When one Benzion Chinn wanted to dialogue with me regarding my supposed "authoritarianism" as an atheist who doesn't want pseudoscience taught in the classroom, I gladly decided to engage in this discussion. Benzion is a doctoral student of Matt Goldish at Ohio State University; his future dissertation is entitled Political Messianism: Medieval Jewish Messianic Movements and Theorists and their Earthly Politics. Benzion descends from a well-regarded haredi rabbinic family and he is (although I'm not sure if he knows it) a friend of two very good friends of mine. I must admit that I don't keep up with his blog like I should, but I do read things he writes and he seems like a thoughtful guy. We also met at a previous Association for Judaic Studies conference and shared a table; he was very friendly and very cheerful. So he seems cool, so I have no problem with trying out shmoozing with such a person about politics.
Unfortunately, our dialogue deteriorated. I contacted him on facebook chat and he was conciliatory. And nothing I've read by Benzion before has been particularly nasty, so I'm willing give this dialogue one more go. Here I'm going to start over and provide a more focused critique of Benzion's view of government.
There have been some other things that have come up in our discussion which I vehemently disagree with Benzion on; my understanding is that he views all scholars who have engaged in the activist tradition (e.g. Benny Morris, David Myers, Lawrence Kaplan, to name some people from different specialties in Jewish Studies who might well disagree with each other on many things) as engaging in the same tactics as haredi historical revisionists since both groups write some of their scholarship with agendas. Unfortunately, I don't think I'll be able to address all of my concerns in detail, but instead I will in this series just focus on my differences with Benzion regarding government.
Benzion's Libertarian View of the Role of Government
Benzion's view of government seems quite simple:
Government only has a legitimate interest in protecting people from direct physical harm.
That's it. That is the only thing government can do.
Now, I contacted Benzion to get some more details of what he means by physical harm. Harm to property counts. As for bank regulation, Benzion sees the government as able "to stop banks from conspiring to rip off their [customers]." However, there's a heavy burden of proof on the government to show that the banks had actual intent to mislead.
Outside of protecting a person from physical harm, government action is never a virtue. This leads us to the educational question of what schools should be teaching. Here's what he thinks about said matter:
...if we are going to have public schools, and it looks like we are going to be stuck with them for the near future, this is what you will need in order to minimize government infringement on personal liberties. If government is going to decide that education is an arena worthy of its interest then the government must be prevented from putting a meaningful definition on the term. The government can give money for "education" and it will be left to parents and school boards to decide what "education" means and spend the money accordingly. If they decide that science education means intelligent design or even creationism that should be their right. To be clear, white supremacist parents should also be left to decide that holocaust denial is a form of history and use government money to teach that.
Under such circumstances, giving over a meaningful education is likely to be a problem. This is a price I am willing to pay. It is the price that every supporter of freedom agrees to pay; believing in freedom means that allowing people to pursue their own misguided and destructive beliefs, no matter how horrific the consequences, is better than employing the slightest bit of coercion. Of course, as a supporter of freedom, I am also an optimist and believe that, in the long run, getting government less involved with education will mean more good teachers giving over a meaningful education to outweigh the intelligent designers, the creationists and even the holocaust deniers.
Benzion later clarified:
Part of the social contract we sign is that we allow people to come to harm through their ideas. This includes their children, whom they have the right to raise according to these ideas. If someone thinks that sweatshops or even brothels are good places for a child to receive an education then so be it.
Now I asked Benzion about this and he follows his logic all the way down: to him, as long as the parents give consent and the kid is convinced to will to go into the relationship himself (for monetary purposes, for example), pedophilia is muttar.
If you disagree with Benzion on his general view of government limitations, you have a psychological problem. Personally, I am diagnosed with "suffering from a lack of a theory of mind;" "at a physiological level...[I simply do] not get that there are other people out there who believe differently...and are equally convinced of their beliefs..." Benzion later comes to sympathize with my plight: "One should not think ill of Baruch...Being a true liberal, one who respects all beliefs and refuses to use any physically coercive measures, even against those he disagrees with, to force people to go against those beliefs, requires years of disciplined critical thinking. It is something I still strive to work on in myself."
Not "The American Way"
If Benzion's libertarianism is a necessary condition for psychological stability as he implies, those who learn about the founding fathers are going to need a DSM-IV guide as a required textbook.
As David Frum recently pointed out, the founders were coming from a different cultural context. For example:
...it’s a very striking fact that the language that to our ears sounds most “libertarian” in the Founding generation tended most often to issue from those most committed to slavery. By contrast, the Founding Fathers who sound most “statist” — Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams — tended also to be most hostile to slavery.
This disjunction is more than some odd little paradox of history. It is a resounding klaxon warning of the enormous gap between the 18th century mindset and our own. Samuel Johnson jeered at the American colonists: “How is that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?” Johnson’s accusation of hypocrisy is obviously well-founded, but there is something more going on here than hypocrisy. It was precisely the intimate awareness of the horror of unfreedom — and possibly guilt for the denial of freedom to others — that inspired the passionate concern for liberty among so many slaveholders. When Patrick Henry said that he would rather be dead than share the fate of the 75 slaves he owned, he was not engaging in metaphor. But he was also not expressing 21st century libertarianism.
But, as we shall see, this would be an inaccurate description of their views. Asides from their different context, there's the things the Founders were cool with which don't come under the context of prohibiting physical harm. As William Campbell has noted:
...no, the founding fathers were neither libertarians nor Lockeians.* Private property was subject to salutary regulations by state and local governments and these were enshrined in the police powers. In the current context, control over pornography or blue laws or zoning were not considered illegitimate uses of government power. They were not considered out of court on the grounds of some right to economic freedom.
We see here that the founders didn't maintain Benzion's view of government, but instead allowed control over all sorts of things which didn't have anything to do with the physical harm which he professes is the sole sort of harm the government needs to protect against.
Libertarianism as Theology and Optimism as a Tenet of the Faith
"Of course, as a supporter of freedom, I am also an optimist and believe that, in the long run, getting government less involved with education will mean more good teachers giving over a meaningful education to outweigh the intelligent designers, the creationists and even the holocaust deniers."
No one in this world, so far as I know — and I have searched the record for years, and employed agents to help me — has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people.
Benzion supports libertarianism because he believes as a matter of principle that people deserve liberty. Feeling that people deserve liberty, he is "of course" forced to be optimistic about the prospects of his system.
Benzion's forced smile is quite different than my own skepticism. This is perhaps an irreconcilable difference in outlook, so bringing statistics showing how poor America is doing in so many areas compared to other Western nations and predicting how making the system a free-for-all won't help might be superfluous.
One Paul Kienitz puts it well:
This is the first reason I do not support the present Libertarian movement: because it demands that I take so much on faith. It is too clearly an article of faith that one must believe that certain untested actions will have beneficial outcomes. Since the real world offers no evidence whatever to back up these expectations as certainties, but only offers the hope that it might happen if the path is cleared, any sensible person has to conclude that trying it might be quite a gamble. But a true Libertarian, in my experience, can be depended on to insist that it's no gamble at all.
Indeed. Or as Benzion might put it, of course.
To be continued...
*I'm not necessary endorsing the assertion at the Founding Fathers weren't Lockeians, I don't know enough about Locke to make an assertion on that point.