Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Ron Paul's free-thinking followers receive their orders.

Allow me to begin with a statement of fact: Rep. Ron Paul is not a libertarian. He is a registered Libertarian, an aspect of his political career rendered moot by his policy stances. I could join the Justice League, complete with membership card, but that won't make me a superhero. Merit alone determines credibility. While I stop short of endorsing any libertarian purity test, if Rep. Paul is a libertarian superhero, his power is the ability to tie trash bags really, really fast. Perhaps useful while substantially improving nothing. He is on the fringe, with minimal credibility.

With that stated, Rep. Paul announced his endorsement in the presidential race. He supports Constitution Party candidate Chuck Baldwin. The Constitution Party's platform is ridiculous, including such anti-liberty stupidity like this nugget on drug abuse:

The Constitution Party will uphold the right of states and localities to restrict access to drugs and to enforce such restrictions. We support legislation to stop the flow of illegal drugs into these United States from foreign sources. As a matter of self-defense, retaliatory policies including embargoes, sanctions, and tariffs, should be considered.

Drugs should be legal, although I don't personally care. Legalize every drug tomorrow and my cumulative lifetime intake will continue at zero. So, don't get distracted by the drug issue.

The important point is the mention of state and local rights. This is, at best, a poorly-written talking point. No government has any rights. Governments have powers granted to them by rights-possessing people. This matters. As Rep. Paul shows with his blather on issues like same-sex marriage, he is not interested in promoting liberty by limiting government. He is interested in promoting government by limiting liberty, as long as the government involved is not the federal government. Local majoritarianism is no improvement on the national variety.

The Constitution Party's platform gets no better for libertarians.

Also, consider the proper analysis of Rep. Paul's decision (link via Hit & Run):

Two weeks ago the Libertarian nominee pulled out of a press conference Ron Paul had called with the four leading third-party candidates (Barr, Baldwin, Nader, McKinney) to highlight their common ground. Barr decided to hold a press conference of his own down the hall. He also sent Paul a snide note — transmitted to Barr’s e-mail list as well — suggesting that Paul ought to replace the hapless Wayne Allyn Root as Barr’s running mate. This ploy could hardly have been more ham-handed: if Barr wanted to appear generous, he should have offered Paul, obviously by far the bigger attraction, his own slot at the top of the Libertarian ticket. Paul would not have accepted, but Barr at least would have received credit from some libertarians (note the small “l”) for making a serious offer.

After the press conference, Paul’s supporters, not to say Paul himself, were furious with Barr. And now, as a result of all of this, Paul is officially giving his blessing to Constitution Party nominee Chuck Baldwin. Here’s Paul’s statement. I don’t think Paul wanted to choose between Baldwin, who faithfully supported Paul’s Republican presidential bid earlier this year, and Barr, the nominee of the party whose ticket Paul had headed in 1988. But Barr’s behavior forced a decision, and the Libertarian Party is the loser for it.

If that educated guess is correct, and I suspect it is, who could reasonably propose that an individual who makes such a petty, unprincipled decision is qualified to represent libertarians, or to be President of the United States? What would he have chosen as his slogan if his revolution had succeeded in earning the Republican nomination, "Maverick Change You Can Believe in from the Next Decider"? I'll pass.

Note: I'm not particularly interested in the Libertarian Party politics, or Bob Barr's place as a libertarian. I've come back to my original skepticism. Bob Barr isn't a libertarian.

More thoughts at A Stitch in Haste and Timothy Sandefur.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Constitution Day Links

I don't know if a "Happy Constitution Day" is appropriate because it only reminds me that modern constitutional law has nothing to do with the Constitution and everything to do with blindly deferring to majorities, but I thought I'd share a few links:

First, the enormous irony of the federal government, by law, training employees about the Constitution can be found in an old blog post over at A Stitch in Haste. There is nothing I can say that wasn't already said in that post.

Second, I came across an old Reason article that was written by Julian Sanchez from around the time when conservatives were enraged by the refusal of the federal courts to hear the Terri Schiavo case despite congressional chest thumping that resulted in that abomination commonly known as Terri's Law. Sanchez presents great arguments akin to those that I have made in the past, linking conservative disdain for the judiciary not to the Framers or to maintaining the fidelity of the document, but to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Last, for my contribution to Constitution Day, here is my take on the empty meaning of "judicial activism"(here). It was one of my last posts at my old blog and one of my favorites.

I'll try to make the best of the day.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

As a light-hearted although mildly sarcastic reminder...

I am seeing all sorts of know-nothing types spouting off about greed, I thought it would be a good opportunity to put things in perspective by using one of my favorite YouTube clips:

Here is Milton Friedman giving Phil Donahue a lesson on greed:

I decided to put this up after reading a Bloomberg article that has John McCain pulling a John Edwards:

McCain struck a strongly populist tone, blaming greed and corruption for putting American workers and the economy at risk.

``Too many people on Wall Street have been recklessly wagering instead of making the sound investments we expected of them,'' McCain told a crowd today in Tampa, Florida. ``If I am president, we are not going to tolerate that anymore.''

I hope I am not the only one who sees the arrogance and insolence in these statements. I wasn't aware we were voting for Financial Planner-in Chief.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Why a Left-Libertarian Coalition Is Possible

In a comment to my post yesterday, ECL writes about Libby's advocacy of trust-busting:

She immediately goes for the nuclear option. Let alone the fact that the anti-trust measure should not ever be considered with a free market motive (not only is a government fix to a government-caused problem, it's also an anti-competitive measure used by rent seekers), she does not consider alternatives that could be considered reasonable (maybe) under certain conditions of, say, natural monopoly (i.e. rate regulation) where a genuine public interest is affected (as opposed to what passed off as a public interest in Nebbia v New York).

I generally agree with this critique. However, I think Libby's arguments - even to the extent I disagree - show something important about why a left-libertarian coalition that would replace the longstanding right-libertarian coalition is both possible and likely.** While Libby hardly speaks for the Left as a whole, and is in general one of the more libertarian-friendly liberals around, much of what she writes in her post is fairly typical of many liberals that I know.

So, if I disagree with the arguments and believe the arguments are fairly typical liberal critiques of capitalism, why do I think Libby's post demonstrates the possibility for a left-libertarian coalition? The answer is that the principal underlying her arguments is an essentially libertarian principal - the principal that economic competition is desirable, and that more competition is inherently good.

This is a far cry from the socialism and fetish for central planning that once animated the American Left. In those days, the Left viewed competition as an essentially zero-sum game in which only government intervention could create progress. Libby's post demonstrates that those days, for the most part, are gone. The Left has, by and large (though by no means completely), moved from trying to plan against competition to trying to plan for competition (even if we think those plans will do more harm than good, the fact is that the goal is to enhance private competition). Devotees of Hayek will understand the immense importance of this distinction.

Simply put, the ends of contemporary liberalism/progressivism have in large part been restored to their classically liberal roots, even if we libertarians may think that their preferred means are not particularly consistent with classical liberalism.

I would also add that there is one point Libby makes which libertarians would do well to internalize - and that is the creeping destruction of choice that results from monopolization (particularly where that monopolization occurs as a result of government protectionism). I think Libby is correct in suggesting that this can be as big a threat to liberty as direct government action - one need only look at the warrantless wiretapping program to understand this.

If we accept the dangers inherent in a symbiotic relationship between government and corporate monopolies, then libertarians in large part need to have a shift in priorities. While we can maintain our opposition to the social welfare state, the fact is that the corporate welfare state (including anti-competitive regulations, subsidies, and, notably, the military-industrial complex) must become our biggest priority in the field of economic policy. After all, a welfare recipient doing the government's bidding is a lot less of a threat to liberty than a corporate rent-seeker doing the government's bidding, particularly when that rent-seeker has access to all sorts of records and communications that the government would typically be prohibited from obtaining without a warrant.

In fighting the corporate welfare state, especially to the extent it includes government contracting, I would hope libertarians could all agree that the political Left is a more natural ally than the political Right.

**As always, when I refer to a right-libertarian or left-libertarian coalition, I refer only to libertarians in the broadest sense, with the full recognition that libertarian purists would never align with either coalition.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Big Business, Government, and Coercion - Peas in a Pod

Blogging at AOTP, beloved lefty-blogger Libby Spencer writes that her disagreement with libertarians often boils down to - in her estimation - beliefs in whether a free market exists, rather than whether a free market should exist. Many/most libertarians, of course, would probably point out that their major beef with liberals/Progressives is over the liberal/Progressive assertion that the last 25 years have demonstrated the failure of free markets because free markets have not, in fact, existed. So in this sense, Libby seems to be different from other liberals/Progressives, and in fact in agreement with libertarians.

Where she differs from libertarians, however, is in her belief that the biggest impediment to a free market is corporate monopoly AND that therefore trust-busting (and regulatory control) is a legitimate function of government:

Today many major multinational corporations have an annual revenue that exceeds the GDP of at least 30% of the third world nations. Free market principles can’t exist under these conditions. I hear a lot of talk from libertarians about the coercion of big government when regulatory controls and monopoly busting comes up but I believe corporate coercion is of much greater concern and is the one area of the market that does require government intervention, assuming we can break the stranglehold the corporations already have on our government that has allowed these monopolies to form in the first place. In fact, I see it as an essential first step in breaking the excessive governmental interference in our private lives.

In the comments section, Libby adds:

"[I]sn’t the reason government regulation right now favors corporate interests because the corporations and their lobbyists are the ones writing the regs in order to subvert the free market. It’s a catch-22 and I’m thinking if we break up the conglomerates, they won’t have the economic power to control government policy."

This of course begs for a response from someone with an unnatural fixation on lobbying, corruption, and interest group politics. Someone like, uhh, me.

The first point of disagreement is that I think the latter assertion, which most Americans accept as a truism, does not match up with existing political science, which overwhelmingly shows that economic clout (such as that thrown around in campaign donations) doesn't so much buy control as it buys access. This is a less important point, though, because it's not as relevant and requires an awfully long explanation. Also - regulators are more often than not career bureaucrats who have no need for campaign donations (and there is little evidence to support the idea that they are frequently bribed).

The more important point of disagreement, though, is that I think the evidence shows that as long as you have government regulators, you will have interested parties seeking to influence those regulators. The problem is that the parties interested in a particular set of regulations will almost entirely come from the regulated industry itself (with some exceptions, of course). This fact holds true whether those parties are a handful of large conglomerates or a group of relatively small businesses.

Except in relatively rare circumstances, these parties will be the only group that is both interested enough and organized enough to effectively push for or against a given regulation. Even when a group of particularly interested businesses is not well organized, the prospect of regulatory authority will almost always lead them, or at least a large sub-group of them, to quickly become well organized. This is not difficult, since you are usually talking about only a tiny subset of the population that shares some form of common network, whether it be a trade magazine, distribution network, or whatever. Because regulations typically pertain to a significant portion of the group's livelihood, they will be willing to expend tremendous amounts of time and money to influence the outcome of the regulations.

Meanwhile, to the extent others are interested in the regulations, they are likely to be not only relatively small in number, but also extremely disorganized, as only rarely will they share common lines of communication. Additionally, the regulations will almost never affect them in a way that will have an impact on a substantial portion of their lives. Which means they will be less willing and able to expend time and money on the issue even if they are able to organize.

Importantly, this holds true whether or not the regulated industry is dominated by a handful of large conglomerates. Indeed, the existence of regulatory powers alone can - and I think frequently does - have the effect of encouraging consolidation, collusion, and monopoly rather than competition. The existence of regulatory powers creates a unity of interest amongst potentially regulated businesses - whether that unity is centered on fighting against regulation or, frequently, fighting for regulation that will in some way increase the costs of entry into the industry (which is obviously a deterrent to competition). This unity of interest results in a situation where group members work together against outsiders even as they nominally compete against each other. There are some clear examples of this sort of behavior, perhaps the most infamous being the Realtors' Association. There is even one example I can think of that is far more powerful within its field, and far more relevant to this topic, because there are no constituent businesses within the organization that have more than a few thousand employees - and all but a handful have far less than that.

Meanwhile the group most negatively affected by regulations almost never has the incentive and ability to work for or against a regulation. This group of course consists of those who may in the future wish to become involved in the now-regulated industry. Few, if any, members of this group will get involved in the regulatory process because they, by definition, are not yet involved in the industry, and only rarely will they already have an interest in becoming involved in the industry. Even those who do already have this interest will lack any kind of a network that would allow for the requisite organization and activism.

The result? The regulatory authority (which, I might add, usually consists of people closely linked to the regulated industry) only hears one side of the story. To the extent it hears other sides, those other sides are drowned out by the hue and cry coming from the well-organized industry members, as well as the politicians they have persuaded to intervene on their behalf.

Trust-busting will not solve this problem, though. Instead, it will result in an informal, de facto monopoly that cannot be destroyed without violating the freedom to associate and to petition the government since you would have to prohibit industry members from joining what are essentially trade groups. This de facto monopoly will be worse than a naturally occuring monopoly, which is still usually subject to market forces and can (and often is) still be brought down through normal competition. In many instances, the de facto monopoly will even have more control over government regulation than an actual monopoly because the former example will have the weight of thousands of theoretically independent businesses behind it whereas the the latter will have the weight of only one (admittedly massive) business.

Ultimately, I suspect that monopolies are both created and sustained by government's regulatory authority. To the extent a monopoly could exist in a free market, it would not be nearly so insidious as it is in a regulatory environment where it can use its clout to raise the entry costs of prospective competitors and thereby behave like a true monopoly.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Don't say we didn't warn you...The Frannie Edition

Matt Ygelesias writes:

A broad ideological point while I continue to try to figure out what’s actually going on with the government’s re-acquisition of the GSEs — they say there are no atheists in foxholes, and by the same token there are no free marketeers in a financial crisis. Which reminds us that while we (mostly) use market mechanisms to set the prices of (most) stuff and do so for the very good reason that this encourages people to produce goods and services people want in appropriate quantities, that market activity doesn’t add up to anything like the “free market economy” of popular myth. Market transactions take place within a legal and institutional framework that involves many public choices at many points, choices that can (and are) made in different ways at different times and with different beneficiaries. We mostly don’t notice this stuff either because it operates silently in the background (copyright and patent law, say) or else because the changes tend to be small at any given point (Fed interest rate shifts) but when crisis strikes it leaps into the foreground.

And there’s nothing wrong with that, in principle. Faced with something like the Bear Stearns meltdown, it would be absurd for public officials to step aside and just “let things play out” irrespective of the damage done to the economy merely in order to bring practice into closer alignment with free market rhetoric. But by the same token, an obligation exists to make sure not just that the economy “works” instead of collapsing, or works just for the richest and best connected, but rather works for everyone who’s willing to work hard and contribute constructively to society insofar as he or she is able. At various points in the past, the economy has worked like that. In recent years it has not. We need to make it work like that again. Whether or not the current tendency of the rewards of economic growth to accrue almost exclusively to a small minority is the result of some kind of malfeasance is not, at the end of the day, really relevant. Insofar as it’s the result of shifting structural factors, the correct response is to use public policy to create counter-structures that will rebalance the situation...

Yglesias weak criticisms of advocates of capitalism notwithstanding(1), he boldy suggests that there are no free marketers in a financial crisis. Does the situation with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (collectively "Frannie") prove him correct? I would say that the answer to that question is a resounding "No".

Frannie are government sponsored entities that enjoyed competitive advantages that were brought about not through natural market mechanisms but from government: 1) the expectation that the GSE debt was guaranteed by the federal government meant that risk premiums were low and the entities had a lower cost of borrowing compared to other financial insitutions (and a $2.5 billion line of credit from the US Treasury doesn't hurt), and 2) the capital requirements were as a percentage of total assets is less than other financial institutions. Also, common with government programs, Frannie took on a life of their own, greatly deviating from their original purpose of trying to fill gaps in the mortgage markets, mainly with providing affordable loans. Frannie, from these origins, evolved into dominant players in mortgage finance market, holding nearly half of the mortgages in the U.S. Because of the turmoil in the mortgage markets, Frannie, entities that were the creation of the government, evolved into the entities they are today because of the government, enjoyed special anti-competitive privileges because of the government, are coming under the control of the government to prevent an economic catastrophy. In the words of The Cato Institute's Ed Crane, "this is a government failure, pure and simple."

In the face of this abject failure of government, Yglesias boldy makes a case for more government, suggesting that it is appropriate public policy to create counter-balances to mitigate perceived inequalities so that everyone benefits (read: engage in Kip's Law). Does he not realize that Frannie were intended as these sort of "counter-balances" he describes? Does his apparent enjoyment of dismissing supporters of capitalism for engaging in mythological fantasy blind him to the fact that Frannie makes for a great case study for capitalists and opponents of limited government like me to look to those who look to government to create a society in their own image and say "Don't say we didn't warn you..."? Sadly, Yglesias' entire ideological argument either 1) grossly misdiagnoses the problem, or, worse, 2) ignores it because, again, none of this has anything to do with a market failure.

While I am not a fan of government interventionism, I think the federal government's actions in this case were necessary in the short-term (the least worst alternative). I think allowing Frannie to fail (and I think they would have failed had the government not intervened) would have been disastrous (Tyler Cowen lists some reasons why and Paul Krugman's column on deleveraging is a helpful read in this context as well). I don't think I am necessarily violating my own free market principles if 1) I believe, in the big picture, the problem is not the bailout per se but the fact that we reached this point in the first place, and 2) to the extent that the takeover provides an opportunity to eliminate any and all special privileges and reduce the portfolio holdings in order to spread the risk out amongst various market participants and get the government out of this business as opposed to having quasi-public/private entities lingering around so that we get bit in the ass later, I'm all for it.

So, yes, I will gladly trumpet my support for free markets in the face of the Frannie (and frankly, the credit crisis in general) because Frannie was a government-caused abomination and markets had nothing to do with it. So-called "Progressives", it seems would rather continue to do battle with windmills and focus their ire towards the things that did not cause this problem while ignoring the things that actually did. None of this surprises me.


(1) Perhaps it's a personal bias, but I tend to debate liberals who associate "free market" with "unregulated market" absent, as Yglesias puts it, any sort of institutional or legal framework. With the exception of perhaps the libertarians of the more anarcho-capitalist variety, the libertarians I know do not share this view. We accept certain forms of regulations; therefore, the debate is not between something like "no regulations vs. regulations". Rather, the debate involves to what extent markets should be regulated. Here, libertarians (small l) and liberals hold widely divergent views.

I would love to know what free market of "popular myth" Yglesias speaks of, but he, not surprisingly, given his target audience, fails to define it. Also, I fail to see how my wanting to buy cereal at my local grocery store and the local grocery store wanting to sell it to me involves "public" choices and need to involve any beneficiaries outside of those involved in the transaction.

Anecdotally speaking, if Yglesias wants to think that regulations are the sorts of things we don't notice, I suggest he take a job at a Wall Street firm where he will get to know the people in the legal department and compliance very, very well, even if you never cause one bit of trouble for them. Just saying...

Thursday, September 4, 2008

We don't need no stinking great leaders...

When one gets through the self-deprecating humor and sarcasm (especially with his use of stupidity), fellow libertarian Penn Jillette makes some very good points as to why he thinks a great leader, in the sense that it has been currently defined (he looks to a new book written by The Cato Institute's Gene Healy for guidance - one on my reading list for sure) is not what we really need. I enjoyed the message, the humor and the way it has obviously gotten under the skin of certain commenters on that site.

Please read the whole thing but I'll summarize most of the good stuff here:

Everyone I talk to seems to think the president of the United States right now is stupid...

...They all seem to think we need to get a smarter guy in the White House fast, and Bush is so stupid, that task shouldn't be too hard...

...The idea, especially from the Democrats that I know, is, we just get a smarter guy in the White House, and all the problems will go away. We'll have smart speeches, smart high gas prices, smart bad economy, smart war on terrorism, smart war on drugs, smart hurricanes, smart global warming, smart war in Georgia -- smart, smart, smart...

...Obama is a great leader. He can fire people up and get them to do what he wants. He does smart speeches that promise everyone everything they need and make us feel good about our country and how much greater our government could be...

...But I don't think our next president being a great leader is a good thing...

...I'm worried about someone smarter than Bush taking over that tremendous power. Charisma and ambition increase my fear exponentially, and a great leader scares me to death...

...We need someone stupid enough to understand that the president of the United States can't solve many problems without taking away freedom and therefore shouldn't try. The only reason John McCain scares me a little less is because I think he's a little less likely to win. They both promise a government that will watch over us, and I don't like that...

..I don't want anyone as president who promises to take care of me. I may be stupid, but I want a chance to try to be a grown-up and take care of my family. Freedom means the freedom to be stupid, and that's what I want. I don't want anyone to feel my pain or tell me to ask what we can do for our country, or give us all money and take care of us...

...The choice shouldn't be which lesser of two evils should have the enormous power of our modern presidents. The question should be, who would do less as president? Who would leave us alone?...

Jillette's humorous commentary struck a chord with me because this is basically how I view things. My committments are to individual liberty, free markets and, perhaps most relevant to this discussion, limited government. Finding these attributes amongst our friends on either the Democratic or Republican side is difficult if not impossible. I am not interested in fancy speeches. I am not interested in broken campaign promises. I would be perfectly content to have a President that faithfully executed the laws of the United States in accordance with the Supreme Law of the Land. A President smart enough to recognize that there are limitations on what government can and should do and what government cannot and should not do would be satisfactory to me.

Jillette, rightly I think, fears the notion of a "great leader" because of the amount of power at that person's disposal, but let us not forget those who would rally around that leader. James Madison's writings on factions, most notably found in Federalist 10, are no less relevant today than they were over 200 years ago so it is worth quoting passages.

It will be found, indeed, on a candid review of our situation, that some of the distresses under which we labor have been erroneously charged on the operation of our governments; but it will be found, at the same time, that other causes will not alone account for many of our heaviest misfortunes; and, particularly, for that prevailing and increasing distrust of public engagements, and alarm for private rights, which are echoed from one end of the continent to the other. These must be chiefly, if not wholly, effects of the unsteadiness and injustice with which a factious spirit has tainted our public administrations. By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community...

...Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires. But it could not be less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency...

...As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed. As long as the connection subsists between his reason and his self-love, his opinions and his passions will have a reciprocal influence on each other; and the former will be objects to which the latter will attach themselves...

...The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man; and we see them everywhere brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society. A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good...

...It is in vain to say that enlightened statesmen will be able to adjust these clashing interests, and render them all subservient to the public good. Enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm. Nor, in many cases, can such an adjustment be made at all without taking into view indirect and remote considerations, which will rarely prevail over the immediate interest which one party may find in disregarding the rights of another or the good of the whole...

I find election year politics painful. Intellectually, it's dull. Worse, having to hear every other minute that I am facing the most important election of my lifetime and, especially one for libertarians, that we better be ready to vote for the lesser of two evils or else be ready for [INSERT FEAR OF DEMOCRATIC/REPUBLICAN PRESIDENCY HERE] at least three times a day wore thin months ago (to the extent I had any patience for it). As far as the lesser of two evils (the last snippet from my quoted passage from Jillette's post), from my standpoint, whether I'm shot in the head at close range with a 9mm pistol or an AK-47 does not change the fact that I am royally screwed. It only determines the size of the hole in my head. That's how I view the nonsense about the lesser of two evils so neither Obama nor McCain gets my support.

The Morality of Relativism

Doing a stint at AOTP, our friend Cernig (of Newshoggers reknown) has a truly beautiful post on the history of what is perjoratively called moral relativism, and what it can teach us about the shared history of classical American political thought ranging from libertarianism to liberalism to Burkean conservatism to anarchism. Cernig's piece comes remarkably close to my own views, and is the very definition of a "Read the Whole Thing" post - especially if you have any interest in restoring the primacy of the classical American political tradition.

Cernig begins:

I did absorb enough moral philosophy to understand that the broad mainstream of modern Western political thought - libertarians, liberals, small-c conservatives and even anarchists - held a rather different conception of moral truth from that of the authoritarian streams - communism, fascism and religious conservativism. For the latter, moral certainty is easy to come by. It is handed down from an Invisible Friend who is never wrong or arrived at intuitively via a faith that they, and they alone, have access to Platonic truths about morality in unalloyed form. For the rest of us, its a bit harder to come by such certainty - we have to actually think about it a

Cernig goes on to discuss Wittgenstein and two Scots near and dear to libertarianism - Mill and Smith, amongst others. He argues that although as a practical matter the purpose of politics is the legislation of morality, as a normative matter the sole morality that should matter is the Golden Rule ("do unto others....") and its corrollary ("don't allow others to do unto you as you wouldn't do to them"). (See Note 1, below). This is because human knowledge is finite, and morality thus cannot be intuitively known except by reliance on an "Invisible Friend," be it the Bible, a political leader, or an author. Thus, he argues, "moral relativism is the only rational method of moral enquiry, one that doesn’t rely a priori on magical and mysterious access to Invisible Friends, be they deity or platonic form."

Cernig concludes:

This intellectual framework, arising out of moral relativism and the political theory which logically must follow from it, is the shared heritage of liberals, libertarians, moderate conservatives and even anarchists. We do not, however, share any of that heritage with those who appeal to Invisible Friends of various kinds for their moral authority. They all share an authoritarian outlook arising from their reliance on dogmatic and external unapproachables, whether on hard Left or hard Right, which cannot ever be compatible with our shared theories of liberty, freedom or morality.

Cernig's post is fertile territory for a lot of my own political philosophy.

Most importantly, Cernig's post focuses on the argument that "moral relativism" is the foundation upon which liberty and individual freedoms are based. I think this point is well-taken, particularly considering that humans and the whole of human accumulated knowledge are by definition, finite; however, somewhere in the universe exists an infinite entity, whether that entity be the universe, God, or something else. (See Note 2 below)

Where I struggle, however, is with the use of the term "moral relativism" to describe the humility that accepts the limits of human knowledge in a universe where an infinite entity exists. This may be due to my own discomfort with the way in which it is usually used as a perjorative, but I also think the term "moral relativism" is inaccurate. The point at which Cernig is driving, which is a beautiful point, is that while morality (aka "absolute truth") may in fact exist (and perhaps does exist by definition), it is unknowable with certainty due to the finite nature of human knowledge. Thus, humans can only act morally to the extent of their own frame of reference, and to advance their own happiness (not to be confused with pleasure - the two are not always or even often the same).

But that does not mean we give up the search for absolute truth or morality, unknowable as it may be. Rather our understanding that absolute truth exists but cannot be known with certainty causes us to constantly inquire as to the nature of that absolute truth, constantly seeking it out while simultaneously recognizing that our uncertainty leaves us in no position to order others what to do short of recognizing the Golden Rule and its corrollary, versions of which, to my knowledge, exist in all or nearly all human cultures throughout recorded history.

In this way, so-called "moral relativists" are not "relativists" at all - instead, our morality is entirely formed on the Golden Rule and its corrollary. The difference is that this morality recognizes that truth, to the extent it can be attained, can only be attained through rational inquiry. As such, the Golden Rule is the central morality, as it is necessary to protect and respect rational inquiry and the search for truth (by definition "doing unto others" in a way you would not have "done unto you" acts contrary to one's own, albeit limited, understanding of truth). Far from being "relativists," we seek to act consistently with this one rational and universal moral principle without exception (though, as fallible humans, we no doubt occasionally fail in that task).

Instead, I would posit, those that would seek to impose the will of their "Invisible Friend" on others through the use of government (or other forcible means) are the real relativists. In so doing, these groups must of necessity violate the Golden Rule, which, as I said, is perhaps universally accepted in some form or another. Their justification for violating the Golden Rule in order to impose their personal moral vision on others? The "Invisible Friend" said so. This to me is the very essence of true relativism, one in which any rule is subject to violation as long as some knowable (and therefore finite) entity says so, and in which morality is entirely based on the whims of that knowable (and therefore finite) entity. In such a system, truth and morality exist only to the extent of the source entity - they do not exist independent of the source entity.

This is of course hardly a novel point I am making. Indeed, in addition to Enlightment and post-Enlightenment thinkers, the argument that truth/morality exist independent of an "Invisible Friend" and that basing truth/morality on such an "Invisible Friend" is the truly relativist position dates at least to Socrates.

NOTE 1: My first inclination was to disagree with Cernig's statement that legislation of morality is the purpose of politics, until I realized that this was a positive rather than normative statement. As a matter of practical description, I think Cernig's probably right - as a practical matter, politics is almost entirely about legislating morality (i.e., using the power of government to punish perceived immoral behavior, whether it be through wealth redistribution, criminal punishment, or civil liability, the purpose of politics is to punish the so-called "evil-doers" and reward those deemed "good" by the ruling class). On a normative level, however, Cernig's really arguing that the sole purpose of politics "should" be enforcement of the Golden Rule and its corrollary- i.e., the Golden Rule and its corrollary are the only morality with which government "should" be concerned. On this point, you'd be hard-pressed to find a true libertarian who disagreed (and ultimately, I think most anarchists would also agree, though they would likely point out - with justification - that the very concept of government violates the Golden Rule).

NOTE 2: At the risk of sounding like a stoned physics/astronomy student, I'd point out that perhaps the only thing that is certain is that there exists, somewhere, some infinite entity. Whether that entity is the universe, God, or something entirely else, it is perhaps impossible to conceive of a physical space with defined boundaries that does not exist within some greater physical/spiritual/whatever space. Eventually you have to get to some entity outside of which nothing exists, which therefore lacks any definable boundaries and is therefore, literally, infinite. Once you accept that something infinite exists, than absolute certainty becomes literally impossible since you must always concede that your certainty is based solely on your own finite experience or on the experience of some defined, finite, culture. Thus, the whole of human experience can teach us, literally, only an infinitessimal portion of truth and morality.