Thursday, March 23, 2017

Liberal vs. ‘Liberal’, or Enlightenment vs. Dis-Enlightenment

The Enlightenment ideals of reason and individualism spawned a political revolution that resulted in constitutionally limited republican government that recognized individual rights as preceding government. In theory and largely in practice, this new concept of government swept away all manner of state omnipotence and tyranny over the individual. Henceforth, the government would serve as as protector of the sovereignty and liberty of the individual. This political philosophy reached its highest and most consistent expression in the American Declaration of Independence, the philosophical framework that led to the creation of the United States of America.

But, for the last hundred years or so, reactionary political forces of omnipotent government have been steadily rolling back the Enlightenment from American society, largely in and through the field of economics. This roll-back, by and large, is not being accomplished by openly repudiating the Enlightenment. That wouldn’t fly in America, yet. So how does one roll out a statist economic agenda without openly repudiating the Enlightenment that stands in the way? One way is to simply wrap the statist/socialist/collectivist agenda in the veneer of the Enlightenment.

“If you can’t beat the Enlightenment openly, pretend to join it.”

In a piece titled The Enlightenment Keeps On Winning, James A. Haught, editor emeritus of West Virginia’s Charleston Gazette-Mail, employs a variation of this tactic.

Money laundering is defined as “The process of taking the proceeds of criminal activity and making them appear legal.” In a kind of idea laundering, Haught smuggles in modern “liberal” or “progressive” statism among a list of genuine accomplishments of Enlightenment-spawned classical liberalism, thus taking the proceeds of anti-Enlightenment political policies and making them appear enlightened. How does Haught accomplish this idea laundering?

Here are excerpts from Haught’s opening paragraphs:

If you study history, you’ll see episodes that changed civilization.

Around three centuries ago, major thinkers began advocating democracy, human rights and personal freedoms. Their period became known as the Enlightenment. It launched the long-running liberals-versus-conservatives conflict still driving much of today’s politics.

Note the absence of the term individual rights. Note the prominence of the term democracy.

Haught cites Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Baron de Montesquieu, Voltaire and America’s Founding Fathers, whom he termed “brilliant radicals,” as leading thinkers of the Enlightenment.

I remember a kind of exercise teachers would present to young children, designed to sharpen the children’s powers of perception, that features an exercise to single out one item that doesn't belong in the picture. For example, the teacher may show a picture featuring a cow, a horse, a zebra, a deer, and a house, and ask, Which of these doesn’t belong in the picture? What if someone asked, which name doesn’t belong on Haught’s list of Enlightenment thinkers?

The first question that jumps out at me is, what is Hobbes doing among these Enlightenment luminaries? I must state at this point that I am not a philosophy expert or historian. That said, I do not consider Hobbes to be an Enlightenment thinker, if by Enlightenment we mean the political ideals of individual rights and limited, rights-protecting government (though he may be considered among Enlightenment thinkers in other respects).

Hobbes believed men are incapable of governing their own lives and, if left free, society would devolve into perpetual violent conflict. Thus, the people, or subjects, must agree—for the sake of peace and civility—to give up their right to govern themselves, and assign to the state the absolute power to act for them. Hobbes advocated a totalitarian state ruled by an “absolute sovereign” chosen by a vote of the people. Once chosen, the sovereign’s powers are irrevocable. (Somehow, Hobbes believed that people incapable of governing themselves are somehow capable of picking a ruler to run their lives. If this sounds familiar, it’s because we’re surrounded by modern liberals touting essentially the same thing.) Hobbes called his state Leviathan.

Locke rejected this Hobbesian view of human nature. He believed that as long as they are protected from the occasional predators who exist among them, most people are capable, by virtue of the individual’s unique power of reason, of managing their own affairs and living peacefully among each other. So he advocated the opposite of Hobbes; a social order of individual sovereignty based on individual rights, in which the state’s only function is to protect men’s rights to govern their own lives. He also did not favor democracy understood as absolute majority rule. He believed that the vote was important but limited, being only a means of choosing the elected officials whose job it is to carry out government’s function of protecting the people’s right to govern their own lives, not to choose the omnipotent rulers to run their lives. Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, referred to these rights-protecting powers as “just powers.”

Hobbes and Locke both agreed that human society needs a government. But their view of government’s responsibility couldn’t be more opposite. We’ll see Haught’s reason for Hobbes’s inclusion shortly as we continue with his article. Keep in mind, as we read on, Haught’s previous reference to the three centuries-long “liberals-versus-conservatives conflict still driving much of today’s politics”:

The Enlightenment not only produced modern democracy, it also laid the foundation of liberal political values still winning victories today. For three centuries, by fits and starts, Western progress has been mostly a chronicle of progressives defeating conservative resistance. Reformers repeatedly toppled old privileges, hierarchies and establishments. Look at the historical record:

  • Conservatives tried to retain slavery, but they lost.
  • They tried to block voting by women, but they lost.
  • The tried to prevent couples from using birth control, but they lost.
  • The tried to obstruct Social Security pensions for oldsters, but they lost.
  • They tried to outlaw labor unions, but they lost.
  • They tried to prevent unemployment compensation for the jobless, but they lost.
  • They tried to keep stores closed on the Sabbath, but they lost.
  • They banned alcohol during Prohibition, but they eventually lost.
  • They tried to sustain racial segregation, but they lost.
  • They supported government-mandated prayer in school, but they lost.
  • They tried to continue throwing gays in prison, but they lost.
  • They tried to defeat Medicare and Medicaid, but they lost.
  • They tried to halt the sexual revolution, but they lost.
  • They opposed food stamps for the poor, but they lost.
  • They fought against equal human rights laws, but they lost.
  • They tried to censor sexy magazines, books and movies, but they lost.
  • They sought to jail girls and doctors who end pregnancies, but they lost.
  • They tried to block liquor clubs and lotteries, but they lost.
  • They tried to prevent expansion of health insurance through the Affordable Care Act, but they lost.
  • They tried to halt same-sex marriage, but they lost.

On and on, through recurring cultural battles, progressive principles that began in the Enlightenment have prevailed. For three centuries, liberals generally have won, conservatives lost.

What will be the next front in the culture war? Legal marijuana? Pistol registration? Free college? Whatever comes, it’s probably safe to predict the eventual winner.

Notice that Haught fails to distinguish between classical liberalism and modern liberalism. Almost to the extent of Hobbes vs. Locke, the two kinds of liberals are worlds apart regarding the role of the state. Modern liberals, or self-described “progressives,” tend to believe, like Hobbes, that the state must regulate our lives to virtually any extent it deems necessary, for our own good. The state, therefore, must possess whatever powers are necessary for it to carry out its open-ended leviathan-esque mission. Classical liberals were aligned with Locke. One might call this equivocation liberal laundering.

Keep in mind that “liberal” derives from liberty. What is liberty?

The Enlightenment represents the embodiment of reason and its political corollaries, individual rights and limited, rights-protecting government. Rights are guarantees to freedom of action in a social context, not an automatic claim to material goods that others must be forced to provide, or a license to force others to deal with you. As Locke and the Founding Fathers understood, rights supercede democracy, or the will of the majority. Enlightenment’s intellectual leaders were not primarily democrats. They were primarily republicans, because they understood that democracy unconstrained by constitutional protections of individual rights is just another form of tyranny. As Locke, the discoverer of individual rights, understood, the consent of the governed does not extend to an electoral majority granting to the government the power to violate individual rights, which are inalienable. A rights-protecting government is an instrument of liberation. True liberals support these values and would never advocate socialist or regulatory welfare state programs, which violate the rights of individuals to act on their own reasoned judgement. Rights protect liberty. Liberty means freedom from coercive interference from other humans beings, including human beings in their capacity as government officials. Liberals protect liberty.

Modern so-called “liberals” are not liberals at all in economic matters. Quite the opposite. They are anti-liberals. In an ever-expanding circle encompassing more and more of the economic sphere, modern liberals are abandoning Enlightenment principles of limited government and personal freedoms and regressing toward Leviathan.

How does one reconcile Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, the Affordable Care Act, the Food Stamp program, and other forced redistributionist programs with liberal Enlightenment principles? One can’t. These are not classical liberal programs, but regressions to the pre-Enlightenment statism that held the individual as the subject of the rulers. Where is the protection for the individual’s right to use his money and property as he sees fit? Where is the Enlightenment justification for forced wealth redistribution? That these programs are instituted by elected government officials? But the Enlightenment holds that voters have no more right to authorize these programs than they have to pick up a gun and rob their neighbors directly.

On unions, where is the liberalism in government-backed unionism; i.e, legally forcing companies to deal with unions against their will, or workers being forced into unions against their will? It’s not about outlawing unions. It’s about the Enlightenment principle of freedom of association. Willing workers have a right to form a union and make offers to employers. And employers have a right to decide for themselves whether to contract—i.e., associate—with the union. An enlightened government neither outlaws unions nor outlaws companies’ rights not to recognize the union. No one ever advocated outlawing voluntary unions. “They tried to outlaw labor unions” is a euphemism for “they fought against government-enforced labor unions.”

Haught correctly observes that the Enlightenment embodies the principle that rights’ purpose is to “protect each person from government and the tyranny of the majority”—and then proceeds to list government programs that contradict that principle! This contradiction is consistent with his Hobbes-Locke equivocation—and with the schizophrenic nature of today’s liberal-conservative divide.

Modern liberals are much closer to Enlightenment liberty on some social issues; e.g., gay marriage, abortion, birth control, and prayer in public school (church-state separation). Conservatives are kind of the mirror image of modern liberals. Modern liberals are primarily economic authoritarians. Conservatives are primarily social authoritarians.

From a liberty standpoint, Haught’s list makes no sense, combining as it does both victories and defeats for Enlightenment liberty. Haught’s list seems plausible, however, if you fail to distinguish between Hobbes and Locke, and between classical and modern liberals. Haught’s double equivocation is designed to smuggle in the statist economic agenda of today’s Left under cover real victories for Enlightenment liberty. Abolish slavery or recognize gay marriage? That’s Lockean Enlightenment. Institute Social Security or “free” college? That’s Hobbesian “Enlightenment,” even though the first advances individual rights and the second shreds rights. Everything modern liberals choose to do, in Haught’s fraudulent Enlightenment worldview, is a victory for Enlightenment. Any resistance to modern progressivism is reactionary conservatism. Either way, the modern Left wins. Haught both eats and has his cake. Anything in the modern liberals’ agenda, no matter how reactionary, gets laundered into a victory for the Enlightenment!

Don’t be fooled by it. Having mashed together Hobbes/modern liberalism and Locke/classical liberalism, it becomes clear why Haught snuck the unabashed authoritarian Hobbes into the Enlightenment framework:

While modern liberals can be applauded and supported in areas where they genuinely advance individual rights, such as regarding the decriminalization of abortion and defending church-state separation, it’s important to keep this in mind: Social liberty is less of a positive force for liberty than economic authoritarianism is a danger to liberty. The modern liberals’ pro-Enlightenment social strain won’t save America from tyranny. Why? Because political freedom cannot exist without economic freedom. Economics is the field of production and trade—the lifeblood of human survival. Once the government has a stranglehold on the individual’s means of supporting his life, all other freedoms become hollow.  

The list of “Enlightenment wins” conflates genuine Enlightenment principles—i.e., liberty—with anti-Enlightenment reaction—i.e., a return to government as master and oppressor. How does one reconcile first restoring liberty to slaves to run their own lives, with advocating the seizure of his money to finance other people’s retirements, healthcare, education, or unemployment compensation? Replacing one form of involuntary servitude with another does not belong on a list of Enlightenment progress.

Here’s how I would amend the list:

Enlightenment wins:

  • The abolition of slavery
  • Women’s suffrage
  • Freedom to use birth control
  • Freedom of association, including the right to form unions
  • Ending “blue” laws
  • Legalization of alcoholic beverages
  • Repeal of Jim Crow, Separate but Equal, and other government-enforced segregation
  • Banning prayer in government schools
  • Abolition of sodomy and other anti-gay laws
  • Establishing equal protection of individual rights, properly defined, under the law
  • Legalization of pornagraphic free speech
  • Legalization of abortion
  • Legalization of liquor clubs and lotteries
  • Marriage equality
  • Other genuine individual rights along with laws to protect them.

Enlightenment Retreats:

  • Establishment of Social Security
  • Establishment of “public” K-12 government schooling
  • Government-enforced unionism (e.g. the Wagner Act, collective bargaining “rights”)
  • Government-enforced unemployment compensation
  • Establishment of Medicare and Medicaid
  • Establishment of the Food Stamp and myriad other forced redistributionist “social safety net” programs
  • The Affordable Care Act (ObamaCare)
  • Other “progressive/liberal” economic authoritarian initiatives like government-backed student college loans and grants, mandatory paid sick leave, minimum wage laws, et al.
  • Establishment of the alphabet soup of regulatory agencies is another major enlightenment retreat.

Don’t be fooled by the author’s co-mingled listing of pro- and anti-Enlightenment pronouncements. The Enlightenment promise of the inalienable rights to life, liberty, justice, property, and the pursuit of happiness for the individual is facing a terrible reversal at the hands of collectivism, statism, and socialism. The reversal signals the withering of a Lockean America based on respect for individual rights and peaceful coexistence through voluntary trade, and the rise of a Hobbesian America based on collectivistic state domination over the individual.

Related Reading:

Responsibility Depends on Individual Rights

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

On TrumpCare’s ‘Cut’ to Medicaid

On TrumpCare’s ‘Cut’ to Medicaid

President Donald Trump and Gov. Chris Christie both promised to do absolutely everything in their power to fight the opioid epidemic.
"You cannot let people die on the street, OK?" Trump said in a February 2016 town hall. "The problem is that everybody thinks that you people, as Republicans, hate the concept of taking care of people that are really, really sick and are gonna die. We gotta take care of people that can't take care of themselves."
He repeated that promise after he was elected, as did Christie, who vowed to devote the remainder of his term as governor to the anti-opioid cause.

I left these comments, edited for clarity:

So what’s the problem? Trump and Christie are a couple of welfare statists—kindred spirits of the Star-Ledger and the Democrats. They have no problem with forcing other people to pay for their idea of “taking care of people.”

They’re just not as extreme as their more Leftist comrades would like.

TrumpCare (ObamaCare without Obama) will preserve the Medicaid program in its immoral forced wealth redistribution form. The problem is, the Left welfare statists are so wedded to government handouts and hateful of productive people that they can’t stomach any suggestion of any cuts to any redistribution program. Trump merely proposes to “cut”—which usually means to reduce the growth rate of (all of these welfare state systems automatically grow each year)—Medicaid and hand the money to the states, so they can prioritize their Medicaid spending within some semblance of budgetary restraint like any productive household has to do.

What’s wrong with that? Plenty, according to those who have never given a thought to those who are forced to foot the bill. TrumpCare will simply roll back some tax and spending increases put in by ObamaCare. But increases are always good. “Cuts” are always bad. No matter what. You have no right to what you earn. But the sky’s the limit on taking others’ earnings if you “need” it. “More people on the dole—the more the better.” That’s the more consistent Left’s mantra.

Related Reading:

Don’t Blame Republicans for Failure to Repeal Obamacare—Harry Binswanger for The Objective Standard

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Wouldn't going by Popular Vote be an even worse system than the Electoral College?

The primary concern of the Founder Fathers was to protect the rights of the individual to live and work according to his own judgement and conscience. The right to vote was not primary. It couldn't be, as the Founders considered individual rights to precede government.  

Notice the hierarchy established in the U.S. Constitution's philosophic blueprint, the Declaration of Independence. The issue of voting only arises with the creation of a government. First, it is established that man has certain unalienable individual rights—including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Then, “to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men.” Only after establishing the imperative to recognize rights and the need for rights-protecting government does the issue of voting arise—the “consent of the governed” clause pertaining to the government’s “just powers.” The right to vote—to have a say in the operation of the government—is a logical extension of our fundamental rights as human beings. It is not one of them. “Democracy” is not mentioned in our Constitution or the Declaration of Independence. Why? Because the fundamental presumption of America is not the primacy of majority rule. It is the primacy of liberty.

In other words, the Founders didn’t intend to create an absolute democracy—which I call democracy fundamentalism to distinguish it from the severely limited republican democracy we now have—in which the vote is the be-all and end-all. This is important when considering the means by which our votes choose our political leaders. One of the areas in which the Founders most showed their brilliance is in the area of structuring government so as to distribute political power—the power of the gun—in a way that minimizes the chance of an unhealthy concentration of political power and thus the emergence of tyranny that can threaten individual liberty. What kind of tyranny? Not just monarchy, but all kinds of tyranny, including the tyranny of the majority. It’s called the separation (or balance) of powers, also referred to as checks and balances.

Enter the Electoral College. The Electoral College must be understood within the context of the separation of powers. Article II of the constitution states that “Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature there of may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress” [my emphasis]. By giving the states, through their elected legislatures, the constitutional responsibility to pick the president through the Electors they appoint, the states collectively can act as a check on the power of the federal executive branch, or individually as a check on a popular majority dominated by large states.

Additionally, the state legislatures can step in and override their respective state popular votes for a variety of reasons. For example, in the case of an inconclusive vote due to voting machine breakdowns, massive fraud, terrorist attack, etc. the legislature can assert its authority to choose the electors and facilitate the smooth completion of the electoral process. In addition, the electors, though morally duty bound to cast their votes for whom they are pledged, can constitutionally override a popular vote in the unlikely event that an irrational, emotionally charged electorate chooses a demagogue with dictatorial ambitions, or other extreme circumstance. It is entirely within the realm of possibility that the Electoral College process may someday save us from the rise to power of an elected American Hitler or Chavez. In the leadup to the Electoral College vote on December 19th, 2016, there was a popular campaign to convince the electors not to cast their votes for Donald Trump on the grounds that Trump is unfit to be president, such as that his “impulsive nature would lead the country into another war.” The attempt failed, as expected. In the end, seven electors voted for people other than those they were pledged to, with Trump losing two votes and Clinton losing five, leaving a final tally of 304-227 for Trump. The defections went to John Kasich [1], Ron Paul [1], Bernie Sanders [1], Colin Powell [3], and Faith Spotted Eagle [1]. I don’t believe Trump is incompetent or unfit, at least not enough to warrant an electoral college upset of the voters. And he certainly doesn’t rise to the level of a Hitler or Chavez. But it is the job of the Electoral College to consider such issues before voting. While it may seem like a rubber stamp, it is not. It is a real structural bulwark against tyranny.

But the Electoral College does not sidestep “the will of the people,” to use that ridiculous catchphrase (what “will” of which “people?”). The popular vote does count. The state legislators, after all, are elected by popular vote. Furthermore, every state uses a direct popular vote to choose the electors (though no state has to)—all but Maine employing a winner-take-all system. The important point is that the Electoral College is part of the checks and balances that prevents tyranny and thus protects our freedom, while also acting as an efficient and transparent means for we voters to choose our leaders.

The Electoral College system not only serves an important function in the balance of powers. It works very well.

America is a big and diverse nation of 50 states. What concerns citizens in one state may be different from other states. States vary widely culturally and economically. Thanks to the Electoral College setup, presidential candidates must travel to many states to win the hearts and minds of popular voter majorities in those states, which means the candidates must learn about what issues concern people around the country. Isn’t that what we want from a president—someone who knows something about people she is to govern outside of concentrated bastions of support in a few big states?

There is nothing sacred about a national popular vote—not in a constitutional republic based on rule of law and limited, individual rights-protecting government; not in a United States of America. The national popular vote is irrelevant—and logically so—given the wide diversity of interests and concerns among the people in the states. In fact, if you take out California, by far the biggest state, Trump won the national popular vote by 1.5 million (at last count). California went for Clinton by a 4.3 million vote margin. That’s a lopsided 62-32%, way out of touch with the national electoral mainstream but enough to swing the national popular vote totals to Clinton. If you take out New York, another big state with a similarly lopsided Clinton margin, Trump won the other 48 states by 3.2 million. There were no large states that went for Trump by anything close to the CA-NY margins. Even reliably Republican Texas, the second biggest state, only gave Trump a 9% point margin. I mention this only so one can easily see why the national totals are irrelevant.

This highlights the fairness aspect of the Electoral College. Is it fair that the economic, cultural, and issue concerns of just one big state should decide what “the will of the people” is, and trample all of the rest? I say no, it is not; not in a nation as big and diverse as America. “The will of the people” is in fact a myth. It rests on the collectivist premise that “the people” is an entity with a will of its own apart from the individuals that comprise it. That’s mysticism, not reality. In reality, America is a nation of 330 million individual wills, about a third of whom cast ballots. The fact is, every voter has the same equal chance; each votes his choice of to which candidate to assign his respective state’s electoral votes.

There are better ways to measure the popular vote. That’s what the Electoral College system measures. Every elector is backed by popular vote at the state level. In other words, Trump did win the popular vote—30 times; that is, in 30 states totalling 306 electoral votes. Clinton won 21 times (including the District of Columbia). The national popular vote totals notwithstanding, Trump won fair and square, although admittedly without a full blown political mandate. But these virtues, important as they are, are secondary.

The crucial consideration is that liberty, not democracy, is the goal of the American republic and the starting point of American politics. The Electoral College is part of the checks and balances in the distribution of political power in a nation that measures freedom by the rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness, not merely the right to vote. The ballot box is a tool for maintaining a constitutional republic, which America actually is, not the mainstay of a democracy, which America is not. (These lasts facts have been substantially eroded, leading to increasingly unrestrained growth in government powers—which explains why elections have become such divisive and contentious affairs. People have increasingly seen their economic fortunes as tied not to their own self-productiveness to government aggression against other economic factions. In elevating the vote to such supreme importance, we forgot freedom. But that is a subject for another day.)

No one component of the checks and balances that the Founders put in place can guarantee that tyranny won’t arise, of course. And eliminating the Electoral College wouldn’t be the immediate end of freedom in America, though it would be a step in that direction. Indeed, vital as they are, checks and balances in and of themselves are no guarantee of preserving freedom. The long term battle to achieve and maintain a free society is primarily intellectual and philosophical.

That said, doing away with the Electors and allowing the voters to bypass their own elected state legislatures through a direct popular vote would further marginalize the states and further concentrate power in the federal government and in electoral majorities or even pluralities. Furthermore, a direct national popular vote model would pretty much destroy any chance of achieving a clear winner, as Donald Trump achieved by a 306-232 electoral vote margin. [Full disclosure: I am not a fan of Trump.]

I have disagreements with the Founding Fathers. The Electoral College is not one of them. “Wouldn't going by Popular Vote be an even worse system than the Electoral College?” It’s not a question of which is “worse.” The Electoral College institution has demonstrated strengths and virtues that make it an ingeniously good method. Not only would a direct popular vote be “worse”: It would be utterly ridiculous, even laughable, given how out of sync it would be with the character of American culture and society. Remember that liberty, not majoritarianism, has primacy in America. Don’t let the democracy fundamentalists get their way. Keep the Electoral College. It is, in my view, a valuable and unifying—and quintessentially American—institution. It is a valuable tool for fostering electoral coherence, restricting majoritarian power, and protecting our basic freedoms.

* In the leadup to the Electoral College vote on December 19th, 2016, there was a popular campaign to convince the electors not to cast their votes for Donald Trump on the grounds that Trump is unfit to be president, such as that his “impulsive nature would lead the country into another war.” The attempt failed, as expected. In the end, seven electors voted for people other than those they were pledged to, with Trump losing two votes and Clinton losing five, leaving a final tally 304-227 for Trump. The defections went to John Kasich [1], Ron Paul [1], Bernie Sanders [1], Colin Powell [3], and Faith Spotted Eagle [1]. I don’t believe Trump is incompetent or unfit, at least not enough to warrant an electoral college upset of the voters. And he certainly doesn’t rise to the level of a Hitler or Chavez. But it is the job of the Electoral College to consider such issues before voting. While it may seem like a rubber stamp, it is not. It is a real structural bulwark against tyranny.

Related Reading:

The Conscience of the Constitution—Timothy Sandefur