The United States of America was – uniquely among nations – established on the idea of liberty.
Liberty is not, however, as The Declaration of Independence declares it to be, an “unalienable Right” endowed to Men by “their Creator”.
Nor is it “natural”.
It is a man-made artifact.
We quote from The Constitution of Liberty by F. A. Hayek, Chapter Four, Freedom, Reason, and Tradition:
Though freedom is not a state of nature but an artifact of civilization, it did not arise from design. …
The development of a theory of liberty took place mainly in the eighteenth century. It began in two countries, England and France. The first of these knew liberty, the second did not. As a result, we have had to the present day two different traditions in the theory of liberty … the first based on an interpretation of traditions and institutions which had spontaneously grown up … the second aiming at the construction of a utopia, which has often been tried but never successfully. …
What we have called the “British tradition” was made explicit mainly by a group of Scottish moral philosophers led by David Hume, Adam Smith and Adam Ferguson … drawing largely on a tradition rooted in the jurisprudence of the common law. Opposed to them was the tradition of the French Enlightenment … the Encyclopedists and Rousseau … are their best known representatives. …
There is hardly a greater contrast imaginable between their respective conceptions of the evolution and functioning of a social order and the role played in it by liberty. …
The British philosophers laid the foundations of a profound and essentially valid theory, while the French school was simply and completely wrong. …
Those British philosophers have given us an interpretation of the growth of civilization that is still the indispensable foundation of the argument for liberty. They find the origin of institutions, not in contrivance or design, but in the survival of the successful. …
This demonstration … represented in some ways an even grater challenge to all design theories than even the later theory of biological evolution. For the first time it was shown that an evident order which was not the product of a designing human intelligence need not therefore be ascribed to the design of a higher, supernatural intelligence, but that there was a third possibility – the emergence of order as the result of adaptive evolution.
While liberty needs to be guarded by the rule of law, it will dwindle and perish under regulation.
The more a nation is regulated and organized, the less liberty the people have. A society highly organized and regulated by government is an unfree society.
The United States is becoming ever less free. Its successive governments have become increasingly regulatory, or to put it another way, increasingly Leftist. The trend was interrupted and to some extent reversed by the presidency of Ronald Reagan. When he left office, the decay of liberty resumed. In the last eight years, President Obama – a firm believer in regulatory government – has all too often imposed his personal will by dictatorial executive order. In doing so, he acted as an enemy of the country he presided over.
The great Sovietologist, Robert Conquest, noted that there are “Three Laws of Politics”.
John Derbyshire recently recalled them, writing at National Review:
1. Everyone is conservative about what he knows best.
2. Any organization not explicitly and constitutionally right-wing will sooner or later become left-wing.
3. The behavior of any bureaucratic organization can best be understood by assuming that it is controlled by a secret cabal of its enemies.
And he adds:
Of the Second Law, Conquest gave the Church of England and Amnesty International as examples. Of the Third, he noted that a bureaucracy sometimes actually IS controlled by a secret cabal of its enemies – e.g. the postwar British secret service.
As the most historically important example of the Second Law, we can now add the United States of America.
Excellent as the US Constitution is, it has not kept governments from the fatal tendency.
The Democratic Party has become a wholly left-wing organization. If the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, is elected to the presidency in 2016, the people will lose such liberty as remains to them.
The Left is intensely immoral, as unabashedly unscrupulous as a wild beast. It will shamelessly blacken the name of anybody it perceives as a danger to it with baseless lies. Example: Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, publicly announced that the Republican candidate for the presidency in 2008, Mitt Romney, had not paid his taxes.
The Left will sacrifice any number of people, destroy their hopes, their health, their lives, if in their calculation doing so might give them an advantage. Example: Far-left President Obama is drawing tens of thousands of children over the Mexican border – to become, he hopes, future voters for his Party – by announcing that children who are in the US as illegal aliens will not be deported. All the children suffer. Many are ill. Some die.
The Left will deprive a law-abiding citizen, with armed force, of everything he has striven for in the name of some new oppressive regulation it has suddenly launched with a dim ideological end in view such as “environmental protection”. Example: A man who made a pond is being fined $75,000 a day by the EPA for doing just that, on the absurd grounds that the little stretch of water on his property is contaminating a river miles away.
These are just three examples, picked at random from the top of our composite editorial head, of present-day Leftist immorality in America. (How to choose from among the misdemeanors of the Clintons? An embarrasment of riches!) ) The theme of the Left’s iniquity is so vast that volumes could be written about it, and have been. In other countries, Leftist powers have committed mass-murder on an unimaginable scale by poison-gas, firing-squad, torture, overwork, and deliberate starvation.
And what compounds the evil and swells the monstrousness of it all is that they do it in the name of compassion. Their aim, they claim, is to better the lot of the the underdog. They will make the poor richer by taking riches from the rich and giving them to the poor until all are materially and socially equal. They do not want the only form of equality that is just – equality before the law. It offends them, they say (even the richest among them, and most of them are rich) to see inequality between the richest and the poorest.
With them, equality is not a moral principle but an aesthetic one.
They call the ideal of it “social justice“.
Justice has always been understood in our tradition as justice for the individual, qua individual. When a person goes to court, either in a criminal or a civil case, our system strives to provide him with a result that is fair given what he has done or failed to do. This is what we understand justice to be. Thus, when we say that justice should be blind, we mean that it should be rendered without regard to a person’s social status and without regard to the demands of this or that social agenda.
If justice is an individual-centric concept, then there is no room for the concept of social justice. The pursuit of social justice may lead to action that is consistent with justice, for example a non-discrimination statute. But the concept of “social justice” isn’t required to justify such a law; nor is it invoked to do so, since arguments for simple justice are always more persuasive (for example, the sponsors of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 took pains to assure the nation, probably disingenuously in some cases, that the law would preclude racial preferences).
The pursuit of social justice may also lead to action that is inconsistent with justice, such as granting racial preferences or expropriating someone’s property for “the greater good”. Such action is not justice, but rather justice’s antithesis. Thus, we should object when it is marketed as “social justice”.
In sum, the concept of social justice has no value. In the first scenario, it is superfluous; in the second, it is false advertising.
[Peter] Wehner argues that “any society that fails to dispense some measure of sympathy and solicitude to others, particularly those living in the shadows and who are most vulnerable to injustice, cannot really be a good society”. I agree. But vulnerability to injustice can be countered by the rigorous pursuit of simple justice. And sympathy and solicitude can be dispensed under these labels, rather than as a form of justice.
Wehner recognizes this when he concludes: “Whether this effort travels under the banner of social justice or some other name, to do justice and to love mercy is what is required of us, as individuals and as a society”. But the banner under which the charitable project travels matters.
When it travels under the banner of social justice, it gains extra moral authority that it does not deserve. The genuine tension between our desire to do justice (as commonly understood) and to be merciful is elided because justice is subsumed under mercy.
The result will be confusion and mischief, such as the aforementioned racial preferences and expropriation of property for “the greater good”. If rationalized as “social justice”, such components of the redistributionist project become entitlements, not favors to be granted, if at all, in small doses and under limited circumstances.
As [Friedrich] Hayek, who (as Wehner notes) deplored the concept of social justice, understood, therein lies the road to serfdom.
Besides, we cannot believe that devotees of the Left (once grown out of the ignorant idealism of adolescence) give a fig for “sympathy”, “solicitude”, or “mercy”. If they did they would take pains to find out what economic system really does better the lot of the poor (namely, the free market); and they wouldn’t repeat as they do that “the end justifies the means” – their excuse for sacrificing any number of their fellow human beings.
In fact many of them have dropped even the pretense of sympathizing with human beings. The victims of their “compassion” were first the proletarians. Then, as the proletarians in the Western world became too prosperous (because they had a degree of freedom) to qualify as pretexts for vast destruction, they focused on the lumpenproletariat. That class also became too well-off to care about. So then they moaned about the lot of “women” – by which they meant feminists – and people of unconventional sexual preferences. Many of them moved on to animals. But their ever-restless avant-garde did not stop there. They are now working to sacrifice more people than ever before on the grounds that it will be good for the wilderness, for rocks and stones, and even the vast, spinning, molten-cored planet – the ultimate victim of “social injustice”. (See our post, Fresh wild raw uninhabited world, January 2, 2012.)
It would be enormously laughable as a theory, if it wasn’t colossally tragic as historical and contemporary reality.
This video of Friedrich Hayek talking to students gets to be most interesting – we think – round about the 16 minute mark, when he explains why the monopoly power of government to issue money should be taken away from it. He goes on to argue against the idea of “social justice”. Justice applies to individuals, not “a state of affairs”. Most interesting of all, perhaps, is the case he makes against the idea that individuals who “do good” directly to other individuals are the great benefactors of society. On the contrary, the “selfish” people who produce goods for profit do far more good to far more people, indirectly. Towards the end he makes the point that the more complex a society is, the less able government is to understand its needs and plan for them.
This is from a fine article by Jonah Goldberg at Townhall:
Definitions vary, but broadly speaking, libertarianism is the idea that people should be as free as possible from state coercion so long as they don’t harm anyone.
Or as we put it in our Articles of Reason: My liberty should be limited by nothing except everyone else’s liberty.
The job of the state is limited to fighting crime, providing for the common defense, and protecting the rights and contracts of citizens. The individual is sovereign, he is the captain of himself.
It’s true, no ideal libertarian state has ever existed outside a table for one. And no such state will ever exist. But here’s an important caveat: No ideal state of any other kind will be created either. …
Ideals are … goals, aspirations, abstract straight rules we use as measuring sticks against the crooked timber of humanity.
In the old Soviet Union, Mao’s China, Pol Pot’s Cambodia and today’s North Korea, they tried to move toward the ideal communist system. Combined, they killed about 100 million of their own people. That’s a hefty moral distinction right there: When freedom-lovers move society toward their ideal, mistakes may be made, but people tend to flourish. When the hard left is given free reign, millions are murdered and enslaved. Which ideal would you like to move toward? …
How statism/collectivism ever came to be an ideal is puzzling enough, but that there are millions who still want it after those calamitous experiments Jonah Goldberg names, remains to us a mystery beyond all comprehension.
It’s a little bizarre how the left has always conflated statism with modernity and progress. The idea that rulers – be they chieftains, kings, priests, politburos or wonkish bureaucrats – are enlightened or smart enough to tell others how to live is older than the written word. And the idea that someone stronger, with better weapons, has the right to take what is yours predates man’s discovery of fire by millennia. And yet, we’re always told that the latest rationalization for increased state power is the “wave of the future.”
That phrase, “the wave of the future,” became famous thanks to a 1940 essay by Anne Morrow Lindbergh. She argued that the time of liberal democratic capitalism was drawing to a close and the smart money was on statism of one flavor or another – fascism, communism, socialism, etc. What was lost on her, and millions of others, was that this wasn’t progress toward the new, but regression to the past. These “waves of the future” were simply gussied-up tribalisms, anachronisms made gaudy with the trappings of modernity, like a gibbon in a spacesuit.
The only truly new political idea in the last couple thousand years is this libertarian idea, broadly understood. The revolution wrought by John Locke, Edmund Burke, Adam Smith and the Founding Fathers is the only real revolution going. And it’s still unfolding. …
We would add that this revolution has been advanced in thought further by Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, Robert Nozick, and (more popularly) Ayn Rand, to name just some of the later philosophers of individual freedom.
What made the American experiment new were its libertarian innovations, broadly speaking. Moreover, those innovations made us prosper. …
I’m actually not a full-blown libertarian myself, but it’s an ideal I’d like America to move closer to, not further away from as we’ve been doing of late – bizarrely in the name of “progress” of all things.
Same goes for us.
“Justice is essentially an attribute of individual human action. A state of affairs cannot be either just or unjust.”
Friedrich Hayek’s own words. Here is the great economist of the Austrian School saying them in contradiction to John Rawls in an interview with James Buchanan.
We see the “Occupy Wall Street” protest as a manifestation of economic ignorance and the politics of envy.
We find confirmation of our view at PowerLine, where Steven Hayward quotes from the great free-market economist Friedrich Hayek:
As we continue to fixate on the inchoate [“incoherent” would be more apt – JB] but plainly radical demands/desires of the lefty-losers Wall Street Occupiers, this passage from Hayek’s famous chapter in The Constitution of Liberty on “Equality Value, and Merit” hits the spot dead on:
“When we inquire into the justification for these demands [to equalize all outcomes], we find that they rest on the discontent that the success of some people often produces in those that are less successful, or, to put it bluntly, on envy. The modern tendency to gratify this passion and to disguise it in the respectable garment of social justice is developing into a serious threat to freedom. Recently an attempt was made to base these demands on the argument that it ought to be the aim of politics to remove all sources of discontent. This would, of course, necessarily mean that it is the responsibility of government to see that nobody is healthier or possesses a happier temperament, a better-suited spouse or more prospering children, than anybody else. If really all unfulfilled desires have a claim on the community, individual responsibility is at an end. However human, envy is certainly not one of the sources of discontent that a free society can eliminate. It is probably one of the essential conditions for the preservation of such a society that we do not countenance envy, not sanction its demands by camouflaging it as social justice, but treat it, in the words of John Stuart Mill, as “that most anti-social and odious of all passions.”
It’s almost as if Hayek wrote this with Occupy Wall Street in mind.
The free market is the engine of our civilization. It works. Works best if it is not interfered with by government. Works as a spontaneous system of co-operation and division of labor.
On which subject, here is part of a splendid short essay by Jonah Goldberg. He writes:
No one in the world knows how to make the newspaper you are holding (and, if you’re reading this on your phone, computer, iPad or Kindle, no one knows how to make those things either).
Even the best editor in the world has no clue how to make a printing press or the ink, or how to operate a communications satellite.
This is hardly a new insight. In 1958, Leonard Read wrote one of the most famous essays in the history of libertarianism, “I, Pencil.” It begins, “I am a lead pencil — the ordinary wooden pencil familiar to all boys and girls and adults who can read and write.” It is one of the most simple objects in human civilization. And yet, “not a single person on the face of this earth knows how to make me.”
The pencil tells the story of its own creation. The wood comes from Oregon, or perhaps California. The lead, which is really graphite, is mined in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). The eraser, which is not rubber but something called “factice” is “made by reacting rape-seed oil from the Dutch East Indies with sulfur chloride.”
To make a long story short, the simple act of collecting and combining the ingredients of a pencil involves the cooperation of thousands of experts in dozens of fields, from engineering and mining to chemistry and commodity trading. I suppose it’s possible for someone to master all of the knowledge and expertise to make a pencil all by themselves, but why would they?
The lessons one can draw from this fact are humbling. For starters, any healthy civilization, never mind any healthy economy, involves unfathomably vast amounts of harmonious cooperation. …
These days there’s a lot of buzz about something called “cloud computing.” In brief, this is a new way of organizing computer technology so that most of the data storage and number crunching doesn’t actually take place in your own computer. Rather, everyone plugs into the computational equivalent of the electrical grid.
Do a Nexis search and you’ll find hundreds of articles insisting that this is a “revolutionary” advance in information organization. And in one sense, that’s obviously true. But in another this is simply an acceleration of how civilization has always worked. The information stored in an encyclopedia or textbook is a form of cloud computing. So is the expertise stored in your weatherman’s head. So are the intangible but no less real lessons accumulated over generations of trial and error and contained in everything from the alphabet to the U.S. Constitution …
More relevant, the modern market economy is the greatest communal enterprise ever undertaken in the history of humanity. Friedrich Hayek did the heavy lifting on this point over half a century ago in his essay “The Use of Knowledge in Society.” The efficient pricing of markets allows millions of independent actors to decide for themselves how to allocate resources. According to Hayek, no central planner or bureaucrat could ever have enough knowledge to consistently and successfully guide all of those economic actions in a more efficient manner. …
According to progressives, the financial crisis discredited “market fundamentalism” and created a burning need for a more cooperative society where “we’re all in it together.” It’s an ancient argument, with many noble intentions behind it. But it rests on a misunderstanding of one simple, astounding, irrefutable fact. The market economy is cooperative, and more successfully so than any alternative system ever conceived of, never mind put into practice. Admittedly it doesn’t feel that way, which is why everyone wants to find a better replacement for it. But they never will, for the same reason no one can make a pencil.
Find Leonard Read’s classic essay I, Pencil here, either to refresh your memory and enjoy it anew, or to learn its lesson for the first time. It is essential to the proper education of every generation.
Of extraordinary interest, we think, is an essay by Anthony Daniels in The New Criterion, titled Ayn Rand: engineer of souls. (We cannot link to it, but it’s easy to find.)
We are admirers of Ayn Rand, but not uncritically. We believe, as she does, that capitalism is the only creator and sustainer of prosperity. We despise religion as she does. Like her we value reason. Her enormous novels Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead have probably won more believers in capitalism and devotees of personal liberty than any other book in any language, even surpassing Hayek’s essential text The Road to Serfdom; and for that she deserves lasting honor.
But her vision of humanity has a comic-book hyperbole about it which keeps her out of the rank of great writers. Her heroes are too big, too superior to us and everyone we’ll ever meet, to be likable. They inspire awe but not affection. We can be sure they’d look down on us if they knew us. We cannot emulate them, we can only wonder at them. They are like gods. They are intensely romantic, and romanticism is the enemy of reason.
Anthony Daniels lists her virtues and vices:
Rand’s virtues were as follows: she was highly intelligent; she was brave and uncompromising in defense of her ideas; she had a kind of iron integrity; and, though a fierce defender of capitalism, she was by no means avid for money herself. The propagation of truth as she saw it was far more important to her than her own material ease. Her vices, of course, were the mirror-image of her virtues, but, in my opinion, the mirror was a magnifying one. Her intelligence was narrow rather than broad. Though in theory a defender of freedom of thought and action, she was dogmatic, inflexible, and intolerant, not only in opinion but in behavior, and it led her to personal cruelty. In the name of her ideas, she was prepared to be deeply unpleasant. She hardened her ideas into ideology. Her integrity led to a lack of self-criticism; she frequently wrote twenty thousand words where one would do. …
A passionate hater of religion, Rand founded a cult around her own person, complete with rituals of excommunication; a passionate believer in rationality and logic, she was incapable of seeing the contradictions in her own work. She was a rationalist who was not entirely rational …
He goes on to paragraphs of stronger condemnation. He finds “horrible” cruelty in her. He perceives that though she was fanatically anti-collectivist, and though she had fled from Soviet Russia to the freedom of America, Stalin’s Russia remained within her.
Her unequivocal admiration bordering on worship of industrialization and the size of human construction as a mark of progress is profoundly Stalinist. Where Stalinist iconography would plant a giant chimney belching black smoke, Randian iconography would plant a skyscraper. (At the end of The Fountainhead, Roark receives a commission to build the tallest skyscraper in New York, its height being the guarantor of its moral grandeur. According to this scale of values, the Burj Dubai would be man’s crowning achievement so far.) Industrialists are to Rand what Stakhanovites were to Stalin: Both saw nature as an enemy, something to be beaten into submission. One doesn’t have to be an adherent of the Gaia hypothesis to know where this hatred of nature led.
Finally, Rand’s treasured theory of literature, what she called Romantic Realism, is virtually indistinguishable from Socialist Realism …
Rand’s heroes are not American but Soviet. The fact that they supposedly embody capitalist values makes no difference. Rand fulfilled Stalin’s criterion for the ideal writer: she tried to be an engineer of souls.
The analysis is not unjust.
But the recruiting sergeant to the Army of Light does not have to be the best exponent of the cause for which it fights.
While acknowledging and regretting all her faults, we keep, for her success as a dedicated recruiting sergeant, an abstract monument to Ayn Rand in our personal Hall of the Defenders of Individual Freedom.
Jillian Becker June 19, 2010
Obama says there should be a limit to how much money anyone should make. He and the “progressive” majority in Congress are trying, step by step, to turn America into a European-style socialist state. Only the state, they believe, can be extravagant, taking money from people who’ve earned it and will earn it in the future, and using it to extend and tighten the power of government. Austerity must be imposed on the people. Let them eat less, feel colder, do without cars. Let them have only the medical treatment and the education government will allow them to have. Limit the amount of wealth any individual may acquire. Profit is a dirty word. Tax, tax, and tax again.
It is a recipe for disaster.
Europe is experiencing the disaster. It is seeing its socialist dream go up in flames on the streets of Athens.
What cannot work, won’t work. Socialism, like all Ponzi schemes, can seem to be working for a time, but must fail. In a favorite word of the Left (applying it where the Left would not) Socialism is “unsustainable”.
Capitalism is sustainable. Capitalism is beautiful. A cornucopia. “The incredible bread machine”. It’s what Adam Smith called “the natural order of liberty”. It could also be called “the system of mutual benefit”.
You want the means to keep yourself alive? Provide something – goods, labor, services, ideas – that others want to buy. You want to live comfortably? Provide more of it. You want to live luxuriously? Provide it better than anyone else does. Both a seller and a buyer you will be. A buyer wants the thing he buys more than he wants the money he pays for it, just as the seller wants the money more than the thing he is parting with.
How can you know what others want? Put what you have to offer on the market and see if it sells. The right price for it is the best price you can get. The free market signals what traders need to know. As the great free-market economists, most notably von Mises, Hayek, and Milton Friedman have explained over and over again, government interference with price controls, minimum wages, rationing, compulsory purchase, bailouts, distort the signals and harm the economy.
Whether idealists and moralists like it or not, human nature is selfish. It has to be. If we were not selfish we would not eat when we’re hungry, warm ourselves when we’re cold, acquire what we need, protect ourselves from enemies. Without selfishness, the human race would not have survived. (It is not only or purely selfish. Individuals can and do choose to act unselfishly too – once they have seen to the needs of their survival.)
The Marxist idea of “from each according to his ability and to each according to his need” ignores human nature. Any attempt by government to put the formula into effect by creating the welfare – or “entitlement“ – state invariably handicaps, suppresses, and impoverishes the nation.
Capitalism is the reverse of that idea. It is a system that encourages each to contribute according to his self-determined need, to be rewarded according to how ably he does it. From each according to his need and to each according to his ability would be a fair description of how the natural order of liberty works.
To satisfy bare need is a poor political aim. It reflects a pinched, narrow, joyless, life-quelling mentality. “O, reason not the need!” King Lear pleads, “our basest beggars are in the poorest thing superfluous.” Generally speaking, in practice, the only way to be sure of having enough of anything is to have too much of it. Profit is a very good thing. It is only when people have extra money and extra time that they can invent new things. And those who produce things that improve the lives of multitudes, things that millions of people want to own and use, are doing far more for the general good than the most generous philanthropist could ever possibly do. Bill Gates with his Microsoft (though he seems not to realize it but to hold some silly lefty views) has actually done more for mankind than all the charities that have ever existed put together.
That is why it’s reasonable to propose that there is no sin of greed. There is a sin of envy. Envy is the raw material of socialist idealism. But wealth, Mr Obama, is not a problem. Poverty is a problem. And your socialist policies will cause it on a massive scale. Let us be free to work for our own maximum profit. Let us have abundance. Let us have feasts, fatness, generosity, might, novelty, and splendor.
Jillian Becker May 11, 2010