Online Library of Liberty forum on McCloskey’s Bourgeois Era

At its Online Library of Liberty, Liberty Fund hosts a monthly “Liberty Matters” forum in which a set of scholars discusses a particular set of ideas. This month’s forum features Deirdre McCloskey‘s Bourgeois Era series of books, two of which have been published (Bourgeois Virtues, Bourgeois Dignity). McCloskey’s main argument is that the various material and institutional factors that we’ve hypothesized as the causes of industrialization and the dramatic increase in living standards are insufficient for explaining why it happened when, where, and how it did — in northern Europe, particularly Britain and the Netherlands, accelerating in the 18th century from previous foundations there. The most important factor, according to McCloskey, was ideas, particularly the cultural acceptance of commerce, trade, and mercantile activity as honorable.

The forum features a lead essay from Don Boudreaux, commentary essays from Joel Mokyr and John Nye, and responses from McCloskey and the other authors. The forum will continue for the rest of the month, with further commentary certain to follow.

If you want an opportunity to think about one of the most important intellectual questions of economics, here it is. The essays, responses, and interactions are an encapsulation of a lively and important debate in economic history over the past two decades. And if you want to dig more deeply, the bibliography and the references in each essay are a reading list for a solid course in economic history. These ideas affect not only our understanding of economic history and the history of industrialization, but also how ideas and attitudes affect economic activity and living standards today. Well worth your time and consideration.

Pauline Maier on colonial radicalism

With Independence Day upon us, my bedtime reading for the past couple of weeks has become timely. Pauline Maier, the MIT historian who unfortunately passed away last year, published From Resistance to Revolution in 1972. It’s a carefully researched and well-written account, weaving together reports from contemporaneous sources, of the increasing radicalization of American colonists from 1765 to 1776. How did the beliefs of so many colonists evolve from being loyal British subjects to supporting revolution and independence from Britain — why this radicalization?

Maier’s ultimate conclusion is overreaching and misinterpretations on the part of the British government, which is consistent with the “generally received” historical narrative. But what I have found most interesting and novel from her argument is Chapter 2: An Ideology of Resistance and Restraint. Maier grounds the intellectual origins of revolution in the 17th-18th-century English revolutionary writers — John Locke is best known among Americans, but also John Milton and Algernon Sidney (see here my summary of Sidney on illegitimate political power) and Frances Hutcheson. She describes a category of political belief called “Real Whigs”, and argued that the Real Whig beliefs in both the people as the ultimate source of legitimate political power and the value of social order meant that the colonists were inclined to resist the illegitimate exercise of authority, but not to jump quickly to a radical revolutionary position. For example:

Spokesmen for this English revolutionary tradition were distinguished in the eighteenth century above all by their outspoken defense of the people’s right to rise up against their rulers, which they supported in traditional contractural [sic] terms. Government was created by the people to promote the public welfare. If magistrates failed to honor that trust, they automatically forfeited their powers back to the people, who were free and even obliged [as per Sidney’s argument — ed.] to reclaim political authority. The people could do so, moreoever, in acts of limited resistance, intended to nullify only isolated wrongful acts of the magistrates, or ultimately in revolution, which denied the continued legitimacy of the established government as a whole. …

The fundamental values of the Radical Whigs were realized most fully in a well-ordered free society, such that obedience to the law was stressed as much or more than occasional resistance to it. (pp. 27-28)

This chapter really resonated with me as a clear explanation of the primacy of individual liberty combined with a society ordered using universally-applied general legal principles (otherwise known as the “rule of law”). This combination of resistance and restraint is the key to understanding the political philosophy underlying the American republic, and Maier’s chapter is the best articulation of it that I’ve read.

Given the fractious and polarized political climate we inhabit today, I think a refresher on these ideas and their foundations is a good idea. We should be having a larger conversation about what constitutes legitimate and illegitimate political authority, particularly in the wake of the Snowden disclosures, the expansion of federal executive branch assertion of authority over the past 14 years, the expansion of administrative regulation (which is a sub-category of executive assertion), and the ability of business interests with political power to influence that regulation’s form and scope. There are a lot of arguments from all parts of the political spectrum that mischaracterize or misunderstand the ideas that Maier lays out here so clearly. We’d still be likely to have a fractious and polarized political climate, but we’d have better-informed public debate.

A relatively thoughful view of libertarianism from a progressive-liberal perspective

Salon has published a lot of nonsense on libertarianism (e.g., anything by Michael Lind on the topic). So it was surprising, yesterday, to find that Kim Messick’s Salon essay on libertarianism was relatively thoughtful. No perfect, by any means, just better than most progressive-liberal attempts at criticizing libertarianism. The author at least gets basic points right and would surely score higher than most Salon writers on the relevant ideological Turing test (admittedly a low standard).

Just don’t take the title too seriously (“Libertarians’ reality problem: How an estrangement from history yields abject failure”). At Alternet the story is reproduced under the similarly silly title “How Libertarianism Would Actually Curtail Human Freedom.” Article writers often don’t choose their titles, editors do, so just skip ahead for the substance (you’ll have to similarly skim past the Tea Party and Republican chatter at the beginning and ignore the favorable linking to Lind’s Salon work). Once you skip ahead, you’ll find a reasonable journalistic effort to engage with and challenge an overly atomistic view of libertarianism.

Messick misses some things. He is apparently unfamiliar with left libertarianism (for example, the Center for a Stateless Society) or many of the writers at Bleeding Heart Libertarians; he thinks a libertarian free market would leave many people in soul-killing poverty; and at times his discussion confuses society with government. But the core of his challenge to (at least hard-core individualistic) depictions of libertarian principles makes useful work of the philosopher Charles Taylor’s writings on atomism.

In his essay “Atomism,” Taylor points out that we “only develop [our] characteristically human capacities in society” — including our capacity for choice. “Living in a society,” Taylor goes on, “is a necessary condition of the development of rationality … or of becoming a moral agent in the full sense of the term … or of becoming a fully responsible, autonomous being.” Given this, those who value personal autonomy must also affirm the value of its social sources: “[I]f we assert the right to one’s own independent moral convictions, we cannot… claim that we are not under any obligation ‘by nature’ to belong to and sustain a society of the relevant type”:

“[T]he free individual or autonomous moral agent can only achieve and maintain his identity in a certain type of culture… But these… do not come into existence spontaneously each successive instant. They are carried on in institutions and associations which require stability and continuity and frequently also support from the community as a whole… The crucial point here is this: since the free individual can only maintain his identity within a society/culture of a certain kind, he has to be concerned about the shape of this society/culture as a whole. He cannot… be concerned purely with his individual choices and the associations formed from such choices”.

Taylor shows us how to link the liberal concept of agency — the ideal of personal autonomy — with normative conclusions about what people should value. The connective tissue is the pattern of external resources on which our capacity for choice depends: the institutions, practices, and associations within which we develop and cultivate this capacity. For Taylor, it makes no sense to affirm the value of autonomy while denigrating (or simply ignoring) the social goods without which autonomy is impossible. Like communitarians, he thinks we should affirm these goods and not just our purely personal ends. Unlike them, he does not regard this as grounds for a wholesale rejection of liberal autonomy. Quite the contrary — he argues for a social element in ethical life precisely because he values autonomy and wants to sustain the cultural conditions upon which it rests.

On this I think Taylor (and by extension Messick) raises good points about the connections between society, moral development, and individual freedom. I just don’t think the only or even the best response to these points is to reject libertarian political philosophy. Messick sums up the above with, “The obvious inference is that we should see progressive liberalism as a kind of middle ground between communitarianism on the one hand and libertarianism on the other. It acknowledges the social dimensions of ethical life but accepts personal autonomy as a genuine ideal.”

But acknowledging “the social dimensions of ethical life” and “accepting personal autonomy as a genuine ideal” is exactly the common ground I want to occupy as a libertarian. The libertarian minded thinkers I like tend to emphasize the connection between increasing liberty and a flourishing society.

Messick may be surprised to learn there is active debate among libertarians on these issues of politics, markets, and social relations. Some libertarians insist non-aggression is the only necessary principle, while others suggest the broader social order is also important. In the context of these discussions, Messick’s outsider perspective on libertarianism, while imperfect, is good enough to be of some value to libertarians.

“That—that—is what we are for: voluntary associations, in all their richness and bewildering complexity”

The above is a quote from Duke political economist (and friend of KP) Mike Munger, who also blogs at Kids Prefer Cheese and Euvoluntary Exchange, and is a frequent guest on EconTalk. Mike’s written a thoughtful and interesting reflection in the Freeman on what libertarians stand for. In many ways it’s a riff on Toqueville and his analysis of American society, which remains fresh and relevant today in Mike’s view (and mine). While it’s eminently quotable, please do read the whole thing, especially if you don’t identify as a libertarian. Mike’s insights might change your thinking about what libertarians do stand for.

Why is he bothering to reflect on what libertarians stand for?

The government is not providing the basic services that our more idealistic fellow citizens expect, and they want to know why. The things they think they wan [sic]—healthcare, pensions, schools, the war on terrorism, and the war on drugs—are a litany of failures. We don’t need to pile on and say we’re against those things. We need to offer an alternative.

In other words: What positive, optimistic alternative vision of society (yes, of society, the social thing, where you actually talk to other people and work together) can we offer? Unless we can answer that, the next question will be, “Why don’t Libertarians care about real people?”

I have been making this argument to my colleagues with respect to energy and environment policy for some time. I team-teach a sustainability course with a geologist and a philospher, both of whom are politically Progressive and have typically advocated large-scale top-down regulation and government control to address global warming. As they have seen the reality of using political institutions to make collective decisions, they have expressed frustration; as they have heard my lectures on public choice and political economy and read some of the political economy literature on environmental regulation, they have expressed some ideas similar to what Mike said above.

So I’ve been focusing on alternatives — liberty allows for experimentation and for individuals to make choices that express their environmental values. The more of those experimentation and expression processes we foster, the more likely we are to devise lower-carbon ways to achieve what we want to achieve. That’s one application of the vision that Mike describes.

But a lot of people don’t think about the connection from liberty to experimentation to thriving, and default to expecting “the government” to solve collective problems. In general, people pay too much attention to politics:

If citizens ignored politics, things wouldn’t be so bad. But we are worried that our excessive focus on politics will cause us to ignore society and each other. If we fail to connect as social beings in complex reciprocal exchange relations, modern “democratic” life becomes anomic and mean, just as Tocqueville foresaw.

That—that—is what we are for: voluntary associations, in all their richness and bewildering complexity.

If you want to go out and persuade some people to work with you, and all voluntarily work for the benefit of each, then that is libertarian social change. If someone wants to opt out and form a different association, they are free to do so. And that’s a good thing because you get diverse experimentation in problem solving.

And I really like his conclusion, which makes me feel happy, large, empowered, and connected (four feelings I never experience in political collective action):

Libertarians are for voluntary action, always. It is because we are for society—a vibrant, active society—that we resist the expansion of state power.

It is because we are for giving people a chance to reach their full potential that we doubt the motives and effectiveness of government. Political coercion corrupts the human spirit; political leaders tell us they take our wealth for our own good, and political processes straitjacket independent thought—the essence of liberty.

We are for individuals, working together in complex, interconnected organizations they have designed in their efforts to solve problems.

We are for liberty, for celebrating the infinite and infinitely varied capacities of the human mind. Libertarians are for a limitless sense of the possible, for the idea that for a society of truly free and responsible citizens, nothing is impossible.

Public Choice Theory: Skwire’s First Law

Some time last spring, my friend and occasional KP contributor Sarah Skwire formulated on Facebook what’s now dubbed “Skwire’s First Law”, and we’ve been using it, kicking its tires, and discussing it all summer. In a timely manner (given what we’ve learned this summer about widespread, unwarranted government surveillance and the impending likelihood that yet another president will engage in yet another international military action without Congressional authorization), Sarah has formalized and expanded upon Skwire’s First Law in a Bleeding Heart Libertarians post today:

Accidentally invented by me on Facebook a while back, named by my co-blogger Steve Horwitz, and picked up–to my great diversion–by a crew of Facebook friends, Skwire’s law is simply stated thusly:

Politicians are asshats.

I’m driven to write a bit about Skwire’s First Law today because, like every other day, politicians are being asshats. And I want to talk about how Skwire’s law—though simply expressed—is not merely a sigh of exasperation, a political version of “boys will be boys.” It’s a manifesto condensed into three words.

Saying that politicians are asshats means that you acknowledge the deep truths of public choice theory. It means that even if the occasional politician supports a policy you like or gives a speech you admire, you know enough not to turn him or her into a hero. We can debate, as my friends and I have on Facebook, whether asshats become politicians or politicians become asshats. I don’t think that debate much matters, because I think both parts of it are true. Politics is a machine that turns good people and good ideas into bad ones, and turns bad people and bad ideas into worse ones. Politics is a system that attracts not only people who want to help, but people who want to control. And once those people—good or bad, helpful or controlling—are in the system, they use it to further their ends.

Note in particular the last three sentences, and how they encapsulate the essential implications of public choice theory — in our roles as political actors (here let’s focus on individuals as elected representatives and in regulatory agencies, not as voters), individuals prioritize self interest, broadly defined. This is the extension to the political decision realm of the self-interest assumption in our roles as purposive individuals in other decision settings. Many individual politicians are motivated by good intentions (the “public interest”, making the world a better place, “giving back”, bringing resources to his/her community), and some are also motivated by the desire to control and manage the choices of others and how others live their lives. Public choice theory is general enough to accommodate that diversity of motivation and intent.

More insidiously, though, the fact that political power gives politicians coercive power to make decisions about the resources and the choices of others means that even those who have good intentions and good ideas can, do, and often must use control and coercion to satisfy those intentions and attempt to implement those ideas. Thus even well-intentioned politicians use the system of coercion and control to attempt to achieve their ends. And I hope Sarah doesn’t mind my paraphrasing a Facebook comment of hers on this point, because it’s apt: by definition, politics means using the state’s monopoly on force, and being a politician means that you contribute to decisions that will use that force to enshrine your “honest mistakes or infelicitous actions” in a pretty permanent way in the lives of many, many people, including those the politician says s/he wants to help. If that politician is unaware of that likelihood, or doesn’t care, that’s asshattery. It’s also hubris. And it’s pervasive in politics.

Sarah goes on to point out that this outcome is not accidental or a flaw, although some of us may consider it perverse. Here’s where the study of institutions and incentives becomes important — once these individuals become politicians, they are embedded in a set of institutions that shape their incentives. They face the tragedy of the commons in the federal budgeting process, because to bring resources home to their constituents means either decreasing resources somewhere else that doesn’t matter as much to them or increasing government spending in ways that can unsustainably increase government debt (oh, hey, did you know we’re hitting another government debt ceiling in October?). They trade votes and engage in log-rolling to achieve what they style as “compromise”. The incentives are inherent in the institutions, and they are bad incentives that lead to inferior outcomes and to politicians being asshats. Of course there are nuances and degrees of asshattery, especially if you look on an issue-by-issue basis at the questions you find most pressing. But remember the initial formulation: occasional support that aligns with your preferences does not change the fundamental, underlying institutional incentives.

Note that this asshat designation is not a statement about personal character or merit of the individual politician. It’s a statement about the institutionally-driven incentives facing each individual politician regardless of their motivations or intentions. And that’s what makes it such a pithy and damning statement about the pernicious effects of political decision processes, even (or perhaps especially) political decision processes in what is supposed to be a democratic republic. It is the nature of our political institutions that politicians are asshats, and therefore

[t]hey are wasting your time and your money and your energy. They are allying you with people you hate and with causes you despise and with actions you would never condone.

Don’t wait around for them to save you or the things you think are important. Don’t think you’ve found the politician who can fix your world.

Realizing this nature of political institutions opens up the idea that political processes are not necessarily the only or the best way to approach social conflicts and problems. Thinking about alternatives, about experimenting with different approaches, about the impossibility of doing away with all social problems, gives us opportunities to be creative and to enable other approaches to emerge.

Raisin’ a complaint against USDA marketing orders

Can raisin growers pack and sell all of the raisins they grow? Yes, but only if the USDA permits it. Sometimes the USDA claims the right to take raisins off the market in the effort to keep the price to consumers higher. If a raisin grower doesn’t comply with the USDA’s demands, then the government’s attorneys will come a knocking. That is what happened to Marvin Horne and his wife, raisin growers in California, when they chose not to comply with the USDA’s demand to hand over a 47% share of the Horne’s 2002 crop without any payment from the government.

It is, as Planet Money describes it in a radio segment, kind of crazy. In most industries the federal government tries to block industry collusion–it is bad for consumers, they say–but with raisins and a number of other crops the federal government requires it. Your tax dollars at work.

The Planet Money broadcast is worth a listen. Here also is ReasonTV on the story: Feds vs. Raisins: Small Farmers Stand Up to the USDA

This 2002 act of non-compliance is, more than 10 years later, still bouncing around the courts. In a recent decision the Supreme Court declared that Horne et al. could raise a takings claim without first paying the USDA’s proposed fine of about half-a-million dollars, but that small victory only allows them to continue the legal fight.

MORE: The Cato Institute filed a legal brief at the Supreme Court in support of the Horne et al. position. Links: Summary of brief; Full brief. See also coverage at SCOTUSblog.