Archives for category: Political Theory

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.

twv

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.

Tyler Cowen used to be a libertarian. He still has a soft spot in his heart for the idea of liberty, but he no longer believes that universal freedom actually solves many real-world problems. But because of that soft spot, he wants to refer to his current political philosophy as ‘libertarian.’ So, in a recent and much-shared blog post, he prefixes to that old, beloved moniker a new modifier, ‘State Capacity’:

I believe the smart classical liberals and libertarians have, as if guided by an invisible hand, evolved into a view that I dub with the entirely non-sticky name of State Capacity Libertarianism.  I define State Capacity Libertarianism in terms of a number of propositions:

1. Markets and capitalism are very powerful, give them their due.

2. Earlier in history, a strong state was necessary to back the formation of capitalism and also to protect individual rights (do read Koyama and Johnson on state capacity).  Strong states remain necessary to maintain and extend capitalism and markets.  This includes keeping China at bay abroad and keeping elections free from foreign interference, as well as developing effective laws and regulations for intangible capital, intellectual property, and the new world of the internet.  (If you’ve read my other works, you will know this is not a call for massive regulation of Big Tech.)

3. A strong state is distinct from a very large or tyrannical state.  A good strong state should see the maintenance and extension of capitalism as one of its primary duties, in many cases its #1 duty.

4. Rapid increases in state capacity can be very dangerous (earlier Japan, Germany), but high levels of state capacity are not inherently tyrannical.  Denmark should in fact have a smaller government, but it is still one of the freer and more secure places in the world, at least for Danish citizens albeit not for everybody.

5. Many of the failures of today’s America are failures of excess regulation, but many others are failures of state capacity.  Our governments cannot address climate change, much improve K-12 education, fix traffic congestion, or improve the quality of their discretionary spending.  Much of our physical infrastructure is stagnant or declining in quality. 

Tyler Cowen, first five (or four and a half) of eleven listed points in “What libertarianism has become and will become — State Capacity Libertarianism,” Marginal Revolution, January 1, 2020.

Professor Cowen began his piece with this declaration: “Having tracked the libertarian ‘movement’ for much of my life, I believe it is now pretty much hollowed out, at least in terms of flow.  One branch split off into Ron Paul-ism and less savory alt right directions, and another, more establishment branch remains out there in force but not really commanding new adherents.” This is the old ‘plumb-line’/‘beltway libertarian’ split, often talked about, but with the ‘alt right’ aspersion cast in, as if its “unsavoriness” were obvious and obviously wrong, and somehow worse than the obviously non-libertarian technically limited statism Cowen is pushing from his beltway security at George Mason University. It is worth noting that Cowen addresses the apparent “alt right’ concern, in that he wants “much more immigration” but “nonetheless” thinks “our government needs clear standards for who cannot get in, who will be forced to leave, and a workable court system to back all that up and today we do not have that either.” I bet most unsavory libertarians would agree.

There is something rather sad about all this, and I am not talking about Cowen’s later-in-life drift from libertarianism — we have been seeing this coming for decades. The sadness is seeing him fall for idiocies like the anthropogenic global warming catastrophism. He laments that ‘it doesn’t seem that old-style libertarianism can solve or even very well address a number of major problems, most significantly climate change.” A free society would easier address climate change by allowing people to adapt better. How so? They would not take it as a government mandate that every crop must be saved in every spot, every beachfront saved as it now is, and all peoples must stay put, unless subsidized to move.

Though I suppose he is really thinking that messianic thought; micromanage the macro-climate! Insane.

Actually, there may be evidence here that Cowen is most moved by the fact — which Mencken and Mises knew better — that liberty is losing in the marketplace of ideas. Cowen says that “smart people are on the internet, and the internet seems to encourage synthetic and eclectic views, at least among the smart and curious.  Unlike the mass culture of the 1970s, it does not tend to breed “capital L Libertarianism.”  On top of all that, the out-migration from narrowly libertarian views has been severe, most of all from educated women.” Another witless interpretation on Cowen’s — and one that he should understand, since he was part of the movement he is talking about. Way back when. The 1970s didn’t breed a large movement of “capital L libertarians,” it merely bred a vibrant tribe of extremely inquisitive and culturally daring individualists. Like Cowen — and, for that matter, me. But we were a small batch. The Net ‘is producing,’ today, far more of us. It is also ‘producing’ a lot more of non-libertarians.

And of course women tend not to be interested, because how our current transfer state policies affects women is very different from how it affects men. I see little indication that Cowen wishes to pull at that thread. I am sure he would see it as “unsavory.”

I am shaking my head, sadly. Especially so since no small part of the commentary on this piece has been so . . . inadequate.

Now, I do not mind a person thinking liberty irrelevant. We can argue. But libertarianism developed to place the State under the same chains as individuals, the ‘chains’ being a rule of law prohibiting the initiation of force. ‘State Capacity Libertarianism’ is conceivable only in the Meinongian sense of ‘round square’ and ‘golden mountain.’

twv

I have always known that governments lie, that politicians are congenital liars, and that, furthermore, secrecy is something the State requires, in addition to all those fantasies necessary to obtain compliance from the masses. But recently I have greatly expanded my estimation of the scope of state prevarication.
Some of this is the result of the brazen ways in which the shallow end of the Deep State has attempted to oust a president it did not approve of. But it goes far beyond this, and much of it is related to keeping the military-industrial complex going through incessant warfare. The insanity of these wars, their sheer idiocy and lack of coherence and even hints of efficacy to the attainment of stated goals, suggests to me something far beyond my packet of previous explanations:
1. greed and corruption via Pentagon contracts
2. powerlust by media folk, ideologues, politicians, military men, and bureaucrats
3. greed
I now think that an additional secret realm of operations has been at play, and has been kept running by an elaborate if stumbled-into plan of psy-ops. Most Americans have pictures of their government utterly at variance with reality — perhaps even their view of bedrock, non-political reality is greatly shaped by a startlingly coherent state agenda.
Funny thing is, my fellow individualists have such a low opinion of state competence that they buy into most of said government psy-op, are indeed routinely controlled by Deep State psy-ops. Their error is in underestimating the State.
For this truth is long established, and libertarians should know it best: the State is not an efficient instrument of the general interest, but, instead, a hyper-efficient conduit through which private interests can gain at the exploitative expense of other private interests, and to the general detriment of the general interest. And the key to this is the ultimate in psy-ops, the confidence game of political ideologies that promote the State as a necessary entity for the promotion of that phantom, the public interest.


A question asked by a far-left Quora “space,” and which I answered —
and published on the libertarian “space” Liberty at Large.

The freedoms of a “typical capitalist society”:

You may choose your occupation, or trade. No one forces you into any particular form of work.

You are tempted by myriads of goods to enjoy, but are not forced to buy any one of them.

Instead of spending all your income, you can save wealth and invest in work that is not plotted out for you, but which you figure out yourself — that is, you can become an entrepreneur.

You can live simply, floating on the hard work of others (and the vast accumulations of wealth) and basking in the general tolerance of society, getting by with just a few contracts. Or you can immerse yourself in the world of commerce and public affairs, buying and selling expensive goods like real estate or antiques or what-have-you. You are not forced into any one manner of living.

Freedoms you do nothaveinclude the ability to command others’ work or attention by threat. You do not have the freedom from want, or from fear, or from anxiety about the future. You lack any freedom to force others to include you in their schemes for advancement. Generally, the rule in a free society as provided in capitalist ones is reciprocity.

This is a great liberator, sure, but many folks resent that freedom. They see that they can ruin their lives with bad choices, and wish to blame others for those choices. And “bad fortune” — misfortune — can happen to anyone. And capitalist societies — private property, “commercial society” — are in the promotion of quality and value, not in equalizing quality and value. Those prone to envy hate such free advance, demanding, instead, organized advance on theirterms, not people’s generally.

Of course, “typical capitalist society” is somewhat vague. “Typical” as in average or modal, or “typical” as in conforming to an ideal type?

Exploring the latter sort of notion, we begin to look upon the laissez faire element as typical in capitalism, as essentialand defining, while in history and usual experience so far, what is typical is mercantilism, protectionism, and mixed economy/transfer state (“bourgeois socialism”) elements. Not a few of the people who most love the freedom to be found in the extended order of a liberal capitalist society emphasize the non-government features, the emergent order, not the spoliation features and centrally planned attempts. Others, ambitious or impatient or resentful, seek to impose an order upon capitalism especially advantageous to them or constructed by their values. So we have the forms of capitalism now dominant: state capitalism, crony capitalism, welfare state capitalism, social democracy, and … what it all comes down to as it works out, The Churning State, where the transfers of wealth by regulation and plunder and “distribution” are so complex that special interests are only sure of their advantages gained in a few specific programs that they have special access to, the general tumult of interests having been so churned on issue-by-issue basis and by sector-by-sector privileges that the general interest becomes impossible even to conceive coherently.

But this latter is not freedom. It is chimerical. Perhaps the term for it should be chimerical capitalism.

I prefer the palpable freedoms of the liberty provided by limited government and the opportunities of voluntary interaction to the illusions of political promise and governmental machination.

A lot of people who think they are anti-nationalists . . . are not. Or, at the very least, are nothing like my kind of anti-nationalist.

Nationalism is a [set of] political idea[s]. It is the notion that states should be co-extensive with nations, with “peoples,” as in ethno-linguistic groups and cultures.

Most people who call themselves anti-nationalists, today, are globalists. They believe that states should incorporate many nations. This ideology is a kissing cousin to imperialism.

I am anti-nationalist in the other direction. I believe that states, if they must exist, should be smaller than nations.

There are many good reasons to hold such a commitment. But I confess: to some degree this view of politics was embedded in me early on, perhaps genetically.

My main ground for this attitude boils down to Acton’s Law: Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. I regard nationalists as rather mad. Maddened by power.

But globalism and imperialism? (Some variant of which is what a majority of what people in the West seem to support.) I consider these madder yet.

So, it is with some amusement that I confront the current craze on the left to dub people who aren’t their kind of inter-nationalists “Nazis” and “fascists.” I have always put their kind in the same camp as the fascists. I do not see them as much better. Not infrequently they are worse. (What is worse than fascism? Well, internationalist socialism, that is what.)

I realize that mine is decidedly a minority position. My kind lost in 1789 in America, when the anti-federalists were made irrelevant upon the adoption of the Constitution. But, remember, pretty much every prediction of the anti-federalists came true.

So, today, we Americans live in a nation-state, not a federation — which is almost a dead letter. Look at the way Wikipedia describes the American compact, a document in which the word “nation” cannot be found. The idea, originally, was for the states to be sovereign (and remember: John Taylor of Caroline argued for individual sovereignty). The federation was a convenience to facilitate the survival of the several states. But try telling a college grad that, these days. Programmed by false history.

The Constitution, for all its faults, was not designed as a national government.

Under the federalist framework, “the nations” of America would be many and varied. But the problem with the federal idea is that it makes a super-state larger than any particular state, and thus bigger than the separate commonalities and cultures within the states, and focuses power away from the dispersed loci. Which in turn conjures up nation-building — with flag-worship and “patriotism” and all that — to create a single nation to correspond to the federal government. Thus, less than a hundred years after the Constitution was adopted, the federal union became a nation-state. Which was soon aggrandized into an imperialistic power.

For fun, recently, I have been calling my variant of anti-nationalism “Ameri-skeptic,” playing on the Brexiteers’ “Euro-sceptic” moniker.

I am not a patriot of the United Sates of America. I am merely rather fond of these United States. My patriotism leans towards principles, not institutions.

Terms and conditions apply, though.

twv

Currently on the left it is believed that (a) a person must be treated as “muh gender” he/she/it/x chooses rather than by sex or custom or eyeballing the sitch, and that (b) people must be allowed to freely cross borders while (c) collecting taxpayer-funded benefits without any restrictions.

These positions seem absurd because destabilizing, but a thorough adoption of the principles involved may provide a way out from the burden upon citizens of the host country.

The solution? Apply the “trans” idea to citizenship: a citizen, tired of rising taxes, could declare xself “differently loyal” and ignore that pesky tax bill.

“You’ve got to respect the sovereignty of the country I just made up and which cannot be found on any map!”

“Kekistan?”

“No, Kekistanis pay taxes. I’m an Anarchistani.”

As migrants flood the country expecting free benefits, denizens in country cease paying taxes. Progressives keep the principles of (a) and (b), and the the problem of (b) combined with (c) evaporates, for lack of funds.

Trans-citizenship would transform the political landscape! With fictions. Just as progressives insist upon.