Thoughts, essays, and writings on Liberty. Written by the heirs of Patrick Henry.

“In general, the art of government consists of taking as much money as possible from one class of citizens to give to another.”     Voltaire

May 26, 2006

Just Call Me Token…

by Nick

My Blog

I make it my business to understand what makes people tick. In high school, by virtue of being big, older-looking, and trustworthy, my peers laid upon me the mantle of lay psychologist. In undergrad, I studied the biology of the brain itself. And then on a lark I went off to england to get a master’s in human evolution and primate behavio(u)ral ecology. Now, at 22, I’m trying (mostly failing) to keep playing primatologist as I enter my second year of medical school, eventually to become a child and adolescent psychiatrist. Understanding a man’s political ideology is in many ways merely a matter of understanding his psychological mindset. Understanding the nuts and bolts of how a person interacts with and within a political system merely an extension of behavioral ecology (of which economics is a subfield).

I blog because I love to write and I love to think. I love writing about why I think the way I do (philosophy). I blog because I think I have an interesting take on the world, being a broadly educated guy who attempts to apply the lessons of evolution and ecology to human interaction. I blog because you can only have one (1.25 in my case) career, but you can have many interests. And, of course, I blog because it’s a good ego boost.

Words and Numbers. That’s how I see the world. Words are important, they define what we experience, they help us categorize and systematize it. They help turn the infinite complexity around us into an intelligible construct. And numbers. Whether Newton’s Theory of Universal Gravitation or the Laws of Supply and Demand, numbers are a powerful predictive force, even when it comes to understanding the choices that as complex a being as a human makes.

I call myself a classical liberal because I’m dissatisfied with both groups claiming to be the tradition’s ideological heirs. Libertarians deify self-interest in an almost Randian way while failing to acknowledge that the market has limitations. Progressives on the other hand, posit that freedom and comfort are interchangeable and close their eyes to the evidence that humans are and will always be self-interested. One group takes too superficial a view of a valid concept (the efficiency of the market). In addition to its oxymoronic motto of “greater freedom through increased regulation!”, the other posits a political system based upon assumptions known to be completely invalid (group selection). Both are childish.

As a classical liberal I believe government’s role should be minimal, to protect our inalienable rights and to intervene where self-interested individuals acting in a self-interested manner will fail to do what is necessary to preserve their rights and maintain their liberty(Tragedy of the Commons). It’s what Chris calls minarchy. The market isn’t perfect. If it was we wouldn’t need any government. I will from time to time talk about where government intrusion may be necessary (education for instance…although not as it is now), but I will never say the state intrusion is good, merely necessary. Just like an amputation that could save your life.

Oh. For those of you who don’t get the joke in the title, here you go. I’m not black, but I do own a few do-rags, can rap along with Twista and Busta when I feel like it, and…I can dance.

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24 Comments

  1. Welcome aboard and have fun!

    Comment by Eric — May 27, 2006 @ 6:53 am
  2. As a primatologist, you will know that humans have only one right: to sufficient care and nurture over childhood – that is, until we are old enough to fend for ourselves. This right is based on the fact that we Homo sapiens are incapable of independent survival for the earliest years of our lives, and that our survival through to puberty – and the implied ability to breed the next generation – implies this right.

    I have heard others claim that our existence gives us only one right – the right to die. This is true, if you define a right in the absolute sense as being something that cannot be withdrawn or taken away. This strong definition is appealing and in fact we might be better off if we re-named “rights” using a term which better reflected their conditionality and arbitrariness.

    All other rights are those that particular cultures, nations, tribes, families or other groups decide from time to time that they will give to their members. Fortunately, such groups do decide – in their wisdom – to grant such rights. But the constellation of rights so granted will vary, sometimes radically, one form the other.

    One of the greatest threats to civilization is the fact that so many people believe that rights such as these are immutable and that they will always protect them. We have fallen in love with our laws, as if they were natural rights, and not just rules we have devised to help us find our way through the other rules, structures, habits and customs that happen to be in place in our group at the time. Just as these other rules, structures, habits and customs change (in response to each other and to external pressure from the environment and from other groups), so too will the rights of any group.

    Comment by Keith — May 28, 2006 @ 12:04 pm
  3. It doesn’t quite follow that simply because we’re incapable of fending for ourselves in childhood we’re owed care and nurture. Rights must exist independent of active participation of others. Rights can only be taken away, not given. It is only in this way that we can approach the determination of rights in a rigorous and logical manner.

    I can’t tell if you’re saying that life liberty and property aren’t rights, or are rights. But all I can tell you is that one would not want to live in a world where men like me don’t believe in certain inalienable rights.

    Comment by Nick — May 28, 2006 @ 12:58 pm
  4. So, Nick, you are saying that it is a shared belief in rights is more important than rights being logically or philosophically demonstrable. There is always a danger when we construct a world outside biophysical reality that we expect the laws of biology, physics, geology etc. to bow before our own wish-list of what we find desirable for our comfort.

    Surely, most rights arise or are exerted in a social context. I can’t make much sense of a human’s rights outside the context of human society. We don’t have rights against rivers, butterflies, rocks or the climate: only against other humans.

    Most disputes about rights occur when people disgree on what is “inalienable” – which demonstrates just how arbitrary such rights are.

    Comment by Keith — May 28, 2006 @ 1:19 pm
  5. alright, let’s try this again.

    Yes rights can only be discussed in a social context. This does not mean, as you imply, that all ‘rights’ are equal.

    I discuss the issue more fully here

    but here’s the applicable quote:

    What can be seen from the revisionist definition is that, rather than being qualities of a passive nature, rights are dependent upon the active participation of government and other men. Leftists cling to the belief that–as in their stance on positive and negative liberty–actively granted privilege and passively extant rights go hand in hand, seeing no inherent contradiction. However, this contention should immediately strike one as contradictory; the granting of ‘modern’ rights requiring the coercion of others through artificial limitations on behavior, control and redistribution of the individual’s material wealth, and otherwise delineating and circumscribing how one may act beyond such actions that would infringe upon another’s sphere of autonomy.

    Passive vs. Active. As I mentioned in my previous comment. Classical liberals believe in a sphere of autonomy, more or less. My right to wave my fist ending at your nose and all that. Let’s compare that to your ‘right to a standard of living.’

    The only thing required of me to preserve your right to have your nose not broken is for me not to engage in the action of throwing a punch.

    What’s required of me to maintain your ‘right to a standard of living?’ My pocketbook. I must actively participate in the creation of your right.

    It’s a difference, and it’s a big one. Since you need my pocketbook to maintain your right, it’s far from inalienable. It cannot exist unless I can subsidize your lifestyle. Not being hit in the face doens’t even require my presence, let alone my action.

    Yes all ‘rights’ require restrictions on behavior. Yes, all ‘rights’ are somewhat arbitrary, only being defined in a social context. No, they are not all created equal.

    THe positive/negative distinction is old and well accepted. It’s about 3 or 4 times my age if I remember currectly.

    The dispute is to whether there is any difference. Anyone who can’t see the difference between nonaction and action is being willfully obtuse.

    Comment by Nick — May 28, 2006 @ 1:55 pm
  6. Negative rights (i.e. freedom from X) goes back to the mid 17th century and John Locke, the Scottish Covenant and the English Glorious Revolution, whereas positive rights (i.e. freedom for Y) goes back to the 1830′s, roughly, and the rise of utilitarianism and socialism. I believe that is what you are referring to when you are saying “active vs. passive” rights.

    Aside from that, as John Locke first demonstrated, certain rights are inherent to men. We can use an intellectual exercise to determine which they are by considering one man, alone, in a “state of nature”. What things would that man have that would exist without society or culture. Simply put, he would still have the right to life, liberty, property and the pursuit of happiness. These things do not depend upon the existence of a society. Societies and governments are instituted among men to protect and foster these rights, sometimes for a small group, sometimes for the whole. They are not instituted to create these rights. Keith, you clearly need to read and study the great philosophers of the English and Scottish Enlightenments and then read the integration of those philosophies that was brought about by Dugald Stewart in the early 19th century, which was the birth of what we now call classic liberalism. You cannot possibly comment intelligently on the concepts, precepts and philosophies of classic liberalism if you haven’t studied men like Locke, Hume, Adam Smith, Hutcheson, Lord Kames, Witherspoon, Blackstone and the rest. Based on what you write about negative rights and other things that you term “rights”, I have to conclude that you haven’t studied classic liberalism or the Enlightenment.

    Comment by Eric — May 28, 2006 @ 6:13 pm
  7. Um, this is going to sound pretty bad but I haven’t studied men like Locke, Hume, Smith, et al.

    Comment by Nick — May 28, 2006 @ 9:15 pm
  8. Then you must have read secondary and tertiary sources, because your writing demonstrates an understanding of the concepts. All modern libertarian and classic liberal thought derives from, primarily, the Scottish Enlightenment, with some Mill thrown in for good measure. Either that, or you are one brilliant dude! ;-)

    Comment by Eric — May 28, 2006 @ 10:27 pm
  9. I’m familiar with the basics, but it’s been a pretty superficial coverage (at most 10 pages about each of the big guys). Mainly understand the definitions of basic ideas and then play with them myself.

    I notice that most kids my age (22) tend to parrot someone else’s analysis, or be unable to give more than a superficial treatment of an issue (but it’s not fair!).

    I wanted to avoid that myself so I decided to develop my political ideology with as little outside influence on the philosophical front as possible.

    I’m finally at the point where I’m comfortable starting to read the old dead peoples’ works and I’m having fun seeing where we see eye to eye and where we don’t.

    Comment by Nick — May 28, 2006 @ 10:46 pm
  10. I was actually directing my original commentary to Keith, who seems to not even understand the classic liberal foundations and philosophy. If he did, and disagreed, he would discuss this in a way that wouldn’t leave an easy path for a discussion of rights. Positive rights seem to me to not be rights so much as privileges that folks wish were rights.

    Interesting that you have a pretty solid grasp with not a whole lot of study. That seems to me to speak strongly for the insights into philosophy and human nature of the Scottish Enlightenment.

    Comment by Eric — May 29, 2006 @ 6:46 am
  11. yeah, keith’s immediate objections stuck me as the same sort of stuff I’ve dealt with when I brought up the difference between negative and positive rights when talking to leftists. It’s like they actively choose not to see the distinction.

    funnily enough I owe most of my insight to behavioral ecology, honestly. The one thing that amazes me about the classical liberal writings that I have read, and especially the little quotes you see every now and then, is just how much like game theorists classical liberals sound (since game theory wasn’t applied to behavior until late 19th century).

    Since game theoretics provide our only predictive method of studying social interactions, and since classical liberalism is the only political ideology that makes the same assumptions of human behavior as econ and behavioral ecology make, guess which one seems most valid to me?

    Comment by Nick — May 29, 2006 @ 7:47 am
  12. I highly recommend reading the Scottish Enlightenment philosophers. When you do, remember that we have tried to pigeonhole them, seeing Adam Smith as an economist and the father of modern economics, for example. This gives them short shrift. Their ambition was far greater. They intended to create a synthesis of natural, political and social philosophy, and to a large extent they succeeded. Smith’s “Wealth of Nations” was far more than a study of economics. It was a study of how people behaved and why they were, or were not, successful, for example. If you consider that they were born out of the environment created by the Scottish Covenant and the subsequent Jacobite rebellions of 1715 and 1745, you may understand why they were, in essence, natural game theorists. A good starting point for understanding them is Arthur Herman’s “How The Scots Invented The Modern World“. It will give a good overview of the Scottish Enlightenment before you dive into reading them directly. I have a copy of “Wealth of Nations” available on my old blog, if/when you’re interested.

    Comment by Eric — May 29, 2006 @ 8:42 am
  13. I’m going to have to postpone reading primary sources until about august when I finish my own synthesis of natural, social, and political philosophy ;-P

    But I just put the Herman work in my Amazon shopping cart. Thanks for the tip, and for the community, and this blog, while I’m at it.

    First two installments of my work here; there’ll be about 10-12 in total, I think. Right now it’s pretty free form:
    http://www.indiancowboy.net/blog/?p=147
    http://www.indiancowboy.net/blog/?p=197

    Once that’s done I’ll feel completely comfortable reading them without worrying that they’ll influence my own development unduly.

    Comment by Nick — May 29, 2006 @ 9:29 am
  14. Riddle me this — In what realm would the so called Right To Privacy reside? I’m hesistant to deem it an inalieble right seeing as how it’s not explicitly outlined in the Constitution and couldn’t be manufactured by the Supreme Court with out some arcane incantation about mythical penumbras. On the other hand it strikes me as a strictly negative right, that is in simply requires inaction to avoid violation.

    Comment by Bret — June 1, 2006 @ 1:17 pm
  15. Bret, our “inalienable rights” are not enshrined in the Constitution. The rights contained in the Bill of Rights are derivative from the rights of life, liberty and property. Nowhere does the Constitution say you have the right to those three things, yet who would deny that we hold those? At least who would do so that is not part of the authoritarian, collectivist left.

    A right to privacy? Of course you have it. Just because it is not in the Constitution doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

    Amendment IX:

    The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

    Amendment X:

    The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

    Those are pretty clear cut. The Constitution’s purpose is to enumerate certain powers held by the US government and certain certain limitations upon the US government, and no more than that. The purpose of it is not to define, in narrow, restrictive language, what the rights of the people are. This is what most people fail to understand about the Constitution.

    Your right to privacy is part of your right to property. It’s your property, no one else, including the government, has a right to intrude on it, except within certain explicitly defined conditions established within the Constitution and law.

    Comment by Eric — June 2, 2006 @ 9:20 pm
  16. Amendment V – Trial and Punishment, Compensation for Takings. Ratified 12/15/1791.

    No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

    I don’t know, you can say that it outlines the rights there. Granted, I agree with you that we have a right to privacy because I feel that’s included in the right to life, but it does outline those rights in the Bill of Rights.

    Comment by Ryan — June 4, 2006 @ 6:45 pm
  17. Yes and no.

    It does mention them, but it also includes the qualifier “without due process of law.” The 5th is more about due process than straight life, liberty, and property.

    Comment by Mike — June 4, 2006 @ 11:13 pm
  18. Mentioning “life, liberty, and property” is not the same as saying:

    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.

    The Constitution’s purpose was not to declare what the citizen’s rights are, the Framers thought that was obvious, even the Anti-Federalists did. As far as they were concerned, you just needed to read Locke, Blackstone, Hutcheson, Lord Kames, Hume, Smith, etc. to know what our rights as men are. The purpose of the Constitution was, and is, to make clear what the government may and may not do.

    Comment by Eric — June 5, 2006 @ 3:49 am
  19. Amen Eric,
    The bill of rights is actually a bill of hands off for the government.

    It states what they cant do and why its important.

    Comment by James — June 5, 2006 @ 3:57 pm
  20. Fair enough, I’ll concede to that.

    Comment by Ryan — June 5, 2006 @ 8:26 pm
  21. unfortunately, much of the crap that has happened in the past 100-150 years has occurred in many ways because the Framers failed to explicitly state what the rights of man are and what the nature of liberty is.

    It seemed obvious to them since it’d alwyas been defined tht way. But it meant FDR got to tell us that ‘freedom from want and fear’ is a part of liberty.

    Comment by IndianCowboy — June 7, 2006 @ 1:13 pm
  22. The Framers are to blame?! Let’s try on this scenario…the Framers didn’t explain the rights of man and nature of liberty becuase they couldn’t agree on a definition. Why put them on a pedastal by suggesting that there was some global awarness of how people were meant to be treated. If that were the case, why were these Framers the only ones to stike out into the new world?

    Ever been in a room full of leaders? Concensus isn’t exactly something you have to fight off with a stick. These guys don’t stike me as easy to negotiate with.

    Comment by WhoaThere — June 9, 2006 @ 11:45 am
  23. I don’t know of a single framer who would’ve agreed with the definition of ‘positive liberty’

    life of course is a nonissue.

    and property, yeah Madison and a couple others probably would’ve quibbled with the idea of sovereign property rights, but…

    I hold and will always hold that if they had defined freedom/liberty rigorously in any of the founding documents, decay would’ve taken a lot longer.

    Comment by Nick — June 9, 2006 @ 12:41 pm
  24. Nick –

    While I think that the logic of the framers was correct in terms of not doing a laundry list of rights, lest anything omitted be dismissed as not a right, I wish the framers had much more emphatically stated that the Constitution was a specific list of powers that bound the Federal government, not a skeleton upon which to build. I’m thinking something akin to language stating that “any powers not granted to the United States in this Constitution may only be granted by a properly-ratified Amendment to the Constitution.” Then again, considering the skill with which the power-hungry have sidestepped the 10th Amendment, I’m not sure in the end what such a clause in the Constitution may have done to prevent the growth of the leviathan.

    Comment by Quincy — June 12, 2006 @ 9:04 pm

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