Conservatives and Guaranteed Minimum Livelihood

I wrote this piece a few months back just to play out the idea of some sort of a conservative support for statism. At this point I’m still uncertain of exactly how something like my proposal here would work – UBI? Much more generous welfare state plus universal healthcare? Some sort of ramped-up distributism? My purpose in publishing it here is more to make the point that wage slavery is something conservatives need to recognize as a real check on personal liberty. What we might institute as an alternative is another question. Without further adieu, the article.


With the primary season already well underway, Democratic candidates are vying with each other to see who can strike the most appealing balance between supporting expanded social programs that appeal to their progressive base while avoiding the instinctive fear many moderate voters have of socialism. Until quite recently, advocating a more generous social safety net has been seen as an essentially progressive idea. But with Americans beginning to collectively remember a time in which things like higher marginal tax rates on the wealthy and concern for the environment were once bipartisan issues, it’s becoming more common to point out how compatible things like the welfare state and support for workers’ rights are with past Republican administrations like those of Dwight Eisenhower and Theodore Roosevelt. I would go a step beyond even this and argue that guaranteeing a minimum livelihood to every citizen is not only compatible with conservatism, but actually provides a strong defense of the core conservative principle of individual liberty.


By “minimum livelihood,” I am referring to health insurance and sufficient monthly income to provide for basic necessities – housing, groceries, transportation, and medical bills. In referring to a guarantee of minimum livelihood, I am not talking about any specific proposals that have been made for a stronger welfare state. My purpose in this article is not to defend universal basic income, Medicare-for-All, stronger unemployment insurance, or any other particular policy, but rather the general ideal of basic economic support for all citizens, regardless of the specific means used. Nor am I trying to argue that all things considered, the government provision of minimum livelihood to all citizens is actually a good policy (though I believe that it is), or that there are no good conservative objections to the policy. Any one of those theses would be more than enough material for separate articles in themselves. All I want to do here is to argue that there is at least a prima facie case from the conservative standpoint for guaranteed minimum livelihood.


Individual liberty is one of the principles conservatives value most, and a commonsense view of liberty would seem, at the least, to include the freedom to enter or refuse entry into contracts, freedom from being forced to obey orders from other private citizens, and the freedom to manage your private affairs without interference from other people. But while all of these freedoms I’ve described are legally guaranteed, under the wage system as it currently exists in the United States, most people functionally lack not only these liberties, but even the exercise of several of the freedoms guaranteed in the Bill of Rights.


The ordinary person’s heavily restricted freedom is not usually recognized because we have become accustomed to the fallacy of conflating legal freedom, which guarantees all of the activities I have just described, and more, with practical freedom. But it takes only a moment’s thought to see that the two are not the same. If I have contrived a scheme to blackmail you, you certainly have the legal freedom to flaunt my will and do as you please; but if the content of the blackmail is damaging enough, you might well find yourself as practically constrained to obey me as if you were a prisoner in custody of the police. State-sponsored violence isn’t necessary to coerce someone. All that is necessary for coercion is to be credibly threatened with personal ruin.


But the average American finds himself in exactly that position, in that the vast majority of us work for only one employer, who can fire us at will. And with the average duration of unemployment hovering around six months in the past several years, the threat of losing one’s current income presents a strong coercion. The fact that most Americans receive health insurance through their employers only adds to the power over employees possessed by employers. If someone has the power to deprive you for months of the ability to put food on the table, keep a roof over your head, pay your debts, support your children, and access healthcare, you are not free in your relationship with that person, regardless of what your legal rights may be. This is precisely the reason why owning land was traditionally seen as the mark of a free person – if you possessed no independent means of wealth, you might be free as far as the state is concerned, but in daily affairs, you were bound to be someone else’s subject for survival.


And when your employer has this level of power over you, every one of the liberties I mentioned before is potentially under threat. Your ability to enter into or refuse the contract of employment is weakened almost to the point of non-existence, for how can you be free to refuse a contract of employment when your only alternative is destitution? Your ability to conduct your life without being under the control of another citizen is signed away, where another citizen, possessing no legal authority over you, can tell you where you have to be and what you have to do for forty or more hours a week, what you can wear during that time, who you can talk to, how often you can use the bathroom, whether you can stay home to rest if sick, and whether you can make needed personal calls. Even a quarter of this level of control over a person’s life by agents of the state would immediately be recognized by conservatives as a completely unacceptable violation of personal liberty, and yet the wage system has become so ordinary to us that we often think nothing of surrendering liberty on these points.


Some may interpret what I have said as an objection to work as such, but that misses the point entirely. People entering into contracts to work for forty hours a week is not at all problematic in itself, any more than someone choosing to take a heavy course load in college. What is objectionable from the standpoint of individual liberty is when people effectively have no choice but to enter into such a contract and be subject to whatever terms are dictated to them.


Conservatives tend to quite vocally support volunteering and community service, in keeping with their commitment to handling social problems on a local level. Suppose a retiree decided to spend 20 hours a week volunteering at a tutoring center. Most people, conservatives included, would see this as a laudable aim. If the retiree needed to take a week off to recover from a surgery or visit an ailing relative, no conservative, surely, would consider this a manifestation of laziness or a lack of desire to help the community. But imagine if the police showed up at the retiree’s home and informed her that any time taken off from volunteering, even for such necessities, would need to be approved by the local bureaucrat, and failure to get approval would result in legal penalties. Conservatives would rightly denounce this as a tyrannical interference into the retiree’s life. But if someone is justified in objecting to being forced to volunteer at the tutoring center when it isn’t convenient, and conservatives don’t consider him guilty of laziness for doing so, then why do they not apply the same standards to the workplace, where employees have to receive permission to take sick time off and may go without pay for doing so?


It may be replied that the employee isn’t having his liberty infringed upon because he is free to leave his job. But this relies, once again, on ignoring the distinction between legal and practical freedom. Without a social safety net either from the government or from friends and family, if the employee leaves his job without any other available offers, he will be effectually consigning himself to homelessness. The fallacy of conflating legal freedom with practical freedom depends upon assuming that the only real form of coercion is violence. But since that clearly isn’t the case, and the threat of destitution can be just as effective a form of coercion as violence, it follows that people who are threatened with unemployment for not cooperating are indeed in a coercive relationship.


Guaranteeing everyone a minimum livelihood would blunt the coercive force exerted by the employer over employees enough that employers could no longer threaten employees with destitution. Without that coercion, employees would have significantly greater negotiating power to insist on things like good working conditions, reasonable hours, and adequate paid maternity and sick leave. The labor market would be characterized less by a master / servant dynamic, and more by a free exchange of labor in which all parties have enough bargaining power to set mutually agreeable terms. Individual liberty isn’t just about being free from state power. It’s also about being able to enter the labor market as a free person rather than a de facto serf, and in the context of modern capitalism, a minimum livelihood is the most effective way of guaranteeing that liberty without the need for radical reconstruction of the market.

Ben Shapiro and Tucker Carlson on Inequality

I’m not a fan of either Ben Shapiro or Fox News, but this discussion between Tucker Carlson and Ben Shapiro on the latter’s show last Sunday was a breath of fresh air – not from Shapiro, who repeated the usual conservative talking points on income inequality, but from Carlson, who to my surprise challenged the standard narrative from the Right on that issue on a number of points. Around 17:00, he starts talking about the hypocrisy of Uber’s moral posturing about the various social issues of the day in conjunction with its refusal to cover its employees’ health insurance, to which Shapiro responds with the standard capitalist reply: if Uber provided its employees with health insurance, they’d have to hire fewer employees, and costs for rides would rise. This is true, of course, but Shapiro acts as if this somehow constitutes an adequate reply to Carlson’s larger point – that Uber treats its workers badly in order to increase profits – when in fact it simply amounts to an affirmation of what Carlson is saying. Carlson is talking about society’s moral obligations, while Shapiro is responding with an economic analysis.

When Shapiro does get around to actually addressing the moral side of the question, he argues that private charity is the moral answer to Carlson’s claim that the elites have obligations to the less-fortunate, essentially repeating William F. Buckley’s claim in his debate with George Wallace. Some things never change, and the insistence on part of the Right that private charity can supply the needs that government assistance currently does are, if possible, even more laughable now than in Buckley’s day, in an age of soaring healthcare costs and college tuition.

There’s much more that could be said, including Carlson’s striking admission around 19:00 that he’s self-consciously defending some of Bernie Sanders’ objections to the current system, but I recommend watching the entire interview for yourself.

“We just elected Donald Trump president, as if you needed clearer indication that there is profound, not just dissatisfaction, but unrest. You would not elect Donald Trump president unless you were enraged and desperate…I just think policymakers should never avert their eyes from the goal, which is a stable society…So this is the Heritage Foundation argument – ‘you’re worried about the poor, they have three color TVs!’ I get it. But that’s missing the point. What you want is a society that is cohesive, where everyone feels part of the same thing. You don’t want the people who are making the huge majority of the important decisions to be completely cut off from everyone.”


Chesterton on Lucidity

G.K. Chesterton

And having discovered that opportunism does fail, I have been induced to look at it more largely, and in consequence to see that it must fail. I perceive that it is far more practical to begin at the beginning and discuss theories. I see that the men who killed each other about the orthodoxy of the Homoousion were far more sensible than the people who are quarrelling about the Education Act. For the Christian dogmatists were trying to establish a reign of holiness, and trying to get defined, first of all, what was really holy. But our modern educationists are trying to bring about a religious liberty without attempting to settle what is religion or what is liberty. If the old priests forced a statement on mankind, at least they previously took some trouble to make it lucid. It has been left for the modern mobs of Anglicans and Nonconformists to persecute for a doctrine without even stating it.

For these reasons, and for many more, I for one have come to believe in going back to fundamentals. Such is the general idea of this book. I wish to deal with my most distinguished contemporaries, not personally or in a merely literary manner, but in relation to the real body of doctrine which they teach. I am not concerned with Mr. Rudyard Kipling as a vivid artist or a vigorous personality; I am concerned with him as a Heretic — that is to say, a man whose view of things has the hardihood to differ from mine. I am not concerned with Mr. Bernard Shaw as one of the most brilliant and one of the most honest men alive; I am concerned with him as a Heretic — that is to say, a man whose philosophy is quite solid, quite coherent, and quite wrong. I revert to the doctrinal methods of the thirteenth century, inspired by the general hope of getting something done.

Suppose that a great commotion arises in the street about something, let us say a lamp-post, which many influential persons desire to pull down. A grey-clad monk, who is the spirit of the Middle Ages, is approached upon the matter, and begins to say, in the arid manner of the Schoolmen, “Let us first of all consider, my brethren, the value of Light. If Light be in itself good—” At this point he is somewhat excusably knocked down. All the people make a rush for the lamp-post, the lamp-post is down in ten minutes, and they go about congratulating each other on their unmediaeval practicality. But as things go on they do not work out so easily. Some people have pulled the lamp-post down because they wanted the electric light; some because they wanted old iron; some because they wanted darkness, because their deeds were evil. Some thought it not enough of a lamp-post, some too much; some acted because they wanted to smash municipal machinery; some because they wanted to smash something. And there is war in the night, no man knowing whom he strikes. So, gradually and inevitably, to-day, to-morrow, or the next day, there comes back the conviction that the monk was right after all, and that all depends on what is the philosophy of Light. Only what we might have discussed under the gas-lamp, we now must discuss in the dark.

G.K. Chesterton, Heretics (1905)

Addendum to Quillette on Scientism

The online journal Quillette has generously published an article of mine making a philosophical argument against scientism. As expected, it provoked a great deal of heated feedback, some of which even showed evidence of having read the essay. Many of the comments were irrelevant, but nevertheless, some did raise points that I think are worth addressing for the sake of expanding the argument beyond the bounds of space which I was allotted for the original article.

“Scientism” is a dreadful word. It’s bad enough that there are terms like “fascism,” “fundamentalism,” and “illiberalism,” whose definitions are as vague or more as that of our Word of the Day, but which at least have the virtue of being convertible into the personal designation with the suffix “ist” while retaining the same meaning; a virtue which “scientism” lacks, as an attempt to derive the term for a person who embraces scientism leaves us with “scientist.” In attempting to pass from the name of a philosophy to the name of the person who embraces it, we are waylaid by the linguistic incompetence of the term into accusing practitioners of science as being adherents of scientism, when the whole point of designating the position in the first place is to make a distinction between the practice of science and its exaltation to the highest form of knowledge.

Nevertheless, while the word itself is bad linguistically and often unclear, it happens to be the term that societal discourse seems to have settled upon to try to capture a real trend in modern thought. At least some people do, in fact, identify as embracing scientism; and more importantly, the general trend towards trying to explain things that have traditionally been regarded as beyond the pale (or at least partly beyond the pale) of empirical inquiry, especially the mind, ethics, etc., all at least imply a trend towards thinking that science is the only, or highest, form of knowledge.

People have objected that my definition of scientism as “the notion that science is the only source of knowledge” is a strawman. Some people even suggested that no one professes to adhere to scientism, a claim which I find odd in light of Quillette’s publication a week before my article of a piece by Thomas Cortellesi entitled “In Defense of Scientism.” It was suggested that if the definition of scientism was changed to “science is the primary source of knowledge,” then my refutation of the position would be in tatters. The only thing in tatters, in that case, is the objector’s ability to understand the significance of what I had said in the article, for of course the whole thesis which I was defending was that science is a derivative source of knowledge. Whatever we know through empirical inquiry presupposes certain metaphysical assumptions (of which the validity of induction is only one) that cannot themselves be defended empirically, and must be defended philosophically. Therefore, whether scientism is defined as saying that science is the only form of knowledge, the highest form of knowledge, the ideal method of inquiry, etc., the argument I made from the problem of induction refutes all of them, for the same reason: that science presupposes things which it cannot prove, and thus whatever means we use to establish those presuppositions must in fact be the primary source of knowledge.

Furthermore, as I pointed out in the article, there are public figures who are willing to defend scientism by name, with one of the most prominent being the philosopher Alex Rosenberg, who describes his beliefs in this interview:

Scientism is the view that science is our best guide to the nature of reality. Its methods and its findings are our best account of the nature of reality…That’s what scientism says: there are no deeper explanations than those that science provides, and science provides explanations for a broad range of questions that many people might look to philosophy or to religion for answers to…Now, at the end of the 20th, beginning of the 21st century, there’s still a package of problems that the sciences can’t yet answer, of which I think, as I said, the nature of our knowledge of mathematical truths is one. Do I think that science will never answer them? No, that’s what scientism consists in. It’s the prediction that eventually we’re going to successfully answer these questions.

Even without Rosenberg’s example, however, I think I may be excused from the accusation of “strawman” by examining what another self-professed defender of scientism has actually said, taking Steven Pinker’s article on the subject in the New Republic as an example.

Pinker’s piece identifies scientism as having two ideals: that the world is intelligible, and that acquisition of knowledge is hard. Given this definition of scientism, one might reasonably ask what would constitute non-scientistic knowledge. Presumably, for knowledge to not be scientific, it would have to avoid at least one of the two ideals of scientism – that the world is intelligible, and that acquisition of knowledge is hard. But this is absurd. No enterprise that purports to give knowledge about the world could ever in principle reject the claim that the world is intelligible; to do so would be a manifest self-contradiction. And while I suppose it isn’t equally contradictory to affirm that something might be a source of knowledge but assumes that acquisition of knowledge is easy, would Pinker or anyone else really want to defend the claim that a system which assumes that finding out how the world works is easy is a legitimate claimant for rational inquiry? But if there are no candidates forthcoming for non-scientific knowledge under Pinker’s definition of scientism, then we’re forced to conclude that scientism in his definition does amount to the claim that science is the only form of knowledge.

To complicate things further, Pinker refers to “the defining practices of science” as being “open debate, peer review, and double-blind methods.” Science requires “skepticism, open debate, formal precision, and empirical tests,” and any scientific movement must “nurture opportunities for the falsification of its own beliefs.” Several of these characteristics are obviously fundamental to any discipline which claims to be reasoned truth-seeking, and are found in the humanities as well: skepticism, open debate, formal precision, and peer review. Empirical testing seems to be the real differentiator, as it’s the thing that disciplines which are generally recognized as scientific (physics, biology, geology, chemistry, etc.) have that the humanities don’t.

It seems, then, that Pinker’s definition of science would be the practice of rational inquiry that is characterized by the use of empirical tests and everything that goes with them; e.g., forming hypotheses, updating hypotheses after tests, using the criterion of falsifiability, etc. But this presents a dilemma: does he believe that all rational inquiry is necessarily comprised of empirical reasoning? If he does, then his definition of scientism is refuted by my article. If he doesn’t, then he must concede that science is only one form of rationality alongside others, in which case it’s a misnomer to use the term “scientism” to refer to the general practice of rational inquiry. In that case, I would grant that Pinker does not embrace scientism as I define it in the article – but would still maintain that he’s more than ambiguous enough on the subject that reasonable people could think that he does. And furthermore, it’s incontestable that at least some people are prepared to defend scientism by name, as with Rosenberg above.

All of this comes back to the more general problem with scientism which the Thomist philosopher Edward Feser has identified with another dilemma. If “science” is taken to mean “rational inquiry” in a broad enough sense to include examining its own assumptions, then its object of investigation isn’t just empirical data, and “science” just refers to reasoning in the general sense – in which case the claim that “science is the highest / only source of knowledge” is trivially true, and is so broad that it can no longer rule out philosophical argument as a legitimate form of knowledge. But if “science” is taken in the more usual sense of “empirical inquiry into the natural world,” then scientism is self-refuting, for the reasons that I gave in my article, among others.

Finally, several people have given objections in the form of:

“This is so shallow, you didn’t even address ______________ (Karl Popper’s redefinition of science away from the inductive, modern physics’ view of time and its alleged relevance to the PFT, applying empirical reasoning to the micro-level, etc.).”

Well, yes, I confess: I didn’t write a comprehensive philosophical treatise that addresses the problem from all angles, answers all of the major objections to the argument, and situates the problem of induction within 20th and 21st century philosophy of science. Now if anyone commenting is willing to show how my failure to write an encyclopedic treatment of the issue is relevant to my having published an introductory article on a site that publishes for the popular audience, I’ll be glad to consider whether there’s a problem.

Until then, as they say, I rest my case.

Additional Reading

Maverick Philosopher’s commentary on Steven Pinker’s essay.

Edward Feser’s collection of posts on scientism.

Reflections on the Revolution in the Bay Area

What hath Edmund Burke to do with Mark Zuckerberg? Quite a lot, actually.

Like many people, I have been intermittently following the media coverage of the Cambridge Analytics debacle. Getting into a data job for one of the tech giants (or one of their many smaller-scale but equally ambitious imitators) was one of my aspirations in my first year or so after graduating from college with a bachelor’s in statistics. Over time, that interest started to decline as my perception of the tech-sphere soured, and I have become increasingly skeptical of the enormous power and socio-technological capital centered into a relatively few hands in Silicon Valley. Something about the messiah-archetype that Mark Zuckerberg et al. seem to fill in many people’s minds (including his own) puts me off, and I must confess I’ve found a certain level of satisfaction in seeing Facebook finally being exposed to the level of scrutiny to which it ought to have been subject from the beginning.

At the same time that all of this has been going on, I’ve been rereading Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), for unrelated reasons. It’s no secret to anyone whose reading has gone beyond the comments section at Breitbart and Salon that principles of liberal democracy have been under increased discussion in the past few years, with Trump’s ascension to the White House and the populist right-wing movements in Europe. I’ve found that a growingly influential segment of conservative or right-leaning commentators (Jordan Peterson, Dave Rubin, Bari Weiss, etc.) have been adopting the label of “classical liberal,” with an appeal to what the liberal political tradition arising from the Enlightenment allegedly was before devolving into the self-congratulatory leftism of private colleges and the New Yorker. All of this goes hand-in-hand with the immediate pervasiveness, as sudden as Athena from the head of Zeus, of the term “illiberal” as a political put-down equally favored by the left and the right. I cannot recall having seen the term used once prior to 2016, but I’m sure none of the readers of this blog need to be told how common it’s become in political discourse in the last year.

My suspicions are always aroused whenever seemingly vague terms like “classical liberal” and its antinomy become widely used in a very short period of time. The manipulation of language is quite an easy path towards the manipulation of public opinion. To avoid thoughtlessly using terms whose origins I don’t know well, I’ve begun immersing myself in some of the foundational political works of the 18th and 19th centuries, beginning with Burke, and with the intention of moving on to John Locke, David Hume, the Federalist and Anti-Federalist Papers, John Stuart Mill, Karl Marx, etc.

One of the things that’s struck me in reading Reflections is how much time Burke devotes to talking about human nature and psychology, as distinct from merely practical political questions. Hardly a page goes by in which he doesn’t relate his argument about the role of the state and our duties to it back to his conception of human nature. Much of the argument up to the point I’ve read so far (a little over halfway through) could be summed up in the statement that because tradition so powerfully shapes human nature and society in its own image, swift changes from old systems of government and religion can endanger the public stability.

Burke’s primary application of this principle is to the political comparison of England’s traditional monarchy with the French Revolution, of course, but it has struck me while reading him that his argument is applicable the modern controversy over social media and new technology generally. All of us are familiar with the dueling thinkpieces over the goodness or badness of this or that technological advance: social media, virtual reality, the application of machine learning and artificial intelligence to consumer data, increased surveillance, and so on. One of the objections most commonly made to criticisms of new technology is that these suspicions are only a case of rehashed fears from the past. There has been a transmigration of hysteria, we are told, from fears of the social effects of trains and cars, to fears of radio and telephones, to fears of television and video games, to present-day fears about Twitter, Tinder, and mass unemployment from AI automation. But in every case in the past, the world didn’t come to an end – in fact, it got better. Therefore, the anti-Luddites conclude, suspicion of novelty is little more than clickbait alarmism.

I find much of this argument strikingly naive, not the least because it’s simply untrue that the world didn’t change for the worse in response to any of the above-mentioned technologies – the global environmental threat from mass pollution and destruction of Earth’s natural resources necessary to fuel our car habits and consumerism is perhaps the most obvious, although many others could be named. But the thing that stands out to me about this argument in the context of reading Burke is the implicit assumption that new technology comes to us with a presumption in favor of its social good, or at least neutrality. If someone thinks that having children growing up with their earliest moments documented on Facebook is a bad thing, for instance, the burden of proof is on him to show why it is – and until this is done, we ought to assume that such concerns are alarmism.

The assumption that there should be a presumption in favor of new technology is dangerously naive. It underestimates both the extent to which technology changes us, in ways that can be very difficult to alter in the future, and the extent to which we simply have no idea what the long-run effects of things like smartphones and social media will actually be. In short, it ignores the insight Edmund Burke articulated over two hundred years ago: overturning the way society works can produce completely unforeseen consequences that may not appear for decades or more, and the greater the revolution, the greater the potential for evil change. Scholarly studies on these things have already begun, of course, and not infrequently are unfavorable in their evaluations. But even academic studies can only do so much – how can we possibly extrapolate with high confidence to the effects over the next century of technology that is in many cases less than ten years old and changing at a faster rate than anything in human history?

It may in fact be the case that concerns about social media and such are overblown, though I think they are not. That isn’t the point. The point is that we would never adopt the same presumption of goodness towards novelties in other segments of life that the anti-Luddites apply to technology. Everyone recognizes why it would be absurd and even criminally reckless for the Food and Drug Administration to approve a new psychiatric drug after only a couple of months of testing on a relatively small sample size of people, and even more outrageous to do so if it was expected that the drug would be of very wide use in the population. Similarly, while many may not possess the in-depth knowledge of foreign politics to be able to articulate well why a given policy change with, say, Russia or North Korea might be good or bad, everyone understands that adopting a completely new set of policy platforms and international relations over something that has worked in the past without thought or deliberation would be reckless in the extreme.

In cases like these, people naturally understand that novelty as such is suspect. It is the new proposal that must make its case for its superiority over the existing paradigm, not the other way around. To embrace a new path without examining it as thoroughly as we reasonably can is foolish, and we need not have any particular reason to think the new proposal is dangerous to still believe that adopting it thoughtlessly is wrong. Why don’t people apply the same reasoning to technology?

I suspect no small part of the reason is because we seldom think of just how great of a capacity technology possesses to change us in ways that are impossible to predict in advance, and very difficult to reverse or control after the fact. But it is indisputable that it does. And the odd thing is that the same people who push the most for the rush into the technological utopia of Silicon Valley tend to be political liberals – the very group of people who are the most attuned to the largest case of technology changing society in a dangerous way that is difficult to reverse, namely, climate change. Why they often fail to make the application to how we think about new technology is, I must confess, a puzzle to me.

In considering what grounds we might have for skepticism about the uncritical market acceptance (the only acceptance that really matters in a society driven by consumption, as it virtually guarantees a de facto ideological acceptance in the long-run by sheer force of attrition) of whatever new technology comes down the pipeline in light of the sharper scrutiny put on Facebook and company after the 2016 elections, we would do well to keep Burke’s principles in mind. The swift overturn of old ways of life can create widespread changes that are, for practical purposes, irreversible. The more closely these changes affect the day-to-day inner life of the average person, the more capacity they have to drastically change the soul of a society. And the longer-term the effects of the changes may be, the less certain we can be whether the changes are in fact going to be good or bad.

As an addendum, lest anyone be tempted to think that my argument here is solely the possession of the right, I encourage my readers to follow the commentary of the politically liberal Georgetown professor Cal Newport on social media and smartphones. Newport is himself a professor of computer science and an MIT graduate who has commented with increasingly regularity over the past few years about his worries over the more or less automatic acceptance of whatever happens to come down the silicon pipeline. He is one of a considerable number of people writing from outside the traditional right-wing sphere who have been publicly critical of the modern technological religion, and I hope to write in the future in more detail on some of their criticisms.


The Public Good and the Problem with Libertarianism

There is much that could be criticized in the New York Times’ recent op-ed on abortion. To claim, as the author seems to do, that the piece calls for a new step forward in talking about abortion is about as persuasive as the claim that Republican lawmakers’ tweeted thoughts and prayers represents a new step forward in talking about gun control, although the latter at least have the advantage of keeping the length of their statements proportionate to their originality of thought and moral seriousness. The plain truth is that there is very little to be said about legalized abortion, for or against, that has not already been said innumerable times, and to reply to Shrage’s essay with the standard pro-life talking points, as true as that reply might be, is unnecessary. Any moderately informed person knows (or ought to know) in outline what a pro-lifer would say to the points made in the essay.

More interesting would be to consider the way in which pro-lifers frequently grant an assumption that run through the article, albeit without adequate defense, which is that the government ought not to take a stance on the moral goodness or badness of private actions. Not all people on the pro-life side would say this, of course, but in my admittedly anecdotal experience, quite a few young pro-lifers lean in the socially libertarian direction, with the presumption being that the government generally should not involve itself in or take sides upon moral debates. The government, in this view, should restrict its regulation of behavior to what is necessary to protect the public good, by means of things like protecting citizens from harm and enforcing contracts.

This seems to be the view taken in Shrage’s essay, as illustrated with a few excerpts.

It is well known that members of our society hold vastly different views about when personhood or a human life begins, about our moral obligations to our genetic offspring, or what kind of sexual acts are permissible. That is to be expected. A pluralist, democratic society can accommodate a good amount of such disagreement. Yet it is necessary that we do reach a strong consensus about how to regulate a public service, and so moral, political and philosophical analyses should aim to illuminate the issues that can help generate such a consensus…

So what about abortion? How should governments restrict or regulate the abortion services offered by medical professionals or facilities? Because this is an issue about good medicine, we need to focus on health risks and outcomes instead of personal ethics…

The essay proceeds, of course, in the usual manner of pro-choice advocacy; namely, begging the question against the pro-life stance by simply ignoring the question of the moral status of the fetus, except in the last third of a woman’s pregnancy. There is no need to linger here to show why this approach is problematic, except perhaps to note in passing that for someone who purports to have the answer to how Americans ought to talk about abortion, Shrage does not seem to be interested in addressing what critics of the practice actually say.

The more interesting part is when she draws the implicit distinction between “good medicine” and “personal ethics.” Citizens of a pluralist society such as our own are so used to hearing this sort of distinction made – a doctor’s personal beliefs versus his duty to his patients, a legislator’s private ethics versus his duty to his constituents, and so on – that many are unlikely to have ever considered that the view might be problematic. Yet it only takes a moment’s consideration to see that the distinction between good medicine and ethics is nonsense. Medicine is a value-laden profession of its very nature, in that proceeds according to a belief in certain moral goods. It is clearly insufficient to speak of medicine as if it was merely constituted by a knowledge of the human body, or of how to manipulate it, for this definition would not exclude actions that either deliberately damage the patient’s health, such as amputating a limb without cause or infecting the body with a virus. Medicine, as Aristotle noted, by nature aims at the health of the body as a basic good.

But in aiming at health as something good in itself, the very practice of medicine assumes an ethical framework. It is a self-contradiction to speak of a practice that presupposes moral propositions as being morally neutral. And if medicine is not morally neutral, then clearly ethical arguments are relevant to the practice of medicine.

Someone might object, as I’m sure Shrage would, that the key distinction is between private ethics and public ethics, only the latter of which is relevant to the legal regulation of medicine. This too is nonsense. There is no such thing as “private ethics” as a field of moral belief distinct from “public ethics.” All ethical claims depend on assumptions that certain things are in themselves good or bad, and if an action or end is intrinsically good or evil, then of necessity it must be good or evil for everyone. Moral assertions are by nature universal. The only real distinction that approximates what the essay calls private and public ethics is between ethical claims on which there is widespread agreement and ethical claims on which there is not.

When restated in terms of this distinction, the argument made in the op-ed – which, by the way, is more or less the argument made nationwide in defense of  legalized abortion, removing drug regulations, comprehensive sex education in public schools, etc. – is that ethical beliefs which the vast majority of Americans share should control public policy, while ethical beliefs on which there is widespread disagreement should not.

The argument in this form lays bare a common equivocation on the term of public good: does “the public good” mean what is actually good for the public, or what some suitable majority of the public believes is good for itself? The distinction is hardly trivial. Only on the first view can any attempt at social reform or civil disobedience that goes against the beliefs of most citizens be justified, and certainly no morally decent person could deny that such things have in fact been justified at least some of the time. The latter view opens the door to legal and moral relativism of the worst sort. To affirm that the public good can be decided by majority vote is to deny any real distinction between good and fiat.

But if we take the former view, then we are led to a conclusion which is unlikely to sit well with libertarian pro-lifers: the government must, if it is consistent, explicitly embrace a particular philosophy of what the public good actually is. Claims of absolute moral and philosophical neutrality are inadmissible. This does not mean, of course, that the government must become involved with every minutia of citizens’ personal lives, but it does mean that no a priori objection can be made to claims that the government should regulate the market, the purchase of firearms, education, pornography, drugs, prostitution, carbon emissions, and so on, on the grounds that it isn’t the government’s job to tell people how to live / businesses how to operate. Of course, the legitimacy of these claims does not follow automatically from the objective notion of the public good. They must be defended with arguments, which may or may not be successful. The point is that they cannot be ruled out from the start on the grounds that the government has no conceivable right to interfere in these areas. If someone believes that the government should prohibit abortion in most cases – as we all should – then it is inconsistent for him to dismiss out of hand claims that the government should prohibit or regulate other private actions.