Our Common Good

The real reason Mises’ arguments about women are so relevant, it seems to me, is that in the course of making them, he reveals something larger about the libertarian worldview: Libertarianism is not about liberty at all, or at least not about liberty for everyone. In fact, it’s the opposite.

Here’s Mises describing the socialist programme of “free love”:

Free love is the socialists’ radical solution for sexual problems. The socialistic society abolishes the economic dependence of woman which results from the fact that woman is dependent on the income of her husband. Man and woman have the same economic rights and the same duties, as far as motherhood does not demand special consideration for the women.

Public funds provide for the maintenance and education of the children, which are no longer the affairs of the parents but of society. Thus the relations between the sexes are no longer influenced by social and economic conditions… The family disappears and society is confronted with separate individuals only. Choice in love becomes completely free.

Paternalistic assumptions

Sounds like a libertarian paradise, right? Society is dissolved into atomistic individuals, obstacles to our free choices are removed, everyone has the same rights and duties. But Mises is not celebrating this ideal; he’s criticising it. Not because it makes people unfree, but because it makes people - specifically, women - free. The problem with liberating women from the constraints of “social and economic conditions” is that… women are liberated from the constraints of social and economic conditions.

Worth the time to read it all.


The authors of a recent article in the Journal of Medical Ethics are receiving death threats for suggesting that post-birth euthanization of newborn infants should be allowable, since they lack moral agency and self-awareness, and thus the requisite personhood that most systems of ethics generally base their axiomatic assumptions off of:

Dr Minerva, a research associate at Oxford while being based at the University of Melbourne, said the recent days had been “the worst in my life” after the article attracted widespread attention.

“This is not a proposal for law,” she told an Australian news website. “This is pure academic discussion.

“I wish I could explain to people it is not a policy and I’m not suggesting that and I’m not encouraging that.”

The authors, whose piece was published in the Journal of Medical Ethics, suggested that “what we call after-birth abortion (killing a newborn) should be permissible in all the cases where abortion is, including cases where the newborn is not disabled”.

Ironically, the most receptive people seem to be pro-lifers, who view the parrallels the authors draw between pre and post-birth termination of the fetus/infant’s life to be entirely morally consistent:

Anthony Ozimic, from the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC), said the article, which he described as a “chilling promotion of infanticide”, showed how abortion was “creating a culture of death”.

While he was appalled at the suggestion that newborns should be killed for their parents’ convenience, he nevertheless said it showed the logical framework behind infanticide and abortion was the same.

He said: “The paper proves what pro-lifers have long been arguing: that the common arguments for abortion also justify infanticide.

“There is no difference in moral status between a child one day before birth and a child one day after birth.

“Birth is merely a change of location, not a change from non-personhood to personhood.”

Ken@Popehat, who has done heroic work in the legal arena, recently wrote a satirical piece in which he panned the Minerva article.  My roommate and I had a spirited discussion about it the other night, and we both agree that the negative reaction to this piece is one incredibly large, massively hysterical case of Missing The Point. 

The violent reaction to this article is not only unwarranted, but dangerous for academia.  The authors of this article brought this subject up because this is an incredibly huge deal in the field of medical ethics.  Casting threats and aspersions upon the authors discourages people from being willing to openly discuss controversial topics.  And for those who feel that some subjects are so clearly beyond the scope of common decency that they ought not to be discussed, it needs to be mentioned that this is hardly uncharted territory in the field of ethical philosophy.  

If the people making death threats on the authors of the article actually took the time to read it, they’d understand that the authors weren’t making a flippant, irresponsible argument that disregards the inherent sanctity of human life.  They were having a very thorough and frank discussion about how we define personhood, and what the implications are of that definition.  Peter Singer’s observation from the second link above is directly on point in this regard:

In a strictly biological sense, the opponents of abortion are right to say that abortion ends a human life…[w]hen a woman has an abortion, the fetus is alive, and it is undoubtedly human – in the sense that it is a member of the species homo sapiens. It isn’t a dog or a chimpanzee.

But mere membership of our species doesn’t settle the moral issue of whether it is wrong to end a life. As long as the abortion is carried out at less than 20 weeks of gestation – as almost all abortions are – the brain of the fetus has not developed to the point of making consciousness possible.

In that respect, the fetus is less developed, and less aware of its circumstances, than the animals that we routinely kill and eat for dinner.

The same can arguably be said of a human infant: i.e. they have the same degree of self-awareness as the animals that we regularly slaughter without regard to their moral agency, self-awareness, cognitive perception, or ability to feel pain.  If that’s the case, then it arguably follows that post-birth termination of a human “fetus” results in no less a moral wrong than the animals we regularly slaughter by the millions for food every year.  The human infant, in every relevant way, is no different from these animals in terms of moral agency, except that it happens to be a member of our species.  That’s it.

I’m not saying I necessarily endorse this view.  But the point is that this article isn’t a shocking, outrageous leap towards the ethically verboten that represents the most extreme, unrestrained putrefaction of any decent version of human morality.  There is a coherent philosophical debate to be had—indeed, must be had—about the definition of personhood and its practical implications for the practice of medicine.  We can’t escape these conclusions merely because they make us uncomfortable.  And calling for the heads of the messengers advances no cause, except that of legitimizing violence against people brave enough to ask hard questions.

Unfortunately, 9 out of 10 people will simply read the headlines, get outraged, ignore the substantive issues, and jump straight to calling for the heads of Minerva et al.  And we are all the worse off for it.  

To quote Natalie Portman from Lucas’s dubious Star Wars prequels“So this is how liberty dies…with thunderous applause.”

Thanks so much for taking the time to write this.  I wasn’t surprised that there was so much negative reaction to the headlines - as with so much of what happens with folks on the Internets - there is quick reaction and few take the time to actually read and consider the facts or points being made. 

Makes me long for the days when my friends gathered for monthly hosted dinners or potlucks to spend the evening debating issues or attended a lecture at the local university and then retired to a restaurant to spend a few hour sharing impressions and hashing out differencesNow no one (myself included) has time because they wasted it all updating their Facebook pages or reblogging on Tumblr.

Anyway, this is an important topic and I thoroughly enjoyed reading your evaluation of the reactions. 

We should be reminded of what Dr. King was attempting to do when he was assassinated at 48 years of age. He was trying to put poverty on the American agenda. If he could speak to us today — and he will be speaking to us on Sunday — he would tell us that we should provide people with a living wage, end the wars, bring the troops home. He would say, ‘Do not forget the least of us.’
Rep. John Lewis • Speaking about Martin Luther King Jr. before the hurricane-delayed dedication of the civil rights leader’s memorial. Lewis knows a thing or two about all this civil rights/poverty thing, due to the fact that he marched with King in Selma, Ala. — and notably got injured in the process. source (viafollow)

Peter Corning:

The bitter, unresolved partisan struggle over our national debt, culminating in a near-default and an historic credit downgrade by the ratings agency Standard & Poors, is above all a struggle over competing visions of fairness - and ultimately a battle for the soul of this country.  

In the rancorous, down-to-the-wire “negotiations” [sic] between the Republicans and the Democrats, the two sides advanced radically different visions of what would be a fair outcome.  President Obama called for “shared sacrifice” - everyone doing a part to deal with our anemic economy and our deepening national debt problem, including some “revenue enhancements.”  The Republicans claimed that any increase in taxes would hurt the “creative class” and undercut job creation.  (“What job creation?” one might ask.) 

More important, though more muted, was the moral claim on the right that taxing the rich - especially to support the unemployed and the poor - is unfair.  As the anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist puts it, tax increases amount to “stealing” money from those who have earned their wealth and who deserve to keep it.

A subtext for this moral claim was provided by the famed 1950s novelist Ayn Rand and her “gospel of selfishness.” To quote one of her characters, the architect Howard Roark in The Fountainhead: “All that proceeds from man’s independent ego is good.  All that which proceeds from man’s dependence upon men is evil… The first right on earth is the right of the ego.  Man’s first duty is to himself…His moral law is to do what he wishes, provided his wish does not depend primarily upon other men….The only good which men can do to one another and the only statement of their proper relationship is - hands off!” 

Warren Buffet disagrees.  In a recent op-ed piece in the New York Times, he wrote:  “While the poor and middle class fight for us in Afghanistan, and while most Americans struggle to make ends meet, we mega-rich continue to get our extraordinary tax breaks. Some of us are investment managers who earn billions from our daily labors but are allowed to classify our income as “carried interest,” thereby getting a bargain 15 percent tax rate.   Others own stock index futures for 10 minutes and have 60 percent of their gain taxed at 15 percent, as if they’d been long-term investors. These and other blessings are showered upon us by legislators in Washington who feel compelled to protect us, much as if we were spotted owls or some other endangered species. It’s nice to have friends in high places…


The bottom line here is that Ayn Rand, Grover Norquist, and other defiant libertarians have got it wrong about fairness.  As I explain at length in my book, The Fair Society, a viable “social contract” requires us to take into account and balance three distinct fairness claims.  The first is "equality" with respect to our basic biological needs - an imperative that we all share equally and a prime obligation for every society.  The second fairness principle involves providing adequate rewards for merit (“equity”), though not all claims for merit are valid (obviously).  And the third principle is “reciprocity” - paying a fair share to support our society in return for the benefits we receive.

Reciprocity is where Ayn Rand’s brand of libertarianism fails the fairness test.  Indeed, such terms as “fairness” and “social justice” are not even a part of her lexicon.  It’s a fatally defective philosophy.  

Our choice is clear: We can opt for a fair society, or we can follow the dark, well-traveled road taken by so many failed societies of the past (and present), which leads to a nation that serves the interests mainly of the rich and powerful.  To me, the right choice is obvious.


It’s now possible not to make eye contact with up to ten people at once, thanks to Google’s new social networking platform. Google’s stated purpose is to make “sharing on the web more like sharing in real life,” which is true only if “in real life” is understood to mean “on the rest of the internet.” Instead of occurring in our inbox, group videochats—called Hangouts—open in separate windows, like pop-up ads. Each face moves inside its own rectangle, forming together a mosaic of talking heads. What sadist would take cable news as a model for conversation? It’s like building a hotel using the blueprints for a prison.

I am that sadist.

My first ever “Office Hours via G+ Hangout” will take place tomorrow morning, if any of my students decide to be so bold as to test it out.

In related news, if you forgot that you wanted to follow along with my political theory class on Twitter, now’s the time to get over there and join the conversation. Here’s the post where I explained how that’s going to work over the next fifteen weeks, in case you missed it.

In 2009, right when I began blogging here at Running Chicken, I also embarked on a teaching experiment: in my contemporary political theory course, I made use of Twitter to get students more invested in the material, to stimulate conversation outside the classroom, to make myself more accessible to students, and to demonstrate that the ideas we discussed would also generate interest amongst people who weren’t sitting in our classroom at the University of Nebraska.

Here’s what I wrote back then:

I’ve never been one of those professors who uses a lot of technology in the classroom. I stayed away from PowerPoint and I only used BlackBoard to post things for students to read. As a political theorist, it never really made sense to me to do anything else. The best professors, in my experience, were those who came to class with a few pages of notes and discussed ideas with their students for an hour or so. Nothing flashy, except their wit.

This semester, I decided to try something very different for a couple of reasons:

  1. My class is focused on contemporary political theory and using contemporary technologies seemed fitting;
  2. I became convinced that Twitter, in particular, could engage students in a manner that’s very different from other contemporary technologies.

So I created a class account on Twitter, and I required my students to set up accounts of their own and to “follow” the class account. I post questions there a few times a week, generally before and after each class. And students can then choose to answer the questions, ask one another questions, and generally discuss the readings with one another. No one is required to participate; in fact, after setting up their accounts in the first week, students need not ever use Twitter again. That said, I encourage them to participate because my sense is that there are some very real benefits to doing so.

Twitter can break down barriers between people who are generally perceived to be far away from us in some way, like professors might seem to students, by allowing students some access to the thoughts, ideas, or even day-to-day activities of professors. In this way, I hope to become even more accessible to my students. Additionally, I believe that using Twitter allows quieter students to participate in ways that might seem less daunting to them. It also might encourage them to speak up in class by allowing them to start the discussion before class even begins and by giving them additional insight into the opinions of their classmates.

If you’re interested, follow our class on Twitter and create an on-going search for the #pols386 hashtag so you don’t miss anything we’ve written (without having to follow all of the students in the class). Or send me a note here or on Twitter with questions or to let me know what you think.

One important change this time around: If you want to follow our conversation — and, of course, participate too — I’ll be happy to send a copy of the class syllabus so you can read along with the class. Just drop me a line here and provide an email address.

We’ll be reading Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind; Michel Foucault’s The Order of Things; Jurgen Habermas’ Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere; Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia; John Rawls’ Justice as Fairness; and Richard Rorty’s Philosophy as Cultural Politics. Also, selections from Hannah Arendt, Michael Sandel, and Jacques Lacan … which I can email to you as pdf files.

Our class begins on August 23; I’ll be sending out the first messages to Twitter followers in about two weeks. We meet on Tuesday and Thursday mornings, but we’ll be tweeting all week long through early December. Follow along, join in, pass this info along to any of your friends who might be interested.

This could be interesting.  I’ve read only 3 of the books.  Just hope Tumblr followers don’t overwhelm student participation.



Worthwhile read. As is usually the case with Sam Harris, even if you don’t agree with everything he says, you will likely learn something.

I have a daughter who will one day take drugs. Of course, I will do everything in my power to see that she chooses her drugs wisely, but a life without drugs is neither foreseeable, nor, I think, desirable. Someday, I hope she enjoys a morning cup of tea or coffee as much as I do. If my daughter drinks alcohol as an adult, as she probably will, I will encourage her to do it safely. If she chooses to smoke marijuana, I will urge moderation.[2] Tobacco should be shunned, of course, and I will do everything within the bounds of decent parenting to steer her away from it. Needless to say, if I knew my daughter would eventually develop a fondness for methamphetamine or crack cocaine, I might never sleep again. But if she does not try a psychedelic like psilocybin or LSD at least once in her adult life, I will worry that she may have missed one of the most important rites of passage a human being can experience.

The above quote by Harris describes my feelings exactly. “Drugs” is too nebulous a term to be of any use at all, and some of the effects of “drugs” result in monumentally important perceptions and realizations about ourselves.

Sam is an interesting person. I very much enjoyed this - as I almost always appreciate his writing.  Glad I saw it here as I don’t stop by his place often enough anymore.

Democrats, at least on the national stage, do not have a clear, and clearly defined philosophy. They cannot offer a stong and clear alternative to the attempt by the GOP and Tea Party to destroy middle America, because they don’t know what the hell they stand for.
Being a leftist is a calling, not a career; it’s a vocation not a profession. It means you are concerned about structural violence, you are concerned about exploitation at the work place, you are concerned about institutionalized contempt against gay brothers and lesbian sisters, hatred against peoples of color, and the subordination of women. It means that you are willing to fight against, and to try to understand the sources of social misery at the structural and institutional levels, as well as at the existential and personal levels. That’s what it means to be a leftist; that’s why we choose to be certain kinds of human beings.

Cornel West (via newleft)


Paul Krugman: “My vision of economic morality is more or less Rawlsian: we should try to create the society each of us would want if we didn’t know in advance who we’d be. And I believe that this vision leads, in practice, to something like the kind of society Western democracies have constructed since World War II - societies in which the hard-working, talented and/or lucky can get rich, but in which some of their wealth is taxed away to pay for a social safety net, because you could have been one of those who strikes out.

"Such a society doesn’t correspond to any kind of abstract ideal, whether it’s "people should be allowed to keep what they earn" or "from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs". It’s a very non-Utopian compromise. But it works, and it’s a pretty decent arrangement (more decent in some countries than others.)

"That decency is what’s under attack by claims that it’s immoral to deprive society’s winners of any portion of their winnings. It isn’t."