How to contribute to society

Michael Giberson

My title is too general; there are many ways to contribute to society and I’m just addressing one of them. But trust me, it is a good one.

A few weeks ago President Obama made his now memorable “you didn’t build that” remark. Most of the resulting political exchange has been pretty thoughtless, amounting to little more than “boo for your guy” or “hooray for our guy. Extremely rare have been the thoughtful reactions.

Here are two of the best.

Virginia Postrel, writing for Bloomberg: “The Bad History Behind ’You Didn’t Build That’

Postrel finds Deirdre McCloskey’s work on bourgeois virtues to be the appropriate foundation for a reply. The reason the world has progressed from living on an average of $3/day in 1800 to about $30/day world wide today (and much higher in many parts of the world) is the great change in attitude toward innovation in markets and the development of related virtues. The problem with “you didn’t build that,” in Postrel’s view, is in its reactionary anti-entrepreneur tone.

Of course she explains it much better than I’ve just summarized it, so go read the thing.

David Bier, at the Skeptical Libertarian, “Cooperation is what markets are for, not governments

At this point in his presidency, the statist subtext to President Obama’s remarks is clear. But his values–rather than his conclusions–are right on. Although he overstated the case, his essential point is what free market advocates have argued for years—that prosperity depends not just on individual initiative, but cooperation and exchange. Conceding these values to a president who has led the charge against these very ideals pigeonholes conservatives and libertarians into a clichéd version of individualism in which cooperation plays a secondary, rather than primary, role in markets.

Cooperation and working together is not part of the market—it is the market. The market is millions, even billions, of individuals associating, trading, and contracting. In the classic essay “I, Pencil,” Leonard Read argues that “no single person on the face of this earth knows how to make [a pencil].” It is a collaborative effort of millions of people—loggers, miners, truckers, even coffee producers. “There isn’t a single person in all these millions,” Read continues, “including the president of the pencil company, who contributes more than a tiny, infinitesimal bit of know-how.”

There is more to Bier’s piece, too, that this short clip. I particularly like Bier’s focus on, in effect, scolding those free market advocates who let themselves be pushed into defending a caricature of the rugged individualist as capitalist hero.  Cooperation should be seen and defended as part of the core of libertarian social progress.

Horwitz reminds us that Classical Liberalism insists governments treat citizens as equal before the law

Michael Giberson

Steve Horwitz argues that Classical Liberals have become so focused on the size and reach of government that they have lost touch with another important Classical Liberal project: promoting equality before the law.

Part of the problem today is that an increasing number of libertarians lean toward the anarchist position.  When one’s whole political perspective begins with the proposition that anything and everything the State does is evil and/or unnecessary, it’s easy to ignore questions about about how the State — given its existence – should properly conduct its business.  These questions involve matters of justice and liberty, and if we libertarians ignore them, we risk not only irrelevance in important conversations but also risk consigning our fellow citizens to continued injustice and denials of liberty.

The legalization of same-sex marriage in New York last week has brought these tensions to the surface.  Libertarians seem split over whether to celebrate this action.  On one side is a group arguing that the real problem is State involvement in marriage in the first place and that this decision just makes it more involved.  Therefore, this group seems to be arguing, we should oppose the action (or at least be indifferent about it) and work to separate marriage and State.

Equality under the Law

On the other side are those like me who — while agreeing that the long-term goal is separation of marriage and State — argue that, given the slim chance of separation happening any time soon, classical-liberal principles require the State to treat all citizens as equal before the law.

For most of human history political leaders acted with near total discretion, distributing benefits and impositions among their subjects however they like.  One of the most important accomplishments of the liberal movement was to subject those with political power to rules.  Starting with the Magna Carta and up through the democratic revolutions and constitutions of the eighteenth century, liberalism worked to create a society ruled by law not by men.  Since the eighteenth century the liberal movement has also worked to ensure that all citizens, by virtue of their being adult humans, have their rights fully respected.  The liberalism of the nineteenth century was antislavery, antiracist, and part of the earliest movements for women’s rights.  It powerfully combined a commitment to liberty with a commitment to equality to make the case for the liberal order.

Dignity and liberty for ordinary people brings social growth and development

Michael Giberson

At AidWatch, an interview with Dierdre McCloskey, author of Bourgeois Dignity: “Don’t be snobbish towards merchants & entrepreneurs, and you’ll develop.

Short, and to the point, so likely worth a few minutes of your time to read.

Here is a shorter and even more to the point summary of her message: History shows stasis until a society discovers dignity and liberty for ordinary people, and in particular dignity and liberty for entrepreneurs.

Note not just liberty, dignity and liberty. McCloskey said, “My libertarian friends want the politics by itself, Liberty Alone, to suffice.  I don’t think so: we need dignity, too.  We need the sociological admiration for innovation and markets, to protect and inspire the liberated.”