Ethnic homogeneity and liberty

I’m reading Tom Woods’ “Politically Incorrect Guide to American History”. The book got predictable criticism from liberals and neoconservatives for its sympathetic portrayal of the Confederacy and skepticism towards the New Deal, but right at the very beginning he makes an interesting point that should give many conservatives (if not libertarians) pause. The point is this: while from our viewpoint the first European settlers in America were highly homogeneous, being all white Protestants from the British Isles, they were in fact culturally quite diverse, being split between Massachusetts Puritans, Virginian aristocrats, Delaware valley Quakers and Appalachian hillbillies. This diversity in turn gave rise to a great deal of mutual suspicion and hostility, which in turn led them to insist on a central government that left local communities as much alone as possible to run their own affairs.

In the current debate, conservatives have taken the lead in arguing for immigration restriction, with the more sophisticated among them pointing to much evidence that ethnic diversity harm trust levels in society. However, in the US at least, these conservatives also generally bemoan the expansion of government and the growth of the welfare state. But if Woods is right, then the last thing we should try to do, if we want to roll back the welfare state, is insist on keeping ourselves ethnically homogeneous. Instead, the more diversity we encourage through immigration, the more likely that political pressures will arise that will force central government to back off, returning ourselves to the highly decentralized system of the early US.

Strict enumeration of powers and limited government

Lately I’ve been bumping into a lot of hardcore libertarians who disdain the US Constitution as just another apology for statism. In the context of US politics, where fidelity to the Constitution is a hallmark of the Ron Paul Revolution and the Tea Party movement, this attitude seems bizarre. Most of these types seem to be anarcho-capitalists anyway, i.e. they don’t believe in any state at all, not even a highly limited one that would be prepared to defend property rights, right to liberty and freedom from coercion and the other assorted “natural rights”. But not all of them identify as such. Sometimes they cite the anti-Federalists, who believed the Constitution gave the federal government too much power. For a strong believer in “states’ rights”, this attitude could make sense, but for a serious libertarian, not so much, since the anti-Federalists were not proto-libertarians, but simply wanted to give more powers to the states. As US history has shown, even where federal powers have been highly curtailed, state powers have been extensive, denying people all sorts of liberties. Weak federal government is not a recipe for a libertarian society.

Yet I believe in a weak federal government, even though I also believe in libertarianism as a general principle. I would prefer all levels of government to respect natural rights and individual liberties, but I prefer these issues to be resolved locally, rather than giving federal authority the power to override lower levels of government in the name of “freedom”. The revolution must be bottom-up, not top-down.

One thing I’m really coming to admire about the original constitution is the explicit enumeration of federal powers in article 1, section 8. Dogmatic libertarians may quibble over the powers given to Congress in that section, e.g. Congress has the power to establish a post office and post roads, while many distinguished non-anarchist libertarians, like Murray Rothbard, have argued for the complete privatization of both roads and the postal service. But the point is that, whatever your views on the theory of government and the kinds of powers a government should have, the strict enumeration of powers in the constitution forced a certain restraint on all parties. Whether you liked it or not, the Constitution authorized Congress to establish a post office, but not to establish a national education or healthcare system, for example. This forces politicians to work these issues out at a local level, which in my view is always a better thing, better than trying to force a single ideological vision on the entire nation.

I suppose one could be a strict constructionist about the constitution, while also adhering to Austrian economic principles and other libertarian ideas. The fact that the constitution authorizes a federal post office does not require Congress to establish such an office. But I like that the constitution, as originally framed, only allows discretion in one direction, i.e. in the direction of less government.

Now, if only we could get Congress to just limit itself to its constitutional limits. How did they end up expanding their powers so far beyond the original constitutional vision? That’s the subject for a later post.

Optimism and pessimism

I am pessimistic about the prospects for liberty and restrained government. A recent piece in Politico points to Rand Paul’s flagging campaign as evidence that America has lost its libertarian, if indeed it ever had it. Republican voters seem to prefer the xenophobic economic nationalism of Trump or the warmongering of the other candidates to Paul’s all-round message of restraint both at home and abroad. Democrats, meanwhile, are flocking to the socialist Bernie Sanders, with the runner up being the interventionist Hillary Clinton, as bad as your average GOP runner.

I’m optimistic in that the laws of economics are what they are. Our society will either succeed despite government attempts to repress it, or else we will eventually be forced to pay the cost of our bad choices and the correct choices will become that much more obvious. In the long run, liberty must win.

More on federalism and libertarianism

I just found this fascinating article that deals precisely with the tension between libertarianism and federalism that bedevils much of the American libertarian movement, such as Ron Paul and his followers:

Basically, up until the passage of the 14th amendment after the civil war, the Constitution, including the Bill of Rights, was only held to restrain the powers of the federal government. Which, given the powers of the states at the time, was not much restraint at all, from the individual’s point of view. So in many ways, federalism was bad news for classical liberals and libertarians. It allowed slavery, for example.

The 14th amendment restrained the powers of the states from denying their residents the equal protection of the laws, and later Supreme Court decisions went further, citing the amendment as proof that the Bill of Rights should restrain government at the state, as well as at the federal level. The idea that the Bill of Rights guarantees the civil liberties of individual Americans against all levels of government is, therefore, a relatively recent one, and certainly not envisioned by the Framers.

I’m still torn on this issue. There is certainly a temptation to use federal power to force states to adopt policies that promote greater freedom. The trouble is that freedom’s ideological enemies are then given the same tool to push their illiberal agenda on the states, owing to the force of judicial precedent in our legal system. I’ll think about this issue some more and get back to you.

Who gives a damn about war anymore?

How many liberals give a damn that Obama has returned US troops to Iraq and committed our presence in Afghanistan beyond the end of his term, despite his earlier pledge to withdraw troops by this year? Does anyone remember that he was granted the Nobel Peace Prize at the start of his presidency because of all the promises he made to bring about world peace? The casualness with which we are letting ourselves get sucked in to those quagmires again is truly astonishing, but I’m seeing very little outcry from most quarters. Most on the right, of course, have learned absolutely nothing from their foreign policy mistakes and are still in thrall to neoconservatives notions of nation-building and solving the world’s problems through military force, but given the bile that Democrats spewed against Bush junior, one might think they would exercise a little more skepticism about continuing our foreign interventions.

The truth, of course, is that with a liberal in the White House, the political incentive to oppose the military-industrial complex has vanished. In Libya and Syria, Obama has shown himself incapable of withstanding the pressures to get ever more deeply involved in other countries’ problems. Since the average American is not paying for the war directly in blood, he thinks it doesn’t concern him, making the political contest about domestic issues. But Americans are paying for these wars in our exploding debt that taxes our economy to death. I think the way in which American citizens are being taxed indirectly, rather than directly, goes a long way towards explaining why they can’t see that the solution is shrinking government, rolling back our foreign and domestic commitments and returning to principles of peace, free trade and the free market.

Restraining federal government vs restraining all government

There is a current in libertarianism that welcomes expansion of federal power, as long as this promoted “personal freedom”. Such sentiments are all right, provided that a) “personal freedom” means the same thing to me as it does to you, and b) that expanded federal power can’t later on be used to take away personal freedoms. Unfortunately, neither of the two are always the case, and often they are the opposite.

Exhibit A: gay marriage. Recently the Supreme Court decided that marriage was a fundamental right that could not be denied on the grounds of the sex of the consenting parties. At first glance, this looks like a victory for personal freedom. On further consideration, it does nothing to change the fact that the government still has a say in who you can legally marry, e.g. if you’re already married to another person, you’re not allowed to marry a third person, even if your current spouse consents. Some libertarians have pointed out how government continues to regulate our private lives through licensing marriage, but many others have ignored this fact in order to cheer on this enormous new expansion of federal power. And this ignores the other consequences for personal liberties that accompanied this decision, e.g. the lawsuits brought against business owners that refuse to cater to gay couples on the grounds that this violates the public accommodations clause of the Civil Rights act. An extension of personal liberty in one area is accompanied by a retraction of liberty in another, owing to our messed up legal system.

The solution I prefer is for the federal government to get out of marriage completely. This would give powers back to the states to ban gay marriage, but I think I part ways with many libertarians on things like social legislation. Societies and communities differ in their values and norms and it is reasonable for each community to wish to regulate itself in a way that it sees fit, even if that means tolerating something less than libertarian at the local level. I think I would draw the line at civil rights, however: states should not be allowed to deny local residents the rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights, for example, such as right to fair and speedy trial. I need to think more about what powers should be given to the states and what powers should be withheld, but at first approximation I would say the line should be drawn at the Bill of Rights.

Gun control and incorporation of the Bill of Rights

The Second Amendment prevents the federal Congress from infringing on the rights of citizens to bear arms. At the same time, up until 1925, the federal Constitution, including its amendments, was understood to constrain the powers of the federal government only. That is how, for example, slave states were able to deny civil rights to blacks, but presumably it also allowed states and local governments to exercise whatever control they wished over local residents’ rights to possess weapons. In 1925, however, the Supreme Court decided that the 14th amendment required “incorporation” of the Bill of Rights into state law. This included the Second Amendment, a point which was recently clarified in 2010 by the Supreme Court in McDonald v Chicago.

Many gun-control advocates would probably wish we could return to the old federalism when it comes to the right to bear arms; however, they cannot return the power to control guns to states without also returning the powers to deny due process, suppress free speech, or revoke any of the other rights protected in the Constitution. As a libertarian and believer in natural rights, I mostly welcome this restriction on state and local powers from infringing on natural rights; at the same time, I sympathize with the notion that different communities may even disagree on what constitutes a natural right.

The right to bear arms does seem to be one of those rights that many deny exists. While no one denies the natural right to self-defense, many balk at extending that right to carrying firearms. My response to this is that the individual has a right to any effective form of defense, and for many, the most effective form of defense is the handgun. I’m sure even the most pro-gun advocate would not claim that an individual needs a right to possess his own nuclear arsenal, since there is no sense in which a private citizen needs those kinds of weapons to defend himself and his household. But handguns may be the only thing that works against violent intruders, whereas knives or his own fists and feet may not be adequate.

That being said, should states be allowed to decide differently on this question? I would say that, if states have the power to deny private citizens the right to bear arms in self-defense, they should also have the power deny all other rights. If we allow disagreement over one right, why not allow disagreement over the others?