Glad to Be Unhappy

Some people in liberal societies are unhappy. But what exactly does this tell us?

Ross Douthat has made an interesting observation on Twitter a couple of days ago: “The biggest challenge for liberalism is the genuine unhappiness of a lot of people under the conditions of liberalism.” I’m not sure that this is right ― liberalism might be facing greater challenges now ― but let’s assume that it is. The implications of this claim are worth thinking through; they might be rather different than many, Mr. Douthat perhaps among them, might assume.

First, at the risk of being tart, if the biggest challenge a philosophy is facing is that its application makes people unhappy, that’s not such a bad problem to have. The application of most political philosophies makes an awful lot of people not just unhappy, but dead. If the worst liberalism can do to you is make you miserable ― as opposed to immiserated, like socialism, whether of left-wing or or of right-wing varieties ― that’s actually a point in favour of liberalism.

Second, we have to ask why people are unhappy about living “under conditions of liberalism”. Mr. Douthat seems to point to people annoyed at being bossed around by technocrats and to those developing harmful addictions, perhaps due to a lack of attachments and meaning in their lives. But these things are by no means peculiar problems of liberalism. Socialist systems are also dominated by technocrats; in militarized or religious authoritarian systems, the social scientists and planners are replaced by generals or priests, who boss people around just as much. And while illiberal societies may foster the social bonds that will help some people relate to their fellows, they will destroy others ― typically, those running across the boundaries of class, race, and country.

To say that people are unhappy “under conditions of liberalism” is to point to a correlation, not a causal relationship. And it is not clear that a causal relationship could fairly be established at all. As I have noted in a previous discussion of liberalism here, “critics of liberalism are often confused, or obfuscating, about its nature: it is a political, not a moral, philosophy; a theory of how political power should be organized, not of how to live a good life”. Nor does it tell people how to be happy; only that they have an inalienable right to try. It is hardly a fair criticism of liberalism that it does not achieve something that it does not attempt.

Besides, when reflecting on the real or alleged failings of liberalism, one should keep in mind the ills of its alternatives. If some people struggle in the open liberal society, others would chafe under the oppressive restrictions of an illiberal one. There is a seen-and-unseen issue here: living “under conditions of liberalism” we see those whom they do not suit. We do not see as clearly those who could thrive under no other “conditions”―indeed, those whom the masters of an illiberal society would seek to eliminate.

The people who aspired to command illiberal societies are, indeed, another group that is unhappy under liberalism. So long as liberal institutions hold, they are unable to impose their own preferences on society, either because they can’t get them democratically enacted or because these preferences, however popular, are incompatible with liberal freedoms enshrined in binding constitutions. But I don’t think that their unhappiness should count for much. Those who would rule others by censorship, manipulation, or force deserve no sympathy from those whom they would rule.

A consideration of alternatives to liberalism also brings us to the third point I wish to make in response to Mr. Douthat. Liberal societies are the only ones in which unhappiness at the state of society and indeed at life, the universe, and everything can really be expressed. This is so for two reasons, one of which is obvious, and the other less so.

The obvious one in any but the liberal societies, unhappiness with the established order ― again, not just the established political order, but also the established order of things more broadly ― is treated not merely as an intellectual challenge but as a heresy, a thoughtcrime, or a form of treason to the nation. In illiberal societies, by contrast, expressions of disaffection are actually suppressed ― and, often, the person expressing such unhappiness is suppressed (or at least forced to repent or “re-educated”) along with his or her ideas. By contrast, illiberal societies might make room for private sorrows, but only within an overall worldview that says that, at a high enough level of abstraction, things are just as they ought to be.

I should note here that some unserious people affect to think that discontent with the existing state of affairs cannot be freely expressed in modern-day liberal societies. These societies are certainly not flawless ― not least thanks to the pressure of their illiberal members. But such claims are nonetheless preposterous. One sign of this is that they tend to be freely made on the same social media platforms that are supposed to be suppressing dissent against liberalism. Meanwhile, in Canada, what is by all accounts a very disruptive political protest is ongoing blocks away from the seat of government, with minimal police reaction.

The subtler yet more fundamental reason why liberalism uniquely enables not only the expression but perhaps the very existence of unhappiness with the world is that to become unhappy one has to be able to develop a personal scale of values against which the world fails to measure up. If one’s values are the same as everyone’s, as illiberal societies tend to make them, they will integrate the answers to any concerns with the world supplied by the prevailing ideology. If one has no genuine values to speak of at all ― as is the case for the average citizen, and especially for the politicized one, under totalitarianism, as Hayek pointed out ― one has no means to critique the world.

One writer who understood this essential relationship between freedom and unhappiness is Milan Kundera, in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. He wrote that (I translate from the French, which itself is a translation from the original Czech, so… not ideal) “communism, fascism, all occupations and all invasions hide a more fundamental and universal evil; its image was the parade of people who march, arms raised, shouting the same syllables in unison”. People can only be made to march in this way by what Kundera calls the kitsch ― the “aesthetic ideal” of “a world in which shit is denied and where all act as if it did not exist”, which can sustain “categorical agreement with being”. Under liberalism,

where many currents [of thought] exist and the influence of one cancels or limits that of the others one can just about escape the inquisition of the kitsch. … But where one political movement holds all power, one finds oneself at once in the realm of totalitarian kitsch.

There,

All that breaks with kitsch is banished: any manifestation of individualism (for any dissonance is like a slap in the face of the smiling brotherhood), any scepticism (for he who begins by doubting the smallest detail will end doubt doubting life as such), irony (because in the realm of kitsch, everything must be taken seriously.

The open existence of unhappiness ― it’s not being packed away to “the gulag [which] can be understood as the septic tank into which totalitarian kitsch casts is rubbish” ― is only possible in a free society. It is not so much a challenge for liberalism as its crowning achievement. We should be glad to be unhappy. It means we are free.

Killing for Laws

People get killed when laws are enforced. How should this bear on our thinking about the laws’ legitimacy?

There is too much law. Considering that people in the business of keeping track of it cannot even tell how much of it there is, I don’t think this claim is reasonably open to dispute. But what laws should we get rid of? One seemingly attractive answer is: all those we are not willing to kill to enforce. It’s a great rhetorical weapon against laws: while we’re probably willing to resort to violence to stop violence, the boundaries of permissible law shrink very, very fast beyond that. But on further reflection I think this is not the right way to think about the issue.

Conor Friedersdorf quoted Stephen Carter’s statement of this view in a short piece in The Atlantic some years ago. (I haven’t tracked down the source of the quotation, though I haven’t looked very hard.) Professor Carter wrote:

[E]ven a breach of contract requires a judicial remedy; and if the breacher will not pay damages, the sheriff will sequester his house and goods; and if he resists the forced sale of his property, the sheriff might have to shoot him.

This is by no means an argument against having laws. It is an argument for a degree of humility as we choose which of the many things we may not like to make illegal. … The statute or regulation we like best carries the same risk that some violator will die at the hands of a law enforcement officer who will go too far. 

David Henderson picked this up in a recent post on EconLog, which is how I came across this particular statement of the “willingness to kill” test for the appropriateness of law. Professor Henderson suggests that you

[t]hink about all the laws and regulations you want. Then think about whether you want the government to be willing to kill people if those who disobey escalate their disobedience. … Then ask yourself if that affects your thinking about any of the laws that you previously said you wanted. Laws that make gasoline cans almost useless? Laws that say you can’t have more than a certain volume of water per minute coming out of your shower head? Laws against using marijuana? Laws against growing marijuana?

Like I said above, the suggestion seems to be that we shouldn’t have such laws ― not just as a matter of policy, but that it is immoral to have such laws and to expose people to the risk of death at the hands of law enforcement for disobeying them. And, to repeat, I’m not convinced.

Part of the reason why was given shortly after Mr. Friedersdorf’s piece appeared by Joe Carter at the Acton Institute’s blog. Mr. Carter referred to Frédéric Bastiat’s argument that resort to law, and to force in enforcing it, is legitimate when, but only when, an individual would be justified in using force to assert his or her natural rights (i.e. life, liberty, and property). The law is a collective substitute for individual self-defence or self-help. Now, just as an individual will sometimes be justified in using force, but not deadly force, in protecting his or her rights, so the law’s intervention may be justified only to a degree. But an individual does no wrong if the accidental consequences of an application of force in self-defence exceed what would have been a priori justified in the circumstances. (Mr. Carter gives the example of a person struggling with a thief who falls and breaks his neck. It would have been wrong to kill the thief intentionally, but the person is not blameworthy for the accident, even though it would not have occurred had they not defended their property.) And this too applies to the law: “Intentionality”, says Mr. Carter, “carries a lot of weight in such scenarios, whether the force is being applied by me or by the Sheriff”.

I think this is mostly right, but I would add a couple of qualifications or nuances. First, I’d sharpen Mr. Carter’s argument a bit. In the example he gives, it’s not only the case that the person who struggles to keep his or her property and in the process accidentally causes the thief to die is blameless. It’s also that the thief is actually wrong ― not just to commit the theft in the first place, but also, additionally and separately, wrong to persist in it and to struggle to hang on to unjustly acquired goods. Similarly, at least if assume that the enforcement of some laws is justified, and further that it is sometimes just (more on this presently), then at least in some subset of cases “escalating disobedience” is actually wrong. The thinkers and practitioners of civil disobedience ― Thoreau, King ― warned against it. So it’s not obvious that we should have special solicitude for the person who escalates disobedience ― at least in some (significant) number of cases.

This brings me to the second qualification to Mr. Carter’s argument. He concludes by writing that “the problem is not the violence” which sometimes accompanies the enforcement of the law, but “the injustice” of far too many laws. But we have been painfully reminded, over the last few years, that too often “the violence” is indeed a problem. Even if the underlying law is just, it can nonetheless be enforced unjustly, in ways that make it impossible to analogize the suffering caused in the process to an accident of no real moral significance, let alone something the law-breaker is to blame for. Far too often, law enforcement resorts to lies, intimidation, excessive actual or threatened violence and deprivation of rights. These problems can be and too often are compounded by prejudice, notably racial prejudice. Also far too often, moreover, law enforcement agencies and agents are unaccountable for these wrongs.

This is precisely why the “willingness to kill” argument, although not strictly valid, is intuitively appealing. At the very least, it draws our attention to the costs that our preference for and belief in the legitimacy of laws imposes on others (and sometimes, though rarely, on us). It also draws our attention to the fact that, our world being rather imperfect, these costs will be rather higher than ideal theory or even analogies to improbable accidents suggest, and unjustly so. And again the injustice is often compounded by the fact these costs weigh heavier on some groups of people than on others ― on the excluded, on the deviant, on the different. We can and should try to reform the system by which our laws are enforced to lessen the disparity, but we can and should also reform the legal system as a whole to reduce the cost of its enforcement for everyone, in recognition of the fact that injustice equally distributed does not cease being injustice.

Lastly, and despite the foregoing, I’ll add that, much as I love Bastiat, there is at least one kind of laws that are, I think, justified but do not fit the strictures of his definition: namely, laws that solve coordination problems. The classic example is the rule as to which side of the road people should drive on. I don’t think that such laws can easily be explained in terms of defence of natural rights; no one person has a right to dictate to another where to go. But such laws serve to make it easier for everyone to enjoy their freedom around other human beings and increase opportunities for peaceful collaboration. They are legitimate if any laws ever are, and even anarchists would want to devise (non-state) mechanisms for enforcing ― coercively if need be ― equivalent rules. It would of course be quite wrong to punish driving on the wrong side of the road by death, and we wouldn’t want anyone to to be killed for breaking this rule, even though it is very useful and not very onerous. But that doesn’t mean that there ought to be no rule about what said of the road to drive on, even if in some small proportion of cases rule-breakers who escalate their disobedience ― say by trying to drive away at high speed when the police attempt to stop them ― will end up dead.

With these qualifications, I think that the “willingness to kill” argument doesn’t quite work, but it draws our attention to some real issues. The concerns that make it appealing to some people are not decisive for or against a particular law, or even for or against a particular theory of legitimacy. But they should at least weigh on us when thinking both about individual laws and about theories of legitimacy, and make us prefer there to be less law rather than more, other things being equal.

Tous mes emmerdements

L’État peut-il obtenir l’obéissance des citoyens en les « emmerdant » ?

Quand les gens ne font pas ce que l’État voudrait qu’ils fassent, comment faire en sorte qu’ils changent d’idée et se mettent au pas? On peut interdire ou ordonner, amende ou prison à l’appui. On peut viser le portefeuille et imposer une « taxe pigouvienne » sur une activité ou un bien auquel on voudrait qu’ils renoncent en partie sinon entièrement, la pollution ou l’alcool étant des exemples classiques. Ou encore, on peut les dépiter, les dégoûter. Les emmerder, selon le vocable recherché d’Emmanuel Macron, président de la République française.

Je cite un reportage de l’AFP repris par La Presse :

« Les non-vaccinés, j’ai très envie de les emmerder. Et donc on va continuer de le faire, jusqu’au bout. C’est ça, la stratégie », déclare sans ambages le chef de l’État.

« La quasi-totalité des gens, plus de 90 %, ont adhéré » à la vaccination et « c’est une toute petite minorité qui est réfractaire », ajoute-t-il.  

« Celle-là, comment on la réduit ? On la réduit, pardon de le dire, comme ça, en l’emmerdant encore davantage. […] 

« Je ne vais pas les mettre en prison, je ne vais pas les vacciner de force. Et donc, il faut leur dire : à partir du 15 janvier, vous ne pourrez plus aller au restau, vous ne pourrez plus prendre un canon, vous ne pourrez plus aller boire un café, vous ne pourrez plus aller au théâtre, vous ne pourrez plus aller au ciné… », explique le chef de l’État.

En sus du vocabulaire, l’idée frappe. Que l’État aimerait que les gens se fassent vacciner et, ainsi, se protègent et réduisent la pression sur le système de santé, ça se comprend. Que l’État soit réticent à mettre les récalcitrants en prison, peut-être aussi ; il y en a trop, et on ne veut pas créer les martyrs pour la télévision. Soit. Que l’État se sente à court de moyens, donc, on peut aussi le comprendre. Mais n’empêche, l’État peut-il ― du point de vue de la moralité politique ― emmerder les gens?

Je me suis déjà posé une question semblable ici, au sujet notamment de la prostitution et de la lutte anti-tabac, deux domaines où on cherche à décourager les gens en leur faisant peur et en les dégoûtant, sans pour autant interdire. Voici ce que j’écrivais alors (je traduis) :

J’ai tendance à croire que cette façon de faire est injuste […]. Comme Jeremy Waldron le souligne dans ses travaux sur la primauté du droit et la dignité humaine, le droit cherche normalement ― et devrait chercher ― à traiter ses sujets comme des être humaines, doués de dignité et d’une capacité à faire des choix rationnels. Il ne les prend pas et ne devrait pas les prendre pour des objets ou des bêtes qui ne répondent qu’à la force. Or, il me semble que c’est justement à cela que s’apparente la règlementation qui produit des effets à coup d’émotions négatives viscérales comme la peur, le dégoût ou la honte.

Bien entendu, le droit compte souvent sur une certaine crainte des conséquences négatives de la désobéissance à ses exigences […]. Cependant, il me semble que, même s’il est difficile d’exprimer cette différence, la nature de cette crainte n’est pas la même et n’est pas aussi troublante. Quoi qu’il en soit, ce qui est plus important et plus clair, c’est que le droit prévient explicitement les gens des conséquences fâcheuses de la désobéissance. Il ne s’agit pas de manipulation. Ces conséquences sont l’oeuvre du système juridique lui-même ― des juges qui les annonces, des huissiers et des gardiens de prisons qui les mettent en oeuvre, et ainsi de suite ― et non des facteurs externes dont le droit se déresponsabilise.

Emmerder les gens à la mode Macron, ce n’est pas tout à fait comme leur dire qu’ils devraient vivre dans la peur, comme le droit canadien disait et dit toujours aux prostituées. Ce n’est même pas tout à fait comme les dégoûter physiquement, comme il le fait avec les fumeurs. Mais le mode d’action d’une réglementation qui vise à emmerder n’est pas si différent de celui d’une réglementation qui agit par la peur ou le dégoût.

M. Macron dit que « “l’immense faute morale des antivax” est de “saper ce qu’est la solidité d’une nation” ». Peut-être. (Que les antivax soient en faute morale, j’en conviens. Ce que c’est que « la solidité d’une nation », je n’en ai pas la moindre idée.) Or, un dirigeant qui veut « emmerder » des citoyens commet donc lui même une faute qui fait en sorte qu’il est mal placé pour faire la morale à qui que ce soit.

The Public Good Trap

Why thinking that the public good is the measure of law and politics is a mistake

The rhetoric of public good has always been part of legal discourse; even scholars who are, one might think, hard-boiled legal positivists are surprisingly sympathetic to the idea that law inherently serves the public interest, as are, of course, the positivists’ critics and opponents. Mark Elliott and Robert Thomas capture this sentiment in their textbook Public Law, which I have just finished reading as I prepare to teach in the United Kingdom starting next month. Professors Elliott and Thomas write:

In a democracy, citizens elect a government to protect, advance, and serve the public interest. In normative terms, democratic governance presupposes that government acts as the servant—rather than the master—of the people. There are two dimensions to this notion that good governance means (among other things) governing in the public interest. The positive dimension is that government should make decisions that advance the public good. … Governing in the public interest has a second, negative dimension. Government must not act in a self-interested manner. (Ca. 401; paragraph breaks removed; emphasis in the original)

I suspect that most people, of all kinds of political and ideological persuasions would view this as correct and indeed uncontroversial. But for my part I do not, and indeed I think that the things that Professors Elliott and Thomas themselves say, and the examples they use, expose the difficulties with this argument.

Two things, though, before I go further. First, to be very clear, I do not mean to pick on Professors Elliott and Thomas. I just happened to be reading their book (and I might have more to say about it soon), and thought that it was representative of what strikes me as a pervasive problem with the way people think and talk about these issues. And second, I think that Professors Elliott and Thomas are right to say, just before the passage quoted above, that “[g]overnments have no legitimate interests of their own, and nor, when acting in their official capacities, do the individuals who lead and work in governments”. This might be a more controversial thing to say than the claim that government must serve the public interest, but if it is true it must, then I don’t think there is any room for a raison d’État independent of the public interest.


But what about the main claim? Why wouldn’t governments need to work in the public interest? How, indeed, could it be otherwise? Well, consider what Professors Elliott and Thomas also say by way of explaining the “positive dimension” of the public interest:

The public good is a highly contestable notion. Concepts such as good governance and the public good are not objective yardsticks against which the legitimacy of governmental action can be determined. … In a democracy, the ultimate question is not whether the government is acting in an objectively correct way (whatever that might mean); rather, it is whether it is governing in a manner that is regarded as broadly acceptable by the public. Elections are the pre-eminent means of doing this. … There are [in addition] a number of different ways that enable or require government to take account of the views and wishes of the people: the need to obtain parliamentary approval of legislative proposals; submission to scrutiny by Parliament, the media, courts, tribunals, and ombudsmen; and public participation in government decision-making (eg by consulting with the public). (Ca. 401)

So: citizens elect governments to serve the public interest, but we can’t actually tell what the public interest is, and the only measure we have is the outcomes of elections and other processes, largely (except, arguably, for scrutiny by courts and tribunals) political ones too. And when you start factoring in political ignorance, the role of special interests in non-electoral accountability mechanisms (and, to a lesser extent, in elections too), the difficulty of interpreting electoral outcomes… the idea that any of it has anything to do with a discernable set of parameters we might usefully describe as the public interest disappears like a snowflake in a blizzard.

The example Professors Elliott and Thomas give makes my case, not theirs. According to them,

it is a relatively uncontentious proposition that, when using public resources—especially public money—government should, so far as possible, seek to attain value for money. Government is largely funded by the public through taxation. Accordingly, the public can, in turn, rightfully expect that government should not waste its money. (Ca. 401)

I think it’s true that, if you just start asking people in the street whether government should “seek to attain value for money”, they will say that of course it should. The trouble is that, if you start asking some follow-up questions, it will quickly turn out that people don’t really mean it. Many people believe, for instance, that government should only, or at least preferentially, do business with suppliers from its own country. The entire point of such policies, of course, is to override the concern for getting value for public money ― they wouldn’t be necessary otherwise. Others (or perhaps the same people) believe that governments should allow, and perhaps even encourage, their employees to form unions and engage in collective bargaining. Again, the point of such policies is to override the preference for value for money: unionized labour is definitionally more expensive than its non-unionized counterpart.

For my purposes here, it doesn’t matter that such preferences are wrongheaded, although they certainly are. What matters is that, wrong though they are, people hold such preferences. As a result, even something as seemingly uncontroversial as the idea that government should get the best bang for the taxpayer buck turns out not to be consistent with how many people understand the public interest ― in the polling booth. In words, they will keep complaining about government inefficiency. In other words, it’s not just that different people and different groups can’t agree on what the public good is and we have no way of extracting any real meaning from the procedures they use to resolve their disagreements; it’s also that a single individual is quite likely not to have any sort of workable view of what the public interest is or requires.

For similar reasons, the “negative dimension” of the public good as articulated by Professors Elliott and Thomas fares no better. They argue that “it would be improper for an elected public body—whether the UK central government, a devolved government, or a local authority—to elevate political gain above the public good”. (Ca. 401; emphasis in the original) But if there is no such thing as the public good, objectively understood, then how can we sensibly claim that a public authority is elevating political gain above this non-existent yardstick? Worse, if the public good is to be assessed based in part on electoral outcomes, then doesn’t it follow that the pursuit of electoral success and the pursuit of the public good are one and the same?


What follows from this? Some would say that we should accept revelation and authority as our guides to the meaning of the common good, as a solution to the empty proceduralism of which they would no doubt see the argument of Professors Elliott and Thomas as representative. But such people have no means of persuading anyone who does not already trust their revelation and their authorities. Many of them recognize this and have given up on persuasion entirely. Like Lenin, they think that a revolutionary vanguard would be warranted in imposing their vision on the rest of us.

If we are disinclined to Leninism, I would suggest that we should shift our expectations and ambitions, for politics, for public law, and indeed for law tout court. Instead of looking to them to produce or uphold the public good, we ought to focus on how they can protect private rights, as the US Declaration of Independence suggests.

This is not an unambitious vision for politics and law, by the way. It is difficult enough to agree on a list of such rights that public institutions can and should enforce, and to work out the mechanisms for enforcing them without compromising other rights in the process. What is, for instance, the extent of property rights? Should it be defined entirely through the political process or should we make property rights judicially enforceable? If we set up police forces to (among other things) protect property, how do we prevent them from engaging in unjustified violence? Those are difficult enough questions, and the pursuit of even more intractable ones under the banner of the public good largely detracts us from paying attention to them.

Common Factionalism

The political rhetoric of the common good is poorly disguised factionalism, which the thinkers in whose name it is being advanced would have abhorred

The idea that law and politics should be organized around the principle of the “common good” is in the air on the political right. The left, of course, has had its versions of it for a long time. Both co-blogger Mark Mancini and I have written about “common good” arguments about legal issues, specifically the administrative state (Mark), constitutional law (me), and the Charter’s “notwithstanding clause” (also me), and found them severely wanting. A couple of recent newspaper articles give us an idea of what the “common good” philosophy looks like in practical politics.

On the northern side of the world’s longest closed border, Ginny Roth, writing in the National Post, identifies the Conservative platform in the late and lamented election with “a rich tradition of common-good conservatism that looks more like Edmund Burke than John Locke”. The master idea of this “new conservatism” (wait, is it new or richly traditional? never mind) is that “Conservatives must be positioned to build on the coalition of voters that will support it in this election by correctly identifying what appealed to them about the leader, the party and the platform”. Less blandly, “the left must not have a monopoly on populist politics”. The right should imitate the left, and in doing so advance the policies favoured, or assumed to be favoured, by “coalitions of voters who think the opposite of what the cocktail party goers do”. 

The same ideas, if that’s what they are, are to be found south of the aforementioned border in Josh Hammer’s column in Newsweek. (Mr. Hammer, it is worth noting, is one of if not the closest thing the “common good” movement has to a leader. He is also, apparently, a research fellow with an outfit called the Edmund Burke Foundation.) Mr. Hammer defends bans on private businesses requiring their employees or customers to be vaccinated against the present plague. In doing so, he claims to take the side of “common-good-inspired figures” against “the more adamantly classical liberal, libertarian-inspired pundits and politicians who believe the quintessence of sound governance is simply permitting individuals and private entities to do what they wish”. Mr. Hammer “explains” that “[v]accine mandates will be a convenient fig leaf for a ruling class already gung-ho at the possibility of precluding conservatives from the full panoply of in-person public life”. (Why is that the defenders of tradition so often struggle with their native tongue?) This “wokeist ruling class” must be stopped by a “prudential use of state power to secure the deplorables’ basic way of life”.


With apologies to H.L. Mencken, “the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard” seems to be an excellent description of common good conservatism, as propounded by Ms. Roth and Mr. Hammer. The common people are entitled to get their way, and to have the state’s coercive force used to ensure that they get their way. And no need to ask whether their preferences are consonant with some objective standards of morality, or the teachings of experts ― be it in economics, in epidemiology, or what have you. The beliefs of the common people are entitled to prevail because they are their beliefs, not because they are right.

Of course, it’s only the common people, that is, the right kind of people, that are entitled to have their way. The woke cocktail-swilling pundits and politicians are not. Even entrepreneurs, whom the conservatives of yesteryear lionized, must take their orders from those who do not drink cocktails. In other words, what Ms. Roth and Mr. Hammer are promoting under the name of the common good is the view that the aim of politics is to give effect to the wishes of

a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.

This is James Madison’s famous definition of faction, in Federalist No. 10. Ms. Roth might not have, but Mr. Hammer, who affects to be a constitutional sage as well as a political visionary, presumably has read the Federalist Papers. He’s read them, and has evidently concluded that he is cleverer than Madison, who feared faction as the seed of tyranny, civil strife, and destruction, and looked for ways to limit its ill-effects.

Madison saw the remedy in “[a] republic, … a government in which the scheme of representation takes place”. A “republic”, so understood, would

refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations. Under such a regulation, it may well happen that the public voice, pronounced by the representatives of the people, will be more consonant to the public good than if pronounced by the people themselves, convened for the purpose.

Not so for Ms. Roth and Mr. Hammer. Not for them the refining and enlargement of public views by representatives. (It’s the cocktails, don’t you know?) The people themselves, and more precisely the “deplorables”, the ones whose views are the opposite of refined and enlarged, who must govern, and officials are to take their marching orders from them.

Poor Edmund Burke is spinning in his grave. His single most famous idea is doubtless the argument he advanced in his “Speech to the Electors of Bristol”, which deserves to be quoted at length here:

Certainly … it ought to be the happiness and glory of a Representative, to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion high respect; their business unremitted attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and, above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own. But, his unbiassed opinion, his mature judgement, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you; to any man, or to any sett of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the Law and the Constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your Representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgement; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.

My worthy Colleague says, his Will ought to be subservient to yours. If that be all, the thing is innocent. If Government were a matter of Will upon any side, yours, without question, ought to be superior. But Government and Legislation are matters of reason and judgement, and not of inclination; and, what sort of reason is that, in which the determination precedes the discussion; in which one sett of men deliberate, and another decide; and where those who form the conclusion are perhaps three hundred miles distant from those who hear the arguments?

The populism masquerading as “common good” conservatism being peddled by Ms. Roth and Mr. Hammer is the opposite not only of John Locke’s ideas and James Madison’s, but also of the deeply held views of the great man they dishonour by pretending to admire him.


I should note that there a more purely intellectual and, not coincidentally, intellectually respectable version of the “common good” thought. For the reasons some of which I set out more fully in my earlier posts, I don’t find it compelling. But, at its best, it does involve an honest reflection on the good of the community rather than window-dressing for factionalism. Michael Foran speaks from this perspective when he tweets that “[t]he Common Good shouldn’t be used as the new phrase for whatever political position one happens to already hold. A claim that X is in the common good needs to explain how X is both genuinely good and genuinely common in its goodness.”

As it happens, Adrian Vermeule (among others) has recently shared his thoughts on vaccine mandates with Bari Weiss, and they are not at all in line with Mr. Hammer’s. Along with much sniping at libertarians (does he think Mr. Hammer is one?), he argues that “the vaccine mandate is analogous in principle to … crisis measures” such as wartime conscription or the destruction of property to stop a fire: “[o]ur health, our lives and our prosperity, are intertwined in ways that make it entirely legitimate to enforce precautions against lethal disease — even upon objectors”.

The point is not really that Professor Vermeule is right (which I’m inclined to think he is, albeit not quite for the reasons he advances), and Mr. Hammer is wrong. It’s not even that their disagreement exposes the vacuity of the common good as a standard against which to measure policy (though it at least points in that direction). For my present purposes, it’s that the partisan version of the “common good” ideology, which Mr. Hammer and Ms. Roth represent, has next to nothing to do with its more cerebral namesake exemplified by Professor Vermeule’s comments to Ms Weiss. In its partisan incarnation, common good talk is nothing more than a fig-leaf meant to hide ― none too well, mind you ― the narcissism and cultural resentment that its promoters impute to a part of the electorate.

Tanstaafl

What do a libertarian society and its laws look like? Thoughts on Robert Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress

I have recently ― and, needless to say, very belatedly, for a self-proclaimed science-fiction fan ― read Robert Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. I had been put off of Heinlein by Isaac Asimov’s somewhat harsh take on him in his memoir, I. Asimov, just as I’ve been forever put off Sartre by Boris Vian’s portrayal of him as Jean-Sol Partre. No regrets so far as Sartre is concerned, but I am glad I got over my aversion to Heinlein. The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress is an interesting book. Interesting enough, from a legal perspective, that I think it deserves a post here.

In a nutshell, the story is a retelling of the American Revolution, but set on the Moon, a.k.a. Luna, in 2075-76. The lunar population is oppressed by the Authority that supposedly runs the place on behalf of the Earth’s governing “Federated Nations”, but is mostly content to just plunder it by banning free trade and underpaying for the sole export ― grain (hydroponically grown) ― and overcharging for imports. Otherwise, the “Loonies”, most of whom are either transported convicts ― some actual criminals, others political undesirables ― or descendants of convicts, are largely left to their own devices, and become resentful of the Authority’s interference and exploitation. When the Authority tries to put an end to low-level grumbling, things quickly get out of control. Thanks to their courage, self-reliance, and the good fortune of having a fearsomely brilliant self-aware computer (I suppose we would now say AI) on their side, the rebels prevail, though not without considerable loss in the end.

The interest of such a book is, of course, primarily in its representation of a society very different from ours. (I am deliberately echoing the title of David Friedman’s Legal Systems Very Different from Ours, to which I will return.) The difference has little to do with technology ― indeed, on that front, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress is just one of the many examples of science fiction Golden Age’s writers’ utter failure to anticipate the advances in computing and telecommunications that have occurred in the last 35 or so years. Heinlein’s Luna is a place of fixed (should one say moonline?) phones! What does make it different from 1960s and 2020s, Earth is its having had to adapt to an unforgiving environment, the virtual impossibility for its inhabitants to return “Earthside” where they are crushed by gravity, their lack and suspicion of organized government, and the sex imbalance that one might expect in a penal colony.

Heinlein’s lunar society is a libertarian one, and it is very odd, and unsettling in some ways ― seemingly high prevalence of illiteracy and very early marriages among others. In other ways, though, it is far ahead not only of the time of the book’s publication (1966) but even of ours, especially in its absolute intolerance of what we today might refer to as #MeToo abuses ― touching a woman without her consent, in however minor a fashion, might get a male Loonie “eliminated” at the nearest airlock. (The ready acceptance of the death penalty is another unsettling aspect of the place.) And while Heinlein’s vocabulary sometimes is antiquated, and he does fall into some annoying tropes more in tune with his times than ours, there is no question that his Loonies also have no time for, and indeed no concept of, racial bigotry ― though I suspect that they’d have no time for latter-day progressive identity politics too.

One might wonder, of course, whether Heinlein’s social prognostication is any more lucid than the technological sort. Perhaps a more or less anarchical society with a sex ratio severely out of whack will actually be a hell hole, not the creative and resilient if also deeply weird kind of place The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress depicts. But you know what? People with more conventional views get their fairy tales told to them by gaggles of politicians at every election campaign. If that has a value, then so does libertarian science-fiction. At least, we’re not about to get a Prime Minister Heinlein imposing his views on the rest of us just because we hated him a little less than the other guy. And the fundamental maxim of lunar libertarianism ― there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch, or tanstaafl for short ― is something that we would all do we well to keep in mind.

Still, I do want to pick a fight with Heinlein on one thing: his views of law and perhaps adjudication. The latter, like most everything else in Luna, is done privately, and often as a matter of improvisation. A citizen is simply asked to “go judge” and accepts, for a fee of course ― tanstaafl ― paid equally by both parties to the dispute. A few make this something like a part-time occupation, but there is no professional judiciary, just as there are no lawyers. And there are no laws. The protagonist speaks derisively of

an earthowrm [who] expects to find a law, a printed law, for every circumstance. Even have laws for private matters such as contracts. Really. If a man’s word isn’t any good, who would contract with him? Doesn’t he have reputation?

He adds that, instead of “printed laws”, Loonies

[h]ave customs [that] aren’t written and aren’t enforced ― or could say they are self-enforcing because are simply way things have to be, conditions being what they are. Could say our customs are natural laws because are way people have to behave to stay alive.

(Note that the lack of articles and pronouns in the quotations isn’t a typo or an accident: the Loonies’ English has a bit of a Russian accent. I wonder if non-Russian speakers will find it annoying, but it is mostly well done and I was rather impressed.)

Heinlein’s protagonist has a good understanding of natural law: see, for example, Randy Barnett’s explanation of natural law as a set of principles such that “[i]f we want persons to be able to pursue happiness while living in society with each other, then they had best adopt and respect a social structure that reflects these principles”. (657; emphasis removed) But he doesn’t seem to understand something that actual natural lawyers have always recognized: the natural law principles aren’t enough. To be useful, at least in a large-scale society, they need to be implemented and given relatively specific shape, which is what “printed”, or at least positive, laws are for. Natural law principles might lead us to the conclusion that we must make up for the losses we negligently cause, but not necessarily tell us what counts as negligent, or how to assess the compensation. Reputation can work to secure the performance of contracts among people who know one another, but it is of less help when we deal with strangers, nor does it necessarily assist us in figuring out what to do about a bargain that has been upended by a change of circumstances.

All that is not to say that the laws must necessarily be the work of a legislature or some other centralized, governmental institution. Perhaps, but that case must be made separately. As Bastiat pointed out in The Law, it is wrong to think that if something is not provided by the state it will not be provided at all, and this may well be as much of a mistake in relation to laws themselves as to other things. Perhaps laws can be efficiently supplied by institutions involved in a competitive marketplace ― indeed, it might not be too much of a stretch to say that the early development of the common law by royal courts competing with other kinds of courts looked a bit like that, though to be sure it wasn’t exactly a free market.

Conversely, though, thinking that there ought to be no state, or a minimal state, or a state that doesn’t seek to monopolize the law, doesn’t mean that one can do without laws ― or without lawyers and professional judges. Even among those of the “legal systems very different from ours” Professor Friedman describes that are not state-based, many rely on professionals for adjudication and sometimes legal representation. It is tempting to think, as Heinlein’s protagonist seems to think, that lawyers and professional judges are only a drain on society, but they ― like all other specialists ― are only a manifestation of the division of labour. If laws are necessary, and they are, and complicated, and they are too, then it is more efficient to let them be handled by people who specialize in this. On this point, Heinlein, or at least his character, fails to apply their own cardinal rule: one cannot have the benefits of a sophisticated legal system without some inconvenience: tanstaafl.

This critique notwithstanding, I do think that The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress is an interesting and worthwhile attempt to think through the working of a libertarian society and its (inevitable?) conflict with a statist neighbour. It might come short in dealing with any number of specific aspects of these problems, but the attempt is hardly less valuable despite this. So let me conclude by quoting the appeal of another of the principal characters to the lunar constitutional convention ― it is one that we would do well to take seriously in our own thinking about constitutions:

[I]n writing your constitution let me invite attention to the wonderful virtues of the negative! Accentuate the negative! Let your document be studded with things the government is forever forbidden to do. No conscript armies … no interference however slight with freedom of press, or speech, or travel, or assembly, or of religion, or of instruction, or communication, or occupation … no involuntary taxation. … What I fear most are affirmative actions of sober and well-intentioned men, granting to government powers to do something that appears to need doing.

Mere Liberalism

A response to a common caricature of liberal beliefs

There is a rhetorical trope in contemporary critiques of liberalism and libertarianism, especially those coming from the political right, that holds it for fundamentally flawed because it conceives of individuals as “atomized”, isolated, a- or even anti-social creatures moved by no higher emotion than crass self-interest. We have even hosted one critic who made this argument as a guest on this blog.

A recent post on Law and Liberty, in which Luma Simms “reviews” Ilya Somin’s book Free to Move: Foot Voting, Migration, and Political Freedom, encapsulates this argument very neatly. I put “review” in scare quotes because, as Professor Somin points out, it misrepresents his book. But the exact same caricature is used to attack not only Professor Somin’s work, but liberalism and libertarianism more broadly; nor is it used by Mrs. Simms alone. So I think that a general response is warranted.


Mrs. Simms writes, summarizing the worldview that ― according to her ― underpins Professor Somin’s arguments in favour of greater freedom of movement and of personal choice more generally:

Man is a rational being; his actions are based on individual choice, guided only by reason; his judgement must be independent, free of any compulsion (including obligations and constraints that come from family, country, or culture); if he acts with others it is by his choice alone; he must live by his own achievements, for his own happiness and self-interest; he has no moral duty to others. As such, man must have the political freedom to follow his self-interest to achieve his happiness. It is autonomous individualism through and through.

As a summary of the liberal worldview ― and, to repeat, many critics of liberalism use descriptions like this one in just this way ― every one of these statements is grossly exaggerated or outright false.

Man is a rational being

Liberalism ― and for that matter conservatism or socialism ― does presuppose a measure of rationality in human beings. There would be no point in advocating for, say, freedom of speech, the Rule of Law, or democracy if human beings weren’t rational in the sense of thinking, making and carrying out plans, responding to incentives, and seeking to act on their (physical and social) environment in ways calculated to produce consequences.

But liberalism doesn’t require or depend on complete rationality. Liberals and libertarians can acknowledge failures of rationality: Bryan Caplan is no less of a libertarian for having explored at length The Myth of the Rational Voter. Liberals and libertarians can recognize that human beings are emotional, too. Love of freedom is an emotion, and no less than love of God or love of hearth and home.

His actions are based on individual choice, guided only by reason

As I have just noted, liberals and libertarians know that human beings can emotional or irrational. Needless to say they also know that their choices are constrained and their actions are shaped by the circumstances ― familial, economic, cultural, environmental ― in which they find themselves. Perhaps Mrs. Simms means that liberals want, as a normative matter, to create a state of affairs where humans are free to act exactly as they choose; but they do not. On the contrary, liberals respect property rights and the autonomy of individuals, families, and voluntary associations (including businesses, churches, NGOs, etc.), which means that they will uphold private arrangements that may diminish individuals’ choices.

Now, there are difficult questions that liberals and libertarians can struggle with about private choices that radically deny individual autonomy: self-enslavement is perhaps a silly example best left to philosophy seminars, but, say, parents who refuse to provide a minimum of education or healthcare to their children are a grim reality. But of course liberals recognize that interference with the freedom of some to secure some core of autonomy to others is still interference.

His judgement must be independent, free of any compulsion (including obligations and constraints that come from family, country, or culture)

I don’t think that any liberal or libertarian believes this. Yes, liberalism values independent judgment; yes, liberalism wants individuals to be free from legal compulsions of their judgment: hence its insistence on freedoms of conscience, thought, opinion, and so on. If this is what Mrs. Simms derides as liberalism’s rejection of “obligations and constraints that come from … country”, there’s something to the charge. If the critics of liberalism want “country” to introduce indoctrination and state ideology, let them say that clearly; better yet, let them spell out what they are going to indoctrinate us in (beyond platitudes about the common good), and give us a chance to decide whether we want to drink their particular kool-aid.

But as for other kinds of duties and compulsions, not only do liberals not reject them ― on the contrary, leading liberal thinkers have specifically insisted that the point of freedom is to have the ability to do one’s duty, as one sees it. Hence Lord Acton’s definition of “liberty”, in The History of Freedom, as “the assurance that every man will be protected in doing what he believes his duty against the influence of authority and majorities, custom and opinion” (3). Hence Hayek writing, in The Road to Serfdom, that

[r]esponsibility, not to a superior, but to one’s conscience, the awareness of a duty not exacted by compulsion, the necessity to decide which of the things one values are to be sacrificed to others, and to bear the consequences of one’s own decision, are the very essence of any morals which deserve the name.

Liberals regard obligations to family and friends, to God if one so believes, and even to country and “culture”, whatever that might be, as matters of conscience. The claim they reject such obligations is preposterous calumny. What they reject is the claim of “authority and majorities, custom and opinion” to interfere with an individual’s conscience to impose obligations of this sort when they are not felt.

If he acts with others it is by his choice alone

Again, it’s a bit difficult to say whether this is supposed to represent what liberals believe is the case or what liberals believe ought to be the case. But neither representation is accurate. Liberals neither deny the existence of social ties, such as those of kin, in which individual autonomy is far from complete, nor wish to abolish them. Liberals also do not deny nor, except for anarchist libertarians, wish to rid themselves entirely of collective political action, which is also involuntary as to many individuals who are forced to go along with the decisions of the authorities.

Liberals do want to provide exit opportunities for people who may find themselves bound by social ties that are or become abusive. They also want to limit the ability of majorities to impose on dissidents through the political process. But they want to do these things precisely because they recognize that human beings belong to groups, associations, and communities which they have not freely chosen and because they have no wish to abolish such groups, associations, and communities.

He must live by his own achievements, for his own happiness and self-interest

I don’t know many, if any, flesh-and-blood liberals or even libertarians who believe this. It sounds like a paraphrase of Randian objectivism, but I must confess that I’ve never read Rand, so I don’t know if it’s an accurate representation of her views. What I think I can assert with a good deal of confidence is that these views, if indeed she held them, are not at all representative. There just isn’t anything in classical liberalism or (non-Randian?) libertarianism that says that people must be navel-gazers, hedonists, and egotists.

To be sure, liberals acknowledge the fact that human beings are generally pretty self-interested. They have their altruistic impulses too, but they are often selfish. Liberalism’s response is to try to channel self-interest through institutions that can turn it to the greater good. The market is one such institution, as Adam Smith explained by pointing out, famously, that “[i]t is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest”. And liberals try to use politics in this way too: hence Madison’s insistence that “ambition must be made to counteract ambition”.

But, to repeat, none of that precludes or condemns altruism. In trying to channel selfish behaviour for the benefit of society, liberalism certainly does not say that unselfish behaviour should somehow be disapproved of. What liberalism does insist on is that there are limits ― depending on one’s version of liberalism, perhaps very stringent limits ― on the degree to which people can be coerced into acting and living for the sake of others. But liberalism has a better opinion of human nature than those theories that apparently say that human beings will be navel-gazing hedonistic egotists (or, all manner of other unedifying things, as other critics of liberalism claim) unless forced to be virtuous by the government. (Liberalism asks: how is government going to be more virtuous than the governed?)

He has no moral duty to others

I won’t repeat what I’ve already said about Lord Acton’s and Hayek’s championing of freedom as the space in which individuals can understand and discharge their obligations ― not one where they have none. Let me, instead, remind you of the Lockean argument for the state. In a nutshell: individuals have inherent natural rights and a moral duty to respect the rights of others; unfortunately, left to their own devices, they are not very good at complying with this duty even when they earnestly try; an authority that can clarify the scope of individual rights and corresponding duties, and impartially adjudicate allegations of breach is necessary. A concern with moral duty is that at the foundation of liberal politics.

Again, what liberals deny, with greater or lesser vigour depending on their preferred flavour of liberalism or libertarianism, is the claim of the state to create moral duties incumbent on those subjects to their jurisdiction. If they subscribe to the doctrine of natural rights, they will say, with Jefferson, that governments are instituted in order to secure these rights, and that, therefore, the creation of duties not tending to secure natural rights is beyond their just powers. But it does not follow, and liberals do not believe, that moral duties to others cannot arise otherwise than through the state.


Let me make just two additional points. One, which follows directly from the foregoing is that critics of liberalism are often confused, or obfuscating, about its nature: it is a political, not a moral, philosophy; a theory of how political power should be organized, not of how to live a good life. Liberal political institutions (understood broadly, to include things like constitutions, laws, and courts) serve to preserve the space in which individuals ― either alone or in community with others ― seek to live a good life, as they understand it. Some liberal thinkers such as Adam Smith or even, to an extent, Lord Acton, had ideas about the good life. Being a liberal doesn’t mean taking no interest in moral questions. It only means renouncing the imposition of one’s own answers to such questions by force on others whose answers might be quite different.

The second point I’ll make here is that while I have responded to a critique of liberalism coming from the right, this critique would need only minimal adjustments to its language to be embraced by the illiberal left. The view that liberalism is nothing more than a smokescreen for egoism and selfishness is a staple of socialist doctrines going back a century and a half. The criticism of liberalism as denying social ties, and the limitations that community and belonging impose on individuals might seem newer. Indeed, many right-wing critics of liberalism are convinced that it is no different from socialism in this regard. But real-life socialist regimes were actually quite nationalistic themselves. More importantly in 2021, the ascending left considers human beings to be largely shaped by their intersecting identities, and bound by the resulting sums of privilege and oppression. They use a different vocabulary from the one that appeals to the right-wingers, but their message, and their critique of liberalism, is much the same. And, of course, it is wrong for much the same reasons.


Left and right alike criticise liberalism for its commitment to respecting the autonomy of individuals in ordering their own moral universe, based on their understanding of their place in the world and their relationships with family, community, and perhaps God. They think they can do better: give people a purpose in life and a morality which, left alone, they sometimes fail to find. But there is, and can be, no agreement on an all-encompassing morality that is not imposed by force, and as difficult as it may be to find one’s purpose without coercion, it is more difficult still to accept a purpose imposed on us by others. The others, after all, are still our fellows, albeit that an accident of birth, or the privilege of education, or the fortune of an election, or the force of a coup has elevated them to a higher social ― not moral ― station.

Thus the illiberal right and left alike are doomed to failure in their quest for a better world. As Hayek wrote, they have “nothing to put in … place” of the individualist, liberal virtues ― “independence, self-reliance, and the willingness to bear risks, the readiness to back one’s own conviction against a majority, and the willingness to voluntary cooperation with one’s neighbors”. In their place, they can only make a “demand for obedience and the compulsion of the individual to do what is collectively decided to be good”. And because they know that they cannot persuade people to abandon liberalism with such demands, they try to caricature and defame it. Do not believe them.

A Proclivity for Plunder

The left and the right are united in wanting to regulate the internet by taking from their enemies and giving to their friends

You might think that Steven Guilbeault, environmentalist activist turned Canadian Heritage minister, and Josh Hawley, a leader of the will-to-power faction of the American right, don’t have too much in common. But, as it happens, they do: both think that, when it comes to regulating social media, plunder is the right policy. Even by the standards of the times, their positions are unusually crude. But they have at least the merit of exposing a widespread misunderstanding of the permissible bounds of the activity of the state.

Mr. Guilbeault, as Michael Geist has noted on his blog, is promising to throw more money at the Canadian media and cultural sector and, in order to do so, to “go and get that money where that money is. Which is web giants.” The current idea, as Professor Geist explains in another post, appears to be to charge Google, Facebook, et al. for linking to news articles listed or shared on their platforms, but there may be other chicanery in the works, such as requirements that these companies, or some others, spend some amounts determined by government fiat on content deemed Canadian, or that they give such content a prominence they otherwise would not.

This brings me to Mr. Hawley who, as Christian Schneider explains at The Bulwark, is trying to induce regulatory retaliation against Twitter and Facebook for blocking or limiting the sharing of a dodgy New York Post article. This demand is only the latest in a series of claims by people who used to believe in free speech and free markets (Mr. Hawley’s Twitter biography describes him as “constitutional lawyer” first and husband, father, and senator after that) that social media companies must be made to carry their or their ideological allies’ communications, and punished in case they limit these communications’ reach or prominence.


As you can see, these plans agree in the essential principle that successful platforms must either be requisitioned directly or have their bank accounts raided for the benefit of favoured constituencies. Only the details ― namely, the identity of the beneficiaries ― differ. But then again, once the principle has been accepted, the details can and will change as the partisan make-up of governments shifts. It would be a mistake to focus on the latter rather than the former, though as Mr. Schneider notes, it is a mistake that is quite common on American right: “[t]his may come as a shock to Republican senators, but a freshly empowered Biden/Harris [administration] will not likely make content moderation determinations premised on what produces the largest font of liberal tears.”

The principle on which Messrs. Guilbeault and Hawley operate is plunder. They are not alone, of course: so do countless other politicians, not to mention people who vote for them. As Frédéric Bastiat wrote in his great essay “The Law“:

Man can live and satisfy his wants only by ceaseless labor; by the ceaseless application of his faculties to natural resources. This process is the origin of property. But it is also true that a man may live and satisfy his wants by seizing and consuming the products of the labor of others. This process is the origin of plunder.

Plunder by a single person or a small band is criminal. Plunder by a monarch and a dictator is illegitimate. But plunder under colour of law by a democratically elected government ― why, that is simply public policy:

Under the pretense of organization, regulation, protection, or encouragement, the law takes property from one person and gives it to another; the law takes the wealth of all and gives it to a few — whether farmers, manufacturers, ship owners, artists, or comedians. 

By the way, lest you think that the belief that this sort of policy immoral is some peculiarly French radicalism, here’s Justice Chase, speaking in much the same terms in Calder v Bull, 3 Dall (3 US) 386 (1798):

An ACT of the Legislature (for I cannot call it a law) contrary to the great first principles of the social compact, cannot be considered a rightful exercise of legislative authority. … A law that punished a citizen for an innocent action, or, in other words, for an act, which, when done, was in violation of no existing law; a law that destroys, or impairs, the lawful private contracts of citizens; a law that makes a man a Judge in his own cause; or a law that takes property from A. and gives it to B: It is against all reason and justice, for a people to entrust a Legislature with SUCH powers; and, therefore, it cannot be presumed that they have done it. (388)

And lest you think that this is just American radicalism, let me also quote to your Sir William Blackstone, who wrote in his Commentaries on the Laws of England that “the principal aim of society is to protect individuals in the enjoyment of those absolute rights, which were vested in them by the immutable laws of nature”, (124) and which “may be reduced to three principal or primary articles; the right of personal security, the right of personal liberty, and the right of private property”. (129) The protection of these rights is the proper object of the law, so that

the law, which restrains a man from doing mischief to his fellow-citizens, though it diminishes the natural, increases the civil liberty of mankind; but that every wanton and causeless restraint of the will of the subject, whether practised by a monarch, a nobility, or a popular assembly, is a degree of tyranny. (125-26)

Yet wanton tyranny and plunder is precisely what Messrs. Guilbeault and Hawley propose. Google, Facebook, Twitter, Netflix, and the others have laboured to create platforms and services that hundreds of millions of people want to use. Their creators started from very little ― the beauty of the internet is that barriers to entry are pretty low. But now, instead of imitating them and creating platforms and services of their own, others ― be they journalists whom too few people want to pay for the privilege of reading, artists whose work is of little interest to anyone, or conspiracy theorists ― demand to be given access to these platforms or to the revenue that they generate. And politicians are only too happy to oblige.

Why wouldn’t they be? They think it costs them nothing. They are wrong. As Bastiat points out, one odious consequence of the perversion of the law into an instrument of plunder is that, because people naturally tend to associate what is just with what is lawful, they come to think of plunder and oppression as just: “Slavery, restrictions, and monopoly find defenders not only among those who profit from them but also among those who suffer from them.”

The other danger of turning the law from protection of liberty and property to their destruction is perhaps the more dangerous because it is even more widespread:

As long as it is admitted that the law … may violate property instead of protecting it … Political questions will always be prejudicial, dominant, and all-absorbing. There will be fighting at the door of the Legislative Palace, and the struggle within will be no less furious.

This, and with increasing intensity, is what we are seeing. The stakes of politics are so high because it is admitted on all sides that the power of the winners is virtually untrammeled. The limits and restraints whose existence would in the past have been recognized, at least implicitly, such as the principle that a government shouldn’t simply raid the coffers of a particular company or handful of companies, let alone dictate what messages media ― social or otherwise ― should carry, are no longer recognized. On the one hand this is an escalation. On the other, nothing more than accepted principles being taken to their logical conclusion.

The prize of victory ― a permission to plunder ― is great. The threat of defeat is greater still. Because one expects to use power to engage in plunder oneself, one comes to expect one’s opponents to do likewise, at one’s expense. Losing an election means not simply that someone else gets to enjoy the honours of office, but that they get to despoil and silence you. Hence the desperation of the American right to hang on to power; but hence also the conviction of the Canadian left that it is entitled simply to take from those whom it does not like. These afflictions are not peculiar to countries or to parties. They proceed from the same source: the common conviction that there is no limit to political power, and in particular that plunder is part of the legitimate spoils of political office.

Now of course no one wants any of this to happen. Political schemers do not want moral decadence and civil war. But, they feel, they have no choice. If their preferred schemes do not get implemented, there will be no Canadian newspapers or no right-wing conspiracy theories on Twitter! They are convinced that if something is not done by force and the behest of a politician (preferably themselves), it will not be done at all.

And hence the state becomes the answer to all problems. Much of the right now believes this as fervently as does the left. As in Bastiat’s and in Hayek‘s time, this socialist mindset is spread across political parties. Yet as Bastiat wrote,

Socialism, like the ancient ideas from which it springs, confuses the distinction between government and society. As a result of this, every time we object to a thing being done by government, the socialists conclude that we object to its being done at all.

We disapprove of state education. Then the socialists say that we are opposed to any education. We object to a state religion. Then the socialists say that we want no religion at all. We object to a state-enforced equality. Then they say that we are against equality. And so on, and so on. It is as if the socialists were to accuse us of not wanting persons to eat because we do not want the state to raise grain.

Messrs. Guilbeault and Hawley have no faith in the ability of their fellow-citizens to take care of themselves. Cede to the siren songs of libertarianism, they think, and the sky will fall. Let the other party take power, and it will fall just as surely, if a little slower. They want to save humanity with their projects. Alas, but their preferred means of doing so is plunder. For all their undoubted differences, their commitments to civilization are no more different than those of Alaric the Goth and Attila the Hun.


Again, the projects of Messrs. Guilbeault and Hawley are only an unusually start illustration of how much ― too much ― almost all ― of our politics is done. Very little of it is about establishing general rules that protect the rights of all equally. All that matters is ― as Lenin asked ― “who, whom?”. Who is going to plunder and silence whom? Who will be the winner and who the victim? For vae victis.

This is bad policy of course, but more importantly, dangerous and immoral. No person and no party, no matter the size of their majority, have the right to behave like this to their fellow human beings. As Bastiat said: “No legal plunder: This is the principle of justice, peace, order, stability, harmony, and logic. Until the day of my death, I shall proclaim this principle with all the force of my lungs (which alas! is all too inadequate).”

The Sex Appeal of Power

I’ve noticed a disturbing trend recently, in both politics and law. The idea is what I call the “one-way ratchet fallacy” of power. It goes like this: when an institution or entity obtains power of some kind, that power will only ever be used to fulfill certain goals rather than others. That is, people might assume that power will always run in favour of the policy outcomes they like. This is, in a word, naïve—but at worst, it is a gross misunderstanding of the problems with power. The increasing tendency to think this way only reinforces the need for law and custom to limit, rather than unleash, power.

Two examples come to mind that illustrate this phenomenon. The first is an issue near and dear to my heart, and that issue is constitutional interpretation. In Canada, a major misunderstanding of the Persons Case holds that Canada’s Constitution is a “living tree”—in other words, the Constitution must “grow” to fit the emerging realities of today’s society. Under this theory, judges in a system of strong judicial review decide when and in what direction the Constitution should evolve.

Putting aside the fact that only some work has been done to actually provide rules to govern the “living tree” theory, and also putting aside the fact that the Supreme Court has never provided such guidance (and in fact does not consistently endorse this theory), there is a certain “ideological sex appeal” to living constitutionalism, as Chief Justice Rehnquist once said. That appeal is that the law and the Constitution can be used to achieve policy outcomes that one likes, ensuring that the Constitution protects certain outcomes that are consistent with “evolving standards of decency” (to borrow an American phrase). Unsurprisingly, progressives see the potential in living constitutionalism. It is a good way to ensure the Constitution keeps up with modern times and, potentially, modern progressive causes.

But, there is a major risk that should cause those who endorse living constitutionalism to pause. Living constitutionalism contains within it a dangerous assumption: that judges will always be on the side of angels. The risk was put eloquently by Justice David Stratas of the Federal Court of Appeal in a talk a few years ago. The general gist of it is this: imagine, some years from now (or maybe we do not even need to imagine) that there is some existential crisis affecting our society. Courts are asked to deal with a legal issue arising out of that crisis. Would we rather the court decide the matter according to settled doctrine, painstakingly developed over generations? Or on the personal say-so of judges? There is a risk that the personal say-so of a judge might run in a direction that progressives would not like. Basically, without rules governing the exercise of legal power by judges, it’s a coin flip in terms of result.

Lest anyone think that this is an inherent flaw of progressives, those on the right can also fall victim to the alluring sex appeal of power. A good example is the recent Trump administration move to “ban” government contracting and other relations with businesses and others that offer some critical race theory training. Now, it is more than fair to say there are major debates raging right now about critical race theory. That’s a somewhat separate issue. What is important here is that the power of the government is being used to root out certain ideas rather than others.

This is a different issue from living constitutionalism, since here it could be argued that governments have the power to implement their view of the “public good;” law, by its nature, is supposed to be governed by rules that are as close to “neutral” as possible. So those on the right might feel emboldened by Trump’s move because it implements their view of the good. But once the precedent is set that governments can police ideology by picking winners and losers in business, and ferret out views it doesn’t like from the inside, it is just as possible that a future administration could fall victim to the sex appeal of power in the opposite direction. Power can be used, in the future, to limit the spread of ideas that those on the right might find appealing: free market economics, personal liberty, whatever it is.

While the situation is admittedly slightly different than the living constitutionalism example, this situation calls for a political custom surrounding the exercise of power. As Dicey said, laws are not enough; there must be a “spirit of legality” that governs the exercise of power. This is understood as a reference to customary norms governing the exercise of power. Surely, one custom might be that governments shouldn’t pick winners and losers based on ideology (within reason).

The living constitution example and the critical race theory example illustrate the sex appeal of power. It can be exercised in a certain political direction, to be sure. And it might feel good for power to be exercised to the benefit of certain political factions. But the more power is granted to certain actors, and the more that laws and customs liberate that power, the more we might expect the one-way ratchet to keep ratcheting up. In politics, this might be one thing. But in law—especially when it comes to constitutional interpretation—the sex appeal of power is positively dangerous.

Happy Canada Day!

The anniversary of an imperfect constitution drafted by imperfect men is well worth celebrating

Canada Day, like most other days it seems, comes at a bad time this year. A time when symbols of the history ― be they flags, monuments, names of buildings ― are objects of suspicion at best, and not infrequently unqualified vitriol, seems ill-suited to a celebration of what is now more than a sesquicentennial constitution. A constitution that is stubbornly monarchical in form, politically incorrect in wording, and dependent for its existence, livelihood, and amendment on old-fashioned procedures of parliamentary democracy rather than on heady revolutionary movements.

But we do not get to choose anniversaries, and perhaps this is a useful reminder that we do not get to choose everything, that there can be no such thing as a tabula rasa, and that demands for one can only be the products of ignorance or bad faith. This is not an apology for conservatism. As I have said before, I am no no conservative. Much in the world, and in Canada, should change. But the idea that everything can change, and that everything can be just as we ― whoever “we” are ― wish it to be, is unserious; indeed it is perhaps the nec plus ultra of solipsism.

The framers of our constitution understood this, and the constitution’s existence is proof of this, as of their wisdom and humility more generally. They were no doubt flawed in various ways, as men always were, still are, and ever will be. And in some ways we can, legitimately I hope, say that we are better than they. But we are certainly no better, on the whole, if we do not practice the virtues that were theirs: humility, as I have already said, and openness to compromise; magnanimity and willingness to live and let live; above all, perhaps, determination to hope for the future more than to dwell on the past.

Let George Brown’s words, spoken on February 8, 1865, during the Confederation debates, be our inspiration in this time of acute awareness of the imperfections of our institutions and the world around us:

No constitution ever framed was without defect; no act of human wisdom was ever free from imperfection; no amount of talent and wisdom and integrity combined in preparing such a scheme could have placed it beyond the reach of criticism. And the framers of this scheme had immense special difficulties to overcome. We had the prejudices of race and language and religion to deal with; and we had to encounter all the rivalries of trade and commerce, and all the jealousies of diversified local interests. To assert, then, that our scheme is without fault, would be folly.

It was necessarily the work of concession; not one of the thirty-three framers but had, on some points, to yield his opinions; and, for myself, I freely admit that I struggled earnestly, for days together, to have portions of the scheme amended. But, Mr. Speaker, admitting all this—admitting all the difficulties that beset us—admitting frankly that defects in the measure exist …  I believe it will accomplish all, and more than all, that we, … ever hoped to see accomplished. 

Canada itself stands as the greatest monument to these framers, and they could wish for no better. We are lucky to have it as their bequest. We can and must improve it, but today, of all days, we can and must simply be grateful for it. Happy Canada Day!