THE MIRAGE OF FREEDOM WITHOUT EQUALITY

Two hundred and forty years ago, Thomas Jefferson penned the words in the Declaration of Independence that have both inspired and haunted America throughout the centuries. He wrote the self-evident truth that “All men are created equal.” Above I used the word “haunted” because throughout American history there has always been the constant reminder that this has forever been an ideal that we have not lived up to, for if all men are created equal, then all men must be treated equally by the law. It has always been the few who have dared to call out America on failing to live up to that idea, and those few have always faced the opposition of people who don’t want to have to see that dark underbelly that disturbs us all. However, on the other side of the coin, that phrase has always inspired us as an ideal to strive towards, and been the inspiration behind movements to challenge tyrants around the world.

Equality before the law has always been a cornerstone of liberal thought for the last few centuries (I use the word liberal in the classical, broadest, sense, rather than the modern liberal that the term has come to connote since the New Deal). Indeed, in this sense it is an essential ingredient to liberty, for without the recognition that we must always be treated equal under the law, some people will always see their freedom reduced in order to provide certain privileges for others. By privilege in this case I mean the narrow sense of certain legal benefits given to certain individuals and groups, at the expense of others. Privileges can be either positive or negative, meaning they can be certain things the government provides to certain people (such as special tax breaks), or they can be things the government actively does against somebody (such as a special tax on someone). To use concrete examples, the government gives a special subsidy to growers of corn for the use of sugar and ethanol, and then punishes cane sugar imports. When the government does this they are not treating business equally, but privileging certain ones at the expense of others. An obvious negative treatment is slavery, where an entire race was subjugated to chattel servitude simply because of their skin color, and Jim Crow “separate, but equal” laws fall under the same category.

From the classical liberal perspective, these unequal laws are a scourge upon liberty. If individuals and groups aren’t treated equally under the law, they also are not free, or at least not as free as others. This is why, at least politically, the movement for LGBT equality is something that should be recognized for what it is, the demand for certain people to be treated equally under the law, and have the same rights and freedoms as those who are straight. It’s not about having special treatment at the expense of those who are straight, but having the same liberties as those who are straight. The Black Lives Matter movement is also an example of the demand for equal treatment under the law. As a principle, this is a movement that has been going on since the first African-American slave arrived in Virginia in 1619. (One can quibble with certain goals of the organization, but the principle is a vital one.) Throughout our history, black lives have not mattered as much as the lives of white Americans, and the demand for equal treatment by law enforcement as one of the coercive arms of the state is essential. Although the data doesn’t support the conclusion that blacks are shot at more than whites, as a whole blacks do have physical force applied to them far more than white people do. This concrete example makes clear that unequal treatment isn’t simply an affront to justice, but an infringement on the equal rights and liberties of everyone.

I want to go further and discuss what this kind of equality is not. It is not that people ought to have equality of outcomes, nor is it necessarily equality of outcomes, both of which are egalitarian measures as a function of economics rather than law. I think it is important to keep a distinction between considering equality in terms of economic arrangements and legal arrangements. Although there is a relation in terms of how the laws are applied in economic regulations, when we consider equal freedom under the law, we are considering something distinct from whether or not people should be equal in terms of opportunities. Equality of outcome is the notion that everyone should be equal in terms of their income and property distribution. Equality of opportunity is the notion that everyone should have the same chance to succeed in life, regardless of the station to which they are born into. Both hold a certain danger to the free society, in that both require greater amounts of government intervention into the economy which inhibits the economic freedom of some for the benefit of others. In considering both in terms of degrees, equality of outcome is far more dangerous to the free society than is equality of opportunity. The former requires large degrees of government coercion and redistribution in order to equalize peoples stations in life, and history has shown that this equality always pushes everyone down (except for those wielding power) rather than lifting everyone up.

On the other hand, equality of opportunity, is actually something that a free society does tend to strive towards, but within the bounds of respecting equal treatment under the law. For instance, the elimination of nobility in the American constitution is both an instrument of equal treatment under the law, and a way of creating more equal conditions in terms of opportunity that people have. Declaring JIm Crow laws unconstitutional is also a way of creating both equal treatment, and equality of opportunity. There is always a degree of nuance and complexity involved here. Affirmative action is a good example of a law that tries to equalize opportunities, but causes much disagreement over whether or not it goes against equal treatment under law. As Matthew Yglesias of Vox has argued, there is no real way to measure equality of opportunity, so it is very difficult to measure whether or not it has been achieved, and I would argue we will never fully achieve it through legal means if we hope to maintain equal treatment under the law. However, perhaps one day we will approximate more fully as society evolves, and, hopefully, we begin to realize our shared humanity. Then maybe we can learn how much we accomplish without the use of force, which is why the free society rests so fundamentally on individual responsibility and initiative. And, to end on a pessimistic note, maybe why we will never completely achieve it. As William F. Buckley Jr. noted about the conservative movement, it will always be asymptotic in achieving its ideals.

VOTING ON PRINCIPLE

The other day on Facebook, I wrote a post saying that one should always vote according to principle. I wanted to take the opportunity to clarify what I meant in that post.

First, voting on principle is not the same thing as voting on ideological purity. A candidate is rarely, if ever, going to reflect the ideology one holds perfectly. Even though I am voting for him, I do not agree with Gary Johnson on every position he holds. Moreover, there are stances he takes that quite a few libertarians would disagree with. However, in the big picture he is a libertarian, and is doing a decent enough job of representing what the libertarian position looks like in modern American politics.

Second, and following on the first point, I am not saying one cannot vote pragmatically. In some ways my support for Johnson is pragmatic. However, when I say that one should always vote on principle, it means you should always look for the candidate that you respect, and will make the best president. If you don’t think anyone fits that mold, then you shouldn’t vote for any of the options. However, within that framework, there is a lot of room to move around in terms of ideological considerations and pragmatism. Unlike Johnson, I am pro-life, and I think freedom of association deserves more thought than what he seems to be giving it. However, I also agree with him on many other positions, and I think he will not do much harm to those areas where I disagree with him. I also think that both him and Weld, his running mate, were good governors, as far as I have been able to gather, and I think Johnson would make a good president. That is, he will uphold and defend the constitution of the United States.

This is my take at least, and I welcome others. Ideology, and other factors, will obviously play a role in how we understand the principles that we apply. However, voting for a lesser of two evils is simply not an option. Sometimes it is best to not vote.

THE MORALISM OF PROGRESSIVISM

In this brief essay I want to focus a little closer on social progressivism. First though, we need to lay out some preliminaries. The idea of a cluster of social issues is problematic in the very first instance. As Charles Cooke has pointed out in his book, “The Conservatarian Manifesto,” there is no logical connection between the various issues that are considered “social.” Under the general umbrella of social issues have been gathered, abortion, gay rights/marriage, transgenderism, drugs, the death penalty, gun control, evolution/creation, stem cell research (this issue has faded more recently, but one could add cloning). Just from the listing one could see how problematic it is. I could be opposed to abortion, but for gay marriage, and against the death penalty, and support gun control, or I could hold vice versa or any other combination. There are some people who are very consistent on each side, but I think most, more or less, have varying degrees on positions. But the main point I want to make is that there is no logical connection of social issues. Instead, what I want to focus on is the particular moral stance that is at the core of social progressivism, and that animates how a progressive would take an approach to the various political issues of his or her time, regardless of what issues are considered to be “social.”

Jonathan Merritt had a recent column in which he argued that moral relativism had been superseded by a new moral that is at the center of much of our cultural life. He argues that the core moral, what I would argue would be that of social progressivism, is discrimination, and more particularly anti-discrimination. This would be the oppressor/oppressed axis that Arnold Kling discusses in his book “The Three Languages of Politics.” That axis is the lens through which progressives see the world around them. Thus, the oppressor discriminates against the oppressed, and this must be rectified. Hence, the Christian baker, of my previous post, is the oppressor discriminating against the oppressed, and the state has the obligation to make sure that this discrimination does not take place.

In the last couple of years we have seen movements on college campuses for safe spaces, complaints of “microaggressions,” and other anti-free speech protests. These are anything but liberal protests. This is a movement that is against free speech because it is believed that free speech only benefits the “oppressor,” or those who currently hold power. Thus, speech must be regulated to ensure that speech power is equalized, and “bad” forms of speech are eliminated from the common lexicon. All forms of heresy must be suppressed. These kinds of views are closer to Puritanism than to any kind of modern liberalism. Discrimination is key here, because these all reflect views of the powerless, those who have been discriminated against and oppressed.

This is why it is my contention that progressive leftists are actually closer to some forms of conservatism that seek to force people to live by certain religious standards, than to genuine liberalism that seeks toleration in society for various lifestyles and beliefs. The point for liberalism is that the state is neutral towards the good life because the state is agnostic towards the good life. People may or may not be agnostic, but the state is because the state has now immediate way of determining what the good life is. The only thing the state can do is enforce one particular type of good life, or none at all. Now are there some goods that the state must protect? Yes, and these goods that it protects is what allows people to pursue their own ends, without state interference. And this is what I want to move my focus towards next time. We have to determine what is both necessary and sufficient to have a free society. What are the institutions and norms required to achieve and maintain a society that is generally and equally free for its members.

P.S. I want to add before closing, that the argument has often been made by conservatives that America is becoming much less moral, and is on the path to losing all moral notions and ending in moral nihilism. However, I hope this essay has made clear that exactly the opposite has been happening. If anything we have been becoming more moralistic, not less. Morals have shifted, but have not gone away. In many(if not most) cases, these morals have deep Christian roots, but have been reshaped and rethought around the progressive axis.

THE LIBERAL VIRTUE OF TOLERANCE

Libertarians are often described (and some, including the current Libertarian Party nominee, Gary Johnson) as being fiscally conservative and socially liberal. What is implicitly meant is that on economics they tend to agree more with Republicans and on social issues they tend to agree more with Democrats. This is often stated for political reasons, but I think it fall so short to correctly explain the differences between how a classical liberal (libertarian) would address social issues, as opposed to how a Progressive Democrat might do so.

Social liberalism is primarily about the increase of the liberty of the individual. Thus, greater liberty for lgbt, women, drug users, etc. Social progressivism, on the other hand, is less about increasing the liberty of the individual, and more about the progression in societal mores that is brought about through inclusion of previously disenfranchised, or oppressed, groups. In the former, progress is seen through the increase of liberty and autonomy for the individual, but in the latter, progress is measured in terms of the acceptance of the lifestyles of the various subgroups by society as a whole.

This can be seen in the current debates that play out in today’s politics. For libertarians, there is much less emphasis on attributing ill motives to those who may disagree with them, for instance, on gay marriage or transgender rights, as opposed to progressives who see those conservatives who disagree as bigots and people who are holding society back. Progress is not about increased freedom, for that would include the freedom of those who disagree to also lead their lives as they best see fit, even if that includes attitudes and behaviors that display their disagreement with progressive opinions. This leaves the libertarian in the position of saying that whether or not acceptance of new groups is moral progress up to the judgment of individuals and groups, while maintaining that there is at least progress in greater liberty. For progressives, gay marriage is progress in morals, leaving them in the position of judge over those who disagree with them. For libertarians, gay marriage is progress in liberty, and whether or not this is progress in morals is up to individuals and groups to decide for themselves.

A related can contemporary example might fit even better. A conservative Christian baker has been by a gay couple to make them a wedding cake for their nuptials. For the baker, this would be to support something that he considers to be a sin and thus refuses to bake the cake for the wedding. Let’s look at how a social liberal and a social progressive might respond in this situation. A social liberal would take the position that for the government to force the baker to violate his conscience is to impinge on his individual freedom and autonomy. The social liberal may think the baker is being a bigot, but that is besides the point. No one should be forced to violate his conscience as long as his conscience isn’t advising him or her to violate the rights of somebody else. However, the social progressive would assert that the baker is being bigoted and discriminating against the gay couple and must be coerced into serving them, regardless of whether or not his individual freedom and autonomy are violated. For the progressive what is important is the progression in the morals of society, and the baker represents a step backward.

Identifying discrimination is significant because I think that is the key fundamental moral of progressives. Discrimination and oppression are the lens through which key issues are viewed. A world with less of each is a better world to live in. For the liberal, these are both secondary to the key issue of individual liberty. It is through individual liberty that moral progress is made because the good is determined through the free interaction of individuals and groups. Different ways of living together are tried and tested. We reason together and discuss issues and because not everyone will agree, we have to tolerate the differences without being coerced into accepting those differences we may not agree with. Society is thus able to morally “progress” in such a way as society finds certain ways of living to be what works best and those who dissent are able to live out there way of living too. Which leaves open the possibility that the dissenters themselves may find there way living eventually adopted by most people should it be seen as the most desirable. Therefore, tolerance is one of the key virtues of the liberal society, and what distinguishes social liberals from social progressives.

CASINO CAPITALISM

At the Democratic debate, Mr. Sanders spent time defending himself as a democratic socialist, and opposed to what he called “casino capitalism.” Anderson Cooper of CNN asked him whether or not he was a capitalist. His response was that he was opposed to the casino capitalism that brings all the wealth to the top, and leaves the rest with nothing, and in favor of a system that makes everyone better off. As for his democratic socialism, it was simply a list containing items such as income redistribution, free health care and education, and paid family leave.

For right now I want to put aside the democratic socialism, and focus on his casino capitalism comments. With Anderson Cooper’s question, he had the perfect opporunity to say that he was not a capitalist, which he refused to answer, instead saying that he was opposed to casino capitalism, which, of course, is not an answer at all. Every classical liberal (conservatives and libertarians) is against crony capitalism, where a given system is rigged to favor certain elements of society as opposed to others. Unless you are doing the rigging, everybody was everyone to be made better off. Anderson Cooper might as well have asked him, “Senator, do you believe in hospitals?” To which Sanders would have answerd, “Do I believe in hospitals where doctors purposefully kill patients? No, I do not.”

What Anderson Cooper should have stated was “Of course nobody believes in casino capitalism. Senator, do you believe in capitalism? A free market, with a rule of law that provides a general framework that is applied equally to all, and strong property rights that provide individuals with the necessary freedom to operate in the market place?” The answer to that question would have been very enlightening. Many leftists try to get out of the free market question by asserting that there has never been a true free market anywhere, and if you want a libertarian society, go to Somalia. This question gets around that by asserting a) a free market works within an institutional framework that is not anarchic, and b) freedom does not exist in an absolute sense anywhere, it is a matter of the degree of freedom which a society has. The United States has a greater degree of freedom than Somalia does, because even though Somalia has a less centralized government, the United States has a complex set of institutions that provide a framework where liberty can have the context to succeed. (Somalia may have a very weak state, but don’t for a second think that they have no strong governments. Just ask all the war lords that are constantly battling each other, not to mention the people trapped inside of that society.)

Senator Sanders dodged the question because he is not a capitalist. I think he assumes that capitalism and “casino capitalism” are one and the same. It would have been more interesting if he had said that, because it is that attitude that is stirring his support, and makes him the candidate that he is.

SPONTANEOUS ORDER VS. THE MAN OF SYSTEM

“The man whose public spirit is prompted altogether by humanity and benevolence, will respect the established powers and privileges even of individuals, and still more those of the great orders and societies, into which the state is divided. Though he should consider some of them as in some measure abusive, he will content himself with moderating, what he often cannot annihilate without great violence. When he cannot conquer the rooted prejudices of the people by reason and persuasion, he will not attempt to subdue them by force; but will religiously observe what, by Cicero, is justly called the divine maxim of Plato, never to use violence to his country no more than to his parents. He will accommodate, as well as he can, his public arrangements to the confirmed habits and prejudices of the people; and will remedy as well as he can, the inconveniencies which may flow from the want of those regulations which the people are averse to submit to. When he cannot establish the right, he will not disdain to ameliorate the wrong; but like Solon, when he cannot establish the best system of laws, he will endeavour to establish the best that the people can bear.

The man of system, on the contrary, is apt to be very wise in his own conceit; and is often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it. He goes on to establish it completely and in all its parts, without any regard either to the great interests, or to the strong prejudices which may oppose it. He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board. He does not consider that the pieces upon the chess-board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might chuse to impress upon it. If those two principles coincide and act in the same direction, the game of human society will go on easily and harmoniously, and is very likely to be happy and successful. If they are opposite or different, the game will go on miserably, and the society must be at all times in the highest degree of disorder.”

From Part Six of Adam Smith’s “Theory of Moral Sentiments,” a section entitled “Of the Character of Virtue.”

INDIVIDUALISM: POLITICAL AND ECONOMIC

I recently finished rereading F.A. Hayek’s essay “Individualism: True and False”. In a past post I laid out my own political principles, and the first one I mentioned was individualism. This is a fundamental, and also a much misunderstood concept. In this post I want to use some of Hayek’s concepts (amongst others) to explain both what individualism is, and make an argument for it. One could write a book on this, but it being a blog post, abbreviation will be necessary.

One can make a distinction between the positive argument, what individualism is, and the normative argument, individualism ought to be the reigning political philosophy. I shall seek to address both if space should permit (as it is I’m running long on introductory material), but I shall focus primarily on what individualism is, and shall introduce normative arguments as well throughout the piece.

The best way to start addressing individualism is to start off by asking what individualism is not, that way we can arrive at our answer deductively. Individualism is not the atomistic individual standing outside of society, pulling himself up by his own bootstraps. This indeed is something of a straw man (although there are individualists who would be more than happy to make this argument). The chief error in this line of thinking can be found long ago in the observation of Aristotle, that man is a social animal. Humans are, by nature, creatures that dwell in communities and spend their lives amongst others (exluding the occasional hermit, which is largely considered abnormal by society). Through the use of genetics, scientists have been able to determine that there have never been fewer than a few thousand Homo sapiens at any one point in time. Thus, it’s woven into our very nature to live socially.

Individualism is fully comfortable living socially in community with others. This is why we form voluntary associations. Freedom leaves us to join with others in common causes whatever it may be. It recognizes that the very fact that we are social animals means that we have to learn to live together and respect each other beliefs and differences. Toleration and a healthy pluralism result from true individualism. It allows individuals to work together to find the best ways of making society work best, without relying on top-down solutions.

Nor is Individualism man as homo economicus, living a purely Rational life. Humans are not purely economic entities acting always as consumers. People value lots of different aspects in life, only a part of which can be assessed in terms of cash value. Neither is the individual solely driven by Reason. I use a capital “R” because there is a philosophy still ongoing that believes that purely through reason man can design society and the institutions within it anew. Individuals are very limited in what they can actually know. The idea that a single individual, or even a group on individuals, could centrally plan an economy, or engage in successful social engineering, or put entirely new institutions on a continent like Africa where they never existed before and one can’t know all the particulars is absurd. These constraints upon us introduce a problem where all this individual knowledge needs to be coordinated over a massive scale, but this is a problem for another essay, where I can introduce Hayek’s concept of knowledge and prices.

True individualism recognizes the limits of every person (including elected officials). Recognizing these constraints, allows us to acknowledge the truth that we don’t know who knows whats best, which is why individualism allows individuals on their own, and within voluntary associations, to experiment and contribute their limited pieces of knowledge to the whole. This introduces us to the uncertainty that results from these limitations and the freedom that we have as individuals. Because of this new ideas and innovations emerge that would otherwise not in a society that was planned out and collectivized.

Another aspect of Individualism recognized freedom of conscience, bequeathed to us by the Christian tradition, that each individual is responsible to God for their conscience. This brings with it a need for pluralism and religious toleration. Individuals have different thoughts and beliefs, goals and desires. Individualism is the best method for securing this, for if individuals are free, they are also free in their communities (or voluntary associations), whereas if communities take priority over the individual, then while the community may be free the individual is not (and I’m not actually sure it make sense to say that a community can be free).

Milton Friedman rightly said in his book Capitalism and Freedom that “a society is merely an agreggation of individuals.” Societies/civilizations are complex systems where the whole is greater than the sum of their parts. One of the principles of complex system is that they emerge from the “bottom-up.” I don’t think this negates Milton Friedman’s statement. Rather it reminds us that all the various institutions of society are a result of human action, not of human design. The actions of many individuals, on their own and together, has brought about all societies in their various forms. Thus, it can be said truthfully, that individualism is baked into society. When people have tried to design societies anew (such as the French and Russian revolutions), these projects have been met with disaster.

A PROJECT FOR THOUGHT

From the Libertarian Christians website:

To outline a proposal with such high aspirations is far beyond the scope of this article. My goals are much more modest than that. I hope to open a conversation about the compatibility of a theology whose inclinations are more “social” in nature with a political philosophy whose concerns are highly individualistic. Libertarians will want to know what happens to liberty when coupled with a theology that is not dedicated to individualism.

This is a project that I have been thinking about myself for a while now. As I am more individualistic in my politics and less so in my theology, I have spent time in thinking about how these go together. The Christian Faith is one rooted in community and has far reaching social implications. Libertarian political philosophy sees individual liberty as the primary political end of the polis. How these intersect and can be brought to bear on one another is an exciting challenge for libertarian Christians, and one I hope to pursue further, along with the author of this article.

THE INTERSECTION OF FAITH AND POLITICS OR LIVING IN A PLURALISTIC SOCIETY

The intersection of faith and politics is one fraught with difficulty in a pluralistic society such as ours. On the one hand, I have no wish to enforce my beliefs on others. On the other, my faith can’t help but influence my political thinking in many ways. And the thing is, this is true of people of all faiths, including those who are atheists. Everyone’s faith, to one extent or another, influences their politics and policy positions. The nature of the situation is that people of different faiths, can hold similar positions on the issues, even as they approach it from different perspectives. The same situation can also lead people of differing faiths to also have starkly different policy applications.

We have all heard the tired refrain, “I don’t want to push my morality on others,” or “don’t make me comply with your moral positions.” Usually this is in the context of controversial moral issues such as abortion and gay marriage. What’s interesting though is that the same person’s moral compass that suggests that abortion is wrong, could also lead them to want policies ending the death penalty, or policies that discourage or end human sex trafficking. Many democrats have said that climate change is a moral issue, as a reason to implement policies to fight global warming. Morality, in the context of justice, is often invoked for the war on terror. So, for instance, John Kerry in the 2004 presidential campaign, stated that he was personally opposed to abortion, but didn’t want to force his moral beliefs on others. Agree or disagree, fair enough for now. But then, in the next breath, he would say that global warming is the moral issue of our time. Arguably, that would be an example of him forcing his moral beliefs in legislation.

I want to make this point. Morality is being used in two different instances here. In the first instance, Mr. Kerry is saying that his own religious beliefs compel him to be personally opposed to abortion, but that he does not wish to push that on others. In the second, he is trying to use moral language to argue that we should pursue this given policy. Moral arguments can be very effective in trying to convince your audience of any given policy prescription. In other words, “If we don’t do x, then y is going to happen, which would be very bad, therefore, we should do x because it is the right thing to do.” This form of argument is used all the time. We could also use a familiar argument today to frame this.

a) Bigotry is wrong.
b) A baker that refuses to bake a cake for a gay wedding, because he objects to gay marriage, is displaying bigotry.
d) We use legislation to protect people from bigotry.
c) Therefore, we should have a law that compels the baker to bake the cake so that the gay man or woman doesn’t have to suffer from the bakers bigotry.

This is entirely a moral argument on display here, and one that is typically used to advocate for certain legislation. (For the record, I think the second premise is questionable, but that is the argument made by many liberals.) This should show us that we all make arguments for policy from our own personal values. So the question of whether or not we should allow our faith and values to influence our political positions is a moot point.

There are some issues that more overtly spring from religious perspectives than others, though, such as abortion and gay marriage, and these are notable for their controversy. However, any of these other issues can spring from religious perspectives as well. It feels like we are back to square one, but not necessarily. I think the best way, in a pluralistic society, is to respect the convictions of others, and allow each other the freedom to have these convictions and live them out, especially when we ourselves don’t understand why people have the beliefs they do. A pluralistic society is the perfect place to allow ideas to compete in the marketplace and allow reason to have its way.

WIDESPREAD DISCRIMINATION

Article on Vox

In that way, the fight over Indiana’s law can only be so broad and so bitter because the stakes are quite low. If the stakes were higher — if the law really would lead to widespread discrimination against LGBT Americans — Republican Party elites wouldn’t touch it and the courts would probably destroy it. But the anger over the bill speaks to the fact that in many parts of the country, same-sex marriage is becoming law much faster than it’s becoming accepted.

The primary fight is no longer over whether gay marriage will be he law of the land. It’s how we can learn to live in a society with very divergent values.