Liberty & Power: Group Blog
Aeon J. Skoble
David T. Beito
A native of Australia, Max enjoyed a long, eventful life. Born and reared in the outback of New South Wales, he progressed to teacher training, school teaching, service in the army during the war, graduate training, and a life of productive scholarship in England and the United States. He was an outstanding economic historian and contributed greatly to the “Standard of Living Debate,” defending the view that the Industrial Revolution, far from having been a Marxist nightmare for the working class, was the means by which they were gradually lifted from the poverty that had been their lot from time immemorial. Max spent the heart of his career at Nuffield College, Oxford, where he trained a number of outstanding economic historians. Later, after his retirement from Oxford, he alternated between teaching at the University of Virginia and teaching at the University of Chicago.
Others will write full-fledged obituaries for him, I am confident. Here I wish only to recall how much I admired and loved him. He was one of the most decent people I ever knew. To be around him was always a joy, because Max was the very embodiment of a positive outlook and of sheer joie de vivre.
I met Max in 1969, when he came to Seattle during the summer, and he and I team-taught a graduate seminar in European economic history at the University of Washington, where I had joined the faculty the previous year. One of my first publications was a somewhat controversial review article we wrote together for the American Historical Review. Later, he invited me to Nuffield as a visiting fellow, and the time I spent there during 1971-72 was a landmark of my life and career. He delighted in advising and encouraging me, and in protecting me. More than once, at tea time at Nuffield, Max would sit silently while his fellow dons huffed and puffed about something in their characteristically arrogant way. Then, suddenly, Max would explode: “Bullshit!” Which always moved the conversation in a more illuminating direction.
I cherish countless stories Max told me of his life, career, travels, and people he knew. Max was the classical liberal’s classical liberal — always level-headed, always recalling the pitfalls that await every species of single-mindedness. I eventually became more radical than he, but I never lost an ounce of respect for his opinions. In the early 1990s, I was glad to participate in a Festschrift conference for him at the University of Virginia, where the assembled celebrants included some of the world’s leading figures in economics and economic history, each of whom held Max in the highest regard. Max would refer to me in public as his “co-author,” and I was always honored by this recognition. A longtime member of the Mont Pelerin Society, Max served as its president and wrote an excellent history of this important classical-liberal association, which I reviewed in an early issue of The Independent Review.
No one can replace Max; he was one of a kind. He was, in more ways than one, a brightly shining light in a world of darkness. He lived life to the full, and he was fortunate that his days were long and filled with the love of his family and his friends. Rest in peace, old friend.
William Jess Higgs (always known as Jess) does not appear on anybody’s list of great men. Good thing, too, given the truth of Lord Acton’s declaration that “great men are almost always bad men.” (A statement whose truth, by the way, hinges on the assumption that Acton’s reference to “great men” pertains to men who occupy positions of great governmental power. Who can dispute that William Shakespeare or J. S. Bach was a great man?) Jess never cast a shadow in the halls of power, nor did he wish to do so. When I was growing up and got old enough to think I knew something about politics and to express opinions about politicians, he used to infuriate me by simply saying, “They’re all crooks.” I’d think, What does he know about it? Fifty years later, I am inclined to think that he knew practically everything he needed to know about politicians.
Born in the backwoods of Muskogee County, Oklahoma, unable to attend school after a brief attendance at grade school, thrust at a tender age into the position of the family farm’s chief worker by the death of his father and later by the death of his stepfather, Jess lived in the world of work. And he was very good at working: when I was growing up, I never knew him to miss a day of work. I always supposed that he was happiest when he was at work. He was reputed to be an excellent farmer, among many other things.
The range of things he knew how to do — to grow, to build, to repair — never ceased to amaze me. I used to look over his shoulder as he worked on an automobile or tractor engine and marvel that whenever he needed a wrench, he simply reached into the tool box and took out the one that fit every time. (To this day, I try one, discover it’s too big; try another; discover it’s too small; and pray for an eventual convergence on the right one.) Even after I had earned my Ph.D., he used to look at me with a gleam in his eye and say, “The trouble with you is that you don’t know nothin’.” And I knew he was right.
I didn’t need any commandment to honor my father and mother. It never occurred to me to do otherwise, in view of the examples they set. My father belonged to a generation in which a father generally did not play the role of pal to his kids. Although I never doubted that he loved me, he occupied a different, somewhat elevated stratum. So, as I matured, I automatically came to respect him, at the same time that I loved him. I appreciated that his own understanding of his chief duty in life was to support his family, which he invariably did, even during the Great Depression, when finding work was a difficult task. He was not the kind of man to go on the dole. Indeed, I doubt that he ever gave any thought to that possibility, even when people all around him were eagerly accepting some sort of relief.
Although he had a wonderful, practical-joking sense of humor and loved to tell cock-and-bull stories at the dinner table, waiting for my mom to finally catch on that he was pulling her leg, Jess was a taciturn man. Yet hardly a standoffish man. Everybody loved him, especially the children. He obviously preferred the kids to the grownups, if given a choice. Everyone who worked for him, when he became a foreman and then the assistant superintendent on the big ranch in the San Joaquin Valley of California where I grew up between 1954 and 1961, was extremely loyal to him and spoke highly of him: “Jess” they’d say, “is a good man to work for.” He expected every man to do what he was hired to do, but he posed no threat to jerk anyone around just because he was in a position to do so. Although he had been reared in a racially bigoted environment and some of his idioms would not pass muster with today’s guardians of political correctness, he treated everyone the same, regardless of race.
It’s natural for a man to compare himself to his father. I’ve done so a million times, and not once did I measure up. After he died, so many people came to his funeral that the chapel overflowed, and some had to stand outside the doors during the service. I remember thinking, “When I die, I’ll be lucky if a dozen people show up.” To say that he had a greater, more fundamental effect than anyone else in making me the kind of man I became would be an understatement. I don’t know for sure that they aren’t making men like him anymore, but if they are, I’m not encountering them. Maybe the years that followed closely after 1909 produced a different kind of men, or maybe there was something in the water he drew from the family well on that backwoods farm in Muskogee County.
Cross-posted at Free Association.
Jane S. Shaw
Born in 1915 to educated parents living in an all-black town in Oklahoma, Franklin lived in “dignified, abject poverty.” Only his prudential virtues -- determination, thrift, discipline, attention to detail -- and his natural brilliance enabled him to overcome the racial hostility that was endemic in the South but that also touched him when he attended Harvard.
Through Herculean efforts, he received an outstanding education, and over time he began obtaining the honors due him -- professorial appointments at schools such as the University of Chicago and Duke, the presidency of the American Historical Association, awards such as the Presidential Medal of Freedom. By his own account, his life was rich and satisfying, professionally and personally. He experienced the reward of a loving marriage of nearly sixty years, and he dedicated his book to students “from whom I have learned more than they will ever know.” He does not seem to have been an unhappy person.
But even with such deep satisfactions, Franklin never set aside the righteous anger that racism engendered in him. This is the contradiction that puzzled me: his life was good, but the memory of racism (and the racial barriers that he perceived even late in life) was unrelenting.
The pain of these barriers pervades his book from the first page: “Born in 1915, I grew up in a racial climate that was stifling to my senses and damaging to my emotional health and social well-being,” he writes. On the second page, he calls racism “a challenge to the strongest adult” but “cruelty” to children. He alludes to a famous incident; when he was 80 years old at a Washington, D.C., club to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, a woman gave him her coat check and asked him to get her coat.
Given his constant consciousness of deprivations, slights, and indignities, it is not surprising that Franklin agreed to head President Clinton’s advisory panel on race. But the experience disappointed him because the nation never got the conversation on race that he had hoped to initiate.
Franklin is, of course, absolutely right about the shameful racial divide in this country in the past. And many will consider it admirable that Franklin refused to let go of this past -- why should he, or anyone, make his peace with mistreatment and prejudice?
After much thought, however, I have concluded that his refusal is better understood as a “conflict of visions.”
As readers of Thomas Sowell’s writings know, a person’s ideological and policy views tend to reflect a consistent way of looking at life -- a consistent “vision.” In his book Conflict of Visions, Sowell identified two leading visions. The unconstrained vision sees unlimited possibilities in human nature, anticipating the unfolding of better and better qualities. The constrained vision accepts human nature as flawed; rather than expecting human nature to change, this vision looks to changes in institutions (laws and customs) to spur people to act differently.
Franklin, like many liberals, seems to have had an unconstrained vision. That is, he was an idealist who kept believing that people would someday live up to the nation’s ideals. For example, if people would talk forthrightly about race, they would understand more and thus act more humanely; race might disappear as an issue.
For those who hold the constrained vision, however, such hopes are quixotic. They believe that the elimination of Jim Crow laws reduced racial barriers by changing people’s incentives, not their nature. And market forces, rather than forced persuasion, are more likely to improve racial relations in the future.
An incident from Mirror to America may indirectly corroborate Franklin’s “unconstrained vision.” In his second chapter, Franklin explains that his home town was divided into two factions -- the Baptists and the Methodists. Because his family was Methodist, the Baptist-run school board refused to let his mother take a maternity leave, telling her to resign instead; only the intervention of the white county school superintendent let her keep the job. This factionalism actually got worse -- leading to shots fired at their home -- as Franklin’s father’s independent spirit continued to offend the Baptists.
Initially, I thought that Franklin started his story as he did to make an ironic point. I thought he was going to reveal that flaws in human nature are universal, that racism is one -- one of the ugliest, yes, but still just one -- manifestation of underlying human failings. But he didn’t make that point. The anecdote seems to have simply been a way of explaining the circumstances around his birth (and his family’s eventual departure to Tulsa). His lifelong mission, after all, was to eradicate racism.
But isn’t this factionalism the same kind of petty and inhumane behavior that finds expression in racism?
Franklin’s long and productive life reveals that it is possible to overcome enormous barriers. His devotion to the highest standards of scholarship, his dedication in the face of obstacles, and his personal rapport with his students all make his life exemplary -- more exemplary, in fact, than his philosophy. Guided by the unconstrained vision, his philosophy may have distorted his view of reality and, as it does for many liberals, led to profound disappointment.
Paying attention to that discussion is National Review's Jonah Goldberg, whose book Liberal Fascism caused quite a stir when it came out last year. Goldberg has a blog post exploring what he sees as sudden libertarian interest in this question even as many libertarians were lukewarm to dismissive of his book.
I reviewed the book for The Independent Review and was more favorable to it than many libertarians. The review is not online yet, but will be in a few months here. In a later post, Goldberg and I exchange thoughts on why libertarians might have been so lukewarm to his book, with me arguing that it was because the book didn't sufficiently recognize the fascist tendencies on the contemporary right. A number of libertarians have drifted farther from the right in the last decade (recall the number of libertarians who said they'd vote for Obama), and I would argue that it's because Big Government conservatism under Bush began to unfurl some fascist tendencies of its own.
Feel free to enter the conversation here or at the other blogs noted at the outset.
David T. Beito
Hat tip to David Adelman
No price offered as yet, on the
Sort of like the Al Gorean folks who, 4 years ago, paid about $7,000 more for a futuristic,"greenie-looking," Toyota Prius, when they could have bought, as the NYT noted in 2005, a Honda Civic Hybrid (I did so) for much less. The mileage difference was so small, it would have taken years, and hundreds of thousands of miles of driving, to recoup the price difference. (And, the Honda was slightly larger and had more interior room, than the Prius.)
One never ceases to marvel at what Americans conceive of as"Conservation!" (On his own properties at the time, Gore was using enormous amounts of electricity, far beyond the average American's usage, but, then, he was, and is, out to"save the entire Earth," as he constantly reminds us all.)
Roderick T. Long
[cross-posted at Austro-Athenian Empire]
Justin D.s been nagging me to blog about the Tea Parties, so heres my two pence:
Whichever party is out of power always begins to emphasise its libertarian-sounding side in order to divert anti-government sentiment toward support of that party rather than toward genuine radical opposition to the entire establishment.
By the same token, the party thats in power employs alarmist rhetoric about the other sides supposed anti-government radicalism in order to drum up support for its own policies.
Thus events like the Tea Parties serve the interests of both parties; people with libertarian leanings get diverted into supporting one half of the bipartisan duopoly, the antistate message getting diluted by mixture with (in this case) right-wing statist crap about war and immigration and the Kulturkampf. Those turned off by this creepy right-wing stew get diverted into supporting the other half of the bipartisan duopoly, with any libertarian sentiments likewise getting diluted into (in this case) left-wing statist crap about gun control and the need to impose regulation on some imaginary laissez-faire economy. And so the whole power structure ends up being reinforced.
I saw this game under Clinton, I saw (almost) everyone switch teams under Bush, and now theyre all switching back again. And so we get Republican pundits and politicians suddenly howling about Obamas fascism when theyve never supported anything but fascism in their entire lives; and on the other side we get Democrats ridiculing the very sorts of concerns about oppression and civil liberties violations that they pretended to take seriously under Dubyas reign.
Is it worth libertarians and/or anarchists while to participate in such events? Sure; because while the voices at the podium tend to be statist apparatchiks, the crowds will tend to be a mixture of statist yahoos and genuinely libertarian-leaning folks, and outreach to the latter is always worth a try in Kierkegaards words, to split up the crowd, or to talk to it, not to form a crowd, but so that one or another individual might go home from the assembly and become a single individual. But of course the organisers of such events are on the lookout for us and always do their best to try to narrow the boundaries of discussion.
Aeon J. Skoble
When I first moved to Massachusetts, I was pleased to see that they have official observance of a holiday that, afaik, no other state, nor the feds, seem to recognize: Patriot's Day, which commemorates (even if doesn't always fall on) April 19th. April 19th of 1775, in case you didn't recall, was the battles of Concord and Lexington, the date many use as the actual start of the War for Independence, aka the Revolutionary War. I've toured the Concord battle site a couple times, and it never fails to elicit a little misting up around the eyes. I can't help but be impressed with the guts it must have taken for the colonists to have not only decided they'd had enough of British oppression, but that they were going to do something about it - and then to face fire from actual British troops. Impressive, amazing. Just as we commemorate July 4th, I think it's important to commemorate April 19th. A lot of things about Mass. may irk me, but I'm glad they celebrate this here.
Watson spends the rest of his article rhapsodizing about the glorious possibility that the Obama administration will succeed in “changing American patterns of behavior,” not simply by improving rail transportation, but also, along the same lines, by establishing “a strong moral counterbalance to the ‘greed is good’ ethos that has ruled much of the last 28 years.” You would have trouble making up this stuff.
What are progressives thinking? If I prefer automobile transportation to taking a train, they condemn me for my greed. Their preference for taxing people and pouring the money into economically wasteful expenditures for rail facilities, however, they laud as the very heart and soul of public-spiritedness.
AMTRAK lives on subsidies; always has, always will. Americans have limited demand for passenger-train services. Nearly everyone prefers to use a personal automobile, for all sorts of good reasons, including privacy, flexibility, and convenience. None of this is news. Transportation economists have been documenting it in study after study for decades.
Yet the leftists of this country at some point — I’m not sure exactly when it happened — fell head over heels in ideological love with trains. I lived for many years in the Seattle area, where traditional religion does not rank very high with the bulk of the population, but devotion to “light rail” serves as a perfect substitute for belief in a higher power. For decades, the Seattle leftists worked to gain voter approval of their beloved light rail system. Finally they succeeded, and the people of Seattle are now getting the “benefits” of this democratic boondoggle good and hard.
Republicans dish out subsidies for perfectly understandable reasons: they wish to enrich their pals in the corporate sector at public expense. Although I do not rule out similar motives among Democrats, a substantial contingent of Democrats seems to love passenger-rail subsidies for reasons that have little or nothing to do with pork for their friends. As the article I quoted earlier suggests, they view rail-over-road as a religious matter: car = evil; train = virtuous. Reasoning with them is as futile as reasoning with any religious zealot. They simply know they are on the side of the angels.
I suspect that someone has written a book about this curious linkage of ideology and technology. If someone hasn’t written such a book, plenty of material surely awaits its interpreter. A cultural anthropologist might be best qualified for the task.
Jane S. Shaw
One blogger has asserted that, however obnoxious his behavior might be, it has nothing to do, as some have claimed it does, with free speech:
Miss Prejean has as much free speech as anyone else in America. She was asked for her opinion, and she gave it. Live on television. If asked again, she could say the same thing. She could sing it from the rooftops, provided she stop before 11pm, lest she cause a noise violation. No one is restricting her speech in any way.I think this reflects two sorts of confusion. First, free speech in our culture is generally not understood as a matter of being able to speak (positive freedom) but of not being punished or penalized if you do (negative freedom). By this blogger's logic, the only penalty that would abridge my freedom of speech would be execution. After all, as long as I am left alive, I am able (though perhaps in a prison cell and under the threat of further punishments) to shout out my opinion. Free speech, I say, is a matter of speaking without fear of being punished. It is not about whether I have the capacity to speak if I don't mind paying the penalty.
The question of whether or not she lost the crown for her remarks isn't the same as the question of free speech. The Miss USA pageant is an enterprise, not a government body. They may choose whomever they wish. It is up to the judges to decide, on whatever arbitrary grounds they see fit to apply, who wears the Miss USA crown for a year.
The second confusion is in assuming that free speech is a mere matter of governmental arrangements. Arguably, this is true of the right of free speech, but free speech and speaking freely are broader than that. Indeed, free speech probably cannot survive in a society in which people think of it in such a narrow way.
As John Stuart Mill pointed out in 1859, free speech advances our understanding of the world and constantly improves our ideas about it. Governmental arrangements like the First Amendment serve these vital functions as part of a wider social system of ideas and practices that protect speech. Mill went so far as to say that we ought never to judge the content of what someone says as immoral unless it is directly harmful to someone else. He reasoned that the threat of the sting of our disapproval penalizes expression in fundamentally the same way that legal punishments do. This may be going too far, but I would say that at least we should not go out of our way to penalize someone for the offense that Orwell called" crimethink." This ought to me mere good manners.
Without such standards of civility, the narrowly legal institutions of free speech will not really do what they are supposed to do. In fact, without and the appreciation for liberty that supports such standards, the legal arrangements may not even be around much longer.
[This is cross-posted in my personal blog,"E pur si muove!"
If I sound a little reluctant, it's because I see a problem here.
However, I think we already have a solution to this problem.
I think of it as"the Fail Safe problem." At the end of the book and film of that name, the President of the United States (Henry Fonda in the movie) faces the possibility of the destruction of civilization as we know it. Due to a series of human and comuter errors, the US has dropped a hydrogen bomb on Moscow, destroying it. The Soviets are poised to retaliate with an all-out nuclear attack on the US. After exhausting all available alternatives, the president convinces the Soviets that the bombing was an accident by ordering another bomb to be dropped on Manhattan. The pilot who drops the bomb knows that his own wife and children are below him as he drops it. He then commits suicide. End of story.
My point is that you cannot prejudge for all time what you would or should do to prevent unthinkable horrors. Here the cliche example is very much to the point: Wouldn't we torture a terrorist who knows where a ticking H-bomb is? Sure. I would pull a few fingernails myself.
There is no need to legalize torture -- law or no law, we know it will be used in such unthinkably extreme circumstances, and so do our enemies.
But, you may say, if we don't change the law and allow torture, aren't we ensuring that people who are doing things -- thing that are horrible and perhaps even unjust, are nonetheless necessary things -- will be punished for trying to protect us?
No, we aren't. If I commit torture and am exposed and prosecuted, I could argue that though I broke the law, nonetheless, due to horrific circumstances, I had a justification or excuse for doing so. I would be arguing that though I broke the letter of the law, I am not guilty of doing so. Even if I were still found culpable, these same arguments can figure as"extenuating circumstances" in sentencing (perhaps resulting in a suspended sentence).
Indeed, if my torture is successful and is known to have prevented the ticking-bomb disaster from ocurring, the public prosecutor would surely not prosecute at all and the government will try to keep my crime a secret.
People who want to legalize torture want the legal system to be flexible and adapt to changing times and circumstances. There is no need to abandon some of the most fundamental values of our system in order to be rationally flexible. Time-honored legal concepts like"justification,""excuse," and"extenuating circumstances" already give the system the flexibility it needs. Changing the law in light of these" changing times" would be a disaster. As they say,"hard cases make bad law."
[This has been cross-posted on my personal blog, "E pur si muove!"
David T. Beito
Jane S. Shaw
Perhaps the most important proposition in the economics of property rights is that people will not care for a resource they do not own as well as they will care for a resource they do own. It is amazing how much fashionable economic belief — for example, nearly everything ever advanced in support of socialism, as well as the bulk of what passes for environmentalist policy proposals — fails to take adequate account of this virtually axiomatic proposition.
But don’t take my word for it — or even the word of any of my illustrious former collegues at the University of Washington. Take the word of Jesus of Nazareth.
In the tenth chapter of the Gospel According to John, Jesus is trying to make a point, but his listeners are not getting it, so he finally gives them a parable he can be sure they will understand (verses 11-13):
The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away — and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me.
Hired hands must be monitored closely if the owner is to prevent them from diminishing or destroying the value of the capital he has provided for them to work with. In postbellum southern agriculture, for example, plantation owners monitored sharecroppers, to whom they furnished mules, more closely than they monitored tenants who furnished their own mules. The typical plantation layout placed the wage workers in fields closest to the owner’s house, the sharecroppers a little farther away, and the fixed-rent tenants in the most outlying areas. This arrangement allowed monitoring costs to be minimized. (Anyone who wants to see a thorough survey and analysis of these contractual arrangements might wish to consult Lee J. Alston and Robert Higgs, “Contractual Mix in Southern Agriculture since the Civil War: Facts, Hypotheses, and Tests,” Journal of Economic History 42 [June 1982]: 327-53.)
If you don’t care for economic theory or econometrics, just read the Bible.