All posts by Andrew Jason Cohen

On School Openings

Back in April, I “predicted” we’d see 150 to 200 thousand deaths from COVID-19 in the US.  As we are now in that range, I’m hoping I was right and we don’t go past the 200,000, but of course this is so far outside my expertise that my guess means little.  But here we are and school openings approach.  Some seem deadly afraid of school openings and some seem deadly afraid of schools not opening. (I’m primarily thinking here about K-12, but much of what I say applies to colleges as well—and of course, high school juniors and seniors are more like college freshman than kindergarteners in terms of COVID-19 transmission and symptoms.)

Those conflicting views often accompany two others: that people favoring school openings foolishly think young children are immune to the effects of COVID-19 (or otherwise don’t understand the risks of reopening) and that people opposing school openings don’t care about education (or otherwise overestimate the risks of reopening).  

Meanwhile, I don’t believe any thinking person really thinks any children are immune to COVID-19, despite claims coming from the White House.  Of course, young children do seem to get badly sick from the virus much less than anyone expected back in March.  And there is no reason to believe that those worried about sending kids into closed buildings with hundreds of others don’t care about education.

My biggest issue with discussions about this—and many things—is that people seem unable or unwilling to keep the pros and cons in mind at the same time.  But schools are, by and large, run by groups of people that have to be able to do just that in order to make rational decisions about whether to open, close, reopen, re-close schools—sometimes despite political pressures by governing bodies, unions, parental organizations, and more.

This has to be a hugely difficult question and cannot be made without considering both the costs and the benefits.  At a minimum that includes the following assumptions (yes, I think both of these are true):

-if schools are open, kids and teachers are going to get sick (plexiglass around the kids, masks all day, etc, is not going to stop it). They will also bring the disease to their families, friends, and neighbors.  We’re likely to pass 200k deaths more quickly (and with more children) than we would if schools stay closed.

-if schools are closed, children of working class parents will suffer long term consequences.  Their parents can’t stay home with them and help them with their schoolwork.  Middle class and wealthier parents will hire tutors or join “educational pods” where parents pool resources to monitor children doing school work, but not those from poorer backgrounds.  (And as others have noted, there will be more cases of suicide and spousal and child abuse.)

There are further economic issues that would follow either decision as well, but I’ll not delve into those here.  What I want to urge now is simply (a) not demonizing those you disagree with about this and (b) bearing in mind both the pros and cons if you have decision making capacity here.  

I keep myself limited to those two points as I really don’t know what the best route is for any school (and, of course, different schools in different locales with different population densities and with different student bodies, will be different).  I suspect a lot of thought will be going into it, and not just from current school administrators and school boards.  (And parents—the topic of a future post.)

Hopefully, new ideas will emerge that actually bring new approaches and new institutions that do better for children than schools now do.  Smaller schools with more parental decision making, more variety of teaching techniques, and yes, better use of technology to not merely monitor children and allow for physically distanced communication, but also to spark curiosity.  I can’t predict the innovations; I remain optimistic that they will come and that innovators will consider the many concerns as they seek to appeal to a wide customer base.

This pandemic is going to have long term effects.  We are likely to see more work at home across the board and less use of commercial office space and that may bring new opportunities for housing, lower rents in some areas, and reductions of city populations.  Better systems of education responding to these changes and the above challenges would be a wonderful outcome of a bad situation.

(Thanks to Ronit Elk for the impetus to write this and to  JP Messina for helpful suggestions and comments.)

Post-Modernism and Economics

I’m neither an epistemologist nor an economist; I offer this nonetheless.

  1. Post-modernism is, at root, a rejection of the view that knowledge has foundations.  This does not entail that there is no knowledge or no objective truth.  Nonetheless,
  2. Some post-modernists seem to mistakenly believe there is no objective truth.
  3. Economics, as the study of exchange, accepts—indeed, relies upon the assumption—that people have subjective preferences.  This does not entail that all preferences are equally good or that there is no such thing as “objectively better.”  Nonetheless,
  4. Some economists seem to mistakenly believe there is no objective value.

I’ve long wondered whether those in 4 making the same sort of mistake as those in 2.

Note that for those in 2, there is no objective truth to discover, so nothing other than the (somehow always subjective or inter-subjective) project of learning why people believe what they do and how this affects them. This is, to be sure, an interesting and valuable project, but not one that can be objectively defended if it’s own reasoning is right.

Similarly, for those in 4, there can be no objective defense of their project–whatever value it has is subjective.

Better views of both post-modernism and economics are, obviously, available. Lack of foundations can leave us finding objectivity in coherence, pragmatics, or reliable truth-finding methods (or even correspondence). Reliance on the subjectivity of preferences for one purpose is consistent with objectivity (of the goodness,* for example) of the same preferences for other purposes—and with objective value elsewhere. Indeed, I think the group noted in 2 only includes some (the worst) post-modernists and I think the group noted in 4 only includes a few (and not the best) economists. I worry, on the other hand, that students in many college departments (not, usually Philosophy Departments) do fall into 2 and many economics students fall into 4. We should seek to prevent both.


*People can subjectively value, or not, items without objective value and people can fail to subjectively value items with objective value.

The Quadruple Threat to America Today

America faces a quadruple threat. The four threats are related in various ways, too often mutually supporting. I am not including COVID-19, though it could easily be considered a 5th threat. My reasons for doing this are: (1) it’s a threat everywhere, in no way distinctive of American life; indeed, it would be best considered a global natural disaster; (2) it is related to the threats I do discuss; indeed, like all natural disasters, it’s impact is determined by our responses—and the other threats make bad responses more likely. I offer these for consideration as I think they must all be addressed if liberalism is to survive.

The first threat is straightforward. We might call it xenophobia or extreme in-group bias. It manifests in multiple ways, especially racism, sexism, anti-immigrant biases, and anti-semitism. This may seem to be largely confined to those on the so-called “right,” but it applies to many on the left as well. On the left, one need only think of Bernie Sanders’ anti-immigrant views or Joe Biden’s recent pro-American economic policy; on the right one need only think of talk of the “Wuhan flu” or “China flu” instead of “COVID-19”—both play on the insider/outsider distinction to blame someone else for our problems (or at least prevent outsiders from becoming insiders). Maliciously shifting the blame provides cover for those who seek to refuse to take action to limit the harm. Taking responsibility (not necessarily blame) means working to fix the problem. Many of our governments—and many individuals—refuse to do so. This, of course, is at least part of why the number of COVID cases and deaths in the US is on the rise. Like all natural disasters, how we react to it determines the overall impact it has. Of course, the Black Lives Matter movement is currently the most straightforward evidence of in-group bias, in the form of racism, as protestors correctly point out how institutional racism, especially (but not only) by way of police actions, are extremely unjust and, indeed, a matter of life and death for many. This seems to be a concern primarily of “the left,” but with leading support from libertarians (defying the standard left/right dichotomy). For those interested in that, see Radley Balko’s and Chris Coyne and Abigail Hall’s books (CE*).

The second threat is the economy, as we fail to institute a reasonable response to the COVID-19 pandemic and as we face the repercussions of widespread use of collateralized loan obligations (see this Barron’s piece and this piece in The Atlantic), much as the 2008 recession was at least partly caused by widespread use of collateralized debt obligations. Regarding the latter, it is unfortunate in the extreme that the federal government failed to learn any lessons from the collapse of the housing market bubble or its past support for big banking and the latter’s issuing of bad debt (itself encouraged as the big banks correctly realized that even if the debts really went south, they would be bailed out by taxpayers—because in the US the one thing we like to socialize is big business’s losses). Unfortunately, we may see the same thing repeat. Indeed, it may be worse since there is more invested in CLOs than there was in CDOs and the CLOs largely include commercial debt—and the pandemic is hard on many commercial enterprises. Regarding the government response to the pandemic, we can only note what has been often noted—widespread, enforced, and complete shut-downs of multiple markets may or may not help reduce spread of the disease, but would only do so at the obvious cost of making it more difficult—and more expensive—for people to get necessities. While middle and upper class professionals are often able to work from home with no or little loss in pay, many—especially those in the restaurant and entertainment businesses—cannot. At the end of the day, shutting everything down to save lives is foolhardy as it will cost lives. If markets are all closed, we won’t have food and other necessities. Those who live paycheck to paycheck (and many more) won’t be able to pay rent, etc.

The third threat is authoritarianism, partially with a populist demagogue. We now have a president who is likely more of a demagogue than any president since Andrew Jackson. Of course, he was enabled by changes to the office and the workings of the federal government over the last several decades. The expansion of presidential powers under the past several presidents—Republican and Democrat alike—enabled what we have now. The populism is perhaps as dangerous as anything else—promising voters bread and circuses is always worrisome. Those voters are often not well informed about how government works or about science. Now, of course, we see both the populism and the authoritarianism emerging from the debased Republican Party. The populism is clear in the MAGA crowd’s following their leader in insisting on not wearing masks. The authoritarianism is perhaps worse, as witnessed in federal law enforcement agencies frightening behavior in Portland—with the threat that such behavior will go national. The use of ICE and The Border Patrol Tactical Unit deep within the US Border started months ago (see this in the NYTimes) but seems to be picking up steam—ostensibly because the federal government is so worried about graffiti on federal buildings that they are unwilling to leave such crimes to local authorities. (See Jake’s great piece, which also indicates why this is also about populism.) In reality, of course, this may be merely a piece of political theater, aimed at distracting voters and rallying the president’s base. As already indicated, though, this is not an issue for the current Republican party alone. Presidents Clinton and Obama also expanded their powers while in office. And even now, we see scary authoritarianism from the left, when local authorities claim to have knowledge about what is necessary to prevent further spread of COVID-19 and claim that such knowledge justifies them forcing people to live under house arrest (see this piece about a couple in Kentucky) for refusing to sign a paper saying they would not self-quarantine (whether or not they would self-quarantine). Neither left nor right is blameless and neither seems to recognize that their actions are as scary (at least to their opponents) as those of the other side are (at least to them). Those on “the right” seem to think the Feds behavior in Portland is worthwhile because local authorities aren’t stopping looters. They seem to forget the value of federalism and the freedom of individuals that helps ensure (though they remember it clearly when it serves their interests). Those on “the left” seem to think the Kentucky authorities are doing the work needed given public health concerns. They seem to work with a reified sense of “the public” and forget the freedom of individuals that threatens (though they remember it clearly enough when it serves their interests).

The fourth threat is related to my last post. Its a dangerous lack of commitment to there being anything that is objectively true and to seeking such. Its not just our president that seems to lack any commitment to truth. Our culture is riddled with people who claim their beliefs form “their truth” which may be different from “your truth” or “my truth” but that must be treated as if of equal value. Never mind that there really are experts out there in all sorts of areas. Some believe their views of morality are as valuable as those of academics who spend their lives working out intricate details of moral theories and defending those theories against all manner of objection—though they themselves never subject their own views to criticism. (Why should they, when their view is “true to them,” whatever that means?) No wonder people now consider their views about disease transmission (and curing) as valuable as the CDC’s or Dr. Fauci’s. Or who consider their view of other countries as valuable as people who have actually travelled to or lived in those countries. Or who think their views of politics and economics as valuable as academic political scientists and economists who have been studying these things for decades? Admittedly, insisting that there is objective truth might sometimes sound dogmatic to those who feel insulted when faced with any intellectual opposition—as if insisting that a proposition is true entails rejecting any objection or evidence to the contrary, which it decidedly does not. Giving any belief its due can be considerably difficult. As Schumpter said, “To realise the relative validity of one’s convictions and yet stand for them unflinchingly, is what distinguishes a civilized man from a barbarian.” We must remain open to the possibility that we are mistaken even when we are convinced we are not—that is what genuine commitment to truth and truth seeking entails.

I’ll end by making some of the connections between the threats explicit: 

-Its easier to favor economic policies that favor the rich (2) when one thinks everyone else is “other” (1). Its easier to favor authoritarian actions (3) when one believes they are only used against people vary unlike oneself (1). Its easier to deny there is any objective truth (4) when one is constantly told those unlike oneself have different values and beliefs (1)

-Its easier to hate outsiders (1) when one mistakenly (4) think they threaten one’s own livelihood and that of those one cares about (2). It is likely easier to endorse authoritarian policies (3) if one thinks they are necessary to maintain economic stability or growth (2). (Less related to this discussion: it is apparently easier to deny there is any form of objectivity (4) if one believes that the only think that matters is subjective preferences (2).)

-Its easier to distrust or hate others (1) or to favor an economic policy (2) when blinded by an authoritarian repeatedly making false statements about them and grandstanding (3 & 4). Its easier, in general, to doubt there is any objectivity (4) when both that same authoritarian (3) and many others—including, if we are honest, many leftist college professors—encourage those doubts.

-Its easier to hate outsiders (1) when one refuses to learn about them (4). Its easier to favor an economic policy (2) when one refuses to consider objections to it (4). Its easier to favor forcing people to live as one thinks they should (3) without doing the hard work of listening to them (4).

I hope its clear we need a response to these threats. Liberalism—and the great American experiment—depend on it.

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About Dialogue

Many people believe civil discourse has deteriorated. I think civil discourse has deteriorated. In this post, I want to make a different point: that what we see today is not merely a deterioration of civil discourse, but a greater and more general loss of genuine dialogue.

Dialogue involves two or more parties.  In genuine dialogue, one party speaks and the other responds, in seriatum.  The second responds to the first and the first responds to the second, etc.  In each of these moves, when one responds to the other, they do not merely make statements—they make statements that directly respond to the last statementThis means, at a minimum, that each successive statement takes into account what was previously said and in some way builds upon it.  The “building” may be a moving of the discussion forward wherein new information is created or shared, or it may be an interrogation of earlier statements that is plausibly expected to lead to clarity such that further building is possible.  

Excluded in genuine dialogue is lying, making statements unrelated to previous contributions to the discussion, mere repetitions of previous contributions (unless used as part of an interrogation meant to allow further building), and tangential statements meant to change the topic.  (Changing the topic is permissible, but doing so means ending one conversation and starting another.)

My contention is simply that these moves that are excluded by genuine dialogue are an extensive part of contemporary conversation.  Putting the point differently, much of contemporary discussion is twaddle rather than genuine dialogue. (This is not an original point; it’s been made many times before throughout history; my favorite statement  about it is by Kierkegaard, in his The Present Age (CE*).)  If this is right, it’s hardly surprising that we have a paucity of civil discourse.  How can we expect civil discourse when people have lost the ability to engage in any real discourse?  When what passes for discourse is “you speak then I speak,” disliking what the faux interlocutor says will not result in honest interrogation or understanding, but hatred.

If you think I am being facetious, consider:

-Walking across a college campus, you might hear someone say “Was your summer fantastic?” Forget the response, what kind of question is this?  What if the person being asked merely had an OK summer?  

-You might here someone say “Its going to rain tomorrow because I looked at the forecast.”  Well…. no.

-Someone might ask a guest if they’d like a drink and receive this reply: “I’m going out to dinner after this.”  This likely should be prefaced with a “No,” but who can be sure?

None of that even touches the fact that some seem to have absolutely no commitment to telling the truth, the results of which is that genuine dialogue can’t progress.  We could, of course, simply look at the White House for examples, but more generally I admit to being flummoxed when faced when someone lies straight to my face—when I realize this is happening, I give up on genuine dialogue with that person.

If contemporary discussion is itself not genuine dialogue, it cannot be civil discourse.  If we care about civil discourse, then, we should work to encourage more genuine dialogue.  That is, we need to encourage people to listen to one another and actually respond rather than merely speak.  (This, by the way, is one reason many of us love university life: at a university, we frequently say “what do you mean by that?,” “can you explain?,” and even “how is that relevant to our discussion?”  We seek and promote genuine discussion all the time.)

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Investigating Mr. Newton’s Residency Status is Immoral

SCOTUS recently sided with POTUS about the rights of certain immigrants who face deportation. The basic point by the court was that “neither the right of habeas corpus nor the right to due process of law requires a hearing before a judge for those turned down in their initial asylum screenings.” (See this NPR story.) I won’t comment here about the legal reasoning; this is a comment about the morality of deportations—or really, the morality of the initial acts that lead to deportations, especially those by I.C.E.

My thinking here was not spurred by the SCOTUS decision but by a line in The Man Who Fell to Earth (CE*) by Walter Tevis. For those who have neither read the book nor seen the movie (CE*), this is a story about a extraterrestrial alien who came to earth and did a fantastic amount of good for humankind—just as immigration is generally good for all humankind. (See this Economist Article, this Michael Clemens JEP article, and Bryan Caplan’s book (CE*).) The good he did was in the service of working toward helping those from his own planet, but was done peacefully—again, the norm for immigrants, who typically work for their own good or that of family in their home country, but do so peacefully. Upon his arrest, the alien—Mr. Newton—asks about the constitutional right to legal counsel. The response is startling: “you don’t have any constitutional rights. As I said we believe you are not an American citizen.” Constitutional rights only apply to citizens, we are told. Indeed, Tevis suggests, constitutional rights only apply to those whose citizenship isn’t doubted by any government officials. If a government official believes you are not a citizen, you have no constitutional rights.

I find this appalling on its own because I value morality for its own sake and only value a constitution—any constitution—if it is in accord with morality. I’d like to think all classical liberals would agree. Unfortunately, I know people with whom I am otherwise in large agreement, who do not agree. I know otherwise solid libertarians who disagree. (That shocked me when I first realized it.) Nonetheless, human persons all have value. They ought all be treated with equal respect. If a constitution suggests it’s ok to treat human persons disrespectfully, it is wrong.

My primary assertion here is simply that it is disrespectful to stop someone to accuse them of committing a crime, or even to question them about a crime, without very good reason. The question, then, is when do we have such reason? I think there are at least two requirements: First, it must be a serious crime, by which I mean someone must have been seriously harmed or be credibly threatened with serious harm. Second, the evidence must itself be both credible and persuasive to the average rational person. Absent either of these conditions being satisfied, no government official should interfere with any individual. (I mean for this to be a beefed up form of probable cause requirement.)

Turning back to deportation actions, consider that every U.S. citizen has rights and is presumed “innocent until proven guilty.” I would think that this entails that we assume those around us are innocent of the crime of entering the country illegally—or, at least assumed innocent absent the satisfaction of the two conditions indicated in the previous paragraph. But note being a resident in the US illegally will never satisfy the first of those conditions—coming into the country illegally does not on its own credibly threaten or cause any individual serious harm. (See Van der Vossen and Brennan book (CE*) and Lomasky and Teson book (CE*).) Hence, we (and the government) should assume those around us are citizens unless proven not to be. (If we do not, we assume some of our neighbors are guilty of a minor, i.e., non-serious, crime—but, again, we are supposed to be innocent until proven guilty and, more to my point, it would be a failure of respect to hassle someone about possibly having committed such a minor crime.) So we should assume that all present in the country are citizens. If we assume that, though, we don’t investigate their citizenship—we assume they are citizens. Mr. Newton shouldn’t have been investigated. He should have been thanked for all that he gave everyone else in the country. So too, we should not have I.C.E. investigate or seek out non-citizens. They should be assumed to be citizens and, indeed, thanked for what they provide the rest of us. Hence, we should not be looking to find anyone here illegally and so should not consider departing anyone.

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Wearing Masks

Given the big issues we face today—COVID-19 and BLM as well as reactions to both—I thought I’d make my first post about a COVID-19 issue: masks (really: face-coverings). I’ve seen and heard a lot of discussion about wearing masks. Some condemn anyone unwilling to wear one; others condemn anyone wearing one. Each group seems to consider the other sheeple. And both seem often to confuse beliefs in moral requirements with beliefs about legal requirements.

Here’s my view: most of us should—that is, I think most of us are morally required to—wear a mask anytime we go into an enclosed space with others. The reason is simple and straightforward: wearing a mask is likely the best way to reduce the spread of COVID-19. (See this Nature article.) Why does this matter? On my view, simply because we have a moral duty to try to not harm others and spreading COVID-19 is a way of harming others.

Many who oppose mask-wearing (and mask-wearers) claim to suffer when they don a mask, indicating difficulty breathing. That sort of claim is best saved for the protests against police officers actually preventing someone from breathing. Face coverings don’t significantly reduce your oxygen intake. (See this amusing piece.) If they did, surgeons wouldn’t be able to wear masks for hours as they do. Still, if you have a genuine medical condition that makes wearing a mask burdensome, the duty to protect yourself by not wearing one likely outweighs the duty to others. I’m not sure what sorts of medical conditions do this, but there certainly may be some (and no one should have to prove they have such a condition). Unfortunately, the sort of racism that might result in real risks to your life if you are African-American and that could be compounded by wearing a mask, gives the same good reason not to. Simple discomfort does not. People wear seatbelts in cars and planes even with whatever discomfort they cause—without complaint—for good reason.

To be clear, I don’t advocate wearing masks outside unless you are in a crowd. The odds of outdoor transmission when you are alone or with your regular intimates is low. (See this Forbes piece.)

Importantly, nothing I said thus far indicates endorsement of a legal requirement. On my view, a legal requirement should only be instituted if we have clear evidence that significant harm is likely to otherwise be imposed on non-consenting others. This is so in large part because a legal requirement involves state power and the force it brings—which should only be used sparingly. Whereas some harm is likely caused if you don’t wear a mask indoors when others are present for more than a short time, the harm is somewhat limited and, on the assumption that others are there voluntarily, not imposed on non-consenting others. However, because the results are extreme for the elderly and those with certain pre-existing conditions, it seems reasonable to legally require masks for anyone entering hospitals, assisted living facilities, etc (where, moreover, the residents can not easily leave). That something isn’t legally required and oughtn’t be legally required does not mean you oughtn’t do it. Apologies for broken promises, e.g, aren’t legally mandated, but are nonetheless morally required or at least advisable. So, wear a mask indoors when others are present. (And if the evidence I’m aware of changes, my thinking about legal requirements might also change.)

It’s also important to remember that private business owners have the (moral) right to require masks in their establishments. Or to forbid wearing masks therein. If you enter a private business, abide by their rules. If you can’t, don’t go into that establishment. And don’t feel insulted or make a fuss because they are insisting on something you disagree with. You make the rules in your house, they make the rules in theirs.

So wear a mask inside when others are likely to be there but don’t advocate for a law—we have too many of them anyway.

ADDITION, 7/22/2020: worth looking at: https://pws.byu.edu/covid-19-and-masks?fbclid=IwAR13dVryaD6RJbEXd4p_KjllGvuCjCh9qBOphqG8X0d5uK6-lu1QzJMLnGo

Introducing Radical Classical Liberals

As many of you know, the Bleeding Heart Libertarians blog ran from 2011-2020. At least two blogs are taking up elements of BHL’s project. If you haven’t checked out http://200proofliberals.blogspot.com, we highly recommend it. This, though, is Radical Classical Liberals. Welcome.

A view like that (re)developed and encouraged on BHL is needed in the blogosphere, in academia, and in our broader culture. This blog will provide that—a classical liberal view that maintains a clear and unapologetic concern for the plight of the less fortunate—at a point in time when it seems the world is finally being forced to take those concerns seriously. Importantly, we’ll do so in a way meant to encourage greater civil dialogue. We hope to provide a counter to the sound bite culture so prevalent in contemporary media; we do so in order to provide greater understanding—both to our readers and to ourselves.

We are all academics with an interest in encouraging more informed, reasoned, and civil discourse outside academia as well as inside. A majority of us here are philosophers, some are law professors, some are political scientists, and one is a business professor. Many of us take the original classical liberals—thinkers like John Locke, Adam Smith, and John Stuart Mill—as intellectual heroes. Some also favor Aristotle or Kant. On our pages, you might read about those famous denizens of the history of thought. You might also read about some unfortunately lesser known thinkers—Frédéric Bastiat and Voltairine de Cleyre, for examples. And you may read about difficult issues in academic debates. Most of what you’re likely to see on these pages, though, will be comments about social, legal, moral, and political issues in our society. You are likely to encounter arguments for specific views that one or more of us think follow from our classical liberal commitments. We may also argue with each other about these.

Our hopes for the blog are varied. They include showcasing the attractiveness of dynamic markets and anti-authoritarian solutions to contemporary problems, how these are often the best hope for those concerned with issues of deprivation, exclusion, and subordination, and how, far too often, government solutions are more pretense than substance. We are all concerned to show how freedom (we may disagree about what that is) goes hand in hand with prosperity for all. Putting that differently, we all recognize the value of markets and social justice on some understanding that recognizes (minimally) the basic moral equality of all human adults. Within that framework, our opinions are likely to vary considerably.

We hope to appeal to those who are curious about moral, legal, political, and social thought. While we all have our own existing biases, we hope to be able to bracket our prior beliefs and argue from acceptable premises to important conclusions—all with respectful and reasoned discussion. No doubt you will sometimes disagree with us. We hope to remain intellectually honest, open-minded, and charitable—and to show the value of those virtues.

So, welcome to the blog of Radical Classical Liberals.