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Friday, September 1, 2006

Book Reviews – September 2006


On Political Equality

By Robert A. Dahl

Yale University Press • 2006 • 142 pages • $24.00

Reviewed by Richard M. Ebeling

In many of his writings during the first half of the twentieth century, the Italian classical-liberal historian Guglielmo Ferrero explained that the social crisis through which the Western world had been passing since the French Revolution was about the basis of political legitimacy.

For practically all of recorded history, the most commonly experienced political regime was hereditary monarchy. Its rationale was order, continuity, and stability. Everyone knew his place and duties in society, and each person was assured a status that provided a degree of security—or so the theory and justification went.

The monarch could claim to provide this because he was sovereign over all he ruled—not merely the land and the objects on it, but his subjects as well. While tradition and various political compromises placed certain restraints on what he could do and for what reason, everything over which he lorded was his property.

The French Revolution, Ferrero argued, ushered in the idea of a new sovereign: the people. But what exactly did this mean? In the American variation on this theme, the focus was generally on the sovereign individual. The individual is endowed with certain inalienable rights, and the political order is meant merely, though importantly, to secure the rights to life, liberty, and property from individual or organized aggression.

Starting in Europe, however, democracy soon became the political vehicle for the expression of the people’s will. An individual’s freedom was expressed through his participation in and the results following from the political process. At first the vote was limited, often to men who owned some defined amount of real property. The justification for that limitation was that such individuals had demonstrated the responsibility, forethought, and practical wisdom essential to making decisions affecting the institutions and laws of society. Furthermore, having established a degree of wealth, they might be more likely to be above the everyday temptations of material corruption.

But if the people are sovereign it seemed logically inconsistent to limit the “freedom” to vote to a minority of the citizenry. So by the early decades of the twentieth century, the logic of the democratic ideal led to the extension of the franchise to a growing number of citizens, until it has come to be generally accepted that every adult individual in society has a right to participate in the political decision-making process.

The crisis of legitimacy of which Ferrero spoke has largely been due to the ambiguity concerning the limits and content of the people’s sovereignty. It also has been closely associated with the connection between political and social equality. This is the theme of Robert A. Dahl’s recent book, On Political Equality. Dahl, the Sterling Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Yale University, clearly considers the essence of freedom to be participation in the political process. But if freedom is to be experienced equally by all in society, their political equality must be matched by a high degree of social equality.

At first he couches his argument in terms of what no citizen should be prevented from doing: no eligible citizen should be prevented from voting or have his vote omitted. Further, no citizen should be restricted from obtaining information with which to make an informed judgment and from freely participating in political debates and discussions if he so chooses.

It soon becomes clear that to Dahl this “negative” freedom from any obstruction to voting and participation is necessary for political equality, but it isn’t sufficient. He proceeds to present an “ideal” state of political equality that requires an array of government-provided “positive” freedoms if his conception of a democratic utopia is ever to prevail.

In Dahl’s ideal democratic world, each individual would be assured the financial means and the free time to become informed, knowledgeable, and able to participate in political discussions leading up to an election. He bemoans the fact that territorial size and population density preclude the practice of the stylized “town meeting” where all a community’s citizenry come together, have their say, and then reach their collective decisions about all the affairs of society.

I referred to all the affairs of society because while Dahl admits that socialism has failed as a political and economic system, he only reluctantly accepts that there is no viable substitute for a market economy. (In a footnote he seems sorry that the case for “market socialism” never was given the hearing he thinks it deserved.) Yes, capitalism “delivers the goods,” but it “causes” unemployment, poverty, business cycles, monopolies, as well as not enough housing, medical care, and retirement funding, along with too much greed and selfishness. In Dahl’s world the role of government is to regulate, control, and restrict the actions of businessmen so the market will bring forth its horn of plenty without generating any of those bad side-effects.

Worst of all, capitalism creates an unequal distribution of wealth, which means in his eyes that some have more power and influence over the government than others because they have more time and money to participate in politics. But since for Dahl the only real and important freedom is political participation, he never considers that the answer to the problem of political abuse, corruption, and plunder is to reduce the involvement of government in human affairs. In his eyes that would be placing all the important issues of society in the “unfree” world of social and market relationships.

Indeed, while he admits that many people actively and even enthusiastically support and participate in various social and community endeavors, what they lack is a spirit of political community. In Dahl’s view only in the political arena can we all really be equal and part of the human experience of shared life and purpose.

It comes as no surprise, therefore, that when Dahl tells us toward the end of the book what he thinks would make for a more democratic society, he proposes: (a) raising the minimum wage; (b) more subsidies to “the poor” and for child care; (c) universal health care, through more government involvement; (d) government-subsidized and -manipulated retirement plans; and (e) various political reforms to give “people” rather than “powerful interests” a controlling say over the political destiny of the country.

For Dahl, these are both means and ends. They are ways of making people more politically equal, and they represent the unspoken ideal of general egalitarianism that underlies his conception of the truly democratic and therefore “free” society.

This means that the crisis of political legitimacy, about which Ferrero wrote, is still unresolved. Is the role of the state to secure the liberty of individuals to be sovereign over their own lives, or is the state to serve as the coercive means for floating majorities to rule as the sovereign over the lives of all? If Robert Dahl were to have his way, the individual would be reduced to just a vote in the democratic collective mass.

Richard Ebeling is president of FEE.

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed

by Jared Diamond

Viking/Penguin • 2005 • 575 pages • $29.95 hardcover; $17.00 paperback

Reviewed by Gene Callahan

Jared Diamond’s book Collapse is essentially the second volume of  the work begun by his prize-winning Guns, Germs, and Steel (1998). While the earlier book attempted to isolate why certain societies have succeeded, the later one focuses on why others have failed. Collapse examines a few paradigmatic cases of societies disappearing, including the ancient Mayans, the Easter Islanders (of giant-stone-head fame), the Greenland Norse, and the Anasazi of New Mexico. Diamond then discusses a few case studies of modern environmental problems and responses, in Haiti, Rwanda, Montana, New Guinea, and elsewhere. His primary thesis is that environmental degradation is the chief cause of society-wide failure.

Diamond is an engaging writer, and his books are always filled with fascinating stories. But he is not a historian (he was trained as a physiologist and is now a professor of geography), and it shows in the way he cherry-picks through secondary sources to find those that support his preconceptions. For example, in one of the primary historical episodes he narrates, Diamond contends that the Norse settlements in Greenland expired primarily because those Scandinavian colonists did not adapt sufficiently to their new environment due to their rigid cultural ties. One purported piece of evidence for that claim is that, despite the wealth of fish available at their doorstep, the Norse settlers did not eat them. Their foolish abstention is demonstrated, according to Diamond, by archeologists’ failure to find fish bones in Norse “middens” (piles of rubbish).

But J. J. Arneborg and other Danish and Icelandic researchers have used chemical analysis of Norse remains to refute Diamond. They have shown that the diet of those Greenlanders shifted dramatically toward marine foods over several centuries, and that there is no reason to expect to find fish bones in their middens: The bones decay rapidly and are also eaten by birds, dogs, and pigs.

In discussing the Norse, Diamond’s desire to make a point sometimes so consumes him that he cannot even maintain his train of thought for an entire sentence. He declares, “In trying to carry on as Christian farmers, the Norse were prepared to die as Christian farmers, rather than live as Inuit; they lost that gamble.” But the Norse decided they would prefer to die as Christian farmers than live as Inuit, and they did so: How is that “losing a gamble”?

Another instance of Diamond’s prejudicial choice of evidence, this time related to the collapse of the Easter Island civilization, is detailed by Benny Peiser of Liverpool University, who writes:

It is generally agreed that Rapa Nui’s oral traditions are untrustworthy and of relatively late origin; they are extremely contradictory and historically unreliable. . . . In spite of this . . . Diamond insists that these highly questionable records are reliable. . . . Without his confidence in the reliance on mythology and concocted folklore, Diamond would lack any evidence for pre-European civil wars, cannibalism and societal collapse. . . . In many ways, Diamond’s methodological approach suffers from a manifest lack of scientific scrutiny. . . . [H]e consistently selects only the data and interpretations that seem to confirm his conviction that Easter Island self-destructed.

Furthermore, Diamond appears to draw the same sort of conclusions from any evidence whatsoever. For example, he says, “Montanans’ pioneer commitment to individual freedom and self-sufficiency has . . . made them reluctant to accept their new need for government planning and for curbing individual rights.” He doesn’t consider that many of the Montanans’ problems stem from government interventions, nor how poorly “government planning and . . . curbing individual rights” worked as an environmental policy in the Soviet Union, Communist Eastern Europe, or Red China.

In pondering why “environmental rationality,” as he sees it, does not always triumph, Diamond explains that “economists . . . attempt to justify [the irrational focus] on short-term profits by ‘discounting’ future profits,” as though such discounting were just an accounting sleight of hand developed to rape Mother Nature, rather than a fundamental principle of all finance. He proceeds to contradict his call for suppressing individual rights by noting that people generally behave more rationally as individuals than as part of a crowd! And he further undermines his own thesis by describing how it was strong property rights, and not government regulations, that ensured the environmental care with which Chevron recently developed an oil field in Papua New Guinea.

The frequency of these oversights raises the question of whether Diamond’s real interest is in safeguarding the environment or in increasing the amount of governmental control of society. That is the most fundamental, if far from the only, problem in his work. Collapse is worth reading, but it is a deeply flawed book that fails to achieve its grand ambition of transforming the way history is done.

Gene Callahan is the author of Economics for Real People.

Economic Liberties and the Constitution

by Bernard H. Siegan

Transaction Publishers • 2005 • 419 pages • $49.95 hardcover; $29.95 paperback

Reviewed by George C. Leef

One of the books I most often refer to is the original edition of Economic Liberties and the Constitution, published in 1980. When I bought it I was just a few years out of law school, and I remember thinking, “I wish I had been able to take some courses from Professor Siegan.” What he had written was a ringing defense of the proposition that economic liberties—property rights, freedom of contract, and the right to engage freely in peaceful occupations and commerce—are every bit as important under the Constitution as are “civil” liberties. As a student I had learned about the Supreme Court’s demolition of constitutional protections for economic liberties and read some sharp criticism of the decisions in which the Court had determined that economic liberties weren’t important enough to shelter from meddlesome legislatures. What Siegan’s book did was to put the entire controversy into clear legal and historical perspective.

Last year Professor Siegan, who taught at the University of San Diego School of Law until his death this past March, undertook a revision and expansion of the book. He added several chapters dealing with changes since 1980; there have been many important court decisions since then. Some decisions are good, and some are quite bad, such as Kelo v. New London. Siegan also added commentary on changes in the world since the first edition was published, particularly the collapse of communism. The new edition thus gives the reader a more comprehensive view of the importance of economic liberties to progress and prosperity.

The core of both editions is Siegan’s excellent analysis of the Constitution’s intended protection for private property, freedom of contract, the right to enter into a trade or business, and other aspects of economic freedom. He demonstrates that our common-law heritage kept the state from interfering in those areas of life and that the Constitution was written with a view toward shielding them from the anticipated attacks by interest groups through legislation. If you have ever wondered how we got from the almost unbounded economic liberty of the early United States to the highly regulated conditions we have today, this book explains the transformation.

Madison was right that the evils of faction would lead to the erosion of liberty if it were allowed to go unchecked. In the nineteenth century, judges often blocked legislation (mostly at the state level) that deprived owners of their common-law rights, although there were some notable breaks in the dike. It was in the twentieth century that “progressive” judges decided that Congress and state legislatures should be given a free hand to deal with the socioeconomic problems of the time. Siegan recounts the key cases of the “substantive due process” approach that the Court employed to invalidate many legislated attacks on economic liberties until the mid-1930s. He also recounts the disastrous shift to a constitutional jurisprudence favorable to statism that occurred during the New Deal.

Of course, the Constitution hadn’t changed. It was just that during the desperate economic troubles of the Depression, judges more and more succumbed to the notion that government must be allowed to “experiment” with policies supposedly designed to improve the economy. The experiments they approved entailed the curtailment of contractual freedom and property rights, especially for people in business.

In his chapter “Destroying the Original Constitution,” Siegan spars with contemporary defenders of the New Deal Court’s decision that it should give legislatures “deference” in economic matters because of their supposed expertise. Justice Stephen Breyer and Harvard law professor Lawrence Tribe, two advocates of that dubious theory, come in for strong criticism. Both favor giving Congress and state legislatures wide latitude in economic regulation, contending that as long as there is some “rational basis” for a statute or regulation, courts should not interfere. Writing about Justice Breyer, Siegan says, “[O]ne must conclude that the justice’s views on legislative powers are unique to him rather than a principled interpretation of legislative power under the Constitution.”

The idea that the Founders would have approved of the current regime of mandates and prohibitions on people who wish to exercise their economic liberties has always been absurd. Reading Siegan’s book makes the point all the more clear.

Siegan’s new material takes the book somewhat away from the original edition’s focus on the demolition of economic liberty in the United States (it unfortunately leaves out some important cases, such as The Slaughter-house Cases and Munn v. Illinois, both of which were key late-nineteenth-century victories for the enemies of economic liberty) and turns the book into more of an argument for economic liberty worldwide. His new ninth and tenth chapters explain why statism has been a failure everywhere and show that the freest nations economically are where the greatest progress and prosperity are found.

Bernard Siegan was an excellent scholar and consistent defender of freedom. His passing is to be lamented.

George Leef is the book review editor of The Freeman.

Kidney for Sale by Owner: Human Organs, Transplantation, and the Market

by Mark J. Cherry

Georgetown University Press • 2005 • 258 pages • $26.95

 Reviewed by William L. Anderson

When I was a graduate student I had a professor who had been through a kidney transplant. Being both an economist and someone badly in need of a new kidney had led him to examine the dynamics of organ transplantation and, more specifically, why it was that people often had to wait years before a human organ was available. He came to the conclusion that the current government-run system leads to needless deaths and that a market system in organs would be economically and morally appropriate.

My professor is in a distinct minority. The law prohibits individuals from selling organs, and anyone who disobeys can find himself in federal court facing serious prison time. The sale of organs is illegal because most people in power regard organ sales as immoral—or at least that’s the reason they give for the current policy.

Yet, as Mark Cherry demonstrates, the current government-run system has an enormous cost. From 1992 to 2001, he notes, “more than 44,308 patients died while waiting for organ transplants. . . . An additional 6,385 people died in 2002, and 6,509 in 2003.” In the face of these staggering numbers, Cherry writes:

Despite the significant potential of commercialization to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of organ procurement and distribution, to shorten waiting time, and thereby to reduce human suffering—while expanding the number of available organs—the possibility of creating a market in human organs for transplantation provokes in many feelings of deep moral repugnance, conjuring up nightmarish images of spare parts medicine.

Cherry, who teaches philosophy at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas, believes otherwise, and examines the various arguments against organ sales. While he deals with the economic issues, his attack on the current regime of prohibition originates from a moral and philosophical point of view. In other words, he looks at the situation through the lens of a philosopher, not an economist. His conclusions, however, square somewhat (he wants a “regulated” market) with what we might hear from an economist trained in the Austrian tradition.

If the current regime is to be overturned, it will take more than the utilitarian arguments that most economists (though not necessarily Austrian) are likely to give. Cherry provides a strong philosophical justification for change.

It isn’t entirely correct to say that organs can’t be bought and sold. The buying and selling prohibition applies to individuals (dead or alive) from whom viable organs are “harvested.” For example, if I were to perish in a manner in which some of my vital organs could be given to someone else, my family would have to agree to give those organs to a procurement agency, and not receive a penny in recompense.

However, the procurement agency may then sell them to the hospital where the transplant takes place (at a profitable price, not surprisingly). Of course, doctors in this system benefit handsomely as well, since the relatively few transplants that can take place (due to the organ shortage) also means that the supply of qualified doctors will be less than what it would be otherwise.

No one either in a position of lawmaking authority or employed within the donor system will say that the laws exist to protect the incomes of those who procure organs and perform transplants, but there is no doubt that the current order does just that. Paying individuals for human organs may be “morally repugnant,” but there are those who profit well from this forced altruism.

Cherry challenges the conventional wisdom on organ sales by beginning with the libertarian axiom of self-ownership. Here’s how he lays out his argument: individuals own their bodies, and the state has no moral authority to employ nebulous “social justice” arguments to circumvent that fact. He writes:

The significance of persons, especially regarding individual authority over one’s body and one’s bodily integrity, has become central to moral and legal reflections on the practice of medicine. Common law understood interest in the integrity of the person to include interest in his body and all the things that are in contact or connected with it. Property expresses the rights of persons in and over things. . . . A person’s authority over himself, to freedom of choice regarding the use of his body, is central to understanding personal integrity. [Author's emphasis.]

One can almost hear Murray Rothbard saying that. It is good to read these words from someone who teaches in a humanities discipline, given that the liberal-arts side of the university has become a haven for the worst kinds of statism. In fact, throughout the book, Cherry expertly attacks the notion that the state should be the moral arbiter over consensual decisions made by individuals.

Kidney for Sale isn’t an easy read, but it provides vital intellectual ammunition for those who believe that the current regime must be changed.

William Anderson ([email protected]) teaches economics at Frostburg State University in Maryland.


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