects. Why should they be taxed to support a system they disapprove of?

That’s why I prefer the ruling to what the dissenters wanted. They think that allowing parents to buy education from schools that will “use public money for religious purposes” violates the establishment clause. That strikes me as the weaker argument. How does letting parents have that choice “establish” religion? Maine did not set up a state church.

It all depends on how one interprets that clause. (This problem plagues the Constitution. See my America’s Counter-Revolution: The Constitution Revisited.) In his dissent Breyer says there is “play in the joints” between the establishment and free-exercise clauses, leaving “wiggle room” in which states can “navigate the tension created by the Clauses and consider their own interests in light of the Clauses’ competing prohibitions.” Loose joints and wiggle room hardly provide good guides for legislative dos and don’ts. Roberts counters that a “State’s antiestablishment interest does not justify enactments that exclude some members of the community from an otherwise generally available public benefit because of their religious exercise.” I think that makes more sense.

Breyer writes, “Maine thus excludes schools from its tuition program not because of the schools’ religious character but because the schools will use the funds to teach and promote religious ideals.” That supposed distinction enables him to embrace earlier decisions that permitted tax money for religiously affiliated institutions, but is that distinction meaningful? Can there really be a church-affiliated school that does not promote its faith to the pupils? The state legislature thought so and in theory permitted parents to spend the money on the former sort but not the latter sort. That sounds more like a word game to protect its statute from court scrutiny. The Court majority didn’t buy it.

My arguments here assume the existing political context, which of course I want to see changed. As long as state schools, state curriculum requirements, and compulsory attendance exist, fairness requires that parents — who pay income taxes, sales taxes, and property taxes one way or another — be free to direct the money to the schools of their choice. “School choice” is a pale substitute for real freedom, and it will always come with unjustifiable conditions, but it still may provide children an exit from intolerable situations.

If we must err, let’s err on the side of the parents’ freedom of choice. Let’s face it: the taxpayers would be coerced to support something they disapprove of no matter the outcome of this case, a point overlooked by the dissenters, who are concerned only when people are forced to support religion.

Let’s also push, then, for a wider freedom of choice. No one should be forced to finance schools (or anything else for that matter). Taxation taints everything. The right to choose is far more radical than most people think.

In sum, it is entirely reasonable to disagree with Justice Sotomayor, who wrote in her own dissenting opinion that the majority in this case “continues to dismantle the wall of separation between church and state that the Framers fought to build.” The First Amendment doesn’t mandate a “wall of separation.” (Jefferson most famously used this metaphor in a letter.) Rather, it seems to say only that Congress may neither establish religion (as, say, in England) nor interfere with anyone’s free exercise thereof. The Court long ago applied this and other applicable provisions of the Bill of Rights to the states via the 14th Amendment. (The establishment clause originally also meant that Congress couldn’t interfere with the established churches in individual states at the time.)

It’s hard to see how Maine has either established religion or interfered with its free exercise merely by “giving money to parents” (Sotomayor’s words) that they can freely spend on schooling. Contrary to Sotomayor, the ruling does not “require[] States in many circumstances to subsidize religious indoctrination with taxpayer dollars” because Maine did not have to set up a tuition-assistance program. The ruling simply says, echoing an earlier case, that if a state does so, it cannot forbid parents from choosing schools that mix religion with their regular curriculums. In other words, all it does is let parents spend the money that would otherwise have gone to a government school at the accredited schools of their choice.

Sotomayor also writes: “If a State cannot offer subsidies to its citizens without being required to fund religious exercise, any State that values its historic antiestablishment interests more than this Court does will have to curtail the support it offers to its citizens.” I ask: so what’s wrong with that? Government has no business subsidizing people. If it wants them to have more money, cut and abolish taxes.

 

TGIF: Free Exchange Is Win-Win

With the possible exception of the political class and its cronies, most of us would be healthier, wealthier, happier, and freer if the public knew how to engage in “the economic way of thinking.” The late Paul Heyne, who wrote a popular textbook by that name (now in its 13th edition thanks to Peter Boettke and David Prychitko), summarized the economic way of thinking by writing, “All social phenomena emerge from the choices of individuals in response to expected benefits and costs to themselves.”

I think of Heyne’s title whenever I encounter an example of failing to understand this. Unfortunately, our society is rife with examples and resulting bad government policies, which tells you a lot about why we suffer periodic hardships like the current inflation. The lockdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic were a spectacularly tragic example of the failure to engage in the economic way of thinking.

Other instances of that failure are so thoughtless as to be ludicrous. Take the wealthy business owner who donates a large sum of money to a worthy cause. The fallacy occurs when the donor or someone else inevitably says that the charitable act was motivated by a wish to “give something back,” presumably to society or the community.

What’s wrong here? It suggests that the donor wants to show gratitude for his fortune by reciprocating. But that makes no sense because the donor’s wealth was not the result of people handing over money as a favor and getting nothing in return. Those people were customers, not donors. They bought something they wanted and must have liked the terms of exchange. So there is nothing to pay back. (I have in mind only people operating according to just-market principles: no force, fraud, or favors coercively provided by politicians.)

In the marketplace, profits come from voluntary exchange, which requires that buyers and sellers freely choose to transact business. Why would they do that? They do it because each party expects to benefit — to be made better off — by giving up something they own for something that they would rather own. This is clear with barter, but it’s equally true when one party trades money. Money, a medium of exchange, expands the opportunity for exchange by enabling people to get what they want even when they don’t have the particular items that their available trading partners want.

When Smith trades a sum of money to Jones to acquire shoes, Smith demonstrates that he prefers those shoes to anything else he might have feasibly used the money for, including holding on to it. Jones demonstrates the opposite preference.

Unfortunately, since they are fallible, Smith or Jones (or both) might realize later that he made a mistake. That’s life, but it does not change the fact that at the moment of exchange, both sides expected to gain. If they are right, they have a happy win-win, or positive-sum, situation. Both sides profit, not just the one who obtains money because both come out ahead. (The competitive quest for profit has brought us liberal return policies, so the fallibility problem long ago became much less severe. John Stossel likes to point out that at the supermarket, both checkout clerks and customers typically thank each other.)

Free exchange produces mutual gain. If we could quantify the gain (we can’t), we would say that after the exchange, the two people have more total value between them than they had before the exchange. This is remarkable, considering no new stuff was created by the transaction. Possession of the product and the money simply changed hands.

To put it qualitatively, we can say that through the exchange, both parties climbed higher on their respective value scales, giving up a subjectively lower-ranking value for a subjectively higher-ranking one. (What counts is how the parties evaluate things.) For this to occur, we need first, two parties with different preferences and, second, freedom, including property rights. Before you can justly trade something, you must own it.

In light of the two-way gain through free exchange, the wealthy seller has no reason to “pay back.” He is successful because he provides value to his customers, who are happy to exchange their money.

It’s too bad that people who earn fortunes justly are made to feel guilty about their success. (Ayn Rand and Ludwig von Mises did their best to teach honest producers they had nothing to be ashamed of.) We consumers never feel guilty about the profits we reap. Why should the sellers?

TGIF: The Libertarian Solution

“What’s the libertarian solution to social or economic problem X? How about problem Y or Z?”

No libertarian needs to wait long before hearing such questions. But strictly speaking, the libertarian philosophy offers no solutions to specific problems. That’s not what it does. It is not itself a solution. Rather, it describes an institutional environment in which imaginative people are free and motivated to discover innovative solutions to individual and collective problems.

That environment has moral, cultural, economic, and legal dimensions, all grounded in self-ownership, respect for others, property, competition, persuasion, and consent, as opposed to government authority, monopoly, decree, and coercion. The cultural dimension is especially important, though often unappreciated. Widespread resentment toward other people’s success, for example, is literally deadly, not only for those targeted but for society at large, especially those at the bottom.

Thus when a libertarian says freedom or the free market will solve a particular problem (if politicians stand aside), what sounds like an impossibly oversimplified response is actually highly complex. In contrast to the politicians’ boasts, note the humility here. Confidence in market problem-solving is confidence in free human imagination dispersed among countless individuals throughout society. Who can say who will come up with the solution? No one. That in part is why we need everyone to be free.

The unique grounding of the libertarian environment has far different built-in incentives for problem-solvers than any state-based alternative. State problem-solving is characterized by centralized bureaucracy, artificial knowledge constraints, nonconsensual financing (taxation) that precludes feedback, profligacy (producing the disruptive knowledge distortions of debt and inflation), and significant unaccountability. In contrast, social- or market-based problem-solving is characterized by multiple knowledge centers, competition, consensual financing, and the profit motive. In that environment proposed solutions are subjected to intellectual and product competition, which yields better knowledge than other arrangements. F. A. Hayek called competition a “discovery” process. I think of it as the universal solvent.

In the market, problems are potential profit opportunities for entrepreneurs, and as we know, the profit motive is potent. The entrepreneur’s job is to figure out where and how resources are used suboptimally relative to what people (not politicians) want most. Solving a problem often requires shifting scarce resources and labor from one purpose to another.

How can anyone know what’s the best way to go? Entrepreneurs find clues to that question in market prices, which is why the price system is so important and must not be tampered with by politicians and bureaucrats. If an entrepreneur is correct when thinks he can buy a quantity of resources and hire labor at one price per finished-product unit and make something people will want to buy at a sufficiently higher price, he will earn a profit. That’s a sign the enterprise solved a problem for its customers. Profit in the free market (absent government intervention) is a reward for success. It’s not a dirty word.

Indispensable to the entrepreneurial function is the consumers’ freedom to accept or reject offers as they see fit. Both responses communicate vital information to the problem-solvers. Coercion, the government’s way of doing things, sabotages the function.

The freedom-based process is vital in our world of scarcity, trade-offs, and imperfect knowledge. Improvement is always possible, and imperfect knowledge is not the only reason. Another is that people’s preferences change. What they wanted yesterday they may not want tomorrow, especially if something new comes along. A third reason is that the array of resources changes, with new materials, technologies, and organization methods proving superior to the old. Government restraints on this process do a disservice to people trying to improve their lives, especially those who have yet to “make it.”

In contrast to entrepreneurs, politicians and bureaucrats can’t look for price discrepancies (since government “services” are not priced in the market) and wouldn’t profit from them in any event. Government officials instead respond to constituencies (relatively small well-connected interests generally) who lobby for “free,” that is, tax-financed, stuff. Since most of the benefits bestowed by the government are concentrated on relatively small interest groups with much riding on their single purpose, while the costs are dispersed among the mass of unorganized taxpayers and consumers without a single purpose, the interest groups usually prevail. (Think of quotas and tariffs on imports. A few domestic producers are usually able to dominate a much larger group of consumers.)

Moreover, when politicians and bureaucrats promise to solve a problem and fail, they rarely suffer any consequences since they are able to blame the private sector. (Inflation is blamed on greedy businesses, not on the real culprit: government borrowing that is monetized is by the Federal Reserve.) Spotting that misdirection requires one to engage in the economic way of thinking, but most of the public has no idea what that means. (Frédéric Bastiat in the 19th century illustrated this in “That Which Is Seen, and That Which Is Unseen.”) This political trick works so well that government officials can easily turn failure into bigger budgets and more power. The game is rigged against the people, who pay twice: through the tax system and by having to forgo real the solutions that entrepreneurs would have discovered had the government kept its hands off the resources.

Nothing better indicates the superiority of market solutions to state solutions than the fact that market solutions will vary according to local knowledge and preferences. In contrast, state solutions tend to be one-size-fits-all.

No one has ever suggested that the libertarian environment for solving problems is perfect. People aren’t infallible, so the private consent-based approach can’t be either. Trial-and-error is inescapable but also indispensable. Yet the last time I checked, politicians and bureaucrats were people too. (No, really!) The difference is that people are operationally smarter in a free, decentralized, and competitive environment where they encounter feedback and face the clear consequences of their choices. That’s exactly what is lacking in the political environment.

One final note. In a world of scarcity (however much technology loosens its limits), solving problems always entails costs. As Thomas Sowell teaches, in a sense, there are no solutions, only trade-offs. What we all strive for in life is an overall improvement; in effect we exchange situations we don’t want (all things considered) for ones we do want. That’s the natural condition, which politicians and bureaucrats cannot improve on. But as we can readily see, they certainly can make things much worse.

 

The Problem With ‘What is a Woman?’

“Biological sex [is] binary. It’s been binary for like a hundred million years, longer than that. Temperament is not binary, temperament or personality… people who talk about the diversity in gender are actually talking about diversity in personality and temperament…”

– Jordan B. Peterson, What Is a Woman? (The Daily Wire, 2022)

Why is it that the most powerful people on earth have been so fond of promoting “equality”? President Joe Biden, for example, has the ability to issue executive orders which hundreds of millions of people are legally bound to obey. Could anything be less “equal” than such an arrangement?

It turns out that there is a clear reason: The concept of equality is not just undefinable; it’s unachievable. Under any system (monarchy, fascism, communism, minarchism, democracy, voluntaryism, conservatism, etc.), some will perform much better than others; even purely direct democracy allows those with the best persuasive power to control the masses. By preaching “equality,” the state will always have a justification for growing its powers, since inequality will always at all times exist everywhere. 

What Is a Woman?

The equally compelling question of our day is: Why would progressives, who claim to champion women’s rights, refuse to say that a woman is simply an adult human female?

Matt Walsh of The Daily Wire has made a documentary titled What Is a Woman? to address the significance of this issue. I cannot recommend this film highly enough. With Americans who identify as LGBT doubling within the past decade, according to Gallop, and with children having access to puberty blockers along with sex change operations, Walsh accurately recognizes the necessity of taking on such an important issue. 

The best part was seeing Walsh sending doctors, protestors, professors, and a congressman into hysterics by asking simple questions. These are the “pro-Science™” people so brilliant that they must coercively rule over us for our own good.

Where Walsh Goes Wrong

Walsh cites Alfred Kinsey and John Money as the psychologists responsible for the “gender identity crises” and sexualization of today’s children. While I agree that it is important to get to the origins of these vital issues, Walsh does not explain why major institutions in America — controlled primarily by progressives — choose these ideas to promote instead of others.  

My personal thesis is as follows:

First, by confusing the genders, the state will face no authentic men who are genuine about intellectually or physically opposing state encroachments on freedom. While attending Arizona State University, I was told repeatedly that the only reason why I could be this angry at the activities of the government was that I was a purveyor of “toxic masculinity.”

Second, the state will face no authentic women who are willing to say, “The suffering caused by government actors is so destructive that I refuse to date or marry any pathetic man who would acquiesce to such evil.”

Third, by weakening the family unit — which necessarily consists of men and women — the state faces one less competing authority. Governments constantly seek to monopolize authority among a certain population so that people will associate the “the law” with “what the government says.” When the government tells you to go to war, support conscription, or condone regulation, you have no competing ideas, such as: “My parents and church always raised me to treat others with dignity, and never to murder or steal.”

Fourth, by weakening individuals’ understanding of their true identities, you will weaken their ability to understand themselves and those around them, making them ignorant and susceptible to manipulation. Imagine a person unaware that slavery or wars ever existed, and who has never heard of the potential downsides of a totalitarian government. Could this person rationally assess the world around himself? No. Thus, it is no surprise that after Helena Kerschner began her transitioning into becoming a man, she was shocked to find that testosterone was making her more prone to anger and had increased her sex drive. If we don’t recognize the basics of how men and women operate, then men and women can never get on the same page and are less likely to live harmoniously.

Fifth, the major causes of today’s gender relations issues stem from the state. With governments monopolizing the money supply — as in the case of the Federal Reserve in the United States — they devalue the currency through inflation, thereby disincentivizing people from saving or from postponing consumption. Because of the greatly diminished value of the currency, the prospects of owning a house and supporting a family are out of reach for many young people. Why save now, when inflation will make the money worthless later?

Also, division between the sexes is so universally propagated that men and women are uncomfortable spending time together. This tension artificially imposed upon people of goodwill could most blatantly be seen when, as president, Barack Obama pushed the long-debunked Gender Wage Gap Myth. Did his team really not know that the studies didn’t account for the types of jobs worked, experience, or number of hours worked? 

Finally, governments across the globe have instituted compulsory education. Imagine if parents could defund these indoctrination camps as easily as they can switch supermarkets or cable providers. No system is perfect, but free markets allow us to disassociate from bad actors voluntarily.

Addressing Bigotry

Consider the following: My technical age is 26, but I identify as 65; my actual nationality is Japanese, but I identify as Nigerian; my actual weight is 210 lbs., but I identify as 165 lbs.; my actual height is 5ft 11in, but I identify as 6ft 2in; and my income is $13,000 a year, but I identify as making $98,000 a year.

Having objective standards for reality does not make one a bigot. 

Comedian Dave Smith made this point, saying in so many words: So what if an atheist thinks that I’m delusional? He can think that. And I can think that other people are delusional. Why should I be guilted into buying into your delusion?

Conclusion

Much like the environmentalist who would like the Spotted Owl, Blowfish, Panda, and Polar Bear preserved for the beauty and the unique characteristics that they bring to Planet Earth, I want to live in a world where women and men are clearly defined and preserved. Overall, I give the movie a 9/10 — a must-watch for those who care to understand the depth of this issue.

TGIF: Glenn Loury’s Collectivist Immigration Policy

Glenn Loury, the economist at Brown University, often has interesting things to say. His YouTube Glenn Show episodes with linguist and social commentator John McWhorter feature valuable insights and eye-opening data about race, woke “anti-racism,” and related matters.

Loury is a neoclassical economist who is generally pro-market. He harbors some doubt about government solutions to social problems. But judging by what he says about immigration, his political theory is appallingly collectivist. This is alarmingly clear from his most recent video with McWhorter. (The transcript is here.)

Loury wants to separate the case for tight border control from the polarizing right-wing TV personalities like Tucker Carlson who constantly bang on about it. Loury’s purpose is to show that a perfectly nonracist case can be made for the government controlling “the border.” (The U.S, has more than one border, but Loury uses the singular form.) He says, in the typical alarmist right-wing manner:

Is it good for the country that we don’t have control of the border and that people come in the thousands and tens of thousands and ultimately in the millions without authorization?

So here’s an argument that I don’t think is a “swarthy hoard” argument. I am an American citizen. That’s a very special endowment which I have inherited in virtue of my birth. This is my country. There are 330 million or so of us. We should get to decide what the future of the composition of our polity is going to be through legitimate democratic deliberation. That’s what we elect representatives for. That’s the purpose of law.

He goes on to say that the American people should decide democratically, that is, collectively, who will and won’t “add[] positive value to the collective enterprise of the country.” It sounds more like he’s talking about a member-owned country club than about a (theoretically) free country.

I see three problems here. First, political decision-making in a representative democracy doesn’t work in the pollyannish way that Loury seems to imagine. Second, voters, politicians, and bureaucrats couldn’t acquire the information needed to ascertain who will and won’t “add[] positive value to the collective enterprise of the country.” And third, Loury’s approach runs roughshod over individual liberty, private property, and the pursuit of happiness. Aren’t those values our actual very special endowment inherited in virtue of our birth?

James Buchanan said that he helped found the Public Choice school of economics to achieve a “politics without romance.” By that he meant that if we are to understand the political realm, we must drop the civic-books fairy tales about well-informed voters and public-spirited politicians and bureaucrats. Instead, we must take people involved in politics as they really are. Politicians and bureaucrats do not become saints when they leave the private sector for government jobs. Even when they are not simply corrupt, they still have career ambitions and other self-interested motivations, like those outside the government.

A related point comes from the Austrian school of economics, specifically Ludwig von Mises and F. A Hayek, who showed beginning a century ago that central planners can’t possibly know all that they would have to know to guide a society’s commercial activities. It’s called “the knowledge problem,” and it’s why socialism and communism fail. The point also applies to governments that presume to plan immigration according to who will be productive and who will be parasitical. That “data” simply is not on deposit anywhere for the bureaucrats’ taking. Remember that we’re talking about human beings and a future that has yet to unfold.

Moreover, voter decision-making is distorted by perverse incentives inherent in the democratic system. As Bryan Caplan shows in The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies, voters tend to indulge their unexamined irrational biases rather than spend their free time studying which positions and candidates would be best for their communities. But why would they indulge their irrational biases? They do so because it is costless to each of them: since no single vote is likely to be decisive, why would busy people trade time with family and friends for pointless research that will have zero impact on an election? One of those irrational biases is the bias against foreigners. (Caplan explains his data-rich thesis here. See my review of Caplan’s book.)

The point of all this is to show that Loury’s idealized democratic vision — in which well-informed voters with a birdseye view of the social landscape elect wise and altruistic representatives guided only by the general welfare who will deliberate on an immigration policy aimed solely at creating the scientifically determined optimal population for America, a policy that will then be administered by humane bureaucrats in the executive branch under the guiding hand of an enlightened president — is a chimera. Rather, the political arena is a sausage factory full of largely unaccountable career-, prestige-, and power-seekers; special interests; and voters, each of whom pays only a tiny bit of the full price of their foolish choices.

Lastly, Loury overlooks the neglected cost of a collectivist approach to immigration. What cost? The cost to individual Americans who would sell or rent to, buy from, hire, work for, and socialize with immigrants. (The terrible cost to those locked out is obvious). Don’t those Americans have rights? Why should their freedom to engage in voluntary relationships with non-Americans require government permission, even if that system is given a democratic gloss? As Chandran Kukathas emphasizes in his book Immigration and Freedom, restrictions on actual and would-be immigrants necessarily are restrictions on American citizens too. It is impossible to enact the former without enacting the latter.

Watch Loury in action:

If we don’t have control, and we simply allow anyone who has the resources to get themselves to the Mexican side of that border and wade across that river into the country, we will look up in 20 years, in 50 years and find that we are a different country than we had been in ways over which we did not exert the legitimate discretion that is our inheritance as citizens of the country. [Emphasis added.]

That’s a social engineer speaking.

Loury thinks he’s accomplished his goal: since blacks, he alleges, suffer disproportionately from “uncontrolled immigration” (as if we have that) “through the labor market or through competition for public resources,” border control could hardly be racially motivated. Does he not see the problem here? Border control might still be motivated by animus toward Mexicans, Latinos generally, or brown people, rather than black people, although I accuse Loury of none of that.

As for his concern about the labor market and public resources, that is, tax revenue, Loury should know better. Immigration experts associated with the Cato Institute and elsewhere have shown repeatedly over many years that immigrants hugely benefit Americans generally on net and in fact the whole world. Immigrants are producers as well as consumers, and their crime rates and consumption of tax-funded benefits are relatively low. If Loury is worried about new arrivals’ going on the dole or lowering the wages of the high-school dropouts, he could propose, as second-best solutions, relevant welfare restrictions on new arrivals (they exist for the most part already) or assistance to the small number of low-skilled workers adversely affected in the job market. He could also propose that the government abolish myriad obstacles to creating businesses and housing. Instead, he proposes to keep people he deems unproductive out of the country, people who desperately want to make better lives for themselves and their families in America. Shame on him.

Again citing Caplan, significant wealth creation is to be expected from even the poorest immigrants in America because their productivity vastly increases when they move from capital-poor to capital-rich environments. Machines magnify the power of human labor. Moreover, the more people in a productive environment, the more minds there are to contribute new ideas that will combine with other ideas to become even better ideas. The result is a rising living standard for all. As Julian Simon put it, human ingenuity is the “ultimate resource.”

Thus, as Caplan says, an open-border policy is the most effective antipoverty program imaginable. Keeping poor people locked in undeveloped countries is simply cruel. (See Caplan’s graphic novel, Open Borders.)

Loury doesn’t mention culture in his case against freedom of movement, but it’s hard to believe that he doesn’t also have that in mind. Suffice it to say here that asking politicians to conserve “the culture” seems, to say the least, ill-advised — even if it were possible.

I’ll close with one more quote from Loury:

So who I don’t want to come? Anybody who doesn’t have my permission to come. Beyond that, if you were to ask me, and there are more people who want to come than there are “places” for them to come, and we have to decide how many places we want to make available for people to come, I would say, people who are going to come and be a dependent on the rest of us for their support are less desirable than people who want to come and who are going to start businesses or bring skills or things of this kind.

Here we see Loury falling back on the discredited fixed-pie model of society. More people than places for them? Immigrants in a free market create their own places. We also see Loury the soothsayer, for he apparently knows who will be dependent and who will be productive, who will start businesses and who won’t. Wouldn’t it be nice if the rest of us could see the future so clearly?

TGIF: True Liberals Are Not Conservatives

The relevance of F. A. Hayek’s essay “Why I Am Not a Conservative,” the postscript to his important 1960 book, The Constitution of Liberty, is demonstrated at once by the opening quote from Lord Acton:

At all times sincere friends of freedom have been rare, and its triumphs have been due to minorities, that have prevailed by associating themselves with auxiliaries whose objects often differed from their own; and this association, which is always dangerous, has sometimes been disastrous, by giving to opponents just grounds of opposition. [Emphasis added.]

Who among true liberal advocates of individual liberty and free social evolution — aka libertarians — would deny the truth of that observation?

Hayek had European conservatism in mind when he wrote his essay, and for years, American conservatives, who still had affection for true liberalism, hastened to point this out. As Hayek wrote:

Conservatism proper is a legitimate, probably necessary, and certainly widespread attitude of opposition to drastic change. It has, since the French Revolution, for a century and a half played an important role in European politics. Until the rise of socialism its opposite was liberalism. There is nothing corresponding to this conflict in the history of the United States, because what in Europe was called “liberalism” was here the common tradition on which the American polity had been built: thus the defender of the American tradition was a liberal in the European sense.

Later in his essay, he elaborated that “in the United States it is still possible to defend individual liberty by defending long-established institutions. To the liberal they are valuable not mainly because they are long established or because they are American but because they correspond to the ideals which he cherishes.”

But he noted that “This already existing confusion [over labels] was made worse by the recent attempt to transplant to America the European type of conservatism, which, being alien to the American tradition, has acquired a somewhat odd character.” The confusion was compounded, Hayek wrote, when socialists began to call themselves liberals.

Many still suffer from this confusion today. But change has been afoot because the illiberals of the left and right increasingly want no part of true liberalism or the label — and in a way, that’s good. Those on the left who call themselves progressives or socialists don’t like the label liberal (or neo-liberal) because they associate it with the current permanent bipartisan prowar regime beholden to special corporate interests (so we liberals still have work to do), and virtually all conservatives eschew the label because they don’t want to be mistaken for libertarians. That’s also good.

So Hayek’s essay has new relevance for America. Would Hayek have been surprised? He would have distinguished national conservatism from neoconservatism because of the latter’s cosmopolitanism. But how could he embrace as bonafide allies people who view imperialist war as a way to create “national greatness” and social solidarity, as the neocons do? Hayek would have agreed with Abraham Bishop who said in 1800 that “a nation which makes greatness its polestar can never be free; beneath national greatness sink individual greatness, honor, wealth and freedom.”

Let’s look at Hayek’s problem with conservatism. For him, the “decisive objection” is that “by its nature,” conservatism can do no more than slow down the change that progressives have initiated. That’s not good enough: “What the liberal must ask, first of all, is not how fast or how far we should move, but where we should move.” He acknowledged that although the liberal’s differences with the “collectivist radical” are greater than his differences with the conservative, the latter “generally holds merely a mild and moderate version of the prejudices of his time.” Thus “the liberal today must more positively oppose some of the basic conceptions which most conservatives share with the socialists.”

Explicitly illiberal American conservatives would take issue with Hayek here, but I think Hayek was right. To the extent that conservatives want to use the state to impose their values — through censorship, immigration and trade restrictions, vice prohibitions, antitrust law, cultural protectionism, and the like — they indeed share conceptions with their enemies on the left. The ends may differ, but the means bear an uneasy resemblance. (The late Leonard Liggio used to say that the original socialism arose as a middle way that promised to use conservative means, that is, the state, to achieve liberal ends, that is, industrial progress and widespread wealth. Later a “new left” turned against industrial progress and disparaged the goal of material abundance for all.)

“The main point about liberalism,” Hayek wrote, “is that it wants to go elsewhere, not to stand still.” My sense is that in the last few years, elements of the right have come to appreciate Hayek’s point. They became fed up with mere holding actions and have resolved to push a “positive” program. Unfortunately, it’s a state-saturated program that ought to make genuine liberals sick.

The exception appears to be foreign policy. Right-wing nonintervention seems to have two justifications: first, that the U.S. government is wrong to think it can design the cultures of other nation-states, and second, that the trillions of dollars the government spends on the military and foreign populations could be better used for domestic matters, including “border security.” So even in foreign policy the liberal and conservative bedfellows ought to be uncomfortable.

The liberal’s wish not to stand still is the crux of the matter.

There has never been a time when liberal ideals were fully realized and when liberalism did not look forward to further improvement of institutions. Liberalism is not averse to evolution and change; and where spontaneous change has been smothered by government control, it wants a great deal of change of policy. So far as much of current governmental action is concerned, there is in the present world very little reason for the liberal to wish to preserve things as they are. It would seem to the liberal, indeed, that what is most urgently needed in most parts of the world is a thorough sweeping away of the obstacles to free growth. [Emphasis added.]

Hayek’s embrace of a social order that guarantees change may seem to conflict with other things Hayek wrote that seem more conservative. But I think that may be mistaken. I take him to say that although the new is not necessarily the good, people must be free to try new ways to flourish. It is one thing to personally default to tried and true until something new proves itself worthy (because a tradition’s value may not be immediately apparent), but quite another to empower the state to impede innovation and entrepreneurship, which is disruptive insofar as it is constructive. (Hence I would change Schumpeter’s creative destruction to creative disruption.)

Hayek proceeded to enumerate several differences between liberal and conservative attitudes. The first, as already suggested, is that “one of the fundamental traits of the conservative attitude is a fear of change, a timid distrust of the new as such, while the liberal position is based on courage and confidence, on a preparedness to let change run its course even if we cannot predict where it will lead.” This for Hayek explained the liberal enthusiasm for the free market’s generation of spontaneous if unpredictable order, and the conservative lack of enthusiasm for such.

Relatedly, unlike liberalism, conservatism displays “its fondness for authority and its lack of understanding of economic forces. Since it distrusts both abstract theories and general principles, it neither understands those spontaneous forces on which a policy of freedom relies nor possesses a basis for formulating principles of policy.” For Hayek, the conservative’s “complacency … toward … established authority … is difficult to reconcile with the preservation of liberty.”

Hayek could have been describing Sen. Josh Hawley and the thinkers behind national conservatism when he wrote: “In general, it can probably be said that the conservative does not object to coercion or arbitrary power so long as it is used for what he regards as the right purposes. He believes that if government is in the hands of decent men, it ought not to be too much restricted by rigid rules.”

Hayek faulted the conservative for lacking — indeed, for disparaging — abstract political principles, which are the key to peaceful coexistence among people within a society who have different moral visions:

What I mean is that he has no political principles which enable him to work with people whose moral values differ from his own for a political order in which both can obey their convictions. It is the recognition of such principles that permits the coexistence of different sets of values that makes it possible to build a peaceful society with a minimum of force.

And this point of Hayek’s is especially pertinent:

Connected with the conservative distrust of the new and the strange is its hostility to internationalism and its proneness to a strident nationalism. Here is another source of its weakness in the struggle of ideas. It cannot alter the fact that the ideas which are changing our civilization respect no boundaries…. It is no real argument to say that an idea is un-American, or un-German, nor is a mistaken or vicious ideal better for having been conceived by one of our compatriots.

Hayek continued that “it is this nationalistic bias which frequently provides the bridge from conservatism to collectivism: to think in terms of ‘our’ industry or resource is only a short step away from demanding that these national assets be directed in the national interest….”

As he closed his essay Hayek confessed that since the word liberal had been corrupted, thanks to the French Revolution and other forces, by “overrationalis[m], nationalis[m]” and socialis[m],” it had ceased to a good label for his political outlook, which he shared with Tocqueville and Acton: “What I should want is a word which describes the party of life, the party that favors free growth and spontaneous evolution. But I have racked my brain unsuccessfully to find a descriptive term which commends itself.” (He found libertarian “singularly unattractive” and “manufactured.”)

I could go on quoting Hayek’s essay — which is not to say I agree with all of it — but I fear that would unduly impose on the reader. So I recommend that the entire essay by the self-described “unrepentant Old Whig” be devoured forthwith.

George H. Smith

The sad news has belatedly come to my attention that the philosopher and historian George H. Smith, 73, died on April 8. He had been in poor health. I was fortunate to have known George since the 1970s and to have had many conversations with him. He was self-educated, multidisciplinary, and nothing short of brilliant.

Smith wrote several books and hundreds of articles on the philosophy, history, and intellectual history of individualism, classical liberalism, anarchism, and freethought. His output was remarkable and can be found in literary and video form at Libertarianism.org. His work is also available at Amazon.com.

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