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.