Friday Roundup, March 28th

Our Books section featured two great essays this week. In "Jewish Learning, Human Liberty," David Conway evaluates Moshe Halbertal's Maimonides: Life and Thought. Arnold Kling considers the economics and societal implications posed by rapid advances in computer technology in his review of The Second Machine Age. Scott Sumner @ EconLib: Central banks do not deserve our respect or our condemnation; they deserve our skepticism. Rick Garnett @ the Conglomerate on religious liberty and the rights of employees. After oral arguments in the Hobby Lobby case this week, which Marc DeGirolami profiled well, Richard Samuelson's older essay "What Adams Saw over Jefferson's Wall" is…

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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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Slave Property in the Old South

This quarter, I assigned Liberty, Equality, Power in the U.S. history survey. I might try another book next year because it’s getting to be too expensive for the students. Anyway, it’s a solid book. Reading over the chapter on "The Old South, 1790-1850," I stumbled over this bit, describing the deep South: "Slaves under the task system won the right to cultivate land as ‘private fields'—farms of up to five acres on which they grew produce and raised livestock for market. There was a lively trade in slave-produced goods, and by the late 1850s slaves in the lowcountry not only produced and exchanged…

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PovertyCure: From Aid to Enterprise

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Can the current model of humanitarian aid generated by networks of large philanthropic foundations, NGOs, and Western governments actually alleviate the poverty of the world's Bottom Billion, to quote the title of Paul Collier's book? This podcast with the Acton Institute's Michael Miller, director of the new Poverty Cure Initiative, puts forward a persuasive case rooted in particular communities in Africa and South America that the conditions for prosperity emerge from our free and relational nature as human beings. Accordingly, authentic help to the world's poor must not be driven by the notion that the global poor are the objects…

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The Beard Thesis and the Seinfeld Defense

In this, its centennial year, Charles Beard’s 1913 An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States retains its hold on both the publication market and, at least in certain circles, the popular imagination. Its claim that the Founders were possessive aristocrats out to protect the property of the privileged has, to be sure, been demolished in the scholarly literature, most notably by Forrest McDonald. But it may be time for those who respect the Framers to acknowledge at least one deep vein of truth in Beard’s thesis and reply with an even deeper one. Call it “the Seinfeld defense”: Yes, they wanted to protect property—not that there’s anything wrong with that.

The idea that the Founders had to be redeemed from Beard’s charge has so framed the response to the Progressive historian that the charge itself has been too little examined. But while Beard’s assessment of the personal economic stakes of the Philadelphia delegates was, as McDonald and others have shown, mistaken, his deeper point cannot and indeed ought not be dismissed: One purpose of the Philadelphia project was the protection of property.

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Steven Eagle on Eminent Domain

Steven Eagle, George Mason University law school professor, appeared today on C-SPAN’s morning show (39 mins @ 34:50) discussing the origins of eminent domain and its drastic expansion prior to and following the 2005 Kelo decision.  Eagle gave a superb introduction to the abuse of the eminent domain power and the failure of congress to address it. In fact, governments continue to delegate their eminent domain powers to utilities and railroad companies. The callers were eloquent in relating their own abuses from government. Eagle’s Cato Institute monograph on property rights and eminent domain can be found here; his vita  listing books and links to articles is here.

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Just How Green are Germany’s Values?

Germany’s renewables energy sector is busy cleaning up these days, commercially-speaking that is, not in terms of environmental impact. So far as that goes, Germany’s much vaunted green revolution has been nothing short of disastrous.

As its heavily subsidized wind-farms and solar panels mushroom, so Germany’s ancient forests are increasingly being felled to make way for the open mining of lignite (brown coal) of which Germany has copious reserves beneath its soil and which is the most unhealthy fossil fuel of all.

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John Tomasi’s Free Market Synthesitis

John Tomasi’s Free Market Fairness[1] has the intellectual ambition of formulating a synthesis – at least a tentative synthesis — of key elements of libertarian or classical liberal thought on the one hand and social democrat thought on the other hand.  From the former Tomasi purports to take robust economic rights that have a strong claim on being recognized within any acceptable social-political order and an appreciation of the beneficial outcomes of spontaneous orders; and from the latter, he takes a strong commitment to “social justice” that is understood in difference principle fashion as a commitment to making the worst off members of society as well off as possible. 

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The West’s Killer Apps: But Can It Still Download Them?

Niall Ferguson calls his latest 300-page best-seller, Civilization: The West and the Rest  “a history of the world, in which Western dominance is the phenomenon to be explained.” (xxv) It’s a rollicking fun read, to be sure, though one would hardly call it a “history.” It is more like an historical essay, woven together with cultural commentary that has a specific trigger in mind. The trigger is the financial meltdown of 2008, and the key questions it raises for the author are: Could 2008 be the harbinger of a sudden collapse of Western dominance and its replacement by an ascendant China? And: What, if anything, could the West do to avoid such an unappetizing prospect?

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Freedom and the Political Good: Some Preliminary Considerations

Recent disputes over the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act go to the most basic of political issues, the proper goal of government.

The nature of the political good may seem a question for the seminar room, but the answer is what distinguishes libertarians, liberals, and conservatives. More specifically, it’s what accounts for the disputes over Obamacare.

According to libertarians, the basic political good is freedom, understood as a setting in which people make their choices and pay for them. What’s available for choice is what people can provide for themselves, together with whatever other people decide to make available. Such a view leads libertarians to oppose government-prescribed health care of any kind.

Liberals agree that the basic political good is freedom, but see it as a setting in which people make choices and receive social support for them. They note that a lack of options can limit freedom, and propose that goods everyone wants, or that facilitate choice in general, be made freely available. Thus, for example, they believe that government should provide for universal health care, since everyone wants to be healthy, and good health facilitates active autonomy. They also believe that personal choice should prevail over collective moral preferences, so Catholic employers should be required to make free birth control pills available to employees who want them.

Conservatives in contrast view the political good as maintenance of an overall way of life that has been found good through experience and reason. That way of life will generally include freedom, but it won’t put it first because freedom by itself doesn’t tell us what it’s for, and if we don’t know what it’s for we can’t resolve conflicts among claimed freedoms. So to make sense, freedom has to be part of a larger system of goods that gives it direction, setting, and meaning.

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