The Debate Over Government and Freedom

As I read, do research, and reflect during my philosophy-themed travel to Edinburgh, I come across more or less the same issues as I do in contemporary discussions in the United States. David Hume argued in favor of a greater degree of freedom of commerce than was afforded people in his time, because as he observed, trade and its accompanying flow of information was a sure road to greater prosperity and liberty for the people as a whole.

Yet Hume hadn’t had the opportunity to observe how in a free market, the gradual accumulation of capital and the forming of monopolies could also be used to oppress and even enslave people, and rob individuals of fair opportunity and their share of the fruits of their labor. (His friend Adam Smith, however, predicted some of this.) Both correctly described what, in fact, did happen in the free market: it brought people out of serfdom, and led to greater prosperity for a larger number of people than ever before.

Market considerations also created the slave trade and made slavery last as long as it did; it’s causing the despoilation and ruination of the homes and lives of people around the world who live where they have rich natural resources but no political power; it’s causing the US to head towards a state of oligarchy, where misguided conservatives and libertarians are pushing through legislation that allows the rich to effectively buy the government that was intended to represent others as well; it’s destroying the environment through the reckless overproduction and overconsumption by manufacturers and consumers who usually make shortsighted, imprudent decisions, as behavioral economists observe and predict.

The fact that certain individuals and moneyed interests have and do oppress people as much as governments do, is what’s missing from much of the political discourse today. I have an essay in the works regarding government, the people, and liberty, but this fact seems obvious to me: the whole point of the US system of government (as well of those of other free countries in the world today) was that it’s supposed to be us, in a representative sense.

In that case, it shouldn’t be a matter of ‘making government small enough to drown in a bathtub’, or however that Grover Norquist quote goes. If that were the case, slavery never would have ended, for example: it was we the people, through our government, that forced slaveowners and the entrenched moneyed interests that depended on slavery for their profits, to give up some of their power, and freed millions of people to pursue their own happiness. We, via the government, championed human rights against encroachments on the part of both other individuals and government: suffrage for women and minorities, religious freedom, reproductive rights, you name it. Why on earth would we want to drown ‘we the people’ in that metaphorical bathtub? That would destroy individual liberty as surely as crushing the free market would.

Re-read, then take to heart, the intro to the Constitution, Grover.

My solution: take back the government from the few moneyed interests and individuals that are buying it up bit by bit, and make it ‘we the people’ again. Individual freedom, as well as the public interest and most businesses, would thus be best served. Remember, if plurality of interests disappears, swallowed up in mega business and monopolies that end up controlling the majority of resources, we would end up, effectively, just as much in a state of serfdom as anyone was before the free market was invented.

Communitarianism, Writ Large

I listened to Bill Moyers’ discussion with Michelle Alexander recently, about her book The New Jim Crow and her activism against the over-incarceration of black people here in the US. Something she said really struck me, as it relates to a problem I’ve been mulling over for some time. She said:

I realize that as well-intentioned as all that work was, it was leading me to a place of relatively narrow thinking… If I care about a young man serving, you know, 25 years to life for a minor drug crime… If I care about him and care about his humanity, ought I not also care equally about a young woman who’s facing deportation back to a country she hardly knows and had lived in only as a child and can barely speak the language? And ought I not be as equally concerned about her fate as well? Ought I not be equally concerned about a family whose loved ones were just killed by drones in Afghanistan? Ought I not care equally for all? And that really was Dr. King’s insistence at the end of his life. That we ought to care about the Vietnamese as much as we care and love our people at home.’

Alexander’s reflection on her own work illustrates our need not only to grow more expansive in our thinking in order to achieve a more just society not just locally, but globally: we need to witness and internalize the sufferings faced by other human beings who are not like us in appearance and culture, so that our instincts for empathy and for justice expand as well. 

The problems associated with the organization and implementation of an ordered society is the central topic of political philosophy; the problems associated with making societies just is the concern of ethical philosophy. Two philosophers whose work I especially admire in these fields are John Rawls and Michael Sandel. They are both concerned with justice, how to recognize a just society, and how we select the criteria for ethical decision-making. (I’m also a fan of Sandel’s because he’s engaged in a cause that’s dear to my heart: the great project of philosophy is not, and should not be, confined to academia. With his freely accessible lectures and discussions, and his popular philosophy books, he is among those reintroducing philosophy to the public square. Philosophy originated in the public square, after all, and as it addresses the concerns of the whole of humanity, then it should be a concern of, and the conversation should be accessible to, the whole of humanity as well.)

Yet Rawls and Sandel are at odds in some key ways. Among other things, Rawls’ theory of justice is classically liberal, in the tradition of John Locke, and focused on universalizability: a just system is one that must be applicable to all human societies, in all times and places. Sandel focuses more on the importance of community and tradition in matters of justice, and the answers are found more in solutions to ethical dilemmas based on particular society’s evolved norms. Rawl’s famous ‘veil of ignorance’ is his method for discerning whether or not a society is just: if each and every person were to be randomly assigned a role in society and had no way to know ahead of time who they would be (woman, man, CEO, employee, black, white, rich, poor, etc), and knowing this, they had to design a social arrangement, what would they all agree on? Then, we can look at how that veil-of-ignorance social design compares with an actual society to help us assess how just it is, and in turn, help us create s social system that will benefit everyone as much as possible. Seems a method that should obtain pretty fair, democratic results, right? But for Sandel, the veil of ignorance seems incoherent even as a mere thought experiment, since morals originate in, or emerge from, particular societies. Therefore, what is just is derived from how actual societies work, how they’ve grown and evolved to solve their own sets of problems, and cannot be derived from hypotheticals. So Rawls’ and Sandel’s ideas seem, on the face of it, irreconcilable. Who’s right?

Sandel’s views are generally described as communitarian, though he’s not entirely comfortable that characterization in that it can go too far in allowing community to trump the individual in all things moral. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ‘…communitarians argued that the standards of justice must be found in forms of life and traditions of particular societies and hence can vary from context to context’. In other words, communitarianism is the philosophy that ethics have more to do with particular societal morals and traditions, so the claim that there can be a universal definition of justice, such as Rawls’, is dubious at best.

When it comes to explaining how cultural traditions evolve to make a society more just, communitarianism has something to offer. For example, it’s among America’s most self-identifiable traditional ideals that individual liberty is of highest value and should be promoted as long as the freely chosen actions of one person don’t infringe on the freedom of another. The ideal of individual liberty has long roots in American society, and evolved and expanded over time through political upheavals, case law, and interpersonal disputes. But when we consider the traditional American ideal of individual liberty (by no means unique to America, of course) and compare it to our social history, it’s clear that it’s not no simple: it’s also been a tradition in the US to enslave other people. When that particular tradition was slowly, painfully overturned, there were many other ways that people, legally or illegally but commonly practiced, infringed on the freedoms of others: by denying women the vote, imposing Black Codes and Jim Crow laws, segregating the military, preventing workers from forming unions, and so on.

So a communitarian could argue that while the moral ideal of freedom is traditional in the US, it’s the broader implementation of it that took a long time as traditional practices caught up.

But how about societies that don’t have traditions of individual freedom, who believe there are some classes of people that should have all the power and wealth, and that it’s proper and right that others live in impoverishment and misery, lacking rights of citizenship, for their entire lives? Such is the caste system of India, for example, or the traditionally influential political philosophy of Aristotle which holds that there ‘natural’ slaves. Are we, then, not to be concerned that people of those cultures are suffering from injustice, if they belong to a community with different traditional views of justice? After all, according to the caste system, and to Aristotle and those communities that hold like views, it is just that certain people are slaves and certain people are not, that some people have power and some do not, that some live in wealth and comfort and others in misery, because all of this is justified by their society’s traditional concept of human nature.

Many people, myself included, have the same problem with communitarianism as I am sure Michelle Alexander does, given her quote which opens this essay: why should our sense of empathy, of moral obligation, be limited to the concerns and traditions of our own communities? That may have been prudent, even necessary, for our ancient ancestors, when human groups became large enough to need to compete for resources, but didn’t have the sophistication or technology to facilitate cooperation on such a large scale.

But now, our situation is very different: people’s ideas and actions, thanks to advanced technologies in communication, production, and travel, can have worldwide consequences, for ill and for good. We have access to centuries of the best products of human thought from disparate traditions all over the world, which are gradually coming to a consensus on some key issues in ethics and politics: the value of individual liberty, the benefits of equality, the necessity of having and fulfilling civic duties, and how to recognize a just society, for example.We have access to centuries of historical evidence which demonstrate the benefits of ever-more widespread cooperation, and the ineffectiveness of violent conflict, so that the immense suffering caused by war ends up wasted and unnecessary. And finally, now that people spend a lot of time ‘face-to-face’ with others from all over the world via computer, we feel a sense of real global community. Familiarity with people of different habits, different appearances, and different interests removes our sense of discomfort, and breeds not contempt, but empathy, compassion, and friendliness.

So perhaps the conflict between communitarian and modern liberal accounts of what constitutes a just society will lessen over time. After all, communitarianism must contain within it the idea that traditions change, grow, and evolve, since there have always been so many different traditions with mutually exclusive ethical codes. (I, too, think that morality is not fixed and eternal; rather, it’s a product of evolving, social, cooperative creatures.) And if the world’s communities are merging into one moral community, than the basic ideas of communitarianism will harmonize ever more with the universalizable ethical goals of liberal thought. While communitarians and liberals might still argue over the origins(s) of morals (tradition? reason? emotions?), our conception of justice, our ethical systems and the political institutions with which we realize them (governments, laws, and so on) will look more and more alike all over the world.

Listen to the podcast version here or subscribe on iTunes

~ Also published at Darrow, forum for ideas and creative commons webzine

~ Re-edited slightly in Feb/Mar 2016

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Sources and inspiration:

Alexander, Michelle. ‘Incarceration Nation’. Interview with Bill Moyers, December 20, 2013. http://billmoyers.com/episode/incarceration-nation/

Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow. 2012. New York: New Press Books.

Anderson, Elizabeth. ‘Tom Paine and the Ironies of Social Democracy‘, University of Chicago Law School Dewey Lecture 2012

Bell, Daniel. ‘Communitarianism‘, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971.

Sandel, Michael. Various works and lectures, including his books What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets and Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do?

Schneider, Greig and Egon Zehnder, Boston, and Ulrike Krause. ‘Interview with political philosopher Michael J. Sandel’, The Focus magazine. http://www.egonzehnder.com/the-focus-magazine/topics/the-focus-on-family/parallel-worlds/interview-with-political-philosopher-michael-j-sandel.html

The Value of a Liberal Education, and Two Risks of an Ideologically Narrow One

I grew up in a large, pretty close-knit extended family. There was a lot of dysfunction, as with many families, but a lot of love too. While I was often frustrated by the choices of some relatives (such as the tendency to enable bad behavior by sheltering the ‘sinner’ from consequences, or pretending it wasn’t happening), I was also secure in the knowledge that I belonged to a large, loving circle of people who would never abandon each other.

We were also a very insular family. We mostly hung out with each other and a few close family friends, pretty much all from church and pretty much all holding similar beliefs. Many of us kids, especially the older ones, had little contact with people outside of family and church. Many of us were (and some still are) home-schooled with a very conservative, fundamentalist Catholic curriculum, and many others attended all or mostly religious schools.

Given the state of much of the public school system, at least in the working class neighborhoods where many of us grew up, a part of me sympathizes with this choice. American public schools often leave much to be desired, to say the least. Since we have such a rotten system in America of funding public schools, with funding determined by the local tax base, we create a classist school system where the kids who need the most help don’t get the funding. So much for the non-aristocratic, egalitarian, freedom-of-opportunity ideal of America! But I digress…

But it seemed that the choice to limit our schooling to a strict Catholicism-centric education was usually based less on the concern with education quality as on a concern with raising children to replicate their parent’s beliefs and lifestyles. This makes sense in a certain way: parents want what’s best for their children, and people generally believe their own beliefs are the best, so, it’s logical parents want their children to believe and live as the parents see fit.

But here’s the way in which that doesn’t make sense: children are not replicants of their parents. They have their own thoughts, their own personalities, and their own sets of experiences. The world is full of different beliefs systems and lifestyles, often incompatible with those of the parents, that fulfill people, that suit them and make them happy. Every child, however they were raised, will inevitably confront that fact, and in today’s world of rapid, comprehensive access to data from all over the world, it will not take long.

Many parents recognize these facts, and are comfortable raising their children in a cosmopolitan fashion.

They want to equip their children with all the information they might require to navigate the world successfully in any community they may end up being a part of. To this end, they want children to truly understand not only their own beliefs, but the beliefs of others. While these parents may explain to their children why they think their own beliefs are better, they know that understanding the alternatives strengthens their capacity for critical thought. These patents also understand that their children should be comfortable interacting with people who believe and behave differently than they do, and familiarity with other faiths and cultures is the best way to accomplish this. Last but not least, these parents have the epistemic humility to admit that there’s a possibility that they are wrong, and they want to afford their children the opportunity to discover for themselves if that’s the case.

Such wise parents would agree, as I do, with Daniel Dennett, the philosopher who promotes the idea that a study of world religions should be a basic part of childhood education. Since religion is so central to both private and public life for most inhabitants of the world, he argues, children require this information to be wise and informed citizens. I think the same applies to science, politics, history, literature, and other disciplines relating to how people go about sharing, navigating, and understanding this world together.

For those parents who insist on providing an ideologically narrow education for their children, I’d ask them to consider this questions: when children grow up and confront different beliefs, customs, and lifestyles for the first time, as they inevitably will, what happens? What happens, for example, to the child of Biblical fundamentalists who finds out that almost all scientists, besides the half-dozen quoted in their textbooks, believe the Earth is billions of years old? Or that prayer doesn’t, statistically, prove to be effective in healing people? Or that people of other belief systems often live as harmonious, happy, fulfilled, ‘blessed’ lives as they do? Or even better? What happens to the barely educated woman, married off in her early teens and taught to be submissive to her husband, when she discovers that other women have the opportunity enjoy a rich intellectual life, a successful career, or a partnership with a spouse that respects her as an independent person?
For some children educated in this narrow way, whether their parents’ intentions were benign or otherwise, they will mostly reject alternative beliefs and ideas they come across out of hand. (‘That can’t be true, Dad would never lie to me.’ ‘I feel deep in my heart I know the truth, so I don’t need to question it.’ ‘Those poor Buddhists, they didn’t learn about Jesus. When they do, then they’ll truly be happy.’ ‘That’s the Devil talking, better not listen or I’ll be tortured in hell.’ ‘Liberals don’t believe in anything, but I do, so they must not have anything of value to say.’ ‘Environmentalists should just trust God instead of the government to protect the earth.’) They will grow up to more or less replicate the lives of their parents, happy in the security of knowing that they know the truth, what life’s really all about.
Others (I think very much a minority, but some) will thoroughly question the beliefs they were raised with in light of new ideas they’ve confronted, and in the end retain their parents’ beliefs because, to them, those beliefs ‘held up’ to the scrutiny. They might make some modifications here and there, but overall, stay convinced. These few are among the happiest of people, even happier than the unquestioning believers, I think, because they enjoy not only a sense of security in their beliefs, but intellectual satisfaction.

Still others will end up with a smorgasbord of beliefs, considering some sacred and unquestionable, discarding others, and adopting new ones. (Conservative Catholics derisively call others ‘cafeteria Catholics’ for engaging in this sort of picking and choosing.)

Many more will engage in ‘doublethink’, holding two or more contradictory beliefs at the same time. To take another example from the religion of my childhood, one might believe that it’s ‘spiritually true’ that the body and blood of Jesus is present in the eucharistic wafer, but also believe it’s scientifically impossible for a thing to have all the qualities of bread while simultaneously being composed of human tissue. (The psychological phenomenon of cognitive dissonance, how pervasive it is and the ways we deal with it, is discussed thoroughly and fascinatingly in Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson’s book Mistakes Were Made, but Not By Me. I highly, highly recommend it.)

But there are two big risks for the hopeful yet, I think, misguided parents who seeks to shelter their children from knowledge that could contradict their own cherished beliefs. And I think parents would do well to consider these risks carefully before embarking on this project of transforming education into something more akin to indoctrination.
Risk #1: Your children might grow up to challenge you on your perceived deception. They will ask: What did you have to hide? Why did you feel you had to shelter me from thinking through these matters in an informed way? If what you taught me was really, evidently true, than why did you go to such lengths to keep me from learning about opposing ideas? And why would you undermine my ability to defend the beliefs you wanted to pass on, by keeping me ignorant of the challenges to those beliefs?
I went through that process myself, resenting my education which as narrow and limited until I took it into my own hands and chose a public college rather then the very conservative one my family would choose for me. Initially, I questioned the motives of my family, and was very angry that I was years behind in many subjects, especially science and history. Over time, I’ve come to realize that it was their tactics, not their motivations, that were at fault. But the damage had been done.

Risk #2: But by fair the largest danger is raising children with the potential to be bigots, even violent ones. While most children brought up to strictly conform to the beliefs of their parents will not turn out that way, of course, too many do. Consider this: what inspires oppression, warfare, and terrorists attacks? They come from the ideologically ‘pure’, from those who think it’s their job to make sure the world conforms to their ideology, from religious dogmatism to racial ideology to political utopianism. And the more isolated people are in their minds from the ideas and beliefs of others, the more sure, the more committed they are, that they are right, so everyone else must be wrong. And if others are wrong, if they are different, they are the enemy.

Since people are rarely convinced to convert to a whole new set of beliefs overnight, the ideologue often resorts to violence as a means of forcibly imposing those beliefs. Ironically, violence, though a popular tool
throughout history for trying to impose change, it’s the least effective, as psychologist Steven Pinker and other researchers reveal. To this day, religiously and politically motivated terror attacks and assassinations continue to make headlines.

Yet despite this, things on that front are getting better all the time. I recently heard Pete Seeger say, pertaining to the environment, that the world will be saved by people working in their communities. I think the world will also be saved by children who grow up in this new era where information about the world is not so easily hidden from them. Despite some parent’s best efforts, children can no longer so easily be sheltered in little bubbles of idealized ignorance, sentimentally dubbed ‘innocence’. Since information flows so freely, children now grow up exposed to media that brings others’ experiences so vividly to life, and are now more comfortable in the presence of people who look and think differently then they do. Familiarity with ‘others’ humanizes them, and communities will come to be determined mostly by shared interests, not by geographic location or ideological isolationism.

So parents, teach your children not only how to be good people, but to be informed citizens of the world. It will be a safer and more wondrous place for them and their progeny, and I bet they’ll thank you for it.

Free Market Fundamentalism: A Moral Objection, and What Should Take Its Place (Short Form)

Etching of the view on the marketplace in Duisburg by Theodor Weber, 1850‘Free market fundamentalism?!? What do you mean by that? Isn’t that a loaded term?’

Yes, it is a loaded term! I’m sure you’re aware that the phrase, as commonly used, implies a negative attitude towards the idea that strict adherence to free market principles is the best economic path for a society to follow. And it also implies that proponents of a strict laissez-faire economic approach possess a blind faith in the power of the market. According to this view, Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’, operating only in a free market, is the only force or principle in the universe that will assure the best overall outcome for both personal liberty and the fair distribution of goods. But if you detect a certain…. skepticism on my part towards belief in that hypothesis, well, you’re right.

Because all economic choices are based primarily on self-interest, so the free market fundamentalist argument goes, no one will purposefully decide to act against their own self-interests. Even if it’s true that one’s choices result in satisfying only short-term self interests but are harmful over the long term, over time and in the aggregate, these choices with balance each other out in the marketplace. The tendency to make harmful choices will wane and eventually cease when the harm becomes apparent and other choices are observed to be better options. Self-interest will, therefore, inevitably cause people to make better economic decisions over time.

One example of people making very harmful decisions on a large scale, based on short-sighted self interests put into practice in a free market, is the Dust Bowl disaster in 1930’s United States. Farmers, en masse, planted high-market-value crops that impoverished the soil and led to widespread erosion problems. These, combined with unusual weather conditions, caused a massive dust storm and drought that caused hundreds of thousands of farms to fail, thousands of people to die from dust pneumonia and other drought- and famine-related illnesses, and millions to become homeless. These people were hard-working and did not lack in that enterprising, pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps work ethic lauded by the free market fundamentalist. They also made a rational choice: to make a success of the farm right away. So most farmers chose to forgo more prudent, sustainable methods of farming and chose instead to lift themselves out of their current state of debt and poverty by planting wheat. And in the end, this strategy soon proved disastrous to almost everyone’s long-term self-interest, including many prudent farmers who had made wiser choices.

So even though it’s true people sometimes and even often make self-destructive decisions due to short-sighted self-interest, the free market fundamentalist might point out that the ‘invisible hand’ force of the free market will correct this tendency overall. After all, we haven’t had another Dust Bowl (well, not exactly), and even if we’ve gotten ourselves into similar messes for similar reasons, each episode serves to correct our tendencies to make those particular unwise decisions. The individual might choose irrationally, but the system overall is rational.

But human beings are not just economic actors who allow our choices to be judged and corrected in the long run by the impartial and heartless forces of nature. We are moral agents: we judge each other’s actions, as well as our own, according to a(n) intuitive and/or written code of conduct, and hold each person accountable, in real time, for acting in accordance with that code. We also consider the potential consequences of our actions and choose to act according to how morally acceptable they are.

Here’s where our roles as ‘rational’, self-interested economic actors and as moral agents conflict. The corrective force of the free market, like biological natural selection, is an amoral force, which doesn’t ‘care’ who flourishes and who does not, who suffers and who does not, who lives or who dies. Human beings, as moral agents, do care about these things, both on a rational and on an emotional level. (I am convinced that the sharp distinction between emotion and reason is artificial and largely misleading, but that’s a topic for another essay. Here, I’ll use this distinction as it’s colloquially used, as two ways of looking at things, one that’s instinctive and one that’s more considered

So should humans, as moral beings, leave the weeding out of bad economic decisions mostly or entirely up to the amoral force of the free market? Is it morally right, or even acceptable, to allow the chips to fall as they may, so that bad effects (or the morally neutral term ‘inefficiencies’ of economics) end up correcting the whole system on its own? The corrective force of the free market, like natural selection, needs inefficiencies to correct against, in order to work its magic. But, the moral agent objects, these ‘inefficiencies’ that die out are, all too often, human lives! I argue that we, as moral, social beings, don’t consider the loss of human life an acceptable risk, and must hold ourselves and each other accountable if we don’t act to save lives if we can. And this commitment to moral excellence only begins at saving lives.

A general commitment to being a good citizen and a morally worthy human being should replace free market fundamentalism as the driving force behind one’s political and social views.  The facts of observation and of history reveal that the market is a force for ill as well as for good, and the morally committed, good citizen relies all of the evidence, to correct and sustain their beliefs and to inform their actions, and welcomes a system of checks and balances to keep them honest and on the right course between self-interest and concern for the common good.

The full text of my original essay can be found here:

Free Market Fundamentalism: A Moral Objection, and What Should Take Its Place

‘Free market fundamentalism?!? What do you mean by that? Isn’t that a loaded term?’

Well might you ask! And yes, it is a loaded term! I’m sure you’re aware that the phrase, as commonly used, implies a negative attitude towards the idea that strict adherence to free market principles is the best economic path for a society to follow. And it also implies that proponents of a strict laissez-faire economic approach possess a blind faith in the power of the market.

According to this view, Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’, operating only in a free market, is the only force or principle in the universe that will assure the best overall outcome for both personal liberty and the fair distribution of goods. But if you detect a certain…. skepticism on my part towards belief in that hypothesis, well, you’re right. I think that the term ‘free market fundamentalism’ accurately conveys the sense of an unshakable and all-encompassing belief in free market principles that I want to critique. Devotees of laissez-faire economics are commonly referred to as libertarians here in the US, but I’m not using that term here because it’s too broad for my purpose here: libertarianism also includes very liberal attitudes towards free speech rights, gun ownership, drug use, sex work, and so on. Here, I’m focusing on the economic issues only. In this essay, I’ll be using the acronym FMF to refer both to these common terms for strict free market philosophy (free market fundamentalism) and its proponents (free market fundamentalists), and speaking in general terms; of course, there are individual takes on the specifics of each issue, but I think my summaries of the arguments reflect the beliefs of the average FMF (free market fundamentalist).

Because all economic choices are based primarily on self-interest, so the FMF argument goes, no one will purposefully decide to act against their own self-interests. Even if it’s true that one’s choices result in satisfying only short-term self interests but are harmful over the long term, over time and in the aggregate, these choices with balance each other out in the marketplace. The tendency to make harmful choices will wane and eventually cease when the harm becomes apparent and other choices are observed to be better options. Self-interest will, therefore, inevitably cause people to make better economic decisions over time. There are many parallels between the ‘invisible hand’ of the free market and the biological force of natural selection, as Michael Shermer points out in his The Mind of the Market. (Disclaimer: I haven’t yet read it, and may never get around to it, but I’m familiar with many of the central arguments he makes in the book from his talks and interviews.)

A prime example of people making very harmful decisions on a large scale, based on short-sighted self interests put into practice in a free market, is the Dust Bowl disaster in 1930’s United States. Farmers, en masse, planted high-market-value crops that impoverished the soil and led to widespread erosion problems. These, combined with unusual weather conditions, caused a massive dust storm and drought that caused hundreds of thousands of farms to fail, thousands of people to die from dust pneumonia and other drought- and famine-related illnesses, and millions to become homeless. These people were hard-working and did not lack in that enterprising, pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps work ethic lauded by the FMF. They also made a rational choice: to make a success of the farm, to achieve the American dream as well as to pay debts necessarily incurred by a self-starting farmer, which do you plant: a crop that will bring in more money, like wheat, or a far less profitable, more sustainable one? Of course, the one that brings in more money! And how much of your land do you plant: just part of it (leaving the rest covered by that prairie grass that kept the topsoil in place, or planted with crops that must be plowed under to repair the soil), or all of it? You can guess which rational, short-sighted self-interest will lead one to choose.

So most farmers chose to forgo the more prudent methods of farming and chose instead to lift themselves out of their current state of debt and poverty by planting wheat. And in the end, this strategy soon proved disastrous to almost everyone’s long-term self-interest, including many prudent farmers who had made wiser choices. This pattern of harmful economic behavior considered in the long term, based on short-sighted self-interest, is endemic in the human species. From casino gambling to trading in high-risk derivatives, from daily eating at fast-food restaurants to choosing ‘natural, alternative’ treatments for usually curable cancer, from choosing great-looking, gas-guzzling, highly polluting cars to instituting a system of health care coverage that’s highly profitable to a few but unobtainable to many, market choices abound that lead to disastrous results for life, health, and financial well-being.

So even though it’s true people sometimes and even often make self-destructive decisions due to short-sighted self-interest, the FMF might point out that the ‘invisible hand’ force of the free market will correct this tendency overall. After all, we haven’t had another Dust Bowl (well, not exactly), and even if we’ve gotten ourselves into similar messes for similar reasons, each episode serves to correct our tendencies to make those particular unwise decisions. So the corrective force of the free market even renders moot recent studies by behavioral economists that indicate that human beings usually make irrational but emotionally satisfying economic decisions. Irrational choices that only negatively effect the individual on a small scale may happen all the time, but in the long run, the tendency to make truly harmful economic decisions will be weeded out by the market equivalent of natural selection. The individual might choose irrationally, but the system overall is rational.

But human beings are not just economic actors who allow our choices to be judged and corrected in the long run by the impartial and heartless forces of nature. We are moral agents: we judge each other’s actions, as well as our own, according to a(n) intuitive and/or written code of conduct, and hold each person accountable, in real time, for acting in accordance with that code. We also consider the potential consequences of our actions and choose to act according to how morally acceptable they are. The code might be a universal one, such as that which requires all human beings to respect each other’s right to freely make decisions for themselves, or it might be a particular one, which specifically prevents a doctor from selling her patients’ private health information to an interested third party. These moral codes make it possible for human beings to live and thrive together in a society, attaining the maximum level of flourishing and personal liberty while limiting the opportunities of others to infringe on these. As moral agents, we are not only driven by such self-interested concerns as satiating our own hunger and thirst, obtaining and defending property, and so on. We are also driven by wider social instincts and concerns, such as helping those in danger or in need, earning the approval of our peers, and improving the future prospects of our children and friends. The latter is often partly driven by self-interest: so the saying goes, we sink or swim together. But much of our human moral character is quite selfless: throughout history (and even pre-history) and in every culture, human beings perform acts of kindness that provide no immediate or foreseeable benefit to ourselves.

Here’s where our roles as ‘rational’, self-interested economic actors and as moral agents conflict. The corrective force of the free market, like biological natural selection, is an amoral force, which doesn’t ‘care’ who flourishes and who does not, who suffers and who does not, who lives or who dies. Human beings, as moral agents, do care about these things, both on a rational and on an emotional level. (I am convinced that the sharp distinction between emotion and reason is artificial and largely misleading, but that’s a topic for another essay. Here, I’ll use this distinction as it’s colloquially used, as two ways of looking at things, one that’s instinctive and one that’s more considered.)

So should humans, as moral beings, leave the weeding out of bad economic decisions mostly or entirely up to the amoral force of the free market? Returning to the example of the bad decision to farm intensively and unsustainably: time and the evidence revealed that these farming practices were harmful and actually against one’s rational self-interest, though the opposite had initially appeared to most to be true. But the harm was revealed by the resulting death of thousands and the financial ruin of millions. Is it morally right, or even acceptable, to allow the chips to fall as they may, so that bad effects (or the morally neutral term ‘inefficiencies’ of economics) end up correcting the whole system on its own? Is this true for everything in the economic sphere, from polluting cars and industries to the health care system in the United States? The corrective force of the free market, like natural selection, needs inefficiencies to correct against, in order to work its magic. But, the moral agent objects, these ‘inefficiencies’ that die out are, all too often, human lives! And I hold that most moral agents, most morally committed human beings, consider death and the risk of death to human persons to be a morally unacceptable result of our choices. And not only do we, as moral, social beings, do and should hold ourselves accountable, we hold each other accountable.

The FMF might allow that this is true, but  while the damage to individual finances, health, and life are regrettable, the corrective force of the free market is a better alternative to any other to ensure the greatest outcome to preserve human life and health. From Stalin and Mao’s communist regimes to Cuba’s socialist system, the FMF says, we’ve proved time and again that laissez-faire may sometimes look bad, but interference is almost always worse. Yet for every one of these cautionary tales of coercive top-down economic systems, there’s another tale of the horrors of laissez-faire: the Dust Bowl famine, the Industrial Revolution’s Manchester and other factory towns where the laboring poor were deformed and died from harsh working conditions and disease, child labor, the factory collapse in Bangladesh and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire and the exploded fertilizer plant in Texas whose owners ignored regulations…. who’s right?

Well, we can start with the observation that there’s a massive difference between a totalitarian regime ruled by a single unchecked despot who’s more often than not a deranged sociopath (a mentally healthy person is not one who desires unchecked power, I presume I’m in agreement with the public and with mental health professionals on this one) and a representative government whose powers are wisely limited by a bill of rights. I will betray my American prejudices (‘United-Statesian’ is just too clumsy an expression to use, so I apologize to Mexicans and Canadians, I’m not forgetting about you!) and proclaim that I’m a huge, HUGE fan of the checks-and-balances theory of government of Aristotle, Montesquieu, and Madison, in which several branches of government share power and so act as a check on any one person, branch of government, or set of interests holding too much power. But I’m not just a fan because I’m an American, I’m a fan because of how well it works. But it’s evident that a system of checks and balances not only works in government, it works marvelously in a multitude of other domains as well, from the worldwide scientific community to organizations to families to the inner and public life of each individual person. In all of these domains, the conflicting needs and interests are balanced against one another so that no one single interest or factor holds unchecked sway and potentially lead the whole into ruin for lack of a corrective mechanism. For example, the scientific community is rife with individuals who hold conflicting theories, who know disparate facts, and who wish to triumph over their colleagues by formulating the best theory or by cleverly debunking a seemingly established one. Over time, faulty theories are amended or are weeded out as science is ‘kept honest’, its theories constantly put to the test by the growing body of evidence.

The FMF focuses on the marketplace as the overarching system that’s subject to the corrective forces provided by the competition which animates the ‘invisible hand’. I think this is, at least partially, where the mistake lies. What corrects the marketplace itself when it comes to moral concerns? For example, in a free market, a worker’s wages are determined by how easy it is to replace them, according to the principle of supply and demand. As we’ve seen throughout history, the wages of relatively unskilled labor remains very low, since there’s usually a very large supply of it. The result, as it is in most of the world today, is that the people who pick the harvests on which our health and lives depend make very little money, and in fact can often hardly keep food on the table for themselves and their families. In contrast, a computer programmer, which requires a higher level of education and more technical skill, can make a very high salary developing video games or apps, a fun but relatively frivolous pursuit, which all too often encourages a sedentary lifestyle and poor attention span, negatively affecting health. (I’m not hating on video games, which bring joy and relaxation to many, though I have no interest in playing them myself; I’m making the point that they’re luxury items that are often addictive and misused). I think that for most people, other than the most extreme FMF, this is a regrettable result, at the very least. That’s because our morality includes a strong sense of justice and fairness, which indicates that people who do the most difficult and most beneficial jobs should be rewarded more than people who do the less difficult and less essential jobs.

It appears, then, that the market might better be regarded as one of the components of society that needs to be checked by and balanced with others. It needs, for one, to be checked by the essential practical needs of a community, such as a legal system, infrastructure, and defense, which is generally done by government (which, in turn, should be representative of and accountable to the people as a whole). But above all, it’s our moral commitments that should keep the market in its place (for an excellent explanation and defense of this, read Michael Sandel’s ‘What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets‘). The marketplace has proven to be an excellent and efficient institution for bringing goods to the people who want them, providing social mobility, and driving and funding technological innovation. It’s also been a very handy tool for oppressive and greedy institutions and individuals to exploit others, as earlier discussed, even being co-opted for these purposes by tyrannical regimes. I believe that it’s a mixed economy that can provide the best overall results for a society, that provides the most goods for the most people while ensuring that no-one (or as few as possible, realistically) goes without or is oppressed by the unscrupulous. By a mixed economy, I mean one that is free within limits, regulated wisely so as to prevent harm but not enough to stifle trade, and where those goods essential for life are not subject to the vagaries of market forces, but are provided by and for the people as a whole, again, through accountable and representative government. These essential goods, such as water, power, and health care are as essential as any infrastructure of roads or system of laws, and should be re-categorized and treated as such. It makes no more sense to me that a citizen, which enjoys the protections and other benefits of society, can complain about being ‘forced’ to pay taxes for health care that they may or may not use, while not complaining about being ‘forced’ to pay taxes to support the police force that may or may not actually have to catch a burglar in their home, or to pay for a murder trial where they have no relation to the murdered victim. That’s because societal goods, from health care to the criminal justice system, are not only based on the practical needs of individuals within a society. They arise from our moral concerns, which apply to everyone in a society. It’s no less acceptable, I submit, that we let people die because they could afford no health care provider to diagnose and treat their illnesses, than we let people die because they couldn’t pay for private security to protect themselves from armed burglars. That’s because our moral commitments to justice and the value we place on empathy demand that we look out for the welfare of the poor as well as the rich, and that we place on ourselves the public responsibility of relieving the suffering of everyone as best we can.

A general commitment to being a good citizen and a morally worthy human being should replace free market fundamentalism as the driving force behind one’s political and social views. I have no doubt that many who espouse FMF have, in fact, made this commitment and that’s what led to their beliefs. But clinging fiercely to the idea that there’s one and only one chief principle behind the betterment of society is no more defensible than believing there’s one and only one true theory in science, or one and only one branch of government that works. The facts of observation and of history reveal that the market is a force for ill as well as for good, and the morally committed, good citizen relies on the evidence, all of the evidence, to correct and sustain their beliefs and to inform their actions, and welcomes a system of checks and balances to keep them honest and on the right course.

Draft – Gun Control Debate in America: Some Double Standards From the Right and From the Left

In the heated debate over gun control, with extremist rhetoric proliferating from those on the liberal left and those on the conservative right, I’m finding that many from each of these two sides hold inconsistent views. (The libertarian arguments on this matter are more consistent, but aside from their devotion to liberty, incorporate some of the worst ideas from both sides, in my view.) To paraphrase the main points of each sides’ position:

From the right: A society is engaged in an moral endeavor when it governs itself, and as the arbiter of social rights and responsibilities, social institutions such as the government, the family, and the native religion(s), are an inherently moral institutions. Morality involves the shared code of behavior that every individual is required to follow. The distinction between ‘morals legislation’ and other laws is, therefore, meaningless, since morality is involved in everything we do. As a member of society, just as in a family, each individual has certain rights and responsibilities. Therefore, it is right and just that the laws enforce and support our moral code, and prohibit those actions which would threaten the survival of our social institutions, be it the family or the state. At the same time, each individual has a personal dignity and inherent worth which must also be protected from harm and from the encroachments of others. For example, it’s right that that law punishes rapists, murderers, child abusers, and thieves, since it is the proper role of law to discourage individuals from transgressing the moral order which is essential for familial and societal cohesiveness. The law also should punish these transgressors since they trample on individual liberties, such as rights to life, personal property, and freedom of speech and belief. Since human beings are fallible and prone to error, our social institutions

But it’s not enough that the law should just prohibit us from doing certain things. Besides imposing punishments on immoral behavior, the law should enforce certain duties, certain moral obligations, we should fulfill in order to deserve and enjoy the benefits of living in a society. For example, the law should require everyone to contribute to the overall welfare by paying taxes, to pay for such essential public goods such as  infrastructure, defense, and some additional degree of support and protection of the most vulnerable members of society, such as children, the disabled, the elderly, and the very poor. It also includes such reasonable obligations as registering ownership of our motor vehicles, obeying traffic laws, and purchasing auto insurance. These legal obligations should not only enforce the moral duty of citizens to fairly contribute to society, they should also enforce some degree of taking responsibility for some of the costs and and hazards we may potentially impose on others in the course of enjoying out personal liberties. For example, driving a motor vehicle is widely considered a personal choice, but it can easily result in harm to others if not enjoyed wisely. Without such legal requirements listed above, for example, a careless or drunk driver could run down and kill or maim innocent bystanders without fear of suffering any consequences. A road full of vehicles driven without traffic laws would result in severe traffic jams, severely impeding each individual’s liberty to travel, let alone the innumerable deadly crashes that would result.

A certain amount of prudent regulation, therefore, is actually necessary for protecting liberties. After all, when an individual exercises their liberty to fire a gun, they can potentially nullify every single liberty of another with a single shot. When the American Constitution says ‘Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…’ this does not mean that each and every action which could be categorized as speech cannot be limited or regulated if the speech of one can substantially infringe on the liberties of others. For example, Bradley Manning’s right to free speech and Julian Assange’s freedom of the press should be curtailed if their speech substantially threatens the security of other Americans. Therefore, regardless of the literal wording of the First Amendment, there can and should be laws abridging the freedoms of speech and of the press. We recognize that at least some of the Founding Fathers recognized this. For example, President John Adams championed the Alien and Sedition Acts which made it a crime to criticize the government, just a few years after he participated in the formulation of the Constitution.

From the left: Society and its governing institutions are constrained by morality, as is true for the conservative view; the government should never engage in immoral actions, such as infringing on essential liberties of citizens, engage in exploitative and unjust warfare, or be complicit in oppression anywhere in the world. Individuals also have public responsibilities, just as in the conservative view, such as paying taxes and obeying wise regulation. However, it is not the role of government to decide on intimate matters of personal liberty and expression of personality, since such governments have historically oppressed and even killed entire populations of people, such as religious and ethnic minorities, women, and political and other dissenters. Rather, it’s the role of government to protect the life, health, and liberty of individuals from the encroachment of others, such as powerful exploitative monetary interests or religious or ideological orthodoxy. Therefore, government should regulate commerce, since shortsighted financial interests of some can and often do harm the public as a whole, such as environmental polluters and makers of dangerous auto vehicles. But, the government should not not engage in ‘morals legislation’, since this infringes on the rights of individuals to control their own bodies and minds.

Where the right is inconsistent: So American conservatives, like other conservatives throughout the world, agree with the basic principles of political thinker Edmund Burke, who held that a society is a natural, organic institution (rather than a rationally constructed artificial entity), whose traditions must be respected and whose citizens are properly bound by moral duties and prohibitions. Yet, somehow, so many American conservatives argue as if all of these principles evaporate in the matter of gun control. In other parts of the world, the arguments for gun control often come from conservatives, who take the view that morality is the business of society, and people should not have the right to just run around doing whatever they want when and if it’s clear that what they want to do results in a moral wrong. For example, Australia adopted stricter gun control laws following the horrific massacre at Port Arthur, Tasmania, in the mid-nineties, and the arguments in favor of these new restrictions were traditionally conservative ones: the individual has moral responsibilities to society as well as morally determined limits to their behavior. Freedom does not mean people can just do whatever they want and have whatever they want: a responsible, moral member of society expects that some smaller liberties can and should be limited if such limitations lead to an overall more morally sound, liberty-enhancing society. The evidence shows that when weapons proliferate among a population, more people tend to die violent deaths, while populations that are less heavily armed tend to have low homicide rates. For example, consider the low homicide rates in Japan or Great Britain, where private gun ownership rates are also low, compared with the high gun ownership and violent death rates in the United States. Consider also the high death toll of mass attacks in the US, where mentally unhinged people easily possessed themselves of guns capable of killing many people within seconds, compared with mass attacks in China where it’s very difficult to obtain a gun, so the total of deaths and injuries inflicted with far less lethal weapons is a fraction of the US totals. Even if individual gun owners are responsible, the argument goes, it is their moral obligation to give up the particular liberty of owning certain weapons since the proliferation of such weapons undermines the security and stability of society as a whole. Many American conservatives say that individuals owning such weapons should actually make society safer, but this theory is simply not borne out by the evidence. In a morally good society, the right to one’s life is considered prior to and more precious than the right to own property, so the prevention of the moral evil of homicide takes precedence over personal desires to possess powerful weapons.

The American conservative stance against gun control but in favor of proscriptions against birth control and abortion, therefore, is incomprehensible to liberals, who rightly point out that if the right to life and the primacy of the procreative role of sex are greater than all other considerations, then the ‘pro-life’ movement should be at the forefront of the gun control effort, as it is for conservatives in other countries. Yet, the rhetoric of the conservative gun rights movement in the United States centers on a particular reading of the text of the 2nd amendment to the U.S. Constitution and an emphasis on property rights; the pro-life arguments are out the window for conservatives on this one. Therefore, American liberals consider the conservative gun rights position at best inconsistent, and at worst, hypocritical.

Where the left is inconsistent: The liberal left in America, however, does not consider it the primary role of a society and its governing institutions to promote and enforce personal morality. Rather, society’s role towards in the life of individuals is to protect them from harm from one another, and to ensure that each individual enjoys the same opportunities as any other to accomplish their goals and live a satisfying and meaningful life. Yet, arguments against so-called ‘morals legislation’ and arguments in favor of laws that prevent harm and promote equality are all based on moral considerations: that harm is worse than non-harm, that individual liberty is better than oppression, that human rights are sacred and that trespassing on them is wrong. There is no societal rule or proscription that is not derived from one moral precept or another: a human society is an inherently moral endeavor. When American liberals argue for laws that limit gun control but against laws that regulate other activities, such as abortion or sexual behavior, on the grounds that the government’s only task is to prevent harm, the arguments are often so inconsistent on that it’s no wonder that conservatives, in turn, consider liberal arguments to be inconsistent and hypocritical.

Where does the confusion originate? While American conservative arguments are generally based on a foundationalist moral system, which holds that all of morality is derived from a single founding principle (for example, Aristotle’s function-based system, or the divine command theory espoused by evangelicals), American liberal arguments seem to hold that, while the law is based on the foundationalist ethic of utilitarianism, personal behavior is governed by a pluralist moral system, which can differ from society to society. The various and often conflicting values we hold, such as liberty, compassion, beneficence, and so forth, must be weighed and balanced against one another in each matter under consideration. The law and issues of personal morality, then, should be determined separately, because utilitarian considerations are more readily determined and amenable to democratic consensus and evidence than value considerations. For example, it’s easier to find and present evidence regarding rates of gun ownership and crime statistics, and argue that high homicide and suicide rates    by gun reveal that the current system in the United States results in more harm than systems in other countries, or vice versa, than to demonstrate clearly that the value of liberty is more important than the value of safety, or vice versa.

I agree overall with the liberal position that the law should be utilitarian, and that moral pluralism seems to be a fact of human nature: I think that there is more evidence that morality is in fact based on a pluralism of values, and that a utilitarian ethic has done more to inform laws that promote human flourishing than laws based on other moral systems. Yet, American liberals so often argue as if their positions are only about harm and fairness, as Jonathan Haidt points out, when really there is and should be a more rich moral system that informs them (I think that Haidt has too simplistic a view of liberal morality, though I agree with his assessment of most mainstream liberal arguments, taken at face value). It seems to me that the choice of utilitarianism as the dominant theory in law formulation is a moral choice, based on the higher valuation of liberty over obedience, individual freedom from harm over social convenience or enrichment, knowledge over ‘blissful ignorance’ (soon to come: my critique of ‘innocence’ as a prized value), etc. The distinction between the harm/fairness basis of legal utilitarianism and the pluralistic basis of personal morality is, then, an artificial one, and American liberals would be well served to take the moral high ground, proudly trumpeting their commitment to moral excellence and responsibility rather than trying to hide it under the relatively dry and uninspiring rhetoric of mere consent and fairness.