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Not All Choices Are Equal

Sheldon Richman

Opponents of the freedom philosophy never run out of insipid rebuttals. The latest to have a go at it is Martin Wolf of the Financial Times.

Wolf ponders the question, “What is the role of the state,” and notes that a “strand” of classical liberalism (or libertarianism) “believes the answer is to define the role of the state so narrowly and the rights of individuals so broadly that many political choices (the income tax or universal health care, for example) would be ruled out a priori.”

Wolf here looks at choice from the perspective of the group, although only individuals choose. Thus he thinks if individuals are free, society is not free to do all that it might want to do, such as tax people’s incomes.

But the contest is not between society and individuals. So actually Wolf is lamenting that if libertarians had their way, some people could not use the State to restrict other people’s choices through the threat and use of aggressive force.

It is certainly true that libertarianism rules out some choices. But some choices are illegitimate. I can’t join Wolf in seeing a moral equivalence between wanting to keep the fruits of one’s labor and wanting to deprive others of theirs.

Wolf thinks libertarianism is “a hopeless strategy, both intellectually and politically.”

Why intellectually? “[B]ecause the values people hold are many and divergent and some of these values do not merely allow, but demand, government protection of weak, vulnerable or unfortunate people. Moreover, such values are not ‘wrong’. The reality is that people hold many, often incompatible, core values.”

I’m sorry, but I don’t quite get this. Is Wolf saying that government is the only advocate of the weak? When has government ever truly been the advocate of the weak? In any political system—including democracy—some are closer to power than others; some have a comparative advantage in manipulating the system, but it’s not the weak and vulnerable. Those in power use the weak to justify their usurpations. The weak may even be provided some level of succor—after having been exploited through mercantilism, corporatism, or one of the other alternatives to the free market. They must be pacified and rendered harmless, after all.

Wolf is certainly right that people hold incompatible values. One payoff of liberalism is that it permits peaceful coexistence among such people. When religion was a State matter, everyone had to be concerned that if his sect didn’t control the government, he would be persecuted. When no sect could gain political power, that threat disappeared and people could live peacefully even if they didn’t particularly like each other.

And why is liberalism hopeless politically? “[B]ecause democracy necessitates debate among widely divergent opinions. Trying to rule out a vast range of values from the political sphere by constitutional means will fail. Under enough pressure, the constitution itself will be changed, via amendment or reinterpretation.”

Here Wolf stands on more solid ground. If people generally see nothing wrong in taking other people’s things or otherwise depriving them of liberty, they will undoubtedly get around any constitutional prohibition. A constitution is only as good as people’s understanding of it. No constitution interprets itself. We can’t program a computer with The True Meaning and have it resolve all constitutional disagreements. People will do the interpreting, and no interpretation can put an end to the interpretative process.

I have no simple answer for how to establish liberty or prevent ideological erosion once it’s established. Through a variety of activities (cultural and educational) we’ll have to re-instill the libertarian maxims most people learn as children but fail to apply politically: Don’t hit, don’t take other people’s stuff, and don’t break your promises (contracts). Libertarianism is just the consistent application of those maxims. Maybe, as Anthony de Jasay suggests, these need to become taboos—things people just don’t do, even if they can’t recite a philosophical argument telling you why.

* * *

Until now the world of fashion has been innovative and competitive without the protection of “intellectual property” law, but some want Congress to extend copyright to fashion design. Good idea? Edward López has his doubts.

The adage “less is more” is an important guide to explicit rulemaking. Thomas Snyder and Noel Campbell find an example in an unlikely place.

We’ve seen mandated recycling of trash before. Get ready for the next step: electronic surveillance of your recycling and refuse activities. Wendy McElroy has the details.

In recent decades many nations made at least some progress in expanding economic freedom. However, the response around the world to the latest economic debacle has caused the index of economic freedom to decline. James Gwartney, Robert Lawson, and Joshua Hall interpret the results they have compiled.

Since 1980 the U.S. government has required 18-year-old males to register with the Selective Service System, although no draft has been in effect since the mid-1970s. There is a criminal penalty for not complying, but as N. Joseph Potts explains, there are other penalties as well.

Can an economy be stimulated by extending unemployment benefits? Our Keynesian culture thinks so. James Ahiakpor dissents.

Rare earth elements are becoming increasingly important in the production of high-tech products, with China being a major producer. Should the U.S. government stockpile these materials to guard against supply disruptions? Warren Gibson takes up the question.

Although inconsistent, the California courts are beginning to see that free speech is rooted in property rights and that owners should be free to set the rules. Steven Greenhut looks at recent cases.

In the columns department, Lawrence Reed expresses his admiration for Scotland’s William Wallace. Thomas Szasz reflects on the nature of psychiatry’s “bible.” Stephen Davies celebrates the Scottish Enlightenment. John Stossel sounds the alarm for entrepreneurs under attack. David Henderson ponders the proposed Islamic center in Lower Manhattan. And Ivan Pongracic, Jr., confronting the ipse dixit that wealth distribution would end the recession, responds, “It Just Ain’t So!”

The coming dollar crisis, the orgy of government spending, the drug war, and democratic tyranny are the subjects of books under review this issue.

Capital Letters challenges the argument that savings lowers GDP.

Sheldon Richman, Editor
[email protected]

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