I think it’s possible that, over the next thirty years or so, a quickly growing fraction of the world’s people could enjoy abundant and clean nuclear energy (or some alternative), pleasant habitations and ample foods made better and cheaper through innovative and resource-efficient technologies, vastly improved health, plentiful opportunities to find meaningful work and recreation, and stable and peaceful governments.
I also think it’s possible that United States culture and politics could continue to degrade into irrationalism, conspiracy mongering, and interest-group conflict; that innovation-stifling ideologies and policies could generate continual economic crises, slowing global economic growth; and that increasingly authoritarian governments at home and abroad could threaten (more of) the world with wars and in the worst case even with nuclear devastation.
And I think that whether we head down one of these paths over the other, or down some other path, depends very much on how we think and what we do today. By “we” here, I mean everyone who chooses to enter the intellectual arena to influence the direction of culture, industry, and politics.
Liberalism broadly conceived offers the path of reason, human rights, scientific and technological innovation, economic freedom and prosperity, and democratic governments characterized by the rule of just law. Illiberalism in its various forms fosters irrationalism, tribalism, stagnation, and authoritarianism.
Hence, I think “we”—and here I mean those cultural influencers already basically committed to liberalism—need to redouble our efforts to defend and extend liberalism. I therefore welcome Tyler Cowen’s August 19 invitation to embrace “Liberalism 2.0.” This web site, which deals with topics that I have been thinking about for many years, is my effort to take seriously Cowen’s challenge and to try to make some progress (however modest) toward improving the conceptual foundations of liberalism and expanding its real-world influence. These are my preliminary and somewhat tentative notes; I consider this site (and the thinking behind it) to be a work in progress and a journey of discovery. (I will write more about my personal motivations in a subsequent post.)
A Blip or a Turning Point?
Was the 2016 election of Donald Trump, who is by any reasonable measure a profoundly anti-liberal and even authoritarian-leaning president (even if some of his actions have had pro-liberal effects), an aberration in American politics or a harbinger of worse to come? As many have noted, the election could have gone either way (Trump did lose the popular vote), and, had Hillary Clinton won, the national discussion would have proceeded much differently. (I’d probably be complaining about her betrayals of the liberal cause.)
Trump scares the hell out of me. Actually what I find terrifying is the widespread (still minority) public support for his racial nationalism, mercantilism, and conspiracy mongering.
Moreover, Trump’s head-in-the-sand approach to COVID-19 and his grotesque failure of political leadership have contributed to the spread of the pandemic within the United States. The pandemic has profoundly disrupted our economy (obviously), and we will be dealing with its economic, cultural, and political repercussions for years, even decades, to come.
Maybe a year from now the Trump presidency will seem like a bad dream. Maybe liberals have been sufficiently frightened by the episode that they will work hard and effectively to renew the social and political infrastructure on which a culture of reason and a politics of human rights depend.
My great fear is that some future political leader out-Trumps Trump and that weakened American cultural and political institutions fail to keep the train on the rails. At the end of the day, Donald Trump is a glorified clown, the star of an anti-reality TV show. He is a dangerous clown only because armies of moral degenerates and delusional mystics propped him up in the most powerful office in the world to further their diverse agendas. (I’m not saying that no decent and reasonable people voted for Trump; I’m saying that decent and reasonable people view Trump as at best a lesser of evils). Imagine a candidate with all of Trump’s worst ideas and impulses, who wants far more than to manipulate media and emotions for superficial glory, who cares seriously about power and who has the attention span to relentlessly pursue it, and who operates in a potential near-future America in which irrationalism is even more widespread than it is today. That sort of candidate could be truly dangerous and could precipitate the fall of the Constitutional order.
I acknowledge that the grave problems of the particular time in which I write have dimmed my outlook somewhat. On top of Trump and the pandemic, China is growing increasingly authoritarian. Russia continues to make trouble. Local to me, raging forest fires in California and Colorado currently turn the sky white with smoke around my Denver-area home. Lest the fires be considered purely a transient problem, news media amplify concerns that the fires stem partly from long-term global warming. (Of course I’m also interested in better fire mitigation.) With all this, some days I feel less than enthusiastically optimistic.
Hopefully a year from now I’ll reflect back and chuckle and think that I was cooped up for too long during the pandemic and letting my fears get the best of me. But I cannot definitively rule out a worst-case scenario within the next few decades—can you? If we face even a small chance of such an outcome, surely that should strongly motivate us to action.
Of course we should build liberalism not just to prevent the worst possible outcomes but to achieve the best. Yet a precondition of achieving the best outcomes is avoiding the worst. So long as we maintain some semblance of a liberal order we have a chance to improve things. But there is a point down the wrong path beyond which we could conceivably go from which no return is possible, at least not for a very long time.
Practically speaking, the project of working toward the best possible outcomes is one and the same as that of working to avoid the worst.
Yet liberalism is fundamentally an optimistic endeavor that envisions the best for people, so let us proceed in that spirit.
What Is Liberalism?
Until recently in (north) America, most people saw “conservatism” as a blend of Founding idealism and Christian traditionalism as pitted against the “liberalism” of the Progressive Democrats. Of course the better “conservatives” always saw an underlying broader “classical liberalism” at work in their ideas; what they wanted to conserve (mainly) was the liberalism of the Founders (however muddied that was).
The particularly (north) American split of conservatism and liberalism never made much sense. Now, it seems to me, it is starting to fade.
Today much of the United States increasingly is split into self-conscious nationalists versus (self-identified) Progressives, where both sides increasingly eschew liberalism. Whereas “conservative” intellectuals used to be (at least to a large degree) self-conscious “classical liberals,” now they increasingly are self-conscious anti-liberals. Whereas Progressive intellectuals used to also assume that Progressivism is one and the same as liberalism, Progressives increasingly mock “neoliberalism” and the capitalist horse it rode in on.
Meanwhile, it seems to me (or at least I hope), a lot of people from both the traditional “right” and “left” increasingly and self-consciously embrace the (broad) liberal agenda. Previously I called this the “Reason-Rights Coalition.” Of course I could add many other names to this list (including lots of people from the “effective altruism” movement, the members of Team GMU and Team Volokh Conspiracy, who can be lumped with the libertarians, and Jason Crawford).
In 2016 I wrote a short essay for a book, “Reclaiming Liberalism” (which I’ll probably republish on this site at some point) that has a distinctly pre-Trumpian flavor. There I am concerned mainly with defending a strongly free-market version of liberalism (which I continue to think is the truest form of liberalism) against the tax-and-regulate Progressive “liberals.” I still think that’s a debate worth having, but I now see much more common cause with many leftist (less free market) liberals against the nationalist “conservatives” and the zealous anticapitalists within today’s Progressivism. I see today’s Progressives as split into two main camps; in one camp are people such as Colorado governor Jared Polis, a Boulder Democrat who earned his fortune as a tech entrepreneur, and in the other are “democratic socialists” such as Bernie Sanders. I consider Polis but not Sanders to be a liberal ally (although I guess that both Polis and Sanders would say that they’re closer to each other than either is to me).
I do think that there is a serious debate to be had within liberalism as to how activist government needs to be. On one side is the “night watchman” state favored by (most) libertarians and other free market advocates; on the other side is a government that aggressively regulates businesses, “redistributes” substantial wealth, and finances for “universal” public use such services as education and health care.
Surely there is a point beyond which tax-and-regulate Progressivism ceases to be liberal. The Scandinavian countries, which I think are about as close to liberal utopias as have ever existed, obviously have very robust “social safety nets,” yet even there tax expenditures are less than half of GDP. And as Swede Johan Norberg points out, in many ways Sweden is more capitalist than the United States. So Sweden is not “capitalist” in Ayn Rand’s sense of pure laissez-faire, an “unknown ideal” (Rand grants), but it certainly is capitalist in the sense that people are basically free to produce and trade goods and services and to invest capital. Although it’s impossible to nail down a particular figure, I’d certainly say that steady (non-emergency) tax expenditures of 80 percent of GDP would characterize a fundamentally illiberal society. With that degree of political control of the economy (or even anything close to it), people would be basically unfree; they would live basically at the pleasure of the political class. Or if government tightly regimented production at every level of the economy, that would essentially be a fascist, illiberal system in terms of its economics. (I don’t want to get into a debate here about what precise combination of social and economic factors are needed to characterize a system as “fascist,” but I will point out that fascist economic controls cannot possibly leave other elements of politics and culture unaffected).
I recognize an asymmetry in my thinking: While I think that beyond a certain point a society can be too statist to be liberal, I do not think that a society can be too capitalist to be liberal. Of course this is one area where left-liberals will strongly disagree. For example, I think antitrust laws are inherently unjust and destructive; here I am strongly influenced by Objectivist and Public Choice scholars. I think the only real danger of monopoly arises from government action, especially government monopolies. (I will point out here as I have elsewhere that the same leftists who decry Amazon’s market success also endorse the onerous sales-tax regime that makes it practically impossible for me to directly sell my own books, which is why I sell them exclusively through Amazon.) Of course leftists (and most mainstream economists, including many conservative and libertarian ones) think my views are crazy on this score. Leftists fear that, without government antitrust enforcement, corporate “monopolies” would grow out of control to the detriment of consumers and the rending of the fabric of democracy. Or take the welfare state. To my mind, whether government should provide welfare—I mean, any sort of wealth transfer—is an open question, but I doubt it. I think (or at least hope) that, in a free market without government welfare, voluntary charity would thrive. But left-liberals (and even quite a few self-described libertarians) think that a society without a government-provided welfare system is inherently illiberal. My goal is not to resolve such debates here, but to explain where I see myself as a liberal and where I see some important debates within liberalism.
I want to try to reach a more fundamental understanding of what liberalism is. As a first pass I continue to really like Ludwig von Mises’s description as “the great political and intellectual movement that substituted free enterprise and the market economy for the precapitalistic methods of production; constitutional representative government for the absolutism of kings or oligarchies; and freedom of all individuals for slavery, serfdom, and other forms of bondage.”
Most broadly, we have to look at an ideology’s basic vision for humanity. Liberalism, in brief, values human well-being on Earth. Liberalism sees each human being as having moral standing, as having certain rights, and as deserving just and equal treatment under the law. Liberalism values moral and material progress, including the abolition of slavery and the lifting of most of the world’s population out of dire poverty. Liberalism sees government that is in some important sense democratic as essential to these projects. (Even my anarchist liberal friends could say that their vision for private governance involves a sort of market “democratic” control.)
Liberalism, then, necessarily has a substantially secular orientation; it is concerned (at least largely) with worldly (as opposed to Heavenly) values. Of course many liberals are religious, and many liberals claim supernatural sanction for worldly progress. I take seriously the idea that Christianity (at least in some of its core theological commitments) contributed to the movement for universal human rights (although I think the insights at hand readily separate from religion). And of course liberals endorse freedom of conscience for religious worshipers (and everyone else), as consistent with the rights of others and with the right of exit by church members. Any ideology that denigrates worldly values and material progress, say, in favor of Heavenly rewards, is thereby illiberal. As obvious examples we could point to the various theocratic regimes in the world today that continue to torture or murder homosexuals, “apostates,” the sexually promiscuous, and so on.
Liberalism holds that material progress depends substantially on scientific and technological progress as well as on a division-of-labor economy. So the sort of Romantics who want us to “go back to nature” and to free ourselves from technology and business corporations are necessarily illiberal. As just a blunt fact, almost none of the 7,806,764,009 people in the world (as of when I checked) would survive widescale destruction of modern capitalist systems of production. Liberalism is essentially pro-human. And it should go without saying that liberalism opposes nihilism.
Marx too wanted an industrial society and human liberation; why, then, is Marxism fundamentally an illiberal ideology? Marx was totally confused about what constitutes oppression. Liberals generally want to root out oppression, but the key is to figure out what actually constitutes oppression. So, for example, abolishing slavery roots out genuine and severe oppression. To take a negative example, various Christians killed “witches” because, allegedly, the witches oppressed people with their Satanic powers and influence. But, in fact, the various witchcraft crazes were built on fabrications and delusions. Christians who killed “witches” actually were murderers; they were the oppressors, not the oppressed. We can say something comparable about Marx. Marx, who took the fallacious labor theory of value to ridiculous lengths, saw many sorts of beneficial voluntary productive exchanges as oppression—I don’t think it’s too strong to say that he saw the division-of-labor market economy as inherently evil—and so in the name of rooting out oppression he inspired some of history’s most prolific mass-murderers. Although Genghis Khan is (I think) the worst mass murderer in history in terms of percent of global population slaughtered, Mao Zedong slaughtered the most people overall, with Joseph Stalin some millions behind. Yes, I know; that “wasn’t real socialism”—the problem is that there is no such thing as real socialism, as the basis of Marxist socialism is about as delusional as the basis for witch hunts. Put another way, “real” socialism necessarily cannot work the way that Marx thought but inevitably descends into oppression and mass-murder.
I think that today’s Progressives split into liberals and illiberals roughly according to whether they are dominantly influenced by Adam Smith or by Karl Marx.
Within liberalism, a main debate is not over Smith versus Marx but over Mises (and Rand) versus John Rawls (who had more in common with Friedrich Hayek than some Progressives and libertarians tend to admit). That is, a large debate is over the welfare state. Some liberals—the Objectivists and most libertarians—still think there should be no welfare state. That has long been my view—for a long time I considered myself an Objectivist, an adherent of Ayn Rand’s philosophy (which promotes free-market capitalism), although I have more recently criticized important aspects of Rand’s philosophy (while continuing to recognize that she got quite a lot right). Now I’d say that I continue to default to the view that government should not provide a welfare state but that I see a need to seriously challenge that view. Doing so is one of my aims with this web site. Most liberals, of course, do endorse a welfare state, and this camp includes many libertarians. Such is mainstream liberalism. Within this group the questions are how the welfare state should operate, how extensive it should be, and how it can be improved. Here a major topic of discussion is the universal basic income.
Of course liberals debate other things as well—price controls, wage controls, funding for infrastructure and science, protections for animals, self-defense, foreign policy, and on and on. I am consistently against price and wage controls (including rent control, laws against so-called “price gouging,” and minimum wage laws), though these remain extremely popular with my left-liberal friends (the Colorado legislature just passed a law against “price gouging” this year despite my protests). The libertarian philosopher Michael Huemer jolted me out of my apathy toward animal welfare, something I’ll discuss more below. I tend to include infrastructure and science funding with the welfare state—I see the same basic arguments at work in the relevant discussions. Those are such important topics that I want to discuss them in somewhat more detail in the next section.
Government and Public Goods
“What about the roads?” Among many libertarians this expression is now a running joke. The idea is that people debating libertarians inevitably will invoke this question as a sort of reductio ad absurdum of the libertarian position. “If you think you’re right on such and such point, do you also think government should not fund the roads?”
Well, what about the roads? In the end, it is a fair question. The argument for government funding roads is basically the same as the argument for government funding infrastructure of all sorts, for funding science, for funding education, and for providing welfare. It is also an argument (although not the only argument) for government funding the police, the courts, and the military.
A major aim of the U.S. Constitution is to “promote the general welfare.” Constitutional scholar Robert Natelson points out (in his book) that we should understand “general welfare” here “as opposed to the welfare of particular individuals, regions or interests.” Even conservative originalists who want to take a very restrictive view of Article I, Section 8 must contend with the section’s explicit authorization of Congress to “provide for the common defence and general welfare of the United States.” Of course most people today take a rather expansive view of the powers granted to Congress, and anyway no one doubts that state governments may fund essentially whatever they want, consistent with their own constitutions (however, Colorado’s constitutional prohibition of corporate welfare has not stopped the legislature from spending tax funds on corporate welfare). And all of the constitutions in question can be legally amended. No doubt liberals can have some very important arguments about how governments should finance things, but these arguments are secondary to those about what government should fund.
The basic argument for government providing (or subsidizing) certain things is widely known, straightforward, and easy to grasp: Certain things provide widespread benefits to most or all people in society, and yet, absent government intervention, people could enjoy (at least some of) the benefits without paying for them. Hence, absent government intervention, the things in question will not be produced, or will be under-produced, to the detriment of people generally. Here we’re talking about the interrelated concepts of externalities, public goods, and free riders. So it’s in our self-interests to agree to lock ourselves into an arrangement wherein we “have to” help finance these things so that we all can enjoy the benefits, goes the argument. Sure, we may gripe about taxes, but we (most of us) understand (at least goes the theory and at least if we attend to the relevant facts) that we’re better off with tax financing of the things in question. This is the basic argument for government providing or subsidizing infrastructure (including roads), science research, education, welfare, the police, courts, national defense, and so on. Mainstream liberalism accepts this basic argument and seeks to blend an overall free-market economy with the government provision (or support) of public goods, along with targeted government regulations of economic activity. This describes the basic view of government held by most people living in modern democracies and the practice of every government of modern democracies.
Many libertarians and all Objectivists continue to swim against this broad consensus view. Mainstream liberals might wonder if it’s worth entertaining such marginalized criticisms. I think it is. For one thing, I think there’s some chance that mainstream liberalism is wrong here, or at least that the critiques are strong enough to take seriously. Even if we assume that mainstream liberals are right, they can learn something from grappling with the criticisms and further refine their positions. And, if and insofar as the critics are wrong, better-explaining why they’re wrong can boost the mainstream liberal project. It could be that, even among liberals who embrace government spending on public goods, many have a bias toward less-than-optimal spending because of libertarian presumptions or influences. So let’s quickly review the main criticisms along these lines. (Again, this is supposed to tease the relevant issues, not deal comprehensively with them.)
I think the minority liberal critique of the mainstream liberal case for government support of public goods boils down to four main lines.
One: Government does not have the moral authority to force people to finance such projects. After all, government operates by force, and the penalty for not paying taxes is that government forcibly seizes the the tax evader’s property, possibly locks the tax evader in a cage, and, ultimately, potentially kills the tax evader who resists. Just as no private citizen has the moral authority to force others to finance various projects (outside of chosen contractual relationships and compensation for torts), so government too lacks such authority. The often-invoked “social contract” is but a convenient myth used to rationalize widespread rights abuses by government agents. The logical conclusion of this line of criticism is not necessarily anarchy (or anarcho-capitalism), although quite a few libertarians think it is; the Objectivists hold that government properly may establish a monopoly on the (just) use of force but that ultimately government should be voluntarily financed.
Two: Government agents simply do not have sufficient knowledge to competently decide what government should finance and at what levels, so government agents on net are as likely to screw things up as to make things better. This is a standard critique from Austrian political economy. To take an example, there’s no great reason to think that government agents who subsidize alternate forms of energy in order to reduce global warming will pick the right technologies and firms. It seems plausible that such subsidies actually have delayed development of clean energy by wasting resources and distracting from needed regulatory reforms (I’m thinking here specifically of regulations of nuclear energy). Ultimately, the very idea of externalities and public goods is fuzzy. People brushing their teeth provide positive externalities. So if we’re going to take the path that government may provide or subsidize anything that offers positive externalities, that’s nearly everything (excluding “sins” and such). Again this goes to the knowledge problem.
Three: Even insofar as government agents have some sensible view about public goods, they typically lack the incentive to do a good job providing them. This is the critique from Public Choice economics. So, for example, the reason that government provides universal public education, and that it keeps spending more and more money on comparable or worse outcomes, is not that this is a theoretically justifiable move by government, but that it lines the pockets of the teachers’ unions. “Public” education plausibly is partly a public good, but it is also obviously mostly a private good. The education of a child mainly benefits that child (and thus the child’s family). And it’s not like it’s hard to exclude non-paying customers from education (although we should note that many non-government providers of education very happily operate wholly or partly as charities). So there simply is no economic justification for universal public education (wherein government gives everyone a “free” education), although there is an argument for education subsidies for the poor. Or take Social Security. By any rational standard, this is a ridiculously inefficient way to provide welfare to less-well-off elderly people. The Social Security tax literally taxes the income of poor working families to subsidize (in part) elderly millionaires. This tax is bone-headedly stupid if we take seriously the actual theoretical justifications for government provision of welfare benefits. But the government provision of public goods is not fundamentally or mainly about the provision of public goods; it is mainly about the enrichment of special-interests, including the government agents who take their cut. (Bryan Caplan offers some remarks along these lines.)
Four: People interacting in a free market are able to come up with innovative ways to solve free-rider problems without government intervention. Here libertarians such as David Friedman talk about things like prior contracts to fund projects.
On the rights issue, mainstream liberals have to claim that rights aren’t as expansive (or as universal or as absolute) as (some) libertarians and Objectivists say they are. Basically, the idea is that people’s rights are contextual and interdependent with government structures. This is a really complicated debate that I don’t want to pursue further at this point. I will point out a variant position: A person could hold that taxation is appropriate only for the essential rights-protecting functions of government (police, courts, national defense), because rights are meaningful only in the context of an effective rights-respecting government.
The mainstream liberal response to the second and third criticisms is to say that these are containable problems; the response to the final criticism is to say that private action cannot come close to providing the benefits of government action. Sure, government agents act with imperfect knowledge. Sure, it’s hard to rein in special interests. But it’s possible for government to do these things sufficiently well to make its provision of public goods well worth the expense. Even assuming this is right, I think the criticisms point to the need for liberals always to keep the underlying problems in mind as they think about government policy. The line between a government that sensibly provides public goods and a government roiled with corruption can be a hard one to draw. Although every government suffers some corruption, obviously beyond a certain point a corrupt government becomes an illiberal one and one liable to fall into authoritarianism.
Here I want to briefly tease an idea I’ve played with that may help bridge libertarian liberalism (I’ll loosely call it) and mainstream liberalism. It is an extension of the right of exit. The idea is that we could keep basically the system we have, or preferably in improved system, but give people some ability to exit. So, for example, a person could agree, in writing, to forego various government benefits in exchange for a reduced tax burden. Perhaps these people would be listed in an online government database in case others wanted to shun them. Obviously this immediately brings up problems of free riding. But even an arduous and imperfect ability to exit might increase the incentive for government agents to spend money wisely and increase citizens’ buy-in of their government.
Another possibility is to offset a person’s tax burden with a person’s charitable contributions, possibly up to the entire amount. Let’s say your tax burden for a year is $10,000. Why shouldn’t you be able to instead donate $10,000, say to a scholarship fund for less-well-off students? Of course this proposal immediately will run into a bunch of criticisms. What about fraud (such as, allegedly, Steve Bannon’s border wall “charity”)? What about advocacy “charities” (such as a gun-rights defense group)? Then we get into questions of whether government must approve the eligible charities. What about national defense—would enough people still choose to fund that? Maybe such problems are enough to kill the idea. I think there’s room at least for some modest additional choice, such as the ability to divert one’s school taxes to the schools of one’s choice. I think it’s at least worth thinking about whether there’s some middle ground between no taxes and the status quo.
I also want to briefly mention the universal basic income (UBI) and the alternative society-wide means-tested cash payment. I have severe misgivings about the UBI (a topic for another day). But I am intrigued by the idea of replacing all current forms of wealth transfers with a UBI (or comparable system). If we could get rid of (phase out) Social Security, get rid of government-financed health care, get rid of food stamps, get rid of housing subsidies, even get rid of “universal” public education, in exchange for a UBI, that is a deal I would probably take. We could theoretically work out such a deal that kept overall welfare spending the same level as now. But of course, practically speaking, we would never get anything like that. Instead, I fear, we’d get a UBI on top of all the other wealth-transfer programs.
I want to say one last thing specifically about welfare before moving on. I am convinced by Bryan Caplan (and others) that probably the single greatest thing “we” could do improve people’s well-being throughout the world is institute open borders (meaning that borders are patrolled but that peaceable, noncontagious people may move freely through border checks). But obviously national (and subnational) welfare programs provide a severe disincentive for residents of those nations to go for (more) open borders. Sure, “we” could exclude immigrants from welfare programs, but is that realistic? My fear is that mainstream liberals are, by endorsing a robust national (and subnational) welfare state, cutting off the possibility of moving toward open borders, which, in addition to better-respecting people’s rights, would by orders of magnitude more effectively improve people’s well-being.
Another important issue here is the government’s pandemic response. I plan to devote a future post to the issue.
Obviously we can extend discussion of public goods and welfare indefinitely, and I’m sure we will. Next I want to discuss an additional theoretical problem within liberalism.
The Morally Horrible
Do you think that government should outlaw any form of animal cruelty? Although people used to regularly do things like burn live cats for “entertainment,” these days hardly anyone doubts that government should ban at least some forms of animal abuse. You may remember the Michael Vick dogfighting scandal. And yet this troubles libertarian (and Objectivist) theory as some people understand it.
If libertarians (of the relevant type, plus Objectivists and perhaps others) think that people can own animals as property and think that property rights are inviolable, then I don’t see how that leaves any room for government intervention. Even if someone, say, crucified a dog the person owned, government should do nothing. Some libertarians explicitly hold this position.
Most people think government properly may regulate animal cruelty at least sometimes. This quickly leads to some line-drawing problems. If we’re going to allow government to regulate the treatment of animals in some cases, that seems to me to open the gates fairly wide for government interventions. For starters, Michael Huemer (and others) have convinced me that “factory farming” of animals is grotesquely cruel to billions of animals every year. So if government may stop Neighbor Joe from crucifying his dog (or running dog fights), it seems to me that government also may tightly regulate factory farming of animals to lessen animal suffering. Most libertarians would oppose this move.
I’m going to describe the relevant category of actions here as “morally horrible.” These are actions that don’t seem to violate any other person’s rights per se but that are really bad to the degree that government (arguably) should ban or restrict them.
Certain forms of nonviolent racial discrimination also are morally horrible. Although putting up a “whites only” sign in a store front does not violate people’s rights according to typical libertarian theory—people are, after all, free to go elsewhere—I do think that it’s morally horrible, which plausibly provides grounds for government intervention. Or is this in a totally different category than animal cruelty? Maybe a relevant difference is that torturing an animal involves active harm, whereas declining to serve someone is basically passive. I’m not sure that works; putting up the sign or telling someone to leave is an action. Most people, including most liberals, accept “positive rights” enough that they talk about a “whites only” sign as violating people’s rights to equal access.
Of course we have to watch out for what people regard as morally horrible. Many people used to think that it’s morally horrible for people of different “races” to marry, but of course what is actually morally horrible (and a violation of rights) is banning interracial marriage. (Government should not outlaw the expression of abhorrent views such that interracial marriage is wrong, but it certainly should protect people’s rights to marry interracially.) And the drug war is built on the view that drug abuse is morally horrible, whereas what is actually morally horrible is locking people in cages or otherwise abusing them for consuming or trading drugs (with adults).
But the fact that people can be very wrong about what is morally horrible hardly implies that there are not some morally horrible things, even beyond the violation of people’s rights.
At this point I think the mainstream liberal view here probably is the correct one: Government may rightly ban or regulate certain morally horrible acts, although it should tread very carefully lest it become one of the monsters it is trying to contain. This is theoretically and practically thorny, though, and my conclusions are tentative. Libertarians are understandably terrified by the prospect of government “legislating morality” outside of rights protection.
For this short collection of musings I want to touch on just one more big theoretical problem for liberalism.
The Problem of Property Origination
I am by no means an expert on Lockean property theory, but I’ve heard enough to realize that there is a real theoretical issue regarding the origins of property rights. Sure, humans always have recognized certain forms of property rights. “This is my spearhead” or whatever. But at some point humans transitioned from hunting and gathering, where land was owned by all or by no one, to a more sedentary lifestyle where individuals or specific groups owned (or claimed) exclusive use of certain plots of land for habitation and agriculture. (I need to delve into the essays of George H. Smith on these issues.)
It’s easy enough to lay out a libertarian utopia on Mars, where no land currently is owned and where we can work out a sort of first-user system of property rights. Here on Earth, nearly every plot of land we might own, rent, or occupy was at some point forcibly taken from others. The exceptions include plots of created land, such as exist around the edges of Manhattan, but even there the resources used to create the new land came from other land that was previously confiscated from someone at some point.
Of course here in the region of the United States we deal with the particular problems that for centuries certain people benefited from the enslavement of others; that certain lands were seized from Native Americans, often in violation of treaty; and that various lands have been stolen from African Americans, Japanese Americans, and others even into recent decades. Recognition of such historical injustices quickly can lead to talk of reparations.
At some point, it seems to me, we have to do a bit of hand-waving to justify a particular set of property rights. The answer is a practical one at some point, not some neat purely theoretical solution. It is simply impossible to trace all existing property claims back to just acquisition all the way through.
In the first chapter of Socialism, von Mises offers a remarkable discussion about the nature of property: “All ownership derives from occupation and violence. When we consider the natural components of goods, apart from the labour components they contain, and when we follow the legal title back, we must necessarily arrive at a point where this title originated in the appropriation of goods accessible to all. Before that we may encounter a forcible expropriation from a predecessor whose ownership we can in its turn trace to earlier appropriation or robbery. That all rights derive from violence, all ownership from appropriation or robbery, we may freely admit to those who oppose ownership on considerations of natural law. But this offers not the slightest proof that the abolition of ownership is necessary, advisable, or morally justified.”
Mises points out that stable property rights are necessary for economic progress: “Economic action demands stable conditions. The extensive and lengthy process of production is the more successful the greater the periods of time to which it is adapted. It demands continuity, and this continuity cannot be disturbed without the most serious disadvantages. This means that economic action requires peace, the exclusion of violence.”
Mises argues that, at some point, we should take the current state of affairs as given and go from there: “We who only see the effect of Law—which is to make peace—must realize that it could not have originated except through a recognition of the existing state of affairs, however that has arisen. Attempts to do otherwise would have renewed and perpetuated the struggle. Peace can come about only when we secure a momentary state of affairs from violent disturbance and make every future change depend upon the consent of the person involved.”
Maybe someone has a better or more complete theory of property rights than what Mises offers. (Obviously some academics spend their careers working on such questions, so undoubtedly there is much of interest that I have not yet read.) But Mises’s view obviously raises all sorts of theoretical problems for liberalism. It may sound very well and good to the former slaveholder to establish a new peaceful status quo following the abolition of slavery, but it may not sound so great to the former slave. The former slave might feel justly entitled to some compensation. And if we allow such compensation in one case, it’s hard to see how to draw any firm lines. Of course at some point the fog of history swallows almost all relevant details, but there’s quite a lot of known history well before that point.
I hardly want to suggest that problems of property rights theory may imply that anything goes. It’s not like someone can sensibly say, “I have a right to smash out your store windows because the store is located on land previously confiscated.” An injustice of history hardly excuses an injustice of the present.
Moreover, almost all property (broadly conceived) that exists today was created. Sure, the land on which my house sits is important to me, but, without the house, the electrical wiring and plumbing, my router, and my computers, or the comparable items that someone else might use on it, that land is almost worthless. Jeff Bezos is not one of the wealthiest people in the history of the world because he inherited more property but because he created one of the most productive, human-advancing businesses in human history. He built that.
I do think the field of law can come up with sound principles outlining when compensation for past abuses is justified. Some (probably many) cases will be on the borders and will involve judgment calls that reasonably could go either way. So I hardly think the problem of property origination threatens to undermine the liberal project. But I do think it’s a thornier issue than many people acknowledge and that it’s worth a deeper look.
As I’ve suggested, I do think that exploring the theoretical foundations of liberalism is an important project for liberals. But I think liberalism has been sufficiently worked out that liberals can confidently proceed with a practical agenda. Much has been achieved (as Steven Pinker and Michael Shermer and others detail); much remains to be achieved. Following are projects I regard as critically important (in no particular order):
Reform the criminal justice system. The police too often are totally out of control. The courts too often are horribly unjust. The legislatures too often send police to harass people for things that should not be crimes. Ending the drug war should be an important goal of the liberal movement. The prisons (at least in many countries, including the U.S.) are a horror, more likely to further deform a criminal than to reform one.
Work toward more-open borders. Again, this is probably the single most important step toward improving people’s well-being—and respecting their rights.
Improve animal welfare. I think governments rightly can intervene here to some degree, but if not at least people can change their behaviors and try to persuade others to change theirs. Also, I think that if businesses figure out how to produce lab-grown meat in an economical way, that might basically solve the problem through technological means.
Figure out what to do about global warming. I think the most important thing here is to free up the development of new-generation nuclear power plants. I’m not a fan of a carbon tax, but I’ve suggested a carbon compensation fund that would have similar effects but that is closer to a tort system. Here again technological advances will prove vital.
Reform the welfare system. Even if you think government should not provide welfare at all, hopefully you agree that, given government does provide welfare, it could do a much better job of it.
Mitigate the threat of nuclear war. I believe that a wide-scale nuclear war remains possible within my lifetime. Obviously that would be an epic disaster. I don’t know what to do about this, but I’m glad some people spend a lot of time worrying about it.
Encourage liberalism internationally. Millions of people continue to live under brutal oppression perpetrated by their governments. Millions of people remain trapped in slavery. North Korea is part slave state, part enormous concentration camp. Muslims in China and in various other regions now suffer horrific abuses. I don’t know what to do about these problems. At a minimum liberals can speak out about them.
Promote reason. A liberal order cannot long survive widespread conspiracy mongering and other sorts of extreme irrationality. Liberals need to fight against unreason in its many forms and promote a rational and science-minded culture. I realize this broad suggestion isn’t helpful apart from specific programs. Obviously Cowen with his writing, podcasting, and video work is a leader here. I do think that good K-12 schools (and other educational programs) also can advance this aim.
I look forward to further exploring the meaning, basis, and aims of liberalism and to working toward furthering those aims in the world, in whatever modest ways I can.