Nineteenth-Century Americans associated with the nativist American Party (a.k.a., “Know Nothings”) proposed extended probationary periods before immigrants could apply for U.S. citizenship. They also forwarded other policies aimed to press the assimilation of (mainly) Catholic immigrants, or at least to mold immigrant behavior to conform with the predominant scruples of American Protestants. (Some latitude was allowed German Lutherans, particularly with respect to temperance.) While nativist, however, the Know Nothing movement did not broadly advocate restrictions on immigration. I wondered in a prior post whether the Americanism of the American Party, namely, a commitment to the natural-rights position of humanity’s common ownership of the earth (consistent with the natural rights philosophy articulated in the Declaration of Independence at the nation’s founding), channeled their energies toward assimilation and away from restrictions.
Modern fiat currencies depend for their value on confidence in the laws of the states that issue them. Some nations, like the United States with its established central bank, inspire substantial confidence relative to nations that may debase for their currency for political objectives. But no nation can absolutely insulate its currency from political manipulation.
That is what gives Bitcoin the opportunity to succeed as a currency. But what gives users confidence in Bitcoin? It is precisely the fact that the rules regulating its currency do not depend on the currency law of any nation state. Bitcoin provides an example of order without law or at least without currency law.
Order without law is not unknown to society. Social norms often regulate behavior without the benefit of formal law. Rules of etiquette tell people how to behave at table without causing offense. Coordination rules help people walk down the street without bumping into one another. In a major work, Robert Ellickson showed that social norms, not law, governed responsibility in a community of cattle ranchers and farmers for the damage caused by cattle straying on the range.
But while order without law is possible without software, software can improve on the enforcement of that order. The beauty of Bitcoin’s design is that its mechanism for enforcement can not only be more powerful than the informal mechanisms that enforce social norms but even more powerful in some respects than the formal mechanisms of law.
When it comes to voting by citizens in a democracy, there are four essential questions, as I see it, in marrying up the “should” and the “is.”
This edition of Liberty Law Talk is with Yuval Levin, author of The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left. A 2013 Bradley Prize recipient, Levin connects us with the actual contest between Burke and Paine as they debated the central claims of the French Revolution and much of modern political thought with its focus on rights, individualism, the social contract vs. Burke's more expansive notions of social liberty, the contract among the dead, the living, and those yet to be born, and his belief in prescription or the notion that change should be…
Books reviewed in this essay:
The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin, by Corey Robin. Oxford University Press.
The Common Mind: Politics, Society and Christian Humanism from Thomas More to Russell Kirk, by André Gushurst-Moore. Angelico Press.
The Pinch: How the Baby Boomers Took Their Children’s Future—and Why They Should Give It Back, by David Willetts. Atlantic Books.
Amidst the recurring question of whether Edmund Burke is relevant to contemporary politics, we are presented with three volumes that approach this vital issue in different ways, and with varying levels of scholarly and popular perceptiveness. All the books under review attempt to connect the witness and insights of the great statesman to ongoing conflicts in society and politics. Perhaps the disparate assessments of Burke alone could suggest the resiliency of his legacy; however, the importance of Burke the political theorist dictates a closer examination of these critical works.
Rémi Brague, professor emeritus at the Sorbonne, and the subject of a post I wrote on the complicated western history of the Law of God, argues in a recent essay “The Impossibility of Secular Society” (paywall) that secular society is a doomed enterprise for two reasons: a secular society cannot survive in the long run, so moving on from it will be a choice to live, and the very concept of secular society is tautological “because secularity is latent within the modern use of the term society.” Brague also asserts a 1/2 thesis that whatever comes next in the West, it won’t be a “society” but a new mode of “being-together.” This mini-me thesis itself seems redundant. If the present society fails to inspire loyalty and provide convincing rationales for our “being-together,” then something new will surely replace it. But this might be the most interesting key to the essay. I’ll return to this thought at the end.
Thanks to Greg Weiner (and the commenters) for taking on my original piece, which has gathered far more attention than I had anticipated. Greg argues that, “It has become commonplace to see the Declaration as a radical break with this tradition—and, in some circles, the Constitution as a radical break again—but a continuum of this symbol is clearly traceable.” Yet, though there is some “traceable” continuity, the Declaration is of a different order.