Say What? Francis Bacon Quotes Cicero On Cato and Government

‘Cato means well: but he does hurt sometimes to the State; for he talks as if he were in the republic of Plato and not in the dregs of Romulus.’

– Marcus Cicero, as quoted by Francis Bacon in Wisdom of the Ancients

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Thomas Paine on Basic Income, and Why Welfare is Compatible with an Individualist Theory of Human Rights

Thomas Paine, advocate of liberty par excellence, is an intellectual hero of all believers in democratic and accountable government. He’s also, especially, a hero of modern American conservatives and those of the libertarian persuasion.

But here’s a lesser known fact: he also argues in favor of what today we commonly call welfare.

Paine is, most famously, the author of Common Sense, The American Crisis, The Rights of Man, and The Age of Reason. These pamphlets are, in turn, an argument in favor of the American colonies’ cause for independence, a series of pamphlets of encouragement and calls for support for the struggling revolution, a rebuttal to Edmund Burke’s harsh critique of the French Revolution (and founding work of modern conservatism), and deist critique of Christianity and organized religion in general.

In Common Sense, Paine calls government a ‘necessary evil’, which we need only because of our flawed human nature, and he considers it legitimate only if it functions to benefit the people as a whole. But to do so, it must remain fully accountable and therefore not too large, or else it would do as governments had always done throughout the history of Europe: it would oppress, enslave, overly tax, and otherwise use its people for its own ends, making them suffer for the inevitable territorial, political, and ideological wars that all monarchs, power-hungry aristocrats, and high-ranking clergy embroiled themselves and their nations in. He also writes that commerce was one of the great pacifiers of the world by rendering people ‘useful to each other’, and as such, should not be interfered with. Thus far, his thinking is closely aligned with the political principles of libertarianism and modern American conservatism.

Yet libertarians and conservatives misunderstand Paine when they stop there: Paine very definitively argues that government should play some very important roles in public life beyond defense of life and private property and the enforcement of contracts. After all, it’s not only governments that oppress and neglect its citizens in all kinds of ways: it’s also other people.

One of these roles that government should take on is economic support of all citizens when they are the most vulnerable, especially the young, the elderly, and the infirm. As Paine observes, neither governments nor individuals sufficiently protect the rights of working people nor of the people to support themselves when they can’t yet work or can no longer work. He himself suffers at the hands of the government when in their employ as a tax officer: they routinely underpay and overwork him and his fellow tax officers, fire him for insufficient cause, and punish him for petitioning the government to improve their treatment of public employees.

Paine thinks government can do better, and go beyond just paying fair wages to its own representatives. He argues in favor of publicly funded welfare for all citizens, especially at the beginning and at end of life, and he outlines a concrete plan for its implementation. As he sees it, taxation and redistribution of wealth, within certain bounds, are just as essential for liberty as are the franchise, education, free trade, a constitution, and a bill of rights. For every person to have the chance at sustaining their life in a way compatible with their rights, the young should, at the very least, receive a free and full education and a sum of money with which to start out on their chosen profession, and a stipend to sustain them in health, comfort, and dignity when they can no longer work.

How is this possible? How can Paine be in favor of accountable government and individual rights while supporting a welfare system, often portrayed today as an enemy of both? His argument is an innovative one, and shows how a system of welfare is, in fact, not only consistent with an individualist theory of liberty and human rights, but is a necessary consequence of it.

Like the writers of the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and the United States Constitution, Paine is influenced by John Locke, author of Two Treatises on Government and therefore, indirectly, of American political theory. Paine bases his argument on a Lockean theory of rights: all human beings are born into the world with identical natural rights, including that to life and liberty. Everyone is also born with equal rights of access to the land and to its resources, since the latter two are necessary to the former, not only for sustaining life but for making it a free and happy one. The right of individuals to own property, therefore, is not a pure natural right like the others, since it allows particular people access to particular land and resources while denying it to others. Purely natural rights, by contrast, are equal in kind and in degree from individual to individual. Yet giving people the right to claim property as their own is valuable to everyone, since it provides incentives for individuals to create wealth through labor, improving what nature left on its own cannot provide: agriculture, technology, housing, art, and so on, and this wealth is shared by all through trade. Unlike the right to life and liberty, Locke’s labor theory of property rights is contingent, valid only if its original acquisition is ‘mixed’ with the owner’s labor. and only if enough is left so that others have not only enough, but just as good. (When the United States government drove the Native Americans of their ancestral land, they routinely and conveniently forgot the second part of Locke’s property rights theory as they grabbed the most resource-rich and most conveniently located land for themselves, driving the tribes into ever smaller and ever poorer places.) Even if it sometimes interferes with the ability of some to enjoy their purely natural rights, such as when certain people grab all the wealth for themselves while leaving others to suffer in poverty and even starve, Locke thinks that the right to own property benefits society on the whole to such a degree that it’s justified.

Paine, however, is not satisfied. He observes that property rights routinely benefit the few to a great degree and most relatively little. He looks not only at the world around him but at the whole of European history, seeing a world of immense wealth mostly enjoyed by a small number of people while most others earn just enough to sustain themselves, and the problem tends to grow worse over time. Paine tends to blame this state of affairs largely on a spoiled, despotic monarchy, aristocracy, and clergy, who use the law, assertions of ‘duty’, and enticements of salvation to wrangle most of the wealth out of the hands of people who actually create it. This leaves many of the young without the resources with which they could start creating wealth of their own for themselves and their families, and the impoverishment of the old who, after a lifetime of contribution through work, are left without resources when they can work no longer, having earned too little in their lives to save for their old age. So how can this be squared with Locke’s view that property rights should generally lead to the benefit of all, and that they are contingent on there generally being enough for everyone else to have what’s ‘just as good’?

He addresses this problem most thoroughly in his lesser-known pamphlet Agrarian Justice, written in 1795 and ’96 after he’s observed the success of the American revolution (except for enslaved Americans, of course) and the turmoil of the French one. The French Revolution, after all, was mostly driven by popular anger and despair over the widespread privation and suffering of the French people, condemned to a life of hard work, few prospects for social mobility, and a strict hierarchical class system in which most of the nation’s wealth was gobbled up by a very few.

Paine doesn’t just base his argument on sympathy for the poor, the hapless young, and the elderly, though his work is clearly driven by that emotion, occasioned partly by his hard-working parents’ and his own struggles to get by. Instead, his argument centers on justice; specifically, the principle of just recompense. Since every person is born into society denied of their birthright, which is the right of equal access to all land on earth and its resources, everyone is responsible for paying damages for that loss. What we now call welfare is really reparations, due to everyone, by all members of a society that enforces landed property rights.

But wait a minute, one might object: isn’t the very fact that society as a whole benefits from property rights recompense enough? Even if Paine is right, wouldn’t justice only demand we make sure that everyone has the same liberties, the same protection under the law, and the same access to basic public goods such as infrastructure and education? That way, outcomes in wealth will generally apportion themselves fairly according to the hard work and ingenuity of individuals. This idea, commonly called equality of opportunity, is especially popular with those who fall into the modern conservative and libertarian portions of the political spectrum. Anything else looks like an injustice in this view. After all, is it really just to take away wealth from some, especially those who earned it through their own labor, and give it to those who have not earned it?

Remember that Paine offers the facts of history to show that fair wealth distribution just never seems to happen in societies that privatize land rights: the average person who works the hardest and does the most to benefit society very often does not accumulate even a fraction of the wealth as the relatively idle monarch, aristocrat, or member of the clergy. Well, then, how about today’s democratic market societies, where there is no monarch, aristocracy, or clergy empowered by the law to plunder most of the wealth from the working people for their personal use? We have only to pay attention to the news a short while to be aware that extreme inequality and unfairness of wealth distribution is as bad or nearly as bad as it’s ever been. The people doing the hardest and arguably most important jobs, such as teaching our children, manufacturing goods, cleaning up our cities, or harvesting the crops that sustain our lives earn anywhere from a pittance to a decent, but not stellar wage. Yet the CEO, the career politician, the idle children and grandchildren of millionaires, the trader and inventor of exotic financial products, and the tech whiz who invents the newest fad internet game often pile up money almost faster than they can stuff it into tax shelters.

Many like to say that unskilled, low-paid jobs are a stepping-stone to something else, but this is belied by the facts in the United States and around the world. While some do work their way up to more highly skilled and highly paid jobs, there are many, many more who never do. The fact that our economy depends on there being a certain number of those low-wage jobs in existence guarantees they will keep existing, at least until technology renders them obsolete. And when and if that happens, what will all those unemployed people do then? Even if every single one received an education and job training sufficient for employment as a skilled worker, there will only be a certain proportion of jobs that will be decently paid, leaving the rest in the same predicament. And there very well may be far fewer jobs in existence than there are people in this technological age. What then?

The reason why the whole equality of opportunity idea never works out may be that it’s a mythical concept, incompatible with the laws of nature, or if it were at least theoretically possible, undemonstrable.

In the real world, competition among workers for jobs necessarily leaves a huge number of people out when it comes to the ability to earn decent or even any money whether or not they do work hard, whether or not they’re willing but don’t have the opportunity, or whether or not they can at all. There are countless reasons for this due to the variety inherent in human nature and in the human experience. Some never had access to a good education, or they lack the network of patrons and mentors that the offspring of successful people rely on to get their own start in life. Others are simply not as intelligent, or tall, or graceful, or otherwise good-looking enough according to the whimsical and capricious standards of society, or of the ‘right’ race, ethnicity, religion, or don’t have the ‘right’ accent, and so on. There are jobs that disappear from the market due to advances in technology, with suddenly unemployed middle-aged or older people with now useless job skills in a society that heavily favors youth. There are people who are born with medical problems that make it difficult or nearly impossible to get well-paying jobs in a competitive market: skin disorders, genetically-imposed obesity, missing limbs, compromised immune systems, cancers, heart conditions…. the list is very long. And there are countless numbers of people for whom the ‘rat race’ is painful or self-destructive, as they have personalities that are shy, contemplative, independent, gentle, non-competitive, ‘weird’, and otherwise totally unsuited to that whole competition thing, and therefore terrible at it. The list goes on and on.

And the reason why equality of opportunity is undemonstrable, at least as something that can be implemented through public policy, can be recognized when we compare it to the gold standard of demonstrating the truth or usefulness of a theory: the scientific experiment. Consider a group of scientists who say, we are sure this theory is true because of this, that, and the other thing. They have an assortment of facts, they have arguments to show why, given the facts, certain things should result, so they make a prediction. Then they run the experiment and… what do you know, the results of the experiment fail to support the hypothesis. They say, oh yes, we see the flaws with the experiment and/or with the participants, they compose new arguments, they formulate a new hypothesis, they run a new experiment and… oops, it failed again! And again, and again. Now, consider every democratic market economy ever in existence and see if any of them actually achieved actual equality of outcome. These actual economies are analogous to the scientific experiments, and the equality of opportunity-based sets of policies are analogous to the hypotheses being tested. Even if, hypothetically, some system based on the ideal of equality of opportunity would actually achieve equality of outcome in a world of identical beings who are not born with or given extra advantages by others, we’ll never know. Asking us to ascribe to indemonstrable political strategies based on equality of opportunity is like asking us to believe the truth of hypotheses that are never proven by scientific experiment. That’s why I, for one, don’t buy it, and am more interested in focusing on equality of outcome, which Paine’s basic income idea seeks to resolve in a practical and just way.

Returning to the original point regarding the fairness of redistributing income from the wealthy to the un- or under-employed: Paine foresees this objection by calling for a universal basic income. In other words, he thinks that it should not be granted on the basis of need. That’s because, for one thing, he bases his whole argument on the equality of natural rights. All human beings alike are deprived of their natural right of free and full access to all of the land and its resource in societies that enforce landed property rights. Even those who own land are still deprived of the right of access to other land, so they are still owed the same damages. If they are wealthy enough to throw the money back into the public fund since they don’t need it, that’s up to them, and very much to their credit, but it’s still owed to them, same as anyone else.

For another thing, and perhaps most importantly for its being popularly acceptable enough for implementation, Paine recognizes that basic human psychology instinctively abhors unfairness. The whole idea of giving welfare to some and not others, even based on need, might seem charitable but still feels unfair, especially when the funds are taken away from people who earned it through their own labor and given to the un- or under-employed. Human beings simply do not need any more sources of strife and division than they already contend with: politics, ideology, and religion do enough mischief on that account already. Therefore, Paine says, basic income should be equally distributed regardless of need so that no-one is given, by society at least, an excuse to resent or look down on anyone else.

*This essay has also been published at the Thomas Paine National Historical Association website (under a different title)

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Sources and Inspiration:

“Labor Theory of Property.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 22 Sep. 2015. Web. 30 Sep. 2015.
https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Labor_theory_of_property&oldid=682304595

Locke, John. Two Treatises of Government, 1689
http://socserv2.socsci.mcmaster.ca/econ/ugcm/3ll3/locke/government.pdf

Paine, Thomas. Agrarian Justice, 1796.
http://piketty.pse.ens.fr/files/Paine1795.pdf

Paine, Thomas. The Rights of Man, 1791.
http://www.ucc.ie/archive/hdsp/Paine_Rights_of_Man.pdf

Freedom, Liberty, and the Inevitable Interconnectedness of Human Life

As a citizen of the United States, I’ve spent more than a little time wondering if it’s entirely a good thing that our culture is so very individualistic.

American individualism does originate from some excellent roots. The colonies that became the United States were largely founded by farmers, entrepreneurs, dreamers, the dispossessed, and others with a bold, adventurous spirit that animated them to cross the seas and start a new life from scratch in an unknown country.

These migrants included religious dissenters who struck out on their own and founded new faiths, devising theological arguments to demonstrate the righteousness of their doing so. Their arguments would later be adopted for secular purposes as they were used, barely altered, to support the right to freedom of thought and speech, and were embraced widely by many independent-minded communities. They were also open to new ideas, and were often more ready to accept innovative moral and political theories of the Enlightenment which emphasized individual rights and self-sovereignty over traditional authoritarian and elitist social systems than were their European counterparts, and more ready and able to implement them. Thomas Paine’s Common Sense and The Rights of Man, the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution, and the Bill of Rights are all essentially Enlightenment documents, embodying that intellectual movement’s conception of human nature and of the just society founded upon individual human rights.

The American project has always depended on free, forward-thinking individuals, and our national creed is founded on these three core beliefs: that individual human lives are valuable for their own sake, and that human rights not only exist, their defense should be our highest priority, and that all legitimate governmental authority originates with the people as a whole. Political systems founded on these beliefs, conceived in Britain and established first in America, reveal the strength of this view, and over time proved that individuals and society alike benefit enormously when the rights and interests of individuals take highest priority.

Over time, as free-market economics and other liberalizing social forces have expanded the rights and opportunities of the individual, some have come to believe that society, as a concept and as an institution, should play a secondary role in matters of public policy and morality. Margaret Thatcher, for one, famously claimed there’s no such thing. ‘Society’, to Thatcher and others whose views of human social arrangements might best be called atomist, is more or less a shorthand term for a population of individuals in a certain place and time. In this view, it’s the individual, not the group, that matters. Focus on protecting the the rights and interests of individuals, they say, and everything else will fall into place.

For one thing, they claim, the more individual rights are emphasized, the better off everyone is. Compare constitutional democracies, republics, and free-market societies which emphasize individual rights with societies that emphasize the interests of the group, and we can see that the former do a much better job overall of enhancing people’s lives. There’s more wealth, less poverty,  more opportunity, and greater autonomy in the former. The reason it works out that way, they argue, is because human nature is naturally individualistic first, and social second. For example, Michael Shermer, a well-known science writer who leans libertarian, argues that just as the individual is the object or target of evolutionary selection (or in other words, what selection acts upon), so it is the individual who should be the object or target of ethical concern and legal protection. (See my response to Shermer’s article here.)

Some such individualists, which often identify as libertarians and some as classical liberals, object to all or most taxation, saying it amounts to a sort of slavery because it forces individuals to pay for, and hence to work for, things they didn’t personally choose to contribute to. Others also object to public debt; Thomas Jefferson famously did so (though as President, the realities of governing the infant nation caused him to mitigate his views) saying it also amounts to further enslavement of future generations by forcing them, through their labor, to pay a debt they played no part in incurring. Still others object to laws limiting the ownership of guns, to the military draft, to eminent domain, to all manner of laws that subordinate the liberties of individuals to the interests of the group.

But there are some problems with these arguments. For one thing, it’s not historically true that societies that have done the most to improve lives focus almost exclusively on individual rights without regard to the interests of society. The laws of the United States, for example, are very concerned with the interests of the society as a whole as well, and are structured so as to find the correct balance between the rights of individuals and the interests and responsibilities of the people. ‘We the people’, a collective term, was chosen to as the introduction to the United States Constitution, not ‘we the individual persons’! In fact, the Bill of Rights, enumerating the rights of individuals, was only added after the Constitution, balancing the rights and interests of the people as a whole, was adopted, though its eventual inclusion was a condition for many states to agree to ratify it. The weakness of the United States government under its original Articles of Confederation, a document paying lip service to the political unity of the states without giving the federal government much real authority, was quickly recognized by leaders of the new nation struggling to maintain its newfound autonomy as it struggled to fund the American Revolution and to pay its debts, defend itself, and establish viable systems of trade. The original problem facing the infant United States, in other words, was too much concern for individual liberty and not enough for the welfare of all. The Constitution was adopted to correct this imbalance.

For another, we find that most societies generally considered anti-individualist and generally referred to as socialist, communist, or authoritarian, have not actually promoted the interests of society over individuals, for all their proclamations that that’s what they’re doing. Historically, they have exclusively promoted the ideology of one individual leader or a small group of elites, and imposed a political structure derived from it on the rest of society by crushing political dissent and severely restricting both individual and collective rights. If their policies ended up harming society as a whole, as they generally did, it didn’t matter much, so long as they carried out the will of the leader or the ruling elites. In fact, these sorts of governments could be better described as hyper-individualistic, promoting the interests of one or a few individuals regardless of the cost to society.

So how do we make sense of it all? How can we live together in societies, as we invariably do, and organize ourselves so that we can be as free as possible from the oppression of government and of other individuals? How do we achieve both negative freedom, freedom from interference, and positive freedom, freedom achieved through purposeful action? For human beings, we find that the ability to live a full and free life is tied up with our interconnectedness with our fellow humans as well as with respect for everyone else as individual persons whose worth is equal to our own. Any definition of human freedom or conception of human rights that doesn’t take sufficient account of both of these is incoherent, and not useful for understanding or for devising a better way of living, for individuals or societies.

To see this, let’s imagine what life might be life if the radical individualist view of human nature we just described won out and society operated on the principle that it (society) didn’t really exist. Imagine if the tax-equals-slavery argument was turned around so it was applied consistently: if those who built our tax-funded cities and infrastructure didn’t expressly consent to our personally using them, we shouldn’t be allowed to use them, since we would be benefiting from the fruits of their labor without their consent. This goes for anything paid for by public debt as well: since consent is central to the argument, it’s the consent itself that matters, not the money per se. In fact,So this would apply to anything achieved by collective action if people were compelled by law to contribute.


So in this scenario, we’d need to remove everything that collective action built and taxes and public debt paid for. Remove most roads and bridges, except the small ones on private property built by their owners. Remove the internet. Remove the armed forces, except for local militias. Remove police forces. Remove the polio vaccine, other vaccines, indeed, all medical advances that were achieved through the NIH and as a result of the space race and wars, both tax-funded, hugely expenses, large-scale government endeavors. Remove public lands, national and regional parks, and so on.
And we’d have to go further: remove all other laws of positive obligation which require us to do certain things, and leave only those of negative obligation, which prevent us from interfering with one another’s personal autonomy. Remove laws which require individuals to care for children, the elderly, the incapacitated, and the mentally ill. Remove Good Samaritan laws. Remove laws which require doctors, product manufacturers, food producers, pharmaceutical companies, and others to provide, in good faith and to the best of their knowledge, goods and services that won’t harm their clients.

Now imagine the ‘free’ life of the individual living in such a society. We go around constantly on the alert, knowing everyone else is armed, and while there might be laws against harming one another, the only ones who can enforce the law is ourselves. We must remain vigilant at all times, knowing that while most people, due to our evolved human nature as social creatures, don’t wish to kill or hurt one another most of the time, there are always a certain number who are able and willing to hurt others to further their own short-term interests. We may be crippled or die early from polio, or tuberculosis, or a virulent flu, or some other microbe-caused illness unless it just so happens that an enormously wealthy, long-lived philanthropist comes along willing to bankroll the decades-long, probably never-profitable project of discovering the microbe that causes it and developing vaccines which must constantly be updated due to evolution. We would probably never have the opportunity to see a buffalo, almost certainly extinct along with many other species killed in droves in the interests of short-term personal gain.

We can only travel roads, such as they are, by permission of the owner, and will likely have to stop often along the way and pay the tolls necessary to fund their building and upkeep. Because of this, most small businesses would have a terribly difficult time getting their supplies in shipped in or their products shipped out and probably never get off the ground, if runaway monopolies, never limited or broken up by government, didn’t eliminate their competition in the first place. Unless enough people happened to band together voluntarily or one extremely wealthy philanthropic person came along to make such a gigantic land purchase at the right time, we could not choose to rest our bodies and feast our eyes at great, rare natural landscapes such as Yosemite and Yellowstone; such places would be closed off at the whim of the owners; only the wealthy could afford the exorbitant entry fees the owner decided to charge; or they might have been destroyed if, say, an owner at some point decided they could make more money with Half Dome by dynamiting it for its rock or carving it into an image of his own face. The internet may have come into being at some point, but was was the case with the polio and other vaccines, the vast expenditures of time, money, and cooperation of effort required to develop it may have prevented it from ever existing except as funded by a superbusiness, and therefore, entirely controlled by it.

None of this goes to show that only a significant level of taxation and a strong government of laws could ever achieve all of the great advances of civilization and promote the use and preservation of natural resources to their fullest advantage. History shows us that while many liberties and freedoms were only ever obtained when governments intervened, it also tells us that many were brought about through other means: revolution and public unrest, markets, social institutions such as religions and universities, and so on. What this thought experiment does reveal is the intimate ways in which our lives are tied up together with those of others: what others chose or don’t choose to do provides opportunities and places limits on our freedom to choose, and vice versa.

This thought experiment also helps us see how easy it is to think that freedom and liberty are the same. I make this disclaimer from here on out: the two are often used interchangeably, in everyday as well as academic use. But I think that’s a mistake: to help explore the importance issues related to them, we need two words that are related to one another but which contain different shades of meaning, and freedom and liberty are ready and widely understood candidates. So, I’ll use them here more or less as I’ve often otherwise encountered them. Freedom, which enables one to actually chose and act upon as many alternatives that will enhance one’s ability to live a good and happy life as possible, can often come into direct conflict with liberty, which allows one to chose from the widest range of options regardless of consequences. Sometimes, when one is granted the liberty to do as they choose, they restrict the freedom of others. Consider the history of states’ rights’ activism in the United States, ostensibly all about promoting the rights of states to make most of their own laws (do states really have rights?), we find it was actually about giving states free rein to effectively strip away the Constitutional rights of certain of its citizens, and granting individuals license to do the same to one another.

Let’s consider libertarianism, a political philosophy which appears to promote personal liberty as the primary object of a society, sometimes to the extent that freedom seems relegated to a side effect or by-product. Why do I say this? Libertarianism calls for far less restriction of individual liberties than any other political philosophy except anarchism, often regardless of consequences except how it effects the liberty of others. A famous example is the issue of gun rights: libertarians generally regard the right to own guns a fundamental individual right, regardless of the evidence that more gun ownership in a population almost always correlates with far higher rates of gun-related death and injury. So while the liberty of people to own guns is protected, the total amount of freedom enjoyed by people is reduced because, of course, no one gets to enjoy freedom while they’re dead (Those who believe in life after death may disagree, but here I’m speaking in matters of law and society, which belongs entirely to the realm of the living.) There are also less demands placed on individual persons to pitch in and create public goods which enhance people’s lives, give people more choices, relieve people of the burdens of merely maintaining one’s survival, and otherwise promote the freedom to do more things even while specific liberties, such as how to allocate all of one’s own earnings, are curtailed. Whether or not more freedom is achieved, then, appears to be almost beside the point, since individual liberties are sacrosanct, not to be limited or regulated regardless of how this affects the total freedom of the individual or of society as a whole.

My intention is not to pick on libertarianism, since it’s not the only political philosophy whose adherents often fail to recognize the degree to which freedom and liberty can often diverge and to emphasize how much human individuality depends on interpersonal cooperation. While this movement is based on a fundamentally flawed conception of how freedom is best attained, it’s often modified to such as extent that many of its adherents hold very reasonable and enlightened views, and they do right to protest against governmental and corporate abuses of power. We all make such mistakes, on the left as well as on the right of the political spectrum. Many liberals demand more social responsibility in terms of tax-and-spend welfare and government investment in green technology while refusing to vaccinate their children, resulting in epidemics of easily preventable disease, and insist on muzzling people who voice unpopular or uncomfortable opinions by demanding they be fired for what they say in private and disinvited from speaking at universities, and so on. Many conservatives demand that markets remain free from government intervention while voting for legislation that gives corporations free rein to form monopolies and stifle competition, and champion religious freedom while demanding that the religious views of some people take precedence over others in matters of public policy, and enshrined to the exclusion of others in publicly funded spaces, and so on.

I, for one, value actual freedom over actual liberty, since the first is a good which directly affects my ability to live a full and happy life, and liberty is instrumental, valuable only insofar as it promotes actual freedom. And that’s why I, for one, prefer a political system that values freedom over liberty as it simultaneously values liberty as among the most freedom-promoting social good we can bestow on ourselves and one another.

Liberty is not the only way to freedom, far from it. That’s why, politically, I think I could best be described as a progressive, or a democratic republican socialist, since I believe political systems such as these do the best job of balancing individual rights with social well-being, which I think means making the increase of freedom, not just liberty, the primary goal. The reason progressive governments are on balance so successful, I believe, is that they best reflect the reality of the human condition as I’ve just described it: the desire of each individual for complete personal liberty is often in conflict with the ability of each individual to enjoy actual freedom. They protect the individual from unjustified governmental encroachment on their rights; they prevent individuals from encroaching on the rights of one another; they coordinate human efforts in great projects which reap huge benefits for huge numbers of people which smaller-scale efforts are unlikely to achieve; they have a built-in system of public input and of checks and balances through voting, taxation, appointment and hiring of experts in relevant fields of expertise, recall or impeachment of government officials, and so on.

And as we look around the world, where we find societies in which the largest number of individuals and groups enjoy the most freedom and liberty, we also find a constitution with a built-in system for amendment, robust enforcement of the rule of law, equal rights protections which neither the government or citizens are allowed to infringe on, a mixed economy, and a welfare system. And looking throughout history, we fail to find either an autocratic or a libertarian nation that achieved this balance of liberty and freedom through an infrastructure which facilitates both. Either the rights and interests of individuals are routinely ignored and trampled upon by governments in the interests of a few elites (monarchist, communist, and fascist governments fit into this category, even if they present themselves as acting in the name of the people), or individuals routinely ignore and trample upon the rights and interests of other individuals because the government is too weak and ineffectual to defend the people from each other, let alone from other nations (the United States in its first decades of existence, and countless other infant democracies and developing nations). While I find it difficult to imagine how a libertarian or autocratic society could achieve all of these things, I would be interested to see if it could be done. After all, the United States was an experiment in governance, and it did much better than many other nations at protecting individual freedom for many, if not for all; that’s why Abraham Lincoln was so anxious to keep the country together. But frankly, given human psychology and the lessons of history, I’m not holding my breath.

To many, the trick of attaining maximum freedom while simultaneously engendering maximum liberty for all seems like a tall order, if not impossible. That’s why, I suspect, so many of us so readily lean so far to one side or another, since the two seem disparate. But since the two are intertwined and inseparable due to the deep interconnectedness of humanity, for better or for worse, we need to think of the two as just different aspects of the same thing.

There are simple, practical ways of carrying this out, in legislation and in the ways we interact with others in day to day life. When it comes to policy, a good classic example of effectively balancing personal liberty with overall freedom was the old practice of restrictions on carrying guns in American towns. In the country and in their homes, people depended on their guns for food and protection and could have them handy to fight in militias if they choose to join up. However, law enforcement well knew, the close quarters people found themselves in in town could lead to a person with a gun to, in a fit of anger, drunkenness, accident, or poor judgement, permanently remove every freedom another could ever enjoy with the simple squeeze of a trigger. Therefore, when people chose to enter within town limits, they were required to give up their guns so that all could enjoy the freedom of going about their business unhampered by fear, knowing that while in town, no-one’s packing. The liberty of the gun owner was temporarily suspended in favor of the freedom of the many without placing too much of a hindrance on the gun owner’s ability to sustain their daily life. While the distribution of American society has changed, with most Americans now living in urban and suburban communities, a balance different in kind but similar in purpose might be struck. Perhaps all Americans could be allowed to own a gun if and only if they joined a state militia or local reserve branch of the military (as the actual wording of the Second Amendment provides for) so that all gun owners would be registered, trained, recognizable, and publicly accountable.

Thus far, we’ve discussed freedom and liberty extensively without once talking about rights. What are rights, and how are they related to freedom and liberty? A right is a much more nebulous concept, much harder to define or identify, and much more difficult to trace to its origin. For example, is it just something we’re born with? If so, why have human societies differed so much on what they are and whether we even have them, and why must we fight to get them? Are they, then, something we create? If so, why create some and not others? The topic of rights really needs to be the subject of another piece, one which I plan on writing about and about which countless others have written far more ably than I feel sure I ever could. But when we start discussing much more difficult cases in which freedom and liberty conflict, the subject of rights inevitably, and must, come up, if for no other reason that the concept of rights is a cornerstone of American law as it it for all nations who value and promote freedom and liberty. In the meantime, let’s talk about rights as some sort of thing tied up with personhood, we won’t say exactly what, without which persons enjoy neither freedom nor liberty. I think that’s a pretty good starting place, more or less reconcilable with every conception of right I’ve ever explored.

So sometimes, we find that in nature as well as politics, individual human freedom is intimately bound up with the rights and liberty of others, and it sometimes seems nearly impossible to tease out where individual interests, freedom, liberty, and rights begin and end. To explore this, let’s consider an ultimate doozy of a political and moral issues, one that perennially absorbs and divides the public like no other issue: abortion. Particularly, we’ll consider probably the most common argument commonly used in its favor, and perhaps, the most difficult to challenge.

This argument is the bodily rights argument, which holds that an individual’s right to their own body is inviolate. That being the case, a pregnant women has the right to expel or separate anything from her body that she doesn’t want there, just as anyone else would. This must, if that right really is inviolate, includes a fetus. In other words, no-one can ‘force’ a women to remain pregnant if she doesn’t want to be, since that would be a violation of her right to do with her own body as she sees fit.

But do we really believe that our rights to use our own bodies can and should be be unlimited? That’s not the case either. The law, just like other human beings and in fact, nature itself, ‘forces’ us to do things with our own bodies all the time. In fact, there is no such thing as moral or social obligations at all without some sort of demand on our bodies, since, of course, everything we think and do involves its use. For human beings, our freedom, our rights, and our very lives depend on whether or not others support our existence, at least some of the time, with their own bodies. There is no other law that I can think of where the bodily rights argument is the be-all-end-all.

For example, in addition to parental instinct, society uses enforcement of the law to compel parents to care for their children if social expectations haven’t done the trick, and rightly so. A parent must feed, clothe, house, and protect their children, and every single one of these obligations is dischargeable only by the use of the parent’s body, requiring labor, proximity of the parent to the child, and so on. The reason why we demand this is that we believe the child has the right to live, to enjoy the freedom and liberty that only life can bring, but no child can live without the help of their parents or other adults responsible for their care. We would not allow a mother to withhold breastfeeding, for example, if it was the only way a child could survive, or withhold cuddling, embraces, and all other physical manifestations of affection which we know children can’t be deprived of and still grow up healthy. In response to all of this, a bodily rights proponent could object that the fact that the fetus is inside the body, using the resources of the body itself, makes the case of a pregnant woman different and the demands of the fetus more egregious than we can force the mother to accept. However, I don’t see why these objections are particularly compelling, as this is a mere matter of location, not of demands on the body. All parental obligations place significant demands on the parents’ bodies whether or not the fetus’ physical location is within or without; in the case of very young children especially, these obligations hold round-the-clock. In fact, caring for a newborn or offspring of any age is often far more exhausting, far more expensive, demanding, and stressful to the mind and body that rearing a fetus inside the body.

I have yet, in fact, to encounter a defense of the bodily rights argument that’s convincing when it comes to abortion and not convincing in other matters. (‘Officer, I refuse to let you arrest me, since placing me in handcuffs and imprisoning me violates my bodily rights.’ ‘No, judge, I didn’t take my mother to the hospital or call 911 when I observed she was having a heart attack since that’s not what I decided to do with my own body.’ ‘May it please the court to note that when my client purposefully slammed their body into that other person, knocking them off the bridge, they were merely exercising the right to do with their body as they saw fit.’ Etcetera, etcetera.)

The inevitable interconnectedness of human life and its intimate relation to human freedom and liberty is what makes all societies function and upon which all law is built. It’s why, when it comes to arguments for unfettered personal liberty, including abortion rights, I don’t accept arguments such as the bodily rights argument as sufficient justification, since such arguments are derived from artificially atomistic, hyperindividualistic views of human nature,. In the case of abortion, it takes further arguments, such as whether a fetus is a person or whether the mother has the right of self-defense against the fetus that’s putting her life in jeopardy, to decide whether or not a mother has the moral obligation to provide for the development of another human life within her body. (I think that there are arguments that justify abortion in some circumstances; I explore this issue more fully in another piece.)

In all matters of law and order, of personal liberty and freedom for all, of the individual and society, the question of what we want to do, what we should do, and what we allow ourselves and others to do can only be satisfactorily and successfully addressed if our answers are informed by the basic assumption that, for each and every one of us, for there to be any I, we depend on them, and vice versa.

*Listen to the podcast reading of this essay here or on iTunes

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Sources and Inspiration:

Carter, Ian, “Positive and Negative Liberty”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.) http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2012/entries/liberty-positive-negative/

Nussbaum, Martha. “Equal Respect for Conscience: The Roots of a Moral and Legal Tradition”
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UChBe5sNQbk

Shermer, Michael. ‘How Science Can Inform Ethics and Champion Sentient Beings’, Scientific American, Jan 20, 2015 http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-science-can-inform-ethics

Thatcher, Margaret. ‘Interview for Woman’s Own (“no such thing as society”)’, Sep 23 1987, archived at MargaretThatcher.org http://www.margaretthatcher.org/document/106689

Wenar, Leif, “Rights”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2011 Ed.), Edward N. Zalta (ed.) http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2011/entries/rights/

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.

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.