Against Busybody Moves to Limit Liberty


I grew up in a fairly densely populated but suburban area, primarily with single family homes and duplexes. Each home had a yard, perhaps 30 feet by 75, mostly fenced in. We knew all of our neighbors on the block—say a dozen homes on each side—and a few on surrounding blocks. Many moved there from more crowded, mostly urban areas. Some people had vegetable gardens in their back yards, most did not. (Almost) no one had farm animals. I am not sure if there were any laws prohibiting such. A neighbor on the next block over (but only 4 houses away from us), had chickens in their yard. Chickens! For some, this was scandalous. The idea that someone might keep live chickens in their yard in our neighborhood was just appalling to them. And they did their best to rid the neighborhood of this apparently appalling pox on mankind. I no longer recall if they succeeded—I don’t think they did, but I may be wrong.

To be honest, back then I didn’t think much about those chickens—or those adults seeking to get them out of the neighborhood. Lately, I find myself thinking a lot about such people and the immense variety of things they would prohibit. Of course, some things should be banned—involuntary slavery, for example. Unfortunately, though, the list of things for which there are advocates of prohibition is extremely lengthy. That list includes:

large sodas; alcohol; cigarettes; marijuana, cocaine, other currently illicit drugs; certain books and magazines; curse words and profanity; hateful speech; guns; chickens, pigs, and rabbits (in suburban or urban areas); tall grass; parking on an unpaved space, even on one’s own property; crossing the street against the light, even when no cars anywhere around; non-standard building structures; non-standard colors for homes; homes built less than 30 feet apart; homosexuality; non-monogamous intimate relationships; intimate relationships with more than 2 partners; picking up prescription medications for one’s spouse; working for a wage below some minimum (perhaps a legally enforced minimum, perhaps someone’s idea of a “liveable wage”); grants from corporate donors; and far more.

As noted, some things should be prohibited. Involuntary slavery, murder, and rape are obvious examples. None of the items on the list above are like those three. All three necessarily make use of unconsented-to force against another. (In language I use elsewhere, all necessarily involve the wrongful setting back of one or more person’s interests by another.) None of the other things I’ve named above do that. And yet, there people have proposed banning each. The arguments for banning them usually involve one or more of four rationales. There are, of course, sophisticated arguments for and against each of these; here I just point out a simple problem with each. The four rationales and a simple objection to each are:

(1) The items in question or their uses are bad for the user, reducing their level of well-being. BUT: It’s interesting that those making these claims—for example, that accepting a job for less than a “liveable” or legally minimum wage is bad for you and you thus shouldn’t be allowed to accept it–don’t seem to consider the possibility that they themselves likely do things that might be bad for them. For example, proponents of such bans might work long hours, drink too much alcohol, care too much about the prevailing zeitgeist, etc. Perhaps those things should be banned. More time with family, relaxing, communing with nature, etc, is likely better for you than working long hours after all. It’s not clear why it’s less reasonable to ban comparatively long hours than it is to ban comparatively low wages. Some people, after all, may be quite happy being productive at some task without making alot of money. Proponents of bans for paternalist based reasons seem generally incapable of imagining that other people might think something they like is bad for them. (I am not denying that there are objective standards of what is good or bad for someone; I am denying such claims justify limiting liberty, whether they are objective or not.)

(2) The items in question or their uses are somehow offensive to others. BUT: Again, it’s interesting that those making these claims—for example, that pornography is offensive and should thus be banned–don’t seem to consider the possibility that others might find something they like or do offensive. Indeed, some of us might find the attempt to ban pornography offensive. It’s not clear why it’s less reasonable to think banning pornography is offensive than permitting it. A ban, after all, might make people mistakenly think there is something wrong with nudity or sexuality, essential aspects of being a human person. Proponents of bans for offense based reasons seem generally incapable of imagining that other people might find something they like offensive. (Again, I am not denying that there are objective standards of offensiveness; I am denying such claims justify limiting liberty, whether they are objective or not.)

(3) Banning the items or their use is good for others not using them (even if the items or their use do not offend or harm those others). Robby’s carrying a gun puts others at risk; Jill’s doing meth in the house next door might lower their property value. BUT: It’s not clear how much risk is usually present in these sorts of cases or why someone else’s benefit justifies interference with Robby or Jill. Of course, if the risk of gun carrying is sufficiently high, banning it would really be about protecting others from harm, not merely benefitting them–and that, I agree, would be a good reason to prohibit something. But while reducing the risk of a harm is a benefit, the claim here is only about benefiting someone, not reducing the risk of a harm. If I gift you $1000, I benefit you, but not gifting you the $1000 is not harming you. Banning meth in my neighborhood may well benefit me in terms of raising my property values—something I am very happy to see happen. But does my preference for increased property values justify interfering with Jill’s use of meth? Would it justify punishing Sally for keeping her yard messy? Banning Sheila’s use of an old, falling apart car? All of those things—visible meth use, messy yards, and junker cars— would reduce property values in a neighborhood. And again, proponents of interference with some to benefit others don’t seem to recognize that there are lots of ways to interfere with them–the proponents of interference--to help others. Perhaps they could be forced to teach at a local school, pay higher taxes, clean up messy yards, help out at addiction clinics, fix up cars. (And again, I am not denying that there are objective standards of benefit; I am denying such claims justify limiting liberty, whether they are objective or not.)

(4) The items in question (or their uses) are themselves immoral. (I’ve written about this here before; e.g., see this, this, and this.) BUT: Arguments for such immorality are usually not forthcoming and of course, proponents of these claims of immorality never consider the possibility that their interference with the way other people choose to live their lives is itself immoral. It’s precisely, of course, the sort of problem solved in Loving v Virginia and Obergefell v. Hodges. Thankfully, we no longer abide by the wishes of those who would ban interracial or same sex marriage. The busybodies that wanted to interfere with such were defeated. If only we could defeat the rest of the busybodies wishing to interfere in the lives of their neighbors. Again, proponents of bans for morality based reasons seem generally incapable of imagining that other people might find something they like immoral. While some think a marriage of 3 or more people is immoral, others think that heteronormative marriage is immoral. While some think cocaine and meth use are immoral, some think alcohol use is immoral. Some of us think banning any of these is immoral. (And again, I am not denying that there are objective standards of morality; I am denying such claims are usually accompanied with good arguments about such, or that they would justify limiting liberty, whether they are objective or not.)

As suggested, I think the only good reason to ban something is that it is itself harmful or used to cause harm. But it’s not enough merely to assert that something (guns, alcohol, what have you) causes harm. We need—and often don’t get—clear evidence of the harms discussed and why/how they are necessarily connected to the items for which a ban is sought.

So why are attempts to prohibit things so frequent (and too often successful)? It seems clear enough that the proponents of bans that get attention are simply good at working other people into a frenzy to join their crusade, whether the crusade be for good or bad (though it’s always claimed to be for good). Such people, it seems to me, rather enjoy imposing their desires on others–either because they are not satisfied with the degree of control they have over their own life (perhaps it is not enough) or because they are not satisfied with having control only over their own life (perhaps its too much!). It is a desire for power over others rather than a desire for power to live ones life as one wishes that seems to drive these people. We might do well to figure out how to decrease the occurrence of such a desire. (Even if not prohibiting it!)

Slogans and Wars

Activists like slogans, and some slogans are accurate, but philosophical positions are often too nuanced to be captured in a bumper-sticker-length slogan.   So in several recent online discussions in which I’ve attempted to explain why Israel is justified in responding to attacks by Hamas, I’ve encountered people saying that because they’re libertarian, they are anti-war, and therefore I must be a bad libertarian.  That’s wrong, and one reason it goes wrong has to do philosophy’s resistance to bumper-sticker sloganeering.

To begin with, saying “war is unjust” is some kind of category error, along the lines of saying “physical force is unjust.”  Wait, the bumper-sticker objects, I thought libertarians were opposed to physical force.  This move elides the moral significance of the distinction between the use of force in aggression and the use of force in defense.  If Bob starts hitting Bill and Bill hits Bob back, they’re both using physical force.  But that doesn’t make them morally equivalent, and this shows why it’s a conceptual mistake to say that “hitting is unjust”: if Bob’s hitting is unjust (aggression), then Bill’s hitting is just (defense).   “Hitting” alone isn’t just or unjust, until we know who is committing aggression, the initiation of force, to violate someone’s rights, and who is using force defensively, to protect their rights.  Libertarianism isn’t about hitting, it’s about rights.  Similarly, saying “war is unjust” misses the important distinction between aggression and defense.  If Sylvania invades Freedonia, say because the former wants to annex the latter to obtain raw materials, Sylvania’s action is unjust.  But that implies that Freedonia’s use of arms to repel the unjust invasion is just.  So the question “is this war just?” is poorly formed.  It’s unjust for the one to have attacked, and (therefore!) just for the other to respond.

Of course, there are complicating variables, so it’s sometimes harder than it first appears to assess justice.  (See my “War and Liberty,” Reason Papers 26, Spring 2006; can’t hyperlink for some reason but it is online.)  But the point I’m making here is that the slogan doesn’t even come close to capturing the variables.   At this point in the argument, someone objects that because there may be harm to innocents, the analogy from Bob and Bill to Sylvania and Freedonia doesn’t work.  But it’s not that the analogy doesn’t work, it’s that there are other factors to be added to the evaluation.  The analogy works in skeletal form – an unjust aggression may be justly opposed – but it’s true that military action carries increased risk of harm to innocents.  This isn’t a particularly novel observation, though, nor is it something that only a libertarian would think of.  It’s been a principle of ethical theory about warfare for centuries.  So it’s true that assessing the morality of a conflict has to involve the degree to which both parties take care to minimize harm to noncombatants.  But here too, the moral assessment is not unitary: if Sylvania is indiscriminate in attacking but Freedonia avoids targeting civilians, we’d say “Sylvania is fighting unjustly” and also “Freedonia is fighting justly.”

Another objection that is largely a red herring is to note that it’s states that go to war, and the fighting is thus subsidized by involuntarily-collected taxes.  I certainly agree that states shouldn’t do this.   But not everything that a state does is illegitimate per se.  There are state activities that would be morally legitimate if not done by the state, so it’s only that the state is doing them that makes them bad.  If it’s already bad, then it’s bad for the state to do it (for example, private citizens owning slaves is morally wrong, so for the state to enslave people is also wrong).  But if it’s morally permissible to do a thing, then the wrongness of the state doing it comes from libertarian objections about the nature of state activity.  For example, the occupation of firefighter is morally legitimate, so to complain about state-run fire departments is not to object to firefighting per se, but to the scope of state power.  (See also: teaching.)  So the fact that states engage in macro-level self defense is not wrong because defending yourself is wrong, but because of some theory about the proper scope of state power.  But while we’re arguing about the proper theory of the scope of state power, firefighters are doing a good thing, not a bad thing, when they go put out fires.  And Freedonia’s army is doing a good thing, not a bad thing, when it  repels Sylvania’s invasion.

Sylvania, of course, is doing something wrong: invading Freedonia.  This aggression would be wrong even if it were some non-state entity – it is just like Bob’s attack on Bill.  Bob is wrong to attack Bill.  Sylvania is wrong to invade Freedonia.  Bill is right to fight back; Freedonia is right to fight back.

Now to the extent that the “I’m anti-war” sloganeering is useful, it’s going to be useful in places like Sylvania: making the argument that aggression is unjust, that launching a war is wasteful of resources, that attacks like this are callous about human life.  Libertarians in Sylvania ought to make it clear to their leaders that they oppose the war.  But Freedonians, even libertarian Freedonians, are not bound to say “we should stop fighting”; they have the right to defend themselves.  Remember, just because Bill is a peace-loving person doesn’t mean Bob won’t attack him.  Similarly, a society that eschews aggression may nevertheless find itself attacked.  Some of the people I’ve argued with about this will point out the number of times the US has engaged in warfare that couldn’t plausibly be described as self-defense, as if this were some sort of “gotcha” moment that proves I’m bad at libertarianing.  But this is to confuse history and philosophy.  I’m perfectly aware that the US has acted badly in the past.  But that doesn’t imply that it’s always in the wrong, and more to the point, it doesn’t disprove the normative argument about the legitimacy of self-defense.   So we often end up with something like:
Me: People have a right to defend themselves when attacked.
Other person: Tommy is an aggressive bully.  Carl often starts fights.
Me: ???

Maybe this would fit on a bumper sticker: We should oppose starting wars, but we are not obligated to eschew self-defense.

Congressional SnowFlakes

I wasn’t going to write anything about this as it seemed too obvious to comment on, but I haven’t seen others do so—and it is worth noticing.

There has been, and continues to be, talk about college students and people on the left as “snow flakes” and weak/soft/thin-skinned, too easily hurt by speakers on campus. The extent to which college students take offense at comments may (or not) be greater than it was in the past. Last week, though, we saw Republican Congresspeople doing the same thing. See this.

Liz Cheney has been telling the truth about the 2020 election and (some of) the lies coming from Donald Trump and his sycophants. She has not, so far as I have seen, been particularly rude about it. She has simply pointed out that some people seem intent on enabling and spreading Trump’s lies. The response includes claims of being offended and “hurt.” (TN Rep. Chuck Fleishmann: “It hurt me very much.” A lobbyist: “what she’s said was offensive to me, and many others.”)

It is not unusual on college campuses to hear claims that speech can harm so badly that we should not only be concerned, but also set policies to prevent such. Speech codes were/are meant to prevent harm. This is the sort of concept creep—where we talk of things previously thought non-harmful as harmful—that I worried about in my Toleration and Freedom from Harm and that Frank Furedi worried about in his On Tolerance.

Furedi’s concern was with acceptance of a “transformation of distress into a condition of emotional injury” (106) that would be used to justify interference meant to silence discussions that might somehow endanger those offended (or those they pretend to protect). A standard response is that such people are too weak to hear (or have others hear) anything that might offend them, cause them to doubt themselves, or that simply might not put them in the best light. Cheney is clearly not putting most of those in her party in the best light and offending some to the point of “hurt.” One wonders if her detractors will try to pass some sort of congressional speech code.

Collective vs. Individual Risk Assessment: An Illustration

This is a guest post by John Hasnas (Georgetown University)


I move between two worlds. I work at Georgetown University in Washington, DC and I live in the Lake Barcroft community in Northern Virginia. The former is governed by the collective risk assessment made by the government of the District of Columbia and the University. The latter is largely governed by the individual risk assessments made by the residents. The former is a sad, lonely, and oppressive place. The latter is a cheerful, friendly, happy place.

This semester I have been teaching a hybrid class at the Georgetown Law Center. Entering the building in the hours before class is like stepping into the twilight zone episode, “Where Is Everybody?” in which Earl Holliman wanders through a totally deserted city. The class is held, not in a classroom, but in a large auditorium, which in pre-pandemic times seated 328 people. Now a maximum of 35 out of the 105 enrolled students sit in their own 42 square foot bubbles. The students, all of whom have tested negative for the coronavirus, are required to wear masks at all times and are not permitted to eat or drink in the building. During the 10 minute break in the 2 hour class, they must stand on little blue circles on the floor separated by 6 feet when they talk to each other. The law school encourages students and staff who observe violations of these rules to report the offenders who may then be barred from campus. Some of my students were reported for taking their masks off to eat or drink during the break and for standing too close to each other. I have been fully vaccinated since March 13, but I must teach wearing a mask.

The Lake Barcroft community surrounds a lake that has several artificially created beaches. Sunday was a beautiful, warm, sunny day in Northern Virginia. I decided to take a kayak out onto the lake for relaxation and little exercise. When I got to the beach it was filled with people. Families were playing together. Kids were wading and paddling around on kayaks and paddle boards. Several groups of friends, both teenagers and adults, were socializing together or playing frisbee or spike ball. There was laughter. And nary a mask in sight.

On the other hand, on my way to the beach, I passed individuals and couples who were out for a walk by themselves, some wearing masks, some not. Some of these crossed the street to make sure they did not come too close to me. Everyone nodded or waved hello as we passed.

I am fairly certain that my students and I would behave differently if we were free to make our own risk assessments. I believe that several of my students who are aware that everyone in the room has tested negative for Covid would sit closer together, socialize more in the break, and perhaps not wear masks. I certainly would not wear a mask when teaching. Having been both vaccinated and tested negative, I do not believe I am at risk myself or pose a significant risk to the students, the nearest of whom are several yards away from me. Of course, some of the students who come to class might not be comfortable with such conduct, and may decide to stop attending in person and join the rest of the class who are taking the course online. The two groups would be the analog of the people happily congregating at the beach and those walking alone along the street.

When we are free to make risk assessments for ourselves, we consider not only the danger to be avoided, but also the cost of what we must give up to avoid it. When risk assessments are made collectively, all that is considered is what will most effectively reduce the danger. There is no way to consider the varied personal cost felt by each individual and no incentive to do so. This is a rather mundane observation. But as I move between my classroom at Georgetown and the beach at Lake Barcroft, I feel its profound effect on the happiness of those in each camp.

Moralism and Busybodies: From Community to Police State

In previous posts (for example, here), I have discussed what seems to me an extremely worrisome form of legal moralism wherein people essentially invoke “community” as a moral good in order to instantiate what they want regardless of what others in their supposed communities prefer.  Put differently, they think interference with your activities is warranted simply to maintain or promote the existence of a community they value, whether or not you or anyone else values the sort of community they do.  They might want a neighborhood community where all of the houses are painted the same color or that have the same flowers in front, for examples.  Should you want a different color paint or different type of flower, it’s too bad for you.  These are examples you might hear of in a Homeowners or Condo Association, and are fairly insignificant.  Indeed, in an HOA or a COA, where the rules are in the legal documents, I’d suggest there is no problem at all—because living in an HOA or a COA entails voluntary agreement to the terms of those documents.

These sorts of rules, though, might exist in neighborhoods lacking such an agreement.  Sometimes neighbors simply pressure each other to not use some paint colors, for example, in order to prevent reductions in property values.  While annoying, even these aren’t the sorts of problems I really worry about—perhaps because the claims involved aren’t—and aren’t meant to be—moral claims.  When the same dynamics involve moral claims, the intensity of demands and thus disagreements are often worse.

The general problem is what we euphemistically call “busy bodies.”*  These are people who think they should not only pay attention to your life, but also think they should tell you what to do.  Often, such people mean well.  They are simply trying to help.  Some busybodies cross a line, however, by not merely offering advise but demanding your compliance.  They might demand you not paint your house a certain way, for example, explaining that it will hurt property values and then adding that if you did it anyway, you would be failing in your obligations to your neighbors (see this for a related amusing story).  In what such obligations are grounded, though, they don’t say. 

This is still a minor issue—it’s just painting your house.  But busybodies might also come and tell you how to discipline your child—and again, while this can be done in a friendly “here’s some advice, take it or leave it” way, it can also be done as a demand based in some unstated moral view.  They might insist, for example, that your child not be allowed to play in the woods, be left alone, climb a wall, or ride a specific type of bike.  They might say “if you do allow those things, you are a bad parent; good parents don’t behave that way.”  (Of course, about some things they may well be right.)

Make no mistake, some people have no problem interfering with the lives of others; some are naturally interventionist. They think they know how other people should live. They think they know how you and I should live. And, very importantly, they believe the government should make us do what they think we should do and disallow us doing what they think we should not.  Here’s where we get the biggest problems—problems that arise from further steps along a path to authoritarianism.  From encouraging people to maintain their homes for simple practical reasons or offering (even undesired) parenting advise, to claiming we have duties to follow such advice, to seeking governmental power to force compliance, we have a spectrum of activities that are worrisome. 

To make the point clear, consider that some people believe smoking tobacco cigarettes—perhaps especially menthol flavored—is not only bad for you, but also (perhaps for that reason) immoral.  And that some people (President Biden) are perfectly happy to use government power to enforce your compliance—all for your own good.  The U.S. FDA’s stance on this is clear:

Banning menthol—the last allowable flavor—in cigarettes and banning all flavors in cigars will help save lives … With these actions, the FDA will help … address health disparities experienced by communities of color, low-income populations, and LGBTQ+ individuals, all of whom are far more likely to use these tobacco products,” said Acting FDA Commissioner J. Woodcock, M.D.

Should any of us, including people in communities of color, low-income populations, or amongst LGBTQ+ individuals, think the benefits of smoking outweigh the costs for us, its too bad for us.  The busybodies are perfectly willing to use their power to bully the rest of us.  Such people do not mind sending police to arrest you should you try to sell single cigarettes, sell any without a license you’ve paid them for, or even for smoking one in your own home.  They will also not mind putting you in prison for failing to comply—or killing you on a street corner. (See this, if the story does not sound familiar.)

We should not think, though, that this is just about government.  Busybodies are often willing to use any sort of organization to make others comply with their desires. They are more than willing to vote to limit your ability to do what you want, of course.  But they are also quite willing to work to impose such restrictions in the workplace or neighborhood. They have no compunction against encouraging the boss to set policies that limit your ability to do what you want. They don’t mind petitioning a business to stop performing a service you enjoy or to stop selling a product you like.  They certainly don’t mind having the government make activities you enjoy illegal or limited.  What they seek is a society they like, regardless of what you or anyone else likes.  If some people must be imprisoned or killed for the cause, they seem to think that is simply a cost of attaining a good community or society. 

*See Antony Davies and James Harrigan’s Cooperation and Coercion: How Busybodies Became Busybullies and What that Means for Economics and Politics for more on the general problem.

Why 2021 is Making Me Nervous

John Stuart Mill once gave expression to what he felt was a commonplace, namely that:

a party of order or stability, and a party of progress or reform, are both necessary elements of a healthy state of political life; until the one or the other shall have so enlarged its mental grasp as to be a party equally of order and of progress, knowing and distinguishing what is fit to be preserved from what ought to be swept away. Each of these modes of thinking derives its utility from the deficiencies of the other; but it is in a great measure the opposition of the other that keeps each within the limits of reason and sanity.

For limited creatures like us, wisdom in politics requires that we face opposition from those who see things differently. Because we are narrow-minded and partial beings, approximating truth in politics must take the form of “the rough process of a struggle between combatants fighting under hostile banners.” 

James Madison was more skeptical of this kind of combat, at least in democratic contexts. He feared that competition between factions (groups organized around sectarian ideologies) might result in one becoming dominant. If it did, a purely democratic government would tyrannically enforce the interests of the dominant faction, at the expense of the common good. The remedy, Madison thought, was to adopt a republican constitution capable of cooling factional disagreement. Only a system of checks and balances, including a formal separation of powers, could stop a dominant faction from becoming tyrannical.

And yet Madison was clear that this remedy was unlikely to be successful absent a diverse civil society composed of competing factions vying for representation in government. Inspired by Mill, we might say something somewhat stronger: the powers of government, once separated, ought not to be distinct merely in the sense that they lie in different hands, but also in the sense that those in whose hands they lie have conflicting visions—some conservative, some progressive, say. Without this tension, we might worry that political change will happen more quickly and with less foresight and minority input than is desirable.

It’s true, of course, that executive, legislative, and judicial allegiance to the constitution can itself provide some source of tension independent of any substantive policy disagreements. (We saw, for example, that a court composed of largely Republican appointees was nevertheless able to restrain some of former President Trump’s more extreme excesses.)

But when many of our political disagreements are precisely over the interpretation of that founding document and the degree to which it constrains legislative, executive, and judicial bodies, it’s not hard to see that a legislature which shares the political goals of an executive which shares in turn the political goals of a judiciary might be less likely to “check” one another than they might be in the presence of more disagreement. 

This brings me to the respect in which the politics of the moment make me nervous. 

Along with a Democratic executive, we have a House of Representatives with a sizable Democratic majority and a democratically controlled Senate. The latter has an increasing capacity  to pass legislation with no Republican support.

Currently, the largely Republican appointed judiciary is the only source of robust “opposition” in the sense sketched above. In normal circumstances, it might be enough. And yet, there are increasingly loud calls for congress to “pack the court” as a means of sanctioning recent republican opportunism. If these calls are heeded,  the court would lurch leftward as well. 

Naturally, even in the event of a packed court, recourse would remain to the less formal civil society checks on majority excess the founders thought so important. But many of the most prestigious media outlets exhibit a bias friendly to the Democratic Party. So too with social media platform executives. And the leftward tilt of most colleges and universities indicates that they are only inadequately positioned to provide an appropriate counterweight. Commercial interests, long opponents of progressive economic policies, are coming around on many of them.  To make matters worse, the broader population, still reeling from the pandemic, is more welcoming of government action than usual, creating a kind of popular authorization for some fairly radical changes to economic policy

It isn’t, then, merely that we have a government increasingly in the control of persons with a predominantly progressive vision. We have a civil society, the major aspects of which also share that vision. 

Moreover, things aren’t likely to improve in this dimension, at least not in the medium term. The republican party platform (to the extent that there is one) is massively unpopular among young voters. Its flirtation with xenophobia will make it unpopular with immigrant voters. It has long lost favor with racial minorities and women. Thus unless the Democratic Party fractures along the fault lines it is clearly showing (or the GOP recovers some sense of itself), I imagine that we’ll see a sustained period of single-party dominance in each branch of government. Absent a cultural shift that seems as unlikely as it might be undesirable, our civil society will continue to lean heavily in a progressive direction.

Some might hasten to say that the GOP itself bears the primary responsibility for all of this. And they’d be (at least partially) right. The party has ceased being a principled proponent of limited government. It has become increasingly willing to wield its power to arbitrarily punish commercial actors that it dislikes (even when this is anathema to its stated commitments). We witnessed this in Trump’s lashing out at big tech firms and abuse of executive orders, and we’re seeing it now, as major GOP actors opportunistically threaten the MLB with sanctions for its recent opposition to Republican legislation.

But though the Republican Party may bear primary responsibility for the state of affairs that has me worried, it would be shortsighted to celebrate its (perhaps deserved) decline—at least so far as one is moved by the Millian reasons rehearsed above.

Montesquieu famously wrote that “every man invested with power is apt to abuse it, and to carry his authority as far as it will go.” The above reflections suggest that democrats have a substantial mandate for exercising their own newly won authority. And yet one does not have to be as pessimistic as Montesquieu was to worry that the accountability mechanisms of the current climate leave something to be desired. 

Those yearning for an end to gridlock may, in short order, have their wish. For those of us who appreciated the virtues of slowed political action, little is left but to hope that we are every bit as paranoid as we sometimes seem to our critics. The well-being of the nation depends on it.

Free Speech and Anti-woke Legislation

In a recently published paper, I defend what I call U.S. free speech exceptionalism (FSE) against recent objections from philosophers. FSE refers to the constellation of legal norms and precedents that makes it difficult in the United States to prohibit various kinds of undesirable speech. In the U.S., for instance, hate speech is protected, as is much obscenity and defamatory speech that is liable to legal limitation abroad.

Critics of FSE often worry that it is irrational. After all, the reason to constitutionally protect free speech is that doing so realizes several crucial positive goods. These are varied, but a typical list will include (among other things): discovery of the truth, autonomy, diversity, and enabling better democratic deliberation. But—and here’s the problem for FSE—it is easy to imagine that there are circumstances in which we better achieve those goods by limiting, rather than protecting, speech.

Far from promoting truth and democratic deliberation, FSE tolerates misinformation (including false defamatory or libelous statements uttered in the absence of actual malice). Far from promoting diversity, FSE tolerates hate speech, which issues in patterns of exclusion and dignitary harm. Far from promoting autonomy, FSE tolerates demeaning pornography which silences women where it can most matter to hear them speak.

One response on the part of FSE is to deny all of this. Another is to say, sure, there’s bad speech. But the best response to bad speech is more, better speech. I’ve never found these replies satisfying. The best response, in my view, is to own up to these facts, admitting that free speech does not always advance the values that justify it, admit that more speech will not always be forthcoming, and to say that, nevertheless, FSE deserves our allegiance. In virtue of what?

You can read the paper for the full answer, but the short version is that we should accept FSE because departing from it creates new powers on the part of governmental bodies to act in tyrannical ways. Knowing what we do about human psychology and political power, we have good reason to think that these new powers will be wielded against unpopular minorities. Even if we are convinced that the people that wield the powers in the near term will use them for good, perhaps progressive, ends, we should not be very confident that future leaders will. More than that, we should expect that those silenced by the good people in charge now will be eager to vie for power themselves and silence those who silenced them. By hypothesis, those silenced will not deserve that kind of treatment.

It’s easy to respond to this argument with skepticism. Indeed, I’ve received plenty of sideways glances when I’ve told people why I’m a fan of U.S. free speech jurisprudence.

Well, the politics of the moment has seen an uptick in proposals for legislation that, I think, makes the argument credible. Such legislation aims to suppress the proliferation of radical ideologies. A bill currently under debate in New Hampshire is a good example. It would make it unlawful for a state agency (or contractor thereof) to advocate for or train persons to believe certain tenets of critical race theory, among other things. To take a concrete example, the law would arguably bar a public university from paying a speaker who thinks that the history of the United States is inherently racist. There are several proposed laws like this. Jeffrey Sachs calls them the new anti-woke laws.

At least some of these laws seem to me unconstitutional, violating first amendment rights of educators, contractors, and state employees. For that reason, I do not expect them to be passed (at least not in their current forms). If they are passed, I expect them to be struck down by the courts. But these expectations are expectations formed in a context in which the judicial commitment to FSE remains strong. Weaken that commitment, and I’m less sure.

Liberals worried about these kinds of laws should renew their faith in strong protections for free speech and norms tolerating heterodoxy. Conservatives inclined to support these laws (due to worries that state agencies sometimes use their power to promote fringe ideologies) should instead continue embrace the constitutional free speech norms that would in some cases lead to their being struck down. For eroding those norms will also make space for progressives to gain power and legislate in similar ways regarding “reactionary” ideology.

Mill was right when he observed that liberal toleration for freedom of speech was rarely principled. He saw this clearly in the reformation, when early Protestants held toleration up as an ideal only when they perceived their powerlessness to impose their ideology on others with impunity. Generally, the human disposition to “impose [one’s] own opinions and inclinations as a rule of conduct on others”, Mill writes, is “hardly ever kept under restraint by anything other than but want of power” (OL: 13).

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Instead, we could embrace the imperfect modus vivendi that is FSE and convert opportunistic support for toleration into principled support. This, rather than attempting to sustain political power longer than our enemies (Sachs’ proposal), seems like the best way forward for our imperfect political union. Or so it does to me.

* Note: Thanks to Andrew J. Cohen for feedback on an earlier version of this post.

Personal Responsibility, Moralism, and The American Right

Consider the idea that individuals ought to try to be self-reliant, willing and able to take responsibility for themselves and their loved ones.  This used to be thought of as a reason to oppose state assistance (welfare, food stamps, etc.), and so a reason to oppose “liberals” of the sort in the US Democratic party.  Those liberals, the story goes, pushed the view that the government was there to ensure your well-being, enabling you to reject personal responsibility. 

Notice, though, that a central tenet of the new American right—common to former President Trump’s followers and many of those who rejected him—is a hostility toward and skepticism of immigrants. Those with this skeptical stance seem to believe immigrants are somehow likely to be criminals, simply too different from us to be allowed to join our society, likely to try to replace Christianity as the main religion, or likely to take “our” jobs.

This anti-immigrant stance, it seems to me, is quite opposed to an ideal of self-reliance. Instead of relying on themselves for their well-being, these opponents of immigration allow themselves to be upset about immigrants and happily rely on the federal government to keep out foreigners—as a way of (supposedly) protecting their (or what they see as “our”) well-being, which it seems, is too fragile to deal with immigrants.

While protection from genuine (harmful) criminal activity is always a reasonable concern, there is little reason to believe immigrants are more likely to engage in such behavior than are than non-immigrants. (See this and this, for some discussion.) But leave that aside; it’s clearly not the only concern and its not an invocation of a nanny state (nor of moralism).

Many of those who oppose immigrants seem to think they are simply too different from “us” or are likely to be committed to a religion that would compete with Christianity in some problematic way. They think that their (or “our”) way of life must be protected; they may think our Christian (or, they might say, “Judeo-Christian”) values must be protected.

Finally, these opponents of immigration may think immigrants will take their jobs (or the jobs of other compatriots)—and thus want the government to keep out immigrants as a way of protecting “American jobs” (and salaries), and thus, their well-being and that of their fellow “real” Americans. Such people seem to fear they cannot compete with immigrants in the picture—either for the jobs they currently have but fear immigrants will take, or for other jobs they might apply for.

My point here is that those on the right adopting an anti-immigrant stance seem happy to rely on the federal government to guarantee or at least promote their welfare. They worry about the erosion of “the American way” and want the federal government to assist them in fending off that erosion. This is not being self-reliant. Self-reliance in this picture would be to think something like “well, things change; I will change along with them as needed.”

One possible response to what I’ve said would be something: “Look, one happy side-effect of keeping out immigrants is (we think) that we do better, but that isn’t why we want them kept out (or ‘limited to legal immigration’—but when the laws are made more and more constraining, there is no real difference). We don’t want them kept out to protect us as individuals, but to protect (as you said) the American way and Christian values. So it’s not about rejecting personal responsibility at all.”

If the response works, it shows that the criticism of rejecting self-reliance and welcoming the nanny state (that the right has traditionally criticized) is not a fair criticism of the anti-immigrant right. It would, though, leave the anti-immigrant right wholeheartedly endorsing a moralism of the sort that I have discussed in previous posts (for example, here). It leaves them committed to a goal of getting other people to do, believe, or live as they want, without any concern for those others as individuals or the rights they supposedly believe we all have. The goal is just to impose their preferred way of life on others. The desire some of us might have to marry or hire someone from another country is simply deemed unworthy.

In a nutshell, the anti-immigrant stance by those on the right commits them to either preferring a particular sort of nanny state that protects them from cultural changes, challenges to their religious beliefs, and competition for jobs OR its a disturbing moralism that demands legal assistance to protect the “moral fabric of society” where that “fabric” is really just their preferred way of life without those cultural changes, challenges to their religious beliefs, and increased competition for jobs. Stated that way, the two options seem not very different. The moralism is, after all, an insistence that the their desired way of life be imposed because they like it and the way of life it provides them–so the nanny state ought to protect it. It might be pitched in terms of what is good for society overall rather than what is good for some group of individuals, but that pitch is exceedingly weak. None of this should be acceptable to those advocating personal responsibility, self-reliance, and individualism.

*Note: Thanks to A.I. Cohen and J.P. Messina for comments on a draft of this post.

For more on immigration, see Bryan Caplan’s book and, very soon, Chandran Kukathas’s. (RCL earns commissions if you buy from these links; commissions support this site; we make no profit from them.)

Moralism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics

In a previous post, I began discussing moralism, which I take to be a commitment to the view that some acts must be forbidden, socially or legally, because they are (a) judged wrong by the general populace, (b) in some way opposed to the continued survival of the community qua a somehow unified group (I had said “general populace,” but this is clearer), or (c) simply immoral even if no one is hurt by them.

I have been seeing, once again, posts on social media about the loss of national identity (and praise for a few places that seem to still have such). My response to such posts is always the same: why would anyone value a national identity? That is the same response I have to those who seem to identify with a political party, ideology, racial or cultural groups, groups with the same sexual preferences, etc. I always wonder why anyone thinks that a group has any independent substantive value rather than just being a set of people that happen to share something in common.

Identifying with a group could just be recognizing that one has something in common with others (those also in the group), but it—or “taking a group identity”—has become something more. It is, we might say, an entryway into valuing that group for its own sake—that is, it’s the starting point to thinking of the group as having some value above and beyond the value of the individuals in the group. Nationalism is no exception—the whole point (it seems to me) is to encourage people to think of the nation as an entity of moral value all its own. Granted, that value is meant to be somehow good for the people within the nation, but how that works is mysterious. (But not to the point here.)

What do those who bemoan a loss of national identity (or who seek to revive such) want? They want to convince others to live as they think all ought to live. Or at least how all who live here ought to live. This looks like the first sort of moralism—they believe those who act differently are somehow acting wrongly. But what is it that they do wrong? So far as I can tell, it is nothing more than the refusal to live as the advocates of nationalism want.

Why are advocates of nationalism so concerned about people acting differently? This is where the second sort of moralism comes back in: what nationalists want is to be assured their group will survive; they thus fear anyone not going along with them as it means their national group does not have the allegiance of everyone and is thus threatened. It is the survival of the group that matters, after all, not the survival of the individuals within the group.

To be clear, so far as I can tell, nationalism is no different from any other form of political identity. Each group wants all of its members to “fall in” and be what the group is self-portrayed as. Those who act differently or in any way challenge the supposed identity of the whole are a problem to be dealt with, perhaps excised from the group, excommunicated, shunned, cancelled, or deported; perhaps (the topic for a future post) jailed or killed. Here I note only that I prefer the liberal ideal: I like that we live in a society with people who have different backgrounds, beliefs, religions, heritages, skill sets, etc. 1000 flowers blooming is far more attractive than 1000 clones.

The Minimum wage and symbolic behavior

President Biden wants to raise the minimum wage (MW) to $15. Many politicians, labor unions, and others support this policy. The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, however, predicted that raising the MW will cost 1.4 million jobs.

Economists already knew this, of course. By a simple application of the law and supply and demand we can predict that raising the MW will create unemployment: if employers are forced to raise their salaries they will hire less workers.

To be sure, the literature is not unanimous. A well-known paper by Card and Krueger used empirical data to question the conventional wisdom that the MW reduces employment. However, their findings have been repeatedly challenged (see especially here). I cannot adjudicate the issue here, but an intellectually honest examination (such as the one conducted by the CBO) must acknowledge that, given the extant specialized literature, there is at least a serious probability that raising the MW will cause unemployment.

Yet, in my conversations with supporters of the MW I have found a stiff resistance to even consider the objection. Some deny that the MW causes unemployment, often citing the Card & Krueger paper. This position is implausible if the MW supporter refuses to consider the evidence and arguments against Card & Krueger, especially given that the weight of expert opinion is on the other side. An honest observer should not cherry-pick the evidence and at the very least remain agnostic or cautious in support of the MW.

But caution is not what we see. Setting aside the evidence, some say that the MW is required for moral reasons. This is an interesting position, because it seeks to block empirical considerations in the evaluation of the MW. This is odd, however. If the MW has bad consequences, what could possibly be the non-empirical reasons in its favor? Maybe this one: support for MW expresses support for the poor, here represented by the lowest-wage earners. But if the MW causes unemployment, that means that by supporting the MW one fails to support the poor, since the unemployed are generally poorer than the MW earners.

Maybe the MW supporter can argue as follows:
(1) No one knows for sure if the MW creates unemployment.
(2) Supporting the MW expresses solidarity with the poor.
(3) Expressing solidarity with the poor is noble.
(4) Therefore, I am justified in supporting the MW, since in doing so I perform a noble action that does not have obvious bad consequences.

The two first premises are questionable. Premise (1) misrepresents the status quaestionis, as I indicated earlier. Economists have studied the issue, and the consensus is that there is at least a serious question that the MW will reduce employment. Premise (2) is dubious, because the expressive value of MW support is entirely parasitic on the mistaken belief that raising the MW helps wage earners without producing any bad consequences. This is a violation of Hazlitt’s injunction that in order to evaluate a policy, we must consider not just its effects on the group that benefits, but also its effects on other social groups. A policy must be evaluated by both its seen and unseen effects. Since (1) and (2) are false, (4) is false.

If the MW supporter instead claims that those already employed are morally deserving beneficiaries of the raise, then he must not only justify why them, and not others, deserve this benefit, but, as important, openly acknowledge that the policy will hurt many others. MW supporters never do this. They just deny or ignore these bad consequences.

I happen to believe that the best explanation of why many people support the MW despite the evidence is that they are grandstanding. They signal their compassion by taking advantage of the ignorance of the public about the functioning of labor markets. This is an instance of discourse failure: the public assertion of a falsehood where the speaker has truth-insensitive reasons for saying what she says.

But even taking the MW supporter at her word, that there are non-empirical, or moral, reasons for such support, the position doesn’t hold. Symbolism may have a place in certain contexts. Think, for example, of a public expression of solidarity with victims of genocide. Even if such act does not save the victims, the symbolic expression of support may be an appropriate or commendable act.

But symbolism has no place in the realm of economic policy, where outcomes control. If people support the MW in the name of helping workers, and it turns out that the MW hurts more workers than those it helps, then that should end the debate.