Archives for category: Political Theory
Caricature by Andre Gill.

Progress is in inverse ratio to the coercive action of man on man, in direct ratio to his command over things. The Protectionist, by trying to prevent his countrymen from consuming what they choose, wishes to remove them from the effects of all external progress, and when he gains his ends he may indeed find the most extravagant conceptions of Swift pale before the irony of his creation.

Yves Guyot, The Comedy of Protection, 1906, viii. (h/t Common Sense with Paul Jacob).
Caricature by Andre Gill.

We must not confound liberty with anarchy. Liberty is the reciprocal respect for personal rights, according to certain fixed rules known by the name of law. Anarchy is the privilege of some and the spoliation of others, according to the caprices and arbitrary will of the cunning and the violent, and the feebleness and lack of energy of the timorous.

Yves Guyot, The Tyranny of Socialism, 1894 (h/t Common Sense with Paul Jacob).

It was the bicentennial of Herbert Spencer’s birth, on Monday, so I threw together a celebratory podcast episode, of sorts.

And, in that ninth outing of the LocoFoco Netcast, I blew through the theory of dysgenics so fast that I did not clearly distinguish (a) my thoughts from Spencer’s, (b) the best case for these ideas, especially in the theory of (c) incentives and disincentives, (d) inculcation of virtue and success, and (e) concern for the welfare of the worst off. Indeed, I am pretty sure I came off as a callous Social Darwinist, leaving Spencer and myself open to the usual criticisms.

That is what I get for being in a rush.

But then Jim Gill, who joined me for the final segment, had even harsher things to say!

Which means that I will have to quickly put up a follow-up episode. I am thinking it will have a subtitle: “Let’s ‘Nuance’ This Up a Bit.”

Which is something Bill Bradford used to say.

And Jim and I will do just that.

But how bad, really, did we get? You can listen at LocoFoco.net, or on the podcast on iTunes, Spotify, et al.:

LocoFoco Netcast #9: My Herbert Spencer Problem — and Ours.

The video of the new episode is uploading to YouTube, and will take a while.

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The further adventures of Dennis Pratt, libertarian on (and off; and on…) a social platform dedicated to “ideas.” And gamed by bullies:

LocoFoco Netcast (April 13, 2020) #7.

The audio version can be found at LocoFoco.net, and on podcatchers such as iTunes, Google Podcasts, Spotify, etc.:

Why is capitalism not liberalism?

…as answered on Quora….

Which capitalism? Which liberalism?

What came to be known as “capitalism” grew out of mercantilism and the freeing up of such systems in part by liberals — “classical liberals” — who sought to limit government interference in the workings of markets. Arguing for a generally ‘laissez faire’ approach, and persuaded by economic reasoning that most of the goals and methods of mercantilists achieved socially negative results — often the opposite of the promised results of the traditional advocates of private-public partnerships — these liberals helped spur the astounding economic advances of the agricultural and industrial revolutions.

But almost no country has ever sported pure laissez faire — such a policy seems austere to folks in government, whose power is limited under such a policy — and Actually Existing Capitalism has always been to some degree mercantilist, filled with goofy and exploitative favoritism, transfer payments, deceptive and slippery regulations, tragedies of the commons, vast public work projects, and persistent rent-seeking manias. Self-proclaimed liberals fought this for many decades of the 19th century, but the popularity of socialist ideas infected the class of people who called themselves liberals, and this class of people reverted to a kind of neo-mercantilism, dubbed ‘progressivism’ in America and ‘social democracy’ in Europe, often pushing to dirigisme — sometimes called fascism and other times called national socialism and often pitched with eulogistic, sloganeering brand names, like The New Freedom and The New Deal.

It is time to take back the term ‘liberalism’ from the advocates of some jury-rigged ‘third way’ between laissez faire and state socialism. But we may have to stick with alternates, like ‘libertarianism’ or Benedetto Croce’s ‘liberism.’

It would be easy to argue that ‘capitalism’ has almost always been used as a pejorative, and should be dropped like a scorched spud. Worse yet, naming a system of private property, free production, free trade, free labor, and free banking by only one of the three traditional factors of production — ‘capital’ (instead of by land and labor as well) — makes capitalism unsuitable for those who wish for any sort of precision. But we are probably stuck with it, too. In my nitpickier moments I sometimes talk up The Catallaxy — the emergent order of all voluntary exchanges (Richard Whately defined economics as ‘catallactics,’ or the Science of Exchanges, nearly two centuries ago, and F.A. Hayek coined the above term for the liberal system sometime in the 1960s or 70s) — but that isn’t going to fly.

When someone says they are for or against ‘capitalism,’ we must ask for clarification. When folks call themselves a ‘liberal’ but are only liberal in spending other people’s money, laugh in their faces.

Today’s critics of capitalism must not be allowed to get away with their most characteristic legerdemain, pretending that every problem in our mixed economy is caused only by the ‘free market’ aspect of the system, and not the government part. And conservative defenders of capitalism have got to stop calling the current system ‘free enterprise.’ Wake up and throw out the coffee grounds.

In my opinion, liberals are those who advocate laissez faire capitalism. They oppose the neo-mercantilists of all varieties, and socialists even stronger.

So, back to the question. Why is capitalism not liberalism? Capitalism is an economic order; liberalism is an ideology.

Alas, we are almost always stuck with the tedious job of disambiguating both terms.

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What is liberty?

as answered on Quora….

Liberty is the freedom that can be had by all, provided each reciprocally abandons predation and parasitism (initiated force) and does not arrogate self over others, or allow others to tyrannize self.

Liberty — depending, as it does, upon the civilized stance, which is the cautious attitude of curiosity and the reserved expectation of peacefulness on the part of individuals, and which moderates the polarizing natural instincts of fight or flight — is the ideal compromise between dominance and submission, between tyranny and servility.

Or, to switch to the group level:

Liberty is a regulatory solution to the problems caused by in-group/out-group (inclusionary/exclusionary) antagonisms. It does this by regulating the ill treatment of the outsider, requiring a public test for applying coercion, based on the notions of rights/obligations and the suppression of crime and trespass. It applies the same sort of basic rule to all people, as individuals — regardless of group affiliation or institutional alliance.

Further formulations from alternative contexts:

Liberty is the replacement of militant coöperation with voluntary coöperation, understanding that peaceful non-coöperation is not a threat.

Liberty is the honing of threat systems down to a bare minimum by

  1. focusing on the prohibition of the initiation of force as well as by
  2. regarding as bedrock to social order self-defense, and by
  3. regulating retaliation by a rule of law —

all of which allows the flourishing of “enticement systems” (and the spontaneous systemization of flourishing).

Liberty, wrote Voltaire, is “independence backed by force.” While freedom is the absence of initiated opposing force, liberty is that absence grounded throughout society upon the justice of limiting “opposing force” to the defensive.

Liberty is reciprocity universalized, the Silver Rule scaled to all levels of organized society.

Liberty is a limit to government — with government understood in the broadest of social terms.

Liberty is a widespread and baseline personal freedom understood in the context of a distributed division of responsibility.


Dennis Pratt broke down the key concepts, above, into a nifty bullet-point list:

  • universal (for all)
  • civility
  • voluntary cooperation
  • reduced threats
  • defensive force
  • reciprocity
  • limited government
  • distributed responsibility

While reading a novel, last night, I was interrupted by intrusive thoughts — a memory of the day a man repeatedly called the magazine offices where I worked over two decades ago, threatening to kill us all with a knife. “I’ll rip out your guts,” he snarled. I took the phone from Kathy and, using a popular curse, wished him the worst in forceful terms. Actually, the grammatical form was an imperative, not an indicative or subjunctive: “wish” is an understatement. I told him never to call again.

As far as I know, he never did.

I sort of marvel that anyone would do such a thing, make an apparently empty threat. Unless I was so minatory that I scared him off? Seems unlikely.

Every now and then I wonder whether I knew the man in real life, if he followed me or any of the other people in the offices. Probably he just dialed a random number. At the time it did not cross my mind that he might have been the hitchhiker I once picked up who threatened to kill me. (I talked him down: he was a drunk and hadn’t put on his seatbelt, so my power over him was almost total.)

It did not once cross my mind to call the police. 

The police — indeed, the State — does not exist to protect us. The State intervenes in “justice markets” to suppress “the feud” and other patterns of revenge, and the police are mainly in service to clean up messes, chiefly those made by violence. An important job, but if you think protection is what they are all about, you have not been paying attention. We must protect ourselves.

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From Business Insider India.

There are two distinct ways to think about good, citizen-controlled government: (1)  the State must be limited to defending our rights; or (2) the State must be channeled to promote the general welfare, either by (a) avoiding the worst disasters or (b) promoting universally understood good things or (c) both.

I am really big on Job 1, and find it hard to argue against Job 2a. It is in 2b and 2c endeavors where things get murky and citizen control of government difficult, perhaps illusory.

There are two distinct threats to the world right now: (1) the budding COVID-19 epidemic and (2) Asteroid 1998 OR2.

We all know about, if not much about, (1) the now-declared pandemic. But we aren’t much worried about (2) the fly-by of an asteroid big enough to destroy civilization and send our planet into a conflagration.* 

Eric Mack, writing at C/Net, starts off by stating “A huge asteroid is set to make a close pass by Earth in April, and although it’s considered ‘potentially hazardous’ to [sic?] astronomers, the only show it will be putting on over the next few centuries will be in the night sky.”

OK. No need to worry then, eh?

The potentially dangerous asteroids have been largely mapped — a coordinated private-public effort. The comets are trickier.

With a lot of unknowns facing us, expecting the government to serve us makes sense, but to assume the government can flawlessly save us may be more dangerous than Asteroid 1998 OR2. 

We must not become a cargo cult, praying for the lordly President to bring us all the goodies of a mysterious, magical civilization.

So heavily criticizing President Trump’s speech, last week, may not be our most rational response to the coronavirus pandemic . . . or the continuing threat from above.


* Followed by a deep freeze like we haven’t seen since the megafaunal extinction event of the Younger Dryas, approximately twelve thousand years ago. 

Where do human rights come from?

…as answered on Quora….

Rights are human instruments, in law and ethics.

Where do they come from?

Well, they come from human beings’ need to control themselves and others, and from our expressions, judgments, claims, counter-claims, etc. But that isn’t the whole of the story, for just “being an instrument” of purpose and need does not mean that the instrument in question cannot be abandoned, or that all rights are created equal.

There is something about the inherent concept of a right that disallows many common conceptions. Philosophers and jurists and politicians have been working on the ideas for centuries or longer, but I am going to skip most of that. Suffice it to say that the rightness of a right, so to speak, is not its instrumentality alone.

But let us not forget what a right is, sans its utility, goodness, or justification — let us remember what even an unacceptable right would be.

right is a claim to obligatory treatment. For every right there is at least one obligation — so understanding a right requires understanding obligation, or duty.

Rights are a way of articulating duties.

In law, the obligation marshaled by a right amounts to a legally enforceable — by coercion, compulsion — performance. Or, outside of law, but in ethics, legitimately required and sanctionable. If I have a right to liberty, you have a duty not to initiate force upon me. If you have a right to health care, then I must supply you medical aid. When someone fails or refuses to perform the specified duty, at law a case will be somehow made, in criminal or civil court, or merchant law, or the like, to compel the performance of the duty, with penalties.

Now, I wrote above that it is coercion or compulsion that is threatened in the articulation of the right. Well, the threat can be something less than force, but in political philosophy we are usually talking about force, so let’s restrict ourselves to that.

Oh, and I just wrote that word “threat.” A right is a specific kind of articulation of a threat. Human social systems are dominated by two types of interaction, threats and enticements. Rights are civilized threats. Since we do not like to be threatened, there is a reason that rights that are promoted universally, that all may have, are commonly favored, and, indeed, narrow the field and winnow out many forms of posited duties. Rights that only some may have at the obligation of all are suspect.

So, we can expand our definition somewhat: a right is the positive, beneficiary focus of the articulation of a threat that has as its targeted focus an obligation.

Now we have to make some distinctions. For there are dimensions to rights and obligations: who has the right? who is obligated? what is obligated? To be brief and hastily move through an ideascape that Jeremy Bentham should have covered but did not quite, we have specific rights when the number of rights-bearers are few and the numbers of the duty-bound are few, or singular (I have a right to $100 from a client; the phone company has a right to $200 from me) and we have rights that all have and to which all are obliged. We have several names for these kinds of rights:

  • natural rights
  • universal rights
  • basic rights
  • human rights

There is something to be said for and against each of these. If one were of a certain type of mind (as I am, on Tuesdays) we could treat each as a distinct term of art. But suffice it, here, to say that these very elementary and foundational rights are what we are most interested in political philosophy, and which deserve all of our attention.

I believe that because of the very construction of this tool, “a right,” most propounded universal rights fail to pass muster.

A human right should make sense in most human societies, and should be performable without causing social chaos and conflict rather than social stability. I have argued, and will argue again, that many of the “rights” some people most desire are mere imposition farded up with the lipstick of effrontery. A right to “healthcare” for example. Folks who talk about these types of rights demand too much of others, literally. For every obligation there is coercion, and it is not reasonable to promote universal servitude. The more rights you propound, the more coercion you thrust into our social reality.

Which is why the right to liberty strikes me as the best contender for a universal, basic, fundamental right: all of us having it at baseline personhood means that all of us have a very simple obligation set, a sort of “do no harm” duty: to not initiate force. This is an easy burden, as obligations go. It requires mainly defensive force for their maintenance in society. Not offensive. It is not imperialistic. It rests upon a tolerant, undemanding, liberal stance.

So you can see where the “imperativeness” comes from, what makes this right a right indeed: universalizability, and a reasonable enticement to all not to promote violence. To reduce the degree of threats in society.

A right to liberty works better than all other contenders because the threat element in the substance of the right is reduced to a minimum for the benefit of all.

Yes. There you have it. Rights are threats, sure, but they must also offer an enticement to reasonable, peaceful people.


I avoid a number of issues of extreme interest to me, but they are not really germane to the question at hand — though they are not utterly tangential, either. These include, especially, what is so “natural” about a “natural right”? and how do we “have” rights?

The third episode of my new podcast will go up on Monday. Until then, here is a preview:

For over three years, Dennis Pratt has been working full time answering questions on Quora — about libertarianism. This is a preview on my personal channel of what will appear on my official podcast channels on YouTube and SoundCloud.