Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Order & Power

The ultimate justification of the conferment of a power to coerce is that such a power is required if a viable order is to be maintained, and that all have therefore an interest in the existence of such a power.  But this justification does not extend further than the need.  There is clearly no need that anybody, not even the majority, should have power over all the particular actions or things occurring in society. [The Political Order of a Free People, p. 6]

Monday, July 30, 2012

Not Every Legislative Act Is Law

Justice Matthews for the Supreme Court in Hurtado v People of the State of California, 110 US 516, 535-36 (1884):
But it is not to be supposed that these legislative powers are absolute and despotic, and that the amendment prescribing due process of law is too vague and indefinite to operate as a practical restraint.  It is not every act, legislative in form, that is law.  Law is something more than mere will exerted as an act of power.  It must be not a special rule for a particular person or a particular case, but, in the language of Mr. Webster, in his familiar definition, ‘the general law, a law which hears before it condemns, which proceeds upon inquiry, and renders judgment only after trial,’ so ‘that every citizen shall hold his life, liberty, property, and immunities under the protection of the general rules which govern society,’ and thus excluding, as not due process of law, acts of attainder, bills of pains and penalties, acts of confiscation, acts reversing judgments, and acts directly transferring one man’s estate to another, legislative judgments and decrees, and other similar special, partial, and arbitrary exertions of power under the forms of legislation.  Arbitrary power, enforcing its edicts to the injury of the persons and property of its subjects, is not law, whether manifested as the decree of a personal monarch or of an impersonal multitude.  And the limitations imposed by our constitutional law upon the action of the governments, both state and national, are essential to the preservation of public and private rights, notwithstanding the representative character of our political institutions.  The enforcement of these limitations by judicial process is the device of self-governing communities to protect the rights of individuals and minorities, as well against the power of numbers, as against the violence of public agents transcending the limits of lawful authority, even when acting in the name and wielding the force of the government.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Conquering Ignorance

In one sense the saying that our civilization rests on the conquest of ignorance is of course a mere platitude.  Yet our very familiarity with it tends to conceal from us what is most important in it: namely that civilization rests on the fact that we all benefit from knowledge which we do not possess.  And one of the ways in which civilization helps us to overcome that limitation on the extent of individual knowledge is by conquering ignorance, not by the acquisition of more knowledge, but by the utilization of knowledge which is and remains widely dispersed among individuals. [Rules and Order, p. 15]

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Selection and Society

It is simply not true that our actions owe their effectiveness solely or chiefly to knowledge which we can state in words and which can therefore constitute the explicit premises of a syllogism.  Many of the institutions of society which are indispensable conditions for the successful pursuit of our conscious aims are in fact the result of customs, habits or practices which have been neither invented nor are observed with any such purpose in view.  We live in a society in which we can successfully orientate ourselves, and in which our actions have a good chance of achieving their aims, not only because our fellows are governed by known aims or known connections between means and ends, but because they are also confined by rules whose purposes or origin we often do not know and of whose very existence we are often not aware.   
Man is as much a rule-following animal as a purpose-seeking one.  And he is successful not because he knows why he ought to observe the rules which he does observe, or is even capable of stating all these rules in words, but because his thinking and acting are governed by rules which have by a process of selection been evolved in the society in which he lives, and which are thus the product of the experience of generations. [Rules and Order, p. 11]

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Economic History of the World

Here we have the economic history of the world in one picture, as summarized for us by Gregory Clark in A Farewell to Alms:
The basic outline of world economic history is surprisingly simple. . . . Before 1800 income per person--the food, clothing, heat, light, and housing available per head--varied across societies and epochs. . . . the average person in the world in 1800 was no better off than the average person of 100,000 BC.  Indeed in 1800 the bulk of the world's population was poorer than their remote ancestors. . . . Life expectancy was no higher in 1800 than for hunter-gatherers: thirty to thirty-five years. . . . average welfare, if anything, declined from the Stone Age to 1800.  The poor of 1800, those who lived by their unskilled labor alone, would have been better off if transferred to a hunter-gatherer band.  The Industrial Revolution, a mere two hundred years ago, changed forever the possibilities of material consumption.  Incomes per person began to undergo sustained growth in a favored group of countries.  The richest modern economies are now ten to twenty times wealthier than the 1800 average.  Moreover the biggest beneficiary of the Industrial Revolution has so far been the unskilled.  There have been benefits aplenty for the typically wealthy owners of land or capital, and for the educated. But industrialized economies saved their best gifts for the poorest. [Introduction, pp. 1-3]
In other words, for most of human history and in most places in the world, almost all people lived very near subsistence.  But, something happened around 1800 in some places, and the masses of people in those places began to break away from subsistence living and to prosper.

This is the Great Fact of history, as Deirdre McCloskey refers to it in Bourgeois Dignity.  This Great Fact seems to be something most people are unaware of, even among the people who are living in those places in the world where most people live far from subsistence.  It is a fact which seems to be missing from the curricula materials in our schools.  It even seems that this missing fact contributes to many people taking our own prospering for granted.  So, I suppose it should be no surprise that many people seem to believe ideas that are inconsistent with the explanation for why, in some parts of the world, the masses of people began to prosper and continue to prosper today.

What explains the Great Fact of history?  I was reminded of this question earlier this morning while finishing Hayek's The Political Order of a Free People:
However little it may often appear to be true, the social world is governed in the long run by certain moral principles on which the people at large believe.  The only moral principle which has ever made the growth of an advanced civilization possible was the principle of individual freedom, which means that the individual is guided in his decisions by rules of just conduct and not by specific commands.  No principles of collective conduct which bind the individual can exist in a society of free men.  What we have achieved we owe to securing the individuals the chance of creating for themselves a protected domain (their 'property') within which they can use their abilities for their own purposes. [pp. 151-152]
There are lots of specific details we might pay attention to in answering this question, but the simple bottom line seems to me just what Hayek writes here, i.e., individual liberty.  Unfortunately, our system of political economy today seems to move farther and farther away from a society of a free people.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Unlimited Democracy

The true value of democracy is to serve as a sanitary precaution protecting us against an abuse of power.  It enables us to get rid of a government and try to replace it by a better one.  Or, to put it differently, it is the only convention we have yet discovered to make peaceful change possible. . . . In its present unlimited form democracy has today largely lost the capacity of serving as a protection against arbitrary power.  It has ceased to be a safeguard of personal liberty, a restraint on the abuse of governmental power which it was hoped it would prove to be when it was naively believed that, when all power was made subject to democratic control, all the other restraints on government power could be dispensed with.  It has, on the contrary, become the main cause of a progressive and accelerating increase of the power and weight of the administrative machine. . . . As everything tends to become a political issue for which the interference of the coercive powers of government can be invoked, an ever larger part of human activity is diverted from productive into political efforts . . . . In other words, we have under the false name of democracy created a machinery in which not the majority decides, but each member of the majority has to consent to make bribes to get majority support for his own special demands. [The Political Order of a Free People, 137-138]

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Political Incentives

People who hope to be re-elected on the basis of what their party during the preceding three or four years has conferred in conspicuous special benefits on their voters are not in the sort of position which will make them pass the kind of general laws which would really be most in the public interest. [The Political Order of a Free People, p. 28]

Sunday, July 01, 2012

Roberts & No Reason

Justice Roberts in the health care opinion:
The Framers gave Congress the power to regulate commerce, not to compel it, and for over 200 years both our decisions and Congress's actions have reflected this understanding.  There is no reason to depart from that understanding now. [p. 24]
I agree with the first sentence.  Congress does not have the constitutional power to compel commerce, either interstate or intrastate.  This should be thought to be the case regardless of Congressional actions in support or to the contrary.

I find the conceptual view implied by the second sentence to be of concern.  The second sentence seems to me to imply that if Justice Roberts did believe there was a reason to depart from "that understanding," then he might have been willing to make that departure by way of the Court's opinion at hand.  If this is not implied, then it seems to me Justice Roberts would have chosen to leave this sentence out of his opinion.  I wish he had.

So, why is this of concern?  I think the conceptual view implied by this sentence is that, when useful, the Court should change the way the Constitution is understood by way of Court opinions.  Of course, the proper, constitutional way to change the meaning of the Constitution is to amend the Constitution.  Article V specifies the proper way to change the meaning of the Constitution, and the proper way does not include a grant of power to the Court to do so.

The Court should make the constitutional view clear, nor murky as I think this sentence does.  If it seems appropriate to point out there is no reason to depart from the historical understanding of the Constitution now, then I suggest that Justice Roberts should also add: "and if there was reason to change this understanding, then the Court cannot and will not attempt to do that.  If there is such reason, then the constitutional way of changing the meaning of the Constitution is to carry out the requirements found in Article V."

Sadly, for me, it seems that long ago most of the Justices have come to see their constitutional role in the conceptual way implied by this quote.

Hayek on The Value of Science

Hayek in Rules and Order:
There is another related misconception about the aim and power of science which it will be useful also to mention at this point.  This is the belief that science is concerned exclusively with what exists and not with what could be.  But the value of science consists largely in telling us what would happen if some facts were different from what they are.  All the statements of theoretical science have the form of 'if  . . . , then . . .' statements, and they are interesting mainly in so far as the conditions we insert in the 'if' clause are different from those that actually exist. . . . the chief value of all science is to tell us what the consequences would be if conditions were in some respects made different from what they are. . . . Fruitful social science must be very largely a study of what is not: a construction of hypothetical models of possible worlds which might exist if some of the alterable conditions were made different.  We need a scientific theory chiefly to tell us what would be the effects if some conditions were as they have never been before.  All scientific knowledge is knowledge not of particular facts but of hypotheses which have so far withstood systematic attempts at refuting them. (p. 17)