On Sleep

A lot of political theory takes the family as fundamental: people having sex and producing more people is how society re-creates itself, which surely has to be important, right?

Of course the assertion is true, but how important is it? Specifically, how relevant is it to our political institutions, particularly when compared to other aspects of human biology?

Consider sleep. For several hours every day, even the strongest and cleverest people will become unconscious, whether they want to or not. During that time, even many of the weakest and least clever will be able to kill them. Easily. Not only that, but aggressors could perpetrate this act far more often than any biologically reproductive couple might be able to produce babies.

If we’re going to try to boil down political institutions to some kind of biological degree zero, why settle on sex? Why isn’t sleep the (rhetorical?) reason that we have society?

Low-Information Voters Always Want More.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the recent, Hillary-induced fad for increasing the number of low-information voters. It’s been assisted powerfully by Ezra Klein, who wants you to know, no matter how smart you may be, that he personally knows even better than you do. (One of Klein’s peculiar talents seems to be the capacity to say how very much smarter he is than everyone else, and to make a certain class of information consumer feel really good about it.)

But I want to know how this policy might play out in the real world. What are the things that experts of all ideological kinds generally dislike, and that low-information voters generally love? If we increase the number of low-information voters, we can expect to get more of exactly these sorts of policies, and less of the policies on which there is an expert consensus at odds with the typical low-information view. (The impact in other policy areas will likely be a wash; on many of them, there are high- and low-information voters on both sides. Adding more low-information voters won’t matter much, because they’ll tend to cancel each other out.)

Bryan Caplan has already shown in his book The Myth of the Rational Voter that voters of all sorts routinely make serious economic errors, errors that prevent them, even, from acting in ways that would economically benefit themselves: They oppose free trade, even though it’s good for the economy and doesn’t destroy American jobs. They oppose immigration, even though the very same considerations apply. They are biased toward make-work policies that ultimately end up impoverishing workers. And on and on.

Now, it may be that we would not be comfortable with a franchise so narrow that it only included those with a basic competence in economics. Still, it should be said that only a basic competence is needed to address stylized positions outlined above and reject them. This the vast majority of professional economists has already done. We need not throw out democracy. We could say, instead, let the people vote, and perhaps they’ll learn something.

But what price will we pay as they do? It’s not simply an economic one. I’m looking for example at this month’s Cato Unbound, which is a particularly gross example of expert consensus confronting the desires of the low-information voter. From the lead essay by Galen Baughman:

Civil commitment is the legal practice of detaining individuals who are suffering from acute symptoms of severe mental illness so that they can be treated, often in a secured environment. In this model, the state is providing care for individuals who are unable to care for themselves, while protecting the public from individuals who are dangerous due to their psychiatric condition. Sounds reasonable, right? Over the past 25 years, however, new laws have been created, designed to use the traditional model of civil commitment as a way to create secondary prison sentences for people who have already paid their debt to society, dramatically expanding the power of the state and blurring the lines between civil and criminal law…

These new civil commitment laws differ from the traditional model of involuntary commitment in several key ways. First, traditionally the person subjected to civil commitment is not targeted after the completion of their prison sentence as a means to tack on additional incarceration to that which the court had already meted out – instead, the person who has committed an offense is either considered culpable for a crime and therefore punished in our criminal justice system or found to be in need of treatment and diverted to the civil system. The new civil-criminal hybridized version of civil commitment is designed to imprison the person again under a civil “sentence” after completing their criminal sentence.

In short, pre-crime is not some dystopian future. It’s present-day America. My charge is as follows: We got here because low-information voters demanded it, and despite the vigorous dissent of the experts.

I should say that this was a highly unusual issue of Cato Unbound. Typically I strive to stir up an argument among experts. A high-level intellectual exchange, with reasonable and well-informed points all around. The end product is ideally a document that, if read attentively, will leave everyone a little more uncertain. Uncertainty is where I think we all very often belong, even if it’s uncomfortable, and even if we don’t usually spend much time there. Perhaps we should.

I totally failed this month. I just couldn’t start an argument. On civil commitment of sex offenders, the experts are solidly united: It’s a terrible idea. It’s cruel. It’s not scientifically grounded. It doesn’t help them. It doesn’t protect victims. (It may even generate victims, given the conditions in our prisons.) And it doesn’t promise to reintegrate offenders into society, because the typical length of “treatment” is forever. In short, it’s prison in Groucho glasses. David Prescott, Eric Janus, and Amanda Pustilnik have been particularly incisive in supporting these claims, and I suggest that you read them.

That’s what we can get, I think, when we follow the low-information consensus: a moral catastrophe, vigorously opposed by the experts, and it barely even registers on the public’s radar. The public is getting what it wants, so why should it care? (Traffic this month at Cato Unbound has been crap, incidentally.)

The costs take the form of shattered lives. Baughman writes:

Alex [not his real name] is 25 now. He sits in the Virginia Center for Behavioral Rehabilitation, receiving treatment in a secured setting – a prison masquerading as a treatment facility – because when he was 14 he had sex with his girlfriend, who was 12. The state prosecuted Alex in adult court after he shared with his therapist that he had had his first sexual experience with another kid in his school, a crime under Virginia law because of the age of the younger party. Alex was in foster care at the time. He went to a prison for youth and was released 4 years later, shortly after his 18th birthday. Since he was now on the public sex offender registry and ineligible for any services because he had aged out of the foster care system, Alex found himself homeless and unable to keep a job. In Virginia, those required to register as a sex offender must also list their employers, and the address of their place of work is also displayed on the public sex offender registry, which effectively means no one would hire him. Alex’s probation officer violated him for not having suitable housing, his probation was revoked by a court, and he was sent back to prison – this time an adult prison – for 2.5 years. At the end of his sentence, the Attorney General’s office in Virginia filed a petition to civilly commit Alex as a sexually violent predator.

It sounds good, particularly to low-information voters, when a candidate is tough on crime. How tough do we need to be? Tougher. In the realm of insufficient data, the answer is always tougher, until one day we’re punishing crimes that haven’t even happened yet.

It never enters such a voter’s mind that one can be so tough on crime as to completely gut the civil liberties protections to which all people should be entitled. (And let us be frank for a moment: It may never enter the low-information voter’s mind that specific, time-honored civil liberties protections even exist in the first place.)

Voters enact policies like these not because they have good information, but because they have strongly felt values — with precious little else to go on. What will we get when we pander to values, without a thought to the necessary trade-offs? More. Always more. Of something.

How tough do we need to be on crime? Tougher. Always tougher. And the template carries over into so many other policy areas:

How strong should our national defense be? Stronger. Always stronger.
How clean should our water be? Cleaner. Always cleaner.
How much should the rich pay in taxes? More. Always more. (Or, on the other side: Always less.)

The same might be said, of course, of voting. How much voting do we want? More. Always more!

There’s nary a trade-off in sight, at least in the happy, self-contained world of the low-information voter. Even so, the real world is full of trade-offs, and the mark of an expert is to consider, at some point, whether we could do with a little less of this or that, and what we would get in return for giving it up. Bearing in mind: “a little less” need not denigrate any of the values expressed above. Let criminals be punished and suffer; let us keep invaders out, at great pains to them; let us have clean water and even a progressive income tax if we must. Let us consider, though, that there will be trade-offs, and we need to know what they are before we can make an informed decision.

The implications for democracy are huge, of course, and they run toward the unflattering. In thinking about these matters it becomes understandable why some are so strongly drawn toward neoreactionary politics, which would concede that democracy has been a giant failure from the outset. We need not agree with this conclusion to find that even beyond partisanship, democracy regularly fails in ways that we can all easily describe. What then to do?



Marriage Is About Nurturing

We often hear that children are the reason for marriage: The physical union of a man and a woman often produces children. Marriage (in one form or another, but historically they’ve all been heterosexual) is the institution that every society uses to deal with the reality of children.[1]

Further, society clearly needs children to preserve itself, and so children justify state involvement in marriage. But the regulation of merely romantic partnerships is (a) unnecessary and (b) kind of creepy. As a result, heterosexual marriage should be recognized and regulated, while the state should leave alone most other intimate relationships between adults. If the best that same-sex couples can manage is romance, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but the state has no real business managing it.[2]

The problem with this argument is that children-or-romance is a false dilemma. It may be that within the dilemma only the prospect of children offers a path to the civil right that is known as (civil) marriage. But the dilemma remains false, in that neither of its two possibilities really get at what most Americans seem to mean when they speak of marriage.

In this post I’d like to articulate and defend what I take to be our common, intuitive understanding of marriage. It’s one that certainly can include both romance and children, and it’s great when it does, but it doesn’t have to. I will not defend same-sex marriage, and at one point I will even question it. But on that, I will let you draw your own conclusions.

I think that marriage is about nurturing. That’s how I believe most of us actually do think about the institution. In general, we judge marriages as good or bad, as successful or as failed, by whether the two partners sincerely look after each other’s overall best interests. Marriage is not judged by babies alone. Or by romance alone. And certainly not only by a piece of paper from the state.

I suspect that whether we are liberal, conservative, or other, a steady, profound, exclusive commitment to nurturing is what makes most Americans intuit the existence of a marriage, with or without state involvement. If we found such a commitment between people living in Somalia, or in the far reaches of the Amazon, we would call them married. Even if they were childless, and whether or not they still (or ever) felt any romance.

Governments may recognize either some, or all, or none of these nurturing relationships, but even unrecognized relationships may still be nurturing in this deep sense of the word, and when they are, we will still find ourselves apt to call them marriages, even in spite of the powers that be. If our own government were suddenly to fall into anarchy, no one would think that all marriages had suddenly been dissolved. On the contrary, I think most married people would find their attention rather instantly riveted on making sure that their spouses and children were safe. Which would only be proper.

It should be immediately clear that marriage is not merely about choosing a steady sexual partner. On the contrary, it is a reciprocal agreement with another individual to look after the total well-being of that person, sexual and otherwise, and of any children that might come into the couple’s mutual care.

This total concern for another’s well-being encompasses all aspects of life – the spiritual, social, economic, psychological, and physiological best interests of the partner, not just the sexual ones. Ideally, it lasts from the time the marriage is solemnized until the death of one of the partners.

It cheapens the covenant to say that marriage is just about sex (or romance), or just about rights, or just about children. Marriage is about all of this — and more. Marriage is about care for the total person, so much so that no one else in all the world will be quite as important as one’s spouse.

It is true that friends, siblings, and even certain professionals (teachers, say, or healthcare workers) meaningfully nurture other people. Their nurturing is easily distinguished, however, from marriage: A marriage is a steady, exclusive, mutual, and chosen commitment to nurturing. Of the other types of nurturing just mentioned, marriage is closest to friendship. But everyone knows that marriage aims to be much more than that.

Taking nurturing to be the point of marriage also does a good job, I think, of sorting out where rights, romance, and children all fit into the modern marriage picture.

Neither the rights attached to marriage nor the presence of children within a household would make very much sense if we did not expect that household to be a supportive and enduring environment for personal growth, for adults as well as for children. We want the rights that commonly attach to marriage so that we may grow and develop in the ways that we and our spouses think best. (And yes, there will be a diversity of opinion on exactly what “best” means here. We’re all a bit different, so that’s as it should be.)

Whenever we can, we attach children to the marriages that produce them because we take it for granted that children need nurturing too, and that it is best given by two people who are habituated to it and who are already taking care of one another. I suspect that many find the arguments tying marriage to children – and making marriage only about children – persuasive because we so much want our children to have a nurturing bond as a foundation for their own growth, one that will serve as both a safeguard and as an example in later years. But we wouldn’t want children in the absence of that bond to be the foundation of marriage.

And what about romance? It’s what draws us, when we are young, toward a life of steady devotion. It’s the genius of modern marriage to have taken youthful, impulsive romance and turned it toward this purpose. In the old days, money and family did the job instead, much as we may hate to recall it. A more conservative sublimation could hardly be imagined, one that takes even unreliable human passions and turns them toward something more enduring.

The enduring nature of the bond is especially important to the adults concerned, and it should not be discounted. The benefits run deep: Who wants to grow old alone? Who wants no one holding their hand in the hospital? Who really wants no one to dissuade them when they are enamored of a dangerous or ill-considered life course? And yet who can be the best judge of such, and who can do the dissuading better than a lifelong companion?

Marriage answers these questions with the promise that no matter how ill or how deformed we may become in old age, someone will stand beside us until death do us part. No matter what bad ideas we may seize upon, someone will be there to try to talk us out of them. Whenever we need companionship, or sympathy, or help, we will very likely have it. Marriage means someone else besides ourselves is looking out for us. People who have such people grow strong.

The nurturing model of marriage comports well not only with our common hopes for the institution, but also with Judeo-Christian ideas about love and charity. In the modern era, Judeo-Christian religions have seldom placed any great stigma on the infertile or associated any greater virtue with greater offspring. The most important part of these faiths, at least as this infidel understands it, is that we are to strive to love God and one another as we love ourselves. An all-encompassing, all-nurturing marriage is in this way of thinking a mirror of the relationship between God and man, just as all true forms of love reflect their source, which is God. At least for the religiously liberal, then, the nurturing view of marriage offers a path toward reconciling same-sex marriage and faith.

The nurturing model also explains why adultery is always a concern, but not always the end of a marriage: To go elsewhere for an aspect of nurturing suggests that something is wrong, to be sure. The problem might be bad enough that it’s not fixable, but in many cases, the couple can still work things out, and forgiveness is indeed possible.

By contrast, if marriage were solely about sexual fidelity, or romantic passion, it would be reasonable to end all unfaithful marriages immediately, no questions asked. That’s never been our standard, and it shouldn’t be. That overcoming adultery in a marriage is commonly thought a loving and redeeming act also suggests, once again, that sex is not the be-all and end-all of the institution.

I would even venture to say, although I am on more speculative ground here, that nurturing also explains why the government should take an interest in whether and how we get married.

I concede — happily — that the government has no interest whatsoever in regulating consenting adult sexual relationships. Government has every interest, however, in watching over individuals as they nurture one another. This is because while sex and nurturing are both natural rights that we all possess as human beings, it is far more difficult in a civil society to safeguard the right to nurturing.[3]

In the decisions that nurturers make for each other, fraud and abuse may lurk at every juncture. Trust is essential: Nurturers must often act decisively at the very moments when their partners are most vulnerable and least able to act on their own. A situation like this cries out for an explicit, durable, and binding contract made in advance. Without it, fraud and abuse would run rampant. The contract, though, and the benefits that it offers, are not the basis of marriage; these exist only for the sake of protecting the nurturing relationship from interference.

Protecting the right to nurture requires more than merely looking the other way. The nurtured are vulnerable, and nurturers do things for them that non-nurturers must not be trusted to do. Our natural right to designate (or act as) a nurturer therefore leads directly to a civil right wherein the government distinguishes between designated nurturers (who may make decisions for us) and those who are not designated (who must not be allowed to step in).

To respect the desire of two individuals who wish to nurture one another, a government must make certain that its own laws do not interfere with their relationship. In consequence, much of what I view as good marriage policy consists of the state formally stepping aside and recognizing in advance an area where state authority is limited:

  • The government has an obligation to respect our determinations about who should make medical, legal, and financial choices for us when we are incapacitated; about how we wish to dispose of our property on death; and about our decision to share childrearing responsibilities. When we declare how matters stand in these areas, the government must listen.
  • The government ought not to compel the separation of nurturing partners merely because one is a foreign national. The citizen in the relationship must be expected to help the immigrant adapt to our culture. A nurturing life partner would want no less, and it is doubtful that any other could be more competent.
  • The government ought not to demand testimony from one nurturing partner against another; having developed (or at least promised) the lifelong habit of supporting one’s partner, impartial testimony cannot be expected.
  • The government ought to institute a formal process for registering a nurturing relationship, if only so that the above rights may be unambiguously secured. This should ideally be an act distinct from the various religious rites of marriage.
  • The government ought to institute a formal process for ending a nurturing relationship; while marriage for life is generally recognized as the ideal, some mechanism should exist for those who have determined that they will never reach the ideal owing to insuperable obstacles.

As to the tax incentives and/or penalties that accrue to married partners in the United States, I have no strong opinions — except that they should all be abolished. (I will note in passing, however, that they fall quite unequally on people of different incomes and different distributions)

This, to me, describes the heart of marriage, its reason for being, and its connections to sex, family, spirituality, and the state.

For heterosexuals at least, I would have to say that our government has done a fairly decent job. It’s provided a good solid package of rights that apply to those who wish to contract nurturing relationships between two people of opposite sexes. I would fault it, but only slightly, for blurring the line between the religious rite of marriage and the civil status of marriage, which ought to remain separate. But this is a minor quibble compared to all the rest.[4]

But here’s where things get odd. In talking about real-world marriages, I find that the nurturing ideal is everywhere. In talking about marriage policy, I find that it’s almost nowhere, on any side. Conservatives make marriage all about babies. Liberals make marriage all about romantic love. Libertarians make marriage all about state privileges – and then they ridicule it. (Yes, I do love my tribe. But sometimes they need a friendly kick in the butt.)

Why this strange failure of our discourse? I think it’s because the languages of state privilege — or romantic love or babies — are easier to speak. Nurturing is much harder to talk about. Talking about nurturing means talking about ourselves when we are at our most vulnerable. Bringing it up in the midst of an argument is daunting. It shows off our weaknesses and our impending mortality. Yet if we want our marriage laws to reflect our intuitions, I do think we have to talk about nurturing.

As promised, I will resist the temptations I have to defend same-sex marriage in this context. You may decide on your own whether same-sex marriage stands or falls by the terms that I have outlined above. One might even argue, consistent with the above, that same-sex couples aren’t capable of the lifelong nurturing that marriage demands, or perhaps even that this nurturing has something intrinsically heterosexual about it: To care for a man positively and in all cases requires a woman, and vice versa.

The most I will say at the moment is that these claims require a great deal of defense, and that any proper defense of them will need to take sexual orientation seriously. Effectively channeling the sex drive is also a part of nurturing. But this is an argument for another time.

The goal of my post has simply been to show how “marriage is about kids,” “marriage is about love,” and “marriage is about state-granted rights” all fail to address some of the most important aspects of the institution, and how a different approach — marriage as the total commitment to nurturing one other person — explains the institution much better than any other. It’s on a model like this one that I believe future discussion of same-sex marriage, or any other type of marriage, should unfold.


[1] This is a revision of an essay I wrote in 2005 for my now-defunct former blog. It’s still foundational to my thinking about marriage. It seemed appropriate to repost in light of the added attention that same-sex marriage, and marriages of other kinds, will be getting very soon in the United States.

[2] One seldom hears about the gays and lesbians (like me) who actually have children, and who may need marriage for their children. But I am told that the law is a big, blunt instrument, and that it can’t possibly cover all the odd cases like mine. Somehow, though, the law always manages to obscure the faults in any argument. Do we suppose that that’s its purpose?

[3] A conservative might say that the government has a positive interest in encouraging our nurturing partnerships; as a libertarian, I am content to argue more modestly that the government, as a servant of the people, has a duty to respect the essentially private nurturing agreements that we make with one another.

[4] See my Cato Institute policy analysis for more thoughts on how we do, and should do, marriage policy.

A Libertarian Thanks the Government for the Internet

“How can you be a libertarian? Don’t you know that the government invented the Internet?

A gotcha. Not as pithy as “Who will build the roads?” But a modern-day classic all the same. Credit where due. Now let’s dissect.

The thrust of the question does not rest, properly speaking, on what historically happened. In the real world, of course, federal R&D funding was sufficient to produce the basic architecture of the Internet. And every reasonably well-informed person knows it.

Properly understood, though, there’s an additional claim – that we must question our commitment to private enterprise – and it rests on a counterfactual: namely, that federal government was necessary here, and that if it had not acted, the private sector couldn’t have gotten us anything sufficiently like the Internet to carry the point. No private entity or coalition would have figured out (or converged upon!) a way to make computers talk to each other, irrespective of local network conventions, through packet switching and a universal computer naming convention. Or their functional equivalents.

That’s a much bolder claim. Particularly when the Internet – or something quite like it – seems to have been on everyone’s mind. Long before there was a real-life Internet, there were networked computers in science fiction. And everybody who had a computer in the early days appears to have wanted nothing more than to talk to everybody else who had a computer. To say that this incredibly enterprising and intelligent cohort – which would, without DARPA, have included Vint Cerf, Bob Kahn, and Donald Davies – would still be unable to create the Internet… well, that position smells more than a little of magical thinking, and the odd belief that all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds. We just couldn’t have done it otherwise!

Further, as one of my colleagues pointed out, when we say yes to the government, we aren’t simply saying yes to the Internet. If only that were all of it! But it never is: When we say yes to the entity whose employees invented packet switching, we also say yes to the entity that runs the murderous drug war, the one whose employees shoot, beat, and tase helpless handcuffed pregnant people. The entity whose other projects include Guantanamo Bay, our morally grotesque immigration policy, massive NSA surveillance, and whatever the hell they’re currently up to in Yemen. (I’m not sure I even want to know.)

In short, even if the magical-thinking counterfactual were completely airtight, it’s far from clear that this is a deal we’d be happy to take ex ante.

But the title of this post would be misleading if I didn’t offer my sincere thanks, and I plan to: I, a libertarian, will thank the government for the Internet.

We mustn’t do so without a full picture of exactly what it did, and happily that picture is… small. If we are to thank the government for the Internet, then besides the pittance it took in federal R&D money, we must also give thanks that this technology was rather promptly liberated: The Internet did not remain merely a piece of military hardware, as it easily might have, and for which scant thanks would be required. An actually quite believable counterfactual, I find, is a world in which the federal government decided that the Internet – while it might have been invented by anyone – was simply too good a piece of military hardware ever to be released to the public. And in this world even private imitators of the basic technology are actively forbidden.

I find this counterfactual relatively plausible because something rather like it nearly happened in our own world, in the so-called crypto wars. Indeed, something rather like is in the process of happening once again. We should be thankful that our government didn’t take this route on the basic idea of the Internet.

In our own world, the Internet was soon opened up to civilian researchers, and a few years later it shed the cumbersome rules that forbade private commerce. Censorship proposals were mostly brushed aside, and the Internet became one of the freest – indeed one of the most nearly anarchic – social spaces in the world.

It was a rare and bravura performance in the art of getting out of the way. If only our government did so more often. And now I can say it without a chance of being misunderstood: Thank you, federal government, for the Internet! I look forward, I hope, to thanking you for many similar endeavors in the future.

Distributed Trust

Update: It all went well, and I am very pleased with the results. I’ve experienced the usual LASIK side effects, including halos at night, dry eyes, and subconjunctival hemorrhage. None are debilitating, and all are likely to fade over time. I can’t say in all cases that LASIK is a good idea, but it seems to have been so for me.

Tomorrow I will meet a man armed with a laser.

The first thing he will do is give me a sedative, one that will decrease my reaction time and impair my judgment. He will then aim his laser at my eye and fire it.

Instantaneously, a circular portion of my cornea will vaporize, just beneath the epithelium. The latter will be pulled back, and then the real fun will begin: The man will direct his laser to reshape the interior of my cornea. If all goes well, the whole procedure will be over in about ten minutes, and next he’ll do the other eye.

I will then begin taking all kinds of different drugs – a steroid, a painkiller, an antibiotic, a lubricant, and some other thing whose function I can’t quite recall at the moment. If all goes well once again, I should within a day or two enjoy better vision than I have ever known in my life. More than 11 million Americans have already done the same, and they overwhelmingly report satisfaction with the procedure.


Now, I barely know the guy with the laser. I couldn’t begin to tell you how it works. In all probability there’s a lot he doesn’t know about it either. I certainly couldn’t use it myself. And if something goes wrong, I might not even know about it until after my vision has been irreparably damaged.

This is a story about trust. But not the kind of trust that one has in a friend. It’s a different trust entirely, and not only because I wouldn’t trust any of my friends to run the laser. To put it simply, it’s a story about distributed trust – a trust that’s spread, thinly but firmly, across a surgical clinic, a pharmacy, a half-dozen drug companies, the maker of a laser (whose name I don’t even know!), the makers of the laser’s components, the makers of the bottles my drugs come in, and on and on. At the most fundamental level, it’s about trust in the research scientists of probably a dozen different major fields. Together their work has brought some other people – people whom I apparently also trust – to trust in turn that this whole business might amount to something much more than a particularly ghastly form of torture. It will probably help me to see a whole lot better. I trust.

And finally, it’s about trust the legal system that will compensate me financially in the unlikely event that this little essay is among the last things my eyes ever behold.

That’s a lot of trust. Those of a libertarian bent will probably already have thought of Leonard Read’s famous essay “I, Pencil,” to which my story bears a pointed resemblance. “The market allows you to trust these people,” they will say, “even though you don’t know them, and you’ll never meet them, and you don’t even really know why you’re trusting them. In a market economy, everyone has an incentive to be trustworthy; the suppliers of untrustworthy goods get punished and go out of business – or more likely they don’t even bother trying.”

Our friends of the left will of course disagree. “Sure you trust these people,” they will say. “But that’s only because the law allows you to. The medical sector might be the most heavily regulated in the whole economy, and with good reason. If it weren’t heavily regulated, eye doctors could do whatever they pleased. Especially while you were sedated, and while they held a laser.”

Neither of these is quite correct, I don’t believe. The coordination on display in “I, Pencil” is a marvelous thing, but above all it serves not to generate trust, exactly, but rather to generate a product that could not be made otherwise, or that could not be made as cheaply. Whether we trust the product or not is a separate question entirely, one that will be settled by trial and error after the product’s development, and by personal taste – all in an environment that is suffused with legal guarantees against misbehavior. I’ve been very public about getting LASIK, and one common reaction has been in effect “Oh, no. I could never do that…” But consider the people saying this: are they not admitting that their lives would probably get a whole lot better, if only they could trust? (What further regulations would it take? Which existing regulations do they not trust? Or which aspects of the procedure?)

And the legal recourses supplied by the government in the event of misbehavior – these don’t actually make any products. The recourses are welcome, and they’re probably necessary, at least with the social technologies we have on hand today. But they don’t cure myopia. They don’t even make decent pencils. Doing either of those takes a great deal more. And that added work won’t be done without the sort of I-Pencilish stuff that the left would prefer to denigrate.

I do depend on regulation, in going for this surgery. I trust in it. And yet it should also be remembered that not all state measures that aim at raising public trust are necessarily good ones. Are we not as trustable as Venezuela? Why can’t we also have fingerprint scanners to prevent consumers from hoarding? After all, our consumers have a lot more money, and while our grocery stores might be better stocked, one never knows what Warren Buffett might get up to in his spare time, just for kicks…

I joke, but in the field of supplying trust, there are multiple ways to go wrong. As with our decisions about which products to personally consume, we will be guided by a process of trial and error. It could hardly be otherwise.

On Mores as a Distinction between Classical Liberalism and Libertarianism

From Jacob T. Levy’s superb book Rationalism, Pluralism, and Freedom, p 154:

Montesquieu and those who followed him… agreed that… social worlds were not static; manners could become more polished over time, the wealth of nations could grow or decline, agricultural societies could become commercial societies, and so on. But none of these things happened by simple political decree. Governing should usually be done along the grain of such social tendencies and local particularities, occasionally in a way that might counterbalance some undesirable tendency, but never in sheer ignorance of or violence against them. The moeurs, manners, and customs of a society create a cultural reality that one may attempt to guide in one direction or another but that cannot be simply ruled.

Is this not also the key difference between classical liberalism and what we might call high or orthodox libertarianism? The former finds moeurs, or mores,[1] a useful analytic tool, and also a force to be reckoned with in the governing of society. The latter professes itself indifferent to mores and declares that the libertarian political program has nothing at all to do with them. (We’ve just seen Walter Block doing this, his personal mores notwithstanding.)

Consider the authors whom Levy alludes to in the above: The transition from agricultural to commercial society was a chief concern of John Locke’s. We all know who wrote on the wealth of nations. And the improvement of manners over time was a chief concern of Adam Ferguson, David Hume, and even Voltaire. We can see similar concerns animating later classical liberals, including but not limited to John Stuart Mill, who (otherwise rather oddly) conditioned his utilitarianism on a mores-like concern for higher and lower forms of pleasure, and Herbert Spencer, who was very concerned indeed with the development of improved morality over time, and Franz Oppenheimer, who saw the rise of agriculture and then of commerce as crucial developments in the formation of the modern state.

There’s a line to be drawn here, isn’t there? Modern libertarians are often tempted to view these aspects of classical liberalism as so much dross. They are at best a distraction, and more likely a hedge, and – at worst – they are a means of creeping away from the logical implications of so much else in the classical liberal corpus. We are told that the core ideas of classical liberalism would, if followed through consistently, yield something a lot more like Murray Rothbard. Mores do not matter to libertarianism, we are told – and, implicitly: look at the price we pay for even considering them![2] All that matters is the distinction between coercion and voluntarism.

Not everyone will agree with my suggested line-drawing, and I imagine the largest group of dissenters will be self-identified libertarians who claim, perhaps legitimately, that they do care about mores. Such folk do exist, of course. But the move to discount mores seems both very new as of the twentieth century and one of the more identifying moves of the libertarian movement.

The libertarian rejection of mores as having any analytic salience may also explain some libertarians’ otherwise inexplicable alliances with radical conservatism: If mores don’t matter, then these alliances are not as damning as they appear. But for most people, mores do matter, and that sets up a serious reputational problem (at the very least).

To my mind it needn’t be, and shouldn’t be, either-or. We can of course elaborate on the distinction between coercion and voluntarism, and its implications in a complex society, and on what it means for our laws and our politics, while also recognizing that mores matter in all kinds of ways for the implementation of a good society. Mores delineate which policies appear reasonable for essentially all individuals in a polity. Mores explain why some societies appear to tolerate, or even demand, various forms of coercion more readily than others, and if that’s not important to implementing libertarianism, then nothing is. Development of certain mores would clearly help the libertarian project, even narrowly understood, and development of others would clearly hurt it. To name just one example: The prejudice that condemns wagering now prevents many interesting types of markets from arising. That prejudice came about long before both prediction markets and the policies that have now begun to forbid them. And the prohibition will not go (which of course it should) until the prejudice does. (But how do we get rid of that?)

Mores wouldn’t stop there, either. A libertarian society might cheer for the opening of a vegetable market more strongly than it did for soldiers on parade. Its mores might differ quite radically from many of our current society’s, and not necessarily in ways that libertarians themselves can predict. It is odd, or it should be odd, not to ponder them along the way.

Do note that this concern for mores does not necessarily entail any ideological softening on the distinction between free and coerced action, between voluntary and unrequited transfers. The two dimensions are completely orthogonal to one another. But I don’t think one should be indifferent to either of them.


[1] The word mores is often left untranslated as the French word moeurs, for reasons I’ve never understood. As a speaker of both languages, the English word seems perfectly adequate to me. It denotes the settled attitudes, manners, and customs of a society, exactly as the French word does. Frequently but not always, mores are hard to articulate. Individuals often constitute exceptions to a society’s mores, but those who deploy the term can usefully refer back to the general. Discussions of national character often ensue, as when someone describes the United States as being a particularly enterprising nation, or a particularly religious one. Or a particularly violent one. There are dangers of stereotypes hereabouts, but there is also useful empirical work to be done, and mores also touch on questions of tacit knowledge and trust, in ways I won’t get into here.

[2] Ayn Rand is the odd exception, as she so often is. Rand very clearly thought that things like manners and customs were important, and that mores followed necessarily (though perhaps unexaminedly) from values that individuals held. Whether those values were held rationally or not, mores mattered to her, and I suspect that an important part of building an Objectivist society, as she saw it, would lie in the identification of the various premises on which our mores were based, and on their improvement. One might even say that when Rand writes of a sense of life, she means the totality of one’s mores, insofar as they inform how we are to think about the human condition. Which of course they do. A lot. In this she seems to lie rather closer to classical liberals, and her insistence that she was not a libertarian takes on a new dimension.

Social Conservatism Isn’t Libertarianism

At the recent International Students for Liberty Conference, Mackenzie Holst, Aarón Shelby Baca, and Cory Massimino attempted to read an open letter to Ron Paul about his less-than-savory associations with some figures on the extreme right. I’m not sure that a question and answer session was the best venue for their message, but they raised some important points all the same. It was unfortunate that they were shouted down, and I understand that they have gotten a good deal of online grief in the days since.

They should take heart, however. Some of us are very much on their side. It’s worth quoting their comments at length, and I fully endorse them:

[A]s principled supporters of liberty, we find your appearance at the International Students For Liberty Conference troubling for a few reasons. Most of which relate to your past and current associations with certain individuals and organizations that we find un-libertarian.

We believe many of the people you have aligned yourself with and continue to align yourself with are libertarians only in name and their true ideology is one more akin to a bigoted and authoritarian paleo-conservatism. Your appearance at Mises Circle in Houston, Texas just a few weeks ago is a prime example of this.

The prevalence of an age gap in the libertarian movement has been underscored by the ideas discussed in conferences such as the Mises Circle and put forth by the Mises Institute itself. “Millennial” or “Second-wave” libertarianism is not going away and there seems to be irreconcilable differences between these new libertarians and the old guard, which includes figures such as Lew Rockwell, Hans Herman-Hoppe, Walter Block, Gary North, and yourself. In this letter, we would like to highlight the downright absurdity promoted by this obsolete style of thinking, as delineated in the racist, homophobic, and sexist undertones present in these thinkers’ writings.

The themes of bigotry at the Mises Circle and in many of your colleague’s writings are obvious. At the Mises Circle, Lew Rockwell, founder and chairman of the Mises Institute, compared the life of people under modern nation states to literal chattel slavery. We admit the state is a gang of thieves writ large. But this analogy is downright offensive to people have suffered actual chattel slavery as well as people who have relatively great living standards under modern states. Libertarians can expose the evils of statism without resorting to bad metaphors with blatantly obvious racist undertones.

Hans Herman-Hoppe, distinguished fellow of the Mises Institute, wrote just last year that, “it is societies dominated by white heterosexual males, and in particular by the most successful among them, which have produced and accumulated the greatest amount of capital goods and achieved the highest average living standards.” Hoppe has also advocated violence against homosexuals and other people who live lifestyles he doesn’t approve of, “There can be no tolerance toward those habitually promoting lifestyles incompatible with this goal. They-the advocates of alternative, non-family-centered lifestyles such as, for instance, individual hedonism, parasitism, nature-environment worship, homosexuality, or communism-will have to be physically removed from society, too, if one is to maintain a libertarian order.” The racist and homophobic themes in these passages speak for themselves.

Walter Block, senior fellow at the Mises Institute, has argued, “Feminists and gays aren’t libertarians.” Also on the topic of homosexuals, Block has written, “If a seventeen year old is an adult, and voluntarily wants to have sex with an adult homosexual man, I may not like it. I may be revolted by it.” If that wasn’t clear enough, Block has made his bigoted views explicit, “I am a cultural conservative. This means that I abhor homosexuality, bestiality, and sadomasochism, as well as pimping, prostituting, drugging, and other such degenerate behavior.” In addition, he has put forth the idea that “lower black IQs” could explain productivity differences between blacks and whites. Again, the arguments speak for themselves.

Gary North, an associated scholar at the Mises Institute, is an outspoken Christian Reconstructionist and supporter of biblical theocracy. North advocates capital punishment by means of stoning for women who lie about their virginity, blasphemers, nonbelievers, children who curse their parents, male homosexuals, and other people who commit acts deemed capital offense in the Old Testament. These views are certainly not representative of the libertarianism we’ve come to know and love.

To make quick work of two less than savory associates: I do not consider Hans-Hermann Hoppe a libertarian, because he is a monarchist. And I do not consider Gary North a libertarian, because he is very openly a theocrat. That leaves Walter Block, whose views are at least a bit interesting.

Here’s the original quote from Walter Block with a bit more context:

Just because a libertarian may refuse to incarcerate perverts, it does not mean he must remain morally neutral about such behavior. So, do we favor or oppose? Support or resist? Root for or against? In this dimension, I am a cultural conservative. This means that I abhor homosexuality, bestiality, and sado-masochism, as well as pimping, prostituting, drugging, and other such degenerate behavior…

The libertarian may hate and despise the libertine, or he may not. He is not committed one way or the other by his libertarianism, any more than is the holder of the germ theory of disease required to hold any view on libertinism. As a libertarian, he is only obligated not to demand a jail sentence for the libertine. That is, he must not demand incarceration for the non-aggressing, non-child molesting libertine, the one who limits himself to consensual adult behavior. But the libertarian is totally free as a person, as a citizen, as a moralist, as a commentator on current events, as a cultural conservative, to think of libertinism as perverted, and to do what he can to stop it—short of using force. It is into this latter category that I place myself…

At one time I would have scoffed at the idea of doing something merely because it was traditional, and refraining because it was not. My every instinct would have been to do precisely the opposite of the dictates of tradition. But that was before I fully appreciated the thought of F. A. Hayek. From reading his many works (for example, Hayek, 1973), I came to realize that traditions which are disruptive and harmful tend to disappear, whether through voluntary change, or more tragically, by the disappearance of societies that act in accordance with them. Presumably, then, if a tradition has survived, it has some positive value, even if we cannot see it. It is a “fatal conceit” (Hayek, 1989) to call into question everything for which good and sufficient reason cannot be immediately given. How else can we justify the “blindly obedient” practice of wearing ties and collars, for example?

This is a very important subject for libertarians to get right as a movement. Certainly in the wider culture, people who find homosexuals abhorrent aren’t reproducing in large enough numbers that their opinions will pass as part of the conventional wisdom for very much longer. More and more, whenever such views show up, they will tend to raise eyebrows. Ordinary people, who now generally aren’t anti-gay, will inevitably start asking questions. And that means that we libertarians will need an answer. (As if having an answer for our own peace of mind were not sufficient!)

At least three possibilities open up. I should stress from the start that none of them involve the state persecuting gay and lesbian adults for consensual behavior. But that’s where the similarities end.

First: Are views like the above a core part of what libertarians ought to believe? Are they so important that it’s worth drawing a bright line between libertarian views on one side, and libertine views on the other? Block’s concluding paragraphs seem to say yes: The practice of condemning queer people in private speech must have some positive value, even if we can’t readily identify it. Precisely like giving up ties and collars, if we gave up speaking ill of people for their private sexual acts, our whole society might disappear.

This view would commit libertarians to opposing libertinage, so called. Not, of course, with oppressive laws, but certainly with private censure. One can never be too careful when society itself is at stake!

Second: Are views like the above an optional part of the libertarian ideology, bits that someone can choose – or not – as a matter of complete indifference?

Block seemed to suggest as much in his second paragraph. That is, just before he changed his mind and bit the social conservative bullet. Let’s suppose he was right in saying that these things are, for libertarians, an indifferent matter. (Let’s also suppose that what libertarians want is identical to what’s best for society. I will try not to care if I lose my nonlibertarian readers here. I need to do that sometimes, you know.)

If these views really are a matter of indifference – and if the rest of the libertarian program is not a matter of indifference – then we should cheerfully jettison our private social conservatism: Leaving it behind will help us win the things that really matter. And leaving it behind will not actually harm society. Our personal conservative preferences do not matter for good social outcomes: If we thought they did, we’d have picked the first of my three options. But we also perhaps would have added something alien to libertarianism.

Third: Are there not very solid, very libertarian reasons, to say that Walter Block is just plain wrong here? I think there might be. We claim to want individual liberty – but why? What makes liberty of this type a goal worth pursuing? Or – to state the same thing a bit differently – why is individual liberty a goal so important that we would forego many other goals to attain it?

The reason is as follows: You and I are different. As a direct result, different things will make us happy. And different things will repel us. We will have different convictions on matters that cannot easily be settled. We have different ideas of what a well-authored life would look like, and we are literally never going to agree on them.

As libertarians, we accept that we can use markets to sort a lot of these differences out, to trade on them and make efficient use of diversity. And when markets fail, we’ll retreat to our private lives and leave each other alone. That’s not nirvana by anyone’s lights, but it’s pretty solid. Carping about our private differences isn’t likely to make anyone happier, particularly when society isn’t actually at stake.

It also appears very doubtful as an empirical matter that a lack of repressive (though fully private!) attitudes toward homosexuality will cause civilization to collapse. Some things can and do cause civilization to collapse – but at least in the modern era, these things would all appear to require a government. So we can all relax already.

I have defended libertinage before, and I will continue to do so here: Past societies got all kinds of things flat-out wrong. They began with big things, like the status of women and racial minorities, and they ended with little ones, like ties and collars, which are no more the mark of a proper civilization than are culottes. One can be good or evil while wearing either one. (Can one be fashionable? That’s quite another question, and one on which we can have proper and even objective opinions in a much less heated context. Now is not the time or place.)

Lastly, Hayek’s insight that comprehensive social planning involves a fatal conceit does not commit us to accepting every random social structure that did not arise by our own planning. Besides the structures that we dream up ourselves, some of the ones that we encounter in the wild can also be pretty depraved. They can be every bit as bad as our own efforts, and often even worse. And sometimes, we can know it.