The Mueller Report Changed my Mind on Term Limits

I haven’t read the Mueller report yet. I’m writing this on the day of its release (with redactions) by US Attorney General William Barr.  I’ll read it later, but I didn’t have to read it, or even wait for its release, to reach one conclusion from it: It’s time to amend the Constitution to limit the President of the United States to one term.

No, not because I don’t like Donald Trump. I don’t, but I didn’t like his 2016 Democratic opponent either, nor do I expect to like his 2020 Democratic opponent. As long as American voters continue to limit themselves to voting for Republicans and Democrats, I don’t care too much which of the two parties they vote for.

Nor because I think term limits as such would usher in an era of “citizen legislators” and solve some of the systemic problems in American politics caused by political careerism (as my friend Paul Jacob, founder of US Term Limits, believes). It’s not that they’re a bad idea. It’s that they’re more of a distraction than a solution.

But the presidency is an office of singular weight.

We can afford, at least to some degree, to have members of Congress worrying about their own re-elections at the expense of doing the people’s business (however one defines that).

But can we afford to have both the president and Congress worrying about almost nothing BUT the president’s re-election prospects, 24/7, for four years out of every eight?

Let’s face it: That’s what the entire two-year (so far) “Russiagate” moral panic has mostly been about. Democrats want to either impeach Donald Trump and remove him from office or, failing that, destroy his prospects of re-election.

And yes, that’s what the last two years of Bill Clinton’s first term were all about too.  Republicans hoped they could find something, anything, that would make it possible to beat Clinton in 1996 (didn’t work).

It didn’t help the Republicans in 1996. It isn’t helping the Democrats now. And ignoring real public policy issues in favor of such antics certainly did not then, and does not now, serve any rational interest of the public, except perhaps the interest of entertainment. That’s what Game of Thrones and F is for Family are for.

This is a problem we can fix. Limit the president to one term.  No re-election campaign by the president. No de-election campaign by the president’s opponents.

One. And. Done.

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What Intelligence and Insanity Have in Common

The brain’s ability to make connections.

There are many forms of intelligence. But all of them I can think of have a lot to do with making connections.

Mechanical intelligence sees the connections between parts of a machine. Social intelligence sees connections between people. Physical intelligence makes connections between actions and re-actions. Creative intelligence sees connections between disparate ideas. Entrepreneurial intelligence sees connections between different goods or services, or a new nexus between supply and demand.

A low intelligence person takes the discreet items in the world individually at face value. A high intelligence person sees causal chains, analogies, parallels, and processes that bind the discreet items in various webs.

If you’ve ever witnessed a high connections person in action, it’s fun and surprising. Where most people would see an umbrella over the lunch table, they’d see a wooden pole with canvas, think about their friend who sails boats, wonder about the material that makes sales vs. table umbrellas, then parachutes, then the different levels of wind-flow needed in each application. Before long they’re working out how you might have a single supplier for each item, or a new kind of material. This is how theories and businesses begin.

Our brain dices the world into discreet units for a reason. Seeing connections is a super power, but it can also be a curse. If you can’t unsee them, and your brain goes on a high speed runaway connection binge, you might lose your grip. Each event, object, and activity cannot be encountered and engaged discreetly if your brain is reeling six levels deep on connections.

There’s a reason meditative or hallucinogenic states where everything feels connected and all is one cannot persist while you try to brush your teeth and go to the office. Most of life is encountered in bites. And most of it has to be.

I think conspiracy theorists and paranoiacs have a ton of connection intelligence, but not a strong enough dissection filter. They see too many connections too much of the time. Pretty soon, everything reminds of everything else. Hence things like the “Illuminati confirmed” meme, where every shape, color, name, and logo on every product and commercial gets quickly connected to some kind of other symbol with occult meaning.

People often accuse paranoid conspiracy types of being stupid, or failing to see the meaning of things. The problem is they see too much meaning. They can’t stop seeing meaning.

The trope of the mad scientist, or brilliant mathematician who descends into ravings with old age show the same problem. Too many connections.

But there’s something interesting going on in there too. These are not stupid people, or people to dismiss out of hand. They see too many connections to handle, many of which aren’t useful. But they see a lot of useful connections the rest of us miss in our fragmented world. There’s insight to be found here.

I’m not sure exactly how to cultivate the ability to make connections and guard against connection overload at the same time. But I suspect most of us are in far more danger of making too few connections than too many.

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Dan Moller’s Governing Least

Michael Huemer’s The Problem of Political Authority is definitely my favorite work of libertarian political philosophy.  Dan Moller’s new Governing Least, however, is definitely now my second-favorite work of libertarian political philosophy.  The two books have much in common: Both use common-sense ethics to argue for libertarian politics.  Both are calm, logical, and ever-mindful of potential criticisms.  Both strive to persuade reasonable people who don’t already agree with them.  Both are packed with broader insights.  And despite these parallels, both are deeply original.

So what’s most original about Moller’s position?  Instead of focusing on the rights of the victims of coercion, Moller emphasizes the effrontery of the advocates of coercion:

[I]n my account libertarianism emerges from everyday moral beliefs we have about when we are permitted to shift our burdens onto others. In fact, my account intentionally downplays the role of rights, and is motivated by doubts about what we may demand of others, rather than outrage about what others demand of us.

The effrontery is most blatant when you speak in the first person:

Imagine calling a town hall meeting and delivering the following speech:

My dear assembled citizens: I know most of us are strangers, but of late I have fallen on hard times through no fault of my own, by sheer bad luck. My savings are low, and I don’t have friends or family to help. Now as you know, I’ve previously asked for help from you as private citizens, as a matter of charity. But unfortunately that hasn’t been sufficient. Thus, I’m here now to insist that you (yes you, Emma, and you, John) owe me assistance as a matter of justice. It is a deep violation if you don’t work additional hours, take fewer vacations if need be, live in a smaller house, or send your kids to a worse school, in order to help me. Failing to do so is no less an injustice than failing to pay your debts.

Moreover, calling this an injustice means that it’s not enough that you comply with your obligations by working on my behalf. No, I insist that you help me to force your fellow citizens to assist me. It doesn’t matter if these others say to you that they need the money for their own purposes, that they prefer worthier causes, or if they’re just hard-hearted and don’t care. To the extent you care about justice, you must help me to force these others to assist me whether they wish to or not, since that is what is owed me in light of my recent bad luck.

Could you bring yourself to make this speech?

The fundamental objection to Moller’s position, he thinks, is to claim that governments have “emergent moral powers.”  But Moller firmly denies this.  Governments are just groups of people, so they are morally obliged to follow the same moral principles as everyone else.  While this may seem like libertarian question-begging, there’s nothing uniquely libertarian about it:

It is notable that many who wish to block rights-based objections to state action are nevertheless eager to enter their own moral objections to what the state does. Many of those unsympathetic to attacks on taxation rooted in individual rights also portray the absence of welfare provisions or various immigration policies as “unconscionable.” There is nothing inconsistent about this; the one set of moral claims may be right and the other confused. But the objection then cannot be based on the emergent moral powers of the state. We cannot both reject appeals to individuals rights on the general grounds that morality has nothing to tell us about what may emerge from government institutions, and then do just that, substituting our own preferred brand of interpersonal morality. Once we notice this, support for emergence should shrink drastically, since it will only come from those who think there are no policies of the state that can be rejected on fundamental
moral grounds. The non- emergence assumption per se has no particular ideological leanings.

But doesn’t common-sense morality admit that rights to person and property are not absolute?  Of course; exceptions abound.  Moller sternly emphasizes, however, that these exceptions come with supplemental moral burdens attached.  In his “Emergency” hypothetical, for example, you steal $1000 under duress.  What then?

I propose the following non-exhaustive list of residual obligations for cases like Emergency:

Restitution: although I didn’t do wrong, I must repay the $1,000 if possible, perhaps in reasonable installments.

Compensation: to the extent you are otherwise harmed by my actions, I should attempt to compensate you. For instance, if I smashed your windows getting in or forced you to incur some loss because you had to come home at short notice, I must compensate you at some reasonable rate.

Sympathy: it is incumbent on me to convey, if not an apology for my (permissible) actions, at least sympathy for the harm I have caused you. (“I’m very sorry I had to do that” would be the natural if slightly misleading phrase.) I cannot offer a Gallic shrug at your distress and announce, “I did nothing wrong— it’s your problem” as you survey the wreckage of your home. To do so would exhibit a serious character flaw.

Responsibility: my obligations are not just backward looking, but forward looking. If I can reasonably foresee that some action of mine will put me in the position of facing an emergency that will then render it permissible to harm you, I must take responsibility to avoid such actions if possible. I should not think that I have less reason to take responsibility because I can avoid harms by transferring them to you instead. And failing to take responsibility weakens my claim to impose costs on others when the time comes.

A related principle is worth mentioning as well:

Need: my warrant for harming you depends on how bad my situation is. I cannot harm you if I am doing fine already merely in order to improve my position still further. I may be permitted to take your $1,000 to avert a physical threat, but not in order to make a lucrative investment in order to get even richer.

The political implications are expansive, starting with:

A welfare state justified in virtue of overriding reasons to promote the good of the beneficiaries incurs these residual obligations. Flouting them amounts to unfair burden- shifting. What would it look like actually to satisfy them? For starters, if I were the beneficiary of some emergency medical procedure that a third party compelled others to contribute to— say a state agency— I would be obligated to
repay those charged for my benefit, possibly with some compensatory surcharge. If unable to pay, I would be required to pay in installments, with the agency keeping track of my income and tax records to ensure that my repayment were in line with my means…

Moreover, in repaying, my attitude toward my fellow citizens ought to be one of gratitude for coming to my assistance, as opposed to viewing these services as entitlements due to me as a matter of citizenship. This may seem curious: by hypothesis, the services I received made it past the threshold, meaning that the wealth transfers involved were permissible, and since I am repaying, they won’t
even be net transfers in the long run, barring misfortune. Depending on how badly I needed aid, aiding may even have been obligatory on a third party. Why should I express gratitude for others fulfilling their duties? Consider the Gallic shrug— that supreme expression of indifference at someone else’s misfortunes, while disclaiming all responsibility for rectifying them, frequently encountered
in Parisian cafés. Why shouldn’t I shrug my Gallic shrug at the rich complaining about their tax bill, and point out I merely got what I was entitled to, as would they in a similar situation?

This complaint would be apt if appropriate moral responses were a function solely of whether our acts are required or permissible. But there are all kinds of inappropriate moral responses even when what we have done is permissible or when what the other has done was required. If we are to meet for lunch and an urgent business affair obtrudes itself, I may be permitted to skip our lunch, but
I shouldn’t treat putting you out lightly. What makes a Gallic shrug a vice here is that beneath the outer layer of permissibility there remains an inner structure whereby you have been harmed for my sake, which ought to be a source of concern, leading to some appropriate expression of regret if I am a decent person.  And the same is true in the case of welfare services. This is easy to ignore because
of the opaque veils of state bureaucracy. But behind the faceless agency lie people who are harmed for the sake of benefiting me.

Governing Least manages to be at once readable and dense.  And though you can’t tell from the passages I just quoted, Moller also repeatedly appeals to and grapples with cutting-edge social science.  What, for example, should philosophers think about Greg Clark’s work on the long-run heritability of social status?  Moller’s take will surprise many of you.

Last question: Why do I still prefer Huemer to Moller?  Intellectually, because Huemer’s appeal to individual rights is just more clear-cut than Moller’s objection to “burden-shifting.”  Furthermore, Huemer focuses on the broader case for libertarianism, while Moller self-consciously focuses on opposition to the welfare state.*  And while Moller’s book is beautifully written and well-organized, Huemer’s is stellar on both counts.

Thus, if you’re only going to read one book of libertarian political philosophy, I still say you should read The Problem of Political Authority.  If you’re willing to read two such books, however, read Governing Least.  I loved it.

* Moller: “I also ignore the many noneconomic causes that libertarians have sometimes taken up, like free speech, gay marriage, and drug legalization. This is the fun part of libertarianism and requires little heroism to defend. Many disagree with such policies, but few think their sponsors cruel or ungenerous, while resistance to the welfare state and programs intended to foster economic equality evoke precisely that response.”

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From Law Enforcement to Voluntarist – An Interview with Shepard (1h34m) – Episode 017

Episode 017: Jared recently had the opportunity to have an enjoyable conversation with Shepard from the “Shepard Thinks…” YouTube channel. On his channel, he shares the virtues of voluntaryism, life tips, business tips, and videos on his career in law enforcement. He delivers these messages in a well spoken, kind, and empathetic manner which we believe is vital in spreading voluntaryism to those whom have recently discovered the concept. Due to Shepard’s soft spoken, positive and peaceful delivery, Jared has suggested he be granted the honorary title of ‘Mister Rogers of Voluntaryism’. Enjoy the show!

Listen to Episode 017 (1h34m, mp3, 64kbps)

Contact Jared by emailing voluntarycontrarian@gmail.com, on Twitter @TVC_Podcast, on Instagram @voluntarycontrarian, and on Facebook fb.me/TVCPodcast.

Subscribe via RSS here, or in any podcast app by searching for “voluntary contrarian”. Support the podcast at Patreon.com/evc or PayPal.me/everythingvoluntary.

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The Most Controversial Belief

Because I’m both a Libertarian and a loudmouth, I’m frequently hit with questions about libertarianism (and the Libertarian Party). Recently this one came up:

“What is the most controversial belief of Libertarians?”

Could it be our support of immigration freedom (and, generally, freedom to travel)?

Or our demand for separation of school and state?

Perhaps our hard-line support for gun rights?

Or our stand for legalization of all drugs?

How about our advocacy for keeping the government out of the sex lives of consenting adults (including marriage, and including sex for pay)?

Or our belief that who you do or don’t do business with — including for healthcare and retirement — is your decision and no one else’s to make?

My answer: It’s all of those, and others. But it really boils down to one issue.

The most controversial belief of libertarians (and partisan Libertarians) is the belief that you’re generally both more entitled and more qualified to run your life than someone else is.

Who considers that belief controversial? “Mainstream” politicians and their supporters.

Why do they consider that belief controversial? Because they consider themselves entitled and qualified to run your life for you, whether you like it or not. And, of course, to bill you for the costs of their supervision.

Politics isn’t persuasion. Politics is force.

Whether the issue is immigration, or education, or self-defense, or drug use,  or sex, or commerce, or, heck, what color you paint your house or how long you let the grass on your lawn grow, the political approach is not to present an argument and trust you to make the right decision. It’s to decide “for” you, then beat you down if you disobey (or fail to pay them for their services).

Libertarianism — even the “political” variety — isn’t really very political at all. It’s anti-political. As one fun meme puts it, libertarians are “diligently plotting to take over the world and leave you alone.”

Libertarians only recognize one valid constraint on your actions: A universal, mutual constraint against aggression, also known as initiation of force.

The simple version, courtesy of Matt Kibbe: Don’t hurt people, and don’t take their stuff.

When you throw the first punch, or pick someone’s pocket, or otherwise forcibly interpose yourself between someone else and that someone’s life, liberty, or property, you’re not running your own life. You’re trying to run theirs.

And that’s the only thing libertarians agree you should be stopped from doing or penalized (in a manner consistent with restitution, not “punishment”) for doing. Even if it’s “for their own good.”

If you’re down with that idea, congratulations: You’re a libertarian.

If you’re not down with that idea, I hope you’ll think it through more carefully.

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Pigeons Do One Thing Right

A few days ago I saw a small flock of pigeons flying beside the road. All the pigeons were the same standard pigeon color, except for one. He was light brown with white wings– beautiful, for a pigeon.

The different pigeon was still part of the flock. He wanted to belong. The others were fine with him belonging. Because he wanted to belong to the flock he didn’t make an issue of his difference. He didn’t demand special treatment. He didn’t demand his own “space” because he was different. He didn’t segregate himself.

The others didn’t make an issue, either. They weren’t trying to drive him away or leave him behind. It didn’t seem as if any pigeon noticed any difference.

They were all just pigeons going about their pigeony business.

Pigeons have an advantage over humans in at least one area. They don’t have religion (including of the political kind) to artificially divide them. Because of this advantage, they don’t come to believe that any pigeon which is capable of pigeoning is somehow a lesser pigeon. They don’t believe any other pigeon owes them anything or should be responsible for them. They all find their own food. No pigeon feels guilt because of it’s color or pattern.

Yes, a different pigeon may attract predators. That’s just nature. If it happens, it sucks for that pigeon, but it’s not the other pigeons’ fault.

There is still some safety in numbers, even if you’re different, as long as you don’t single yourself out and turn the flock against you.

I’ll fly beside you as your equal, as long as you don’t turn into something else and try to become predatory.

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