Thursday, February 22, 2007

Hobbesians for Liberty

Anyone who seriously believes in liberty should confront the powerful argument against it in Hobbes' Leviathan. The essential argument is correct, but radically incomplete.

Essentially, Hobbes argues that prior to (i.e., without) government, there can be not property, and no definite rights. Anyone has the power to kill or steal from anyone else (since our vigilance is finite -- anyone can be killed while sleeping), so no rational person would ever accumulate wealth or plan for the future. There would be nearly zero value to anything not immediately consumed. To avoid this "nasty, brutish, and short" life, people agree to cede authority to a single sovereign, commanding absolute obedience, and forfeit their "rights" over one another. A single recognized power is then able to enforce contracts and protect members of the commonwealth from predators, thieves and murderers. Arbitration by a third party avoids the partiality inherent in a situation where each person is the judge in his own case. This allows property rights to have a practical and nearly objective meaning, rather than being vulnerable to the subjective whim of whichever party decides to enlarge his property at the expense of another.

Since the state of nature -- the war of all against all prior to government -- is so bad because of the impossibility of property, no one is justified in disobeying the sovereign unless his own life is directly threatened.

Unfortunately (as Locke points out in far too many words), the Hobbesian Sovereign is the judge in his own case. Insofar as he threatens the properties and liberties of his subjects, he reduces the extent to which Sovereignty is an improvement over the state of nature. This constitutes the argument, on Hobbesian grounds, for liberty. Liberty is the maximal fulfillment of sovereignty, while absolute tyranny is the minimal fulfillment thereof.

Unfortunately, there are many Libertarian or Liberty-sympathetic thinkers who have not thought this through, and assume unreflectively that markets and property can best occuir without any government interference. Anarcho-libertarianism ignores the fact that government is instituted and maintained logically prior to the possibility of a market.

Markets presuppose property.
Property presupposes enforcement of property rights.
Enforcement presupposes government.

America's recent misadventure in Iraq also stems from a failure to apprehend liberty's true basis in a strong civil order. "Freedom" in the sense that we want to propagate it is not a positive institution to be enforced directly, but neither is it merely the spontaneous result of a lack of a strong government. Rather, it is the artificially level environment that results from a strong government declining to intrude into its citizens' lives, and repelling other governments. Anarchy -- at least as it has been practiced -- is merely a fertile ground for the seeds of new rules to be sown.

Remember, though, as Hume said about morality: though property rights and freedom of expression are artificial, this does not mean they are arbitrary. Rather, they are best political arrangement possible, as dictated by human nature. They have to be invented, but so did the internal combustion engine. That doesn't mean a horse is a better means of transportation.

On the Left, the confusion of corporations with governments because of their like possession of power, fails to distinguish what sort of power that is. Tyler Cowen made a similar argument once. If Classical Liberals cannot think straight about government, then we cannot coherently argue the case for liberty.

Sunday, February 4, 2007

First Strike

He made his first strike.
Second, too. He missed his third
strike, and hit the ball.

To My Oldest Friend

Two journeyed in a lifeless desert land
Remembering their safer greener past
From which they’d glimpsed bright lights across the sand.
They went to find these lights; each willed it so —
True friends share compasses – but they diverged,
Each thinking his the truest way to go.
But many times their choice-twinned paths recrossed
And each shared what he’d learnt since they’d met last.
Both still saw lights, and neither one was lost.
There were no farewell words, nor any greetings
(Companionship was present but submerged –
Their aim was shared between their place-shared meetings)
For good things never have a pleasant end.
And each is proud to call the other “friend.”

There In No Heaven While You Live On Earth

A poem from a little while back, which I had posted on my old blog, is here for my own archival purposes.

This villanelle won 1st place in the Grade 11-12 Poetry category of the Stamford Literary Competition.

All else, despair! Her smile exceeds your worth.
What other source of pleasure shall I seek?
There is no Heaven while you live on Earth.
All men desire their happiness from birth.
All learn of love, and most, for love, shall seek.
All else, despair! Her smile exceeds your worth.
See, eyes; hear, ears. Her face: her joy bring forth!
Can I call up the curving of your cheek?
There is no Heaven while you live on Earth.
But even if her grin is common mirth,
And that reserved for me is not unique,
All else, despair! Her smile exceeds your worth.
If all your sweet light steps cross Gaea’s girth
To help another scale Olympus’ peak,
There is no Heaven while you live on Earth.
I value you in plenty and in dearth.
And when I, moonlike, at her joy can peek,
All else, despair! Her smile exceeds your worth.
There is no Heaven while you live on Earth.