26 March 2009

Worth a Look

The dissertation of Fabian Wendt has been published by Mentis Verlag. It is entitled Libertaere politische Philosophie, and, as its accompanying description explains, it examines three different grounds for and conceptions of libertarian political philosophy, developing its own account in defense of a libertarianism that the author calls a "pure philosophy of freedom."

I hope to read the book. If and when I do, I will post my thoughts.

25 March 2009

This Just In

I posted a brief thought on the flap that's arisen about President Obama having been invited to give the commencement address at Notre Dame on National Review Online's blog, Phi Beta Cons. View my post here.

24 March 2009

Wise Words

"Honor, justice, and humanity, forbid us tamely to surrender that freedom which we received from our gallant ancestors, and which our innocent posterity have a right to receive from us. We cannot endure the infamy and guilt of resigning succeeding generations to that wretchedness which inevitably awaits them if we basely entail hereditary bondage on them."--Thomas Jefferson, Declaration of the Causes and Necessities of Taking up Arms, 6 July 1775

21 March 2009

Poverty and the Right Update

Following up on my previous post, here is another example of a right-of-center author who is genuinely concerned with the poor: Hernando de Soto. His The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else argues that the reason capitalism has failed in third-world countries is not because the poor are not entrpreneurial, have low IQs, or have anti-capitalistic cultures (as others have alleged). Rather, it is because the substantial and underestimated assets they have is in the form of "dead capital," unable to be used or built upon because it is untitled, buried under layers of bureaucracy, and not protected within a framework of property that allows it to be transparent, traded, divided, used as collateral, etc.

De Soto ends his book with these words: "I am not a die-hard capitalist. I do not view capitalism as a cred. Much more important to me are freedom, compassion for the poor, respect for the social contract, and equal opportunity. But for the moment, to achieve those goals, capitalism is the only game in town. It is the only system we know that provides us with the tools required to create massive surplus value" (p. 228).

I would also add that de Soto makes more sense out of the spirit of the Marxian critique of capitalism than many Marxists do.

17 March 2009

This Just In: Poverty and the Right

In light of what I said were "frustrations" I had with Peter Singer's argument (below), I was asked (challenged?) by a reader to provide examples of right-of-center political or economic theorists who are genuinely interested in the poor. There are many, but let me mention one classical source and one contemporary source.

The classical source: Adam Smith in his 1776
An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Smith's concern for the poor there is palpable and undeniable. Now some scholars argue that, partly because of that, Smith would not quite qualify as a right-of-center thinker (Samuel Fleischacker,for example, but there are many others), but I think Smith's defense of free trade, markets, and limited government do qualify him. He is not an anarchist or even a libertarian, and he does not subscribe to a theory of natural rights that, as in Locke or Nozick, give principled restrictions on state activity: Smith is too practical and pragmatic for that. But that makes him what is usually called a "classical liberal," not a progressive liberal.

The contemporary source: Deirdre N. McCloskey's
The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce. McCloskey's argument is that capitalist institutions are not amoral but are, instead, positively encouraging of virtue. But a large part of her argument in that book is that capitalism has brought substantial and often unappreciated benefits to millions of people, including especially the poor. McCloskey draws explicitly on Smith in making her case.

12 March 2009

This Just In

Reports the Wall Street Journal, "Bernard Madoff pleaded guilty to all 11 charges in one of Wall Street's largest swindles. Prosecutors filed papers Tuesday saying Mr. Madoff's investment company reported a total balance of $64.8 billion in November even though it actually had only a small fraction of that amount."

I fear that this is not the end of this saga, but it is certainly a step in the right direction.

This Just In

Philosopher Peter Singer has a long article in the latest issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled "America's Shame" (hat tip: Aeon Skoble). Although this article is new, and written to coincide with the release of his latest book, The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty, the argument the article contains is now nearly four decades old.

I have not read the new book yet, but I have read a lot of Singer's books and articles over the years. What frustrates me about the famine-relief argument he has been making since his famous 1971 article "Famine, Affluence, and Morality" is that, in all that time, he has not given serious consideration to any of the following: (1) what the causes of wealth are, (2) what the causes of poverty are, and (3) what the consequences--both economic and moral--would be if the governments of wealthier nations worldwide actually acted on the recommendations he makes for the redistribution of wealth.

A further frustration is that he does not take seriously the careful and sustained criticisms of his argument that have appeared over the years. Many authors--including, for full disclosure, myself*--have reviewed his arguments, the empirical evidence that bears on the issues, and the economic, political, and moral implications of his position. Singer only occasionally mentions these criticisms, and when he does he typically dismisses them in few sentences or a brief paragraph.

Helping the poor rise out of poverty is a central concern of political and economic thinkers across the political spectrum; the disputes are not over whether it is good to help, but rather over what the best means to help are. It is unfair to consider only those people who end up agreeing with Singer as working in good faith, and it is unproductive to condemn those who disagree as holding a 'shameful' position. Other authors, like Garrett Cullity, do a much better job taking opposing positions seriously and reveiwing them charitably.


*My paper "Limits on Our Obligation to Give" appeared in Public Affairs Quarterly 14, 3 (July 2000): 183-203; the paper is reprinted in Justice: An Anthology edited by Louis Pojman. I also examine Singer's arguments in chapters 4 and 5 of my Actual Ethics.

Worth a Look

A new blog called Front Porch Republic, whose motto is: "Place. Limits. Liberty." (Hat tip: Bradley Birzer.) It has an impressive list of contributing editors and editors-at-large who are interested in exploring "the necessity for those overlapping local and regional groups, communities, and associations that provide a matrix for human flourishing." It also contains interesting lists of books written and recommended by its contributors.

03 March 2009

Sign of the Times

Most analysts are not hopeful about the economy in the short- or medium-term. An editorial in today's WSJ is not atypical in claiming that the current administration's "assault on business and investors is delaying a recovery and ensuring that the expansion will be weaker than it should be when it finally does arrive."

So I was pleased to find this article in Forbes, which predicts a "sharp rally in stocks this year." Although this article's authors agree with the Journal that increasing government spending and debt are "negative," nevertheless they argue that are other economic indicators--rising retail sales, stabilizing oil prices and car sales, and rising measures of money--that augur a stock market recovery.

Here's hoping the Forbes guys are right.

This Just In



"Freedom in the 50 States" aims to provide for the American States approximately what the annual Economic Freedom of the World Index provides for countries around the world. Both are great services to mankind, in addition to being inherently fascinating. If you are interested, as I am, in the economic, political, and cultural institutions that allow or encourage human flourishing, I recommend studying Ruger and Sorens's paper carefully.

P.S. I am saddened to report that I work and live in the worst and in the second-to-worst states in the Union, New York and New Jersey respectively, on the combined ranking of economic and personal freedom. New Hampshire wins on the combined ranking, followed by Colorado, South Dakota, Idaho, and Texas.

02 March 2009

Worth a Look

A worthy and timely new project called Philosopher's Digest. Though I can take no credit for the idea for the project, I am pleased to serve on its advisory board. The goal of the Philosopher's Digest is to supply short summaries of a wide range of recent articles in important philosophy journals. Go to its website and look around. And check back often, since it will be updated regularly.

Perhaps you would like to become one of its reviewers?
If so, contact one of its founding editors, John Milliken.

01 March 2009

Sign of the Times

Holocaust survior and Nobel Prize winner--and, now, one of the victims of Bernard Madoff's fraud--Elie Wiesel has stated publicly that he would not forgive Madoff. Given what Wiesel has undoubtedly seen in his lifetime, for him to call Madoff "one of the greatest scoundrels, thieves, liars, criminals" is quite something.

The article concludes with this comment from Wiesel: "It shows, again, a human being is capable of both very great, good things, and very horrible things." Is that true? Some human beings are certainly capable of very great good things, and some human beings are capable of very horrible things. I hope that it is not true, however, that each human being is capable of horrible things, even if every human being is, as I believe, fallen.