Archives for category: Political Theory

The term “neo-liberal” is the left’s favorite term to conflate actually-existing globalism, limited-government conservatism and libertarianism. There is a reason why libertarians, especially, hate the term. And, often, despise leftists for using it.
The term “cultural Marxist” I heard first from people trying to explain the left’s strange obsession with inclusion/exclusion issues and group identity politics. It is, I guess, a term of art on the right. I tend not to use it, but hey, I understand its utility. Modish, post-modern social justice ideas do trickle down from their ancestral origin, in Marx, regarding class interest and exploitation . . . and the idea that oppression must be understood in those precise terms.stevehorwitz
Users of the term cultural Marxism, so far as I have witnessed, do not normally conflate SJWers and feminists and intersectionalists with liberals and statists of the center-left variety. I, at least, rarely hear it so used, except when used in haste, and when the cultural acquiescence to the SJWers by the center-left is at issue. But perhaps I am living in a bubble.
Why bring this up?
Because Prof. Steve Horwitz, an economist I follow on Facebook, wrote the following:

The progressive bubble on college campuses that makes it so hard for so many students to pass an Ideological Turing Test leads them to name-call and question the good faith of libertarians and conservatives. Those students simply have no idea what a serious, thoughtful defense of conservative or libertarian ideas looks like.
But their bubble is mirrored on the right by the retreat into the right-wing media echo chamber which causes many conservatives, and too many libertarians, to be unable to pass an Ideological Turing Test themselves. They too end up name-calling and questioning the good faith of progressives, and they have little idea what a serious, thoughtful defense of progressive ideas looks like.
We end up with people shouting meaningless terms like “neo-liberal” and “cultural Marxist” at each other rather than actually talking, while they assert that they are on the moral high ground and the others are “snowflakes,” and everyone remains blissfully ignorant of the socially destructive bubbles they inhabit.

Horwitz had me until the last paragraph, at which point I rebelled. Neo-liberal is definitely not meaningless. It started life as a way to acknowledge the filiation of ideas of modern limited-government thought. Leftists, in recognizing it, acknowledge that liberalism used to be individualist — that in itself is something of an achievement (there are a lot of “liberals” and “progressives” out there who still refuse to accept the facts of their inheritance). The fact that it now encompasses almost the whole of any possible capitalist order indicates the extent to which its users hate the central institutions of capitalism: private property and markets, and the rule of law that sustains both.
And hey: cultural Marxist is not meaningless, either. The parentage of much of modern feminism and anti-racism and the whole intersectionalist project does indeed hail from a bowdlerized Marxism. It is not economic Marxism, which is fine, since that is a brain-dead philosophy anyway. It is “cultural” in that it emphasizes culture and “systemic” social influences, all the while denying whole perspectives on biology (and is thoroughly anti-science on many levels) and economic law.
So, these two terms may be problematic in some usages, or all, they are not mere terms of opprobrium. And to call them meaningless is to misconstrue major ideological ideas in our time.
Why would Horwitz suggest that they are meaningless?
Perhaps because he is playing a popular game that many libertarians play: the left and right are equally bad. And equally good.
Designate me dubious.
Where and how they err and differ depends on the subject.
And, frankly, the “right,” insofar as conservatives tend to uphold ancient, traditional conceptions of justice, is far, far less dangerous than the “left,” which holds to ideas of revolutionary justice, what Thomas Sowell calls “cosmic justice.” And my readings of John Rawls and the Frankfurt School confirm this notion down the line.
Like Horwitz, I do not easily fit into either camp. Perhaps like Horwitz, I can pass ideological Turing tests pretty well. I know what makes both left and right tick. And tic. And talk.
For the record, I categorize my social philosophy, following Herbert Spencer and F. A. Hayek, as “evolutionary justice,” which takes from traditional conceptions huge hunks of doctrine and major hints, but then applies philosophy and social science to them, to better understand their limitations.
I readily admit, this idea was revolutionary when advanced by John Locke, and the American Revolution, and in Spencer, Gustave de Molinari and others who carried on the tradition. But it was not anything like the revolution proposed by socialists.
The left has openly flirted (and often embraced) their concepts as a revolt against nature itself. My kind of revolutionists did not have the left’s utopian view of human potential, or the leftist’s “malleablist” (tabula rasa + social engineering) view of social causation. It was on the left that truly revolutionary — cosmic in scope — notions of justice took hold.
Today, things have come to a head. Contemporaries call each other names because now they recognize, as never before, how diametrically opposed their views are. Sure, they put themselves in bubbles for the reasons people have put themselves in bubbles throughout history. But the Internet has let us all gain intimate contact with our opponents’ very ids, and each side rears back in revulsion.
This is not a result of bubble-think. It is the result of more information and personal knowledge than ever before.
And I suspect Prof. Horwitz does not see it because he is firmly em-bubbled in the Academy, which houses many a . . . “snowflake.”
And let us come to terms with that as well. “Snowflake” is not a term used equally by both sides. It was used against the Social Justice Warriors by . . . everyone else. The far left’s whining and freak-outs over ideas showed a truly remarkable touchiness that most folks outside the left, not coddled by the deep class notions of oppression, and promiscuous standards to define oppression, are outside of their experience.
Horwitz’s apparent idea, here (if he is not simply engaging in an etiquette fiction) — that the left and right is equally as bad — strikes me as implausible. The left is more firmly in love with government, far more committed to government growth, and has a lock on several major cultural institutions all of which push increasing the size and scope of government.
They are the ones to fear most of all. For those very reasons. Government must be limited in order to be possessed.
I am somewhat surprised that a libertarian might think otherwise.
Now you see: that’s the bubble I live in, thinking that libertarians have it all figured out. When formulated as “all libertarians have it all figured out”? Obviously untrue.

twv

FYI:
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“. . . when the wealthy start to look like Russian oligarchs . . .”

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California Assemblyman Mike Gatto, jousting with Ben Shapiro, states this more than once. Large concentrations of wealth are a problem for a democracy, or a republic, when some have so much. When they start to look like Russian oligarchs, things go awry.

But the point isn’t whether the rich look like oligarchs. Do they behave like oligarchs?

For those of us who concentrate on actions and results, rather than symbols and semblances, Gatto’s worry is irrelevant. Except insofar as similarity signals identity, or something else dastardly.

We must fight oligarchy. Sure. And the crooked politics of cronyism.

But concentrating on “concentrated wealth” as if it were ipso facto criminal elides the distinction between actions, consequences and semblances.

And the results of such elisions are not exactly the stuff of the Elysian Fields. They are the stuff of nightmares.

twv

Perhaps true cosmic justice would be this: each person forced to live with the consequences of his or her* ideology.

The only way to do this would be to form separate countries/states with different political and economic systems.covervoyage2arcturus

It is worth noting that my ideology would be fine with concurrent, interpenetrating populations with neighbors belonging to different “governments.” You could live in a tightly constructed socialist state, or whatever else you want; I could live with the services brought to me by Moe’s Police, Larry’s Judiciary, and Curly’s Military. But the point of most other ideologies? Force the given ideology upon everyone, the unwilling to be brought to “justice.” Read the rest of this entry »

The history of philosophy is that of geniuses getting so close . . . but missing the mark.

Hence, my appreciation of a thinker is often not “do I agree” but “can I learn” from encountering said thinker’s work.

It is not for nothing that I am apt to say appreciative things about Jeremy Bentham but not William Godwin. Is Godwin uninteresting? Never, on occasion, correct? Irrelevant. It is merely that making sense of Bentham and where he went both wrong and right is much more edifying.

Thus, often we must look for truth, but keep a special eye out for the interesting and profitable mistakes, even blunders.

The two most interesting failures in political philosophy, in the last two centuries? Herbert Spencer and John Rawls. I am not sure anyone else comes even close.

The errors of great men are venerable because they are more profitable than the truths of little men. — Friedrich Nietzsche

Tom Woods, of the Tom Woods Show, a fine and informative libertarian podcast, puts out an excellent daily email newsletter. Today’s interested me:

On my Twitter feed the other day, someone posted a photo of a page in a textbook he was forced to use in college.

“If you are a libertarian or an anarchist who believes states are a threat to freedom, you should consider moving to Somalia.” That’s the first sentence on the page.
Subtle.
(The offending book, if you’re curious, is The Good Society: An Introduction to Comparative Politics, by Alan Draper and Ansil Ramsay.)
Here we have an academic textbook literally urging libertarians to move to Somalia if they hate states so much — in other words, it’s written at the level of “You like carrots? Why don’t you marry one” from third grade. Seriously, this is exactly the same dumb-guy argument I might encounter on Twitter.
“Without a state,” we read, Somalia under statelessness descended into a Hobbesian “state of nature where life is nasty, brutish, and short.”
Then, after two whole paragraphs on the situation in Somalia, we get study questions. If you look really, really closely, you may detect a very slight bias in these questions.
VERY SLIGHT, I tell you.
“1. Which is preferable, bad government or no government?”
“2. Why hasn’t Somalia without a state become the paradise that libertarians anticipate?”

This reaction, this common and absurd “Somalia Ploy,” is what you might expect from an over-emphasis on anti-statism among libertarians, at least when the “statism“ being fought is no longer informed by Ludwig von Mises’ usage of “etatism” (the French version of the word), but instead abused as a sort of hatred for The State in all its forms.

But the witlessness of some libertarians need not undermine the wits of the rest.

Here is my main reaction to the Somalia Ploy: Libertarians do not oppose The State because it protects human rights and thereby promotes public order and personal safety. No, libertarians oppose statism because States routinely, perhaps ineluctably, abuse human rights and thereby promote public disorder and personal insecurity. Certainly, all robust modern states do.

Libertarians defend the human right to liberty, the only (or, perhaps, one of the few) right(s) that can qualify as such (as a right). Why is this? Because liberty is one of the only (or few) defensible social relations that can be had by all. The right to liberty can be universalized.

Libertarians demand that the institutions of government defend rights. States too often offend against rights. But that does not mean that any society that lacks a state will necessarily defend rights. There is a logical fallacy involved to presume such a thing to be so.

Somalia does not have a long tradition of advocating and protecting rights. That is one reason that the states that preceded its recent period of statelessness were so awful.

And this historical and comparative aspect of the ploy is where Tom Woods plies his argument.

Now for one thing, was there ever a libertarian who predicted that a stateless Somalia — or a stateless anywhere else — would be a “paradise”?

More importantly, if we’re going to get a picture that’s worth anything of life in Somalia without the state, the correct comparison to make is not between Somalia and the United States (the comparison most writers like this are implicitly making), but between Somalia and comparable African countries.
And on that front, Somalia during its stateless period comes out pretty darn well. In most metrics of living standards it held steady or improved.
In the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization in 2008, Professor Benjamin Powell and his colleagues wrote:
“This paper’s main contribution to the literature has been to compare Somalia’s living standards to those of 41 other sub-Saharan African countries both before and after the collapse of the national government. We find that Somalia’s living standards have generally improved and that they compare relatively favorably with many existing African states. Importantly, we find that Somali living standards have often improved, not just in absolute terms, but also relative to other African countries since the collapse of the Somali central government.”
Economist Peter Leeson, in Anarchy Unbound (Cambridge University Press), reports similar findings — yes, Somalia ranked low in some categories during the stateless period, but that’s where it ranked before statelessness, too, and if anything it made progress in those categories (life expectancy is up, for instance, and infant mortality is down).

This is all very well and good. I am impressed. But even this does not get to the heart of the problem with the Somalia Ploy. Though it may be true that Somalia’s competing social institutions and long-standing (as well as recently developed) habits of sociality have encouraged the growth of a better-than-the-past-statist society, and a better-than-the-neighbors’ societies, too, I strongly doubt that Somalians are committed to a general right to liberty. I see little evidence that liberty has been the main focus of those institutions that have been responsible for “the peace” during the years of statelessness.

So, the Somalia Ploy must be relegated to Cheap Shot status. That serious scholars might advance it is only proof that what passes for seriousness among scholars these days leaves much to be desired.

Namely, “seriousness.” And maybe “scholarship,” too.

twv

Thomas Sowell retired from writing his syndicated column a few weeks ago. And so the tributes have been coming in. As they should.

img_1961I note that Paul Jacob at ThisIsCommonSense.com, and Gene Epstein on the Tom Woods Show, both have praised Sowell for his astute and well-explained economics popularizing while expressing their chagrin that Sowell never seemed to apply the same “thinking beyond Stage One” approach to foreign policy.

This was a point I made in one of my earliest published reviews, of Thomas Sowell’s A Conflict of Visions, to be found in the premiere issue of Liberty, way back in 1987. (Which you can read on this site, now — O, lucky you!)

So, if we are all pretty much saying the same thing, what can I say differently?

Well, I could mention my favorite Sowell book, his first: Say’s Law: An Historical Analysis. This is probably his most difficult book, in no small part because Say’s Law is itself a surprisingly difficult concept. It has been years since my last reading — and I have read it at least three times, even now wishing to return to it, give it another go.

I first read the book in tandem with W. H. Hutt’s quirky A Rehabilitation of Say’s Law. Each book helped me understand the other.

One of the really tricky things about Says Law is that it is a macro theory; but many authors found its chief resonance on the micro level. Indeed, though Say’s Law was first marshaled to debunk one theory of economic depression, the general glut theory, W. F. Lloyd, in his classic essay on value, tied that macro problem very closely to what became the theory of marginal utility, the micro theory par excellence. And Say’s Law according to Say’s disciplines — the Third School, or Catallactic economists — turned into a theory of “harmonies,” not equilibrium. It was another macro approach based on a micro insight that in turn was used against not merely general glut theories, but also protectionism and socialism. Sowell, if I remember correctly, does not extend his analysis into the third school, except insofar as he deals with Walras’s Identity.

As an economic popularizer and as an economic historian, particular of race and cultures, Sowell was magnificent. Yes. But as a social philosopher he was perhaps even better. More necessary.

There is a caveat to this judgment, however. Jacob and Epstein and Woods all discussed their favorite Sowell contributions. I have done the same, with his recondite Say’s Law survey. But let me offer a balance: his worst book, something neither Epstein nor Jacob bother with.

I nominate Marxism: Philosophy and Economics (1985). This book is easier to read than Say’s Law, my favorite, and it probably packs more punch . . . at least in terms of surprise value. But one of the big surprises is a huge whopper of an error. It is an error, of all things, about value.

Sowell asserts, in Marxism, that Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk was wrong on Marx’s labor theory of value.

When I read this, I had not only read Böhm’s classic “Zum Abschluss des Marxschen Systems,” translated under the provocative-if-puzzling title Karl Marx and the Close of His System (first English language edition, Alice MacDonald, 1898), but also two other important books related to the subject: Destutt de Tracy’s A Treatise on Political Economy (Thomas Jefferson, 1817) and a crucial chapter in Karl Marx’s infamous Das Kapital (1867).
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You might be wondering: what the heck — what’s with the Tracy? Well, Tracy makes much of the Condillac thesis of both parties to an exchange gaining value in the transaction. So when I read Marx’s obscurantist dismissal of that thesis, wherein the old socialist crank mocks Condillac and Tracy’s mutual gain thesis, I was prepared for Sowell’s disagreement with Böhm.

The key Marxian error, in my opinion, is that repudiation of mutual gain through trade. It was there that Marx necessarily went off track, not seeing how value is increased as goods flow through the market nexus. The marginalist view of value is intricately entangled with the mutual gain concept, and by rejecting mutual surplus of value in each trade, Marx took his most decisive turn the wrong way. Adam Smith and David Ricardo and the British economists had sent economics down the wrong path in 1776, and Marx took their labor theory of value to its absurdist conclusion. Sowell basically apologizes for Marx. He insists, without much evidence (and with the evidene right there in Das Kapital, on the pages citing Condillac and Tracy), that Marx’s formalistic definition of value as (somehow) incorporating socially necessary labor time was indeed compatible with marginalism. This thesis seems not in the tiniest degree defensible.

A few years later (if memory serves), David Ramsay Steele cleared all this up in his magnificent book on the socialist calculation problem, From Marx to Mises (1992), speculating that Sowell was merely regurgitating the views of his Marxist-apologist professors in the days before his conversion.

In any case, Sowell has, since his conversion from Marxism under the influence chiefly (I think) of Milton Friedman, remailed too closely tied to the British Classical School. He seems uninterested in, perhaps dismissive of the Third School tradition starting with Condillac and moving through Tracy, Comte and Dunoyer, Bastiat, Perry, Henry Dunning Macleod, and Gustave de Molinari. (Half of these economists are French or Belgian or Swiss, so the tradition is often called the French Liberal School. But that is too narrow a reading of this dissident, proto-marginalist tradition.) The later Third Schoolers ran off-track, too, in not accepting the important proof of the basic idea in the marginalist advances of W. S. Jevons, Carl Menger, and Leon Walras. While Menger did not go on at length about what he owed to the Third School economists, Jevons sure did, while heaping scorn upon the Ricardians. And Walras, it is worth noting, was himself the son of a Third School economist, Auguste.

This lack of interest in these economists seems especially strange to me, since Sowell has repeatedly dipped into the rhetorical well so ably primed by Third Schoolers Frédéric Bastiat and Yves Guyot. (See my forewords to Bastiat’s and Guyot’s classics, available on Amazon/Kindle and iBooks.)

But it has been a long time since I read Sowell’s Marxism. Perhaps my memory is fuzzy. And my view of the Marxian surplus value and exploitation theories needs refreshing. So, after just now re-reading my three decades’ old review of A Conflict of Visions, I won’t direct my attentionimg_1963 to The Vision of the Anointed: Self-Congratulaton as a Basis for Social Policy (1995), which I had been planning to do. I will go back and re-read Böhm-Bawerk’s take-down of Marx, instead.

So perhaps I will follow up this post with a corrective, soon. I should not be this fuzzy on something so basic as “surplus value.”

twv

img_0056The defining features of capitalism are

  • the widespread acceptance and defense of private property;
  • mostly free labor (no chattel slavery);
  • established markets in both consumer goods and producer goods (including sophisticated financial markets); and
  • the use of mass production through the division of labor primarily for consumption by the masses themselves.

Key features necessary for the onset of capitalism include

  • the accumulation of capital through savings (“abstinence” from consumption, as Nassau Senior put it);
  • respect for (or cultural valorization of) work and trade;
  • tolerance of natural inequality, a general culture deprecating envy;
  • a willingness (even eagerness) to form voluntary associations for mutual and general benefit;
  • a widespread-enough sense of justice to undergird the division of responsibility; and
  • a culture that encourages and expects its members to take charge of their lives at fairly young ages, to control sexual appetite, regulate population growth through something like marriage and family, and foster education and the cultivation of human capital.

Some or all of these factors must begin outside of a capitalist context, which evolves and, in some cases at least, presumably reinforces the bulk of them by self-subsumption.

In our real-world experience of capitalism, for instance, some of the necessary limitations on the scope and power of governments arose for a variety of reasons; religion played a key role in the early development of education and the habit of voluntary co-operation, as well as the enforcement of sexual practices that allowed some stability in families.

It is crucial in such discussions to distinguish two antagonistic poles of government policy towards capitalism, neatly expressed in the French terms “laissez faire” and “dirigisme.”

Many people mean by “capitalism” the former policy — and there is some reason for that. However, a word of caution: mercantilism (Adam Smith’s term for the variant of dirigisme popular in his day) was almost universally present as industrial capitalism took off in the 18th century. Laissez faire was an alternate policy approach advocated chiefly by intellectuals based on extrapolations they made from observing how trade works, and what the complete consequences of mercantilist policy were. The laissez faire economists ably demonstrated that mercantilist practice did not intellectually back up social outcomes of the policy.

Though some of the first advocates of laissez faire’s hands-off policy argued for it in terms of its “natural” quality, it is worth noting that laissez faire is a policy designed to limit the natural activity of state control of economic life. It is a rule-of-law policy to curb “corruption” and inefficient-to-the-public rent-seeking and zero-sum wealth transfers. It is not a description of our system, or any previous governmental policy, as such.

Modern capitalism has mostly evolved in the context of sovereign states, which have practiced, to varying degrees, protectionism, wage and price controls, a myriad forms of taxation, goofily partisan operations of industry and “security,” vast wealth transfers, plunder and confiscation, corvée labor, monetary manipulation and credit control, and occupational licensing, not to mention the historical defining features of the State, conquest and war.

It is obvious that “capitalism” covers a lot of ground, and also that there is a lot of “ruin in a nation” (h/t Adam Smith) ruled by states of whatever kind.

To repeat: laissez faire (“let them act”; “let-alone,” as a later economist translated it) might best be seen as a system of controls (limits) upon government. It is in an important sense a regulatory regime, only the target of regulation is largely government itself, which is seen as dangerous beyond a certain level and scope. (The regulation of the minutia of economic life is left to individuals and groups vying with each other to serve each other’s values. The order exhibited by markets, especially left free, is a sort of cybernetic, emergent property of decentralized decision-making. Adam Smith offered a powerful and influential metaphor to explain this tendency to order: “the invisible hand.” Frédéric Bastiat referred to this observable phenomenon as “economic harmonies.” Economists of a more theoretical bent have tried to capture some of the ideas, here, in various notions of “equilibrium.”) Even a cursory glance at history shows us that these controls on government have, historically, tempted fewer folks than those enamored of controls by government.

For a variety of reasons, most people “naturally” tend to prefer over laissez faire more arbitrary and malleable systems — systems that allow for mass coercion, intricate political hierarchy and the constant game of positioning to gain at the expense of everybody else. Via force.

This is to say that “dirigisme” (political control of markets and private property) wins most policy battles, and sometimes extremist versions of it, such as socialism, make huge (if temporary) gains.

The current system in America, along with most places elsewhere, is dirigisme. Such systems entail an interventionist state that usually receives the appellation “welfare state,” since the common justification for its vast wealth transfers is human betterment, or “welfare.” But its characteristic policies are probably best described as “mercantilism with a socialist face.” The policies are very old, a revival of ancient, closed-society practice. The difference of today’s mercantilism from that of the 18th century lies mainly in that the group interests appealed to tend to be radically different. Which groups that are actually served, on net, are arguably very different.

The open secret of modern society is this: the representative political systems governing the regulatory and redistributive programs of modern states tends to be captured by what used to be called “the monied interests” is under-appreciated by dirigisme’s most enthusiastic public supporters, who, instead, blame “the free market” (a non-existent creature nowadays) for our apparent plutocratic structures.

Also not appreciated? The sheer unwieldy volume of transfers both outright and hidden (regulations), which scuttle any realistic accounting of who wins and loses by the system.

It is not for nothing that political philosopher Anthony de Jasay offers an alterternate name for the modern welfare state: “the churning state.” As Jasay sees it, there is a constant churning of policies — with each turn of the crank creating new advantages and disadvantages. This constant shuffling yields a kind of chaos, a feature prophesied in the 18th century by C-F Volney, who identified the nature of such systems as examples of “an intestine war.”

The modern state incorporates the all-against-all warfare of the theorized “state of nature” into the fabric of government policy, the better to bind participants to the state.

To advocates of laissez faire, the whole edifice of modern ideology and politics looks like nothing other than a long con.

Meanwhile, the system does not fall into utter chaos because of the resilience and productivity of the markets — the freedoms — that are allowed. It is obvious that our modern churning states have survived for decades, though their sustainability over a long run (which we may be approaching an end to) is certainly questionable.

Unquestionable is the extent to which these policies have altered human culture and moral perspectives. The changes in this latter have been vast . . . some good, some bad.

The dream of laissez faire still remains a mirage-like goal, on the whole.

twv

The first half of The Liberal Tradition in American Thought (G. P. Putnam Sons, 1969), an anthology “selected and edited” by Walter E. Volkomer, is a fine testament to the robust nature of classical liberalism in its heyday in America, up until the Civil War. The second half of the volume is something completely different, a series of progressive and populist perspectives obviously and utterly at variance with the liberal ideas of the rule of law and limited government limned before.

The switch is astounding in its suddenness and extremity.

It marks an about-face.

img_1904That the anthologist and his readers could call the first half liberal while bequeathing the same name to the very different second half, is instructive. No wonder the anthologist admits, up front, that “liberalism has been identified with different ideas during different periods of American history.” No kidding.

The first five chapters begin with Roger Williams on religious freedom and end with Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. The clear theme is liberty.

The second section of eleven chapters is titled “Anti-Federalism and Jeffersonian Democracy,” and begins with Richard Henry Lee criticizing the proposed Constitution (approved in 1787) and ends with John Taylor of Caroline’s defense of state’s rights. Between these pieces, most of the selections are from Thomas Jefferson.

Taylor’s piece is worth extensive consideration. “I renounce the idea sometimes advanced,” explains Taylor, “that the state governments ever were or continue to be, sovereign or unlimited. If the people are sovereign, their governments cannot also be sovereign.” Obviously, as an advocate of “states’ rights,” Taylor was not an absolutist. First things first, first persons first: citizens before government.

“A government of laws and not of men, is a definition of liberty; a government of men and not of laws, of despotism.” Taylor’s basic argument is that a union of states cannot make one federal branch of government supreme over all others. As a union, each branch of the federal government and each state against the federal government, must have equal power to resist an unconstitutional encroachment by some other state or branch. Citing the oath explicitly worded in the Constitution, Taylor argues that “The mutuality of the oath, by imposing a common duty, implies a common right; because the duty cannot be discharged, except by the right of construction.” This is basically a balance-of-powers notion, expressed in terms of rights and duties, adding in the states to the mix of Legislative, Executive and Judiciary branches of the federal government itself.

No one of these can hold the last word, an over-riding sovereignty, since no state had that to begin with. The states could not and did not confer power and authority that they never had.

This is, at heart, the essence of the liberal idea: it is the individual that matters most; government can only serve and defend rights, not push people around as if all the right focused in government.

The third section deals with Jacksonian democracy. No Locofoco texts. Alas. The fourth focuses on “Freedom and the Union,” with anti-slavery argumentation by William Lloyd Garrison and an excerpt from Henry David Thoreau’s near-anarchist extension of John Taylor’s individual sovereignty idea. The rest of the section hails from the pen of Abraham Lincoln, writing against slavery and the Dred Scott decision, and for his own party, the Republican Party, “The Party of the Man.” This latter is a fascinating exploration of ideological inversions. It is also mostly incoherent.

The section concludes with Lincoln’s first inaugural address, a fine specimen of nationalism, and a complete repudiation of John Taylor’s approach to the Constitution. “Plainly, the central idea of secession,” Lincoln intoned, “is the essence of anarchy.” The quotations from the Constitution itself are of the vague clauses, and no serious consideration of the federation idea is anywhere in evidence.

The next section is entitled “The Protest Against Social Darwinism,” and excerpts, first, sociologist Lester Frank Ward, who though influential in the long run, was not popular in his day; second, from a speech by Edward Bellamy, the author of the wildly popular utopian science fiction novel Looking Backward, featuring vague talk of brutality and the horrors of “survival of the fittest” while making a pitch for the nationalization of industry; and finally the preamble and declaration of principles of the reform-minded Populist Party.

Our anthologist justifies these inclusions by identifying as “conservative” the character of “Social Darwinism, with it individualistic, competitive, and laissez-faire corollaries,” which “reigned as dominant” in the post-war period.

So, why is this “social Darwinism” conservative? Ostensibly, because it is “business-oriented.”

The silliness of this, considering that laissez-faire was not the traditional policy of American industrialists; the inanity of this, since William Graham Sumner, one of the briefly mentioned Social Darwinists, considered himself (and was considered by others) a liberal. Worse yet, no mention of how similar Herbert Spencer’s Social Statics (1851) was to Henry David Thoreau’s previously essayed liberalism. And Spencer was the very acme of the Social Darwinist mode of the time.

The anthologist relates how Ward refused to . . . Well, let’s quote our guide in full:

Ward accepted the basic evolutionary doctrines of Herbert Spencer, but he refused to apply them to man’s mental processes. His reform Darwinism distinguished between the wasteful, directionless competition of the animal world and man’s mental capacity for controlling his environment.

The fact that Spencer dealt with all these issues in detail gets no mention — indeed, Volkomer does not quote Spencer at all, much less acknowledge that Spencer was a known liberal, pretty much identical to the Thoreau of the excerpted “Civil Disobedience” (Spencer’s chapter “The Right to Ignore the State” is as Thoreauvian as Thoreau could be said to be Spencerian), and that his liberalism included a hearty anti-imperialist and individual liberationist bent. Characteristically, Ward did not consider Spencer’s actual arguments. At least, not in the excerpt from The Psychic Factors of Civilization, which contains the great marching order, “The individual has reigned long enough. The day has come for society to take its affairs into its own hands and shape its own destinies.”
This is technocratic socialism, not liberalism. That is, this is all very “progressive,” since the idea of limits on power goes out the window in the mad rush for “reform.”

And it is worth recalling that today’s lefty “liberals” — mostly now on the same page with the revived term “progressive” — follow Ward in rejecting biological explanations of the human mind and personality. Anti-science; anti-mind.

The rest of the book carries on in much the same vein. There is scant liberty in the liberalism of the second half of the book.

Which echoes what happened to the word “liberal” itself: it got shanghaied by statist reformers who gave their crackpot reform some cachet by glomming on to the old term.

Why? How? Largely, from what I can tell, because “liberal” was what we would now call “cool,” and was associated with smart people, magnanimous people. The progressives desperately needed cultural cachet, since they sought to revolutionize society along technocratic lines. And by cultural appropriation, they made liberalism into a watered-down socialism.

We’ve been living with the consequences ever since.

This old anthology is worth heading to your local atavism, the public library, and perusing. There is much grist, here, to aid in understanding what 1960s “liberals” thought about the word they used to define their hubristic plans to remake society.

The introduction by the anthologist is probably worth the trip, alone. It is a wondrous farrago of contradiction and nincompoopery, the sheer audacity of hope over reason.

twv

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A news headline screams against Steve Bannon. Why? Because, at some time in the past, he argued that only property owners should vote.

This, of course, triggered predictable responses.

It seems a tad strange that the several states’ ballot-access rules during the original federal republic are cause of scandal today. Yes, the United States franchise was limited to “men of property” during the union’s early years.

I am sympathetic with Bannon’s fleeting opinion. I have had the same thought, turned the same idea around and around in my head.

What? Why?

Well, property owners take on more of a specific kind of responsibility than do the propertyless. Indeed, the very existence of real property in one’s holdings indicates some level of solvency and reliability. Those who do not own property are less likely to be able to cover debts, or repay care provided in cases of incapacitation. Property owners must have a longer time horizon, and are less likely to seek to plunder others’ wealth to cover their own irresponsibility.

That latter possibility is an obvious problem with democracy, so limiting the vote to just those who have some sort of stake — “skin in the game” — in a society based on respect for property rights should discourage corruption and encourage financial stability in government and long-term thinking in general.

Restricting the vote to property owners — that is, limiting the franchise — would seem to provide voters with incentives to support stable, sustainable government, and avoid the temptation to support what Bastiat called “legal plunder,” which entices a widespread urge to attempt to live at others’ expense.

The problem with this, though, is that it does not take into account the reasoning on the issue by one antebellum political group in America. That group was the LocoFoco Party

These activists of the formally-named Equal Rights Party in 1830s New York — and colleagues in other states — opposed the crony capitalism of their day, the corruption and insider self-dealing of the “monopolies” bred by state legislatures.

As they saw it, the limited franchise had not lived up to its theorized promise. Crony capitalism had metastazied in the young republic. It had not taken long. The “men of property” had not resisted the siren song of “cronyism.” And the LocoFocos fought the insider “monopolies” — as part of the Jacksonian and other reform movements.

Of course, it came to pass that today’s full franchise took time to flower — women only got the right to vote throughout the union in 1920. But as the franchise was widened, so, too, did government grow, as more and more was demanded of the State by voters. And, of course, many of those male and female voters had scant holdings. As one would expect. 

Not all that slowly, corruption grew and grew in American life, as the number of laws and the number of wealth transfers through government increased.

Would limiting the franchise, today, help?

Well, we could require that voters consist of net taxpayers, not net tax consumers. This kind of a rule would dampen the incentives of democratic voting to usher in legal plunder.

Or, we could require voters to take out a bond to vote. Basically, make potential voters show the wherewith to gain mercantile confidence to fund defense in a legal case, or weather financial tragedy.

Other schemes could be developed. The whole idea is that we should stack the deck against popular government’s tendency to grow government.

The articles I read on Bannon’s limited franchise idea note that a property requirement would favor whites over blacks, suggesting that the whole issue is at base racial: “The groups most likely to own homes are whites and older people.”

But the factor I suggested at the beginning is not a racist one, unless you think non-whites and younger people are necessarily more irresponsible than today’s typical homeowner. (A racist thought in and of itself, no?) If you look at the exact reasons the founders gave for limiting the franchise, you will see why the idea was indeed all about incentivizing responsible citizenship and good governance. In Aristotelian terms, the limited franchise idea is a timocratic idea, not a democratic one. And democracies, Aristotle wrote, were the corrup form of timocracies.

So, I would not say Bannon’s past flirting with limiting the franchise indicates either unpatriotic or necessarily hateful attitudes. I suspect he considered the notion as a way to rein in today’s unaccountable, irresponsible government. A misguided attempt, sure. It does not quite pass history’s smell test. But at a time when federal debt is increasing at alarming rates, and expanding to insolvent proportions, I say give the man some latitude. 

Still, I understand the incredulity that most people would greet the idea. Most folks look at voting as a right of liberty — quite basic — and not as a wild-card factor in good governance. 

I, on the other hand, suspect that if we must have a State, it might very well be better were it run on timocratic, not democratic, principles.

The real question would be: how? Limiting it to just “men” (or, more expansively, “people”) of property seems to fly in the face of what we know. 

twv

One of the fundamental errors of today’s socio-political thought can be summed in one simple equation, an equation quite without validity:

Diversity = Equality

Diversity does not even imply equality; it contra-indicates it.

But that identity is the foundational notion of pomo morality and “identity politics.” Only a highly nuanced analysis of the diverse things (or persons) themselves, and the diverse standards that might apply to them, would find an important connection between the two concepts. But the connection would be an identity only as a “term of art.”

But it is not highly nuanced thought that we are given. We witness, instead, relentless and hysterical assertion after assertion of the dubious identity. The notion that Diversity is Equality is the dogma of the day.

And it is corrosive to the basic habits and institutions of a liberal society. It is the latest attempt to apply coherence to the mirage of “social justice.”

twv

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