Saturday, February 28, 2009

What Now

We're moving from 30% of GDP gummint, through 40% and will be at 50% in a few years, hobbling liberty and and hamstringing prosperty. We have a government that has taken its deficit spending from the 2008 level of $450B to $1.9T overnight and gussied this up as fiscal responsibility. The economy will be crushed under the enormous tax burden and wasteful spending. The debt will now be unmanageable and unimaginable. Soon enough most of the economy will be the government, even though the basic principle of American political philosophy is limited government.

All this is not irreversible. The failure will be spectacular and miserable, etching in the mind of Americans a deep impression of life under big government. Afterward, if there are enough who remember what the Founding Fathers and the original Americans created, who have observed the steady destruction of that creation over the last 100 years, and who can explain these things well, then there will be a chance to rebuild from the ruins. It's anyone's guess whether there will be enough virtue, memory and understanding amongst the generation who are children now. But if there is enough, this isn't irreversible.

If you have kids, pull them out of school and homeschool them. Quit your job if you must and work nights stocking the grocery store. Drive home history, Constitution, liberty and self-reliance. If you have grandkids, be a nosy busybody and speak to their parents about this. Offer to homeschool the kids. Twenty and thirty years from now we will need enough people who have a grasp of what's precious. Those people are languishing in government schools now. Homeschooling is now a duty, defeasible only if it is impossible for you.

[This is a comment I left over at Just One Minute.]

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Rights, Moral Reasoning, and Big Government in Mill's On Liberty

Mill fails to acknowledge that there are rights to be left alone to one's liberty that hold independently of projected net utility calculations. It's no surprise that a utilitarian fails to do so, yet it's no use pretending that the fact that your life is yours and not anyone else's is not a very good reason you should be left alone to do as you like. Yet so Mill must pretend for never even mentioning this reason.

The lacuna bespeaks a stilted strategy of Mill's: to discover principles of morality and to conduct moral reasoning by proving these and then applying them. In this case the principle is "the general principle of liberty" which is that one's actions insofar as they don't concern others' interests cannot be wrongful to others, whereas actions which harm others are punishable. He wants to prove this principle and establish it as an applicable tool of reasoning. He has to scrape together utilitarian excuses where this principle seems to fail, and he must ignore moral factors that don't fit into the simple model. This is not how moral reasoning should proceed. Moral reasoning should embrace any moral considerations which obtain in the situation under scrutiny. Mill does some of this case-based reasoning in the book, but his goal is to establish his utilitarian liberty.

Over the course of the book, Mill deems justified many specific infringements of liberty on the grounds that only negligible liberty is lost or no harm done in these cases. He sees certain cases very clearly but he bungles the account of them up because he chooses to serve his general principle rather than to fit the facts. Another woeful lacunae in the book is that Mill doesn't recognize that the government interference with individuals' actions which he says doesn't really infringe upon liberty or inhibit utility requires taxation of third parties and this taxation is a considerable infringement of liberty.

This is not to say that some of his observations on the disutility of liberty infringement aren't spot on. While one waits in vain to hear Mill acknowledge that taxation is liberty-infringing he sees that the
most cogent reason for restricting the interference of government is the great evil of adding unnecessarily to its power. Every function superadded to those already exercised by the government causes its influence over hopes and fears to be more widely diffused, and converts, more and more, the active and ambitious part of the public into hangers-on of the government, or of some party which aims at becoming the government. If the roads, the railways, the banks, the insurance offices, the great joint-stock companies, the universities, and the public charities were all of them branches of the government; if, in addition, the municipal corporations and local boards, with all that now devolves on them, became departments of the central administration; if the employees of all these different enterprises were appointed and paid by the government and looked to the government for every rise in life, not all the freedom of the press and popular constitution of the legislature would make this or any other country free otherwise than in name.
A government cannot have too much of the kind of activity which does not impede, but aids and stimulates, individual exertion and development. The mischief begins when, instead of calling forth the activity and powers of individual and bodies, it substitutes its own activity for theirs; when, instead of informing, advising, and, upon occasion, denouncing, it makes them work in fetters, or bids them stand aside and does their work instead of them.

These are insights of a man during the 1850's. The book is a hodge-podge of such insights, classic defenses of freedom of thought and debate, and also contortions of moral theory. It's classical liberalism, which its admiration of progressively-vectored moral theories and its solicitous regard for the sanctity of individual liberty. It would have done better to dispose of the progressively-vectored moral theories, but then its central argument - the defense of a general principle - would not have been a non-starter. It's better to preserve the manifold values we cherish than to choose a certain way to progress beyond them with new principles of liberty and utility.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

You're Being Hoodwinked into Serfdom

Liberty fades away imperceptibly. Within a generation or two it will no longer be mentioned. Out of sight, out of mind.

One of the methods used by statists to destroy capitalism consists in establishing controls that tie a given industry hand and foot, making it unable to solve its problems, then declaring that freedom has failed and stronger controls are necessary. —Ayn Rand, 1975

Monday, February 23, 2009

Why Conservatism Can't Win

It's a disposition to encompass many important values into the fold of moral deliberation and public policy. So, it can't have a slogan because slogans epitomize and it has no epitome. It's for carefully sifting through the facts and determining the most coherent application of the array of potentially relevant values. So, it can't prescribe simple rules or decision-making algorithms or appeal to simple triggers of enthusiasm. It's for people who will consider what happened in history in order to determine what should be done now, not for people who simply want to charge off with a favorite finitely codifiable doctrine and have everyone else comply with it. It's for carefully making one's way forward while preserving what is precious, not for explosive and dramatic shifts into a set of new ways which we don't clearly understand or have good reason to prefer. It's for keeping government power severely limited, and it is in principle against corruption and crime amongst government officials because it doesn't have any end which could be used to confuse an electorate into believing such means justified. So, it can't do politics as usual, which is what you need to do to win nowadays.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Moral Blindness in the Credit Crunch

America's federal government officials refuse to acknowledge their share of the blame for the financial mess. Their share is the lion's share.

Of course, many investors, bankers, and traders turned out to be stupider than their MBA degree-granting institutions would like to admit. They kept pumping up the pressure on real estate prices as if bubbles do not pop.

Agents of the federal government - the FMs, CRA, ACORN, and the Federal Reserve - set up a system in which blowing the bubble was strongly encouraged. Artificially low interest rates, the MBS/CD debauchery, and the pressure to make bad loans exerted by the CRA and ACORN were a system of government controls that inhibited free market pressures.

It is difficult for Americans to recognize the blame that their government deserves, a fact which is even more remarkable, given how much Americans detest their government. This is because we accept as given that the government will interfere strongly with the market and put the onus on business to comply with the government's leftist and redistributionist rules of business. We now expect this government influence. It is part of the woodwork. We don't notice that it is not necessary but merely optional.

This is why we stupidly blame free market forces for the credit crunch. While some businessmen were incontinent and stupid at the prospect of making a bundle in the FM/MBS system, free market forces have none of the blame for this because they were not in play. This is the key point: The Bush Administration should have regulated the CDS market and tried harder than they did to get the Democrats to clean up their monster FMs. But this only means the administration should have interfered with the market more in order to compensate for the effect of other government interference with the market. To think that the Bush Administration left the market too free is to exhibit a misunderstanding of what happened. Since this misunderstanding persists even though the facts are plain, it is a kind of blindness. Of course, the leftists will prey on your blindness and pronounce the era of free market capitalism dead.

UPDATE: Terence Corcoran, Financial Post.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Mill On Liberty and the Pressure to Conform: Too Little Substance

In the previous post I noted that Mill is committed, as anyone should be, to the importance of passing along traditions that promote good lives. He also rails against the pressure to conform to convention. Perhaps living in Victorian England has given him a certain perspective which we living in the era of pierced faces cannot imagine, but in any event, the tension between the commitment and the railing is never resolved substantively in the little book.

In short, of course valuable traditions must be inculcated in the youth of a society and of course too much pressure to conform is bad. Both positions should be seen as trivially true by anyone with whom it would be worth deliberating. So, that much is true, but trivial. Unfortunately, that's all we get with Mill. How shall we decide cases in which these two vectors collide? He gives us no help.

Mill tosses the term "progressive" around in Chapter III: Of Individuality. In those passages he could be read as an anti-conservative. Yet such a position would be straightforwardly inconsistent with Mill's regard for tradition, as I explained it in the previous post. Now, progressivism is untenable, with its stupid disregard for tradition and its record of fascism. On the other hand, the rigid conventionalism Mill excoriates is also untenable. But we knew that, or we should have known it. So, what of substance do we get from Mill on this issue? Nothing.

Of course, if your society is too rigidly conventional, Mill's eloquently individualistic passages might be of use. But even these are merely consequentialist in nature, totally overlooking the fact that the individual has a right to do with his life as he likes because it is his and no one else's. Moreover, Mill never acknowledges that the eccentrics he admires should have the spine enough to take a bit of mockery and derision from the conformist crowd, especially if the chosen eccentricity is as useless and detrimental as a pierced face.
Natural Law, Procedural Conservatism, and Progress

Mill's On Liberty contains good examples of case-based reasoning and reasoning based on facts about human beings. Such facts are more likely to depict human nature than abstract rules based on procedurally non-conservative inquiry (e.g., Kant, Rawls, various progressivistic theories) which look at what is not the case and talk about that instead.

As Mill ably argues, freedom of opinion and fundamental liberty to choose ways of life and values which reflect human nature. We prefer them, after recognizing the relevant facts and deliberating over our desires in order to determine our preferences. Human nature is really such that these values suit it; we are such that we prefer them. This is natural law. Of course people have sometimes selected constraint over individual liberty. But such mistakes are eventually discovered via procedural conservatism: the discovery of errors about the the relevant facts or incoherence between the preference as determined and our desires. With reason's assistance we revise our preference in favor of liberty and against constraint. Hence the abolition of slavery. (There is no moral reasoning other than procedurally conservative kind, and only it can monitor its own performance.)

Of course, liberals, such as Mill, tout progress away from error toward what is preferable. This is why he recommends that conventional ways of life not be imposed on individuals but their choice of way of life should be free to diverge from convention. The trouble is that this thesis is too weak to be a real challenge to conservatism. Even Mill admits that
...people should be so taught and trained in youth as to know and benefit by the ascertained results of experience.
But conservatism acknowledges and even requires that individuals should have the liberty Mill has in mind. But the traditions Mill admits should be inculcated into youth will limit their individual liberty. For they will develop preferences and habits which will persist and circumscribe the scope of any experimentation with ways of life in which they decide to partake. And in order to inculcate the traditional values Mill acknowledges, we need to judge them more worthy of inculcating than their eccentric competitors. So, their will be considerable social pressure in favor of the traditional values Mill admits must be preserved and passed on. Individual liberty must be constrained in these ways. Perhaps Mill does not see it, but he simply cannot be the free-spirit he takes himself for, given his stated commitment to tradition.

A classical liberal is simply a conservative who places more emphasis on individual experimentation with new ways of life than most conservatives do. Beyond this point lies progressivism, leftism, fascism and the other illiberal and anti-traditionalistic views. Classical liberalism, then, recognizes natural law and progress. It is not distinct from conservatism, however.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Conservatism and Moral Theory

I would like to tie some strands together. Bear with me; many of the strands are in archives. In the last little while we've been looking at human nature and conservatism. In the more distant past I've discussed moral theory, as well. You can see an intimate connection.

Conservatism has two levels: procedural and, let's call it, indexical. Procedural conservatism is the logical and empirical level. It is the commitment to conducting moral deliberation so as to maximize the fulfillment of preferences we have, rather than to import an arcane theory or particular creed as a fetish to hold above our preferences in austere and slavish reverence. It is the rejection of all moral theories that pretend to stand in judgment of the set of preferences we find ourselves with. With Hume, we acknowledge that reason can serve this set by seeking its most coherent version and consistency with all relevant facts; there is no Kantian or Rawlsian Reason, and no leftist or libertarian ideology, which this set ought to serve. Unlike the emotivists and subjectivists, we recognize that right and good cannot be directly read off of our desires and sentiments, the sentimentalist tradition having taken a wrong turn after Hume, thanks to Stevenson and Ayer. Tradition reflects natural preferences discovered through lengthy deliberation and experience. It is this reasonable tradition which procedural conservatism serves and which rationalists, ideological fetishists, subjectivists and the rest desire to overthrow or ignore.

Indexical, or cultural conservatism is the devotion to a certain set of values a certain culture we can point out. This culture rests upon lengthy deliberation and observation of human nature and in particular a certain set of preferences widely shared in a society. Ways of life flow from human nature and from procedural conservatism which are worth pursuing and preserving.

There is nothing to normative moral theory other than the recommendation that we use common-sense reasoning for coherence amongst our moral judgments and in turn (at the lowest level) amongst our desires. In other words, beyond procedural conservatism, as I've described it, there isn't much else to say in the way of normative theory. Kant, Rawls, Mill and the rest, including the enormous amount of ink spilled by 20th Century specialists in normative theory, a non-entity of a scholarly or philosophical field, should be seen as of little value and wrongheaded. Common-sense procedural conservatism has never been seriously injured by any critic, and Kantianism, utilitarianism, Rawlsianism, and the rest have been refuted over and over again with no hope of vindication in sight.

The lowest-level reason for this is that the link between what is right or good and what we prefer is logical. There is nothing we could count as evidence that a way of life was preferable (in a reflective equilibrium in which all things had been considered and thorough application of common-sense reasoning for coherence amongst our desires and consistency with the facts had been applied) and yet wrong. Nor is there anything we would count as evidence that something was right and yet detestable (in a reflective equilibrium in which all things...etc.) "Right" and "good" are thus reducible to desire. This is the direction in which the sentimentalist tradition of Hume should have gone and on this blog has gone.

To conclude: Conservatism is both procedural and substantive. If you've find what I've said about procedural conservatism a bit hard to grasp, don't worry. It is just ordinary common-sense prudential reasoning. If you are not biased in favor of one value over all others, if you try to determine what is best in view of the most coherent and fact-based set of all of the values we hold dear, then you practice procedural conservatism already; most people do, I think. Substantive conservatism is the disposition to preserve, and improve it via procedural conservatism, a certain culture which promotes good lives, suits what is important to us, and suits our nature. This explains why we find people listing particulars in effort to define conservatism, for example, Allen C. Guelzo in this week's National Review magazine:
If to love liberty, to hate slavery, and to believe that free labor holds out the best hope of "self-improvement" and "advancement" do not exemplify what American conservatism ought to be, then I am at a loss to know what does.
The overall view is, following Hume, sentimentalist in reducing good and right to what we prefer, where what we prefer is reducible to our desires, inclinations, and sentiments. Be careful over this point. As Jonah Goldberg says, also in this week's National Review magazine,
...redemption and meaning are derived not from indulging your "authentic" instincts and drives, but from striving to live up to external and timeless ideals.
That is so. Conservatism strives to preserve ways of life which suit our preferences. These ways are derived from lengthy experiment and deliberation amongst experienced inquirers. They are not derived from the individual's simply reflecting on what he wants (as certain philosophies of authenticity or existentialism and subjectivism or emotivism recommend.) Your culture has already discovered a plethora of ways of life which reflect lasting facts about you. You must reflect within yourself to discover which of these ways or novel innovation amongst them best suits you. You need them even more than you need authentic introspection. They embody truths about your nature which momentary "authentic" impulses do not.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Conservative Deliberation and Human Nature

I said:
I've slipped from "conservative deliberation" to "genuine, true deliberation." There is no difference, and if you think otherwise, you're mistaking the semblance for the real thing. There is nothing that would count as evidence that a course of behavior or way of life that went against what we know to be true about our nature and our set of time-honored, human-nature-tested and cherished values was the right course or a good way of life. For the only kind of thing that counts as evidence in these matters is what we prefer, what suits us.

Deliberation in a healthy forum is the attempt to determine a course of action or policy which maximizes the fulfillment of an array of parameters - values which, due to the vagaries and limitations of circumstance, cannot all be perfectly fulfilled all of the time (or even any of the time.) This is prudential reasoning about what is important to us (such as decency, justice as getting what one deserves, prosperity, security, freedom) in effort to preserve as much of it as we can. It is like the individual's prudential reasoning over what is important to him, in which he attempts to fulfill as many of his desires as possible. Logical and circumstantial coherence constraints guide this reasoning, as for example, when we notice that an increase in security is inconsistent with maintaining liberty and prosperity at current levels. This is case-based reasoning. It applies principles only as rules of thumb or heuristics, which are nothing more than gestures at a host of non-controversial cases about which all parties to debate are expected by the applier of a principle to agree.

The array of values map onto our preferences and are suited to our functional dispositions. The mapping isn't mechanical, as the array itself has gone through the civilizing process of the aforementioned deliberation over and over again in a tradition (as, for example, when we ferret out incoherent values that ill-fit the rest of the array, such as the value that sanctions a man's right to keep innocents as slaves.) In other words, human nature doesn't come off the rack perfectly smooth in it's internal coherence of desires. This coherence is won and urges natural to us tamed by reflection upon more powerful urges also natural to us. The point is that deliberation in a healthy forum is this process of seeking coherence amongst our array of values and determining actions which cohere with that array by maximizing its net fulfillment.

This is procedural conservatism, the epistemic side of the heart of conservatism. Therefore only conservative deliberation is healthy deliberation. Normatively speaking, only conservative deliberation is deliberation.

The alternative to conservative deliberation is the development of absolute principles or rules in isolation from human nature, from the array of things which are important to us, and from the messy business of facts, history, and various contingencies uncovered by lengthy exposure to case-based reasoning. It is favored by leftists and libertarians. The former fetishize economic equality and state power, whereas the latter fetishize liberty. They cling to the fulfillment of their fetish, come what may. Facts in conflict with the sanity of these approaches are explained away. This is dogmatism. It isn't deliberation.

Now, I don't mean to stigmatize all leftists and libertarians, but only those who have completely lost their hold on healthy deliberation. Some, on the other hand, have not. They are conservatives with eccentric views. They engage in procedural conservatism, unlike their dogmatic kin. But they see things idiosyncratically and cleave to redistribution and state power or to liberty much more often than other conservatives in the forum. They do not fetishize their conclusions beforehand but arrive at them legitimately.

There is a lot more on this sort of thing in the archives. I'll have more posts on it in the future.

We're moving on to Mill's On Liberty next.

UPDATE: The remarks I made about eccentric views indicate that I'm not saying that conservatives are the only genuine deliberators in the forum. When you meet someone who is espousing what are not conservative views, he may be a conservative in the procedural sense. He is a genuine deliberator. Most leftists do not match this description, however. In my experience, almost all have been dogmatists.

Monday, February 09, 2009


Love is guidance towards character. That is to say, to love someone is to desire to guide him towards good character.

This is why you can't love God.

This is why you can be lonely despite appearances and despite many seeming friends.

In order to love a man it is necessary to know who he is. A man who is not understood by any of his acquaintances is unloved. This is how a man whose acquaintances are all myopic, narcissistic, mentally ill, or similarly vicious, can be unloved despite appearances.

UPDATE: Caveats that go without saying: 1. If you're paid to mentor a person toward good character that's not love. The desire I'm referring to in the definition is an ultimate, non-instrumental desire. 2. You can, of course, be deeply grateful to God and devoted to virtue in light of that gratitude.
Limited Federal Government RIP

The Democrates in Congress think you're stupid, ignorant or vicious in some other manner. They're right. You'll vote them in again.

The Constitution depicts a strictly limited government. We no longer have a limited government by any stretch of the imagination.The Federal Government of today is acting far outside the bounds of the Constitution. It has been doing so for 80 years or so. Slow poison. We're already dead.

Ever talked to a Canadian who had to come here to get treatment for a tumor? Do you think socialized medicine is not in the "stimulus" bill?

Ever lived in a country where half the economy was the government?

Think the New Deal stopped the Great Depression? Go ahead and try your New Deal again, then. It'll work this time, right?

We have tried spending money. We are spending more than we have ever spent before, and it does not work... I say after eight years of this administration, we have just as much unemployment as when we started -- and an enormous debt to boot. - Henry Morgenthau, FDR's Treasury Secretary

Those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it. So are their children.

Friday, February 06, 2009

The United States Passes from Tragedy to Farce

The Democrats think you're stupid enough to accept that hundreds of billions of dollars spent years from now on big government programs is an emergency economic stimulus. Krauthammer explains. The Congressional Budget Office says the pork will harm the economy, not help it. But your government doesn't let the facts get in the way because it thinks Americans are too ignorant of these facts and too stupid to process them. President Obama:

So then you get the argument, well, this is not a stimulus bill, this is a spending bill. What do you think a stimulus is? (Laughter and applause.) That's the whole point. No, seriously. (Laughter.) That's the point.

Either he's really that ignorant and stupid or he thinks you are. It doesn't matter which is the case. The American government is so broken, stupid, and corrupt, and the voter so ignorant and backward in his values, that at this point the American experiment is over. It has been over for several decades now. The generations after the Greatest Generation are stupid, ignorant, narcissistic, vain, and spoiled. There is no use mourning the death of America. It wasn't recent.

Sure, there are millions upon millions of liberty-loving patriots left. So, what? Their numbers are relatively few and diminishing.

No, the tragedy was decades ago, albeit it was a slow poison that gradually spread to the brain and heart. The poison was wealth, ignorance and leftism, a lethal cocktail. The corpse flops around, a zombie, a clown. We've passed to farce at this point. This bill, this Congress and Executive, are a farce. We'll vote them in again soon. We deserve them. Pity about the children, though.

Not to worry, we press on. We think in terms of centuries and preserving what is precious and fragile. These are things that the United States has forsaken but we have not.
A Note on Natural Law Theory

I was wrong here. Natural law theory has two species. The first entails divine command theory, along the lines I indicated in that post. On this view, it is God's intention in our nature which provides the normativity to be gleaned from in; you get from is to ought because God's will is in our nature and his will ought to be followed.

The second species of natural law theory is the view that there are in human nature certain functional structures, dispositions to prefer, inclinations, (as I've been discussing in the last little while), which are grounds for drawing moral conclusions: conclusions about what is right and which lives are good. (How you get from is to ought I've explained before and will soon do again.) This theory does not entail the existence of God. I was pleased to see Randy Barnett noticing this lack of entailment in the first few pages of his book The Structure of Liberty.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Democratic Party Lexicon

Make sure you adjust your concepts of these terms.

Tax Cuts - Welfare payments from the IRS to people who don't pay taxes.

Emergency Economic Stimulus Bill - Enormous spending on big government programs most of which will occur years from now and after the current recession.

Bringing fiscal discipline back to Washington - Increasing the deficit to over $1T from now on.

Hero - 47-year-old man with hypnotic oratory but no accomplishments in his career.

Returning Moral Integrity to Washington - Putting tax cheats Geithner and Daschle in the President's Cabinet.

Liberty, Self-Reliance, Limited Government - These hoary old terms are obsolete and now deprecated. Remove them from your vocabulary.