Arnold Kling  

Inclined to Liberty

Tom Friedman's Gas Tax... Bailout Rage...

Louis E. Carabini writes,

There are those inclined to liberty--freedom of the individual to live his or her life in any peaceful way. And there are those who are inclined to mastery--permitting others to live their lives only as another sees fit.

His short book is Inclined to Liberty. Some more quotes from it follow.

From "The False Lure of Democracy" (the book has 34 short chapters):

The very essence of democracy encourages everyone to express opinions about human activities that are none of their business.

The idea that there is a conflict between liberty and democracy is one that requires more development. Most people think of democracy as the opposite of tyranny. Accordingly, they see no conflict at all between liberty and democracy. They would regard any suggestion of such a conflict as absurd. In any case, many would wonder what Carabini might propose as an alternative to democracy.

From "Do We Deserve Our Good Fortune?":

[Philosopher John] Rawls neglects a key economic principle that when one person earns wealth, another must gain wealth. [Michael] Jordan did not become wealthy by playing basketball; he became wealthy by giving millions of people the pleasure and benefit of watching him play basketball.

I think that most people do not resent the salaries of star athletes, for exactly the reason that Carabini gives. That is, people understand the direct pleasure they get from watching star athletes perform. Similarly, a lot of people don't have a problem with Steve Jobs getting rich, because they are devoted to Apple products. But I do not think that people feel the same way about wealth in general.

Often, it is hard for people to connect the source of others' wealth to their own well-being. Try saying, "Finance industry executive X did not become wealthy by securitizing bad mortgages; he became wealthy by giving millions of investors the pleasure and benefit of investing in bad mortgages."

Going back to the dichotomy between liberty and mastery, I think it has some merit. I believe that most political leaders have a goal of mastery, and restraining this goal is a challenge (in fact, that is why democracy is only the second-worst form of government). In general, though, I think of all people as status-seeking. Ultimately, the business executive and the politician may be after the same thing. Sometimes, the status-seeker in business does harm to others. Sometimes, the status-seeker in politics does good. Overall, I think that the business system works better than the political system at transforming status-seeking behavior into conduct that improves general welfare and preserves liberty. The challenge is to convey that in a persuasive way.

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COMMENTS (7 to date)
R Pointer writes:

Dear Dr. Kling,

I TA for a course called US Government and Politics. The way Liberty, Democracy and Republicanism is taught, at least by Lowi et al is that they needed to be balanced against each other. You can read this in:

Thurow, G. (1990). "The form most eligible": Liberty in the constitutional convention. Publius, 20(2), 15-31.

The founders certainly were thinking in these terms. But the question remains if they did a good job. I tend to think the original institutional design was flawed in that it didn't foresee a creeping executive. A better understanding of how kings became kings might have seen the founders foreswear an executive.

Ed Hanson writes:


The discussions of the short comings of democracy were highly developed by our founding fathers. That is why they gave us a limited government by way of a republic. Jefferson is famously quoted about speculation that revolution might be needed every 20 years or so to counter growing government powers. Little did he know that the institution of federal government that was developed put that need off by a full magnitude.

So now you see serious people discussing the dream of anarchy as the solution to our overbearing government, when the solution was written in the shortest effective constitution ever written, and by 160 years of practice before the 1930's.

Limited government with emphasis on individual freedoms and respect for private property have happened so few time in human history. It is a shame that we live in a time when tyranny of democracy once again is leading to end of that dream. I do not believe that any education toward respect of the individual can overcome the immediate desires of 'mob' rule. We are destined for a 'comfortable' existence with declining opportunities.

dearieme writes:

Given what the patriots actually did during and after the War of Independence, it's hard to see most of them as being much interested in liberty (by that definition). They were interested in contesting who should have mastery.

Thomas DeMeo writes:

The only possible way for a successful system is to try to maintain a dynamic tension between free market and democracy. One without the other will run out of control quickly.

Liberty without democracy would collapse on itself because their is no other limit on the ability of one individual to freely dominate the other via the accumulation of wealth and power. The only break on this is the threat of political blowback. Without democracy, liberty would produce men of absolute power.

Obviously, democracy likewise would starve without sufficient liberty.

Alex J. writes:
The idea that there is a conflict between liberty and democracy is one that requires more development.
As the other commentators have noted, this idea has gotten much attention in the past. The question now is: Why is it now so largely ignored? I favor Dan Klein's idea of "The People's Romance". I speculate that the relatively impersonal and impartial god of protestant christianity (or deism) has been replaced in many people's minds by the idea of the omnibenevolent democratic state. Just listen to Obama's stump speech for this in action.
8 writes:

Morality changes from a religious decision to a materialstic socialist calculation. Even an amoral activity, such as smoking, becomes "immoral" because it imposes financial costs (disputable) on the State. Man is dehumanized and becomes an object of the State.

As for liberty and mastery, both are in harmony if one accepts God as master. Once God is replaced with an earthly power, liberty quickly vanishes.

Kurbla writes:

Arnold does not criticize democracy specifically, he criticizes the state. Democracy is barely way of making decision in group. And state is nothing but a group with some property and some rules.

The groups are not the problem, as long as membership is not compulsory. That is the case with modern state - if you dislike your state, leave it.

It is still possible to criticize state. Unfortunately for libertarians, every further critical can be applied against private property on exactly same way.

For example, one can complain that he can leave the state - theoretically. Practically he can only move to OTHER state and accept the rules existing there. Right? I agree, and nothing changes if word "state" is replaced with "private property."

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