Is Trump or Sanders Worse for Liberty?

Is Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump a greater long term threat to the principles of classical liberalism? Trump’s program is antithetical to classical liberalism. He wants to follow protectionist trade policies. He has disclaimed any interest in reforming the burgeoning entitlements that are the principal engines for growing the state. He seems to quite content to praise authoritarian leaders abroad, like Vladimir Putin. He wants to make it easier for public figures to sue private citizens for their criticism. And he is so vulgar and gratuitously offensive that he undermines the culture of self-restraint necessary to the classical liberal order.

Of course, Sanders is worse on many of these axes. He not only wants to preserve all entitlements but add to social security and to create an entirely new entitlement to higher education. He also is a protectionist. He would destroy the private provision of health care. And he would raise tax rates sky high. As for authoritarianism, he seems to have trouble condemning any regime, such as Cuba, so long as he can entertain the false belief that the regime has been good for the social welfare of its citizens. 

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The Larger Lessons of Increased Collaboration Among Law Professors

One of the most striking changes since I have been a law professor is the rise in the number of legal articles written jointly. This increase in collaboration is of more than academic interest because the reasons for it are leading to greater collaboration in other areas, too. The result will be greater prosperity and human flourishing.

First, joint authorship has grown with interdisciplinary scholarship. Increasingly, law is the subject of inquiry in other disciplines – economics, political science and psychology prominent among them.   But those with expertise in these areas frequently lack institutional knowledge of and practical experience in law. They can strengthen their arguments by partnering with law professors more sophistication about these matters, who, in turn get the advantage of more disciplined frameworks of social science. We see the same phenomenon in public policy, where different kinds of knowledge are more regularly pooled, resulting in a fuller, less one-dimensional view of the world.

Second, many law professors also team up in their research, even if neither have interdisciplinary backgrounds. The modern legal academy is marked by increased competition for both students and faculty. Standards for productivity and quality have clearly risen even in my two decades in the businesses. One way of competing better is to combine forces. 

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Politics Anchored in the Past v. Politics Oriented Toward the Future

The transition from one year to the next prompts reflections on how our relation to the past constitutes the politics of the present.   Before the 1700s politics was wholly oriented toward the past. As Robert Tombs puts it in his brilliant new book, The English and Their History: “Legitimacy came from the past: rights, status, property, laws—all were inherited. So desirable changes were conceptualized as a return to a pristine past. The idea was of a stable ordered hierarchy in which all knew and accepted their place.” In that world the culture made political arguments naturally conservative. Public ideals had to be put in the categories created by past practices.

The hierarchy described by Tombs started to break down with the rise of capitalism. But the nature of political legitimacy persisted, as the memory of the people still preserved an idealized past.   Thus, even in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century political arguments were almost entirely founded on continuity with past political settlements, real or imagined.   The American Revolution was fought on the basis that the British government was violating what they understood as the ancient prerogatives of Englishmen, which were then codified as the Bill of Rights.

But as technology created one new revolutionary invention after another and the market broadly delivered these benefits, the culture necessarily became focused on the future.

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The State of Classical Liberalism at Year’s End

review of 2015 year typography

In a blog dedicated to formulating and promoting classical liberalism, it is useful at year’s end to evaluate the state of these ideas in the politics and culture of our nation. And sad to report, classical liberalism is now weaker than it has been for decades.

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Libertarians Can Believe in Borders

Where to immigrate

A veritable avalanche of writings by libertarians I know and respect offer claims about libertarianism, immigration, and open borders. Apparently as a libertarian, I believe that countries should not limit entrance and exit across geographic boundaries. Alex Tabarrok says the argument is economic and “moral” because “law makers and heads of state,” and presumably misinformed citizens, prevent someone from immigrating in pursuit of work. According to Bryan Caplan, we could double our economic productivity with open borders and address concerns by limiting access to welfare until a threshold of tax payment is reached (a la Milton Friedman). Michael Huemer believes we are not entitled to limit access to valuable resources or to act on the aggregate preferences of citizens, since such policies may harm potential immigrants.

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Why the Classical Liberal Order Needs Children

The classical liberal order has a paradox at its heart. It provides everyone the liberty to pursue their own happiness. Yet it needs enough public spiritedness and virtue to maintain the order that permits the pursuit of liberty. Many internal institutions in the liberal state try to address this paradox, including the Constitution, but external factors play a role as well and one of the most important is the presence of children.

One problem for the liberal order is that individuals and groups so often consult their own interest rather than the public interest in the public sphere. At the federal level, the mild supermajority rule created by tricameralism (the two houses and the President) and stronger supermajority rule for constitutional amendments try to address this by making enactments hard to repeal. This legislative stickiness creates something of a veil of ignorance. People are not as sure where they will be in the future and thus are more likely to consider the public interest rather than their private interest in deciding whether to approve them. Children help thicken the veil of ignorance. The position of one’s children is even more uncertain than one’s own.

Classical liberal democracies also have an innate tendency to overspend and over borrow.

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Fusionism and Federalism

I spent the weekend at an excellent conference on the work of Frank S. Meyer, a leading post-war thinker of the right.  His major effort has generally been called fusionism –an attempt to marry classical liberalism and traditional conservatism. But he himself did not claim the term “fusionism”: that was a label others affixed.  He saw himself as revealing the complementary nature of liberty and tradition rather than creating a new alloy out of disparate materials.   For Meyer, liberty was the end of politics, and that fact could be apprehended by reason. But because of the constraints of human knowledge, traditions were important as  a guide for the appropriate realization of liberty. And traditions help men choose virtue when political freedom appropriately gives them that choice.

Besides its importance in reconciling liberty with tradition analytically, fusionism had and continues to have important political implications.

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Mario Rizzo on Classical Liberals and Libertarians

My old friend Mario Rizzo has a great post up on classical liberalism and libertarianism.  The post discusses how to distinguish the two different political theories.  Interestingly, Mario does not follow the more common distinction – for example adopted by Richard Epstein – that classical liberalism is more moderate than libertarianism, because the former accepts the need for government to promote public goods.  Mario notes that the “philosophy of liberty has always admitted of gradations or degrees” and that classical liberals such as Lysander Spooner, Auberon Herbert, and Benjamin Tucker were radicals. Instead, Mario argues that “Classical liberalism is the philosophy of…

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Reviewing Epstein’s Classical Liberal Constitution

Today the Wall Street Journal published my review of Richard Epstein’s The Classical Liberal Constitution. I found much to like in the book, but believed that it did not succeed at its central claim—showing that Constitution is in essence applied classical liberalism. That claim is crucial to the ultimate persuasiveness of his book, because Epstein believes that classical liberalism should guide the interpretation of provisions that he finds ambiguous and tells us which precedents should be keep and which should be discarded. Thus, for Epstein even if a precedent did not capture the text of the Constitution, it should generally be honored if it advances classical liberalism.

I compared the book to the best book on constitutional theory of the twentieth century, Democracy and Distrust by John Hart Ely,  for its ambition and relentlessness of argument. But it shares a similar flaw with that magisterial work. Ely argues that the constitutional interpretation should be focused on promoting and reinforcing democracy. But he never shows that democracy was the single sun around which the Constitution orbited. Similarly, Epstein fails to show that classical liberalism is the skeleton key that unlocks the meaning of the Constitution.

As I say in the review:

To be sure, the Framers were very much aware of Locke, and liberalism is central to the Constitution’s meaning. But Mr. Epstein never shows that Locke’s liberalism tracks his own or that it was the dominant influence on the Framers. Other influences included Montesquieu, who stressed a balance of powers, and some of the Framers adhered to the civic-republican tradition, whereby government was to cultivate virtue. What is more, the Constitution reflects the lived experience of Americans and their forebears. The Bill of Rights derives in part from quarrels among English religious sects and the abuses of the Star Chamber. The very wording of the Bill of Rights often expresses this long history.

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This Republic of Federalism

Timothy Sandefur’s The Conscience of the Constitution contributes to the debate over the best way to limit the powers of the United States government in order to secure liberty. Sandefur, a lawyer and legal scholar, believes that Conscience“American constitutional history has always hovered in the mutual resistance of two principles: the right of each individual to be free, and the power of the majority to make rules.” (1) For Sandefur adherence to the natural rights theory of Declaration of Independence manages the tension between the two principles.

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