Economically Liberal, Socially Conservative

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A provocative piece by Samuel Gregg, “Markets, Catholicism, and Libertarianism” (Public Discourse, October 24, 2016) reminds me of an idea for a post that flitted through my aging brain a while back. Gregg writes:

In a recent American Prospect article, John Gehring maintains that Catholics like myself who regard markets as the most optimal set of economic conditions are effectively promoting libertarian philosophy. Gehring’s concerns about libertarianism and what he calls “free market orthodoxy” have been echoed in other places.

The generic argument seems to be the following. Promoting market approaches to economic life involves buying into libertarian ideology. . . .

What [Gregg and other] critics seem to miss is that a favorable assessment of markets and market economics need not be premised on acceptance of libertarianism in any of its many forms. . . .

Libertarianism’s great strength lies in economics. Prominent twentieth-century libertarian economists, such as Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich von Hayek, made major contributions to the critique of socialist economics.. . . .

Philosophically speaking, Mises associated himself, especially in Human Action (1949), with Epicureanism and utilitarianism. Hayek’s views were more complicated. While his Law, Legislation and Liberty (1973/1976/1979) rejected Benthamite utilitarianism, Hayek embraced a type of indirect-rule utilitarianism in works such as The Constitution of Liberty (1960). He also articulated progress-for-the-sake-of-progress arguments and social evolutionist positions heavily shaped by David Hume’s writings.

Such philosophical views are characteristic of many self-described libertarians. . . .

None of the above-noted contributions to economics by Mises and Hayek are, however, dependent upon any of their libertarian philosophical commitments.

That’s exactly right. The great insight of libertarian economics is that people acting freely and cooperatively through markets will do the best job of producing goods and services that match consumers’ wants. Yes, there’s lack of information, asymmetrical information, buyer’s remorse, and (supposed) externalities (which do find their way into prices). But the modern “solution” to such problems is one-size-fits-all regulation, which simply locks in the preferences of regulators and market incumbents, and freezes out (or makes very expensive) the real solutions that are found through innovation, entrepreneurship, and competition.

Social conservatism is like the market liberalism of libertarian economics. Behavior is channeled in cooperative, mutually beneficial, and voluntary ways by the institutions of civil society: family, church, club, community, and — yes — commerce. It is channeled by social norms that have evolved from eons of voluntary social intercourse. Those norms are the bedrock and “glue” of civilization. Government is needed only as the arbiter of last resort, acting on behalf of civil society as the neutral enforcer of social norms of the highest order: prohibitions of murder, rape, theft, fraud, and not much else. Civil society, if left alone, would deal adequately with lesser transgressions through inculcation and disapprobation (up to and including ostracism). When government imposes norms that haven’t arisen from eons of trial-and-error it undermines civil society and vitiates the civilizing influence of social norms.

The common denominator of market liberalism and social conservatism is that both are based on real-world behaviors. Trial and error yields information that free actors are able to exploit to their betterment and (intended or not) the betterment of others.

Related posts:
Pseudo-Libertarian Sophistry vs. True Libertarianism
More Pseudo-Libertarianism
More about Conservative Governance
Burkean Libertarianism
True Libertarianism, One More Time
Why Conservatism Works
Liberty and Society
Liberty as a Social Construct: Moral Relativism?
Defending Liberty against (Pseudo) Libertarians
Parsing Political Philosophy (II)
Modern Liberalism as Wishful Thinking
Romanticizing the State
Governmental Perversity
Libertarianism and the State
“Liberalism” and Personal Responsibility
My View of Libertarianism
More About Social Norms and Liberty
The Authoritarianism of Modern Liberalism, and the Conservative Antidote
Another Look at Political Labels
Individualism, Society, and Liberty
Social Justice vs. Liberty

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Brandeis’s Ignorance

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Louis D. Brandeis (1856-1941; Supreme Court justice, 1916-1939) penned many snappy aphorisms. Here’s one that “progressives” are especially fond of: “Behind every argument is someone’s ignorance.” Here it is in larger context:

Behind every argument is someone’s ignorance. Re-discover the foundation of truth and the purpose and causes of dispute immediately disappear.

Spoken like the true technocrat that Brandeis was. The “truth” was his to know, and to enforce through government action, beginning long before his ascent to the Supreme Court.

There are fundamental and irreconcilable differences that Brandeis’s “truth” cannot bridge. Brandeis and his intellectual kin would never admit that, of course, so bent were (and are) they on imposing their “truth” on all Americans.

Is it ignorant to value liberty over the promise of economic security, especially when it’s obtained at the expense of liberty?

Is it ignorant to treat terrorism as a risk that’s categorically different than a traffic accident or lightning strike?

Is it ignorant to defend traditional values and their civilizing influence against the depradations of one’s cultural and physical enemies?

Is is ignorant to fear that America’s police and armed forces will become less able to defend peaceful citizens when those forces are weakened in the name of “sexual equality”?

Is it ignorant to oppose the subversion of the institution of marriage, which is the bedrock of civil society, in the name of “marriage equality”?

“Progressives” will answer “yes” to all the questions. Thus proving the ignorance of “progressives” and the wisdom of opposing “progressivism.”

Related posts:
Getting It All Wrong about the Risk of Terrorism
A Skewed Perspective on Terrorism
Intellectuals and Capitalism
Intellectuals and Society: A Review
The Left’s Agenda
The Left and Its Delusions
The Myth That Same-Sex “Marriage” Causes No Harm
The Spoiled Children of Capitalism
Politics, Sophistry, and the Academy
Subsidizing the Enemies of Liberty
Are You in the Bubble?
Defense as an Investment in Liberty and Prosperity
Abortion, Doublethink, and Left-Wing Blather
Abortion, “Gay Rights,” and Liberty
The 80-20 Rule, Illustrated
Economic Horror Stories: The Great “Demancipation” and Economic Stagnation
The Culture War
The Keynesian Multiplier: Phony Math
The True Multiplier
The Pretence of Knowledge
Social Accounting: A Tool of Social Engineering
“The Science Is Settled”
The Limits of Science, Illustrated by Scientists
A Case for Redistribution, Not Made
Evolution, Culture, and “Diversity”
Ruminations on the Left in America
McCloskey on Piketty
The Rahn Curve Revisited
Nature, Nurture, and Inequality
The Real Burden of Government
Diminishing Marginal Utility and the Redistributive Urge
Rationalism, Empiricism, and Scientific Knowledge
Academic Ignorance
The Euphemism Conquers All
Superiority
The “Marketplace” of Ideas
Whiners
A Dose of Reality
Ty Cobb and the State of Science
Understanding Probability: Pascal’s Wager and Catastrophic Global Warming
God-Like Minds
The Beginning of the End of Liberty in America
Revisiting the “Marketplace” of Ideas
The Technocratic Illusion
Capitalism, Competition, Prosperity, and Happiness
Further Thoughts about the Keynesian Multiplier
The Precautionary Principle and Pascal’s Wager
Marriage: Privatize It and Revitalize It
From Each According to His Ability…
Non-Judgmentalism as Leftist Condescension
An Addendum to (Asymmetrical) Ideological Warfare
Unsurprising News about Health-Care Costs
Further Pretensions of Knowledge
“And the Truth Shall Set You Free”
Social Justice vs. Liberty
The Wages of Simplistic Economics
Is Science Self-Correcting?

The Twilight’s Last Gleaming?

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Arnold Kling reviews Yuval Levin’s The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism:

Levin rejects the binary choice between strong central government and pure individualism. Instead, he extols what he calls the mediating institutions of families, local government, religious institutions, and charity. His idea of paradise would be a nation in which these institutions are allowed to experiment with a variety of ways of trying to help nurture and educate citizens who are capable of exercising freedom.

If Levin is right, then it would help to have the federal government back away from many of the responsibilities it has taken on over the past fifty years. Instead, more authority and responsibility should be left to these mediating institutions.

For me, Levin offers an appealing vision. However, I wonder if it can ever attract broad public support. In 2016, it appears to me that Americans do not value freedom as much as they used to. If President Obama represented the nostalgia for the era of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, then currently his party seems to be moving even further to the left, with many believing that some form of socialism is the answer. On the Republican side, it seems ironic that the candidate who gained ascendancy by promising to wall off our southern neighbors would appear to wish to run the United States like a Latin American strongman. And on college campuses, many students and administrators prefer “safe spaces” to free speech.

I worry that mediating institutions have lost their effectiveness. The broad middle class has given way to a bifurcated society, with the highly-educated and the less-educated no longer attending the same churches or sharing similar life experiences. The close-knit neighborhood has given way to the anonymous city, where local government is mostly responsive to powerful public sector unions and favor-seeking businesses. Perhaps this means that Levin’s vision is nearly as unrealistic as those that he criticizes. Restoring our mediating institutions might be yet another exercise in trying to squeeze the toothpaste back into the tube.

I share Kling’s pessimism. Not only will the left not allow government to back off, but even if government were to back off, it would be too late to rescue liberty in much of the country. In my commentary about David D. Friedman’s pro-anarchy tract, The Machinery of Freedom, I observed that the America of two or three generations ago

would have done quite will without government because its inhabitants — even the rich and powerful and best and brightest — were largely bound by common customs and common sense. [The America of today] — riddled as it is with dependency on the state and the divisions arising from the politics of “social justice” — has neither the collective will nor the wherewithal to resist the dictatorship or warlordism that surely would follow in the wake of the (extremely unlikely) replacement of government by anarchy.

Dictatorship or warlordism wouldn’t follow the restoration of constitutional governance in the United States, but neither would liberty blossom. For the reasons adduced by Kling and me, the partial vacuum left by the shrinkage of the central government would be filled by many a State and local government — at the behest of majorities of their government-addicted constituencies.

To find liberty, a person would probably have to move to a village, town, or small city in one of the States that has been solidly “Red” for a decade or more. But many such locales would eventually succumb to the influx of refugees from big-government, high-tax jurisdictions. Those refugees usually are fleeing the tax and regulatory consequences of the very programs that they support — and will continue to support because they don’t seem to understand that it is the programs they support which yield the high taxes and draconian regulations that they detest.

Liberty in the United States has been the victim of economic illiteracy and cupidity. Liberty might be rescued — temporarily — by the (unlikely) shrinkage of the central government. The permanent salvation of liberty would require eternal vigilance, accompanied by a strictly enforced ban on the promulgation of anti-libertarian ideas and anti-social practices. License granted in the name of liberty subverts liberty.

It is no coincidence that economic progress, which depends greatly on mutual trust and respect, has faltered badly since the arrival of the Great Society and the rise of the counter-culture. It is bread and circuses all over again.

The barbarians are within and at the gates.

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Related posts:

On Liberty

The Interest-Group Paradox

Rethinking the Constitution: “Freedom of Speech, and of the Press”

Well-Founded Pessimism

America: Past, Present, and Future

IQ, Political Correctness, and America’s Present Condition

The Barbarians Within and the State of the Union

“We the People” and Big Government

The Culture War

The Fall and Rise of American Empire

O Tempora O Mores!

Democracy, Human Nature, and the Future of America

1963: The Year Zero

Society

How Democracy Works

“Cheerful” Thoughts

How Government Subverts Social Norms

Turning Points

The Honorable Scrooge

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Ebenezer Scrooge was an honorable man because his conversion from hard-heartedness to soft-heartedness was personal. He didn’t ask others to subsidize his new-found generosity.

Scrooge stands in sharp contrast to judges and other government officials who “grow” in office, as liberals like to put it. What it means to “grow” in office is to foster an intrusive, costly government that undermines self-reliance and usurps and destroys the voluntary institutions of society and their civilizing codes of conduct.