Archive for the ‘liberty’ Category

Privacy and Government Surveillance in the Twenty-First Century

January 13th, 2011 Comments off


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The complex question of how society should strike a balance between an individual’s need for privacy and the government’s use of surveillance to protect its citizens from harm is best explained by example. In 1986 in Minneola, Florida, fourteen-year-old Glenn Williams died from what appeared to be a drug overdose. Suspecting foul play, the police chief had officers take photographs and video of the autopsy. One of the officers took the video home and showed it to other officers and friends. The Orlando Sentinel then published an article describing the viewing as a party where the audience joked and laughed (Mills 252).

No one disputes the necessity of photographs and video in the apprehension and conviction of criminals, but the case of Williams v. City of Minneola highlights the potential for abuse by members of a government agency in the use of surveillance. Although the family was ultimately denied any recompense, the court determined that “…reckless infliction of emotional distress can lie for outrageous conduct involving pictures of a dead body. ” (Mills 253). Mills points out the importance of this case because it grants a right to privacy for family members and allows them to bring a claim for reckless acts.

In our technological, modern era, the idea of privacy is so broad that to have a meaningful discussion of it, it first should be defined. Scolio, in his book Transforming Privacy: A Transpersonal Philosophy of Rights, divides privacy into four categories: physical, decisional, informational, and formational. Physical privacy indicates that one has control over one’s home as well as one’s body. Decisional privacy relates to personal control over one’s choices, and with the modern development of this category came the phrase “the right to privacy” which first appeared in the Supreme Court case Griswold v. Connecticut in 1965 (“Privacy, right of”). Informational privacy concerns the control of information about a person, including information kept in computer databases. Finally, formational privacy refers to the right of the mind “to be left alone” from the onslaught of media, advertising and mass culture. (Scolio 2. The issue of privacy and government surveillance needs only concern itself with the physical and informational categories.

The history of privacy in America goes back to colonial times and the social conditions which led the authors of the Bill of Rights to include the Fourth Amendment. It reads “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched and the persons or things to be seized. ” (Taslitz, 6. The searches of homes and seizures of papers and effects of persons were authorized primarily by the English authorities under laws such as The Stamp Act of 1765, which “levied a tax…on nearly every form of paper used in the colonies. ” (Taslitz 24). Mobs of American colonists responded to the passage of the act with riots which eventually brought about a repeal. Taslitz suggests that while the riots were aimed at the tax itself, a large part of the anger was due to the history of the English authorities who would search people’s homes for smuggled goods, on which, of course, no tax had been paid.

Where the Fourth Amendment was concerned with the physical privacy of the home and personal effects of a person, the notion of informational privacy came about as a result of the technological advances which began in the Industrial Revolution and culminated in the invention of the computer.

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Privacy and Government Surveillance in the Twenty-First Century (Part 2)

January 13th, 2011 Comments off


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The development of photographic film by George Eastman and scientists at Kodak in 1888 made the previously cumbersome development of photographs available to the masses. The camera was now available for use in surveillance and the photograph as evidence in the courtroom. Once Alexander Bell’s telephone, invented in 1877, became the norm in every household and office, it was now possible for another person to surreptitiously eavesdrop on previously private communications.

The modern electronic computer began as an entirely mechanical machine that came into use in response to a particular problem of the U. S. Government in the 1890’s. Prior to that decade, the immense growth of industry and a rapidly changing population due to immigration made effective national government a challenge. (Agar 147. The 1880 census had taken 7 years to tabulate by hand, and it was expected that the 1980 census would take even longer. In response to a competition announced by the census director, Herman Hollerith offered a machine that would sort and tally information stored as holes punched into cards. Finally, in 1971, Intel Corporation developed the microprocessor, an entire computer on one small integrated circuit or chip which made the personal computer and the Internet possible. Thanks to the ubiquitous use of computers in business and government, the police are now able to instantly track the use of a credit card, for example.

The issue of privacy and government surveillance is controversial and generates heated emotional debate because of the potential for great harm. Lack of security can result in injury, loss of property, and ultimately death. Intrusion of privacy can inflict emotional distress and destroy reputations, relationships and careers. The following four articles each highlight one aspect of the delicate balance between privacy and security and present an argument somewhere between granting government greater latitude in providing security or instituting tighter controls for protecting privacy.

The most neutral approach is presented in Orin S. Kerr’s “Do We Need A New Fourth Amendment? ” This article was written as a response to Christopher Slobogin’s book Privacy at Risk: The New Government Surveillance and the Fourth Amendment. Slobogin argues that two types of surveillance are currently unregulated by the Fourth Amendment: public, such as closed circuit television, and transactional, which he defines as access to bank, telephone and business records. Slobogin’s proposed changes to the amendment depend on the degree of the intrusiveness of the surveillance. Whenever current law does not address a particular situation, Slobogin believes that the courts should turn to public opinion surveys to determine how intrusive any surveillance would be. Kerr argues that making legal proceedings dependent on public opinion weakens the law and that “measuring intrusiveness does not actually measure how much a [surveillance] technique infringes on civil liberties” (Kerr 959). Ultimately, Kerr concludes that the Fourth Amendment as it exists is more than adequate to the task of protecting civil liberties.

Where the first article argues for the status quo from a legal perspective, the second argues for acceptance of government surveillance from a political point of view. What makes Cathy Young’s article “Liberty’s Paradoxes” especially interesting is that it admits a libertarian bias but argues the conservative viewpoint that government surveillance of private communication is necessary to protect citizens from the grave threat of terrorism. Young states unequivocally that she doesn’t “like the idea of government snooping on e-mail or keeping track of Web addresses…” However, she concludes that to address the potential for abuse of information, “…we need to recognize that…surveillance of private communication is indeed a legitimate government activity” (Young 3).

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Privacy and Government Surveillance in the Twenty-First Century (Part 3)

January 13th, 2011 Comments off


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The last two articles in this casebook argue the opposite view: that government surveillance needs careful oversight and should be more restricted and controlled. “Group Privacy and Government Surveillance of Religious Services” by Travis Dumsday appeared in the philosophical journal Monist, so he approaches the issue from an ethical perspective. Like Young, he agrees that government surveillance is necessary from a standpoint of security, but he emphasizes the moral aspect of surveillance: it involves a violation (loss of privacy) and may include deception and breach of trust (in the case of a federal agent pretending to be a member of a group). Because of these violations, surveillance requires a “fairly strong justification” if it is to be done without acting unethically (Dumsday 182). This justification must be in the form of a specific indication that a crime is occurring, like a tip from a member of the community. Blanket surveillance without probable cause, Dumsday states emphatically, is morally wrong.

The final article “The Snitch In Your Pocket – Law Enforcement is Tracking American’s Cell Phones in Real Time Without a Warrant” by Michael Isikoff, unlike the other three, is a news article and presents its argument for legal control of government surveillance in a very personal manner. He begins personalizing the issue by pointing out that most of America’s 277 million cell phone users are unaware that phone companies can track them. Newer phones contain a GPS (global positioning device), while the phone call itself is routed through towers that can be used to pinpoint the origin of the call. To show the extent of the problem, Isikoff quotes Al Gidari, a telecommunication lawyer for several wireless phone companies who says that his clients receive “thousands of requests per month” for cell phone data. The article concludes with a dialog between Justice Department lawyer Mike Eckenweiler and appeals-court judge Dolores Sloviter. The judge pointed out that some governments, like Iran, would use cell-phone data to track political protesters.

“Now, can the government assure us,” she pressed Eckenweiler, “that Justice would never use the provisions in the communications law to collect cell-phone data for such a purpose in the United States? ” […Eckenweiler] finally acknowledged, “Yes, your honor. It can be used constitutionally for that purpose. ” (Isiskoff 2).

That brief moment in court neatly makes Isikoff’s argument for him. The potential for abuse of this type of surveillance is great.

Looking toward the future, the issue of privacy and government surveillance will continue to grow in importance. New technologies will continue to present us with newer challenges. The Department of Defense is working to develop a Total Information Awareness Program which would use new surveillance and analysis systems to protect citizens from terrorism. When this system is completed, it will provide a computerized record of a person’s entire life, including vital statistics, medical, financial, email, Internet, phone and travel records (Fischer and Green 14). The implications of such a database and the potentials for crime prevention as well as abuse are enormous. While the articles in this casebook present different arguments from a variety of viewpoints, they all agree one point: the need for judicial oversight is imperative for balancing the right to privacy and government surveillance.

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FAQ: Anarchy in Somalia and its relevance to Anarchism/Statelessness

May 9th, 2009 Comments off


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[First revision. Please use the comments form to send your suggestions for addition, removal, or revision!

For very informative videos about Somalia echoing the information contained herein and much more, please see Stefan Molyneux of FreedomainRadio’s 2-part “True News: Somalia” series, available on YouTube: Part 1, Part 2. ]

Every now and then, Somalia pops into the news for one reason or another. The mainstream media’s view is that it is a place where chaos and warlords reign, and poverty is widespread. In the public eye, it is probably imagined to be a place with AK47-armed militiamen in the backs of pickup trucks, with child soldiers, genocide, and the like. Yet little is known by Westerners about what the real picture in any 3rd world country is like, much less one with institutions as rich as those in Somalia especially institutions which threaten the dominant international political paradigm. “Peace in Somalia” is interpreted by most to mean the restoration of Somalia’s national government this is what the paradigm commands!

Yet in the 15 years between the collapse of Somalia’s government and the first attempts to truly reinstate the federal government via military campaign, the gains Somalia has made without a state have been ignored. Further, nearly all recent major military conflicts in Somalia have been the direct result of the attempts of external forces (the U. N. Ethiopia, etc. to impose a new government created in exile. Unsurprisingly, it is these conflicts that appear in the news as the consequence of anarchy, intended to scare you, the viewer, into further accepting your own submission to your own government. If you do not submit, the news tells you, it will be like living in Somalia. –more–>

Q: What exactly makes/made Somalia anarchistic, or stateless?

Since the fall of the tyrannical government of Siad Barre in 1991, Somalia has not had a permanent national government. Despite this, much of Somalia can not really be adequately characterized as truly stateless. In recent years, control over Somalia has primarily been a battle between 2 major factions, the externally backed Transitional Federal Government and the internally-grown and ambitious Islamic Courts Union. However, the following facts about Somali society suggest some reality of statelessness.

Across the whole of Somalia, laws are neither created nor enforced by any central authority. In fact, the laws are based on the Xeer, a traditional set of laws unique to Somalia. Legal behaviors are defined in terms of property rights, which also means that the legal system is restitutive (or compensatory) rather than retributive (or punitive).

Furthermore, the Xeer completely stands against any form of taxation. Enforcement is carried out either by traditional clan structures or private police forces, both of which are voluntarily funded. While the more primitive elements of Somali life (clan allegiance, religion, etc. are obviously evident in these seemingly anarcho-capitalistic institutions and thus do not make them the best model for a voluntary society, the simple existence of this state of affairs contradicts common notions about the necessity of the state.

Q: Isn’t Somalia a totally messed up place?

By most absolute measures, yes. But so are many other countries in the world, including those even directly modeled after “Western Democracies,” the supposedly ‘best’ forms of government. The real question to ask is.

Q: How has Somalia improved since its central government collapsed in 1991?

Here’s a brief roundup of the positives that have persisted in Somalia, despite political conditions that many critics of statelessness claim would entail an uninhabitable state of nature. While some improvements may be attributable to world technology trends rather than statelessness, something must regardless be said for the fact that improvement is even taking place in the dreaded state of anarchy threatened by those in power if we abandon them.

Law and Order:

  • Some urban areas of Somalia, like Mogadishu, have private police forces.
  • Other areas rely on traditional clan-based legal structures to serve in the function of both criminal and civil law.
  • Taxation is conspicuously absent, yet customary resolution methods still resolve disputes between individuals.


  • Electricity is available in less populated areas that lacked electricity before 1991.
  • The prior regime, as in many 3rd-world countries, had a state-backed telecom monopoly that became unenforceable after the regime collapsed. Now, Somalia has telecom services among the best in Africa. A mobile phone call in Somalia is typically less expensive and higher quality than any other in Africa.
  • Mail service is also provided privately.


  • The majority of schools are privately provided, sustained by fees (around $10/month).
  • The number of primary schools has nearly doubled since before the Somali civil war.
  • Primary school enrollment increased by 28% between 2002 and 2005.


  • The post-Barre Somali currency has been stable compared to its prior performance; the obvious reason for this is that currencies are most often debased by government-powered inflation in the form of money printing. Indeed, the arrival of the Transitional National Government to Somalia in 2000 was accompanied by the importation of 30 billion foreign-printed shillings, which caused a currency collapse.
  • Somalia’s media industry has grown rapidly since 1991, growing competing newspapers and radio stations in almost every major area.
  • Prior to the collapse of the government, the Somali national airline had only one airplane. At present, there are fifteen airlines and over sixty aircraft.
  • Overall, two studies (Leeson and Powell et al. conclude that Somalia’s economy has improved favorably in its stateless condition, particularly relative to other African nations.

This isn’t intended to be a thorough representation of all of the good that has come about in Somalia as a result of the central government’s collapse, though it can be at some point.

Q: But if anarchy is so good, how come Somalia is still messed up (and doesn’t look like it’s becoming utopia any time soon)?

The first and most important point in response to this is that in any situation, the absence of government merely represents freedom from centralized coercion. But countries and societies aren’t made up of systems; they’re made up of people first. The collapse of a coercive national government can easily be replaced by many small organizations that use the same level of coercion, and it’s no surprise that warlords sprung up to fill the void in Somalia. The people of Somalia didn’t suddenly change overnight; they were still the same people from that same messed up African nation’s history.

Here are some of the factors stacked against Somalia being a fully peaceful and voluntaristic society:

  • Centuries of Islamic rule, and later partial Ottoman rule (2 things which did not bode well for a society’s stability and modernity after the 17th century).
  • Colonial predations, first by the Portuguese; then by Britain, France, and Italy in the late 19th century. The level of British investment into improving the portion of Somalia they controlled was small in comparison to that of the Italians, creating a rift that would contribute to the tension that would result in later civil war.
  • The makeup of post-World War II Somalia being the result of the regular arbitrary partitions, the consequences of which we know well from similar partitioning in the Middle East.
  • Powerful influence of Soviet aid and ideology, which was assisted greatly by U. S. military aid to hostile neighbor Ethiopia.
  • Almost textbook 3rd-world “revolution” in 1969 under the leadership of Siad Barre, resulting in a powerful central government and the elimination of all things “counter-revolutionary. With it came an attempt to also destroy Somalia’s traditional clan-based dispute resolution methods (which uncoincidentally play an important stabilizing role in Somali anarchy today).
  • Destructive, socialistic economic policies that, as in most similar cases, left the economy of Somalia in shambles following the withdrawal of Soviet aid. (The Soviet Union actually shifted its support in 1978 to rival Ethiopia, abandoning Somalia. )
  • American support for brutal dictator Siad Barre following Somalia’s abandonment by the Soviet Union.
  • International aid attempts creating Somali dependence on the foreign dole, and undermining domestic agriculture (as is the case with nearly every case of foreign food aid). This food aid also became a political weapon for Barre, whose engineered famines helped solidify his power as the distributor of food aid.
  • Misguided attempts at foreign aid following governmental collapse; deployment of “peacekeepers” resented by Somalis; shifting of food aid powers from central government to clan warlords. Foreign aid may very well have continued to provided the resources to fuel a conflict that would have otherwise ended.
  • The 2000 creation and attempted installation of a new government in Somalia in exile backed by the U. N. (currently known as the Transitional Federal Government), whose arrival has ultimately strengthened the Islamic Courts Union by creating yet another reason to fight.

So hopefully that gives you a general idea of just how screwed up Somalia is.

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FAQ: Anarchy in Somalia and its relevance to Anarchism/Statelessness (Part 2)

May 9th, 2009 Comments off


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It’s not a country full of enlightened people; it’s a country full of highly superstitious people (hence the Islam). Yet despite this, the freedom offered by the large vacuum of power has offered comparative gains, even in country plagued by villainous warlords. Remember, it’s almost the same exact Somalis, except without a state; when there was a state, the bad guy was at the top and calling all the shots with the army and police at his disposal.

By removing that state, the bad guys now have to compete on a more level playing field with the actually decent and well-meaning people of Somalia. And while some of the bad guys are still around (we can’t expect them to disappear overnight with a history like Somalia’s), the decent people have shown the success a voluntary society can bring, even among individuals who don’t necessarily have the most rational beliefs.

Irrational religious people, as much nonsense as they believe, have to eat, drink, and do basically most things that other humans do, too. As long as you want to live and prosper, you are bound by rationality to some degree.   And Somalia has simply become a better place to live and prosper as a result of greater economic freedom.

Q: But. pirates!

Ah yes, the infamous pirates of Somalia. Lions, and tigers, and bears, oh my!

The pirate story is as follows: in the Gulf of Aden, pirate groups have formed to capture merchant ships traveling nearby in order to collect a hefty ransom on the crew and cargo. Certainly, this is a clear cut case of theft. We all certainly agree that the pirates aren’t entitled to using violence and stealing for any reason whatsoever.

What’s really suspect is any criticism of what they’re doing by, well, anyone. Commonly ignored is the history behind these pirates: notably, the pillaging of the Somali fish stocks by foreign trawlers, endangering the livelihood of the very fishermen who form the pirates’ top recruiting pool, and the dumping of toxic wastes off of Somali shores by EU countries on the cheap (for the full story, read Johann Hari’s piece in the Independent).

Surely, two wrongs don’t make a right. I don’t believe in collectives, and hence don’t believe that an merchant of some European nationality has to pay for the actions of “his” government, which doesn’t necessarily represent any of the moral obligations he has generated as an individual.

The problem  is really the criticism by countries which do the very same thing that the Somali pirates are doing, but only in a more organized fashion. According to the mainstream view of these Somali pirates espoused by said countries, it’s immoral for Somalis to do it because a) they’re black, and b) they don’t have uniforms. This isn’t explicitly stated, of course; everything is couched in terms of “theft” and “international law” and so on.

What types of ships are the pirates attacking? Sometimes those ships are carrying foreign aid none other than money stolen from taxpayers to be given toward causes they probably wouldn’t agree with if they knew about them. This is the same foreign aid that strengthened the Biarre regime in Somalia as it strengthened regimes all across Africa by destroying domestic agriculture and giving the powers that be complete control over the food supply. While the pirates don’t care about this, it’s ironic that the West accuses Somali pirates of theft and destruction, when that is exactly what foreign aid is made of and accomplishes.

But the hypocrisy is much deeper than just foreign aid. Toxic waste dumping and fish poaching off the coast of New York would result in a severe American military response. According to the mainstream view, the Somalis don’t have a central government sanctioning their patrolling of territorial waters, so when they do it, it’s illegal piracy.

So let’s say, for simplicity’s sake, that Somali piracy is not about patrolling territorial waters and that it’s about arbitrary acts of seizure. I’m sure the pirates would advocate these acts of seizure as indeed being in some collective Somali interest. So when American ships interdict and seize ships in accordance with American environmental protection standards, trade embargoes, customs taxes, outright prohibitions (e. g. narcotics), etc. those too are arbitrary acts of seizure done in the name of national interest. When AMERICA does it, it’s national defense. When blacks without uniforms do it, it’s illegal piracy. The only thing justifying both acts is someone’s say-so. The only reason that this one-sided and hypocritical story wins out in our supposedly “objective” media is that one party is holding all of the guns.

Q: If you like anarchy so much, why don’t you move to Somalia?

Because it sucks there (for a wide variety of reasons beyond its political organization, as outlined above).

Typically, anything that isn’t one of the limited and mainstream “CNN” choices of political philosophy is going to hear these types of accusations of hypocrisy. These accusations naturally fail to respect the nuances of the view being attacked a crude form of sophistry that is often met with thunderous applause. (Kinda like this exchange between Ron Paul and Rudy Giuliani way to miss the point, Rudy applauding morons! )

The simplest thing to point out is that “anarchism” denotes a wide variety of very different views. One mostly false stereotype of anarchism is that it is a political philosophy, much like socialism, communism, or fascism. While this may be true of some strains, it’s important for any rational person to sufficiently differentiate the person with whom he/she is speaking. After all, you wouldn’t want a Muslim you were arguing with to stereotype you as a warmongering Westerner just because you say that you’re American.

The anarchism I espouse is merely a consequence of the philosophy of rationality and personal freedom that comes first. It is not a prescribed system that should be imposed it is just the state of affairs that arises once people start behaving rationally. That the state of affairs in my ideal world would be stateless, and can thus be termed “anarchy,” is more of an afterthought than a central goal. The individual’s pursuit of happiness comes first, in a way that also universally respects the rights of others.

Unfortunately, we live in a world filled with irrationality and coercion, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t rational choices to be made. There’s certainly nothing rational about putting the cart before the horse. A voluntary society (i. e. “anarchy”) is not an end in itself; it’s just that living in one would make one live a happy and moral life. ANARCHY IS NOT THE GOAL. GLOBAL UTOPIA IS NOT THE GOAL. A happy and moral life is the goal. So moving to Somalia certainly wouldn’t be much help to anyone trying to live a happy and moral life, given the misery and poverty there.

In summation, the central thesis of this FAQ is not that Somalia is utopia; it is most certainly not that Somalia meets every rational standard of respect for human freedom; it is that Somalia’s unique condition of statelessness has enabled Somalia to attain equal, if not superior, levels of stability and prosperity compared to its similarly-situated African neighbors. This success is, again, despite a number of factors that would otherwise make it another African hellhole (history of colonial domination and post-colonial meddling and intervention, irrational and dogmatic mysticism (i. e. Islam and general tribalistic baggage), hostile neighbors, etc. )

Given that taxpayers observing successful living without a massive government is a threat to massive governments, lots of resources are mobilized to frame world issues as if there is a speeding train coming for us which can only be stopped by government superheroes. Next time you hear about anything anarchy-related in the news, expect a healthy dose of vilification from the mainstream media. Soon enough, you’ll be watching cartoons rather than CNN.

[Special thanks for this article go to Wikipedia, one of the world’s greatest time-savers in terms of research aggregation. The benefits of decentralization even helped to write this article!

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Anti-laissez-faire Ideas since the Founding: 1870-1918

June 28th, 2008 Comments off


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Most libertarians would say that capitalism is dead in America. Many on the left would say that it is still raging. It’s ultimately a matter of what you define as “capitalism” (voluntary exchange vs. large corporation mercantilism), but we can be sure that the voluntary exchange aspect is killed day by day, and has been attacked and defeated repeatedly in the past, particularly in the 20th century. But big pro-state changes like that don’t happen overnight. They’re usually preceded by years of philosophy (usually very bad) and state-caused problems, much civil unrest, and are followed by gigantic losses of liberty and increases in dependency on the state. –more–>

Let’s take a look at some of the philosophy of anti-laissez-faire, particularly in its heyday: just before the first World War. There is little doubt the explosive growth of America’s economy was the result of the great human effort, the application of knowledge to production to create technology and capital, and the vast land and natural resources at its disposal. The framework of classical liberal (in full form, laissez-faire) economics pioneered by Great Britain gave great incentive for this process. A century of liberalism arose from thousands of years before of dysfunctional human civilization, growing the population and standard of living of human beings far larger than ever before in any century.

However, following the Civil War and the Second Industrial Revolution, class divisions had grown and fresh voices bemoaned the supposedly unjust distribution of wealth in society, calling into question the validity of the free market. Though lacking true ideological conformity, changes in attitude toward laissez-faire capitalism[1] since the Founding have been generally defined by any or all of three major shifts: most importantly, the replacement of liberal political rights with economic entitlements; closely connected, a new emphasis on collective instead of individual good; and in effect, the belief in the use of government as a valuable tool for bettering those collectives.

Of course, some important qualifications must be made. Firstly, not all objections made to the state of the nation under capitalism in the late 19th– and early 20th– centuries were necessarily at odds with traditional liberal principles. Truly consistent advocates of laissez-faire capitalism such as William Graham Sumner believed that government obstruction of trade unions and other forms of collective bargaining[2], for example, interfered with the individual’s right to freedom of association and self-determination. Broadly speaking, the political environment that permitted wealth to buy power in government was an essential threat to traditional liberty. Furthermore, it would be disingenuous to attempt to collectivize the entire spectrum of objections to liberal society, as they can be vastly different in their moral values, justifications for their principles, and the nature and practical execution of their policies. [3] Overall, the following breakdown is only a brief approximation of the characteristics of those opposed to laissez-faire economics, with a select few of several possible examples.

The Rise of “Economic Freedom” As a Standard of Living

The issues of most profound significance to any attitude toward economic and legal systems are the moral concepts that underlie them. Almost universally, opponents of capitalism believed that wrong-doing necessarily occurred from its implementation, whether in its means or in its ends. Previously, most of an individual’s rights in America were defined by a Lockean theory of natural law. Freedom of contract (and a right to a fulfillment of those contracts) permitted one the ability to freely associate with others economically. However, great disparities in wealth concentration led critics of capitalism to denounce the status quo, which was allegedly caused by the consistent legal enactment of these principles. Factions such as the Populist movement, the Progressive movement, and the Socialist Party of America formed in the antebellum period as a response. [4] The introduction of a new kind of right pervaded these new alternatives to laissez-faire capitalism: the economic freedom.

Karl Marx’s famous maxim, “from each according to his ability, and to each according to his need,” was one widely accepted economic substitute for property rights. Looking Backward (1888), a novel by Edward Bellamy, details a futuristic society that has supplanted competition with economic rights and duties in line with Marx’s axiom.

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Anti-laissez-faire Ideas since the Founding: 1870-1918 (Part 2)

June 28th, 2008 Comments off


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“The reward of any service depended not upon its difficulty, danger or hardship, for throughout the world it seems that the most perilous, severe, and repulsive labor was done by the worst paid classes…,” states Dr. Leete, a knowledgeable member of the society. [5] Indeed, this was not the case in 1887; the natural system of economic rewards resulting from liberal rights is, first and foremost, based on the mutual exchange of desired values, i. e. supply and demand. “Wage slavery” became a popular phrase to describe status of the common laborer. In The Living Wage (1906), John A. Ryan argues that the “American standard of living” is a “natural and absolute right” of citizenship. Though he argued it as a dictum of Christian values, many other leftists embraced a similar belief, and an ends-oriented theory of economic freedom gained popularity. No longer would individual autonomy provided by rights determine one’s economic freedom, but the level of wages would. [6]

Collectivism vs. Individualism

Logically entailed by the change in moral principles was an insistence that the good of the collective trumps the good of the individual. Since the notion of the fairness of market-defined wages was fully rejected, the market was replaced by newly-found social and moral considerations. Henry Demarest Lloyd, one of the foremost antagonists of Social Darwinism, placed great emphasis on collective governance and production. “Our liberties and our wealth are from the people and by the people,” he contends, “and both must be for the people. ” His use of “the people” is not merely political euphemism, but imperative: “wealth, like government, is the product of the co-operation of all, and, like government, must be the property of all its creators. ”[7]

Historically, a principal element of collectivization derived from stressing the importance of labor, in contrast to the capital-focused Industrial Revolutions of the 1800s. In 1914, Congress announced via the Clayton Act, “The labor of a human being is not a commodity. ”[8] There is no better example of American labor-class activism than the writings of Socialist Party figurehead Eugene V. Debs. In Revolutionary Unionism (1905), Debs argues for the unity of the working class and, in Marxist form, condemns the purported separation of the worker from the rightful fruits of his labor. He repudiates the validity and effectiveness of craft unions- usually selective organizations of skilled workers- underscoring that “infinitely greater than [their] loyalty to their craft is their loyalty to the working class as a whole. ”[9] He fiercely criticizes the structure that denies the struggling laborer his desires, but fervently protects “the product of [the worker’s] labor, the property of the capitalist. ” Then, when the dissatisfied become agitated and unrest begins, the government arrives to silence the menace: “If you… have made more steel than your master can sell, and you are locked out and get hungry, and the soldiers are called out, it is to protect the steel and shoot you who made the steel. ”[10] Debs’ arguments reflected common sentiments of outrage toward a society in which a vast majority of people, though they were a necessary part of production, toiled heavily and possessed little while a tiny group reaped gigantic rewards.

A different form of collectivism, nationalism in the spirit of the times also was a popular source of ideological opposition to the free market. Similar opinions had already a large presence during the Founding in the form of the Federalist Party and Alexander Hamilton, who argued for state intervention as a means of furthering the nation’s economic goals. Bellamy’s Looking Backward, which cued a short-lived but large nationalist movement, extolled the replacement of self-interest with a higher cause: “Now that industry of whatever sort is no longer self service, but service of the nation, patriotism, passion for humanity, impel the worker as in your day they did the soldier,” says Dr. Leete. Another thinker, Herbert Croly, believed nationalism belonged hand-in-hand with democracy, stating “the first duty of a good democrat would be that of rendering to his country loyal patriotic service. ”

The Role of the State

Government would be the primary tool in executing these policies, with force as the only way to guarantee Americans their social and economic rights.

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Anti-laissez-faire Ideas since the Founding: 1870-1918 (Part 3)

June 28th, 2008 Comments off


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As German sociologist Max Weber explained, “The rise of modern freedom presupposed unique constellations which will never repeat themselves. ” These “unique constellations” likely refer to the vast expanses of land and resources in North America, among other contingent facts, which gave rise to the harmony provided by decentralization. Otherwise, freedom must be centrally planned to be had beyond its occurrence through plain luck. Bellamy comments that Americans in the nineteenth century possessed a “galling personal dependence upon others as to the very means of life. ”[11] The founder of the American Economic Association, leader of an organization created to battle laissez-faire economics, wrote “we regard the state as an educational and ethical agency whose positive assistance is one of the indispensable conditions of human progress. ”[12]

Woodrow Wilson, in fulfillment of many of Herbert Croly’s ideas, advocated a “New Freedom. ” In The Meaning of Democracy (1912), he claims that while laissez-faire Jeffersonian ideals furnished “a government of free citizens and of equal opportunity,” the contemporary physical characteristics of the nation were suited to it; families each lived in separate households, employers were closer to their employees, and so forth (arguments very much similar to Weber’s “unique constellations”). Using Glasgow as an example, Wilson draws a metaphorical parallel between the Scottish city’s common hallways in residential buildings being defined as public streets and the “corridors” of large corporations being regulated as part of the public domain. In this, he claims he is fighting against “monopolistic control,” and in turn “fighting for the liberty of every man in America, and fighting for the liberty of American industry. ” [13] Not coincidentally, the Wilson administration heralded the introduction of the discretionary federal income tax through the Sixteenth Amendment in 1913.

Clearly, attitudes toward laissez-faire capitalism have turned significantly against it since the Founding. This is not to suggest that there was unanimity over the issue during America’s formative years, but major policy battles accompanied by successful movements have led to aggregate changes in economic viewpoints. The prominent influences of the postbellum period, such as the Progressives, have nearly eradicated belief in the functionality and even morality of absolute laissez-faire­ governance. Likewise, the public institutions established in the wake of those movements have furthermore ingrained the permanent, expanded role of government in the national consciousness (euphemistically speaking). Even “right-wing” politicians who profess the values of capitalism take their cues from business interests in exchange for financial and political support. Few candidates can plausibly survive electorally on a genuine non-interventionist policy platform. For America, the unabridged free market is dead.

[1] To clarify, any mention of “capitalism” alone still is referring to unlimited, absolute laissez-faire capitalism with the proper host of necessary political rights. Likewise, “liberal” refers to the host of values associated with it.

[2] This is, obviously, supposing that these trade unions are behaving by legitimate and economic means. In the “Forgotten Man,” Sumner attacks unions which restrict the free flow of labor, by limiting the pool of tradesmen in order to artificially raise wages.

[3] Some thinkers were nationalistic, like Bellamy; others were religious, like Ryan; and so forth.

[4] For space considerations, this analysis will not go past the Wilson administration.

[5] Edward Bellamy. “Looking Backwards. ” In American Political Thought, ed. Kenneth Dolbeare and Michael S. Cummings, 293 (Washington, D. C. CQ Press, 2004).

[6] Eric Foner, The Story of American Freedom, 144 (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. 2004. )

[7] Henry Demarest Lloyd. “Revolution: The Evolution of Socialism. ” In APT, 304-305.

[8] Foner, 144.

[9] Debs, “Revolutionary Unionism. ” In APT, 359.

[10] Eugene V. Debs, “Revolutionary Unionism. ” In APT, 355.

[11] Foner, 129.

[12] Foner, 130.

[13] Wilson, Woodrow. “The Meaning of Democracy. ” In APT, 393-395.

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