Why We Disagree About Taxes, Entitlements, and Economic Theory in General


Tim Kowal

Tim Kowal is a husband, father, and attorney in Orange County, California, Vice President of the Orange County Federalist Society, commissioner on the OC Human Relations Commission, and Treasurer of Huntington Beach Tomorrow. The views expressed on this blog are his own. You can follow this blog via RSS, Facebook, or Twitter. Email is welcome at timkowal at gmail.com.

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113 Responses

  1. Avatar rj says:

    To say that liberals “wait” for recessions to sneakily take over parts of the economy casts aspersions on the motives of liberals. The most obvious example is the Great Society, which became law during the relatively prosperous mid-60s. It may be the case that a critical mass of support for liberal policies comes most often when the failure of certain market policies are laid bare by recession or depression, but it’s not like there haven’t been proposals in Congress for universal healthcare in both boom and bust years.

    I would also challenge the notion that when “economic decisions [come] under the control of the government,” they always remain that way. Four decades ago, commercial truck and train freight rates were approved by the ICC. The government told airlines where they could fly and how much they could charge. You couldn’t speculate on currencies because exchange rates were fixed. There were no energy markets. For a time, there were wage and price controls!

    You’ve bought into the conservative canard that our economy is more regulated now than we have ever been. This is simply not true. Like everything else, it ebbs and flows with time and experience.Report

    • Avatar Tim Kowal says:

      I do believe that the curve of regulation has generally bent upwards. Certainly there are examples where it “ebbs and flows” as you suggest. Is there a metric that says we have less regulation overall than at other points in the 20th century, for example?Report

      • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

        Is there a metric that says we have less regulation overall than at other points in the 20th century, for example?

        Terabucks. See AIG, for just one example.Report

      • Avatar BlaiseP says:

        Erm…. the amount of regulation has gone down substantially. Look at the repeal of Glass-Steagall. Look at the deregulation of campaign finance via the Citizens United case. Look at the PATRIOT Act, for all practical purposes repealing the Fourth Amendment. How much more do you want on the list? The deregulation tsunami washed away all sorts of laws.Report

      • Avatar rj says:

        A lot of people feel like we have more regulation than we used to, but it’s just that – a feeling. It has been repeated over and over again that we are overregulated and that this is getting worse. Repeat it enough and you’ll start to believe it. Just like the rote conservative incantation that Obama is the “most radically liberal president ever.” Policy-wise, he pales in comparison to Nixon, to say nothing of FDR.

        To go back to some of my examples, think of how much of our GDP and employment come from the finance, transport and communications sectors. Think about how much they have been deregulated.Report

  2. Avatar Jake Collins says:

    This post should be entitled, “Why utopians disagree…”
    Most liberals support a generally free market as an end in itself, and want a base-line safety net rather than substantive equality of outcomes.
    Most conservatives (and even some libertarians writing on this blog) recognize the need to correct the brutalities of raw capitalism.

    If you think taxing the rich to allow the working poor access to health care is “procedural injustice,” then you’ve gone way off the deep end.
    If you think we can guarantee a substantively just society by tossing out all notions of procedural justice, ditto.
    But I highly doubt anyone within the middle 95% of America really thinks this way.Report

    • Avatar Tim Kowal says:

      I don’t think “access” to health care is a tax problem. But I take it you mean “afford” when you say “access,” no? I find the word “access” in rhetoric over health care to an execrable spin word that makes it difficult to engage in clear thinking on the issue. If “afford” is the concept one intends, that’s the word one ought to use.

      At any rate, I grant my post is probably not entirely clear on where I stand on health care, as the post has nothing to do with health care specifically. But broadly speaking, what I hoped my post would convey is that even as a conservative, I appreciate the argument about providing certain kinds of baselines. In fact, I have a follow-up post already in the works outlining how a conservative framework could support safety nets.Report

      • Avatar Jake Collins says:

        Sorry, I didn’t mean to give you the vapors! Heavens to Betsy! By all means let’s avoid actually framing the health care issue as it actually stands… the poor can’t get access to health care they need. But I suppose the poor being denied care is no big deal to self-satisfied rich fucks like yourself.
        My sincere apologies.Report

  3. Avatar Jake Collins says:

    Another way to think of this issue is that there are other values beyond justice/fairness.
    For example, John Haidt postulates 5… and offers pretty compelling arguments about how these connect to political disputes.

    Most liberals support a safety net out of the “harm” principle; some conservatives like Andrew Sullivan even do so out of a desire to maintain in-group cohesion.

    The fact that you want to frame this debate in terms of competing notions of fairness proves Haidt’s point about libertarians… you’re focusing on “fairness” as the only value to such an extent that you can’t even imagine that other issues might be at stake.Report

    • Avatar Murali says:

      Haidt as far as I can tell is merely being descriptive. He tells us what we happen to care about. The thing is, when it comes to political organisation the biggest if not the only thing we should care about is justice/fairness.Report

      • Avatar Jake Collins says:

        Yes, Haidt is offering a descriptive account.
        But your claim that governance should only care about fairness begs the question Haidt is asking (and TK should be asking).

        Most people to the left of Atilla the Hun do want the government to observe the harm principle (e.g.., food safety laws). Social conservatives care about purity, and defense hawks’ views are interpreted thought a in-group/out-group thinking.

        The point of the OP was to explain why liberals and conservatives disagree. But given that liberals do care about harm, then competing notions of fairness/justice are an inadequate explanation.Report

        • Avatar BlaiseP says:

          Haidt has some serious problems. Who defines Purity/Sanctity? Why that would be Authority/Respect. And who respects Authority? Yes, that would be Ingroup/Loyalty. And who defines Ingroup/Loyalty. Gosh, that would be the Authority who defines Us-n-Them.

          More anthropology for Haidt.Report

          • Avatar Chris says:

            Haidt is a social psychologist, and has done some really interesting research, but like most social psychologists, his theorizing goes way, way beyond his data. I used to jokingly call social psychology E! Psychology. Haidt, though he does interesting research, in his writings for the general public tends to justify that label.Report

          • Avatar Jake Collins says:

            Haidt acknowledge that there tends to be correspondence between the last three (thus explaining the fact that most social conservatives are also defense hawks).
            But it would be highly misleading to reduce them to each other.
            For one thing, he is talking about psychological states, not ideology. I’m disgusted by cockroaches, but nobody ever told me to be so. Likewise, anarchist cells might feel intense in-group loyalty, but might be highly anti-authoritarian.
            One can perhaps perform elaborate mental gymnastics to produce a monistic theory of morality (e.g., the purity principle is implicitly based on a utilitarian calculation of harm)… but that would be a less accurate description from the perspective of the person feeling disgust when they see a bug.Report

            • Avatar BlaiseP says:

              In point of fact a baby is not disgusted by a cockroach. He’s not disgusted by a cat turd. Trust me on that. You did learn to be disgusted by cockroaches.

              Japanese friend of mine was amused by a gaijin friend of mine who didn’t like to eat raw fish but would eat ebi, the shrimp. He said “well, y’know, shrimps eat dead sailors.”

              Haidt needs a better grounding in ethics. His arguments are remarkably un-compelling for this reason. Harm and care have nothing to do with Morality: we justify all sorts of harm, both to others and ourselves.

              Morality is personal, ethics is interpersonal. The only difference between the Ancients and the Moderns on Morality is this: the Ancients said morality is the province of the agent and the Moderns said it was the action in context. Shame cultures integrated both: you are a bad person if you do this in public. Socrates was wrong: people do bad things, knowing perfectly well they’re bad, hoping against hope they can get away from it.Report

              • Avatar Jake Collins says:

                I addressed this issue with my “mental gymnastics” comment. We can debate until the cows come home whether morality is learned (authority) or innate (Cf nature/nurture).
                Thus one could reduce all values to authority if one wanted to. Or one could reduce authority to harm (i.e, evolutionary adaptation). Or you could reduce fairness to innate disgust/approval (roughly the procedure the Greeks followed). But such reductionism tells you next to nothing about the actually psychological state of the people experiencing disgust or fairness.
                We should thus distinguish between the experience of disgust, fairness, etc and their origin (aka the genetic fallacy).Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP says:

                See, I don’t get this whole snark/boojum about procedural and substantive justice. These are technical terms of art, with highly specific meanings. I’m no lawyer and I understand the difference between Due Process and Statute Law.

                Nor is wealth an artificial construct. Every society converted from barter to money as soon as it met up with money. It’s the greatest goddamn invention in the history of mankind and certainly the most popular. As soon as I’d gotten a scanner and a color printer, my idiot son was down in the basement trying to forge ten dollar bills.

                And yes, most societies aren’t dominated by the producers of goods. Humans specialize quickly, usually to services. We leave the complexity of the economy to the market, where goods and services are traded for money. The man who grew the corn is utterly dependent on an accurate accounting of his totals in the community grain elevator. We don’t understand these interrelationships because we don’t need to understand them, we are part of them. Marcus Aurelius: the intelligence of the universe is social.

                Of course standards of living are set from the top down: market makers from the time of the Sumerians responded to increased demand for barley with a rise in its price, making money on the differential between what they’d paid for it and what they could get for it, but the State made provision for bad harvests with strategic reserves. The Egyptians were particularly good at this stockpiling mechanism through its priestly castes. If the price of services goes to zero when the service provided becomes irrelevant or a corporation stock price goes to zero, the price of a physical commodity can never go to zero. Wise governments have always controlled strategic reserves of physical commodities, or options to receive, thus preventing mass uprisings and threats to their power. Rome paid its citizens a dole of corn and considered it a right of citizenship.

                To say Liberals are only loosely connected to markets is absurd and viciously condescending. We all understand all too well what happens when markets are cornered, when corporations become too big to fail. We have all seen the predictably horrible results of deregulating markets. Wise and prudent legislation was repealed. Entire laws fell into moot oblivion when their enforcing bureaucracies were laid off wholesale. The practical difference between Conservatives and Liberals is this: a Conservative will say “the government” and a Liberal will say “our government”. The Conservative of today has badly disgraced himself in his constant whining about the power and extent of government, little realizing he sounds like some pouting teenager plotting his escape from the tyranny of Dear Old Dad ‘n Mom, who insist he live by the rules of the house.

                And no, a thousand times no, man is not pragmatic. Advertising has proved people don’t buy things for pragmatic reasons beyond a few edible commodities and even then they’ll buy the box and not its contents: the entire children’s breakfast cereal market depends upon this irrationality and the predisposition of the parents to surrender to their shrieking hell spawn in the cart. Ever wonder why they put a child seat in the shopping cart? Ever wonder why all that candy at the checkout counter is never more than a meter off the deck? Now you know. People don’t buy iPads because they’re thinking through the exchange rate. They buy one for the same goddamn reason that kid gets Mom to buy him Chocobomb Cereal, they cannot restrain their buying impulses. They will never once use that iPad to make some important decision beyond whether or not to change their Facebook status.

                In the immortal words of Men in Black, people are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it. And may I add selfish and greedy and status-conscious, fed by the illusions of advertising and peer group coolness. Furthermore the entire economic system of the world depends upon this conclusion, as it has for centuries, when amber beads from the Caucasus made their way across the Irish Sea to adorn the women of status and they wore them to their tombs.

                Furthermore, markets are never theoretically sound. A visit to the outtrade window at the Mercantile Exchange will quickly disabuse you of that notion. A buy must match a sell. There is only one rule to markets: as rises risk, so rises the need for regulation. There is but one abiding rule for the governing of mankind: society will only work so long as the governed believe in it. There is more than one sort of despotism alive today. Though the Conservatives are hell-bent on scaring the rubes about the despotism of government, were anyone to examine their records, it’s easy enough to perceive they have become the catamites and water boys for a few economic tyrants of an equally despotic nature. The Conservatives have lost their way: no longer the honest representatives of the people, they bear witness to the inequities of society and perpetuate them. They have become the craven, castrated eunuchs for a new ruling class, a caste of plutocrats who demand ever fewer taxes and regulation and they will lead us to economic ruin.Report

    • Avatar Tim Kowal says:

      Thanks for sharing the link. I don’t mean to suggest that there aren’t other factors, even though my post mostly explores the procedural/substantive justice comparison.Report

  4. Avatar Mike Schilling says:

    For conservatives, it’s not that hard, since we’re already committed to notions of property rights and procedural justice.

    Which is why they were horrified that stockbrokers of bailed-out companies might lose their contracted bonuses, but insisted that workers in bailed-out auto companies have their contracted wages rolled back: simple justice.Report

  5. Avatar BlaiseP says:

    The simplest and most pragmatic rationale for a social welfare system resolves to the consequences of tolerating an alienated and therefore rebellious class of Morlocks. You can’t build walls high enough or moats wide enough to keep them at bay forever.Report

  6. I think that if people didn’t suffer from the lack of money (at least some of them), they wouldn’t be bothered by this indiscrepancy. But since situation is as we know it, it’s antural for them to start to ask these questions, isn’t it?Report

    • Avatar Tim Kowal says:

      I agree! That’s basically the notion that got me thinking about this. Folks on the left like to say things like “The real world is where theories go to die.” I can appreciate the general admonition not to cling to “ideological rigidity,” but the way it’s often argues suggests that theory is a futile and dangerous enterprise at the start. I would strongly object to that line of reasoning.Report

  7. Avatar greginak says:

    The real world is where theories go to die. No ones theory survives contact with the world unscathed. Conservative fealty to theory seemingly regardless of how well it works is not a ringing endorsement of the theory, its more like ideological rigidity.Report

    • Avatar Jake Collins says:

      Conservative fealty to theory produces such absurdities as…

      “Liberals, on the other hand, seek to circumvent the theoretical altogether and to establish, by fiat, the substantive nature of economic relationships, while ignoring the fact this implicitly results in procedural injustices.”

      TK’s last sentence resembles: “I smelled with my eyes a Martian riding a unicorn.”
      It’s possible to interpret these statements semantically, but I can’t make heads or tails of it as referencing anything real.Report

    • Avatar BlaiseP says:

      I see a different tenor to modern Conservatism. Granted, two larks don’t make a spring, but I’ve been down to my local pub more than a few times, and I’ve been doing a little political missionarying down there. And here is what I’ve found:

      Three of the Tea Partiers have started reading the Federalist Papers I bought them. Quite an eye opening experience for them, to be sure. I’ve been preaching on the subject of the year 1789 and the French Revolution. The last lesson was on Rousseau and why he was so troubling in his own day, and his followers even more so. I’m about to broach the cask of Edmund Burke and his opposition to Rousseau, but it’s pointless to introduce Burke before Rousseau and the Federalist Papers, because America in 1789 was holding its first elections.

      The concrete of the 1787 constitution was finally hardened in 1789. 1789 is the most important year in American history. It would set in place many political forms we know today under many different names, mistakes and all. I just don’t buy into the idea of Conservative fealty to theory, most of them are completely unaware of why they believe what they do.Report

      • Avatar Robert Cheeks says:

        Bp, it is so heartening to know that a Marxist-progressivist is buying copies of the FP’s for the poorly and publically edumacated at the local bar and grill; dude, I got tears in my eyes and wish I was there. I’m currently embroiled with a smart-alecky Claremontesta on the question of the Constitution and secession/state’s rights.Report

      • Avatar Tim Kowal says:


        The reason anyone, conservative or otherwise, reveres theory is because they eschew arbitrariness.Report

        • Avatar BlaiseP says:

          Huh? Theory explains. That’s all it does. I don’t revere a theory, I use a theory as a working construct to answer a question. The word Theory is kicked around by facile persons, as if we could put Theory in one corner of the ring and Reality in the other and let ’em duke it out.

          A theory fails when fresh evidence appears which the theory can’t explain. Like all this tax cut business, case in point. There’s all sorts of taxation theory out there, most of it is complete bullshit. Conservatives these days believe tax cuts stimulate markets and there’s no evidence to conclude this is true. I’ve made a tidy fortune on what government and industry do in their combined stupidity over the years. I watched Reagan screw with taxation and deregulation and even on a soldier’s salary was able to predict and capitalize on the consequences of Volcker’s monetary policy. I bought as much IBM stock as I could and it paid my way through university. I spot stupidity, I capitalize on it. I don’t hold with theory at all when it comes to markets or government. Matter o’ fact, when I see some politician preaching his theory of government, I bet he’s never going to act on it, it’s all so much sunshine being blown up my ass, he will do the exact opposite, and it’s paid off handsomely.

          Today’s Conservative is not a conservative at all. He’s a corporate lackey, the exact opposite of what he preaches.Report

          • Avatar Tim Kowal says:

            Yes, theory explains. Explanations separate reasoned action from arbitrary action. Arbitrary action is bad. Thus, theory is good. If we cannot agree on that much, I don’t know what’s left for us, BlaiseP, though I enjoy your spirited prose.Report

        • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

          If conservatives revere theory, why do they dismiss evolution as only being one?Report

          • Avatar BlaiseP says:

            Because Conservatives don’t do a lot of original thinking, Mike. They’re told what to think, by the authorities in these matters, who wear the mantle of the Divine Right of Kings by way of a second-hand clothing store. At least the kings of yore were ennobled by the fealty of their subjects, this bunch appeals directly to Holy Writ.

            You see, right down at the bottom of the barrel, the Conservative really does want to be governed by a King. They believe they deserve to be the new class of Senators and Equites. It has all been seen before, long ago, with the Cult of Agricola in Rome, these effete old gents affecting the garb of the Doughty Farmer, constantly whinging about the Decline of Morals etc. All in public, mind you, their own personal lives were amazingly depraved as we now know. Hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue, and lends a pungent spice to wickedness.Report

  8. Avatar Bob says:

    Cherished conservative procedures like this one from Rep. Eric Cantor?


  9. Avatar Chris says:

    Liberals, on the other hand, are typically only loosely committed to market economics. And that commitment tends to be merely political or instrumental rather than ideological, conceived in the recognition that mainstream America is precommitted to market economics, and thus there is little point in railing against it. Instead, liberals tend to wait for symptoms of large economies, like income disparity or recessions, to present opportunities to put certain economic decisions under the control of the government (from which, incidentally, they never return).


    . Liberals, on the other hand, seek to circumvent the theoretical altogether and to establish, by fiat, the substantive nature of economic relationships, while ignoring the fact this implicitly results in procedural injustices.

    Yet more evidence that conservatives have no idea what liberals actually think. At least no liberals I’ve ever met, or read in books or on blogs, or heard on television or the radio, from this country in this century (or most of the last). At some point, the League should have a forum in which the liberal writers and/or readers present their basic views and the conservatives theirs (and perhaps the libertarians as well, though as a small political minority they have more of a tendency to lay their basic views on the table than the two major groups do), so that these straw men stop showing up on the front page and actual dialogue might become possible. At this point, at least the conservative guest posters are mostly preaching to the choir with a prayer book full of prayers that they pulled out of their asses.Report

    • Avatar stillwater says:

      Hmmm. You focused on what was wrong with the characterization of liberals. Below, I focused on what I thought was wrong with the characterization of conservatives.

      It’s almost like we’re part of a collectivist hive-mind…Report

  10. Avatar stillwater says:

    Conservatives advocate fidelity to the theoretical foundations of our political and economic institutions, while ignoring the often unpredictable and counter-intuitive outcomes that arguably result in substantive injustices. Liberals, on the other hand, seek to circumvent the theoretical altogether and to establish, by fiat, the substantive nature of economic relationships, while ignoring the fact this implicitly results in procedural injustices.

    This a good insight. And I think it answers many of the criticisms of your previous post(s). But there’s alot more to say (and I hope you keep posting on this topic). I (fwiw) view the role of liberal policy decision-making as being reactive to prevailing institutional structures and economic arrangements that are viewed as unjust, or less than optimal given a broad range of values. So in that sense I agree with you: how things are – substantive outcomes – is what matters to a liberal. (This is much too quick, and I think your characterization is off a little, but you get the point.)

    But I don’t agree that conservatives adhere to procedural theory. For example what does

    Conservatives advocate fidelity to the theoretical foundations of our political and economic institutions

    mean? What specific theoretical principles does the conservative demand fidelity to that the liberal doesn’t? Is it merely procedural fairness? And insofar as that claim is made precise, does it beg questions regarding what constitutes ‘fairness’? And what value scheme do we use to provide the semantics for ‘fairness’ here? Eg, does mere ownership of a valuable, societally necessary resource entitle the owner to unilateral control over how that resource gets distributed, if at all? Does the theory of procedural fairness collapse at some point into stipulative, rather than justified, value preferences? (I need to re-read you other post on this but lack time right now.)

    And regarding the larger point you’re making here regarding adherence to theoretical foundations of economic arrangements, I tend to think that in practice it plays out the opposite of what you’re suggesting: conservatives (wrt economic arrangements) have demonstrated an incredible flexibility in adopting theories to justify specific economic policies, but usually after the fact. That is to say, conservatives – insofar as economic arrangements are concerned – justify desired policy decision by appealing to one of a number of accepted theories. As just one example: for years conservatives adhered to a Ricardian theory of foreign trade, which was based on fixed capital centers and heavy government protection of domestic markets. Now conservatives adhere to neo-liberal trade theory, which is based on moveable capital and the elimination of protectionism. If there is a non-trivial general principle underlying these two theories that reflects ‘the theoretical foundations of economic arrangements’, I would certainly love to here it.

    And look, what I wrote here is much too quick, but I’d love to hear your thoughts on it.Report

    • Avatar stillwater says:

      Btw, ‘adhere to procedural theory’ in the second paragraph is ambiguous. I meant ‘adhere to the normative constraints of a theory in decision-making’.Report

    • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

      What specific theoretical principles does the conservative demand fidelity to that the liberal doesn’t?

      Religious tests for public office.
      Preventive detention.
      Indefinite detention based on evidence obtained by torture.
      State interference with private medical decisions.
      Favorable tax treatment for non-productive activity (speculation) compared to productive activity (building something with your hands.)Report

      • Avatar stillwater says:

        It’s just as I thought Mike – conservative theory reduces to an enumeration of the political beliefs they currently hold. There’s no theory there.

        But really, I’ve had discussions (we all probably have) with conservatives where they tell me all about these core conservative principles and lots of stuff and things that separate them from the wacky, destructive, borg-like minds of liberals at a theoretical level, and I ask them to tell me one that a liberal doesn’t also hold, and the answer is … {{{crickets}}}.

        I’ve said it before, but contemporary conservatism is IMO just a collection of narrowly self-interested emotions that appear self-evidently true and justified in virtue of merely being felt.Report

        • Avatar Tim Kowal says:

          conservative theory reduces to an enumeration of the political beliefs they currently hold. There’s no theory there.

          At a fundamental level, yes, there must be some presuppositional beliefs about the world and human nature in order to begin to have a theory. I discuss a few of the conservative presuppositions below, such as a moral right to one’s property. Theory takes us from presuppositional beliefs to establishing a reasoned approach to the specific, individualized applications and decisions in practical life. That gets to be a messy business, but I submit we need to give an account for how we go about it, else we’re just going by our stomachs. And I don’t know that there’s a way to choose winners among stomachs.Report

    • Avatar Tim Kowal says:

      What specific theoretical principles does the conservative demand fidelity to that the liberal doesn’t? Is it merely procedural fairness? And insofar as that claim is made precise, does it beg questions regarding what constitutes ‘fairness’? And what value scheme do we use to provide the semantics for ‘fairness’ here? Eg, does mere ownership of a valuable, societally necessary resource entitle the owner to unilateral control over how that resource gets distributed, if at all? Does the theory of procedural fairness collapse at some point into stipulative, rather than justified, value preferences?

      The principles applicable here would concern a moral right to property, the link between freedom and property, the virtue of prudence, the implicit imperfectability of human nature, and the necessity of constraint on human passions, particularly passions enabled by collectivized political action. For purposes of the discussion here, I would focus on the right to property and its tendency to promote human freedom. This is the germ of procedural justice theory.

      We could have a very interesting, and long, discussion on whether we can ever do anything but beg the question when we talk about what “justice” or “fairness” is. In my view, the conservative framework purports to establish justice is natural and not merely conventional. In this regard, you will note the importance of the conservative assertion that the right to property is a MORAL right. If it is a moral right, then, there are of necessity certain things that must be done before one can be deprived of property, and only then in certain, limits sorts of circumstances.

      Again, one could make the argument that morals, laws, justice, order, causation, induction, logic, numbers, sets, language, music, and all other intangibles and abstractions are mere matters of convention and thus purely arbitrary. Of course, if such a person truly existed (I submit he does not), he would never engage in discussions on such topics. The mere act of debating reveals one’s presuppositions about the world – e.g., at the very least, that there is order in the world such that the words I use have a reasonably fixed meaning, that the rules of grammar do not wildly change from one person to the next and from one moment to the next, and so on. One cannot cogently and intelligibly approach reality without implicitly accepting its objective nature.

      As to your example about trade theory, I fear I am ill-equipped to respond. But one of the points I was trying to make in the post (I’m afraid I did not make it very clearly) is this: The conservative theory of a moral right to property is a very strong and persuasive one when it comes to simple transactions. When it comes to foreign trade and high finance, the basic conservative framework loses traction. The moral right to property in commercial paper holds less sway over the human imagination does than something I made with my own two hands. In the former case, then, conservatives trust to theory.

      Also, I get the impression from some of the comments here that I am positing that conservative “theory,” or any theory for that matter, predictably and consistently tells us what sorts of specific tax or regulatory policies are warranted in any given circumstance. I am not. I am concerned here primarily with the ends of government—only once that is established can we begin to discuss what sorts of means are appropriate.Report

      • Avatar stillwater says:

        As I said upthread, I think this is a useful way of approaching the lib/con divide, and accounting to some degree for why folks talk past each other. So let’s look at the principles you provide as uniquely differentiating conservatives from liberals. They are:

        a moral right to property, the link between freedom and property, the virtue of prudence, the implicit imperfectability of human nature, and the necessity of constraint on human passions, particularly passions enabled by collectivized political action.

        Now, I don’t want to quibble over peripheral issues here, but it seems to me that a liberal also accepts these principles in some form or another. A liberal does, it seems to me, embrace a robust conception of the right to property (tho I’m not sure a liberal would agree that it’s a moral right since I’m not sure how a ‘moral right’ is differentiated from a ‘right’ simpliciter). And they certainly value prudence, tho I’m uncertain they would value the ‘virtue’ of prudence. Same with accepting the imperfectability of human nature, and a dislike of passionate collective action of certain types (violent, counterproductive, etc.).

        Now, you could of course simply stipulate that I’m wrong about this, but let’s suppose I’m right. Then the real difference between liberals and conservatives is in either the understanding of what these principles mean or in the centrality they play in determining ideological thought. So let’s also agree – since we all speak the same language with an agreed upon semantics – that we don’t mean different things by these words and phrases.

        That means, and I think this is actually the case empirically, that the substantive difference between conservatives and liberals reduces to the prescriptive role these principles play in determining political decision-making (and political identity formation, but that’s an aside). But since we can agree that liberals also hold these views (at least, we can agree on that for the sake of this argument), insofar as they differentiate conservatism from liberalism, it’s the degree to which these principles inform decision-making. That is, conservatives are guided primarily or more likely exclusively by these principles, with the moral right to property accorded a trumping power over other rights and from which concepts like natural justice flow. (Is that about right?)

        At this point, interesting questions arise, especially in the context of your bigger project here:

        I am concerned here primarily with the ends of government—only once that is established can we begin to discuss what sorts of means are appropriate.

        One is whether there is an apriori argument which demonstrates that social arrangements constructed around the trumping power of the right to property are sufficient to meet all of societies needs. Of course, one could stipulate that it is by merely circularly suggesting that protection and advancement of property rights is the sole function of societal arrangements (and I think conservatives make this move to frequently and freely).

        Another way is to make a consequentialist argument that the centrality of property rights has been demonstrated empirically as the basis for the best society (this is never an argument conservatives make, since empirical evidence is not on their side).

        I would submit – without argument, since I have to go to work – that an apriori argument for the trumping power of the right to property coupled with it’s derivative assertion that justice in any meaningful sense can flow from it in complex social arrangements comprised of individuals promoting a multiplicity of values and other rights, cannot be made: the prioritization of the right to property and consequent exclusion of other values and competing rights, especially when those rights inform a conception of justice, is arbitrary and not justifiable.

        So that’s where the liberal gets off the bus, so to speak. A liberal embraces all the same principles as the conservative (the ones enumerated, not idiosyncratic beliefs) but realizes that they are insufficient to maintain social arrangement that are equitable and fair (ie., that honor other rights and values), both at the level of a priori argument, but also in actual practice.

        The ends of government, then, will be very different for the liberal than for the conservative, and – I humbly submit – that the conservatives conception of the ends (read: purpose) of government cannot be justified.Report

        • Avatar Tim Kowal says:


          Playing along and assuming your setup, my first reaction is that you beg the question, or at least fail to define and unpack important concepts only vaguely referenced, when you refer to “a multiplicity of values and other rights” and “other values and competing rights” that “inform a conception of justice.” I can’t help but thinking that what you’re talking about without talking about it is your implicit precommitment to certain defined outcomes. As this is the very dichotomy I’ve been talking about, you might have proven my argument.Report

          • Avatar stillwater says:

            Well, that doesn’t seem like a very substantive response, since the overall point of my argument is that the list of principles you outlines isn’t sufficient for a functioning society or actual justice.

            “a multiplicity of values and other rights” and “other values and competing rights” that “inform a conception of justice.”

            1) On your view are economic (ie., property) values the only values that create and sustain societial arrangements that goverment ought to play a role in protecting and promoting?

            2) On your conception of property, do non-property owners have any rights to determine economic arrangements? Eg., do people have the right via the democratic process to to impose restrictions on property owners when the exercise of property rights conflicts with individual property rights?

            3) Isofar as natural justice devolves from property rights, how are issues of justice where non-property rights adjudicated? Insofar as those adjudications are justified, do they represent a comepeting formulation of justice inconsistent with the trumping rights of property and natural justice?

            I mean, look, I think you’re being cagey here. Perhaps there are semantic disputes after all. What on your view constitutes ‘property’ and the subsequent ‘right to property’? What consstitues ‘natural’ justice and how is that different than normal conceptions of justice based on a multiplicity of rights (not just property exclusively)?Report

            • Avatar stillwater says:

              Whoops! In point 2) that should read ‘conflict with other rights’, not ‘conflict with individual property rights’, which of course makes no sense.Report

            • Avatar Tim Kowal says:

              I don’t understand the suggestion that my response is “cagey” when you have thus far not addressed what you mean by “a multiplicity of values and other rights” and “other values and competing rights” that “inform a conception of justice.” Shall I not expect an answer?

              As a matter of natural rights (i.e., rights that precede conventional laws enacted and enforced by government), one has a right to his own person and, by extension, his property, as against all others, to the extent his personal actions and use of property do not injure the rights of others. I would further advance that man is bound by certain other moral laws, which may be recognized and enforced by legitimate governments as they find meet and convenient. But this is taking us into natural law, where our discussion is about rights. To briefly explore the concept, however, consider that in pre-political society, there might be a personal obligation to help the poor. Yet, this personal obligation on the part of a person with means does not create a personal right on the part of the person without. Otherwise stated, there is no natural right to “entitlements.” Worse, the personal obligation cannot be assuaged by turning it into a collective obligation in political society: Moral obligations are not satisfied by distribution. One does not justify his moral failure in refusing help to a neighbor in mortal distress by reflecting to himself that he has paid taxes to public safety workers.

              But again, I feel I am explaining far more than necessary while you still withhold from me your competing theory of rights.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP says:

                Morality is a slippery little pig and Natural Law a contradiction in terms. Let us presume we can summarize, or at least dissect out one distinction based on Stillwater’s many still-un-rebutted points: this Natural versus Conventional distinction.

                Hugo Grotius might be the first to make a case against Natural Law from within: the Stoics told us to strive for good, Hobbes told us we strive against murderous anarchy, but it was Hobbes who said we do what is right not merely because it seems like the right thing to do, but because these things are right, per-se. Though it may be right to worship God, obeying his laws does not require us to make any concession to his existence.

                Thereafter, the barn door is open and ethics escapes, frolicking like a horse in the meadow, never again to be harnessed to the plow of Aquinas. It is Conventional Law which shall govern us, laws derived from the consent of the governed, not the Old Bearded Dude in the Clouds, for if there is any truth to Hobbes it is this: untrammelled Human Nature is a nasty thing.

                And this seems to me to be the essence of the Liberal belief structure: mankind is the animal who looks up, capable of desiring perfection though he cannot clearly define it. He strives, in the spirit of the Stoics to live the examined life, to see himself in the shoes of the prisoner, the refugee, the illegal alien, the homosexual, the woman, the freethinker, kooks of all persuasions, knowing there is but one Natural Law, that we are all in this mess together, that equal justice under law begins with the proposition that when one is denied justice we are all denied justice.

                There is no Society, no hoary enumeration of Goods to which we may resort in law. There is Law and there is Love, both miserable four letter words which have carried far too much freight, stretched to the point where neither means much of anything. Law and Love are what we make of them. To this Liberal, law cannot be Natural. If a law is good, it is because we have concluded it is good and decided cases upon that law.

                Law is mutable: like any theory, upon confrontation with new facts, it must either be amended or be abolished. We have done away with slavery, a property contract entirely justifiable from Nature and History.

                We are attempting to do away with legal discrimination against homosexual persons, their natural inclinations once punished in law as a vices, their careers destroyed, yet driven to suicide by a Society not yet completely come to terms with them. There are yet places in the world where they are put to death upon detection. I would present homosexuality as the prima-facie case against Natural Law in our times.

                The Conservative cannot resort to Natural Law in good conscience anymore and the very phrase should be abolished. The Conservatives have damned Liberals for many centuries, calling us Moral Relativists. Let them explain, if they dare, why they did not raise their voices and oppose racial and sexual discrimination from their precious Natural Law.Report

              • Avatar BlaiseP says:

                but it was Hobbes Hugo Grotius who said we do what is right not merely because it seems like the right thing to do,

                ugh. Gotta stop writing these treatises in the text box.Report

              • Avatar tom van dyke says:

                BlaiseP: Your attack on Natural Law leaves us only with positive [manmade] law, and cannot account for when man makes bad laws.

                Which he often does, and indeed Jim Crow falls under manmade law, not Natural Law. You can’t have it both ways.

                Alexander Hamilton’s “The Farmer Refuted” nails the point exactly, even to yr Hobbesianism, which the Founding era despised:

                “There is so strong a similitude between your political principles and those maintained by Mr. Hobb[e]s, that, in judging from them, a person might very easily mistake you for a disciple of his. His opinion was, exactly, coincident with yours, relative to man in a state of nature. He held, as you do, that he was, then, perfectly free from all restraint of law and government.

                Moral obligation, according to him, is derived from the introduction of civil society; and there is no virtue, but what is purely artificial, the mere contrivance of politicians, for the maintenance of social intercourse.

                But the reason he run into this absurd and impious doctrine, was, that he disbelieved the existence of an intelligent superintending principle, who is the governor, and will be the final judge of the universe.

                As you, sometimes, swear by him that made you, I conclude, your sentiment does not correspond with his, in that which is the basis of the doctrine, you both agree in; and this makes it impossible to imagine whence this congruity between you arises. To grant, that there is a supreme intelligence, who rules the world, and has established laws to regulate the actions of his creatures; and, still, to assert, that man, in a state of nature, may be considered as perfectly free from all restraints of law and government, appear to a common understanding, altogether irreconcileable.

                Good and wise men, in all ages, have embraced a very dissimilar theory. They have supposed, that the deity, from the relations, we stand in, to himself and to each other, has constituted an eternal and immutable law, which is, indispensibly, obligatory upon all mankind, prior to any human institution whatever.

                This is what is called the law of nature, “which, being coeval with mankind, and dictated by God himself, is, of course, superior in obligation to any other. It is binding over all the globe, in all countries, and at all times. No human laws are of any validity, if contrary to this; and such of them as are valid, derive all their authority, mediately, or immediately, from this original.” Blackstone.

                Upon this law, depend the natural rights of mankind, the supreme being gave existence to man, together with the means of preserving and beatifying that existence.”

                You can have yr Hobbes, sir, or yr Rousseau and the “general will.” I’ll take Hamilton, the American Founders, and their belief in a Natural Law that is higher than man’s.Report

              • Avatar stillwater says:

                Tom, you’re using ‘natural law’ to mean law disseminated by God. Tim is using the term to mean individual rights to property and life.

                Re: God’s laws, I think (being an atheist and all) that even if those laws are the product of God, they still require rational justification (the justification God would give). And re: Tim’s conception of natural law, all I can glean from it is that property is a basic right, as the right to life and liberty, and that is sufficient for a functioning society. How those limited principles create a society in which outgroups aren’t discriminated against, or environmental and health values are protected, or fundamental costs of government are born, or the rights of property owners can be legitimately circumscribed in any meaningful sense, is beyond me. It seems like Tim’s advocating a return to the Gilded Age, when property and life were the only basic rights protected by government. But anyone who’s read anything about the era (talking to you here Tim) fully recognizes that there was great injustice in that world.Report

              • Avatar tom van dyke says:

                Mr. Stillwater, “natural law” via Suarez and Grotius didn’t require God. Atheist-libertarian Murray Rothbard either. [Link below.]

                I grabbed the Alexander Hamilton quote because it was so apt, down to the condemnation of Hobbes. I’ll note here also that Hamilton’s was the Founding “political theology.” You—and we as a people—are free to discard it for a [Richard] Rortian [Rorty-an?] non-foundationalism [if I understand you correctly].

                But I don’t recall we as a people ever explicitly pitching the Founding’s political theology, amending our “social contract,” although the Supreme Court has made some proclamations in that direction [see Casey].

                Our rights are endowed by our creator, until further notice.

                Wow, this was one from the vaults, Mr. Stillwater, but I’m gratified you revived it. It’s a needed discussion. I’ll just add briefly that I’m a bit surprised that the Founders [and arguably Locke] re-attached God to the natural rights tradition even after the Jesuit and the Calvinist had separated them. One would not expect that from “the Enlightenment,” which is so often credited with the Founding.

                Rothbard on natural law, as promised:


                Messrs. Kowal and Rothbard are more Lockean than I—and Hamilton—with the property thing. But that’s where Tim’s coming from, I think. Not a bad place to start in my eyes, better than Rorty and your above laundry list of progressive causes.

                But hey, make your case.Report

              • Avatar stillwater says:

                Thanks for the link.
                I’m not certain what the justification for distinguishing natural rights from merely conventional rights really amounts to. Let’s suppose there is this natural right to property (what Tim K was referring to as a ‘moral right to property’): what liberties does this right convey? Can one simply claim property left unattended by another? (Well, clearly not if that property was already claimed.) So what constitutes the initial exercise of a ‘right’ property? That the property in question (land let’s say) has not nor ever previously been claimed I would suppose. Now, does the lack of a prior formal declaration to ownership constitute a legitimate exericse of that right by an individual? If so, then insofar as that property is now owned by that person, it’s only because surrounding people (society, as it were) agreed to this principle (that claiming unclaimed land constituted ownership). But that means it’s a social convention.

                The alternative is that mere possession of property (satisfying some conditions) doesn’t constitute ownership, but merely possession (which can of course be defended by force). But the legitimate use of force within a society to protect property requires an antecedent agreement between people that such uses of force are in fact legitimate. (Convention again.) Otherwise the exercised of this ‘right’ reduces to the exercise of ‘might’ (power).

                This a long way of saying that even basic rights exist by convention, even granting that they are basic.

                And regarding this from your linked post from Leo Strauss:

                reason can tell us which means are conducive to which ends; it cannot tell us which attainable ends are to be preferred to other attainable ends.

                I think it’s just plain false. Suppose you want someone’s car really badly, but you also have seen enough CSI episodes to know your likely to get caught. Reason can curtail your impulse to act, ie, the application of reason can determine ‘which attainable ends are to be preferred’. Reason can also determine your behavior by the simple application of the moral principle ‘you ought not steal’ as an end in itself (I know it’s an unpopular view, but some people do act and think according to moral principles against their material self-interest).

                And not to be too quick about the matter, but I think the criticisms I made to Tim’s initial post apply here as well. That said, however, it is a discussion very much worth having.Report

              • Avatar tom van dyke says:

                Thx. Mr. Stillwater. I don’t know how much further I can take Mr. Kowal’s argument, since I’m not a hard core Lockean and the “property” riff is hardcore Locke.

                The argument never did much for me either.

                As for your citation of Murray Rothbard’s citation of Leo Strauss, as with most Strauss, one cannot quote grab. He may be speaking for himself [seldom]; often he’s recapping someone else’s argument.

                In this case, Strauss is attacking modern social science in its own language, esp its own aspiration to be “value-free.” If we are value-free, we cannot say that X is better than Y except in a material sense. [Strauss, as a Platonist, has no problem using reason to conclude this X is better than that Y on grounds other than materialistic ones.]

                The full context is here, if I don’t blow the HTML as usual:


              • Avatar stillwater says:

                Btw, since I’m already here on this dead thread, the absurdity of this sentence needs a shout-out:

                But again, I feel I am explaining far more than necessary while you still withhold from me your competing theory of rights.

                How can you be explaining too much when the discussion we’re having devoloves from your own post?Report

  11. Avatar Chris says:

    Let me say more about this. What the recent conservative guest posters are clearly doing is trying to localize where their beliefs differ from those of liberals (and why their beliefs are superior to liberals’), and in doing so they think (in some cases blatantly unreflectively) to themselves, “I approach the issues like this, so liberals must think about them in the opposite way.” This reasoning, in addition to being blatantly unreflective (did I mention that already? sorry), heavily influenced by biases and preconceived notions that are drawn largely from partisan propaganda (this, I’m afraid, is something liberals are all too prone to as well – read, for example, Amanda Marcotte’s writings on libertarianism), some of which are silly and some of which are a bit more reasonable, but all or at least the bulk of which are clearly wrong. What makes it worse is that these inferred differences are the basis for the rest of the reasoning in each of the guest posts, rendering the entire posts pretty much pointless.

    By the way, commodity fetishism, in its Adornoian incarnation: I think you might find it interesting, given some of what you write in this post.Report

    • Avatar Jake Collins says:

      That’s why I was getting at with my reference to Haidt. Perhaps he’s is over-extrapolating from limited data… but he has a good explanation of why conservative v liberal conversations often go awry. We’re not just disagreeing about how best to achieve fairness. We’re also disagreeing about whether fairness should be the supreme value.
      To the liberal, debating about whether food safety laws are “fair” is besides the point. Ditto for the social conservative when it comes to gay rights.
      We should thus be suspicious of those who attempt to reduce politics to a single value and then control that value.

      As the man said, “For enlightenment, anything which does not conform to the standard of calculability and utility must be viewed with suspicion… Unity remains the watchword.”Report

      • Avatar Pat Cahalan says:

        ‘We should thus be suspicious of those who attempt to reduce politics to a single value and then control that value.”

        Best line of the thread.Report

      • Jake:

        You have me confused. Have you changed your LOOG status from “self-proclaimed troll” to “thoughtful commenter”?Report

        • Avatar Jake Collins says:

          I was joking when I made a comment about being a troll. Or to reinvoke Adorno, I sometimes proceed by exaggeration.

          To me, trollish behavior is refusal to engage in dialogue. Thus, exaggerated polemic can be a form of dialogue… especially if one is willing to admit the irony of the original stance (as I did when you accused me of being a troll).

          You interpreted my ironic assent to your accusation as proof that was a troll… which to me demonstrated trollish behavior on your part.

          If one has any doubts about the validity of this method, you should go back and re-read Plato. It’s all exaggerated stances and the attempt to resolve them via dialectic.Report

      • Avatar Chris says:

        I disagree to some extent with Haidt’s characterization (and from the liberal end of the social science’s, with Lakoff’s as well), but the point they both make, that we’re coming from entirely different moral and even epistemic perspectives, is definitely an important one.Report

    • Avatar Heideggger says:

      Chris, where does one begin? — -Conservatives, (Chris is now in the brain of a Conservative) approach the issues like this, so liberals must think about them in the opposite way.” You could not possibly come up with one iota or shred of evidence whereupon you’d be able back up this statement. But it sounds good to your lemmings, so what the hell. And now you even have the extraordinary ability to crawl inside the brain of a Conservative and tell us when they’re being “unreflective”! How, precisely does one logically prove or disprove such an accusation? It can’t be done. And my favorite of the day: “Conservative reasoning is heavily influenced by biases and preconceived notions that are drawn largely from partisan propaganda”…??? What? Conservative reasoning is based on “biases”– “preconceived notions”, based on “partisan propaganda”. HA!! Love it! No way the Left could ever, ever engage in such dastardly, biased behavior. Liberal Saintliness is next to Godliness–Conservatives are just stupid to realize this. This is circular logic at its finest. Rings, around rings, around rings of nothingness. I’m sure you are aware of how utterly silly and laughable your comments are. Keep up the good work, though–we all can enjoy a good laugh! And for that, thank you.

      I loved your other comments earlier–you said you were “a bit of a Lefty”.. You probably taught Bill Ayers how to make bombs and blow up “stuff” like the Capitol andPentagon! Bombs away, Chris!!Report

      • Avatar Robert Cheeks says:

        Chris, H-man is right. You’re starting to become incoherent.Report

        • Avatar Chris says:

          I must be, because I was describing what the guest posters were doing, and Heidegger thinks I was describing my own view. But then, being understood by Heidegger is not a good measure of comprehensibility. Or by you, to be honest (clearly someone else understood what I was getting at).

          By the way, I’ve said several times that I suspect liberals are as mistaken about conservatives as conservatives are of them.Report

  12. Some fascinating content here. I may do some analysis of the whole scope for the sheer pleasure of it.

    … it becomes difficult to say with confidence that one “deserves” the things one owns.

    Really? On what authority?

    For enlightenment, anything which does not conform to the standard of calculability and utility must be viewed with suspicion

    Logical positivism in economics? That’s a new one.

    Fascinating ….Report

    • Avatar Chris says:

      Logical positivism in economics? That’s a new one.

      No, it’s an old one.Report

      • Avatar Jake Collins says:

        Exactly. To Adorno, “the hero of the adventure [Odysseus] proves to be the prototype of the bourgeois individual…”
        The question of whether or not all values are interchangeable is not exactly a new one.Report

    • Avatar Tim Kowal says:


      I expanded a little in one of my comments above, saying “The conservative theory of a moral right to property is a very strong and persuasive one when it comes to simple transactions. When it comes to foreign trade and high finance, the basic conservative framework loses traction. The moral right to property in commercial paper holds less sway over the human imagination does than something I made with my own two hands. In the former case, then, conservatives trust to theory.”Report

  13. Avatar Fear and Loathing in Georgetown says:

    It’s time horizons, Tim. Time horizons. You know this. FLG knows you know this.Report

  14. Avatar 62across says:

    Tim –

    I have to say I don’t understand what you are framing as a paradox at all:

    The political and economic theories upon which we have created exponential wealth and comfort for ourselves have also, inevitably, undermined our ability to understand the actual nature of the relationships among economic exchanges.

    It’s been a long time since I’ve taken a math or science class, but I thought the whole idea with theories was that one had to withstand testing to be considered valid. So, in order for an economic or political theory to be sound, it would have to be observed in “actual nature” as holding true. Yes? Verification is a prerequisite for valid theory. Substantive outcomes, therefore, would need to align with the outcomes speculated to within the theory before anyone should have any faith in the theory itself. Is this not so?

    If that is the case, I’d re-interpret your next two sentences as follows: Conservatives advocate fidelity to the theoretical foundations of our political and economic institutions by dismissing substantive injustices as counter-intuitive. Liberals, on the other hand, see the substantive injustices in actual economic relationships and consider that evidence that invalidates the theory the procedures were just in the first place.Report

    • Avatar Tim Kowal says:

      I think you might be anticipating where I’m going in a follow up post. In a “state of nature” in which all wealth is derived from the earth, then, absent fraud or theft or other wrongdoing, man has no complaint about his level of wealth except as to himself and nature. Thus, there is no such thing as “substantive injustice” in such a system. That only comes later once the sheer amount of productive capacity of an advanced economy creates overwhelming expectations–whether or not warranted–to consume the product of others. Thus, my conclusion is that substantive justice is artificial, relative, conventional, and ultimately arbitrary.Report

      • Avatar BlaiseP says:

        When they sent me to NCO school, we had a block of instruction on mutiny. Soldiers complain all the time, bitching about the pettiest grievances. Part of being an NCO is dealing with that.

        It’s when they stop complaining that you’d better start worrying.

        Now let’s turn all this Wealth bullshit on its head. Just how much Poverty will the people endure before they revolt? Think that one through ere you write on Substantive Justice.Report

      • Avatar stillwater says:

        Thus, there is no such thing as “substantive injustice” in such a system.

        There is no form of any justice in such a system, hence Hobbes characterizing the state as ‘might makes right’. That’s not a conception of justice anyone thinks is justified or functional. And while your characterization of the rising of justice is perhaps causally accurate, its conceptually backwards: it doesn’t result from increased complexity in social arrangement, it arises out of antecedent conditions necessary for the functioning of complex societies. That’s the whole point of social contract theory, that government derives it’s authority by acting to enforce and protect the rights which constitute the social contract. What those rights are cannot be stipulated, since societies evolve and progress, incorporating more nuanced conceptions of rights into the mix as well as extending existing rights to people and situations previously precluded or denied those rights.Report

        • Avatar Jaybird says:

          When I read that, I hear echoes of speeches I’ve heard of why Special Creation is preferable to an amoral theory of evolution.Report

          • Avatar stillwater says:

            Look Jaybird, you can discount social contract theory all you want, but it only reveals your ignorance of the history of political thought and the evolution of actual, functioning democracies. John Locke wrote the blueprint for our form of government – it was literally lifted from his second treatise. His project was to answer the question posed by Hobbes in Leviathan: basically, who guards the guardians.

            The system we live in, and the one you apparently support, is fundamentally based on a robust conception of the social contract as the logical underpinnings of society and as justifying the very existence of governmental power within democratic societies.Report

            • Avatar tom van dyke says:

              “Government is founded not on force, as was the theory of Hobbes; nor on compact, as was the theory of Locke and of the revolution of 1688; nor on property, as was the assertion of Harrington. It springs from the necessities of our nature, and has an everlasting foundation in the unchangeable will of God.”—James Otis, Founder, 1764

              This was the “fundamental basis” of the American founding, “the laws of nature and of nature’s God,” which endow man “with certain unalienable rights,” and “that to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…”

              Etc. Admittedly, this is a minority view these days, but I think it’s unfair for Jaybird to be accused of an ignorance of history here.Report

              • Avatar stillwater says:

                I thought we were have a rational discussion about sound justifications for the legitimate use of governmemntal power to promote and ensure a just society, Tom. Had I known I could have simply invoked God, I wouldn’t have wasted so many words.

                But really, even you don’t believe something that thin, do you? That there isn’t a stronger argument to make here?Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                Hobbes honestly makes more sense to me than Locke does.

                I mean, Locke sounds a lot nicer.

                Otis sounds nicer yet!

                But building a government based upon Locke if Hobbes was describing the way the world actually works strikes me as very similar to preferring Special Creation to Evolution.

                If the systems founded upon Special Creation happen to work in practice, that’s nothing more than a happy accident and certainly can’t be relied upon to be sustainable.Report

              • Avatar stillwater says:

                You ought to re-read your Locke, then. He believes that enlightened self-interest requires people to accept the social contract as the best way to ensure the protection of their own (unalienable) rights. He suggests that the resolution of the who guards the guardians problem is found in democratic elections and separate but equal branches of government. He believes that governmental power is justified – given these other conditions – because the citizenry consents to authorize government to enforce the social contract (rights to property, liberty, opportunity, speech, etc).

                Hobbes describes the necessary conditions for climbing out of the morass that is the state of nature. This is based on enlightened self-interest requiring people to accept the social contract based on rights (or liberties, same difference in the end). GOvernment is then tasked with enforcing the social contract, but since the government he envisioned arising out of the social contract had no checks on the illigitimate uses of its power, it created a problem: the Leviathan.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                And how is that in the “sustainability” department, again?Report

              • Avatar tom van dyke says:

                Mr. Stillwater, I don’t need to re-read Locke, you need to read our Founders for the first time.

                That you would give me shit about quoting the Declaration of Independence says it all.Report

              • Avatar stillwater says:

                And how is that in the “sustainability” department, again?

                It’s hard to tell when you’re honestly obtuse or deliberately so.

                You appear to be suggesting that social contract principles (do you even know what that means?) are temporary and sustained only for as long as they have practical value. That asserting a set of fully general basic rights, honoring them in others, and expecting them to reciprocate by honoring your rights is an arrangement of only accidental and fleeting value.

                Dunno what to say to that, really…Report

              • Avatar tom van dyke says:

                The Magna Carta is a social contract. Rights are enumerated, not “unalienable.” American Founder James Wilson specifically took Blackstone and Burke to task because in the American scheme, rights are inherent, not merely wrested from the government.

                Altho the Bill of Rights enumerates some rights, the objection to it was that by enumerating some, it might be taken as a limit. Hence Amendment IX:

                The enumeration in the Constitution of certain rights shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

                Your use of “social contract” isn’t entirely inaccurate, but in its vagueness here, it applies to both the rather Hobbesian Magna Carta and the previously referenced political power-sharing arrangement between crown and parliament after the Glorious Revolution of 1688 [Locke] as well as in the most general sense to America.

                But James Wilson had a substantive philosophical difference with the British scheme, and he was correct. [Wilson was America’s earliest lecturer on law, attended by even the rather unintellectual GWash. Supreme Court Justice, signer of the D of I and a major framer of the Constitution. Amazing mind, Wilson.]

                To get to the punchline, Mr. Stillwater, and thx for your kind attention and worthy interlocution:

                The very meanings of rights and liberty have been unilaterally altered in our “social contract” from their original understanding at the Founding: one of FDR’s Four Freedoms is a “freedom from want,” a positive liberty, not simply an obligation to leave you alone, but an obligation for your well-being put onto your fellow citizen. Welfare is now a “right.”

                This blows the whole “contract” out of the water, since one party—in this case the government—can’t unilaterally change the meaning of the terms of a contract. That’s the very nature of the integrity of contracts.

                Those rights that were thought “unalienable”—freedom of speech, religious conscience, etc.—have new free riders. “Rights” that were once unenumerated are now innumerable!

                And this is what’s unsustainable.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                You appear to be suggesting that social contract principles (do you even know what that means?) are temporary and sustained only for as long as they have practical value.

                We’re back to the evolution vs. creationism thing.

                It’s like I say “life evolved over the course of millions of years” and you say “do you want to live in a godless world where death and decay are rampant and the only value is having sex before you die???”

                Stillwater: The world is the way the world is.

                Anything that cannot go on forever will, by definition, stop.

                I’m sorry that my saying such things offends your sensibilities but you’d be better off opening your eyes to truths than hanging around your creationist friends talking about the eschaton that is, seriously, just around the corner if only we sqwinch our eyes tightly enough and *BELIEVE*.Report

              • Avatar stillwater says:

                Tom, Thanks for the reply. As to this

                And this is what’s unsustainable.

                we are in full agreement. Now, I’m not sure if you take that as a refudiation of social contract principles, or that you’re implying that those principles ought not ground rights-based institutions (democratic or otherwise), but surely there is a sense in which government involvement within a democratic society can be both inconsistent with a limited set of social contract principles, and that invoking the social contract can be a misplaced justification for government action. Overreach is surely unsustainable.

                In my view, howoever, the contract still remains the only viable justification for the legitimate use of coercive governmental power (ie’, the legal authority to compel people to honor other’s right). And that’s true whether a citizen lives in a right-based democracy or in a totalitarian dystopia.

                What the scope of government involvement in promoting and protecting that contract – it seems to me – is the core of the dispute between conservatives and liberals.Report

              • Avatar stillwater says:


                The world is the way the world is

                and yet it keeps changing, evolving, not only in a technological sense, but also in people’s conceptions of what constitutes justice and fairness. Not too long ago, you might be surprised to hear, ‘the way the world is’ included black people being accorded the status of property.

                Things change. I think you’re the one in denial here.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                Stealing from Peter to pay Paul always seems more sustainable to Paul than Peter.Report

              • Avatar stillwater says:

                Btw, this

                “with certain unalienable rights,” and “that to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…”

                is pure, unadulterated social contract theory.Report

              • Avatar Jaybird says:

                Remember when we had the arguments about positive and negative rights and trying to figure out what they were and you told me that I could figure it out for myself?

                Good times.Report

  15. Avatar tom van dyke says:

    Depends whether you view government as a necessary evil or a necessary good.Report

    • Avatar Pat Cahalan says:

      Can’t we just look at it as a “necessary”, and admit that it’s goodness or badness is temporally linked… and only marginally interesting when it comes to discussing specific matters of public policy anyway?Report

      • Avatar tom van dyke says:

        Mr. Cahalan, if gov’t is a necessary good, more is better. Evil, not so.

        I’m trying to stick to a nonpejorative spirit here. The Burkean conservative sees social conventions and indeed capitalism as the result of an organic evolution, that they comport with human nature and are inherently good when and where they comport.

        Government is a necessary evil, to restrain the miscreants and the passions of even the law-abiding. Madison said that if men were angels, no gov’t would be necessary. Kant allowed that they could be devils, as long as they were reasonable devils.

        But of course men are neither angels nor particularly reasonable.

        To move to the progressive/marxist view, the status quo is purely artificial, the use and control of power by—let’s face it—caucasian males, to further only their own personal interests. Therefore, the use of politics—the power of government—is a necessary good to achieve a more “natural” balance of power and access to the goodies.

        Man is inherently good; it’s the caucasian males or whathaveyou who are devils and not particularly reasonable. [As a CM, I of course am the enemy, even when not overtly an oppressor: I enjoy “privilege” where others do not.]

        In the first view, all men are fallen to some degree. In the latter, only some men are the villains. [Some of us unintentionally!]

        None of this even speaks of the question of liberty and such abstract concerns. “The relief of man’s estate” is fairly acknowledged even by progressives as their goal, an end in itself. Because power has historically been held by a corrupt minority the dreaded DWMs], government is necessary not merely to preserve order, but to create it.

        And more and more “new” order in the name of “fairness,” or “social justice” or whathaveyou is called for. The philosophical and structural problem, in my view of this view, is that even if men were angels, government would be necessary. “Charity” becomes a dirty word, and an abstract “right” to public welfare is established instead. In short, to return to Mr. Kowal, there’s a right to another man’s property, for even if we were all angels, some angels are more equal than others, more able [smarter, stronger, better-looking, better at rap] and it’s the “more able” who tend to end up with more of the goodies.

        Again, as for liberty, we cannot even crack open that crock. Especially here on a “libertarian” blog.


        • Avatar Pat Cahalan says:

          > Mr. Cahalan, if gov’t is a necessary good, more is
          > better. Evil, not so.

          Okay, that’s a point. But it’s even more nuanced than that, I think.

          If government is a necessary good, then “more” is “better” if and only if “more” does not exceed the boundary conditions of the thing and turn “government” into… well, something else. Some entity who outlaws bag lunches for schools and requires cafeteria food ain’t what I call “government”.

          I will wholeheartedly agree with you, Tom, that “our” (and by that, I mean the whole body politic) view of government is already way skewed to the point where we’ve exceeded those boundary conditions. What we have is not “government” (although, to be fair to the U.S., it’s still a lot closer than most other burgs on this flying rock). It’s therefore kind of hard to judge whether or not government itself would be good or bad, because we don’t have it.

          Me, I’m not entirely certain that we can get the thing within a reasonable delta of what government ought to be doing because we’ve got all these competing constituencies and the sum of the desires outweighs the sum of the means, but that’s yet another problem to discuss. This longitudinal experiment in representative democratic republic may have reached its’ optimum point.

          If government is a necessary evil, then “least” is “best”, unless you reducto the government below its core missions (we can’t really necessarily call ’em “competencies”), in which case we’re at the opposite boundary condition.

          So we have this thing we call government, and we’re arguing about what the thing itself ought to be, and simultaneously we’re arguing about whether or not the thing itself is moral/good/right, and at the same time we’re also arguing about whether or not the thing would be moral if it actually looked like what we think the thing itself ought to be. Lines get blurry.

          Which is a fascinating discussion in and of itself, but it does distract somewhat from the fact that we both agree as it stands that it’s broken right now. We could just haul ourselves out on the wing and start doing things we both agree are necessary repairs. It might be easier to see what it is the thing ought to be if it’s flying less erratically to begin with.

          > In short, to return to Mr. Kowal, there’s a right
          > to another man’s property, for even if we were
          > all angels, some angels are more equal than
          > others, more able [smarter, stronger, better-
          > looking, better at rap] and it’s the “more able”
          > who tend to end up with more of the goodies.

          Heh. Yes, this is often how the problem is framed, by folks on both sides of the ticker. Me, I know plenty of able, smart, strong, good-looking, talented sopranos who aren’t ending up with more of the goodies. We’ll also note that you can be a badass dancer and never make as much as a badass plumber, because we (as a society) generally value – at least in the fungible monetary sense – plumbers more than dancers. Yet another aside, let that pass actually.

          I also know several people who are dumb as bricks who can crap on a gold toilet. It seems to me (in my limited experience) that ending up with more of the goodies is highly coupled to social networking with those who have more of the goodies… it’s a quartile dependency. To be really successful, you have to have talent. You have to bust your ass off. You have to be either lucky or (depending upon how you look at it) not unlucky. And you have to have access. You can compensate for a dearth of any of the four with an excess of the others, but one of them is immutable (talent), one is up to you entirely (work), one is up to Fate (luck), and the last is something most people with money got from birth, not from either a talent for networking or a disciplined approach to building their own network.

          Not that this isn’t a talent/skill in and of itself (network building, that is: it is one).

          However, while there are high correlations between that talent and other talents (both meritorious ones and otherwise), it is an independent talent, and one that itself is benefited highly by initial conditions. Why? Because your tribe grants you a higher level of access and trust than your not-tribe.

          Now, I’m not going to say that Successful, Talented, Hard-Working Entrepreneur doesn’t have a right to hand the reigns of his legitimately hard won business over to his less (Successful, Talented, Hard-Working, Entrepreneurial) offspring. But we’re now if we tax offspring, we’re no longer talking about taking things from the “more equal” angel to give to the less equal ones. We’re talking about taking things from the “more average but lucky” dude and giving it to the “more average but less lucky” one (at least in theory).

          Hey, here’s a practical question. Let’s say, in the spirit of fairness, that we institute a flat tax across the board on everybody of 15%. All income, capital gains and else. But in recognition of the fact that people benefit inordinately from their initial circumstances, we re-establish the estate tax at, say, 50%.

          Is that more or less “fair” to your worldview than a progressive tax at the income level? The same?Report

          • Avatar Pat Cahalan says:

            > its’

            Where in the hell did *that* come from?Report

          • Avatar tom van dyke says:

            Pat, I’m completely mugwumped on the inheritance tax. I reject any cosmic justice or original position arguments as the purpose of gov’t. I think it’s unfair to seize anyone’s property or tax the same money twice. But I’m OK with the graduated income tax, although it defies any notion of equal treatment before the law. I’m not a flat tax guy.

            As a Burkean conservative, I can say we’ve had it for a long time, and the gov’t seems to have needed it. But Wiki tells me Sweden, Australia, New Zealand, Austria, Israel and Russia have abolished it in recent decades. Perhaps it has a chilling effect on wealth creation. [Or mebbe their rich got it through.]

            What looks right to me is France

            France uses the term droits de succession (“rights of succession”), taxes on beneficiaries.

            Tax the beneficiaries at the rate of any other of their income. I don’t see where they have a “right” to receive the dough without taxation on the income. However, I believe the Kennedys are famous for leaving the money in the family trust, which owns their cars and homes and other perks of wealth [they just get to drive them and live in them], but I’m not sure about that one. But the rich have very good lawyers to evade the law, better than the ones who write them.Report

            • Avatar Pat Cahalan says:

              That’s a fair position. Interesting that you’ve come to a position of support for the graduated tax even though you have philosophical leanings against it (that would be an interesting topic for a guest post for ya).

              It’s certainly the case that a less labyrinthine tax code would limit the ability of aforementioned Kennedys to create largely artificial organisms for the sake of bypassing the estate tax (or anything else, for that matter). The difficulty with trust funds and whatnot is that they recuse “use” from “ownership” and bypass the tax code that way. I’ve been thinking for years that there ought to be an easy fix there, but that’s a hard animal to capture in print.Report