Thursday, January 5, 2012

Hard Libertarianism (Part I)

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:’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.

Perhaps one might read the above and think the founding fathers may have been libertarians in pure Chinnian fashion who simply failed to incorporate slaves into their (libertarian) moral communities.

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:, 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."
--Benzion Chinn
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.
--H.L. Mencken

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.


  1. This to me is just... disturbing

    "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."

    If the role of government is to protect the population from harm, why isn't it their role to protect children from harm from their parents? Seriously why is it even considered that parents are allowed to harm their children by sending them to be raped at brothels? wtf

  2. This is not mentioned anywhere in your discussions but I think this point needs to be brought up eventually, it is something that seems so simple but it look me a long time to finally understand it.

    Governments do not care about your children, they do not care about your welfare, they do not care about your pensions, they do not care about your safety. If government actually cared for your children they would not indebt two generations to interest payments through no fault of their own. If government actually cared for human life and property they would not kill off 200,000 people in a forgein country who caused no threat to you at all. So whenever people propose that the government ought to do whatever because they care for us I am immediately skeptical to this idea.

    Think about it this way. The government is a concentration of power. If so then does it not make sense to say that the government will act in a way to try to attain as much as power as possible? The government's first primary concern is for its own power, not for you or your children. It cares just as much about you and your children as a tobacco company whose primary interest is to make as much money possible.

    I do not believe in angels, just people. I do not think there are magical beings that act in benevolence only towards the people. Instead the world consists of people, mostly pathetic people like you and I. And if people themselves do not care about their fellow humans then neither will the government, because it just consists of the very same pathetic people.

  3. "As David Frum recently pointed out, the founders were coming from a different cultural context."

    True, but Frum does not correctly diagnose.

    The Framers were relying on a Christian morality.

    Frum seems to think libertarians today rely on Ayn Rand, which is patently false; Objectivists rely on her, but libertarians do not necessarily do so. So libertarians do not necessarily rely on Rand's philosophy of selfishness.

    Libertarians can have any personal moral code, whether Christian or otherwise. But they are all united in believing that morality belongs to the church, not the state. The First Amendment forbids the state to have anything to do with morality or ideology. What libertarianism means, is that it is the state's job to thwart thieves and murderers, and that it is the job of the church ( = ideology) to improve the quality of life in ALL other ways.

  4. "But they are all united in believing that morality belongs to the church, not the state. The First Amendment forbids the state to have anything to do with morality or ideology."

    No it does not. It only states that the Government cannot make a law respecting the establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. This right is not without limits. If your religion practices child sacrifice the Constitution will not protect it. Laws of all stripe are almost always based upon some kind of moral judgment, which may or may not have a basis in an established religion.

  5. "...This right is not without limits. If your religion practices child sacrifice..."

    Granted. Okay, let me get more precise, then:

    The First Amendment was meant, as Justice Joseph Story says, to level all Protestant religions with each other, but not to equalize Christianity with Judaism and Islam. Alternatively, it did level all religions, even Judaism and Islam. But either way, it was only on the federal level. The real purpose of that amendment was merely to protect the state established churches from federal interference. Thomas Jefferson's letter of 23 January 1808 to Samuel Miller evinces a similar view. Therefore, the notion of incorporating the First Amendment onto states is absurd. Some of the men who ratified the First Amendment, actually believed in full religious liberty. Others, however, were merely jealous for their state established churches. So how the hell do you incorporate that into the states via the 14th Amendment?

    Now then, if you read works of those who believed in full religious liberty (as opposed to merely jealously protecting the state church), works like John Locke's "A Letter Concerning Toleration," James Madison's "Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments," Thomas Jefferson's The Virginia Act For Establishing Religious Freedom", and John Leland's The Rights of Conscience Inalienable; and therefore Religious Opinions not cognizable by Law: Or, The high-flying Churchman, stript of his legal Robe, appears a Yahoo, you'll see the following: that the justification for all these men, was based on the principles of Protestant Christianity. The underlying principle among them all, is that religion is within the jurisdiction and sovereignty of God alone, that no man on earth (whether pope or government official) has the authority to make laws regarding religion. Every man has the freedom to believe whatever he wants, and no man has the right to force him otherwise. The intent of religious liberty, according to these men, is to give all men the ability to worship God freely. In fact, John Locke and James Madison even say that an atheist has no right to religious freedom, because he doesn't believe in the God who granted that freedom in the first place. Similarly, Thomas Jefferson said elsewhere, "God who gave us life, gave us liberty at the same time. Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed their only sure basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that those liberties are the gift of God?" For all these men, religious liberty was a Protestant Christian principle, viz. the opposition to popery, and the freedom of every man to read the Bible for himself and come to his own conclusion. If the First Amendment enshrines religious liberty (which is doubtful, as I show above, regarding states v. the federal government), then the First Amendment is itself a Christian document.

    to be cont.

  6. cont. from above

    But the fact is this: if we extrapolate, we'll see that the concern of being allowed to worship God freely, applies to other areas of life as well, besides religion. If men must be free to worship God, without being compelled to join foreign religious and perform strange rituals not to their liking, does this not also mean that men must not be compelled to believe in or practice other ideologies, such as communism? The Framers spoke of religion alone, merely because religion was the ideology, par excellence. But if you read their concerns, you'll see that their concerns apply generally to all ideologies, not only religious ones. Why should I be forced to subsidize (with my taxes) a public school that teaches doctrines not to my liking? How is that different than forcing me to subsidize a church not to my liking?

    Returning to religious liberty being a Christian concept, in fact, James Madison explicitly credits Martin Luther in his letter of 3 December 1821. Madison is referring to Martin Luther's doctrine of the two kingdoms, in which the state possesses a temporal sword to punish crime and violence, and the church possesses a spiritual sword to punish heresy and inculcate orthodoxy, and neither may infringe on the other's jurisdiction. Both, however, are subordinate to God. Therefore, under Luther's doctrine, the state is separate from the church, but is still subordinate to God and subject to His commands. Christianity is binding on the state no less than on the church, only a different subset of the laws of Christianity is applicable to each, according to the station assigned by God. (Similarly, the fact that only kohanim (priests) can offer qorbanot (sacrifices), does not mean that everyone else is "secular.")

    So in fact, according to Madison, the morality of the United States's laws was to be a Christian morality. Again, the First Amendment was merely meant to equalize all Protestant sects with each other, but Christianity in the abstract was still to be supreme. The morality of the laws was to be an exclusively Christian one. There was to be no established church, enforcing dogma and ritual, but the state was still to enforce Christian morality. In fact, the First Amendment is very precise, speaking of a religious "establishment," and Jefferson speaks of the separation of "church" and state; the words "establishment" and "church" (as opposed to "religion") are chosen very deliberately, to refer not to religion or Christianity in the abstract, but rather, to concrete entities, to structured organizations. The First Amendment forbids the favoring of a church establishment (Baptist, Anglican, Congregationalist, Presbyterian), but not the favoring of Christianity in the abstract. That's why even people like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison could issue Christian thanksgiving proclamations, calling for repentance and prayer to God.

    to be cont.

  7. cont. from above

    Thomas Jefferson, in his famous letter to the Danbury Baptists, speaks of the "wall of separation between Church & State." Now, writing to the Baptists, it makes sense that Jefferson made a reference to Roger Williams, who said, "...when they have opened a gap in the hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world, God hath ever broke down the wall itself, removed the candlestick, and made His garden a wilderness, as at this day. And that therefore if He will eer please to restore His garden and paradise again, it must of necessity be walled in peculiarly unto Himself from the world..." We should notice three things: (1) Jefferson is relying on Roger Williams, so we Jefferson's doctrine of the separation of church and state is obviously a Christian one; (2) the purpose of the wall is to protect the garden of the church from the wilderness of the state, with the threat being not that the church will corrupt the state, but the opposite, that the state will corrupt the church; (3) the church is to be kept peculiarly unto God, which is the same concern we saw earlier, that religion is something that only God, not the state, has jurisdiction over.

    end of my comments

  8. In short: the Framers' political philosophy, regarding religious liberty, tended towards libertarianism, but their moral philosophy was always a Christian one. As I said earlier, libertarianism is merely a political philosophy, and can be paired with any moral philosophy. Ayn Rand chose Objectivism to accompany her libertarianism, while the Framers chose Christianity.

  9. Clarification: As Jefferson shows, in letter to Samuel Miller, he did not issue thanksgiving day proclamations as President of the United States. However, as Governor of Virginia, he did issue such proclamations. Evidently, Jefferson considered the First Amendment merely a technical legal impediment, but still felt that theoretically, the issuing of religious proclamations was legitimate for the government. On the state level, where no legal restriction existed, he was free to pursue this. This is all the more interesting, given that Jefferson himself authored the "The Virginia Act For Establishing Religious Freedom." Now, that act was not yet in effect when Jefferson was governor, but presumably, he still believed in its tenets. So apparently, Jefferson felt that while the First Amendment forbade the issuing of thanksgiving proclamations, by contrast, the not-yet-legislated "The Virginia Act For Establishing Religious Freedom," authored by him himself, no less, did not. So it is difficult to imagine how on earth we could incorporate the First Amendment via the Fourteenth, when apparently, the First Amendment was of such a peculiar character, limited to the federal government, and intended, according to some, to merely protect the state established churches from federal interference, and intended, according to Jefferson, to be legally more onerous and restrictive than what was morally necessary and proper for the states.

  10. Oh, and this is interesting: on the same day that Jefferson and Madison submitted their "The Virginia Act For Establishing Religious Freedom" (which Jefferson authored, and which Madison defended and advocated for with his "Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments," the two being partners in the endeavor), James Madison also submitted a "Bill for Punishing Disturbers of Religious Worship and Sabbath Breakers." Just as Jefferson felt there was nothing wrong with issuing religious proclamations, Madison thought there was nothing wrong with punishing Shabbat desecrators.

  11. Nothing you have said is incorrect, its just that within the application of things, where the rubber meets the road there is no decision that is made without some kind of moral intuition. If every decision can be called religion because it has a moral component then nothing can get done without impacting someone else's right to exercise their religion. There are people (maybe you) who believe that all taxation is a form of theft and they believe it with as much zeal as the greatest fundamentalist believes his own dogma. However, in the real world, we do not consider tax avoidance to be a religion and to do so would make it impossible to have a government. Thus the only argument here is about the general views of the majority. If the general society considers something religious it is, if not not.

  12. "[T]here is no decision that is made without some kind of moral intuition."

    I completely agree. And that is exactly why I interpret the First Amendment the way I do. The purpose of the First Amendment was to protect people from having to violate their consciences, to forbid laws that constrain conscience by forcing men to be complicit in things contrary to their beliefs. And if so, why is any non-theistic moral system (such as communism) any different from a theistic one (such as Christianity)? In any case, all of the foundational documents of America indicate that if any moral system at all was admissible and permissible, it was either natural law (which was generally identical to Christianity) or else Christianity.

    "...then nothing can get done..."

    Bingo! Or, more correctly, nothing can get done which violates the Constitution. Remember that when the Anti-Federalists called for a Bill of Rights, the Federalists replied that it was not necessary, because the Federal government had only those power already explicitly delegated to it. Because the Federal government has no delegated power over religion, therefore, the First Amendment is superfluous and redundant. So indeed "nothing can get done" except that which the Constitution already permits. The Constitution permits there to be an army for the defense of the nation, but nowhere does it permit a public schooling system.

    "If the general society considers something religious it is, if not not."

    Nowhere in any of the founding documents of America have I been able to find anything referring to majority rule.

    I did find these, however:
    --- Alexander Hamilton, "No friend to order or rational liberty can read without pain and disgust the history of the Commonwealths of Greece ... [which were, generally speaking] a constant scene of the alternate tyranny of one part of the people over the other, or of a few usurping demagogues over the whole. ... The ancient democracies, in which the people themselves deliberated, never possessed one feature of good government."
    --- John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, saying, "I am very glad you have seriously read Plato; and still more rejoiced to find that your reflections upon him so perfectly harmonize with mine. ... My disappointment [with Plato] was very great, my astonishment was greater, and my disgust was shocking. ... Some parts of some of his dialogues are entertaining like the writings of Rousseau, but his Laws and his Republic, from which I expected most, disappointed me most."

    So I am at a loss to account for your opinion that "religion" can be defined by "general society." That sounds like Rousseau, not Locke.

  13. We have a government of laws, not men. And citizens of the country are also men. Ergo, our country is not based on the will of the people. It was never meant to be. It is based on law, both natural law and positive law.