The State of Our Liberty is Confusing

I appreciate John McGinnis’s account of the state of our liberty. He’s right that by some objective measures liberty is on the decline. But, a consistent individualist might say, liberty is on the march when it comes to same-sex marriage, legalized marijuana, and the general front of “lifestyle liberty.”

On this front, as the consistent libertarian Randy Barnett argues, judicial activism flowing from Roe and the evolving (well, Randy might say originalist) understanding of liberty as autonomy has been the source of significant “regime change.” Randy hopes that the Court will become as consistent as he is in applying the same preferential option for liberty over the law in cases concerning the economy. It almost did so in the ObamaCare case, and Justice Kennedy’s aggressive dissent there shows that he has evolved into close to the model libertarian justice. On the judicial front, we can also point to George Will’s recent praise of such judicial activism as what is or should be the mainstream conservative position.

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On the road in Cupertino, CA

On the civil liberties front, more impressive than what should have been rather unsurprising revelations about NSA surveillance has been the public’s negative response to them and the resulting rise of libertarian Rand Paul as perhaps the leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination. But, let’s face it, the surveillance issue shouldn’t be regarded as simply or even primarily a big government problem. What about Google and the promiscuous generation of intimate big data for big profit (in both cases big is too small a word) by Silicon Valley in general? I note, for example, that Peter Thiel is, from one view, so libertarian that he wants to live on his own anarchist island, but he has no problem being a leader in advancing almost exponentially what can be known about each and every one of us by both government and mega-corporations. His contempt for democracy on behalf of liberty includes the thought that fortunately ordinary people are easily manipulated. Any comprehensive account of liberty today would have to come to terms with the alliance between Silicon Valley and the Obama administration, which could easily be branded some combination of somewhat irresponsible lifestyle libertarianism and a new and pernicious form of crony corporatism.

It’s true enough that envy is always a democratic issue, and it is always justly opposed by some form of the “trickle down” theory. Sure, those who Locke aptly named the industrial and rational are much better off in a free society, but most everyone is somewhat better off. Although envy, from a theological view, is a sin, I can also see that it’s against my self-interest once I see the connection between your hugely inventive and entrepreneurial job-creating success and my own far more modest but steadily growing prosperity.

In a free society, moreover, anyone who is industrious and rational–no matter what or where he or she came from–can rise to wealth and power based on real merit. That means that both justice and self-interest demand that I stop being envious and start working hard, and if I come up short, I have no one to blame but myself. But who can deny that social mobility is on the decline, as Charles Murray, for one, has explained? The argument for blaming the failing members of the lower middle class for their lack of virtue might have less and less explanatory value. And if Murray is right about “assortative mating” and all that, then the rich are not only getting richer, they’re getting smarter, and so less and less like most Americans. The real democratic remedies for envy are shared citizenship and shared opportunity, and there are reasons why the perceptions of both are diminishing.

Next to Randy Barnett, the most consistent and engaging libertarian I know of is Tyler Cowen. With disarming incisiveness and candor, Cowen has written that Average is Over. “Average” is the characteristic, of course, the middle part of the middle class. The “cognitive elite”–those who are comfortable inventing and manipulating genius machines and those who are really good at manipulating those who use genius machines–are getting richer than ever, and, from a productive view, they deserve what they have acquired and will acquire. Meanwhile, ordinary people are becoming more marginally productive, and that means that their lives will be increasingly less shaped by worthwhile work and personal wealth. Cowen anticipates that they’ll find life to be bearable by losing themselves in the various enjoyments they can find on screens. He anticipates that they’ll be too diverted (and, by implication, too stupid) to be envious or at least effectively envious.

All honest libertarians, such as Cowen and Thiel, acknowledge that robotization will result in the loss of more and more jobs, meaning that fewer people will really be productive. The optimistic Thiel emphasizes the good in this trend: People will be freed up for other things. But he can’t explain for what or with what money. They won’t have the wherewithal or the taste, for example, to join Cowen in being foodies. There are reasons to doubt that there’s going to be a new birth of aristocratic leisure or even of the flourishing of whimsical bohemianism that Marx unrealistically described as “the end of history.”

McGinnis criticizes even the Tea Partiers for being too much about cutting benefits for the poor and not enough about cutting the middle-class entitlements–meaning entitlements created for everyone–from which they benefit. He’s right that cuts have to come, and that our economy will eventually be wrecked if they don’t very soon. But choosing liberty over entitlements on which one has come to depend is a pretty high standard. It’s choosing against one’s own self-interest, something economists rarely recommend.

William Voegeli has written sagely that if people came to believe that Social Security and Medicare are unconstitutional, they’ll come to hate the Constitution, not the entitlements. So they could only reasonably be induced to choose those cuts if it were persuasively explained to them why they are unsustainable. The main reason is the demographic “issue”–too many old people and not enough young and productive ones. The demographic issue, of course, has been caused much more by our individualism–technological development in the service of personal longevity, prudent avoidance of risk factors that imperil one’s health and safety, and the decision to privilege oneself over generating biological replacements–than by a culture of dependency.

The good news we can see is that–thanks to these unintended consequences of burgeoning liberty– “the road to serfdom” never gets to serfdom. The difficult news that most Americans have to accept is we have to mend–not end–our entitlements with what we really know about our personal futures in mind.

The truth, more generally, is that our futures will be more individualistic. Employer and employee loyalty are fading away, as are unions and pensions and tenure and similar safety nets. More and more of us are going to function as independent operators selling our flexible skills to anyone who can benefit from them at the moment. The 21st century global competitive marketplace is, in many respects, in the service of personal liberty. These new births of freedom, to tell the truth, are changes many of us can only half-believe in.

A final observation on the self-interest front. Lots of libertarian political activity these days is funded by billionaires interested mainly in lowering taxes and taking out government regulations. I don’t deny for a moment that their reformist agenda serves liberty, and that the reformers embrace it out of principle. But we can’t forget that, in their case, principle and self-interest are quite obviously on the same page. And we lovers of liberty have to think clearly about the ways in which many or most Americans are having more trouble than ever connecting the principles of liberty with what’s best for them.

I don’t have a rousing conclusion here. My only intention is to add some complicating factors in thinking about the state of liberty today. If I had more time, I would explain why excessive concern with the individual is at the expense of who we are as free and relational beings. Those who say we have to choose for either individualism or collectivism aren’t thinking clearly enough about who each of us is.

Peter Lawler is Dana Professor of Government and former chair of the department of Government and International Studies at Berry College. Lawler served on President Bush's Council on Bioethics from 2004-09. He writes at National Review Online's Postmodern Conservative blog.

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Comments

  1. gabe says

    Peter:

    “And we lovers of liberty have to think clearly about the ways in which many or most Americans are having more trouble than ever connecting the principles of liberty with what’s best for them.”

    Well that pretty much sums it all up. well said!

    Over at Pomocon (prior to the BIG change) we had several discussions regarding what the right should do – how do we connect with the average voter (me and my tailgating buddies, for instance). Mostly we hinted at the position you advanced above – but never quite clearly stated it.

    Appeals to “liberty” limited government”, constitutionalism”, etc mean very little to someone subsisting on a low(er) wage job supplemented by Food Stamps, Medicaid, etc and having been “educated” into believing that this is the proper role of the State. why in the world would anyone go against their self interest? it is quite rational, in a sense, to continue to enjoy these “free” benefits.
    The task is to show how and why they are not quite free – believe me, this is a difficult task – and how in the long run the loss of liberty will result also in the loss of economic benefit.

    Know anyone who can do this? Certainly wish I did.

    Moreover, the task is in some ways made even more difficult because these folks do enjoy the benefits of a solid “associational” life. They have numerous interests, solid friendships, and sufficient income to pursue various activities (NFL Season ticket holders, hunting, racing, etc). Why should they change?
    Again, who will / how do we change that perspective / political leanings.
    I’ve given up and just drink bourbon with them and enjoy the game.

    take care
    gabe

    • nobody.really says

      A dissent – if it makes sense to dissent from a speech without a conclusion. But I would ask if we have given sufficient thought to Cowen’s lessons.

      It wasn’t so long ago that societies needed 80+% of their members to engage in agriculture to promote an adequate food supply. Today it’s 2% or less — and we have more food than ever. Agriculture provides an extreme example of productivity gains, but far from an isolated one. The big picture is that the US has never been more productive – even as our labor force participation rate falls to 1979 levels. (And that’s back when many women voluntarily removed themselves from the labor force.) So maybe Marx wasn’t so far off the mark as we suppose. The end of history – that is, the struggle with material scarcity – may be upon us.

      But even if we accept that free markets are the most productive engines ever (never) devised, it is far from clear that they provide the optimal mechanisms for distributing the fruits of that productivity. Lawler postulates that people who are not members of the super-productive class should rationally accept that a “free society” will better promote their self-interest than a contemporary welfare state. But this strikes me as an empirical question. And as I survey data on the nations with the highest median living standards, the evidence does not seem to favor Lawler’s view.

      Bottom line: Contrary to Lawler’s suggestion, I suspect that a shift from the contemporary welfare state to libertarianism, whatever its philosophical merits, would tend to promote the welfare of the few at the expense of the many. I question the long-term stability of such a plan. Thus the goal of libertarians may not be to achieve a “free society,” but to design the least harmful/most efficient welfare state consistent with securing the consent of the majority (or some other measure of stability).

      • gabe says

        “it is far from clear that they provide the optimal mechanisms for distributing the fruits of that productivity”.

        there is quite a bit unsaid in this position. First one must define optimal. I suspect that many would differ on a proper definition.
        Second: Any form of ‘distribution” that is mandated to adhere to certain “optimal” goals must involve the willful re-allocation of capital of , perhaps, unwilling individuals to ,again, perhaps, “undeserving individuals.
        And upon what basis is this ‘distribution to be made.
        I think we can all guess by whom it will be made.

        GO SEAHAWKS!!!

  2. z9z99 says

    But, a consistent individualist might say, liberty is on the march when it comes to same-sex marriage, legalized marijuana, and the general front of “lifestyle liberty.”

    I am not convinced. Same sex marriage now includes such liberty enhancements as forcing unwilling bakers to produce one’s wedding pastries. The next front in marijuana “liberty” is demonstrated by the spectacle of a marijuana activist presenting the NFL with a petition to have the NFL change its substance use policies, or the recent case accepted for review by the Colorado Supreme Court in which a litigant seeks a declaration that a private employer cannot discipline an employee for off duty pot use. Sandra Fluke can probably expound for hours on why it is necessary to use state coercion to force others to pay for the paraphernalia attendant to her “liberty.” Such a view of liberty is not so much liberty “on the march” as it is psuedo-liberty trampling the rights of others.

    It used to be that the concept of “your right to swing your fist ends at my nose” was common sense; a recognition that the concept of liberty carried within it an inherent sense of respect and social obligation that operated without the use of official force. Now it seems that one’s right to swing his fist is violated by the mere presence of another’s nose.

  3. Peter LawlerPeter Lawler says

    gabe,
    Good to hear from you. Send me your email (plawler@berry.edu) and I’ll get you posted when I post here and there. I’m better at pointing out problems than coming up with solutions, obviously.

    • nobody.really says

      For what it’s worth, it may be time to retire the “your right to swing your fist ends at my nose” adage.

      In 1189, Richard I ascended to the British throne, and scholars began referring to the state of the common law at that time as dating from “time immemorial.” And the state of the common law prohibited assault – that is, actions that would cause a reasonable person to fear an unwelcome touching.

      So perhaps “It used to be that the concept of ‘your right to swing your fist ends at my nose’ was common sense,” — but it’s been contrary to common law since time immemorial.

  4. Peter LawlerPeter Lawler says

    And the Z man, I grant your point: Diversity becomes coercive. But I can put here in the safety of the thread that the big libertarian donors are founding same-sex marriage initiatives as well as right-to-work ones. And I might add what you probably already know: My affirmation of the wisdom of Kennedy is ironic.

    • z9z99 says

      I am not sure that it is diversity that becomes coercive. Rather, I think that the difficulty arises from an ambiguous use of the word liberty. Two men or two women are at liberty to arrange their romatic interactions in whatever way is most meaningful to them; this is a defensible concept of liberty. But when they demand that others recognize and even be forced to act in a manner contrary to individual values, this is liberty only in an abstract and tortured sense. It is an Orwellian manipulation of language, hiding the ugliness of coercion inside pleasant-sounding euphemisms. It is pseudo-liberty, the “right” of someone to do what they want, with the unwilling assistance of another, under the threat of government force.

      • gabe says

        Z:

        Well said.

        Let me add another right that has been “augmented” or psychologically reinforced by the bastardization of language.

        Choice!!!
        Choice to a sensible mind is the mental activity one engages in when confronted by the counterperson at Baskin-Robbins. shall it be chocolate or vanilla? One scoop or two?

        Choice is most assuredly not an appropriate term when determining whether to end the life of an innocent, if not fully formed, human being.
        this trivialization of destructive act of abortion allows one to speak comfortable of the decision in much the same way as asking who you will pick in the Super Bowl.
        “Choice” has made this innocuous. Indeed, so innocuous that some in the political world can predicate or launch their entire career upon their willingness to defend (advance) “choice.”

        Most regrettable

        take care
        gabe

  5. Peter LawlerPeter Lawler says

    So I don’t have the time to GOOGLE right now. But the marginalization of opinion against, say, same-sex marriage is often justified bureaucratically as an intolerable denial of diversity–and so is the equivalent of racism or whatever.

  6. says

    gabe, tell me about Peter Lawler, he seems to move back and forth — (a progressive possibly?) where Constitutional enumerations are positive. (Or Peter, you can answer this observation yourself. I like to evaluate my fellow commentators w/the respect due them.)
    Respectfully, John

  7. Peter Lawlerpeter lawler says

    Not a progressive. Not a libertarian. A conservative. More precisely, a liberal conservative–liberal means used judiciously for conservative ends. For judicial restraint pretty consistently and so largely sympathetic to Scalia.

  8. R Richard Schweitzer says

    Peter Lawler states:

    “The truth, more generally, is that our futures will be more individualistic. Employer and employee loyalty are fading away, as are unions and pensions and tenure and similar safety nets. More and more of us are going to function as independent operators selling our flexible skills to anyone who can benefit from them at the moment. The 21st century global competitive marketplace is, in many respects, in the service of personal liberty. These new births of freedom, to tell the truth, are changes many of us can only half-believe in.”

    That statement seems to imply that individuality is in resurgence rather than recession. It implies that there will be an increasing amount and degree of interaction amongst individuals rather than interactions conducted through aggregated interests, or in other vicarious modes.

    In view of the other references to aggregations of interests (the “Gay Rights” movement as aggregated interests acquiring a form of “Liberty” – actually a form of “freedom from”) and the aggregations noted by Charles Murray, it would seem that the trends noted auger against increasing individuality and indicate the recession of individuality.

    Put simplistically, in an urban environment, one skilled in baking could not simply commence offering the services of baking goods for other individuals. That interaction would be constrained. “Freedom To” is more and more limited as political and social objectives constrain individuality. If “The Principles of Liberty” (however perceived) include “Freedom To,” then liberty recedes with the recession of individuality and with the decrease in direct human interactions between individuals.

    Throughout the West we appear to have moved from social organization based on civil Association (individual voluntary cooperation), both in the aggregations of interests and in the mechanisms of governments, to organization (and interactions within) of a purposive, objectives oriented enterprise. That further limits individual liberty (whether colored as “collectivism” or not). [see, Oakeshott]

    Evidence of a resurgence of individuality and the effective interaction of individuals with other individuals, with lessening, rather than increasing, constraints would be welcomed. Is there any?

  9. nobody.really says

    “Evidence of a resurgence of individuality and the effective interaction of individuals with other individuals, with lessening, rather than increasing, constraints would be welcomed. Is there any?”

    Can we think of any way to measure such things? I don’t know that I have much original to say on this topic, but I’ll say the same-old unoriginal things.

    Perhaps a person seeking to set up a bakery in an urban area will face various socially-imposed constraints that a person setting up a bakery in a rural area would not, or that a person setting up in a prior era did not. And today the world is more urbanized than ever before. We might therefore expect to find that baking has never been more repressed, and urban baking more so. But I suspect the data would show otherwise.

    See, the baking business has always faced obstacles – including unstable legal climates, unreliable suppliers, lack of paying customers, lack of consumer confidence and quality controls, lack of modern technical innovations, etc. Today’s urban bakers may confront more government-related obstacles than in the past, but may also face fewer of these other obstacles. How can we compare the magnitude of all these changes? As a first order approximation, I might want to measure “individuality” and “effective interactions” of a commercial activity by its profits, or profits/per person employed, or profits/hour worked, etc. And by these measures, I suspect we’d find that baking has never been more alive.

    In short, if we’re to judge the climate for “individuality” and “effective interactions,” I’d want to judge by aggregate results. And if we did so, I suspect we’d find that contemporary Western society is unrivaled in the effective autonomy it provides its citizens.

    That isn’t to say that Western society couldn’t be improved. But let us not make the perfect the enemy of the good.

    • R Richard Schweitzer says

      “In short, if we’re to judge the climate for “individuality” and “effective interactions,” I’d want to judge by aggregate results.”

      And there you have it.

      • nobody.really says

        Then I’m not following this:

        “[I]n an urban environment, one skilled in baking could not simply commence offering the services of baking goods for other individuals. That interaction would be constrained. ‘Freedom To’ is more and more limited as political and social objectives constrain individuality. If ‘The Principles of Liberty’ (however perceived) include ‘Freedom To,’ then liberty recedes with the recession of individuality and with the decrease in direct human interactions between individuals.”

        If’ we’re judging by aggregate results, where is the evidence that urban baking has declined since we entered this “recession of individuality”?

        • R Richard Schweitzer says

          “If’ we’re judging by aggregate results, where is the evidence that urban baking has declined since we entered this “recession of individuality”?”

          Gee, I almost missed this. It is the “freedom to enter into” that has declined (actually, so has the prevalence of bake-shops). Have you no knowledge of the humongous increases in the constraints (and their sources) upon initiating a small individual enterprise, let alone an innovative one over the past 60 years?

          True, there are social objectives, health, sanitation, “convenience,” etc., etc. that have led to purposive forms of social organization and purposive mechanisms of governments. That does not change the facts of the increasing constraints on individuality (bake-shops being a simplicity).

          The consensus may be that the “values” of the constraints outweigh any detriments from the impacts on individuality, or upon the interactions amongst individuals, directly, rather than through agencies, bureaus or prescribed affiliations.

          Individuality has been, and is, in recession; to some degree due to suppressions (for whatever social or political objectives).

          • nobody.really says

            “It is the ‘freedom to enter into’ [baking] that has declined….”

            So you say.

            And you also say that we should judge this freedom by aggregate results.

            What you don’t say is “and the aggregate data reveal that people lack baked goods!” Or “the aggregate data on the price of bread proves that society is suffering for lack of baked goods!” Or anything about aggregate results.

            All you do is allege a decline in the prevalence of bake shops. I don’t know this to be accurate. But more to the point, I wouldn’t be able to extrapolate from that fact to a conclusion about freedom. I’d be quite surprised to learn if there had been no changes in economies of scale over the past 60 years.

            “Have you no knowledge of the humongous increases in the constraints (and their sources) upon initiating a small individual enterprise, let alone an innovative one over the past 60 years?”

            In aggregate? Nope. To the contrary, I’d have guessed that the internet alone had spawned a huge number of small individual enterprises that didn’t exist 60 years ago. Are you acquainted with the internet — that thing created by the individual-crushing institution we call government?

            Enough anecdotes. Let’s see the data that the rate of business creation has declined. Let’s see the data that production is down. Let’s see the data that prices are rising due to supply constraints.

            I call your bluff. Show your cards.

          • R Richard Schweitzer says

            “And you also say that we should judge this freedom by aggregate results.”

            No I do not.

  10. Matthew C. Masotti says

    Thank you Mr. Lawler.

    If not an arousing conclusion, to be sure, clarity amidst the confusion and a clarion call:

    “…we lovers of liberty have to think clearly about the ways in which many or most Americans are having more trouble than ever connecting the principles of liberty with what’s best for them.”

    And to whom are the troubled quarry of the libertarian techno-cognoscenti asked to turn? Inevitably, or rather ironically, toward their “progressive” techno-cronies in the government!

    Libertarianism is a grand illusion.

    • R Richard Schweitzer says

      Well, maybe not “Normative” Libertarianism which has to do with the effects of government actions (rather than “Social” Libertarianism -which is something else and a broader concept).

      Normative Libertarianism is framed by the impacts of the functions of governments on Liberty and thus to limit those impacts by limiting those functions.

      Elusive for sure, but not necessarily illusionary.

      • nobody.really says

        The presumption of Normative Libertarianism, as I understand it, is that issues can be understood in isolation from one another.

        For example, I’d guess that a normative libertarian would have argued that the British in the 1920s and ’30s should have opposed the state’s creation of a national transmission grid as a wrongful expansion of government. And if this meant that the nation’s supply of electricity would be in isolated pockets, prone to collapse if the nation were under ever assault (as it would be shortly), thereby crippling national defense — no matter. We are to judge the merits of government expansion in isolation from context.

        Which may help explain why normative libertarianism (at least as I’ve described it) has not become a popular governing principle.

        • R Richard Schweitzer says

          That “functions” can be understood *separately* but not necessarily “in isolation” from one another.

          If the “function” of a “national power grid” was indeed for “Defense,” (or if there were no other way to achieve its necessity) then the degree of limitation would have to be measured by the necessity (not necessarily the imputed efficacy).

          Did the establishment of the Grid impact individual liberty; directly or indirectly?

          The description stands.

      • Matthew C. Masotti says

        Mr. Schweitzer,

        Your “normative libertarianism” contrivance is well taken. It is possible to have too great an appreciation (from too high and mighty an ideological distance) for the permanence of the forest green when closer inspection reveals trees rotting, perhaps dangerously so.

        I can write a much, much, much longer list of present U.S. government programs and regulations that I’d disassemble versus new ones that I might propose to help reduce the spread or remedy the effects of “social libertarianism” (what I would call libertinism). Given a humble and honest regard for what’s true about human nature, I think it’s better to respect individuals and to rely on the traditional sectarian providers of social and economic aid than to place my hope in the promises of secular ‘social change’ agents who—(yes; to your invaluable point)—aim today to “aggregate” our every educational, professional, and consumer, and domestic morays according to their lowest-common-denominator view of human freedom (which I see as Nietzschean or uber-libertarian, if you will).

        We need to escape the cyclic spiral: dissolution (rather than promotion) of the general welfare paralleling an expanding state. Though my essential point is that libertarianism is an unrealistic foundational political philosophy, nowadays, every conservative should be convinced that a major effort is urgently needed to rollback the progressivism that has overtaken federal, state, local governments, and beyond.

  11. nobody.really says

     “even if we accept that free markets are the most productive engines ever (never) devised, it is far from clear that they provide the optimal mechanisms for distributing the fruits of that productivity.”.
     “there is quite a bit unsaid in this position. “

    Fair enough – in part because Tyler Cowen has been so coy. But, to reiterate, Cowen observes how technology is accelerating the trend whereby more and more is being created by fewer and fewer. What will that mean for wealth distribution?

    The US has long enjoyed the largest middle class in the world. Was that because we had the freest markets? Or because we had free-ish markets combined with massive programs of wealth redistribution – land appropriation, Homestead Act, public education, progressive taxation, labor and wage laws, GI Bill, civil rights laws, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, etc?

    Consider one redistributionist policy (not unique to the US): Bigamy laws. In unregulated parts of the world, we observe that women are distributed much as other goods – the affluent get more; the poor get none. And polygamy was very common throughout the world, as might be expected because the policies would seem to favor the interests of the powerful. But some societies banned this practice. In effect, the ban redistributes the supply of women from affluent men to poorer men. And perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not, societies that banned this practice have grown into the largest and most stable in the world.

    In short, many people who laud free markets cite the results of those markets. But those results often also reflect the achievements of massive interventions to redistribute wealth.

    Now, to be sure, free markets have some tendency to redistribute wealth down the income scale. This was especially true in an era when muscle power dominated the economy. But graphs comparing GDP to median income show that since about 1979 gains in labor productivity have gone almost exclusively to the affluent. We’ve come a long way, baby. Even our current redistributionist policies have not been able to offset this change in market dynamics.

    So, flash forward through Tyler Cowen’s lens into the future: Six families own all the robots that make all the stuff. What does that mean for everyone else?

    I haven’t read anything in libertarian literature that focuses on optimal distribution, or desirable distribution, or even considers that distribution is an issue – except for one guy, who argued all his life for the merits of government-run social insurance and minimum income policies. His name was Friedrich Hayek, and he warned about the dangers of falling onto the road to serfdom.

    Now consider the road described by Tyler Cowen: Where do you suppose this road is leading us?

    • R Richard Schweitzer says

      Perhaps it might be somewhat enlightening (not determinative) to go back and read Pareto on how social organizations have to deal with the issues of production and distribution separately and differently.

  12. R Richard Schweitzer says

    To whom it may concern:

    The original post and thread concern liberty, not economics, national security, or any other social or political objectives.

    As previously noted:

    “The consensus may be that the “values” of the constraints [upon individuality] outweigh any detriments from the impacts on individuality, or upon the interactions amongst individuals, directly, rather than through agencies, bureaus or prescribed affiliations.”

    The “evidence” (of non-recession of individuality) suggested in replies turns to the values presumed to be attained by the aggregation of interests. Aggregation of interests is one of the symptoms of the recession of individuality. There is always some subordination of individuality of interest in a “group” context, regardless of the objectives sought or benefits attained.

    One of the replies seems to ignore the enormous expansion of the regulatory environment which encompasses not only organizational but individual activities, the increase in the statutory criminalization of forms of conduct, the proliferation of licensing and permit requirements (at multiple levels), the imposition of “Homeowners Associations,” “Condominium Associations” (as requirements for individual participation); all of which have become parts of how we now live together and are shaping our social order. Regardless of the “aggregate results,” whether social or economic, they are impacts on individuality, principally upon “freedom to” and “freedom from.”

    If we are to look at the “Confused State of Liberty,” should we not look at the elements that contribute to that confusion and for what has caused, or is causing, that confusion? Or should we, instead, concern ourselves with other “values” or benefits that may be correlated to those same elements? Are we all Esau?

    Without diverging too far from liberty into economics for response to one of the replies, there are the last two works of Tyler Cowen and the most recent work by Edmund Phelps. There are also the data on production in specific areas, such as electric power, agricultural products, petroleum, etc. those are distinct from “productivity.” But all of that relates to economic statistics and not to the status of liberty.

    As to the matters of “redistribution of wealth,” (which do reflect individuality) we are still observing complaints about its continuing concentration. Ironically, the references to developments in the field of electronic technologies selects an area in which individuality has escaped significant repressions, probably due to the fact that change and innovation (arising from individual imaginations) occur at a faster rate than new social, political or economic objectives can be formed. That has not changed the context of attempts to bring individuality in that field into the orbit of constraints for purposes of social objectives initially, and other objectives ultimately.

    Historically, totalitarian and corporatist societies have generated substantial “aggregate results” in systems which have submerged individuality. That is not sufficient evidence that the submergence of individuality should be judged on the basis of “aggregate results.”

    We may be yielding some of our liberty for security, some for “aggregate results” measured economically, some for social objectives or out of compassion. Still, every bit that is yielded must come from someplace and the ultimate place is individual liberty which belongs to individuality.

    • nobody.really says

      Recession: “act of receding, a going back,” 1640s, French recession “a going backward, a withdrawing,” and directly from Latin recessionem (nominative recession) “a going back,” noun of action from past participle stem of recedere (see recede); sense of “temporary decline in economic activity,” 1929, noun of action from recess. http://etymonline.com/index.php?term=recession&allowed_in_frame=0

      If we are in a “recession of individuality,” when was the era when we weren’t, the era when individuality was at its apex, the era from which we have now recessed?

      • R Richard Schweitzer says

        Rise and Recession

        “If we are in a “recession of individuality,” when was the era when we weren’t, the era when individuality was at its apex, the era from which we have now recessed?”

        This is something of a digression from the topic of the confusions in current state of liberty, but it is related to the correlation of individuality with liberty.

        Historically, individuality has emerged, risen and receded with era variations in specific geographic areas and in specific demographic contexts. The era immediately preceding the current observations, probably began in Britain (England and Scotland) at the close of the 18th century with the rise continuing into the 1st quarter of the 19th century for an extended plateau whose commencement of recession began there roughly at the end of the 19th century, or very shortly into the beginning of the 20th. In the United States (and other parts of North America) the era immediately preceding the current observations probably began somewhat earlier (in particular demographic areas), possibly as early as the late second-quarter of the 18th century, rising to an initial plateau somewhere between the 1st and 2nd quarters of the 19th century; thereafter experiencing an additional rise beginning in the 2nd half of the 19th century and ending with a commencement of recession in the 1st quarter of the 20th century.

        In other parts of Northwestern Europe, Holland in particular the history differs. In Eastern Europe and Mediterranean Europe the early social structures centered around family, and communal or peasant organizations. France in particular retained the peasant organization longer than England (“The Origins of English Individualism” Alan MacFarlane ; Blackwell 1978) and has never experienced the same levels of individuality (see, works of Emmanuel Todd). Though not verified for purposes of this post, the earlier history of this phenomenon in Europe (particularly in northern Italy) is dealt with in “The History of Civilization in Europe” (1828) by François Guizot; trans by William Hazlitt and reprinted by Liberty Fund fairly recently.

        Also of interest, and for further understanding of the subject, there is the remarkable essay by Michael Oakeshott “The masses in representative democracy” which first appeared in the Dutch (English-language) edition of “Freedom and Serfdom” Albert Hunold, Ed., Reidel, Dordrecht 1961; since re-printed in “Rationalism in Politics” Liberty Press 1991.

        A plausible reason for the differences in the initial periods of the United States and Britain is the fact that there was never a true peasant society in the United States, that form of social organization having been largely superseded in the demographic sources of most of the early immigrants to North America.

        The concepts of there being an “apex” or specific levels of the diminution of individuality in the social organizations is probably not an appropriate description of the actual historical patterns of emergence, rises and recessions. Also, it probably cannot be said that individuality, once emerged, has fully receded, or ever will. We have seen it substantially diminished and suppressed in parts of Europe and South America. We have observed the failure of its emergence in those social organizations derived from a peasant culture (Eastern Europe) and in all those areas dominated by family, clan and tribe cultures.

        • nobody.really says

          “In the United States (and other parts of North America) [“individuality”] experience[ed] an additional rise beginning in the 2nd half of the 19th century and ending with a commencement of recession in the 1st quarter of the 20th century.”

          So, cutting to the chase, you idealize something about the era 1900-1925; now, *what* exactly is this quality of 1900-1925 that you call “individuality,” that has been in recession?

          - Maybe this quality is deaths from infectious diseases? Deaths from poor sanitation? Or even deaths from violent crimes? While crime rose from 1925 to about 1980, it has declined since then. Maybe the appeal was Prohibition and the rise of organized crime in general?

          - Was it the incarceration of the mentally ill? Was it the practical imprisonment of people with various disabilities?

          - Maybe it’s overt racism? Jim Crow laws? Lynchings? Segregation? Antimesagination laws? Klan membership?

          - Maybe it was sexism? Laws forbidding women to work in many fields? Laws permitting marital rape? Or maybe just the customs are sufficient to maximize “individuality”?

          - Maybe it was an antiquated financial system, greatly restricting the number of Americans who could buy a house or get a loan? Was it the failure of regulation that permitted a run-up in the financial markets based on fraud, paving the road to the Great Recession?

          - Maybe it was racial covenants and redlining that limited where people of certain ethnic and religious groups could live and work? Recall that the 1920s was a great era for launching Jewish hospitals – not because Jewish people demanded their own hospitals, but because Jews were widely excluded from working at existing hospitals.

          - Was it the unknowable federal rules of court that existed prior to the adoption of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, whereby members of the public had no hope of representing themselves in Latin-bound and tradition-bound courts?

          - Was it something about WWI? The growth of the military industrial complex? The growing embrace of fascism?

          - Was it the launch of the federal income tax?

          - Was it the rise of the Great Gatsby-type robber barons and their lives of extravagant excess?

          - Or many it was simply the lack of modern conveniences – Like Smart Phones. Or any phones (in most places). Or even electricity in most places. Individualism wouldn’t be burdened by the Rural Electrification Administration until the 1930s. Ah, those were the days when an individual could be a REAL individual.

          Ok, maybe everything wasn’t exactly perfect for promoting “individuality” from 1900-1925. But hey: they didn’t have to fill out a form to start a bakery, amIright? I mean, that’s a REAL burden to individuality. What are a few lynching compared to THAT?

          • R Richard Schweitzer says

            What occurred in those periods in both England and the U S was extensive, culture-changing innovation (and resulting economic dynamism) that brought about the changes in the conditions described; that brought about the industrial revolution; the transitions from water and animal power as “energy;” perhaps the greatest material conditions advances known in all civilizations.

            None of that had been effected by previous “group” cultures.

          • R Richard Schweitzer says

            Read a bit more carefully. The response was to specific questions; not an exposition of advocacy or “ideology.” There has been no “recommendation” of individuality, simply a recognition of its function in the social organization, and of the changes in that function.

            There is probably a correlation of the beginnings of the current recession with the advent of the “Progressive” ideologies (T.R., et seq. era). Yes, the effects of WW I, and the Wilsonian political impetus (reflected in the early Lippmann writings), coupled with urbanization, augmented the rate of **recession** in the 1st quarter of the 20th century (which did gain further impetus during the “New Deal” period).

            What began to appear with the Progressive period, and again about a generation later, was a movement toward social organization based on a “direction” (expertise of elites) and diminution of the diversity of individuality (Read, Lippmann, Dewey, Wilson) [The concepts continue with social organization to be determined by some who "know better" how all other individuals should live, what their relationships should, and what "aggregate results" should be sought.]

            As to much of the other questions raised, read history without a predisposition toward what events “must” indicate.

    • nobody.really says

      One ironic aside: It was brought to my attention that, in another context I was recently exhorting people to de-emphasize group identity and focus more on individual identity.

      Do I contradict myself? I prefer to think that I contain multitudes….

  13. R Richard Schweitzer says

    Incidentally, for those more interested in the economic aspects, there is a very informative piece by David Henderson on Occupational Licensing (and certifications) to which there is a great commentary by Michael strong, over on Econlog; adjacent on the Liberty Fund site of which this blog is a part.

  14. R Richard Schweitzer says

    “So, cutting to the chase,

    ***you idealize something about the era 1900-1925; ***

    now, *what* exactly is this quality of 1900-1925 that you call “individuality,” that has been in recession?”

    No I do not, even though I was born in that period.

    • z9z99 says

      …even though I was born in that period.

      Wow. You must be… like, 200 years old.

      Your contributions to this forum are appreciated.

      • R Richard Schweitzer says

        Oh No! something short of 100 (though working on it) influenced by the background and experiences of a father born in 1879.

    • nobody.really says

      1. You certainly peak my curiosity. I return to the question I posed on Jan 31: “Can we think of any way to measure such things [individuality]?”

      How does “individualism” apply in times of war? When Thomas Paine wrote Common Sense, was he expressing his individualism? Or, by whining about how the Crown was oppressing colonists *as a group,* and advocating that colonists take *group action* in response, was he suppressing individualism? Who exhibited greater individualism: people who docilely submitted to Nazi extermination, or the Jews in Inglorious Bastards who organized *as a group* to resist?

      In short, if you identify with the people who are banding together, do they still seem to manifest individuality?

      People are prone to the cognitive bias known as outgroup homogeneity. I mostly pay attention to members of the group with which I identify, and regard them as unique individuals. I mostly ignore other people. But when other people have a simple characteristic I can identify them by – that is, a group label – then I will deign to recognize that. But lacking much other information about them, I then assume that their group label is their sole or dominant characteristic. Thus, I may conclude that homosexuals are people who “define themselves by sex” – yet I don’t think that I “define myself by sex,” even when I acknowledge that I’m heterosexual. I know myself to be a person with multiple, unique facets. It is my ignorance about the multiple, unique facets of the lives of individual homosexuals that permits me to draw the opposite conclusions about them. And reasoning from ignorance is the source of many cognitive biases.

    • nobody.really says

      2. Does “individualism” correspond better with living in urban areas or small towns? I associate small towns with social conservatism, for good and ill. In contrast, people leave their small towns and to to cities (or now college) to “find themselves,” fashioning a new identity unconstrained by the expectations of their former neighbors. If this has dynamic has anything to do with the concept of “individualism” we’ve been discussing here, surely individualism has never been more transcendent – as the proportion of the population in cities has never been larger.

    • nobody.really says

      3. What else happened in 1900-1925? Growing urbanization provoked huge anxieties, setting off all kinds of nostalgia movements – that is, a longing for a fictional, idealized past. The word “fundamentalist” dates to the late 1910s, as people reacted to modernity not by turning to authentically old religions (a la Roman Catholicism), but new inventions that reflect an imagined “old time religion.” Musically, we observed the rise of nostalgic ethnic ballads – “Danny Boy,” etc. – and country music, which proved to be popular among urban people who had no connection to Ireland or American rural life. And the US had its (first?) boy crisis: Urban life has “sissified” boys! How can they grow up to be manly men if they’re no longer down on the farm? So we elected Teddy Roosevelt, a Rough Rider, and saw the growth of the Boy Scouts and country clubs – places where boys could get out-of-doors and be manly.

      The irony of all these dynamics is that they seem so anti-individualist. They reflected the efforts of people to ape norms they imagined they should adopt, rather than the norms of contemporary urban life.

    • nobody.really says

      4. I occasionally have disputes with people about autonomy. I think of autonomy as the amount of resources I have available to pursue my interests. Conceptually, it equals (amount of resources I have) – (amount of resources required for “maintenance” or to overcome “friction”). All else being equal, a society with high taxes or lots of legal restrictions may well leave me with fewer resources to purse my interests. But all else is rarely equal. High taxes may very well enhance my autonomy – if they finance services that reduce the cost I bear for maintenance/friction.

      To return to a concrete example: As I look around at the Subway Sandwich franchises and bagel shops and cupcake shops and giant cookie kiosks and mobile trucks selling crepes and “college care package” vendors on the web – and add to this the fact that the Atkins diet has faded — I would not be surprised to learn that we are in the golden era of baking. Which does not contradict the suggestion that there may be more government hurdles than ever before. (My wife is an inveterate entrepreneur; she seems to organize a new LLC ever other year – and yes, it’s a pain.) But these contemporary burdens may very well be exceeded by contemporary benefits. People who obsess about the burdens but give no weight to the benefits are simply myopic.

      • R Richard Schweitzer says

        The preceding 4 numbered posts are sufficiently intriguing that they have been downloaded and copied for future reference. With the exception of item 3, they depart for and area of “sociological” concern as differentiated from some relationship to the Confusion of the Status of Liberty.

        “What else happened in 1900-1925?”

        A great deal that is still related to the Confusion of the Status of Liberty (in a society employing the Democratic process) by reason of the impacts on individuality.

        While it did not begin in that 1st quarter of the 20th century, eugenics became entrenched as a moving force impacting individuality, beginning with the 1st sterilization legislation in the 1st decade of the century and moving on to a dénouement of destruction of liberty in the case of Buck v. Bell (1927).

        The concepts for the foundations of eugenics required a total disregard of individuality, to the point of disregard of humanity.

        That period includes the embodiment of many institutionalized cases such as the Fernald School, and others throughout the United States in differing demographic contexts.

        And, the represented recession of individuality was not short-lived, it continued long after WWII, into the mid-century. Some vestiges of the attitudes remain. Eugenics was one of England’s gifts to America.

        The initial urbanization of America did not immediately impact individuality in a manner that limited liberty. However, the urbanization created a context in which the trend of recession was affect did by the increasing aggregation of interest for both political and social objectives. As to the other EFax they had been noted earlier in Europe by Georg Simmel, entirely apart from the issues of the relationship of liberty to individuality.

        It should be noted that there is a meaningful distinction between individuality and individualism. The 1st is a quality of humans as individuals; the 2nd is an expression of the individual human in a social context.

  15. R Richard Schweitzer says

    Also, during that period, the diminution of the “value” of individual lives (individualities) was confirmed by the events of 1914-1918 (and in some areas through 1922).

    The facts of conscriptions, and subsequent rise, beginning then, in totalitarian and corporatists orders are the links to impact on liberty.

    There was a great deal “going on.”

  16. R Richard Schweitzer says

    “America is a techno-productive wrecking ball that endlessly undermines the relational and communal life—the orientation around family and friends, God and the good—that make life worth living.” [MacIntyre? – Not to quote, the viewpoint]

    But, in any event, it is not **America** (in any guise) “causing” changes. What we are observing are the results of the diminutions of inter-personal relationships amongst individuals (even within nuclear families), with other individuals -**as individuals**. That is one of the principal symptoms of the recession of individuality. It is seen in the “us” and “them” heritage of the last century of continuous conflict. It actually creates forms of “communality” (aggregations of interests) but without commonality. In the recession of individuality sight is lost of the individuality of others.

    The significance of the correlation of the recession of individuality with sentiments noted by Nietzsche are a matter for examination elsewhere. But the effects of the mechanisms of governments operated to repress individuality should be a matter of libertarian concern on this site.

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