Category Archives: Current Events

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.

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.

What Shouldn’t Be Surprising about Democracy

The following is a guest post from John Hasnas of the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University.


One of the drawbacks of not being a committed supporter of democracy is that one loses the ability to be continually surprised by the discovery of the obvious. Currently, the intelligentsia is shocked to find that significant percentages of the public 1) subscribe to “conspiracy theories”–the current euphemism for beliefs held without supporting evidence and in the face of strong disconfirming evidence–and 2) don’t seem committed to the preservation of democratic institutions. But to those of us who view democracy dispassionately rather than as true believers, there is nothing surprising about this at all. It is precisely what we would expect. 

1) Under democracy, the person or policy that receives the most support prevails. But majority support has no necessary connection to the facts of reality. For example, a majority that wanted to stop illegal immigration could vote for a politician who promises to build a wall across the southern border of the United States, even though, as a matter of fact, this would have almost no effect on illegal immigration. Or a majority that wanted to help the poorest members of society could vote to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour, even though this would reduce employment for the poorest unskilled workers.

When we make decisions for ourselves, most of us pay close attention to the facts of reality. We look both ways before we cross the street. When we drive, we stop at red lights and refrain from driving 90 miles an hour through residential streets. We consider how much money we make in deciding how much money to spend. We comparison shop, consider the prospects for return before making investments, perform regular maintenance on our cars and homes, and purchase automobile, life, health, and homeowner’s insurance. We don’t just walk up and take other people’s stuff. 

We do this because each of us would personally suffer the consequences of ignoring the facts of reality. Failure to look both ways means that we might be hit by a car. Reckless driving means that we might crash. Profligate spending means that we might go bankrupt. Failure to comparison shop, invest carefully, perform necessary maintenance, and purchase insurance means that we may suffer financial losses. Failure to observe property rights means that we may be punched in the nose. 

Things are different when we vote. Because voting one way rather than another imposes no direct consequences on us personally, there is little reason to consider the way the world actually works. Thus, we are free to indulge our imagination and vote for the way we want the world to be. We can imagine that a big, beautiful wall across the southern border will stop illegal immigration, so we vote for the politician who promises to build it and have Mexico pay for it. We feel compassion for low skilled, low wage workers, so we vote to give them all $15 per hour. 

The incentive structure of democratic decision-making encourages people to indulge their fantasies and vote in ways that make them feel good about themselves. This good feeling can be obtained by signaling that one cares about the poor or that one cares about family values, or that one supports his or her team or that one is a loyal member of the tribe. There is no need for one’s vote or other political activities to be tied to the facts of reality to obtain these psychological benefits. After watching large segments of the population believe that a border wall will stop illegal immigration, that Russian interference determined the outcome of the 2016 election, that the Chinese pay tariffs rather than American consumers, and that deficits don’t matter, can it really be surprising that many people believe that there was widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election? Since the believer suffers no personal harm from indulging in such a belief and can gain significant psychological benefit from doing so, how can we be surprised by the prevalence of political conspiracy theories?

2) And it surely should not be surprising that the abstract support for “democratic institutions” disappears when one’s side loses an election. In the first place, supporting democracy in the real world borders on the irrational. A commitment to democracy requires one to believe that the policy of the candidate who receives the greatest number of votes should be adopted. But when one votes, he or she is expressing a personal belief about the desirability of a proposed policy. If our committed democrat’s opponent receives more votes, he or she must now simultaneously believe that the policy of the candidate he or she opposed should be adopted based on the belief that social policy should be determined by the democratic process and that the policy of that candidate should not be adopted based on his or her personal belief. 

Imagine that a candidate runs for President on a platform of building a wall across the southern border of the United States, temporarily banning Muslims from entering the United States, and imposing tariffs on products manufactured overseas. Also imagine that Debbie Democrat, a firm believer in democratic governance, strongly opposes all of these measures and believes that their adoption is both immoral and would be disastrous for the country. Accordingly, she votes for the opposing candidate. Assume however that after the votes are counted, her candidate loses. Debbie Democrat is now in the uncomfortable position of simultaneously believing that a wall should be built across the southern border of the United States, Muslims should be temporarily banned from entering the United States, and tariffs should be imposed on products manufactured overseas based on her belief that social policy should be determined by the democratic process and that none of these measures should be adopted based on her personal belief that they are immoral and counterproductive. 

How surprising can it be that the losers of an election will try to obstruct the will of the majority whether through protests, lawsuits or other procedural impediments, civil disobedience, or even intimidation and violence? What wouldbe surprising would be for Debbie and those who voted with her to say, “Well, we lost the election, so we should do all we can to help put the will of the people into effect and support building the wall, banning Muslims, and imposing tariffs at least until the next election.” 

For most people, democracy is like religion. Belief that democracy is a morally justified and necessary form of government is accepted as a matter of faith. It is only we few heretics who actually examine democracy’s features. We are the ones who notice that democracy is a zero sum game; that under democracy, all must conform their behavior to the will of the majority, and that this makes democracy a winner-take-all game that creates an incentive to defeat one’s opponents at all costs.

In Chapter 10 of his 1944 book, The Road to Serfdom, Freidrich Hayek explained why, in a winner-take-all political system, adherence to principle is self-eliminating. The politician whose commitment to principle prevents him from doing what is necessary to gain power is washed out of the system, or as Bill Clinton more succinctly put it when asked why he lied during the 1996 Presidential campaign, “You gotta do what you gotta do.” In a democracy, any politician whose commitment to abstract moral or political principles prevents him or her from doing what will generate the most votes, loses. This makes politicians’ explicitly hypocritical behavior and application of double standards, which is so shocking to democracy’s true believers, such a mundane observation to us. It is also why we know that it is pointless to exhort people to eschew “whataboutism” as a form of political argument. Far from an aberration, such argumentation is baked into government by electoral majority. 

Many intellectuals seem surprised that Republican politicians who were running for their lives from a mob whipped up by President Trump on January 6 could vote overwhelmingly not to impeach Trump less than three weeks later. But to those of us with a realistic view of the incentive structure of democracy, nothing could seem more natural. You don’t get to make policy if you don’t get elected. So, in the words of Bill Clinton, “You gotta do what you gotta do.”

Two Reasons for Conversation. When stop?

There are two basic reasons for conversation.

First, we converse to convey information, either providing others (what we take to be) true claims or being provided such claims by them. We do this in schools, of course, but also in our daily lives. We ask, for example, about the weather so that we know if we need to dress warmly, for rain, etc. We ask about meetings others attend, for a different example, to learn if we missed something important. We ask about our loved one’s day, for a final example, because we are interested in their lives.

But we also converse—here’s the second reason—to develop or maintain relationships. We comfort our spouse who is upset about a bad day by listening and perhaps suggesting reasons to believe things will get better. This is in addition to genuinely wanting to know about what went wrong (the first reason), but may be the primary reason we speak in the situation. In some cases, it may even be the only reason. Perhaps one is unsure and unconcerned if one’s spouse is giving an accurate portrayal of what happened, but wants to maintain, develop, and deepen, the spousal relationship. Differently, you don’t speak with your four year old child you just saw fall off a bike because you need any information; you simply talk to them to sooth and thereby help the child and also help deepen the parental relationship.

The two reasons for conversation often overlap; we often have both reasons for having a discussion. But not always. If one goes to couples counseling, one learns to speak in “I statements” to indicate, for example, how one feels when the other leaves the dishes out, rather than using “You statements” which, apparently, are necessarily (perceived as?) judgmental (“you always leave the dishes out!”) and cause the other to dig into the fight more—even if they are also true.

Braver Angels is a great organization. Its premise is essentially that we can teach people to speak with one another about politics or anything else without digging in and weakening the relationship, just as marriage counselors do with couples. And just as with couples, we might even strengthen the relationships. Having participated in Braver Angels workshops, I believe this is all true. I’ve witnessed it and it works.

But as the economist Glenn Loury suggested to John Woods of Braver Angels, sometimes it seems the project is misguided: we know the truth, the others’ views are misguided and we should just shut them down. With Richard Freen, we might think “enough is enough;” ridiculous views should simply be met with ridicule and, if that doesn’t encourage those with such views to reconsider them, they should be condemned.

Speaking as someone who wants to encourage more speech, I admit to being torn. My worry comes from the difference between the two reasons for conversation: if one is engaged in conversation with another only to maintain or improve the relationship, one is engaging in a relationship with a significant limit—call it a “truth deficit.” For that part of the relationship, one is giving up on the sharing of truth. One is “agreeing to disagree” and not improve anyone’s (one’s own or the other’s) understanding about the topic of disagreement. It’s true that both parties are likely to gain greater understanding of each other and may find some common ground in shared beliefs they take as even more important than what they disagree about, but about the substantive issue in question, the truth deficit will remain—as the discourse participants agree not to dig in to their positions, they also stop digging into the issue to figure out anything more, as if unconcerned with truth in that regard.

In many cases, this resting easy without uncovering the truth—accepting the truth deficit there—is unproblematic. If one’s spouse had a bad day, one does not need to know if the spouse misinterpreted any events. Presumably, the two share enough true beliefs, that this one is insignificant. Not something to be concerned about. But is the truth deficit present when someone responds to the conspiracy theorist Trumpian by saying “I understand that you doubt the legitimacy of the election; I don’t share that doubt, but we don’t have to agree about it to get along” insignificant? Is the truth deficit present when someone responds to a flat-earther by saying “I get that you believe the earth is flat rather than spherical; I think you are mistaken, but we don’t have to agree about it to get along” insignificant? (How about similar responses to those that want mandatory equal incomes for all? Or those that think that individuals just are whatever they think they are (“identify as”)?) Are those gulfs large enough that one says “there is simply no point in maintaining this relationship?” If they are, does America have such a gulf (or gulfs)? If it does, what should we do?

As much of what I am interested in these days has to do with reducing those gulfs and the truth deficits they create, I am happy to take comments about this one. Suggestions about how to get past the gulfs without creating truth deficits especially welcome.

Private “censorship”

Here’s a thought experiment about what some people call censorship.

Let’s imagine we all live in a community called Mayberry. This is a pre-internet time, and imagine too that very few of us have a TV or a radio. The main media outlet in our town is the Mayberry Gazette.

Some community leaders worry our town is getting a bit overweight. They want to pass a law that enacts a 10 cent tax on the sale of any ice cream cone in Mayberry. They plan to use the revenue to fund free community tai chi classes in the Mayberry Community Center each morning.

I draft an op-ed to argue against the proposed tax. I make economic arguments about how this will impact the ice-cream marketplace (“it’ll encourage bigger cones!”). I warn of the adverse effects on our beloved local ice-cream parlor. I also make moral appeals. I say that people should be free to choose their treats and decide which if any exercise they will pursue. And so on.

I submit that to the Mayberry Gazette, which refuses to publish it. I spot the editor coming out of Floyd’s Barbershop. I ask why the paper declined my op-ed. The editor tells me that the proposed tax is a great idea and so the paper has no room for my views.

I say to the editor, “Shouldn’t we have open discussion?”

“Of course,” the editor replies. “We should have open discussion of sensible views. But, Andrew, your views threaten to undermine public health and morals.”

I then appeal to fairness. “Your refusal to publish my views is not right. You have the only newspaper and the only printing press in our town! You’re making it nearly impossible to get my views to the community. You’re censoring me!”

The editor then says: “If you don’t like that, go get your own newspaper.”

There are several issues here. Bracket whether the proposed law has merit. If you think it does, substitute another one that does not. Consider instead three issues about what the newspaper may, should, or should not do. First, there is a conceptual issue about whether to call the newspaper’s conduct “censorship.” Second, there is the issue of whether the newspaper has a right to do (or not do) what they do. Third there is the question about whether the newspaper is doing the right thing.

I am uneasy calling it censorship when the Mayberry Gazette refuses to publish my op-ed. My unease revolves around using the same term for what private people do as compared to what people who wield political power do.

Suppose I say you may remain in my home only if you make no mention of a certain politician’s name. That does not seem to be censorship. I offer you terms of our association, which you are free to decline by not entering my home. If you come in my home and speak that person’s name anyway, I am within my rights to demand that you leave. If you complain of censorship, I might reply, “whatever you want to call it, if you don’t like it, go speak your views elsewhere.”

I take the notion of censorship to include some notion of impermissibility. Whether something is permissible turns significantly on whether one has a right to do it. As a private party, the newspaper can do what it wants with its resources, just as you may decide what speech is permissible in your home.

Suppose instead the Mayberry Police tells the Gazette that if it publishes my op-ed, they will shut down the newspaper. That would surely be censorship. What seems to make it censorship is the legal prohibition, supported by the force of the state, against the dissemination of certain ideas. (This formulation is incomplete, since some legal prohibitions on speech and writing seem justifiable but don’t easily seem to be censorship.)

I do not want to press too hard on the conceptual point. It might come down to a battle of intuitions. Many people think of censorship more capaciously than I do. (See Andrew Jason Cohen’s recent post.) Let us bracket the conceptual point and move forward. Consider what private parties do when they withhold their own property as vehicles for disseminating certain ideas. Call that “schmensorship.” When if ever may someone schmensor?

The US Supreme Court restricts some private parties’ rights to schmensor. In Pruneyard Shopping Center v. Robins (1980), the Court said the state of California may require owners of shopping malls to allow people to petition on their premises. The Court said a state may require this of malls provided it does not clash with other constitutional protections. Suppose there is a compelling argument that shows it is not a restriction (or not a worrisome restriction) on private parties’ rights of free speech, free association, and property, when the state forces them to open their property to views they reject. Maybe we can argue shopping malls are (well, perhaps they were) the modern “town square” to which everyone must have access. I doubt the public’s access to a shopping center implies the owner’s diminished private authority over what happens in and through the private resource.

Back to Mayberry. I’m the local llama farmer (a seldom-mentioned business in the episodes). I am too busy with my llamas to have the time, the resources, or the know-how to “go get my own newspaper.” Nothing beats the Gazette for publicly airing views. When the paper schmensors me, the economic barriers to getting my views out are formidable. I can still print up my ideas and spread my brilliant prose. Doing so might be hard. It might be expensive. It might be time-consuming. But I could do that without jeopardizing my freedom.

In contrast, when the Mayberry Police censors me by threatening to shut down newspapers or imprison people who speak my ideas, the barriers they put up against my views seem importantly different. I may not then “go get my own newspaper” to publish my views. The barriers on disseminating ideas under censorship seem different in kind, and not just degree, compared to those of schmensorship. The prohibitions track different moral stakes. Schmensors leave me free to speak my mind if I can find the resources. Censors deny me the freedom to speak my mind no matter what resources I have.

Here’s a wrinkle to my little thought experiment. For fans of the show: who was the editor of the Mayberry Gazette?

That was none other than Sheriff Andy Taylor, who was also the local justice of the peace. That… complicates things. Even then, his schmensorship regime is not necessarily a censorship one. Will Andy lock me up for handing out my essay to willing passersby on property where I have permission to stand? If not, then he’s merely a schmensor. When I’m merely schmensored, I still have a shot at speaking my mind.

(Thanks to Andrew Jason Cohen for feedback on an earlier draft, and also for neither schmensoring nor censoring me.)

Tough GUYS Like Trump

The following is a guest post from Jennifer Baker from the College of Charleston’s Department of Philosophy.


“You know what I call COVID? A solution to Social Security.”  

“If they try to impeach Trump, if they even DARE, you realize there will be BLOOD in the streets. Blood in the streets.”  

“It’s true, it’s legal to kill born babies in New York State.”   

“Liberals. Liberals. Liberals. Liberals. Liberals. Liberals. Woke. Woke. Woke.”   

“Cry more, Libs.” 

If you know a tough guy, this is the kind of thing you get used to hearing.   

When the tough guy says their tough guy thing, it’s not an invitation to debate, it’s a flag in the sand. My husband and I treat the aggression differently. I might scrunch my face but then deftly change the topic. He, especially lately, puts an end to it immediately, calling his Trump-supporting friends idiots and morons and hanging up the phone.  

If you listen to Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity or Glenn Beck, you are listening to some tough guys. My first thought on learning that Limbaugh had gotten cancer was to worry about how he would find a non-liberal team of physicians. I actually had the worry. It was only for a moment, but it shows that I had gotten used to the idea that liberals are Limbaugh’s enemies, out to thwart him at every turn. And that is patently ridiculous. That is absurd.

I listen to right-wing radio hosts whenever I am alone in the car. I am usually just observing their fears and imaginations, not caught up in them myself, but always fascinated. My husband asks how I can stand their voices. Their voices have the same tone, even the local woman host on the station. It is kind of begging and barking at once. Despite all of the bluster, it is plaintive and uncertain, which is why it is so much more interesting to me than how people normally address others. It always feels like they really, really need listeners to just believe them. I was never surprised when the hosts would kind of break down on air, which I caught a few times, saying how hard their work was and they just could not do it anymore. It does not sound possible to maintain. They often begin, in what sounds like full salivating rage, to describe liberals and then just sputter. Literally, they can’t find a description that makes sense. Sometimes liberals are unfun. Sometimes liberals just don’t get it. Sometimes liberals are obsessed with death. Before the election Limbaugh said liberals are “obsessed” with voting.  It’s too much. It never adds up.  

There would be a cycle where something Trump was accused of was “fake news” and then a day or so later it would be defended as being a normal thing for a President to do. The case being made just seemed exhaustingly ad hoc. In fact Hannity used to defend Trump because he said we would be so “bored” without him.

None of our friends, and of course not the radio hosts either, have been supportive of the Capitol raid since it happened. Glenn Beck, who has been saying conservatives are at “war” (he uses that word and all the associated imagery) for as long as I can remember, sounded very nervous after the raid and told listeners that they should now just “defend their homes.” This was news to me and to at least one caller he let on, who asked how we would have ever had the Revolutionary War if we had only defended our home.

Beck, who might be an extreme case, after all, often says the apocalypse is coming and he welcomes it, due to what liberals do to him here. It has gotten that bad, he explains day after day. This is, of course, audibly a man in incredible despair. But due to…liberals? How does a person become this dramatic? Can other people be torturers just by being more liberal than Glenn Beck?

If you have read Edmund Burke on the sublime or Corey Robin on Burke , you know there is an explanation for Beck’s strange suffering. And it’s one that conservative writers have often embraced (Robin is an actual scholar on this subject and finds Burke’s argument recreated in Joseph de Maistre, Roosevelt’s speeches, Carl Schmitt and Leo Strauss, Churchill, Goldwater and Fukuyama). The idea is that for some of us, the churn of life becomes tedious. Pleasure and enjoyment are not doing it for you. It becomes clear that your life is not one that involves the high stakes you want to envision: danger and threat at every turn. So you try to rule over others, and this becomes dull, too (as they too easily comply, and the thrill dissipates). What next? You get into a little freelance violence as philosophy. Maybe it is just talk of all of your guns. Maybe it’s actually stockpiling guns as the radio hosts brag about. Maybe it’s wearing patches that say “I am just here for the violence” like we saw at the Capitol raid. Maybe it is leaving scathing and bizarrely cruel comments under local news stories on Facebook like moms in my area do.  

We work ourselves up until we see enemies and get terrified. Burke describes the moral psychology so that in this mode your sense of self gets enlarged and vacated: “The mind is hurried out of the self.” We imagine ourselves as exalted heroes in a great cause but it’s all in our minds, imaginary.

This seems right to me. This seems to be what is happening when our friends get in the tough- guy mode. I think my husband cannot tolerate it because it’s a cringey and embarrassing put-on. In fact, the internet seems the perfect way to enact this “mode” because to any actual friend, it’s obviously phony.  

This is the reassuring thing about this particular thirst for violence, as Burke explains it: it really is a put on, a show, all for a feeling. It’s not that the violence won’t be engaged in (as we saw at the Capitol), but does not end up being quite what a dreamer would hope for. The Trump fans who are now facing federal charges had, I assume, no idea how difficult it is to face federal charges. The men and women who were put on the no-fly list are assuring us that this is not what they imagined. These were not people at war in any kind of realistic way.   

So my question is, how do you let a person know that?

My own non-confrontational approach hits several of the markers of “success” according to a few psychologists and philosophers on the subject of political polarization.  

  •  I am not the much-blamed bubble. I hear directly from supporters of a President who I think had no respect for values like rule of law or even ethical principle.  
  • I have plenty of what Bob Talisse, in Overdoing Democracy: Why We Must Put Politics in its Place calls “civic friendships,” which is a matter of maintaining “nonpolitical” bonds and engaging in “nonpolitical cooperative endeavors.”
  • I am also not a snob (which might be all it takes to achieve 1 and 2) nor mistaken about the socio-economics of the “Trump fan.” See Caitlin Flanagan’s recent critique of the Capitol violence for an example of both of these. I don’t buy that this kind of snideness causes the attitudes that (I do buy) are much deeper, a la Burke. It’s just that to a non-snob the jokes don’t even land. None of those things she lists are the issue.  

So despite these things, seeing the Rambo-talk turns into action makes a person want to be a bit clearer on what they have against the tough-guy talk. If how to keep people from dreaming of civil war for reasons they can hardly articulate is a very complex topic (see summaries of how to deradicalize terrorists, histories of uprisings in other countries, new work on political tipping points and on the way we select information), this still does not solve the issue of what I should do when on the receiving end of some ridiculous ranting.

And I am starting to think my husband’s approach is better than my own. He’s plain and blunt and critical and it seems like we often assume you cannot be that way towards a Trump fan, as if they cannot be engaged directly in terms of the things they are actually saying. Maybe people fear Trump fans, I think that is part of it. I also think many people (and especially media columnists) think telling a Trump fan they are wrong is to engage in some kind of snobbery, no different than mocking Olive Garden, as if political views and restaurant-taste are in some blend that has to be considered only at a remove or you sound like Flanagan. Maybe this explains the lack of critical engagement with the actual things the right-wing hosts say. And I would submit that each of these reactions is actually harmful to anyone caught up in Burkean revery, just adding fuel to the fire. I think writers should be less afraid of being a snob (who cares? why hide it? no one wants to be like you!) and more conscious of pitying someone to the extent you do not even take on their stated views directly. You can only pity people you do not know. You do not pity a person you understand. Ergo, any attempt to avoid dealing with actual Trumpian claims as a way to show respect seems very poorly motivated.

And to the extent I do understand, I think my husband is right to tell a tough talker to snap out of it. To say call back when you are being reasonable, or not at all. They do call back.  


Censorship, Free Speech, Social Media, and The First Amendment

According to the state action doctrine, only government entities can violate the First Amendment. Twitter, Facebook, etc, are not government entities. They don’t violate anyone’s constitutional rights when they take down posts or remove their accounts. That does not mean that Twitter, FB, etc, aren’t censoring speech.

Some worry that Twitter, Facebook, etc are monopolies, violating anti-trust laws and that they thus ought to be regulated as common carriers. This strikes me as pretty obviously mistaken. Not only are they competitors, but others have sought to compete with them (MeWe, Parler, etc) and nothing rules out others trying to do so in the future. Some also worry that Twitter, Facebook, etc might act in ways meant to curry favor with the Federal government and that if that is true, since its plausible that federal regulators know this and might thus signal their desires to these firms, really Twitter, Facebook, etc are agents of the state and so they can, after all, violate individual constitutional rights. This also strikes me as pretty implausible, both legally and morally. Whatever control would be present would be pretty tenuous. If it weren’t, it seems unlikely that Twitter would have closed President Trump’s account.

When Twitter bans President Trump from its platform, it prevents him from speaking to a certain audience, limiting his speech. It does not thereby successfully prevent him from speaking to everyone; he has other avenues of communication. Of course, if the government censors someone, they also will typically have other avenues of speech. Consider the Comstock Act of 1873; it made it illegal to send certain “lascivious” material through the mail. Those wishing to share (speak about) those materials with others, could still do so—for example, by walking to others and talking to them directly. More generally, any governmental act meant to silence someone will close some avenues of communication while leaving others open. The fact that a social media company only closes some avenues of communication to (i.e, only partially silences) someone it bans from its platform is no different than what government does. If the latter is censorship, so is the former. Or so it seems to me.

If I am right, “government censorship” is a specification of “censorship,” as is “parental censorship,” “school censorship,” etc. “Social media censorship” would simply be censorship by a social media company. If this is wrong, we need another term for what the other agents just named do when they limit speech. That’s fine, of course. It’s a mere conceptual matter, one we needn’t worry too much about—what we are really interested in, I think, is whether social media companies or other private agents should seek to silence anyone. Still, if this is not censorship because only speech limitation by government is censorship, then “government censorship” is redundant—and I do not think it is.

That I think social media companies sometimes engage in what is properly called “censorship” does not mean those companies do anything wrong. Free speech is valuable—and so, I think, the first amendment leaves the US more or less absolutist in forbidding government intervention in speech. But that doesn’t mean private agents can never morally limit speech. Of course they can. Of course we can. For example, I stop my son from using certain words that are not appropriate for polite society. I censor him. There are also certain speech acts I would forbid in my classroom if I had to, but thankfully don’t—they don’t ever seem to come up; that is, my students don’t use them (in the classroom, anyway). Similarly, book burning (in some circumstances) by private individuals and book banning in private schools are likely forms of censorship. They’re both legal, even if disturbing.

Some censorship is not only permissible, but expected and probably morally good—disrespectful speech in the classroom, for example, is something we do well to make unacceptable (through non-legal, social means). Is censorship by Twitter, Facebook, etc, of President Trump and his followers good? I don’t honestly know. I am conflicted. On the one hand, I generally agree that more speech is the way to counter bad speech and that airing all views is likely to leave the bad (morally and epistemically) views with fewer believers. And (on the same hand), I worry that people are too often attracted to beliefs they are told they shouldn’t have (the “taboo effect”). Certainly, letting people discuss racist and anti-Semitic views hasn’t (yet) stopped them from spreading and letting people discuss conspiracy theories about fraudulent elections—for which there is no evidence—hasn’t stopped them from spreading. On the other hand, I don’t have any significant doubt that President Trump lies and that his followers are mistaken about a number of important factors, including the supposed fraudulence of the election, and preventing the spread of those false beliefs seems worthwhile. And, I admit, I simply love that in our society government officials face limits imposed by private entities. Corporate CEOs can tell the President of the United States that he can’t use their service; this is not something one can say in Russia or China.

Conclusion: like it or not (and I am conflicted), Twitter and Facebook do not violate any constitutional rights by censoring the President and his followers. As I said previously, this is a matter of property rights. Twitter and Facebook own their platforms just as I own my home. Just as I can forbid someone from entering my home to tell me why Nazi’s were right—or anything at all that I don’t want to hear—Twitter and Facebook can forbid people from using their platforms to say thinks Twitter and Facebook do not like. Twitter and Facebook have the right to censor those using their platforms. Whether they should or not, I cannot presently say.

Moralism, Community, and Civil Discourse

I’ve begun to think that one of the largest problems facing society is moralism, in a variety of forms. I want to try out this claim here. For the moment, take moralism 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 general populace, or (c) simply immoral even if no one is hurt by them. I expect to return to this in future posts, but here want to discuss a possible relationship between moralism and our problems with civil discourse.

There are at least three ways to get someone else to believe or act as you. First, one can use force or coercion on the other, perhaps yelling at or bullying them. Second, one can appeal to the other’s emotions, perhaps getting them to feel bad if they don’t accept your view or do what you want. Third, one can use reason, trying to explain why what you want them to believe or do is what they actually should believe or do. All of these are ways that people “argue,” though only the last is “argument” in the philosopher’s sense. I take it as obvious that we should reject the first (as it treats persons as non-agents) and prefer the third (it alone treats persons as what they are, rational agents). Philosophers would prefer only the third be used; we sometimes find it hard to accept how much more prevalent and successful the second is. Advertising, public relations, and politics all rely on emotional appeals far more than reason. In doing so—in relying on appeals to emotions—they treat persons as agents, but not rational agents. This is better than coercion, but not as good as reason.

One sort of appeal to emotions I see a good bit of is an appeal to community. If we care about our community, we’re told, we’ll do this. If we care about each other, we’ll do that. This can be turned into a rational argument, of course: community is important, so we should do X which is necessary for community. Even then, we are rarely told why community is important or how X is necessary for it. Still less are we likely to be told how the particular community in question actually has the qualities of community that give it value. (Community can be a real value even if this particular community is not.). In most cases, the appeal is a form of the second type of moralism, where we are supposed to believe that the community requires what the appealer says—that absent our acquiescence the community will be endangered.

Generally, when one appeals to community, the goal is simply to get other people to do, believe, or live as one wants. It’s community as the appealer conceives it. If the appealer wants help with child care, the conception of community will be one where child care duties are shared, including by those who did not wish to have children. If the appealer believes women are or should be subordinate to men, the sought after community will be chauvinist. If the appealer is egalitarian, the sought after community will be egalitarian. If the appealer thinks people currently in the community are of more value than those elsewhere, the sought after community will be anti-immigrant. If the appealer thinks allopathic medicine, western education in STEM fields, or the like are necessary for decent or good lives, the sought after community will be one where those things are provided or even required of all.

Here’s the thing: if one is willing to appeal to emotions in this way to convince others to do, believe, or live as one wants, one does not value the other as a person. While appealing to emotions may be better than coercion, it still treats the other as less than oneself. It is manipulation with an assumption that the other is no more than a being to be manipulated to get what one wants. It excludes belief that the other should be reasoned with, that their reason matters. It thereby excludes, in the instance, belief in rational discourse with the other.

I expect to be discussing moralism further in future posts, but here hope only to have shown how continued reliance on moralism of one form prevents use of rational dialogue. This should be obvious: if we are genuinely committed to rational dialogue with our fellow citizens, we don’t coerce them and we don’t try to suade them with appeals to emotions, even if designed to protect our community as we see it.

Section 230: Platforms and Publishers

There has been a lot said lately about Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. President Trump had threatened to veto the defense budget unless it were repealed. Trump and others are upset with internet platforms Facebook and Twitter because of their censoring users—users that might propagate false claims about widespread voter fraud or foreign governments somehow hacking our voting system and users promoting false claims about COVID-19 being a hoax, for obvious examples. So what is the issue here?

Here’s the heart of the matter in §230: “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”  This does not mean the provider (the platform) can’t be sued; it means they can’t be sued for information (good or bad) someone posts on their site from another source.  In short, they aren’t publishers.  That all seems good to me.  It would also seem like a simple extension of everyday thinking about private property. 

Consider: if I install a bulletin board on my property (outside my house, near where people walk), I can post what I like on that board and I can allow others to put up posts as well. Intuitively, we wouldn’t think I should be held responsible for what other people post there.  One simple reason for this is that it would be too much to expect me to monitor everything. If someone posts something on my bulletin board—which, assume, I offer my community as a way to increase communication—and I can be sued for false claims they post, I am very unlikely to install such a board in the first place. I don’t have the time or inclination to check the truth of everything posted by others. Section 230 essentially treats internet platforms just like that, though obviously much larger, with millions of posts on their “boards.” If we want them to offer their means of public communication, we shouldn’t hold them responsible for the truth (or fairness) of everything posted on their service. This is why §230 treats platforms as good Samaritans rather than as publishers.

What seems to upset people, I should note, is the removal of posts rather than the leaving of posts that are false or unfair in some way. Consider my bulletin board again. While I am not to be held responsible for things others post, I can take things down as I please. What §230 makes clear, as I read it, is that since its my bulletin board, I can remove stuff you hang even if what I remove would be constitutionally protected if on some state owned medium. I can help you post stuff I like and I can remove stuff I do not. I’m not required to do either, but (because it is my property), I can do either.  Facebook, Twitter, etc, can do the same—remove your posts or help you post—as they wish. And just as my helping you post on my board does not mean I am responsible for your posts, Facebook, Twitter, etc are not responsible for what you post there.

In short, §230 treats firms offering platforms as providing a valuable service on their property that thus should not be overly burdened. Nothing in §230, so far as I can tell, gives platforms any special privileges such that they can reasonably be seen as an extension of the state (which would mean that posts would be constitutionally protected).

The only thing I might find worrisome is if a platform knowingly lied (or knowingly forbid true posts). In knowingly forbidding true information, a platform might cause actual harm. If that can be demonstrated, I might agree that there should be legal interference. Given, though, that users are voluntary participants, this seems unlikely—you can’t claim to be harmed if you are a voluntary participant. To explain: If you come into my house after I tell you I might lie to you when inside, on my view, there should be no legal interference. Of course, in such a situation, you shouldn’t visit me. Indeed, you’d be well advised to unfriend me. Similarly, if you think the internet platform is being dishonest in the way it censors posts, you should probably leave it. At least this is a reasonable response if you’ve given it serious thought and conclude that the benefit to staying is minimal. I would suggest that staying has a clear benefit: exposure to views one doesn’t know or agree with. That can help one improve if one is open to it. But though I think we should all be open to hearing rational discourse, I don’t know that anyone is obligated to do so.