Civil Dialogue Between a Darwin Evolutionist and Natural Law Theorist

Monday, July 26, AD 2010

On Blogging Heads TV, Robert Wright discusses how we reason about the human good with Robert P. George of Princeton University, a leading scholar of modern natural law theory (with whom readers are no doubt familiar).

Subjects discussed:

  • Chapter 1: Natural law vs. utilitarianism (12:01)
  • Chapter 2: Why exactly is friendship good? (14:03)
  • Chapter 3: Euthanasia and human dignity (7:22)
  • Chapter 4: Natural law and conservativism (5:02)
  • Chapter 5: What can be done in the name of the greater good? (12:28)
  • Chapter 6: Just war theory (6:17)

Robert Wright is the author of The Moral Animal: Why We Are, the Way We Are, Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, and The Evolution of God.

Robert P. George is McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University and a member of the Task Force on the Virtues of a Free Society of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. His books include In Defense of Natural Law and Clash Of Orthodoxies: Law Religion & Morality In Crisis.

I’ve watched a few episodes of ‘BloggingHeads’ — video debates between leading bloggers/authors — but this was the first with Dr. George, who is very adept at getting right to the point and crystallizing the respective positions of each side. Likewise this may serve as a good introduction to viewers who aren’t generally accustomed to analyzing moral situations from a (Catholic) natural law perspective.

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Social Contract and Morality

Friday, June 11, AD 2010

Kyle Cupp has a brief post describing the dehumanizing moral effects of seeing human dignity and rights as springing entirely from a social contract (implied or explicit):

This reduction occurs when we understand and act upon our moral obligations to one another only within the framework of a social contract–when we limit our obligations to those who have entered into such contracts and consider ourselves obligated only to those who share our citizenship, have signed a treaty we have signed, or participate with us in some other contractual arrangement. I make this reduction when I don’t care about torturing terrorists because they’re not signers of the Geneva Conventions, when I wish to alienate the immigrant who enters my country against my country’s laws, when I ignore my obligations to those not yet born because the laws of the land do not recognize their personhood, or when I insist that others shouldn’t be given Constitutional rights when the rights I wish to withhold from them are basic human rights.

I think that he’s right as far as he goes, but I don’t think that his point that basic human rights and duties are inherent to humanity (rather than assumed via some sort of contract/relationship) is actually the point usually at dispute in our society. Rather, what seems often to be disputed is what the extent of basic human rights are — and which “rights” are merely agreed civic rights which we grant explicitly via the social contract.

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15 Responses to Social Contract and Morality

  • Of course what are called “human rights” today are almost entirely the product of Western societies since the Sixteenth Century, much of it from Great Britain and America in origin. Much of what we call “human rights” today would have been denounced as pernicious and/or dangerous throughout most of human history by most cultures. To say that “human rights” arise simply due to inherent moral obligations that exist between people, we are confronted with the difficulty that most cultures for most of human history would vigorously disagree.

  • Thank you for the thoughtful response, Darwin. I’m pretty sure that I agree with the points you make, particularly in your last paragraph. To clarify my post, let me say that when the reduction is made, it isn’t usually (if ever) made flat out in a way that covers a person’s entire morality; it’s rather applied here and there inconsistently.

  • Donald,

    You raise a good point about the history of rights language. It is a recent invention. I tend to call rights a useful fiction, myself.

  • I do agree with what Kyle said. But, from other discussions I know that I don’t agree with how Kyle applies his generic or all inclusive definition of basic human rights to all persons of all types of backgrounds, since his definition doesn’t seem to take into consideration ( or very little consideration) certain circumstances and/or the consequences that one must face when committing a crime or an act of war. This is applicable with regards to both illegal immigrants and terrorists.

    While I do believe that enhanced interrogation techniques are justified in very extreme, life saving circumstances, I do think that the Bush administration allowed the use of them too frequently. But, then again, one needs to realize the atmosphere after 9/11, and no person wanted anything like this to ever happen again. I don’t support the three items on your list. They are in violation of basic human rights. With regards to immigration, I am all for legal immigration but am against illegal immigration. One would think that having secure borders would be a good thing, especially for our safety, but certain people deride people who advocate for secure borders and call us other vile names just because we want immigrants to follow our laws and immigrate here via the proper channels.

  • My only issue is that I don’t ever recall Morning’s Minion, whom Kyle is supposedly defending with his post, demonstrating an accurate understanding of classical social contract theory, nor providing and concrete examples of this bad sort of “contract thinking” in our society.

    There is nothing wrong with the social contract. It defines clearly the parameters of government. The alternative is arbitrary authority. We as Catholics can be proud that the resistance to absolute, arbitrary authority probably began in the Salamanca school.

  • Yes, clearly those who support enhanced interrogation do so on the basis that:

    (a.) It is not a violation of basic human rights;

    (b.) Strictures against using such techniques in the civilian criminal and civil code apply only in the civilian criminal and civil code, because they arise from the social contract;

    (c.) Strictures against using such techniques against prisoners of war also arise, not from a fundamental right, but from a contractual obligation; namely, treaty obligations regarding lawful combatants. These do not apply to persons whose status is “unlawful combatant.”

    Of course, (b.) and (c.) depend on first establishing (a.). If in fact everyone does have a basic human right, intrinsic to their dignity as a human person, not to be waterboarded, why then the presence or absence of a contract doesn’t matter a whit. Only if (a.) is true, does anyone even bother with (b.) and (c.).

    So, what about (a.)?

    To repeat, (a.) asserts that enhanced interrogation is not a violation of the basic human rights intrinsic to the dignity of human persons.

    Now it sounds absurd on the face of it to say this. Obviously we know we shouldn’t go grabbing random persons and waterboarding them, so, in obedience to this moral intuition, we conclude that it must be “a violation of their basic human rights” to do so, right? And if it’s a violation of the basic human rights of any random person, it must likewise be a violation of the basic human rights of a war criminal like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, right?

    Well, not so fast. One mustn’t go around waterboarding random persons. One mustn’t go around locking up random persons, either. Does it follow that locking up Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is a violation of his basic human rights?

    Why, no. It would only be a violation if he were innocent of wrongdoing. As he is a particularly nasty terrorist and about as far from innocent as it is possible to be, it’s perfectly okay to violate his basic human right of liberty, which is intrinsic to his dignity as a human being, by locking him up.

    Actually, I said that incorrectly. It’s not okay to violate his basic human right…but locking him up is no violation, because getting locked up is a freely-chosen consequence on his part. He chose, even asked, to be treated that way just by doing what he did. If he wasn’t willing to do the time, he shouldn’t have done the war-crime.

    But that raises a problem. Why can we not likewise argue that, while of course persons in general have a right to not be waterboarded, KSM voluntarily renounced that right by choosing to orchestrate terror plots to kill thousands of innocent people. Why can we not argue that, by doing this, he “chose, even asked,” to be waterboarded?

    Is there some qualitative or categorical difference between the right to freedom from imprisonment and the right to freedom from waterboarding, such that the former right can be voluntarily renounced by evil deeds, but the latter cannot?

    So the question is this:

    Given that people voluntarily renounce certain of their rights (at minimum, their liberty and/or property) when they commit heinous crimes by committing those crimes, it is reasonable, and not a violation of their rights, to forcibly deprive them of the benefits of the rights they have renounced.

    Yet, even before we read Church teachings on the matter, we recognize that the Moral Law forbids us to treat these persons as if they had, by committing whatever evil deed, renounced all of the rights intrinsic to the human dignity. We may lock them up; so, crimes are clearly capable of constituting a rejection of one’s right to liberty. We may not hang them from a mechanized hook and lower them an inch at a time, screaming, into an industrial shredding machine; so, crimes are clearly incapable of constituting a rejection of one’s right to not be shredded alive.

    How then, can one distinguish between the two categories of rights? Which ones may be renounced by crimes of sufficient magnitude, and which may not, no matter how horrific the crime?

    The Right to Not Be Waterboarded seems, according to Church teaching and most thinking Catholic opinion, to fall in the category of rights which are never, ever renounced. Even if one were, say, to personally rape and slowly murder fifty thousand innocent children while enjoying the whole process, one would have, by doing so, renounced one’s rights to both life and liberty, but not one’s right to avoid waterboarding.

    Why so?

    I am perfectly content agreeing that there is a line to be drawn; I am perfectly content saying that that is where the line is drawn; but I am confused about whether it was drawn there arbitrarily and could have been placed elsewhere, or if it was drawn there according to some unalterable moral principle which, when understood, allows us to see that the line could only ever be drawn in that way.

    Does anyone want to propose a principle which explains the positioning of the line? Or is it arbitrary, after all?

  • Joe,

    I agree that there is nothing wrong with the social contract per se. My concern is with the social contract used as a metaphorical framework for moral thought and action. I’m critical of thinking of moral obligations too much in terms of a social contract, moral thought that relies too heavily on the metaphor, that at times fails to account for obligations that exist beyond its boundaries. When someone denies another a basic human right because that other is not a “signer” of the social contract, he has treated a personal moral obligation as if it were an obligation under a social contract.

  • And as others have pointed out, we have to distinguish between civil and “basic human rights.” Who decides what a basic human right is?

    For instance, I believe an illegal immigrant has a basic human right to have their immediate needs met – if they are hungry, feed them, if they are naked, clothe them, if they are sick, care for them, contract or no contract. That is the basic Christian obligation.

    But when it comes to say, access to social services such as medical care beyond the emergency level, or education, or food stamps, etc. – then the public authorities, whose charge is to maintain the common good, have every right to regulate and restrict who has access to these services on the basis of what is fiscally and socially sustainable.

    This used to be understood in Catholic social thought. Now I’m not so sure it is. Now “common good” has come to mean services and spending without limit, in the name of satisfying “basic human rights.” That is to say, more and more things are falling under the umbrella of “basic human rights”, all of which the state is obliged to tax and pay for.

    But unsustainable policies cannot benefit the common good. If society collapses under the weight of entitlements, benefits, and a greatly expanded understanding of “basic human rights”, then I would say a much greater moral harm is done a great many more people. Some may call that “consequentialism”, but I don’t think it is an intrinsic evil for states to set boundaries and limits in order to ensure basic functionality.

  • Who decides what a basic human right is?

    Spoken like a good anti-Christian nihilist!

  • I wasn’t going to allow or respond to this childish nonsense, but for the sake of clarity I will indulge:

    My intention was not to say that it is impossible to decide what a basic human right is, but that in politics, there are many competing claims that demand recognition.

    I am neither anti-Christian nor a “nihilist” (another one of the pet words). I will rephrase the question: who decides which claims to basic human rights are endorsed by the state? Why is it that many more things are considered “basic human rights” than were 100 years ago? I don’t say that there are no basic human rights, but that in the current political climate, the concept continues to expand without limit, without regard for realistic limitations, and in doing so, putting ALL human rights in jeopardy.

  • Joe, don’t let Karlson get under your skin. That’s just how he reacts when he can’t control the discussion and drop the comments that he doesn’t see as advancing his pet agenda. He becomes unhinged and resorts to desperate ad hominems. It’s his tell – like when someone who doesn’t have any good cards tries to bluff his way through a poker hand but doesn’t realize that when he does his unconscious “rub-his-nose-with-his-index-finger-and smile” routine he is telegraphing the fact that he’s got nothing to every skilled player at the table. Pity him.

  • Yeah, sorry, Joe. I didn’t see Henry’s comment while it was still sitting in moderation, or I probably would have just deleted it as the non-comment it is.

    Pity is probably the right move here.

  • Eh. Maybe I should have let you, but it’s good to clear the air. People should see what we’re dealing with too.

  • My understanding, with regard to whether a terrorist or criminal forfeits the right not to be tortured, lies in the distinction between torture and other types of violence. War is inherently violent, and if it is unjust it is a travesty, but if it is just it is permitted (notice I don’t say noble, however, though personal acts of courage that are genuinely noble certainly occur even in unjust wars). Torture is not merely violence, but violence ordered toward a particular end: getting information out of the subject. So, where punishment or defense merits “violation” of the right an aggressor forfeits, the same may not be true of merely getting information from them by force that damages the body or the mind. (That’s my definition of torture in concrete terms, also.) I would suggest that while punishment is oriented directly toward dealing with the action it punishes and defense likewise, torture is on the other hand oriented directly toward information and therefore not, in the moral order, an immediate necessity and justified response to forfeiture of rights (which is a very limited forfeiture even where it does occur, by the way; it’s almost as if the criminal forces his rights out of the picture, although I do not mean by that a necessity argument which is a nicer way of saying a utilitarian argument). I would further argue that we have historically viewed torture as wrong regardless of any contract — things such as the Geneva Convention were put together largely after and in response to the great war crimes of the twentieth century that we prosecuted anyway (waterboarding by the Axis forces in WW2, for example). Finally, I would note that the Church appears (I say appears because the Catechism has been unclear in the past, inasmuch as stating as if it were required what is still technically only pious opinion is technically unclear) to teach that torture, that violence ordered toward extraction of information rather than either punishment or direct defense, is intrinsically evil.

    Thus, while I’m not totally closed to being corrected if I’m mistaken as to any of those moral standpoints, those are the well developed points that would need to be addressed to even begin suggesting torture is permissible on those who forfeit the bulk of their rights.

    Also, if one does argue that torture is permissible on war criminals because they’ve forfeited rights, one has to demonstrate the forfeiture of rights before one can act on it — and in terms of law, that generally means convict the war criminal first and interrogate after — which entirely robs the “necessity” argument of any urgency factor, the way it takes time to convict. One could argue also that an active combatant proves his status by that action, as these are whom one may shoot in a war without any trial or other formal process; however, one may not generally shoot an enemy who is captured and deprived of ability to combat because you’ve removed them from the very situation of immediate combat that both allows and necessitates said immediate judgement, so it’d be questionable whether such a parallel would even make torture of captured foes legitimate or rather prove it illegitimate.

  • I should also note regarding my definition of torture that damage need not be permanent. Also, I’m not sure I shouldn’t include direct infliction of pain in there, but one could argue pain as passing mental damage (since it impairs one’s immediate ability to think clearly)… but it’s the direct infliction, not the result of damage, that makes the difference — not that the classical notion of the direct object of an act means anything to the vast majority even of Catholics today, who would probably fail to realize that that _is_ drawing the line between mere discomfort (which is different from pain in kind, not just degree) or poor living conditions or anything like that and actual inflicting of pain. Let’s see, anything else… Risk. I’d probably count anything that risks such things just as sure as anything that obviously does it, simply because morality doesn’t play loose with possibilities and doubts (even where it acknowledges the _subjective_ effects of doubt, which, mind, can worsen the moral content if one is guilty of allowing the doubt to stay and especially to stay in a thing one knows one will act in).

    There’s a lot of temptation these days to call definitions unclear because we can equivocate around them, as if a clear definition would be immune to equivocation — and yet actually, that’s in the definition of equivocation: when something’s not clear in the first place, there isn’t a good meaning #1 for which to misconstrue with meaning #2, now is there? So anyway… yeah, I felt the need to try to add further qualification. Not sure I succeeded.

    And of course, one can also say all this is my “armchair theologian” pontification, but then, I don’t have to be stolen from to tell you we should criminalize theft either.

Difference and Equality

Thursday, December 3, AD 2009

Individualism is one of those terms which a great many people use in a great many different ways, so it has been with interest that I’ve been reading Individualism and Economic Order by F. A. Hayek. The book is a collection of essays dealing the individualism, its definition and its place in the economic order.

From the first essay, “Individualism: True and False” comes an interesting thought:

Here I may perhaps mention that only because men are in fact unequal can we treat them equally. If all men were completely equal in their gifts and inclinations, we should have to treat them differently in order to achieve any sort of social organization. Fortunately, they are not equal; and it is only owing to this that the differentiation of functions needs not be determined by the arbitrary decision of some organizing will but that, after creating formal equality of the rules applying in the same manner to all, we can leave each individual to find his own level.

There is all the difference in the world between treating people equally and attempting to make them equal. While the first is the condition of a free society, the second means, as De Tocqueville described it, “a new form of servitude.”
(Individualism and the Economic Order p. 14-15)

This strikes me as touching on the sense in which classical liberals in the tradition of Burke and Smith can still be considered “conservative” in the old sense of the term. Although Burke is commonly accepted by those who argue that classical liberalism is not “truly conservative” as being conservative in his outlook because of his reaction to the French Revolution, he was (like Smith) Whig, though they were Old Whigs, not True Whigs or Country Whigs. Prior to the French Revolution, Burke had been generally supportive of the cause of the colonists in the American Revolution.

Taking Hayek’s point, classical liberals in the tradition of Burke and Smith do not reject the necessary hierarchy of society. Nor do they embrace sudden, transformative social change. As such, they can certainly be seen as conservative. However, they do seek sufficient freedom within society to allow people to “find their own level”, believing that there is a natural hierarchy of ability which will thus result in an ordered society, and a more desirable one than one in which hierarchy comes strictly from birth and rank.

In this sense, the freedom of a classical liberal society creates social order, and a more stable one than the sort that an ancien regime conservatism maintains. Indeed, arguably, at this point in history, it is only this Whig-ish conservatism which is commonly found within society. Ancien regime conservatism has virtually died out.

Entirely different are notions of politics or the human person in which it is held which all people are truly and fully equal — in ability and inclination as well as in human dignity. Such systems would indeed seem to lead quickly to a most undesirable oppression.

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18 Responses to Difference and Equality

  • The trouble with “individualism” in rightist (traditionalist or right-liberal) argumentation today is the lack of realization of what Robert Nisbet pointed out in the 50s and Patrick Deenan has been hammering home in recent years: it is an invitation to statism, and an opening for a grave lonliness.
    ( http://www.frontporchrepublic.com/?p=4115 )

    Individualism and personal freedom, which should always be second to virtue as a value, tends to deny a very basic truth that all conservatives must embrace: the absolute and inherent incompatibility between liberty and equality. Left-liberals value the latter, and right-liberals the former. Each is a false human anthropology when out of context. We are products of a particular time and social environment, and that cannot be escaped – which makes family the most foundational unit of the good society.

    The purpose of freedom and liberty is to protect family, material and immaterial.

  • Jonathan,

    Actually the Hayek essay (“Individualism: True and False”) this quotes would be worth your time (it’s fairly short) in that one of the things it seeks to do is arrive at a proper understanding of what individualism means in relation to the classical liberal tradition.

    What, then, are the essential characteristics of true individualism? The first thing that should be said is that it is primarily a theory of society, an attempt to understand the forces which determine the social life of man, and only in the second instance a set of political maxims derived fromt his view of society. This fact should by itself be sufficient to refute the silliest of the common misunderstandings: the belief that individualism postulates (or bases its arguments on the assumption of) the existence of isolated or self-contained individuals, instead of starting from men whose nature and character is determined by their existence in society. If that were true, it would indeed have nothing to contribute to our understanding of society. But it’s basic contention is quite a different one; it is that there is no other way toward and understanding of social phenomena but through our understanding of individual actions directed toward other people and guided by their expected behavior. This argument is directed primarily against the properly collectivist theories of society which pretend to be able directly to comprehend social wholes like society, etc., as entities sui generis which exist independently of the individuals which compose them. The next step in the individualistic analysis of society, however, is directed against the reationalistic pseudo-individualism which also leads to practical collectivism.

    I’d be curious at your reaction to it.

  • Is it perhaps too much of an oversimplification to describe the different views of individualism as a means/end dichotomy. Randian and leftists see individualism as an end in and of itself, whereas conservatives/classical liberals merely see it as a means by which to achieve a more just social order.

  • Darwin,

    As I recently pointed out on a different thread, the classical liberalism of the American founders was also balanced by their classical republicanism, which includes an emphasis on virtue and does not shy away from regulating wealth to preserve society.

    I would argue that classical liberalism never created a stable society – other political forces such as aforesaid classical republicanism, or later on labor movements and the Church tempered and balanced it.

    Finally, I would argue that all most all of the classical liberals are gone – that even the vast majority of libertarians are not truly classical liberals. Why? Because I believe anyone defending the right of total, untaxed inheritance today cannot possibly believe in a “natural aristocracy”, a “meritocracy”, or anything other than the perpetuation of oligarchy and plutocracy.

    Except the one libertarian I met as a socialist who said we could strike a bargain – we could tax the hell out of inheritance as long as he could become rich in his lifetime without paying a dime on it. I always thought it was a good idea.

  • Darwin,

    Hayek and Röpke, in their analysis of the “humane economy,” both identify the elevation of individualism as something like “reationalistic pseudo-individualism which also leads to practical collectivism.”

    One problem though, especially for the traditionalist conservative critic (my own politics), is that Hayek’s case for the “free market” (i.e. The Constitution of Liberty) draws very heavily from Hume, A. Ferguson, and Adam Smith. That is not necessarily a red flag (Mill and Bentham would be for sure) but it remains the British, skeptic, empirical tradition. That tradition has both much to admire and quite a lot to deride from the traditionalist perspective.

    Their case rests on the necessary ignorance of human judgement, which is correct (in a civilized society, there is no centrality capable of managing a complex social outgrowth, so a minimal state is best) but also incomplete.

    Hayek, IMO, is relevant at the theoretical level yet less so at the practical level, and this is due to some uncomfortable topics like demographics and population composition. Here my critique would turn Buchananite: specific government policies matter less than the quantities and qualities of populations. Racism and sexism become cheap and lazy charges at that point, yet this is the obvious problem with all shades of individualism at the intersection of public policy – Finland, for instance, is “Finlandly” because of the Finns themselves, not because of philosophy and governmental mechanics.

  • there is no other way toward and understanding of social phenomena but through our understanding of individual actions directed toward other people and guided by their expected behavior

    This is a very good refutation of Randian libertarianism and its incorrect anthropology. Individualism should not mean that subjective action is sacrosanct; it is, instead, a better way to analyze the social outcomes that are obviously the product of so many individual decisions. The temptation is to play identity politics and assume that these social constructs have some nature or form that can be counted on to behave in certain ways… Just to name one example, it would be foolish to assume that all Catholics will act similarly, ceteris paribus.

  • The trouble with “individualism” in rightist (traditionalist or right-liberal) argumentation today is the lack of realization of what Robert Nisbet pointed out in the 50s and Patrick Deenan has been hammering home in recent years: it is an invitation to statism

    Okay, let’s test this. Which part of the globe is more individualistic: the United States, or Europe? Which part is more statist?

  • Blackadder: on a blog discussing the anti-gay marriage vote in NY, a European leftist jumped in and said basically, see, this is why in Europe a supra-national body decides these issues, because we don’t want a situation where people vote to deny other people their rights. He obviously thought that was highly superior to the way we rednecks do things.

    Ironically enough, it is the Left which now embodies the mentality of the ancien regime. In Europe, the dukes and earls have been replaced by the EU elites, because the judgment of the peasants is not to be trusted. And many liberals in this country also put their faith in the elites and the courts and would like us to become more like the Europeans in that respect. The funny thing to me is that it’s basically feudalism presented as cutting edge progressivism.

  • “The funny thing to me is that it’s basically feudalism presented as cutting edge progressivism.”

    On target analysis Donna. Leftist comments about the tea bag party protests reminded me of a British aristocrat looking down his nose and cursing at the American rabble of 1776. The Left has a childlike faith in government by experts with the “proper opinions” amd judges with the “proper opinions”. Voters simply cannot be trusted to elect representatives with the “proper opinions”. That is also why Leftists love treaties to bind what elected representatives can do.

  • European leftist jumped in and said basically, see, this is why in Europe a supra-national body decides these issues, because we don’t want a situation where people vote to deny other people their rights. He obviously thought that was highly superior to the way we rednecks do things.

    Maybe it’s all Providence. Clearly someone like this isn’t a clear enough thinker to understand the virtues inherent in a properly constructed constitutionally limited republic. Its a pity when someone forfeits his ability to shape society for the better and contribute to his own governance, but maybe it’s best that those who would, should.

  • on a blog discussing the anti-gay marriage vote in NY, a European leftist jumped in and said basically, see, this is why in Europe a supra-national body decides these issues

    That’s an interesting argument, or at least it would be if it was remotely true. There’s no supra-national body in Europe telling nations that they have to recognize gay marriage. The issue is decided country by country, and in fact most European countries do not recognize gay marriage.

  • Because I believe anyone defending the right of total, untaxed inheritance today cannot possibly believe in a “natural aristocracy”, a “meritocracy”, or anything other than the perpetuation of oligarchy and plutocracy.

    Clayton Cramer has visited this issue on occasion and (I believe) has some citations to literature. His point: that with some exceptions (the duPonts, for example), families tend to lose their mojo after a few generations and their wealth is dissipated (by alcoholism, failure to earn well, and bad investments, among other things). A sad contemporary example would be Robert Kennedy’s in laws.

    You also would not want to work it so that an able businessman could not provide for his wife or his disabled children.

  • Okay, let’s test this. Which part of the globe is more individualistic: the United States, or Europe? Which part is more statist?

    Europe is more statist. This doesn’t negate though, the point of the first post, and I think ties into the second. A welfare state/statist/collectivist/ect. governmnetal organization “works” much better in a homogeneous society, for reasons explained by Putnam among many others.

    And so one big reason “individualism” as a public ethos is an open pathway to statism is that the “autonomous rights-based individuals” many open border/libertarian types tend to be happy to receive will over time make the country significantly more statist: one glaring example is California in the last three decades.

  • A welfare state/statist/collectivist/ect. governmnetal organization “works” much better in a homogeneous society, for reasons explained by Putnam among many others.

    The evidence isn’t that it works any better, only that it is more popular. I don’t see that as being necessarily a positive.

  • I think we find the first link between individualism and statism in Hobbes. First he shatters organic society and breaks us up into individual atoms, then he reconstitutes us in the body of the Leviathan, the absolute monarchy.

    This is why I object when people compare modern statism to feudalism, calling it “neo-feudalism.” At least in places such as England, the average peasant probably had more freedom certainly than a “worker” under communism. It was the medieval village (and the Church as the provider of social services) that had to be broken up and destroyed so that absolutism and statism could consolidate themselves.

  • The evidence isn’t that it works any better, only that it is more popular. I don’t see that as being necessarily a positive.

    I disagree with you on the evidence, but that’s another argument. Let’s accept this premise: in a homogeneous society (race, ethnicity/culture, religion, language being the most important) a statist system of governance is more popular and nothing else. This is not nothing if that state retains republican or democratic processes….in fact, popularity of large-scale policy is essential to societal harmony and decent, honest governance. Diversity and proximity equals conflict – all across the world, all across time and environment. Does this mean any one person is “lesser” than another? No. It means human populations are different, and (for powerful evolutionary reasons) prefer their “own.”

    Now let us consider a societal opposite. With different (and, by the way, strongly self-segregating populations), and with our incredibly advancing understanding of genetics, the future of social policy could very well be very contentious and ugly, with resentments galore.

    Geoffrey Miller in the current Economist:

    Human geneticists have reached a private crisis of conscience, and it will become public knowledge in 2010. The crisis has depressing health implications and alarming political ones. In a nutshell: the new genetics will reveal much less than hoped about how to cure disease, and much more than feared about human evolution and inequality, including genetic differences between classes, ethnicities and races.

    Uh oh. I just don’t see how it is not obvious that such revelations, in a republican society with democratic processes, an egalitarian ethos, and different populations, is not a toxic mix.

    (And again, let me be clear: I am not saying, nor do I believe, that any one person has less moral worth or inherent human dignity than another.)

  • Joe,

    I guess I see two issues with your characterization of the approach that classical liberals would/should take to inheritance:

    1) I’m not aware the Burke, Smith, etc. in any way endorsed a confiscatory approach to inheritance.

    2) The desire to be able to pass on an inheritance does not necessarily stem from an opposition to meritocracy (some idea that because your parents were rich you deserve to be rich regardless of your own abilities) but rather from self interest in the sense the classical liberals talked about it. When Smith talks about “self-interest” he means no so much “selfishness” or “what I want for me, myself” but rather “what I, myself, want to do with my goods”. One of the very natural things that people desire (and work to achieve) is the ability to take good care of their loved ones and of other causes or institutions they care about. In this sense, wanting have the fruits of one’s labor result in financial support for one’s children, one’s church, etc. would all be examples of “selt interest” in the classical liberal sense.