Friday, November 11, 2011

Debased verbal coin

F. A. Hayek

Political wisdom, dearly bought by the bitter experience of generations, is often lost through the gradual change in the meaning of the words which express its maxims.  Though the phrases themselves may continue to receive lip service, they are slowly denuded of their original significance until they are dropped as empty and commonplace.  Finally, an ideal for which people have passionately fought in the past falls into oblivion because it lacks a generally understood name.  If the history of political concepts is in general of interest only to the specialist, in such situations there is often no other way of discovering what is happening in our time than to go back to the source in order to recover the original meaning of the debased verbal coin which we still use.   
F. A. Hayek (1953) The Decline of the Rule of Law, Part 1, in The Freeman, April 20, 1953, p. 518

To talk and listen in a public forum, words must have meaning.  There can always be a translator.

To find such meaning for oneself, the coin also of mere individual thought, I recommend what Hayek advises here.  A commonplace book helps.  For me it took years.

It's best of course to strive for shared meaning, but not at the expense of clear thought.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

The obvious tendency

James Madison

That the General Assembly doth also express its deep regret, that a spirit has in sundry instances, been manifested by the federal government, to enlarge its powers by forced constructions of the constitutional charter which defines them; and that indications have appeared of a design to expound certain general phrases ... so as to destroy the meaning and effect, of the particular enumeration which necessarily explains and limits the general phrases; and so as to consolidate the States by degrees, into one sovereignty, the obvious tendency and inevitable consequences of which would be, to transform the present republican system of the United States, into an absolute, or at best a mixed monarchy.
James Madison
The Virginia Resolutions of 1798
[emphasis added]

More to this post to come....

Friday, September 26, 2008

Being honest

Thomas Jefferson

The great principles of right and wrong are legible to every reader: to pursue them requires not the aid of many counsellors. The whole art of government consists in the art of being honest. ... Let no act be passed by any one legislature which may infringe on the rights and liberties of another.... The god who gave us life, gave us liberty at the same time: the hand of force may destroy, but cannot disjoin them.
Thomas Jefferson
A View of the Rights of British America
The Portable Thomas Jefferson, pp 20-21

This seems timely. Being honest, trying to question where things don't add up, is not easy. There are consequences. You may be ostracized. I found that F. A. Hayek's work The Denationalisation of Money pointed the way two decades ago, though I had some disagreements. It's a shame it was so taboo in academia. We'd be in a better position today if people had been more open to discussion before any crisis, as Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz recommended in 1986 in their article "Has Government Any Role in Money?" I still wish to engage in this discussion as best I can. It's senseless to shun the questions for fear of the questions themselves. Reality is there regardless.

Monday, July 28, 2008

"Here was the false step" of France

Millard Fillmore

Enjoying, as we do, the blessings of a free Government, there is no man who has an American heart that would not rejoice to see these blessings extended to all other nations. We can not witness the struggle between the oppressed and his oppressor anywhere without the deepest sympathy for the former and the most anxious desire for his triumph. Nevertheless, is it prudent or is it wise to involve ourselves in these foreign wars?

Is it indeed true that we have heretofore refrained from doing so merely from the degrading motive of a conscious weakness? For the honor of the patriots who have gone before us, I can not admit it. Men of the Revolution, who drew the sword against the oppressions of the mother country and pledged to Heaven "their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor" to maintain their freedom, could never have been actuated by so unworthy a motive. They knew no weakness or fear where right or duty pointed the way, and it is a libel upon their fair fame for us, while we enjoy the blessings for which they so nobly fought and bled, to insinuate it.

The truth is that the course which they pursued was dictated by a stern sense of international justice, by a statesmanlike prudence and a far-seeing wisdom, looking not merely to the present necessities but to the permanent safety and interest of the country. They knew that the world is governed less by sympathy than by reason and force; that it was not possible for this nation to become a "propagandist" of free principles without arraying against it the combined powers of Europe, and that the result was more likely to be the overthrow of republican liberty here than its establishment there. History has been written in vain for those who can doubt this.

France had no sooner established a republican form of government than she manifested a desire to force its blessings on all the world.
Her own historian informs us that, hearing of some petty acts of tyranny in a neighboring principality, "the National Convention declared that she would afford succor and fraternity to all nations who wished to recover their liberty, and she gave it in charge to the executive power to give orders to the generals of the French armies to aid all citizens who might have been or should be oppressed in the cause of liberty." Here was the false step which led to her subsequent misfortunes. She soon found herself involved in war with all the rest of Europe. In less than ten years her Government was changed from a republic to an empire, and finally, after shedding rivers of blood, foreign powers restored her exiled dynasty and exhausted Europe sought peace and repose in the unquestioned ascendency of monarchical principles. Let us learn wisdom from her example.

Let us remember that revolutions do not always establish freedom. Our own free institutions were not the offspring of our Revolution. They existed before. They were planted in the free charters of self-government under which the English colonies grew up, and our Revolution only freed us from the dominion of a foreign power whose government was at variance with those institutions. But European nations have had no such training for self-government, and every effort to establish it by bloody revolutions has been, and must without that preparation continue to be, a failure. Liberty unregulated by law degenerates into anarchy, which soon becomes the most horrid of all despotisms. Our policy is wisely to govern ourselves, and thereby to set such an example of national justice, prosperity, and true glory as shall teach to all nations the blessings of self-government and the unparalleled enterprise and success of a free people.
President Millard Fillmore
State of the Union message to Congress
6 Dec 1852
More prudence. Let us set an example in Liberty, in free institutions once again, and the rule of law, really.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Let the Constitution speak according to the promises of the Declaration

Charles Sumner

The modern founder of political science, Machiavelli, writer as well as statesman, in his most instructive work, the Discourses on Livy, has a chapter entitled, "For a Republic to have long life, it is necessary to bring it back often to its origin": where he shows how the native virtue in which a Republic was founded becomes so far corrupted that in process of time the body-politic is destroyed,—as in the case of the natural body, where, according to the doctors of medicine, something is daily added, from time to time requiring cure. The remarkable publicist teaches under this head that Republics are brought back to their origin, and to the principles in which they were founded, by pressure from without, where prudence fails within; and he affirms that the destruction of Rome by the Gauls was necessary, in order that the Republic might have a new birth, with new life and new virtue,—all of which ensued, when the barbarians were driven back. If the illustration is fanciful, there is wisdom in the counsel; and now the time has come for its application. The Gauls are upon us, not from a distance, but domestic Gauls, flinging their swords, like Brennus, into the scales; and we, too, may profit by the occasion to secure for the Republic a new birth, with new life and new virtue. Happily, the way is easy; for there is no doubt of its baptismal vows, or the declared sentiments of its origin. There is the Declaration of Independence: let its solemn promises be redeemed. There is the Constitution: let it speak according to the promises of the Declaration. Let it speak...
Charles Sumner (1811-1874)
Universal Emancipation, pp 213-214
His Complete Works, XI

Doesn't prudence sound easier?

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Plain and few

William Ellery Channing

[T]he administration of our government should be marked by the greatest possible simplicity. We hold this to be no unimportant means of perpetuating our Union. Laws and measures should be intelligible, founded on plain principles, and such as common minds may comprehend.

This, indeed, is a maxim to be applied to republican governments universally. The essential idea of a republic is that the sovereignty is in the people. In choosing representatives they do not devolve the supreme power on others. By the frequency of elections, they are called to pass judgment on the representatives. It is essential to this mode of government that, through a free press, all public measures should be brought before the tribunal of the people. Of course, a refined and subtile policy, or a complicated legislation, which cannot be understood but by laborious research and reasoning, is hostile to the genius of republican institutions. Laws should be plain and few, intended to meet obvious wants, and such as are clearly required by the great interests of the community.

For ourselves, we are satisfied that all governments, without exception, can adopt no safer rule than the simplicity which we have now recommended. The crying sin of all governments is, that they intermeddle injuriously with human affairs, and obstruct the processes of nature by excessive regulation. To us, society is such a complicated concern, its interests are affected by so many and subtile causes, there are so many secret springs at work in its bosom, and such uncertainty hangs over the distant issues of human arrangements, that we are astonished and shocked at the temerity of legislators in interposing their contrivances and control, except where events and experience shed a clear light.

Above all, in a country like our own, where public measures are to be judged by millions of people scattered over a vast territory, and most of whom are engaged in laborious occupations, we know not a plainer principle that that the domestic and foreign policy of government should be perspicuous and founded on obvious reasons, so that plain cases may in the main, if not always, be offered to popular decision. Measures which demand profound thought for their justification, about which intelligent and honest men differ, and the usefulness of which cannot be made out to the common mind, are unfit for a republic.

If in this way important national advantages should be sometimes lost, we ought to submit to the evil as inseparable from our institutions, and should comfort ourselves with thinking that Providence never bestows an unmixed good, that the best form of government has its inconveniences, and that a people, possessing freedom, can afford to part with many means of immediate wealth.

We have no fear, however, that a people will ever suffer by a rigid application of our rule. Legislators cannot feel too deeply the delicacy of their work, and their great ignorance of the complicated structure and of the multiplied and secret relations of the social state; and they ought not to hasten, nay, more, they ought to distrust, a policy, to the justice and wisdom of which the suffrage of public opinion cannot be decidedly and intelligently secured. In our republic, the aim of Congress should be to stamp its legislation with all possible simplicity, and to abstain from measures which, by their complication, obscurity, and uncertainty, must distract the public mind, and throw it into agitation and angry controversy. Let it be their aim to cast among the people as few brands of discord as possible; and for this end let the spirit of adventurous theory be dismissed, and the spirit of modesty, caution, and prudent simplicity preside over legislation.
William Ellery Channing - The Union
In: The Works of William E. Channing with an Introduction. Boston: American Unitarian Association, 1903, pp. 633-634

[originally in one paragraph]

Last week Michael Kinsley wrote for Time Magazine the essay Libertarians Rising, in which he states, "Libertarians are against government in all its manifestations." Surely there are sufficient anarchists to poison the name of libertarianism, even for me. Just as there are socialists, collectivists, dirigistes, communitarians, what have you, who drag the word liberalism through the mud, prettifying the trumping of human rights with a muddling of words. Yet, to return to the example of competing medical associations discussed earlier, light-yoke government can stick to the basics of contract and the prevention of fraud, leveraging its power where it counts and where it is legitimate, letting society itself take effect.

As is common, Kinsley confuses society and government. Moreover, he goes further, so much further, to paint a picture of liberty-minded types "convinced that they don't need society." Upon reading this, I immediately wrote a letter to the editor.
A polite, brash society

Michael Kinsley repeats the mantra that libertarians oppose society in his essay "Libertarians Rising". Libertarians and classical liberals believe in human rights first and foremost. If people don't respect one another's rights, then society itself breaks down. What we Americans have fought for since our revolution is society, not big government. Paine made this important difference clear in his pamphlet "Common Sense", which sparked the American revolution. What we want is society, a polite society where there is mutual respect between people in their mutual dealings, a brash society where people are not held back from their dreams, however unrealistic they may seem. We don't believe that a hit-them-over-the-head-with-arbitrary-rules-and-privileges society is society at all. Indeed we believe the future lies with competing associations trying out different approaches.

For example in health care
, we see the imposition of the rules of the AMA from the latter half of the 19th century on have limited competition in the coining of doctors. In effect, we suffer from a cartel that keeps prices artificially high. Our ideal is to return to the American revolution. After our revolution, "[b]etween 1830 and 1850, many of the medical licensing laws left over from the colonial period were repealed." [John Goodman and Gerald Musgrave, Patient Power Cato Institute, 1992]. Instead it was up to a variety of associations to set standards and determine which schools and tests would serve to guarantee the quality standards they set for their clients. Then in the mid-1800s the AMA came barreling in foisting its own rules on everyone through the imposition of laws that not only fixed which tests doctors had to pass, but also which schools they had to go to. You couldn't practice if you went to the wrong school even if you could pass the test everyone else took. Such barriers support a cartel, a cartel few see. Instead we need freedom. We need competition among medical associations that establish and experiment with standards and best practices under the watchful eyes of consumer groups and ethicists.

Freedom doesn't mean that you are free alone. You are free in society with others. Nobel laureate economist James M. Buchanan, in his recent book Why I, Too, am Not a Conservative: The Normative Vision of Classical Liberalism, writes of "the ethics of liberalism", how we must preach the ethics of reciprocation. Without such ethics, law is futile.

What we want is to continue our American revolution.

See also the related article, For Law Plain and Simple.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

The Declaration

When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. — Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.
Thomas Jefferson (1776)
perhaps with some help from Thomas Paine

These words mean something right now. Brilliant video. Though the video's tone be partialist[1], the message is universalist. Liberty can bring us together.

Hat tip: Daily Paul

  1. Where, for example, were the remonstrances when President Clinton invaded and occupied Haiti in a kingly and neocon manner without a declaration of war? Where are they when a man's right to pursue health care is violated? Where are they when a woman's equal right to pursue health care as she wishes is disparaged? Where are they when the natural rights of the Declaration, enshrined in the Ninth Amendment, need defending? What wakes up a partisan, who doesn't see his own brand of faction?