“Liberalism” and Sovereignty

This post is best read in conjunction with “The Folly of Pacifism“, “Libertarian Conservative or Conservative Libertarian?“, and “Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and Leviathan“.

Don Boudreaux of Cafe Hayek writes about liberalism:

One of the great tenets of liberalism — the true sort of liberalism, not the dirigiste ignorance that today, in English-speaking countries, flatters itself unjustifiably with that term — is that no human being is less worthy just because he or she is outside of a particular group. Any randomly chosen stranger from Cairo or Cancun has as much claim on my sympathies and my respect and my regard as does any randomly chosen person from Charlottesville or Chicago.

Boudreaux is correct in saying that what is now called “liberalism” is not liberalism; it is a virulent strain of statism. Boudreaux’s strain of old-fashioned or “classical” liberalism is nowadays called libertarianism. But Boudreaux is one of those holdouts who insists that he is a liberal. There is much error in libertarianism but it is on the side of the angels by comparison with the modern, left-statist jumble of dogmas that goes by the names “liberalism” and “progressivism”.

Returning to Boudreaux’s post: He also states a (truly) liberal value, namely, that respect for others should not depend on where they happen to live. But it is prudent to put more trust in those who have proven their affection and support for you, than it is to trust those not-so-close to you — whether they live next door, in the inner city, or in Timbuktu.

And that is where Boudreaux, most self-styled libertarians, and all pacifists go off the rails. As Boudreaux says later in the same post:

[L]iberalism rejects the notion that there is anything much special or compelling about political relationships. It is tribalistic, atavistic, to regard those who look more like you to be more worthy of your regard than are those who look less like you. It is tribalistic, atavistic, to regard those who speak your native tongue to be more worthy of your affection and concern than are those whose native tongues differ from yours.

For the true liberal, the human race is the human race.  The struggle is to cast off as much as possible primitive sentiments about “us” being different from “them.”

The problem with such sentiments is the implication that we have nothing more to fear from people of foreign lands than we have to fear from our own friends and neighbors. Yet, as Boudreaux himself acknowledges,

[t]he liberal is fully aware that such sentiments [about “us” being different from “them”] are rooted in humans’ evolved psychology, and so are not easily cast off.  But the liberal does his or her best to rise above those atavistic sentiments,

Yes, the Boudreaux-like liberal does strive to rise above such sentiments, but not everyone else makes the same effort, as Boudreaux admits. Therein lies the problem.

Americans, as a mostly undifferentiated mass, are disdained and hated by many foreigners. (Aside: Conservative Americans, whether “deplorable” or not, are hated as a mostly undifferentiated mass by leftists, who are extreme tribalists.) The disdain and hatred arise from a variety of sources, ranging from pseudo-intellectual snobbery to nationalistic rivalry to anti-Western fanaticism. When the hatred leads to aggression, that aggression is aimed at all Americans: liberal, “liberal,” conservative, libertarian, bellicose, pacifistic, tribal, or whatever.

Leftists like to deploy the slogan “We’re all in this together” to justify their economically and socially destructive schemes. But when it comes to defense against foreign aggression, Americans truly are “all in this together”. The bitter irony is that leftists are generally uninterested in that crucial aspect of togetherness.

The Framers of the Constitution, being both smart and realistic, “did ordain and establish” a new form of government “in Order to . . . provide for the common defence” (and a few other things). That is to say, the Framers recognized the importance of establishing the United States as a sovereign state for limited and specified purposes, while preserving the sovereignty of the several States and their inhabitants for all other purposes.

If Americans do not mutually defend themselves through the sovereign state which was established for that purpose, who will do so? That is the question which liberals (both true and false) often fail to ask. Instead, they tend to propound internationalism for its own sake. It is a mindless internationalism, one that often disdains America’s sovereignty, and the defense thereof.

One manifestation of mindless internationalism is “transnationalism”:

“Transnationalism” challenges the traditional American understanding that (in the summary, which I slightly adapt, of Duke law professor Curtis A. Bradley) “international and domestic law are distinct, [the United States] determines for itself [through its political branches] when and to what extent international law is incorporated into its legal system, and the status of international law in the domestic system is determined by domestic law.”Transnationalists aim in particular to use American courts to import international law to override the policies adopted through the processes of representative government. [Ed Whelan, “Harold Koh’s Transnationalism“, National Review (The Corner), April 6, 2009]

Mindless internationalism equates sovereignty with  jingoism, protectionism, militarism, and other deplorable “isms”. It ignores or denies the hard reality that Americans and their legitimate overseas interests are threatened by nationalistic rivalries and anti-Western fanaticism. “Transnationalism” is just a “soft” form of aggression; it would erode American values from the inside out, though American leftists hardly need any help from their foreign allies.

In the real world of powerful international rivals and determined, resourceful fanatics, the benefits afforded Americans by our (somewhat eroded) constitutional contract — most notably the enjoyment of civil liberties, the blessings of  free markets, and the protections of a common defense — are inseparable from and dependent upon the sovereignty of the United States.  To cede that sovereignty for the sake of mindless internationalism is to risk the complete loss of the benefits promised by the Constitution.

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Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and Leviathan

Rights arise from voluntary and enduring social relationships. In that respect, they are natural because they represent the accommodations that a people make with each other in order to coexist peacefully and to their mutual benefit. (Natural rights, as I define them, are not the same thing as the kind of “natural rights” that many philosophers, political theorists, mystics and opportunistic politicians claim to find hovering in human beings like Platonic essences. See this, this, this, and this, for example.)

Natural rights, in sum, are the interpersonal claims that a people agree upon and (mainly) observe in their daily interactions. The claims can be negative (do not kill, except in self-defense) or positive (children must be clothed, fed, and taught about rights). For reasons discussed later, such claims are valid and generally honored even if there isn’t a superior power (a chieftain, monarch, or state apparatus) to enforce them.

Liberty is the condition in which agreed rights are generally observed, and enforced when they are violated. Liberty, in other words, is the condition of peaceful, willing coexistence and its concomitant: beneficially cooperative behavior. Peaceful, willing coexistence does not imply “an absence of constraints, impediments, or interference”, which is a standard definition of liberty. Rather, it implies that there is necessarily a degree of compromise (voluntary constraint) for the sake of beneficially cooperative behavior. Even happy marriages are replete with voluntary constraints on behavior, constraints that enable the partners to enjoy the blessings of union.

That’s all there is to it. Liberty isn’t a nirvana-like state of euphoria; it’s just what everyday life is like when people are able to coexist by their own lights, perhaps under the aegis of a superior power which does nothing but ensure that they are able to do so.

The persistence of natural rights and liberty among a people is fostered primarily by mutual trust, respect, and forbearance. Punishment of violations of rights (and therefore of liberty) helps, too, as long as the punishment is generally agreed upon and applied consistently.

Natural rights, as discussed thus far, are distinct from “rights” (sometimes “natural rights”) that people demand of a superior power. (See, for example, the UN Declaration of Human Rights, which is a wish-list of things that people are “entitled” to.) Those are really privileges. Government can (and sometimes does) recognize and protect truly natural rights, but it doesn’t manufacture them. The Bill of Rights, for example, consists of a hodge-podge of actual rights (e.g., the right to bear arms), and privileges (e.g., protection from self-incrimination). Some of the latter are special dispensations made necessary by the existence of government itself, that is, promises made by the government to protect the people from its superior power.

As mentioned in passing earlier, rights are usually divided into two categories: negative and positive. Negative rights are natural rights that can be exercised without requiring anything of others but reciprocal forbearance[1]. Wikipedia puts it this way:

Adrian has a negative right to x against Clay if and only if Clay is prohibited from acting upon Adrian in some way regarding x…. A case in point, if Adrian has a negative right to life against Clay, then Clay is required to refrain from killing Adrian….

To spin out the example, there is a negative right not to be harmed (killed in this case) as long as Clay is forbidden to kill Adrian, Adrian is forbidden to kill Clay, both are forbidden to kill others, and others are forbidden to kill anyone. This is a widely understood and accepted negative right. But it is not an unconditional right. There are also widely understood and accepted exceptions to it, such as killing in self-defense.

In any event, the textbook explanation of negative rights, such as the one given by Wikipedia, is appealing. But it is simplistic, like John Stuart Mill’s harm principle.

“Negative rights” and “harm”, by themselves, are mere abstractions. It seems obvious that a person shouldn’t be harmed as long as he is doing no harm to others, which is the essence of Wikipedia‘s explanation. But “harm” is the operative word. Harm isn’t an abstraction; it’s a real thing — many real things — with concrete meanings. And those concrete meanings arise from social interactions and the norms born of them.

For example, libertarians consider it a negative right to sell one’s home to another person without interference by one’s neighbors (or the state acting on their behalf). One’s neighbors must forbear intervention, just as the seller must forbear intervention against the sales of the neighbors’ homes. But intervention may be necessary to prevent harm.

The part that libertarians usually get wrong is forbearance. Libertarians assume forbearance. They assume forbearance because they assume away — or simply ignore — the possibility that a voluntary transaction between two parties may result in harm to third parties.

But what if the buyer is an absentee owner who rents rooms to all and sundry (resulting in parking problems, an eyesore property, etc.)? Libertarians reject zoning as an infringement on the negative right of property ownership. So what are put-upon neighbors supposed to do about the absentee landlord who rents rooms to all and sundry? Well, the neighbors can always complain to the city government if things get out of hand, can’t they? Yes, but in the meantime harm will have been done, and the police may not be able to put a stop to it unless the harm actually violates a statute or ordinance that the police and courts are willing and able to enforce without being attacked as racist pigs, or some such thing.

Does the libertarian conception of negative rights have room in it for homeowners’ associations that actually allow neighborhoods to define harm, as it applies to their particular circumstances, and act to prevent it? In my experience, the libertarian conception of negative property rights — thou shalt not interfere in the sale of a house — has become enshrined in statutes and ordinances that de-fang homeowners’ associations, making them powerless to prevent harm by enforcing restrictive covenants (e.g., against renting rooms) that libertarians decry as infringements of negative rights.

The only negative rights worthy of the name are specific rights that are recognized within a voluntary and enduring association of persons. Violations of those rights undermine the fabric of mutual trust and mutual forbearance that enable a people to coexist in beneficial, voluntary cooperation. That — not some imaginary nirvana — is liberty.

By the same token, a voluntary and enduring association of persons can recognize positive rights. That is to say, positive rights — those broadly accepted as part and parcel of peaceful, willing coexistence and its concomitant: beneficially cooperative behavior — are just as much an aspect of liberty as are negative rights. (Doctrinaire libertarians, who aren’t really libertarians, mistakenly decry all positive rights as antithetical to liberty.)

Returning to the Wikipedia article quoted above, and the example of Adrian and Clay,

Adrian has a positive right to x against Clay if and only if Clay is obliged to act upon Adrian in some way regarding x…. [I]f Adrian has a positive right to life against Clay, then Clay is required to act as necessary to preserve the life of Adrian.

Negative and positive rights are compatible with each other in the context of the Golden Rule, or ethic of reciprocity: One should treat others as one would expect others to treat oneself. This is a truly natural law, for reasons I will come to.

The Golden Rule can be expanded into two, complementary sub-rules:

  • Do no harm to others, lest they do harm to you.
  • Be kind and charitable to others, and they will be kind and charitable to you.

The first sub-rule fosters negative rights. The second sub-rule fosters positive rights. But, as discussed earlier, the rights in question are specific — not abstract injunctions — because they are understood and recognized in the context of voluntary and enduring social relationships.

I call the Golden Rule a natural law because it’s neither a logical construct (e.g., the “given-if-then” formulation discussed here) nor a state-imposed one. Its long history and widespread observance (if only vestigial) suggest that it embodies an understanding that arises from the similar experiences of human beings across time and place. The resulting behavioral convention, the ethic of reciprocity, arises from observations about the effects of one’s behavior on that of others and mutual agreement (tacit or otherwise) to reciprocate preferred behavior, in the service of self-interest and empathy.

That is to say, the convention is a consequence of the observed and anticipated benefits of adhering to it. Those benefits accrue not only to the person who complies with the Golden Rule in a particular situation (the actor), but also to the person (or persons) who benefit from compliance (the beneficiary). The consequences of compliance don’t usually redound immediately to the actor, but they redound indirectly over the long-term because the actor (and many more like him) do their part to preserve the convention. It follows that the immediate impetus for observance of the convention is a mixture of two considerations: (a) an understanding of the importance of preserving the convention and (b) empathy on the part of the actor toward the beneficiary.

The Golden Rule will be widely observed within a group only if the members of the group are (a) generally agreed about the definition of harm, (b) value kindness and charity (in the main), and (c) perhaps most importantly see that their acts have beneficial consequences. If those conditions are not met, the Golden Rule descends from convention to slogan.

Is the Golden Rule susceptible of varying interpretations across groups, and is it therefore a vehicle for moral relativism? Yes, with qualifications. It’s true that groups vary in their conceptions of permissible behavior. For example, the idea of allowing, encouraging, or aiding the death of old persons is not everywhere condemned. (Many — with whom I wouldn’t choose to coexist voluntarily — embrace it as a concomitant of a government-run or government-regulated health-care “system” that treats the delivery of medical services as matter of rationing.) Infanticide has a long history in many cultures; modern, “enlightened” cultures have simply replaced it with abortion. (More behavior that is beyond the pale of my preferred society.) Slavery is still an acceptable practice in some places, though those enslaved (as in the past) usually are outsiders. Homosexuality has a long history of condemnation, and occasional acceptance. (To be pro-homosexual nowadays — and especially to favor homosexual “marriage” — has joined the litany of “causes” that connote membership in the tribe of “enlightened” “progressives” [a.k.a., “liberals” and leftists], along with being for abortion [i.e., pre-natal infanticide] and against the consumption of fossil fuels — except for one’s McMansion and SUV, of course.)

The foregoing recitation suggests a mixture of reasons for favoring or disfavoring various behaviors, that is, regarding them as beneficial or harmful. Those reasons range from utilitarianism (calculated weighing of costs and benefits) to status-signaling. In between, there are religious and consequentialist reasons for favoring or disfavoring various behaviors. Consequentialist reasoning goes like this: Behavior X can be indulged responsibly and without harm to others, but there a strong risk that it will not be indulged responsibly, or that it will lead to behavior Y, which has repercussions for others. Therefore, it’s better to put X off-limits, or to severely restrict and monitor it.

Consequentialist reasoning applies to euthanasia (it’s easy to slide from voluntary to involuntary acts, especially when the state controls the delivery of medical care); infanticide and abortion (forms of involuntary euthanasia and signs of disdain for life); homosexuality (a depraved, risky practice — especially among males — that can ensnare impressionable young persons who see it as an “easy” way to satisfy sexual urges); alcohol and drugs (addiction carries a high cost, for the addict, the addict’s family, and sometimes for innocent bystanders). In the absence of governmental edicts to the contrary, long-standing attitudes toward such behaviors would prevail in most places. (Socially and geographically isolated enclaves are welcome to kill themselves off and purify the gene pool.)

The exceptions discussed above to the contrary notwithstanding, there’s a mainstream interpretation of the Golden Rule — one that still holds in many places — which rules out certain kinds of behavior, except in extreme situations, and permits certain other kinds of behavior. There is, in other words, a “core” Golden Rule that comes down to this:

  • Killing is wrong, except in self-defense. (Capital punishment is just that: punishment. It’s also a deterrent to murder. It isn’t “murder,” muddle-headed defenders of baby-murder to the contrary notwithstanding.)
  • Various kinds of unauthorized “takings” are wrong, including theft (outright and through deception). (This explains popular resistance to government “takings” ,especially when it’s done on behalf of private parties. The view that it’s all right to borrow money from a bank and not repay it arises from the mistaken beliefs that (a) it’s not tantamount to theft and (b) it harms no one because banks can “afford it”.)
  • Libel and slander are wrong because they are “takings” by word instead of deed.
  • It is wrong to turn spouse against spouse, child against parent, or friend against friend. (And yet, such things are commonly portrayed in books, films, and plays as if they are normal occurrences, often desirable ones. And it seems to me that reality increasingly mimics “art”.)
  • It is right to be pleasant and kind to others, even under provocation, because “a mild answer breaks wrath: but a harsh word stirs up fury” (Proverbs 15:1).
  • Charity is a virtue, but it should begin at home, where the need is most certain and the good deed is most likely to have its intended effect. (Leftists turn a virtue into an imposition when they insist that “charity” — as in income redistribution — is a proper job of government.)

None of these observations would be surprising to a person raised in the Judeo-Christian tradition, or even in the less vengeful branches of Islam. The observations would be especially unsurprising to an American who was raised in a rural, small-town, or small-city setting, well removed from a major metropolis, or who was raised in an ethnic enclave in a major metropolis. For it is such persons and, to some extent, their offspring who are the principal heirs and keepers of the Golden Rule in America.

An ardent individualist — particularly an anarcho-capitalist — might insist that social comity can be based on the negative sub-rule, which is represented by the first five items in the “core” list. I doubt it. There’s but a short psychological distance from mean-spiritedness — failing to be kind and charitable — to sociopathy, a preference for harmful acts. Ardent individualists will disagree with me because they view kindness and charity as their business, and no one else’s. They’re right about that, but kindness and charity are nevertheless indispensable to the development of mutual trust among people who in an enduring social relationship. Without mutual trust, mutual restraint becomes problematic and co-existence becomes a matter of “getting the other guy before he gets you” — a convention that I hereby dub the Radioactive Rule.

Nevertheless, the positive sub-rule, which is represented by the final two items in the “core” list, can be optional for the occasional maverick. An extreme individualist (or introvert or grouch) could be a member in good standing of a society that lives by the Golden Rule. He would be a punctilious practitioner of the negative rule, and would not care that his unwillingness to offer kindness and charity resulted in coldness toward him. Coldness is all he would receive (and want) because, as a punctilious practitioner of the negative rule; his actions wouldn’t necessarily invite harm.

But too many extreme individualists would threaten the delicate balance of self-interested and voluntarily beneficial behavior that’s implied in the Golden Rule. Even if lives and livelihoods did not depend on acts of kindness and charity — and they probably would — mistrust would set it in. And from there, it would be a short distance to the Radioactive Rule.

Of course, the delicate balance would be upset if the Golden Rule were violated with impunity. For that reason, the it must be backed by sanctions. Non-physical sanctions would range from reprimands to ostracism. For violations of the negative sub-rule, imprisonment and corporal punishment would not be out of the question.

Now comes a dose of reality. Self-governance is possible only for a group of about 25 to 150 persons: the size of a hunter-gatherer band or Hutterite colony. It seems that self-governance breaks down when a group is larger than 150 persons. Why should that happen? Because mutual trust, mutual respect, and mutual forbearance — the things implied in the Golden Rule — depend very much on personal connections. A person who is loathe to say a harsh word to an acquaintance, friend, or family member — even when provoked — often waxes abusive toward strangers, especially in this era of e-mail and comment threads, where face-to-face encounters aren’t involved.

More generally, it’s a human tendency to treat family members, friends, and acquaintances differently than strangers; the former are accorded more trust, more cooperation, and more kindness than the latter. Why? Because there’s usually a difference between the consequences of behavior that’s directed toward strangers and the consequences of behavior that’s directed toward persons one knows, lives among, and depends upon for restraint, cooperation, and help. The allure of  doing harm without penalty (“getting away with something”) or receiving without giving (“getting something for nothing”)  becomes harder to resist as one’s social distance from others increases.

The preference of like for like is derided by libertarians and leftists as tribalism, which is like the pot calling the kettle black. There’s no one who is more tribal than a leftist, who weighs every word spoken by another person to ensure that person’s alignment with the left’s current dogmas. (Libertarians have it easier, inasmuch as most of them are loners by disposition, and thrive on contrariness.) But the preference of like for like is quite rational: Cooperation and help include mutual defense (and concerted attack, in the case of leftists).

When self-governance breaks down, it becomes necessary to spin off a new group or to establish a central power (a state) to establish and enforce rules of behavior (negative and positive). The problem, of course, is that those vested with the power of the state quickly learn to use it to advance their own preferences and interests, and to perpetuate their power by granting favors to those who can keep them in office. It is a rare state that is created for the sole purpose of protecting its citizens from one another (as the referee of last resort) and from outsiders, and rarer still is the state that remains true to such purposes.

In sum, the Golden Rule — as a uniting way of life — is quite unlikely to survive the passage of a group from a self-governing community to a component of a state. Nor does the Golden Rule as a uniting way of life have much chance of revival or survival where the state already dominates. The Golden Rule may operate within non-kinship groups (e.g., parishes, clubs, urban enclaves) by regulating the interactions among the members of such groups. It may have a vestigial effect on face-to-face interactions between stranger and stranger, but that effect arises in part from the fear of giving offense that will be met with hostility or harm, not from a communal bond.

In any event, the dominance of the state distorts behavior. For example, the state may enable and encourage acts (e.g., abortion, homosexuality) that had been discouraged as harmful by group norms. And the state will diminish the ability of members of a group to bestow charity on one another through the loss of income to taxes and the displacement of private charity by state-run schemes that mimic charity (e.g., Social Security).

The all-powerful state destroys liberty, even while sometimes defending it. This is done not just by dictating how people must live their lives, which is bad enough. It is also done by eroding the social bonds that liberty is built upon — the bonds that secure peaceful, willing coexistence and its concomitant: beneficially cooperative behavior.
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[1] Here is a summary of negative rights, by Randy Barnett:

A libertarian … favors the rigorous protection of certain individual rights that define the space within which people are free to choose how to act. These fundamental rights consist of (1) the right of private property, which includes the property one has in one’s own person; (2) the right of freedom of contract by which rights are transferred by one person to another; (3) the right of first possession, by which property comes to be owned from an unowned state; (4) the right to defend oneself and others when fundamental rights are being threatened; and (5) the right to restitution or compensation from those who violate another’s fundamental rights. [“Is the Constitution Libertarian?”, Georgetown Public Law Research Paper No. 1432854 (posted at SSRN July 14, 2009), p. 3]

Borrowing from and elaborating on Barnett’s list, I come to the following set of negative rights:

  • freedom from force and fraud (including the right of self-defense against force)
  • property ownership (including the right of first possession)
  • freedom of contract (including contracting to employ/be employed)
  • freedom of association and movement
  • restitution or compensation for violations of the foregoing rights.

This set of negative rights that would obtain in a state which devolves political decisions to the level of socially cohesive groups, while serving only as the defender of such rights (in the last resort) against domestic and foreign predators.

The Balderdash Chronicles

Balderdash is nonsense, to put it succinctly. Less succinctly, balderdash is stupid or illogical talk; senseless rubbish. Rather thoroughly, it is

balls, bull, rubbish, shit, rot, crap, garbage, trash, bunk, bullshit, hot air, tosh, waffle, pap, cobblers, bilge, drivel, twaddle, tripe, gibberish, guff, moonshine, claptrap, hogwash, hokum, piffle, poppycock, bosh, eyewash, tommyrot, horsefeathers, or buncombe.

I have encountered innumerable examples of balderdash in my 35 years of full-time work,  14 subsequent years of blogging, and many overlapping years as an observer of the political scene.  This essay documents some of the worst balderdash that I have come across.

THE LIMITS OF SCIENCE

Science (or what too often passes for it) generates an inordinate amount of balderdash. Consider an article in The Christian Science Monitor: “Why the Universe Isn’t Supposed to Exist”, which reads in part:

The universe shouldn’t exist — at least according to a new theory.

Modeling of conditions soon after the Big Bang suggests the universe should have collapsed just microseconds after its explosive birth, the new study suggests.

“During the early universe, we expected cosmic inflation — this is a rapid expansion of the universe right after the Big Bang,” said study co-author Robert Hogan, a doctoral candidate in physics at King’s College in London. “This expansion causes lots of stuff to shake around, and if we shake it too much, we could go into this new energy space, which could cause the universe to collapse.”

Physicists draw that conclusion from a model that accounts for the properties of the newly discovered Higgs boson particle, which is thought to explain how other particles get their mass; faint traces of gravitational waves formed at the universe’s origin also inform the conclusion.

Of course, there must be something missing from these calculations.

“We are here talking about it,” Hogan told Live Science. “That means we have to extend our theories to explain why this didn’t happen.”

No kidding!

Though there’s much more to come, this example should tell you all that you need to know about the fallibility of scientists. If you need more examples, consider these.

Continue reading

Abortion Q and A

Using a Q&A format, this article summarizes my writings on abortion over the past 14 years, since I first voiced my opposition to it.

WHY OPPOSE ABORTION?

My objections to abortion are moral and prudential. I cannot condone a brutal, life-taking practice for which the main justification is convenience. (See, for example, tables 2 through 5 of “Reasons U.S. Women Have Abortions: Qualitative and Quantitative Perspectives”, a publication of the Guttmacher Institute, a pro-abortion organization.) Prudentially, I do not want to live in a country where blameless life can be taken easily, with the encouragement of the state or at the state’s insistence. Abortion is a step down a slippery slope.

There have been serious (academic) proposals to allow post-natal abortion (i.e., infanticide). The next step, which has been taken in some “civilized” countries (not to mention the Third Reich and Soviet Russia) is involuntary euthanasia to “rid the populace” of those deemed unfit.

Ah, but who does the “deeming”? That is always the question. Given the rate at which power is being centralized in this country, it is not unthinkable that decisions about life and death will be placed in the hands of faceless bureaucrats, accountable only to their masters in high places. And those bureaucrats will not care about a person’s politics when they render their decisions, for they will be drunk on the power that is vested in them.

If anyone thinks it cannot happen here, think again. No nation or class of people is immune from the disease of power-lust. The only way to prevent it from spreading and becoming ever more malevolent is to resist it at every turn.

(I address the slippery slope toward state-imposed eugenics at several points below.)

WHY DO I CALL ABORTION MURDER?

First, there’s the obvious fact that abortion results in the death of a living being. But that’s a mild way of putting it. The methods used in abortion would be termed “brutal” by opponents of capital punishment, who usually are pro-abortion. Consider this (from Wikipedia as of April 7, 2018):

From the 15th week of gestation until approximately the 26th, other techniques must be used. Dilation and evacuation (D&E) consists of opening the cervix of the uterus and emptying it using surgical instruments and suction. After the 16th week of gestation, abortions can also be induced by intact dilation and extraction (IDX) (also called intrauterine cranial decompression), which requires surgical decompression of the fetus’s head before evacuation. IDX is sometimes called “partial-birth abortion“, which has been federally banned in the United States. [Ed. note: One small step for humanity.]

In the third trimester of pregnancy, induced abortion may be performed surgically by intact dilation and extraction or by hysterotomy. Hysterotomy abortion is a procedure similar to a caesarean section and is performed under general anesthesia. It requires a smaller incision than a caesarean section and is used during later stages of pregnancy.

What happens in an intact dilation and extraction? This (according to Wikipedia as of April 7, 2018):

Feticidal injection of digoxin or potassium chloride may be administered at the beginning of the procedure to allow for softening of the fetal bones or to comply with relevant laws in the physician’s jurisdiction. During the surgery, the fetus is removed from the uterus in the breech position, with mechanical collapse of the fetal skull if it is too large to fit through the cervical canal. Decompression of the skull can be accomplished by incision and suction of the contents, or by using forceps.

Almost enough said. For more, go here for an excerpt of an interview of philosopher Don Marquis.

WHY DID THE “RIGHT” TO AN ABORTION BECOME A POLITICAL CAUSE?

Daniel J. Flynn makes this astute observation in a piece at The American Spectator:

Students did not end the Vietnam War. They ended the draft. And once the draft ended, their protests, at least on a mass scale, ended, too.

Wikipedia, not normally my go-to source for history, lists more than 100 major events on its page documenting protests against the Vietnam War. The very last one occurred one week before Richard Nixon ended the draft. Small, scattered protests, of the like that do not appear Wikipedia’s radar—one in Central Park in 1975 involving Joan Baez and others comes to mind—continued. But even as the killing continued the big protests did not because the draft did not.

And it is true that U.S. combat operations continued after the end of the draft. So I must agree with Flynn’s observation.

What does it have to do with abortion? It’s mostly about the “Me” generation — the Baby Boomers who came of age in the 1960s and 1970s. Look at this:

The graph comes from this source, which addresses some of the causes of the decline in the abortion rate since 1980. There are others, such as easier access to contraceptives and the growing awareness (and fear of) HIV/AIDS.

But the most obvious cause of the decline is the aging of Boomers. A large fraction of the women who were born during the peak baby-boom years (1946-1960)  would have been “past it” by the mid-1990s*. And that’s when the abortion rate ended a period of relatively steep decline (see above graph). The abortion rate continued to decline at more gradual rate through the early 2000s, when it leveled off, then began to decline at a faster rate after 2008. (The most likely cause of the steeper decline since 2008 is the enactment by several States of stricter controls on abortion.)

This isn’t to absolve later generations of their sins. Most college graduates and college-goers** of the X, Millennial, and Z generations have drunk the kool-aid of political correctness and “liberal” fascism. But the Boomers — notable for their self-centered depravity — were and are especially dangerous because so many of them became prominent in politics, the law, and the internet-media-academic complex.

The Boomers (or too many of them) epitomize the left’s arrested state of adolescent rebellion: “Daddy” doesn’t want me to smoke, so I’m going to smoke; “Daddy” doesn’t want me to drink, so I’m going to drink; “Daddy” doesn’t want me to have sex, so I’m going to have sex. But, regardless of my behavior, I expect “Daddy” to give me an allowance, and birthday presents, and cell phones, and so on.

“Daddy,” in the case of abortion, is government, which had banned abortion in many places. If it’s banned, the left wants it. But the left — like an adolescent — also expects government to cough up money (others’ money, of course) to quench its material desires.

Persons of the left simply are simply unthinking, selfish adolescents who want what they want, regardless of the consequences for others. The left’s stance on abortion should be viewed as just one more adolescent tantrum in a vast repertoire of tantrums.
__________
* The late Norma McCorvey (a.k.a. Jane Roe of Roe v. Wade) epitomized the Boomers. She was born in 1947 and began her eventually successful suit to legalize abortion when she was 21. McCorvey’s later conversion to Catholicism and anti-abortion activism do great credit to her memory.

** College-goers, as distinct from students who are striving to acquire knowledge rather than left-wing propaganda and to exercise their critical faculties instead of parroting left-wing slogans.

IS THE “RIGHT” TO AN ABORTION REALLY THE “LAW OF THE LAND”?

No, not really. But it will take someone with political guts and a strong sense of right and wrong to undo Roe v. Wade by an act of resistance. The U.S. Supreme Court is not the final arbiter of the Constitution’s meaning.

The answer — departmentalism — is found in Michael Stokes Paulsen and Luke Paulsen’s The Constitution: An Introduction:

All branches of government are equally bound by the Constitution. No branch of the federal government— not the Congress, not the President, not even the Supreme Court— can legitimately act in ways contrary to the words of the Constitution. Indeed, Article VI requires that all government officials— legislative, executive, and judicial, state and federal—“ shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution.” Thus, the idea of a written constitution is closely tied to the idea of constitutional supremacy: In America, no branch of government is supreme. The government as a whole is not supreme. The Constitution is supreme. It is the written Constitution that prevails over every other source of authority in the United States.

Further, as sovereign entities and parties to the constitutional contract, the States can (and should) refuse to implement unconstitutional decrees emanating from the central government. MikeHuckabee seems to understand that. Steve Byas writes about Huckabee’s musings:

“If these people in California can thumb their nose at a law they don’t like then I guarantee there will be a pro-life governor who will simply say no more abortions in our state and that’s just the way it is,” former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee (shown) told Fox News on Friday….

Far too many Americans have … bought the line that the “Supremacy Clause” of the Constitution states that the federal government is supreme over the states. That is most certainly not what is said in Article VI of the Constitution! Rather, the supremacy clause of the Constitution states that the Constitution is the supreme law of the land. A law passed by Congress that is not “in pursuance” of the Constitution is therefore no law at all — and neither is a decision of the Supreme Court that does not follow the Constitution.

While the wording of the Constitution is quite clear — the Congress makes all laws under the supremacy of the Constitution — it is still far too common to hear the misinformed remark that Supreme Court decisions are “the law of the land.” On the contrary, a Supreme Court decision is “the law of the case,” and is binding only on the parties involved in that case….

No one knows how the federal government would react if a state’s governor directed legal authorities to enforce homicide laws against clinics and abortionists. But, as Huckabee told Fox News, it might happen. In Oklahoma, a former state representative, Dan Fisher, is running for governor, and is vowing to do just that. Right now, Fisher is running far behind in public opinion polls for the Republican nomination. He is not expected to win the governorship.

But at some point, a pro-life governor may decide it is time to test the federal government on this point. If the federal courts and the rest of the federal government would actually follow the Constitution instead of a rogue decision by the Supreme Court, the federal government’s reaction would be meek acquiescence. Hopefully, that is what would occur, though no one can predict what the outcome would be.

It will depend mainly on who occupies the White House at the time. Which — like Roe v. Wade — is a sad commentary of the rule of law in the United States.

IS ABORTION A NATURAL RIGHT?

The road to natural rights is through natural law. Natural law is about morality, that is, right and wrong. Natural rights are about the duties and obligations that human beings owe to each other.

Believers in natural law claim to start with the nature of human beings, then derive from that nature the “laws” of morality. Believers in natural rights claim to start with the nature of human beings, then derive from that nature the inalienable “rights” of human beings.

A natural law would be something like this: It is in the nature of human beings to seek life and to avoid death. A natural right would be something like this: Given that it is natural for human beings to seek life and avoid death, every human being has the right to life.

Natural law is “discovered” in the sense that it consists of norms that arise from human nature. An example would be the Golden Rule, or ethic of reciprocity. It seems most likely to have arisen from experience and normalized through tacit agreement before it was enunciated by various “wise men” over the ages.

The main alternative to the idea of natural law as arising from human nature is that it preexists in divine ordinance. But the two ideas can be reconciled by saying that human nature, by design, manifests divine intent.

In any event, if the Golden Rule is natural law, it seems not to offer room for a natural right to an abortion, that is, abortion on demand for any reason whatsoever. Doing unto others as one would be done unto would seem to prohibit the arbitrary taking of a life. (This raises the question whether a fetus is a “person” or a “human being”, to which I will come.)

Moreover, if there is a fundamental natural right, one that underlies all others, it is the right to life. There are rare instances in which persons willingly and voluntarily succumb to death, but they are notable exceptions that underscore the basic human urge (natural law) to go on living. This, too, argues against the killing of a fetus.

So, as a general matter (which admits limited and specific exceptions), there isn’t a natural right to an abortion.

IS THERE A CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHT TO AN ABORTION?

There is, in the sense that the U.S. Supreme Court fabricated such a right in Roe v. Wade (1973). But there is not really such a right, for two reasons:

  • A ruling by a majority of the Court is merely a transitory interpretation, which may be later overturned by a subsequent ruling, and which is only an interpretation — not the real Constitution.

In fact, what the Court did in Roe v. Wade is so egregious that even some “liberal” constitutional scholars decry it. (See the discussion at this section of the Wikipedia entry for Roe v. Wade.)

Abortion was considered murder long before States began to legislate against it in the 19th century. The long-standing condemnation of abortion — even before quickening — is treated thoroughly in Marvin Olasky’s Abortion Rites: A Social History of Abortion in America. (excerpt here). Olasky corrects the slanted version of American history upon which the U.S. Supreme Court relied in Roe v. Wade. The criminalization of abortion by most States in the 1800s did not mean that it was generally approved of or thought of as a right at the time of the ratification of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. It was certainly not thought of as a right at the time of the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868.

The majority in Roe v. Wade found for abortion by invoking a general privacy right, which had been invented in Griswold v. Connecticut (1965). But the Court could not decide whether the right is located in the Ninth Amendment (reserving unenumerated rights to the people) or the Fourteenth Amendment (guaranteeing due process of law). Neither amendment, of course, is the locus of a general privacy right because none is conferred by the Constitution, nor could the Constitution ever confer such a right, for it would interfere with such truly compelling state interests as the pursuit of justice. By the logic of the majority’s reasoning, infanticide in the confines of one’s home would be permissible if the States hadn’t legislated against it before 1787.

The spuriousness of the majority’s conclusion is evident in its flinching from the logical end of its reasoning: abortion anywhere at anytime. Instead, the majority delivered this:

The privacy right involved, therefore, cannot be said to be absolute. . . .  We, therefore, conclude that the right of personal privacy includes the abortion decision, but that this right is not unqualified and must be considered against important state interests in regulation.

That is, the majority simply drew an arbitrary line between life and death — but in the wrong place. It is as if the majority understood, but wished not to acknowledge, the full implications of an absolute privacy right. Such a right could be deployed by unprincipled judges to decriminalize a variety of heinous acts.

In sum, the constitutional “right” to an abortion is a judicial whim that will be overturned if and when a majority of the Court’s justices are strict constitutionalists. In fact, a later Court went part of the way (but, sadly, not all the way) in Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992). As blogger Patterico notes, Casey

1) upheld the central holding of Roe on stare decisis grounds; 2) stripped the abortion right of its status as a “fundamental right” under the Constitution; and 3) replaced Roe‘s trimester framework with a rule tied to viability.

I address viability below.

IS A FETUS A “PERSON”?

This question is related to the Court’s ruling in Roe v. Wade that a fetus isn’t a “person” — and therefore entitled to constitutional protection — until it becomes “viable” in the third trimester of pregnancy.

The “personhood” issue is legalistic rather than scientific. Personhood is an abstraction, not a physical fact. A human being is created at the moment of conception. It may be a rudimentary human being, but it is one nevertheless. And it has the potential to become a fully formed human being.

If it is permissible to kill a human being who is still in the formative stage, it should be permissible to kill anyone who hasn’t yet reached his full height. Perhaps that should be the cut-off point for “personhood”.

WHAT ABOUT THE VIABILITY ARGUMENT?

There is a phony pro-abortion argument that a fetus is fair game (so to speak) until it is viable. That is, until it could survive (as a newborn child) outside the mother’s womb. But that is a circular argument because a fetus that is aborted before it could have survived outside the mother’s womb would have attained viability had it not been aborted.

The viability argument comes down to this: It is all right to kill a fetus before it becomes viable so that it cannot become viable.

WHY SHOULDN’T A WOMAN CONTROL HER OWN BODY?

That question is a dodgy way of trying to get around the fact that a fetus has a life of its own — literally. The fetus may be dependent on the woman who is carrying it, but it is not her body. The fetus is a separate human being, no matter how dependent on its mother. Further, dependency doesn’t end with birth. In fact, these days it often continues until a child is a twenty-something. There are some advocates of post-natal infanticide, but only enthusiasts of euthanasia would extend abortion murder beyond that stage.

There is an equivalent argument for abortion. It is the self-defense argument, which is sometimes billed as a property rights argument. A leading example is found in Judith Jarvis Thomson‘s article, “A Defense of Abortion” (Philosophy & Public Affairs, 1 (1971): 47-66), which is available online here. It goes like this: A fetus is an “uninvited guest” in or “invader” of its mother’s body, which is the mother’s property. The mother may therefore do with the fetus as she will.

But a fetus is neither an uninvited guest nor an invader. Rather, it is a life, and that life — by biological necessity — is (almost always) its mother’s responsibility:

  • Conception, in almost all cases, is the result of a consensual act of sexual intercourse.
  • Conception is a known consequence of the act of sexual intercourse.
  • Life indisputably begins at conception.
  • A woman who conceives a child by an act of consensual sex has therefore incurred an implicit obligation to care for the life that flows from her act.
  • Given that the existence of a fetus cannot cause harm to anyone but its mother, the only valid route for terminating the life of a fetus would be a legal proceeding that culminates in a judicial determination that the continuation of the life of the fetus would cause grave physical harm or death to the mother.

A person who argues otherwise can do so only by regarding the fetus a sub-human implantation for which the mother bears no responsibility. Such a person might as well argue for a right to dispose of surly teenage children through involuntary euthanasia. The principle is the same: Kill the life you brought into the world because its presence is inconvenient or irritating. (For brilliant demolitions of arguments similar to Thomson’s, see this by Matt Walsh and this by Glen Whitman.)

IF ABORTION WERE ILLEGAL, SHOULD A WOMAN WHO ABORTS A CHILD FACE LEGAL CONSEQUENCES?

Kevin Williamson infamously said that women who have an abortion are guilty of murder and should be executed. That view, which he stated more than once — before he was hired by The Atlantic — led to his firing by The Atlantic when its spineless editor, Jeffrey Goldberg, caved in to a (figurative) lynch mob.

Where does that leave me? I will answer by repeating (with light editing) something that I wrote almost eleven years ago.

How much jail time? Anna Quindlen asked that question in a Newsweek article she wrote in 2007 about the punishment for abortion. Quindlen observed that

[i]f the Supreme Court decides abortion is not protected by a constitutional guarantee of privacy, the issue will revert to the states. If it goes to the states, some, perhaps many, will ban abortion. If abortion is made a crime, then surely the woman who has one is a criminal.

The aim of Quindlen’s column was to scorn the idea of jail time as punishment for a woman who procures an illegal abortion. It reminds me of the classic definition of chutzpah, given by Leo Rosten: “that quality enshrined in a man who, having killed his mother and father, throws himself on the mercy of the court because he is an orphan.” The chutzpah, in this case, belongs to Quindlen (and others of her ilk) who believe that a woman should not face punishment for an abortion because she has just “lost” a baby.

Balderdash! If a woman illegally aborts her child, why shouldn’t she be punished by a jail term (at least)? She would be punished by jail (or confinement in a psychiatric prison) if she were to kill her new-born infant, her toddler, her ten-year old, and so on. What’s the difference between an abortion and murder? None. (See above.)

Quindlen, who predictably opposes capital punishment, is consistent in her (typical) leftist opposition to justice. The Quindlens of this world somehow manage to make victims out of criminals.

IS ABORTION A STEP DOWN A SLIPPERY SLOPE?

Every time the state fails to defend innocent life it sets a new precedent for the taking of innocent life. Thus we come to the slippery slope.

Ross Douthat uses the Williamson case as a springboard to highlight “liberal” extremism in the defense of abortion:

[M]y pro-choice friends endorsing Williamson’s sacking can’t see that his extremism is mirrored in their own, in a system of supposedly “moderate” thought that is often blind to the public’s actual opinions on these issues, that lionizes advocates for abortion at any stage of pregnancy, that hands philosophers who favor forms of euthanasia and infanticide prestigious chairs at major universities, that is at best mildly troubled by the quietus of the depressed and disabled in Belgium or the near-eradication of Down syndrome in Iceland or the gendercide that abortion brought to Asia, that increasingly accepts unblinking a world where human beings can be commodified and vivisected so long as they’re in embryonic form.

Abortion is of a piece with selective breeding and involuntary euthanasia, wherein the state fosters eugenic practices that aren’t far removed from those of the Third Reich. And when those practices become the norm, what and who will be next? Instead of reflexively embracing “choice”, leftists — who these days seem especially wary of fascism (though they locate it in the wrong place) — should be asking whether “choice” will end with fetuses.

In sum, abortion is of a piece with Hitlerian eugenics. If you consider that to be an exaggeration, consider this piece by Patricia E. Bauer (a former reporter and bureau chief for The Washington Post), whose child has Down’s syndrome:

Many young women, upon meeting us, have asked whether I had “the test.” I interpret the question as a get-home-free card. If I say no, they figure, that means I’m a victim of circumstance, and therefore not implicitly repudiating the decision they may make to abort if they think there are disabilities involved. If yes, then it means I’m a right-wing antiabortion nut whose choices aren’t relevant to their lives….

The irony is that we live in a time when medical advances are profoundly changing what it means to live with disabilities. Years ago, people with Down syndrome often were housed in institutions. Many were in poor health, had limited self-care and social skills, couldn’t read, and died young. It was thought that all their problems were unavoidable, caused by their genetic anomaly.

Now it seems clear that these people were limited at least as much by institutionalization, low expectations, lack of education and poor health care as by their DNA. Today people with Down syndrome are living much longer and healthier lives than they did even 20 years ago. Buoyed by the educational reforms of the past quarter-century, they are increasingly finishing high school, living more independently and holding jobs.

That’s the rational pitch; here’s the emotional one. Margaret is a person and a member of our family. She has my husband’s eyes, my hair and my mother-in-law’s sense of humor. We love and admire her because of who she is — feisty and zesty and full of life — not in spite of it. She enriches our lives. If we might not have chosen to welcome her into our family, given the choice, then that is a statement more about our ignorance than about her inherent worth.

What I don’t understand is how we as a society can tacitly write off a whole group of people as having no value….

And here’s one more piece of un-discussable baggage: This question is a small but nonetheless significant part of what’s driving the abortion discussion in this country. I have to think that there are many pro-choicers who, while paying obeisance to the rights of people with disabilities, want at the same time to preserve their right to ensure that no one with disabilities will be born into their own families. The abortion debate is not just about a woman’s right to choose whether to have a baby; it’s also about a woman’s right to choose which baby she wants to have.

Amy Welborn makes this apposite comment:

This is not about “having” or “not having” babies with disabilities – the common way of discussing such things, when they are discussed at all. It is about “killing” or “not killing” babies with disabilities. Period.

And Wilfred McClay adds this perspective:

I myself recall having a conversation with a Down’s syndrome adult who noted the disparity between Senator Edward M. Kennedy’s well-publicized support for the Special Olympics, and his equally well-known insistence that no woman should have to bear the indignity of a “defective” or unwanted child. “I may be slow,” this man observed, “but I am not stupid. Does he think that people like me can’t understand what he really thinks of us? That we are not really wanted? That it would be a better world if we didn’t exist?”

This from a speech given by Malcolm Muggeridge in 1978:

If people are only considered to be economic entities whose value is measured by the quality and/or quantity of their productivity, then what conceivable justification is there for maintaining, at great expense and difficulty, mentally and physically handicapped people and elderly? I know, that as sure as I can possibly persuade you to believe: governments will find it impossible to resist the temptation … to deliver themselves from this burden of looking after the sick and the handicapped by the simple expedient of killing them off. Now this, in fact, is what the Nazis did … not always through slaughter camps, but by a perfectly coherent decree with perfectly clear conditions. In fact, delay in creating public pressure for euthanasia has been due to the fact that it was one of the war crimes cited at Nuremberg. So for the Guinness Book of Records you can submit this: That it takes just about 30 years in our humane society to transform a war crime into an act of compassion. That is exactly what happened.

Not only can it happen in America, it is happening in America. In addition to abortion as a means of selecting “superior” specimens, there is genetic engineering, a more overt and frightening project of super-Frankensteinian scale.

There is the long-standing and partly successful push for voluntary euthanasia (a.k.a, assisted suicide). When and where it becomes legal, it provides cover for involuntary euthanasia. It is better to keep it illegal and let those who are truly desperate find reluctant help than to authorize it and invite all-too-willing help. (See Theodore Dalrymple.)

Another initiative, fortunately sidetracked for now, is forced mental screening of school-age children. Though this endeavor was pilloried as a plot by Big Pharma, it carried the seeds of thought- and behavior-control cloaked in a health-care guise. Something like it will be resurrected when the masters of practical thought-control — the Facebook, Google, YouTube generation — come to full political power.

The place to stop Hitlerian schemes is at the outset, before they gain a foothold and provide an excuse for other schemes that wear superficially benign masks. Every Supreme Court decision that enables interference in the lives, liberty, and property of Americans becomes an invitation to — and excuse for — further interference.

(Dr. Sherwin B. Nuland warned strongly against the evil side of eugenics in “The Death of Hippocrates” (The New Republic, September 12, 2004). The article is now hidden behind a paywall, but I excerpted much of it when it appeared. The excerpts are at the bottom of this article.

See also Amy Harmon’s “The Problem With an Almost-Perfect Genetic World“, The New York Times, November 20, 2005, excerpted at length here.)

INVOKING HITLER IS JUST A SCARE TACTIC ISN’T IT?

In answer, I turn to philosopher Jamie Whyte‘s Bad Thoughts – A Guide to Clear Thinking. Specifically, to one of Whyte’s logical errors, which is found under “Shut Up — You Sound Like Hitler” (pp. 46-9). Here’s the passage to which I object:

Anyone who advocates using recent advances in genetic engineering to avoid congenital defects in humans will pretty soon be accused of adopting Nazi ideas. Never mind the fact that the Nazi goals (such as racial purity) and genetic engineering techniques (such as genocide) were quite different from those now suggested.

Whyte seems to believe that policies should be judged by their intentions, not their consequences. Genetic engineering — which Whyte defines broadly — is acceptable to Whyte (and millions of others) — because its practitioners mean well. By that standard:

  • Obamacare, which has caused health-insurance premiums and medical costs to rise ever higher, has been a success because it was meant to cut premiums and costs.
  • Measures to combat CO2 emissions have been successful, even though they have resulted in higher energy costs and there is no demonstrably significant relationship between CO2 emissions and global temperature (whatever that is), and no well- understood relationship between global temperature and human flourishing. (Though people tend to migrate from cold climates to warm ones, and warming produces higher crop yields.)

I cannot find a moral distinction between such “benevolence” and Hitler’s goal of racial purity.

Whyte, in his eagerness to slay many dragons of illogic, sometimes stumbles on his own illogic. Whyte to the contrary notwithstanding, not all invocations of Hitler are inapt. Genetic engineering, Whyte’s primary example, can be Hitlerian in its consequences, regardless of its proponents’ intentions.

I say “can be Hitlerian” because genetic engineering can also be beneficial. There is, for example, negative genetic engineering to cure and treat particular disorders.

I will continue to invoke Hitler where the invocation is apt, as it is in the cases of abortion, involuntary euthanasia, and the breeding of “superior” humans.

(Speaking of philosophers, see this for a demolition of a pro-abortion philosopher’s casuistry.)

IS THERE AN ETHICAL OR UTILITARIAN ARGUMENT FOR ABORTION?

Peter Singer — the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at the University Center for Human Values of Princeton University — says this about his ethical position:

I approach each issue by seeking the solution that has the best consequences for all affected. By ‘best consequences’, I understand that which satisfies the most preferences, weighted in accordance with the strength of the preferences. Thus my ethical position is a form of preference-utilitarianism.

That is to say, Singer sets himself up as an omniscient arbiter and weigher of the preferences of billions of individual humans (and other animals), in the belief that he has a formula for determining “the greatest good of the greatest number”. That is a bankrupt formula.

It’s patently absurd to think of measuring individual degrees of happiness, let alone summing those measurements. Suppose the government takes from A (making him miserable) and gives to B (making him joyous). Does B’s joyousness cancel A’s misery? Only if you’re B or a politician who has earned B’s support by joining in the raid on A’s bank account.

There is much more to say about Singer. Singer sought to exploit the tragic, state-ordered murder of Terry Schiavo, This is from WorldNetDaily:

During the next 35 years, the traditional view of the sanctity of human life will collapse under pressure from scientific, technological, and demographic developments, says controversial bio-ethics professor Peter Singer.

“By 2040, it may be that only a rump of hard-core, know-nothing religious fundamentalists will defend the view that every human life, from conception to death, is sacrosanct,” says Princeton University’s defender of infanticide. “In retrospect, 2005 may be seen as the year in which that position (of the sanctity of life) became untenable,” he writes in the fall issue of Foreign Policy.

Singer sees 2005’s battle over the life of Terri Schiavo as a key to this changing ethic.

The year 2005 is also significant, at least in the United States, for ratcheting up the debate about the care of patients in a persistent vegetative state,” says Singer. “The long legal battle over the removal of Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube led President George W. Bush and the U.S. Congress to intervene, both seeking to keep her alive. Yet the American public surprised many pundits by refusing to support this intervention, and the case produced a surge in the number of people declaring they did not wish to be kept alive in a situation such as Schiavo’s.”…

Yes, people say that they don’t want to share Terri Schiavo’s fate. What many of them mean, of course, is that they don’t want their fate decided by a judge who is willing to take the word of a relative for whom one’s accelerated death would be convenient. Singer dishonestly seizes on reactions to the Schiavo fiasco as evidence that euthanasia will become acceptable in the United States.

Certainly, there are many persons who would prefer voluntary euthanasia to a fate like Terri Sciavo’s. But the line between voluntary and involuntary euthasia is too easily crossed, especially by persons who, like Singer, wish to play God. If there is a case to be made for voluntary euthanasia, Peter Singer is not the person to make it.

Singer gives away his Hitlerian game plan when he advocates killing the disabled up to 28 days after birth. Why not 28 years? Why not 98 years? Who decides — Peter Singer or an acolyte of Peter Singer? Would you trust your fate to the “moral” dictates of a person who thinks animals are as valuable as babies?

Would you trust your fate to the dictates of a person who so blithely dismisses religious morality? One does not have to be a believer to understand the intimate connection between religion and liberty, about which I have written here and here. Strident atheists of Singer’s ilk like to blame religion for the world’s woes. But the worst abuses of humanity in the 20th century arose from the irreligious and anti-religious regimes of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao.

There’s more, from an article at LifeSiteNews:

In a question and answer article published in the UK’s Independent today, controversial Princeton University Professor Peter Singer repeats his notorious stand on the killing of disabled newborns. Asked, “Would you kill a disabled baby?”, Singer responded, “Yes, if that was in the best interests of the baby and of the family as a whole.”…

“Many people find this shocking,” continued Singer, “yet they support a woman’s right to have an abortion.” Concluding his point, Singer said, “One point on which I agree with opponents of abortion is that, from the point of view of ethics rather than the law, there is no sharp distinction between the foetus and the newborn baby.”

Let us be clear: Singer admits that it is the people who don’t support a woman’s “right” to have an abortion who insist that there is no distinction between the fetus and the newborn — or the fetus and an old person whose death might be convenient to others. Given Singer’s endorsement of involuntary infanticide — abortion and the killing of “disabled” newborns (“disabled” as determined how and by whom?) — Singer accepts, by implication, the rightness of involuntary euthanasia.

(There is much more about Singer’s “ethics” here, including his obvious support for “death panels”.)

ALL OF THAT ASIDE, DOESN’T ABORTION LEAD TO A LOWER RATE OF CRIME?

This question lends itself to rigorous statistical analysis. I begin with Freakonomics, by Steven D. Levitt (with Stephen J. Dubner). Here’s how The Washington Post reported Levitt’s findings about the drop in crime:

Freakonomics is packed with fascinating ideas. Consider Levitt’s notion of a relationship between abortion access and the crime drop. First, Freakonomics shows that although commonly cited factors such as improved policing tactics, more felons kept in prison and the declining popularity of crack account for some of the national reduction in crime that began in about the year 1990, none of these completes the explanation. (New York City and San Diego have enjoyed about the same percentage decrease in crime, for instance, though the former adopted new policing tactics and the latter did not.) What was the significance of the year 1990, Levitt asks? That was about 16 years after Roe v. Wade. Studies consistently show that a disproportionate number of crimes are committed by those raised in broken homes or who were unwanted as children. When abortion became legal nationally, Levitt theorizes, births of unwanted children declined; 16 years later crime began to decline, as around age 16 is the point at which many once-innocent boys start their descent into the criminal life. Leavitt’s [sic] clincher point is that the crime drop commenced approximately five years sooner in Alaska, California, Hawaii, New York and Washington state than it did in the nation as a whole. What do these states have in common? All legalized abortion about five years before Roe.

Well, Steve Sailer (among others) has attacked Levitt’s findings:

First, Levitt’s theory is predicated — at least publicly — on abortion reducing the proportion of “unwanted” babies, who are presumed to be more likely to grow up to be criminals. The empirical problem with this is that legalization (which occurred in California, New York, and three other states in 1970 and nationally in 1973), didn’t put the slightest dent in the illegitimacy rate, which is, by far, the most obvious objective sign of not being wanted by the mother and father, and has been linked repeatedly with crime…

… [But] the growth in the illegitimacy rate didn’t start to slow down until the mid-1990s when the abortion rate finally went down a considerable amount.

My article [in the May 9, 2005 edition of The American Conservative] offers a simple explanation, drawn from Levitt’s own research, of why legal abortion tends to increase illegitimacy. [Ed. note: Read the whole thing.]

Second, the acid test of Levitt’s theory is that it predicts that the first cohort to survive being culled by legal abortion should have been particularly law-abiding. Instead, they went on the worst teen murder rampage in American history….

For example, the 14-17 year olds in the not particularly murderous year of 1976 were, on average, born about 1960 (i.e., 1976 – 16 years of age = 1960), so they didn’t “benefit” from being culled by legalized abortion the way that the 14-17 years olds during the peak murder years of 1993 and 1994 should have benefited, according to Levitt.

In contrast, the homicide rate for the 25 and over cohort (none of whom enjoyed the benefits of legalized abortion) was lower in 1993 than in 1983.

If the legalization of abortion did result in less crime it’s only because abortion became more prevalent among that segment of society that is most prone to commit crime. (I dare not speak its name.) What policy does Levitt want us to infer from that bit of causality? Would he favor a program of euthanasia for the most crime-prone segment of society? Now there’s a fine kettle of fish for Leftists, who favor abortion and oppose “oppression” of the the segment of society that is the most crime-prone.

In any event, if abortion does anything, it leads to more crime by women because it “frees” them from child-rearing. In the following graph, the blue and orange lines denote pre- and post-Roe years (with a one-year lag for Roe to take effect).


Derived from Statistical Abstracts of the United States: Table HS-24. Federal and State Prisoners by Jurisdiction and Sex: 1925 to 2001; and Table 338. Prisoners Under Federal or State Jurisdiction by Sex.

It’s women’s lib at work. (A semi-facetious remark.)

In fact, Levitt’s findings are built on statistical quicksand. This is from the abstract of a paper by Christopher L. Foote and Christopher F. Goetz of the Boston Fed:

[A] fascinating paper by Donohue and Levitt (2001, henceforth DL) . . . purports to show that hypothetical individuals resulting from aborted fetuses, had they been born and developed into youths, would have been more likely to commit crimes than youths resulting from fetuses carried to term. We revisit that paper, showing that the actual implementation of DL’s statistical test in their paper differed from what was described. . . .We show that when DL’s key test is run as described and augmented with state‐level population data, evidence for higher per capita criminal propensities among the youths who would have developed, had they not been aborted as fetuses, vanishes.

Whatever abortion is, it most certainly is not a crime fighting tool.

BUT IN THE FINAL ANALYSIS, ISN’T ABORTION CONSISTENT WITH LIBERTY?

Unsophisticated, self-styled libertarian defenders of abortion hold an “anything goes” view of liberty that is in fact antithetical to liberty. They may call themselves libertarians, but they might as well be anti-war protesters who block traffic or “greens” who burn down ski lodges.

Liberty requires each of us to pursue happiness without causing harm to others, except in self-defense. Those libertarian defenders of abortion who bother to give the issue a bit of thought try to build a case for abortion around self-defense, arguing that a woman who aborts is defending herself, and that no one should question her act of self-defense. But that is a ridiculous argument, as I show above.

Where, then, lies a valid libertarian defense of abortion? In privacy? Not at all. Privacy, to the extent that it exists as right, cannot be a general right, as I have also argued above. If privacy were a general right, a murderer could claim immunity from prosecution as long as he commits murder in his own home, or better yet (for the murderer), as long as he murders his own children in his own home.

A “practical libertarian” might argue that legalizing abortion makes it “safer” (less dangerous to the mother), presumably because legalization ensures a greater supply of abortionists who can do the job without endangering the mother’s life, and at a lower price than a safe abortion would command without legalization. I’m willing to grant all of that, but I must observe that the same case can be made for legalizing murder. That is, a person with murderous intent could more readily afford to hire a professional who to do the job successfully and, at the same time, avoid putting himself at risk by trying to do the job himself. “Safety” is a rationalization for abortion that blinks at the nature of the act.

I am unable to avoid the conclusion that abortion is an anti-libertarian act of unjustified aggression against an innocent human being, an act that is undertaken for convenience and almost never for the sake of defending a mother’s life. Murder, too, is an act of convenience that is seldom justified by self-defense. Abortion, therefore, cannot be validated by mistaken appeals to self-defense, privacy, viability, and safety. Nor can abortion be validated (except legalistically) by a series of wrongly decided Supreme Court cases.

A hard-core “libertarian” will take refuge in the dogma that governmental interference in matters of personal choice is simply wrong. By that “logic,” it is wrong for government to interfere in or prosecute robbery, assault, rape, murder and other overtly harmful acts, which — after all — are merely the consequences of personal choices made by their perpetrators.

If the state has any legitimate function, it is to defend the lives, liberty, and property of those subject to its jurisdiction. State sponsorship of abortion is antithetical to that legitimate function. It suborns the killing of innocent human beings whose lives the state ought to protect.

“Liberal” support for abortion is just one more piece of evidence that “liberalism” is the enemy of liberty.

“Libertarian” support for abortion is one more piece of evidence that libertarianism — the dogma — is corrupt and anti-libertarian. (See what happened to Nat Hentoff when he demurred from “libertarian” orthodoxy in the matter of abortion.)

(It would make an already very long article excruciatingly long if I were to elaborate on the preceding point. If you are interested in understanding the anti-libertarian nature of libertarian dogma, go here and follow the links.)


EXCERPTS OF SHERWIN B. NULAND’S “THE DEATH OF HIPPOCRATES” (THE NEW REPUBLIC, SEPTEMBER 12, 2004)

The exhibition [on eugenics at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington] details the influence of eugenics on determining Nazi policy from the time of the party’s assumption of power in 1933 until the end of World War II….Though some have thought of it as an applied science, eugenics is in fact more a philosophy than a science. Its proponents based their notions on genetics, having as their purpose the improvement of the breed. The word was defined exactly that way in 1911 in a book by the eminent American biometrician and zoologist Charles Davenport, director of the Eugenics Record Office at Cold Spring Harbor, New York (elected to the National Academy of Sciences in the following year), who called it “the science of the improvement of the human race by better breeding.”

Eugenicists believed that it is possible, and even a good idea, to attempt to enhance the quality of our species by regulating the reproduction of traits considered to be inheritable….

When Gregor Mendel’s forgotten experiments on inheritable characteristics were rediscovered in 1900, a certain biological legitimacy was conferred on these notions, as unknown factors (later shown to be genes) were identified as the source of traits immutably passed on to offspring, and it was perceived that some are dominant and others recessive….

Once the Mendelian laws of heredity were widely known, eugenics movements were founded in the United States, Great Britain, Canada, Russia, several of the nations of Europe, and even Latin America and Asia. Eugenics research institutes were established in more than a few of these countries, most prominently the United States, England, Germany, Denmark, and Sweden….

Not unexpectedly, eugenics was a creed that appealed to social conservatives, who were pleased to blame poverty and crime on heredity. Liberals–or progressives, as they were then usually called–were among its most vigorous opponents, considering the inequities of society to be due to circumstantial factors amenable to social and economic reform. And yet some progressive thinkers agreed with the eugenicists that the lot of every citizen would be improved by actions that benefited the entire group. Thus were the intellectual battle lines drawn.

It is hardly surprising that National Socialism in Germany would embrace the concept of eugenics. But from the beginning, there was more to Nazi support than the movement’s political appeal or the promise of its social consequences. As is clear from the exquisitely structured and thoroughly reliable accounting of “Deadly Medicine,” the stage was set for the emergence of a drive toward a uniquely German form of eugenics long before the average citizen had ever heard of Adolf Hitler….

The earliest hint of the coming storm had appeared around the turn of the twentieth century, when the German biologist August Weismann definitively showed that changes acquired by an organism during its lifetime cannot be inherited. Weismann’s findings overthrew a theory promulgated a hundred years earlier by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, holding that such adaptations could be passed down to succeeding generations. So-called Lamarckianism had incited controversy since its inception, and its debunking added fuel to the fire of those who believed that human beings inherit not only fixed physical characteristics but also mental and moral ones….

[M]any [eugenics researchers] were serious scientists whose aim was to discover ways in which the very best of the inherited characteristics might be encouraged and the very worst eliminated, with the ultimate goal of curing the ills of society….”By the early 1900s, proponents of eugenics everywhere began to offer biological solutions to social problems common to urbanizing and industrial societies.”…

To large numbers of its host of well-meaning adherents, eugenics was a scientifically and even mathematically based discipline, and many of them actually thought of it as a measurable, verifiable branch of biology that held the promise of becoming an enormous force for good.

Though it must be admitted that the United States, Britain, and Germany became centers for eugenics in part because of each nation’s certainty of its own superiority over all peoples of the world, the fact is that these countries were hardly more chauvinistic than most others. The primary reason they led in eugenic studies is traceable to a far more significant factor: their leadership in science….

The German-speaking institutions were so far ahead of those of every other nation that leading clinicians, researchers, and educators in Europe, Asia, and the Americas considered their training incomplete unless they had spent a period of study at such centers of learning and innovation as Berlin, Würzburg, Vienna, and Bern, or one of the small academic gems among the many outstanding universities in Germany, such as Göttingen, Heidelberg, or Tübingen….

The Germanic medical establishment was heir to a grand tradition of accomplishment and international respect; when it took on eugenics as a worthy goal, it was convinced of the righteousness of its intent. Even when some of its own members began to voice concerns about the direction in which the research and its application were going, many authoritative voices drowned out the relatively few protests.

The process rolled on within a worldwide cultural milieu conditioned by the universally accepted belief that the earth’s population was divided into races, and further subdivided into ethnic groups within them….

The rising power of the international eugenics movement manifested itself in predictable ways, from anti-immigration laws to compulsory sterilization for those deemed unfit, enacted in such “progressive” countries as Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Norway, and parts of Canada and Switzerland — as well as the United States, where some two dozen states had enacted sterilization laws by the late 1920s. The most dramatic moment for Americans came on May 2, 1927, when the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the state of Virginia’s intention to carry out tubal ligation on a “feebleminded” young woman named Carrie Buck, who had given birth to an illegitimate daughter also judged to be retarded, as was Carrie’s mother. Writing the majority opinion in Buck v. Bell, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. stated

It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes…. Three generations of imbeciles are enough.

To a twenty-first-century sensibility, the equation with vaccination is at the very least questionable, but at the height of eugenic thinking, the eight-to-one majority among the justices reflected the general mood of a nation fifteen of whose states (the only ones of the twenty-seven reporting) would by 1933 have sterilized 6,246 of the insane, 2,938 of the feebleminded, fifty-five epileptics, sixteen criminals, and five persons with “nervous disorders.” More than half of these procedures were carried out in four state mental hospitals in California. In almost every state, the law applied only to residents of public facilities, which meant that lower-income groups were affected far out of proportion to their numbers in the population. Some sixteen thousand Americans would eventually be sterilized.

At this time Germany had not yet enacted any sterilization laws, in spite of strong advocacy and much expression of admiration for the American system by the so-called racial hygienicists. All of this foot-dragging ended when Hitler came to power in 1933, and it ended with a vengeance….Between 1934 and 1945, some four hundred thousand people would be forcibly sterilized, most before the war began in 1939. These included, in 1937, about five hundred racially mixed children of German mothers and black colonial soldiers in the French army occupying the Rhineland.

The basis for sterilizing these children was the outgrowth of the notion that a hereditarily gifted nation can retain its greatness only if the heredity remains pure, a thesis that had been widely accepted in Germany (and by many citizens of other countries as well, including our own) for generations….By 1937, the principle of pure blood had manifested itself in many ways, most particularly in the persecution of Jews and the passage of the Nuremberg laws of 1935, officially called “the Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honor,” by which marriage and sexual relations were prohibited between Jews and people of “pure” German blood. Shortly thereafter the Reich Citizenship Law went into effect, declaring that only “Aryan” Germans were citizens and Jews were to be considered “subjects.” This law defined who was a Jew and who was a so-called Mischling, an individual of mixed parentage. From these beginnings as an outgrowth of eugenics — itself a misconceived attempt toward utopia — Nazi racial policy would culminate in the murder of millions and the near-annihilation of European Jewry….

The theorists and the scientists who had until 1933 been able, and sincerely so, to claim detached objectivity for their research, could no longer delude themselves about the purposes for which it was being used. With the ascent to power of the Nazis, they had become, willy-nilly, active participants in the beginnings of genocide….

The murder of children was only the beginning. In October, 1939, Hitler authorized euthanasia for adults housed in German asylums….Between January, 1940 and August, 1941, some seventy thousand adult patients were gassed, their only crime being that they were unproductive members of the Nazi state….

But far worse was to follow….On January 20, 1942, the Wannsee Conference established the policy that would lead to the Holocaust, and from then on the real question became not whether but how….

Looking back with the wisdom of hindsight, it seems so clear that eugenics had always been a dangerous notion, and that its adherents were either deluded or racist. But the fact is that such a realization was slow in coming, and appeared only after matters had gotten completely out of hand and the stage set on which horrendous events would take place. Among the several reasons that medically trained students of eugenics allowed matters to turn so ugly was their failure to recognize a basic fact about the scientific enterprise, which is well known to historians and philosophers of the subject but continues to elude even some of the most sophisticated men and women who actually do the work. Though this fact characterizes science in general, it is even more applicable to the art that uses science to guide it, namely medicine, which was, after all, the underlying source of the momentum that drove the application of eugenic principles.

The basic fact to which I refer is that neither medicine nor science itself derives its “truths” in the thoroughly detached atmosphere in which its practitioners would like to believe they work. Especially in medicine and medical research, the atmosphere not only is not detached, but it is in fact largely the product of the very influences from which its participants seek to free themselves in order to isolate observations and conclusions from external sources and subjectivity. For an early explication of this, we may with profit turn to the father of Justice Holmes, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., who was for some years the dean of Harvard Medical School and bid fair to be called the dean of American medicine in the mid-nineteenth century. Here is what the elder Holmes said in an oration delivered to the Massachusetts Medical Society in 1860, titled “Currents and Countercurrents in Medical Science”:

The truth is, that medicine, professedly founded on observation, is as sensitive to outside influences, political, religious, philosophical, imaginative, as is the barometer to the changes of atmospheric density. But look a moment while I clash a few facts together, and see if some sparks do not reveal by their light a closer relation between the Medical Sciences and the conditions of society and the general thought of the time, than would, at first, be suspected.

The medical theory of any era–and to a somewhat lesser extent the science on which it is based–arises in a setting that is political and social. Not only that, but its directions and even its conclusions are influenced by the personal motivations, needs, and strivings of those who practice it, some of which may not be apparent to these men and women themselves. Though we would have it otherwise, there is no such thing as a thoroughly detached scientific undertaking. The danger in this lies not so much in its truth, but in the inability of society and the community of scientists to recognize the pervading influence of such an unpalatable reality, which flies in the face of the claims that form the groundwork for our worship of the scientific enterprise….

By itself, each of the small steps taken by the eugenics movement in the early part of the twentieth century seemed not just innocuous but actually of real interest as a subject for consideration. Attached to the names of highly regarded scientific thinkers, the theories intended to improve the general level and functioning of a nation had a certain appeal to men and women concerned about social issues….

At what point would I have realized the direction in which all of this was hurtling? Perhaps not until it was too late. Looking back with unbridled condemnation on the beginnings of racial hygiene does not enlighten today’s thoughtful man or woman in regard to how he or she might have responded at the time….

This is not to say that there had not from the beginning been enough evil men lurking at the ready to push the notion of racial hygiene down the slope whose slipperiness they recognized long before men of goodwill awoke to the reality of what they had wrought. Nor is it to say that — even when the worst was becoming evident — many others did not continue to allow the slide to take place and to accelerate because, after all, those being sterilized and euthanized were so unlike themselves. But it is most certainly to say that there is good reason for so many wags and wise men down the centuries to have repeatedly observed that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Sometimes “anarchy is loosed upon the world” not because “the best lack all conviction,” but because they firmly and honestly believe they are doing the right thing.

Doing the right thing: there has never been a period in the modern era when our species has relaxed its fascination with the idea of improving itself….A century ago the buzzword was eugenics. Today it is enhancement. Eugenics is meant to improve the breed and enhancement is meant to improve the individual, but they are too similar in concept to allow us to rest easy with either one.

Today’s molecular biologists and geneticists have dipped a very powerful oar into the ongoing stream of debate about heredity versus environment. Every year — every month — we read about newly discovered genetic factors determining not only physical characteristics but those of morals and mind as well. Sometimes we are even told their precise locations on the DNA molecule. No one knows how much of this will hold up in the coming decades, but we can be sure that a significant proportion of it will be confirmed. Some authoritative scientific voices are telling us that we should take advantage of the new knowledge to fulfill our fantasies of improving ourselves and indeed our species.

These new findings — and the enthusiasm of some of our scientists — take us huge steps beyond the ultimately shaky theoretical platform on which the eugenics movement stood. The debate has for several years been raging between those who look to the lessons of the past and shout warnings and those who see only the utopia of an enhanced future and shout encouragement. In a powerful discourse against reproductive cloning — only one manifestation of the brave new world being foreseen — Leon R. Kass wrote in these pages of “a profound defilement of our given nature … and of the social relations built on this natural ground.” At the far other end of the spectrum is Gregory Stock, director of the Program on Medicine, Technology, and Society at UCLA and one of the new breed called “futurists,” whose enthusiasm for bio-psychoengineering (Kass’s cautionary term for such feats of creativity) and a post-human future is so unbounded that he has gone so far as to title his most recent book Redesigning Humans: Our Inevitable Genetic Future. Inevitable! Even more frightening than the confidence of Stock’s vision for his fellow men and women is the title of the book’s first chapter, in which he outlines his image of how the laboratory will come to control evolution: he calls it “The Last Human,” meaning those few of us remaining whose bodies and minds have been formed by nature alone.

This is genuinely terrifying stuff. Not since the first half of the twentieth century have prominent thinkers been so starry-eyed at the thought of controlling the future of our species, or at least that privileged portion of it that will have the financial, cultural, and other wherewithal to take advantage of the offer being presented to us….Though I admire Stock for his sincerity and the magnitude of his intellect, I am sure that I would have admired more than a few of the early German eugenicists for the very same reasons had I known them as well as I know him. What concerns me is not the progression of the technology, but the inherent creeping hazards in its philosophical underpinning, which is ultimately to improve the breed.

It all sounds very familiar. Looking backward, we can now see the danger in state-enforced policies of improvement, but too many of us have yet to awaken to the equally dangerous reality of improvement that is self-determined. We are once again standing on the slope, from the top of which the future we may be wreaking is already visible. Now is the time to recognize the nature of human motivation — and the permanence of human frailty.

Libertarian Conservative or Conservative Libertarian?

Are they the same thing? No, they are not, as I will try to explain.

A prominent libertarian of my acquaintance once said to me that a libertarian may be a person of conservative mien. His implication was that a libertarian — one who favors (at most) a minimal, night-watchman state — might be conservative in his personal views about, say, the kinds of behavior in which he would engage, even while tolerating behavior, by others, in which he would not engage. A person of such character might be considered a conservative libertarian.  Such a libertarian would not, for example, take a homosexual “marriage” partner or abet an abortion, even though he would (in all likelihood) insist that such things should be allowed by the state (as long as the state is in the business of allowing or disallowing such things).

What, then, is a libertarian conservative? Is he, in effect, the “conservative” libertarian of the preceding paragraph — unwilling to invoke the power of the state against acts in which he would not engage? Is that all there is to it?

Hardly. I have played fast and loose with the idea of conservatism by portraying it as a kind of prudishness or finickiness. Conservatism, properly understood, is not those things.

But I am getting ahead of myself. Let us begin with libertarianism. It is a “big tent” that accommodates anarchists and minarchists. Minarchists believe that government, being inevitable if not necessary, must be kept within strict bounds. Given the inevitabliity of government, it is better to control it than to be controlled by it. It is therefore better to design an accountable one that can be kept within its bounds (or so minarchists hope) than to suffer an imposed regime, most likely an oppressive one.

Why do minarchists prefer strictly limited government? There are two reasons. The first reason is a desire to be left alone, or more elegantly, a deontological belief in the right to be left alone. The second, consequentalist, reason is that voluntary social and economic transactions yield better results than government-directed ones. Friedrich Hayek makes that argument in his essay, “The Use of Knowledge in Society”.

Whether deontological or consequentialist, minarchism holds that the central role of government is to protect citizens from foreign and domestic predators. This protection cannot be absolute, but government’s evident ability and willingness to dispense justice and defend the nation are meant, in part, to deter predators.

More generally, the ideal government is restricted to the protection of negative rights. Such rights, as opposed to positive rights, do not involve claims against others; instead, they involve the right to be left alone by others. Negative rights include the right to conduct one’s affairs without being killed, maimed, or forced or tricked into doing something against one’s will; the right to own property, as against the right of others to abscond with property or claim it as their own; the right to work for a wage and not as a slave to an “owner” who claims the product of one’s labor (e.g., a government that does more than protect life, liberty, and property); and the right to move and transact business freely within government’s sphere of sovereignty (which can include overseas movements and transactions, given a government strong enough to protect them).

To a minarchist, then, rights are limited to those that can be exercised without requiring something of others (e.g., transfers of income and property). The one necessary exception is the cost of providing a government to ensure the exercise of rights. That cost must be borne, in some arbitrary way, by citizens who, on the one hand, see no need for government (i.e., anarchists) and by citizens who, on the other hand, have differing views about how the cost of protecting rights should be shared.

Does minarchism square with conservatism? It all depends on what one means by conservatism, and on the brand of minarchism one has in mind.

There is, in my view, a “core” conservatism, which Russell Kirk articulates in his “Six Canons of Conservative Thought“:

(1) …Political problems, at bottom, are religious and moral problems… (2) Affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of traditional life, as distinguished from the narrowing uniformity and equilitarianism and utilitarian aims of most radical systems. (3) Conviction that civilized society requires orders and classes…. Society longs for leadership…. (4) Persuasion that property and freedom are inseparably connected, and that economic levelling is not economic progress…. (5) Faith in prescription and distrust of “sophisters and calculators.” Man must put a control upon his will and his appetite…. Tradition and sound prejudice provide checks upon man’s anarchic impulse. (6) Recognition that change and reform are not identical….

Kirk’s canons, at first glance, seem orthogonal to minarchism, if not opposed to it.  But they are compatible with right-minarchism (as defined here):

1. Political problems are moral problems. A right-minarchist would say that it is immoral to take from others what they have rightly earned what they possess. There are, of course, persons who profess to be religious and yet believe that it is right for government to take from the “rich” and give to the poor (or whatever group happens to find favor with those who control government at a particular time). But a truly conservative view of the matter is found in the Seventh Commandment: You shall not steal. A Christian is exhorted to do good with his income, sharing with others and being as open-handed as possible toward employees, while meeting his family’s needs and maintaining a viable business. The sharing of one’s income and the property that derives from it is a matter of conscience, not a matter for government to decide.

2. Right-minarchism is not in any way a “radical system.” The only kind of “equalitarianism” to be found in right-minarchism is the equality of rights, which are the same for all. Right-minarchists reject utilitarianism — the belief in a transcendent welfare function — as nothing more than an excuse for dictatorship in the name of “society”. Right-minarchists may even believe that tradition is essential to social cohesion, without which violence and suspicion would displace mutually beneficial coexistence and cooperation.

3. Orders and classes result naturally from spontaneous order,

those ‘natural processes’ which are not the product of reason or intention. The classic example is the free market economy in which the co-ordination of the aims and purposes of countless actors, who cannot know the aims and purposes of more than a handful of their fellow citizens, is achieved by the mechanism of prices. A change in the price of a commodity is simply a signal which feeds back information into the system enabling actors to ‘automatically’ produce that spontaneous co-ordination which appears to be the product of an omniscient mind. The repeated crises in dirigiste systems are in essence crises of information since the abolition of the market leaves the central planner bereft of that economic knowledge which is required for harmony. There is no greater example of the hubris of the constructivist than in this failure to envisage order in a natural process (which is not of a directly physical kind). As Hayek says in “Principles of a Liberal Social Order”:

Much of the opposition to a system of freedom under general laws arises from the inability to conceive of an effective co-ordination of human activities without deliberate organization by a commanding intelligence. One of the achievements of economic theory has been to explain how such a mutual adjustment of the spontaneous activities of individuals is brought about by the market, provided that there is a known delimitation of the sphere of control of each individual.

Right-minarchism fosters spontaneous order, which benefits not only the form of social behavior known as economic activity but all forms of social behavior. Right-minarchism, in short, enables the cream to rise to the top, as the old (pre-homgenization) saying goes. This is true in the economic sphere, where rewards are in keeping with the value that willing buyers place on the products and services of sellers. It is true, also, in the social sphere, where institutions and persons are honored and respected for the value they add to the lives they touch. There are natural “orders and classes”, and they are preferable to the arbitrary ones that are imposed by dirigiste systems.

4. Right-minarchism is founded on the intimate connection of freedom and property. There is no freedom without the right to acquire property, that is, to enjoy the fruits of one’s labor. Leveling amounts to theft, and it removes a vital incentive to act in economically and, therefore, socially beneficial ways.

5. Right-minarchists agree that civil order is an essential condition for productive economic and social intercourse. It therefore follows that free civil institutions — family, church, club, and so on — yield traditions that conduce to civil order. Those traditions may evolve with time, but only as their evolution is found to be beneficial.

6. Right-minarchism rules out change for the sake of a politician’s perceived need for change. It allows changes only where such change is beneficial to the parties affected by it, and voluntarily accepted by them.

In sum, there is no essential conflict between Kirk’s brand of Burkean conservatism and the right-minarchistic branch of libertarianism.

This brings me to Friedrich Hayek — a right-minarchist, in my view — who argued as persuasively as anyone against an intrusive state (though he was not averse to a “social safety net”), but who seemingly rejected conservatism. The famous postscript to Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty is called “Why I Am Not a Conservative”. In the following excerpts, Hayek’s use of “liberal” should be understood as a reference to classical liberalism, the anti-statist position which is the antithesis of modern “liberalism” or “progressivism”:

Conservatism proper is a legitimate, probably necessary, and certainly widespread attitude of opposition to drastic change. It has, since the French Revolution, for a century and a half played an important role in European politics. Until the rise of socialism its opposite was liberalism. There is nothing corresponding to this conflict in the history of the United States, because what in Europe was called “liberalism” was here the common tradition on which the American polity had been built: thus the defender of the American tradition was a liberal in the European sense. This already existing confusion was made worse by the recent attempt [by William F. Buckley Jr. et al.] to transplant to America the European type of conservatism, which, being alien to the American tradition, has acquired a somewhat odd character….

… [The European type of conservatism] by its very nature … cannot offer an alternative to the direction in which we are moving [i.e., toward socialism]. It may succeed by its resistance to current tendencies in slowing down undesirable developments, but, since it does not indicate another direction, it cannot prevent their continuance. It has, for this reason, invariably been the fate of conservatism to be dragged along a path not of its own choosing. The tug of war between conservatives and progressives can only affect the speed, not the direction, of contemporary developments….

… Before I consider the main points on which the liberal attitude is sharply opposed to the conservative one, I ought to stress that there is much that the liberal might with advantage have learned from the work of some conservative thinkers…. However reactionary in politics such figures as Coleridge, Bonald, De Maistre, Justus Möser, or Donoso Cortès may have been, they did show an understanding of the meaning of spontaneously grown institutions such as language, law, morals, and conventions that anticipated modern scientific approaches and from which the liberals might have profited. But the admiration of the conservatives for free growth generally applies only to the past. They typically lack the courage to welcome the same undesigned change from which new tools of human endeavors will emerge….

This fear of trusting uncontrolled social forces is closely related to two other characteristics of conservatism: its fondness for authority and its lack of understanding of economic forces. Since it distrusts both abstract theories and general principles, it neither understands those spontaneous forces on which a policy of freedom relies nor possesses a basis for formulating principles of policy. Order appears to the conservative as the result of the continuous attention of authority, which, for this purpose, must be allowed to do what is required by the particular circumstances and not be tied to rigid rule. A commitment to principles presupposes an understanding of the general forces by which the efforts of society are co-ordinated, but it is such a theory of society and especially of the economic mechanism that conservatism conspicuously lacks….

[T]he main point … is the characteristic complacency of the conservative toward the action of established authority and his prime concern that this authority be not weakened rather than that its power be kept within bounds. This is difficult to reconcile with the preservation of liberty. In general, it can probably be said that the conservative does not object to coercion or arbitrary power so long as it is used for what he regards as the right purposes. He believes that if government is in the hands of decent men, it ought not to be too much restricted by rigid rules….

Hayek’s mentor and colleague, Ludwig von Mises, immediately expressed his agreement with Hayek’s rejection of conservatism:

I completely agree with your rejection of conservatism. In his book Up from Liberalism, Buckley — as a person a fine and educated man — has clearly defined his standpoint: “Conservatism is the tacit acknowledgment that all that is finally important in human experience is behind us; that the crucial explorations have been undertaken and that it is given to man to know what are the great truths that emerged from them. Whatever is to come cannot outweigh the importance to man of what has gone before.” [p. 154]

I quite agree with Hayek and Mises, to the extent that their target is Buckley and his adherents, in whose “conservatism” I could never find a coherent principle, except the one identified by Mises. Buckley’s program, it seems to me, was always one of opposition, expressed so reconditely that it almost defies analysis and refutation. For example, Buckley rightly excoriates the infantile posturing of Murray Rothbard and his anarchistic ilk (here, at “The Right Anarchists”), while at the same time demonstrating the truth of Hayek’s charge that “the characteristic complacency of the conservative toward the action of established authority and his prime concern that this authority be not weakened rather than that its power be kept within bounds”; thus Buckley writes:

… The American conservative believes that the state is as often as not [emphasis added] an instrument of mischief as of good….

But no, children, one does not therefore argue against the existence of the state. The conservative harbors the presumption against any growth in state power.

But apparently not a presumption for the reduction of state power.

Returning to Kirk, we find an affirmation of liberty in his essay, “The Best Form of Government”, which he penned in the year that Hayek rejected conservatism (as he understood it). Kirk applies the idea of spontaneous order, of which Hayek was a leading exponent. But Kirk’s understanding of spontaneous order goes deeper than Hayek’s:

Good government is not of uniform design. Order and justice and freedom are found in diverse ways, and any government which intends to shelter the happiness of its people must be founded upon the moral convictions, the cultural inheritance, and the historic experience of that people. Theory divorced from experience is infinitely dangerous, the plaything of the ideologue….

I am saying this: governments are the offspring of religion and morals and philosophy and social experience; governments are not the source of civilization, nor the manufacturers of happiness. As Christianity embraces no especial scheme of politics, so various forms of government are best—under certain circumstances, in certain times and certain nations. And, far from being right to revolt against small imperfections in government, a people are fortunate if their political order maintains a tolerable degree of freedom and justice for the different interests in society. We are not made for perfect things, and if ever we found ourselves under the domination of the perfect government, we would make mincemeat of it, from pure boredom.

Where does that leave the relationship between conservatism and the right-minarchistic branch of libertarianism? It is superficial to proclaim the virtues of individualism and spontaneous order while rejecting the indispensable, civilizing role of tradition. A libertarian who is not also a Burkean conservative is on a par with his ostensible opponent, the rationalist of the left:

How deeply the rationalist disposition of mind has invaded our political thought and practice is illustrated by the extent to which traditions of behaviour have given place to ideologies, the extent to which the politics of destruction and creation have been substituted for the politics of repair, the consciously planned and deliberately executed being considered (for that reason) better than what has grown up and established itself unselfconsciously over a period of time…. This is, perhaps, the main significance of Hayek’s Road to Serfdom — not the cogency of his doctrine, but the fact that it is a doctrine. A plan to resist all planning may be better than its opposite, but it belongs to the same style of politics. And only in a society already deeply infected with Rationalism will the conversion of the traditional resources of resistance to the tyranny of Rationalism into a self-conscious ideology be considered a strengthening of those resources. [Michael Oakeshott, “Rationalism in Politics,” in Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays, new and expanded edition, pp. 26-7]

What conclusions do I draw from the preceding tour of libertarianism and conservatism? These:

It is entirely possible to be a libertarian conservative, that is, a conservative (of Burkean stripe) who believes that humane values are most likely to survive and thrive under the aegis of a minimal state.  This kind of conservative is an adherent of right-minarchism, which is a species of libertarianism. And, in my view, right-minarchism is the only kind of libertarianism that is both coherent and viable.

A libertarian of conservative mien — a so-called conservative libertarian — will favor a minimal state (if any), by definition. But such a person may be “conservative” only in matters of personal taste, and not because he subscribes to the conservatism of Burke and Kirk. He may in fact be in favor of governmental efforts to demolish long-standing social norms. He will give his support to such efforts in the name of liberty and without regard for the true bulwark of liberty: the restraining influence of voluntarily evolved norms of behavior.

In short, a “conservative” libertarian is in all likelihood a left-minarchist. Left-minarchists — who support state action to impose “equality” of various kinds — dismiss (or are ignorant of) the importance of social norms in binding a people together in mutual respect, trust, and forbearance. And it is that bond — far more than the threat of state action — which allows us to go about our daily lives in the peaceful pursuit of happiness.

That said, libertarians (of all stripes) and conservatives (“conservative” yahoos excepted) have a common political enemy: the over-reaching state. Libertarians who are tempted to make cause with “liberals” because they happen to agree with “liberals” about the permissibility of certain kinds of behavior should resist the temptation. There is nothing to be gained from an alliance with “liberals”, who will only use libertarian arguments cynically to advance measures that suppress liberty.

And what is liberty? It is not “do as you will as long as you don’t harm others”. That definition, adapted from John Stuart Mill’s oft-invoked “harm principle,” is an empty concept unless it rests on a specific, agreed definition of harm. Liberty — the absence of harm — is therefore a social construct. That is to say, liberty is a modus vivendi for a group of individuals. It comes down to this:

peaceful, willing coexistence and its concomitant: beneficially cooperative behavior.

What could be more conservative?


Related reading:
Carson Holloway, “Conservatism and Freedom”, Public Discourse, November 8, 2013
Jonathan Neumann, “God, Hayek, and the Conceit of Reason”, Standpoint, January/February 2014 (This is generally applicable to libertarians, though it misses Hayek’s defense of tradition; see this post, for example.)
Claude S. Fischer, “Libertarianism Is Very Strange”, Boston Review, January 27, 2014
Glenn Fairman, “Libertarianism and the Public Good”, American Thinker, January 29, 2014
Scott Yenor, “The Problem with the ‘Simple Principle’ of Liberty“, Law and Liberty, March 19, 2018


Related posts:
On Liberty
What Is Conservatism?
Line-Drawing and Liberty
Pseudo-Libertarian Sophistry vs. True Libertarianism
Intellectuals and Society: A Review
The Golden Rule and the State
Government vs. Community
Bounded Liberty: A Thought Experiment
Evolution, Human Nature, and “Natural Rights”
More Pseudo-Libertarianism
More about Conservative Governance
The Meaning of Liberty
Understanding Hayek
The Golden Rule as Beneficial Learning
Facets of Liberty
Burkean Libertarianism
What Is Libertarianism?
True Libertarianism, One More Time
Human Nature, Liberty, and Rationalism
Utilitarianism and Psychopathy
The Libertarian-Conservative Fusion Is Alive and Well
Why Conservatism Works
Liberty and Society
The Eclipse of “Old America”
Genetic Kinship and Society
Liberty as a Social Construct: Moral Relativism?
Defending Liberty against (Pseudo) Libertarians
Defining Liberty
Conservatism as Right-Minarchism
The Pseudo-Libertarian Temperament
Parsing Political Philosophy (II)
Modern Liberalism as Wishful Thinking
Romanticizing the State
Governmental Perversity
Libertarianism and the State
“Liberalism” and Personal Responsibility
My View of Libertarianism
More About Social Norms and Liberty
The Authoritarianism of Modern Liberalism, and the Conservative Antidote
Another Look at Political Labels
Individualism, Society, and Liberty
Social Justice vs. Liberty
Economically Liberal, Socially Conservative
The Harm Principle Revisited: Mill Conflates Society and State
Liberty and Social Norms Re-examined
Natural Law, Natural Rights, and the Real World
Natural Law and Natural Rights Revisited
Rescuing Conservatism
Disposition and Ideology

Economic Growth and Its Inhibitors

I. THE CAUSES OF ECONOMIC GROWTH

Economic growth has several causes:

1. Hard work

The tradeoff here is with “non-work” activities, and the tradeoff can be costly. But those who choose wisely in sacrificing non-work activities then acquire additional cash income, which can be used to offset the loss of non-work time and/or to improve the tools of one’s trade.

2. Smart work

Working smarter requires education, specialized training, and on-the-job learning. Today’s workers are (on the whole) more productive than their predecessors because the education, training, and on-the-job learning of today’s workers incorporates lessons learned by their predecessors.

3. Saving and investment

Resources that are saved (not used to produce consumption goods) can flow into investment (services and goods such as pharmaceutical research and development, advanced computer and telecommunications technologies). It is investment that enables the production of new, more, and better consumer goods with a given amount of labor. (Government investment is an inferior alternative to private investment.)

4. Invention, innovation, and entrepreneurship

These are the primary activities through which saving becomes investment, usually via the medium of financial institutions. Inventors, innovators, and entrepreneurs (along with shareholders, creditors, and financial intermediaries) accept the risks associated with failure and the rewards of success. It is the prospect of rewards that encourages invention, innovation, and entrepreneurship — and the benefits they bestow on workers and consumers. (Invention, innovation, and entrepreneurship — like work — are “socially responsible” activities because the pursuit of gain is motivated by the satisfaction of wants.)

5. Trading

If A makes bread and B makes butter — and if both prefer buttered bread — both benefit from trade. Where they produce bread and butter matters not; A and B could be neighbors, live in different parts of the United States, or one of them could live in a different country. In any event, both are made better off through voluntary exchange.

6. Population growth

Given the foregoing, a larger population means more people to work “hard” and “smart”; more output that can be saved and invested; more inventors, innovators, and entrepreneurs whose activities can be leveraged into greater per-capita output; and a multiplication of opportunities for beneficial voluntary exchange.

7. The rule of law under a minimal state

Predation — whether by individuals, mobs, or governments — discourages everything that fosters economic growth. The more that government tries to direct the economy, the less it will grow to satisfy material wants.

II. THE RECORD SINCE WORLD WAR II

The record of economic growth in America since World War II captures the effects — negative and positive — of these factors. The result is a cautionary tale against governmental interference in the economy.

The  Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA) issues a quarterly spreadsheet giving quarterly and annual estimates of current- and constant-dollar (year 2009) GDP, from 1947 to the present. BEA’s numbers yield several insights about the course of economic growth in the U.S.

I begin with this graph:

FIGURE 1

The exponential trend line indicates a constant-dollar (real) growth rate for the entire period of 0.8 percent quarterly, or 3.2 percent annually. The actual beginning-to-end annual growth rate is 3.1 percent.

The red bands parallel to the trend line delineate the 95-percent (1.96 sigma) confidence interval around the trend. GDP has been running at the lower edge of the confidence interval since the first quarter of 2009, that is, since the onset of the Great Recession.

The vertical gray bars represent recessions, which do not correspond precisely to the periods defined as such by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER). I define a recession as:

  • three or more consecutive quarters in which real GDP (annualized) is below real GDP (annualized) for an earlier quarter, during which
  • the annual (year-over-year) change in real GDP is negative in all, or all but one, quarters during the span.

Thus the NBER places the Great Recession from December 2007 to June 2009 — 18 months in all; whereas, I date it from the first quarter of 2008 through the second quarter of 2011 — 42 months in all. The higher figure seems right to me.

My method of identifying recessions is more objective and consistent than the NBER’s method, which one economist describes as “The NBER will know it when it sees it.” Moreover, unlike the NBER, I would not presume to pinpoint the first and last months of a recession, given the volatility of GDP estimates.

The following graph illustrates that volatility, and something much worse — the downward drift of the rate of real economic growth:

FIGURE 2

It’s not a pretty picture.

Here’s another ugly picture:

FIGURE 3

Rates of growth (depicted by the exponential regression lines) clearly are lower in later cycles than in earlier ones, and lowest of all in the current cycle.

It should not surprise you to learn that we are in the midst of the weakest recovery of all post-war recoveries:

FIGURE 4

In this connection, I note that the “Clinton boom“ — 3.4 percent real growth from 1993 to 2001 — was nothing to write home about, being mainly the product of Clinton’s self-promotion and the average citizen’s ahistorical perspective. The boomlet of the 1990s, whatever its causes, was less impressive than several earlier post-war expansions. In fact, the overall rate of growth from the first quarter of 1947 to the first quarter of 1993 — recessions and all — was 3.4 percent. The “Clinton boom” is the boom that wasn’t.

Even more depressing (pardon the pun) — but unsurprising — is the feeble rate of growth from the end of the Great Recession through the end of 2017: 2.2 percent. It will not get much better as long as the fiscal and regulatory burden of government grows, the economy will slide deeper into stagnation.

Which brings me to the Rahn Curve.

III. THE RAHN CURVE IN ACTION

The theory behind the Rahn Curve is simple — but not simplistic. A relatively small government with powers limited mainly to the protection of citizens and their property is worth more than its cost to taxpayers because it fosters productive economic activity (not to mention liberty). But additional government spending hinders productive activity in many ways, which are discussed in Daniel Mitchell’s paper, “The Impact of Government Spending on Economic Growth.” (I would add to Mitchell’s list the burden of regulatory activity, which grows even when government does not.)

What does the Rahn Curve look like? Mitchell estimates this relationship between government spending and economic growth:

FIGURE 5
Rahn curve (2)

The curve is dashed rather than solid at low values of government spending because it has been decades since the governments of developed nations have spent as little as 20 percent of GDP. But as Mitchell and others note, the combined spending of governments in the U.S. was 10 percent (and less) until the eve of the Great Depression. And it was in the low-spending, laissez-faire era from the end of the Civil War to the early 1900s that the U.S. enjoyed its highest sustained rate of economic growth.

Elsewhere, I estimated the Rahn curve that spans most of the history of the United States. I came up with this relationship (terms modified for simplicity (with a slight cosmetic change in terminology):

Yg = 0.054 -0.066F

To be precise, it’s the annualized rate of growth over the most recent 10-year span (Yg), as a function of F (fraction of GDP spent by governments at all levels) in the preceding 10 years. The relationship is lagged because it takes time for government spending (and related regulatory activities) to wreak their counterproductive effects on economic activity. Also, I include transfer payments (e.g., Social Security) in my measure of F because there’s no essential difference between transfer payments and many other kinds of government spending. They all take money from those who produce and give it to those who don’t (e.g., government employees engaged in paper-shuffling, unproductive social-engineering schemes, and counterproductive regulatory activities).

When F is greater than the amount needed for national defense and domestic justice — no more than 0.1 (10 percent of GDP) — it discourages productive, growth-producing, job-creating activity. And because government spending weighs most heavily on taxpayers with above-average incomes, higher rates of F also discourage saving, which finances growth-producing investments in new businesses, business expansion, and capital (i.e., new and more productive business assets, both physical and intellectual).

I’ve taken a closer look at the post-World War II numbers because of the marked decline in the rate of growth since the end of the war (Figure 2).

Here’s the revised result, which accounts for more variables:

Yg = 0.0275 -0.347F + 0.0769A – 0.000327R – 0.135P

Where,

Yg = real rate of GDP growth in a 10-year span (annualized)

F = fraction of GDP spent by governments at all levels during the preceding 10 years

A = the constant-dollar value of private nonresidential assets (business assets) as a fraction of GDP, averaged over the preceding 10 years

R = average number of Federal Register pages, in thousands, for the preceding 10-year period

P = growth in the CPI-U during the preceding 10 years (annualized).

The r-squared of the equation is 0.73 and the F-value is 2.00E-12. The p-values of the intercept and coefficients are 0.099, 1.75E-07, 1.96E-08, 8.24E-05, and 0.0096. The standard error of the estimate is 0.0051, that is, about half a percentage point. (Except for the p-value on the coefficient, the other statistics are improved from the previous version, which omitted CPI).

Here’s how the equations with and without P stack up against actual changes in 10-year rates of real GDP growth:

FIGURE 6
rahn-curve-model-actual-vs-estimates-with-and-without-p

The equation with P captures the “bump” in 2000, and is generally (though not always) closer to the mark than the equation without P.

What does the new equation portend for the next 10 years? Based on the values of F, A, R, and P for 2006-2015, the real rate of growth for the next 10 years will be about 1.9 percent. (It was 1.4 percent for the version of the equation without P.) The earlier equation (discussed above) yields an estimate of 2.9 percent. The new equation wins the reality test, as you can tell by the blue line in Figure 2.

There are signs of hope, however. The year-over-year rate of real growth in the four quarters of 2017 were 2.0, 2.2, 2.3, and 2.5 percent, following the dismal rates of 1.4, 1.2, 1.5, and 1.8 percent for four quarters of 2016. A possible explanation is the election of Donald Trump and the well-founded belief that his tax and regulatory policies would be more business-friendly.

IV. GOVERNMENT VS. GROWTH: A NATURAL EXPERIMENT

Although the central government’s tentacles reach deep into every State’s economy, there is still latitude for State and local action — or lack thereof. Republican-controlled States should have somewhat freer economies than Democrat-controlled ones. (See, for example, the Tax Foundation’s 2018 Business Climate Tax Index.) Republican-controlled States should therefore be more growth-prone than Democrat-controlled ones. Regional statistics support this hypothesis:

FIGURE 7

Constructed from the regional data tool of the Bureau of Economic Analysis, starting here.

The red lines represent regions that are dominated by Republican-controlled States; the blue lines, regions dominated by Democrat-controlled States. The constituent States of each region are as follows:

Southwest — Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas

Rocky Mountain — Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Utah, Wyoming

Far West — Alaska, California, Hawaii, Nevada, Oregon, Washington

Plains — Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota

Southeast — Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia

New England — Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont

Mideast — Delaware, DC, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania

Great Lakes — Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin

V. EMPLOYMENT VS. BIG GOVERNMENT AND DISINCENTIVES TO WORK

The real unemployment rate is several percentage points above the nominal rate. Officially, the unemployment rate stands at 4.1 percent, as of February 2018. Unofficially — but in reality — the unemployment rate is 10.3 percent.

How can I say that the real unemployment rate is 10.3 percent, even though the official rate is only 4.1 percent? Easily. Just follow this trail of definitions, provided by the official purveyor of unemployment statistics, the Bureau of Labor Statistics:

Unemployed persons (Current Population Survey)
Persons aged 16 years and older who had no employment during the reference week, were available for work, except for temporary illness, and had made specific efforts to find employment sometime during the 4-week period ending with the reference week. Persons who were waiting to be recalled to a job from which they had been laid off need not have been looking for work to be classified as unemployed.

Unemployment rate
The unemployment rate represents the number unemployed as a percent of the labor force.

Labor force (Current Population Survey)
The labor force includes all persons classified as employed or unemployed in accordance with the definitions contained in this glossary.

Labor force participation rate
The labor force as a percent of the civilian noninstitutional population.

Civilian noninstitutional population (Current Population Survey)
Included are persons 16 years of age and older residing in the 50 States and the District of Columbia who are not inmates of institutions (for example, penal and mental facilities, homes for the aged), and who are not on active duty in the Armed Forces.

In short, if you are 16 years of age and older, not confined to an institution or on active duty in the armed forces, but have not recently made specific efforts to find employment, you are not (officially) a member of the labor force. And if you are not (officially) a member of the labor force because you have given up looking for work, you are not (officially) unemployed — according to the BLS. Of course, you are really unemployed, but your unemployment is well disguised by the BLS’s contorted definition of unemployment.

What has happened is this: Since the first four months of 2000, when the labor-force participation rate peaked at 67.3 percent, it declined to 62.3 percent in 2015 before rebounding slightly to 63.0 percent:

FIGURE 8

Source: See next figure.

Why the decline, which had came to a halt during G.W. Bush’s second term but resumed in late 2008? The economic slowdown in 2000 (coincident with the bursting of the dot-com bubble) can account for the decline from 2000 to 2004, as workers chose to withdraw from the labor force when faced with dimmer employment prospects. But what about the sharper decline that began near the end of Bush’s second term?

There we see not only the demoralizing effects of the Great Recession but also the growing allure of incentives to refrain from work, namely, extended unemployment benefits, the relaxation of welfare rules, the aggressive distribution of food stamps, and “free” healthcare” for an expanded Medicaid enrollment base and 20-somethings who live in their parents’ basements*. That’s on the supply side. On the demand side, there are the phony and even negative effects of “stimulus” spending; the chilling effects of regime uncertainty, persisted beyond the official end of the Great Recession; and the expansion of government spending and regulation, as discussed in III.

If the labor-force participation rate had remained at its peak of 67.3 percent, so that the disguised unemployed was no longer disguised, the official unemployment rate would have reached 13.1 percent in October 2009, as against the nominal peak of 10 percent. Further, instead of declining to the phony rate of 4.1 percent in February 2018, the official unemployment rate would stand at 10.3 percent.

In sum, the real unemployment rate was 3.1 percentage points above the nominal rate in October 2009; the real rate is now 6.2 percentage points above the nominal rate. The growing disparity between the real and nominal unemployment rates is evident in this graph:

FIGURE 9

Derived from SeriesLNS12000000, Seasonally Adjusted Employment Level; SeriesLNS11000000, Seasonally Adjusted Civilian Labor Force Level; and Series LNS11300000, Seasonally Adjusted Civilian labor force participation rate. All are available at BLS, Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey.

It will not have escaped your notice that the Obama regime is responsible for much or most of the damage done to the workers of America. It remains to be seen whether and to what extent Mr. Trump can undo that damage.
_________
* Contrary to some speculation, the labor-force participation rate is not declining because older workers are retiring earlier. The participation rate among workers 55 and older rose between 2002 and 2012. The decline is concentrated among workers under the age of 55, and especially workers in the 16-24 age bracket. (See this table at BLS.gov.) Why? My conjecture: The Great Recession caused a shakeout of marginal (low-skill) workers, many of whom simply dropped out of the labor market. And it became easier for them to drop out because, under Obamacare, many of them became eligible for Medicaid and many others enjoy prolonged coverage (until age 26) under their parents’ health plans. For more on this point, see Salim Furth, “In the Obama Economy, a Decline in Teen Workers” (The Daily Signal, April 11, 2015), and Stephen Moore, “Why Are So Many Employers Unable to Fill Jobs?” (The Daily Signal, April 6, 2015).

Recommended Reading

Leftism, Political Correctness, and Other Lunacies (Dispatches from the Fifth Circle Book 1)

 

On Liberty: Impossible Dreams, Utopian Schemes (Dispatches from the Fifth Circle Book 2)

 

We the People and Other American Myths (Dispatches from the Fifth Circle Book 3)

 

Americana, Etc.: Language, Literature, Movies, Music, Sports, Nostalgia, Trivia, and a Dash of Humor (Dispatches from the Fifth Circle Book 4)

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