Trial and Error

Nobody asked but …

Almost two months ago, I wrote a blog article in which I felt gratified that my teen granddaughters were experimenting with civil disobedience.  They participated in the worldwide climate strike.  It is OK if they took the wrong side, because they were right to speak out.  Experimenting is good.  The worst thing that can happen is that they might favor a wrong philosophy, but never re-examine that decision.  People who never re-examine their positions are candidates for the Darwin Awards.

In a more recent blog, I admitted to some egregious naivete, in the past, and I promised to address it directly in a future post.  In retrospect, I have always been an individually conscious voluntaryist, but I admit to the following mistakes along the way:

  • I liked Ike, but was too young to vote,
  • I would have gone all the way with JFK, but was still too young to vote,
  • I was atracted to the non-authoritarian hippy lifestyle, but I was anti-war (for the wrong reasons),
  • I was pro LBJ, before the Gulf of Tonkin incident,
  • I voted for Nixon, in the mistaken hopes that he would quickly end the Vietnam War,
  • I voted for Carter, in hopes of ending White House corruption,
  • Until 2008, I voted, believing in the system, and that the right POTUS would not be incentivized toward war, irrationality, and corruption,
  • Until 2000, I believed that history could show us examples of successful POTUS’es.
  • Now I know, beyond believing, that no human can be a successful master of other human beings.

Each of these mistakes taught me a lesson.  I will continue to try, and err, but I will not forsake my hard-won principles of anarchism.

— Kilgore Forelle

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Big Business: Recasting the Anti-Hero

Tyler Cowen’s previous book, Stubborn Attachments, is right in general, but wrong on particulars.  His latest book, in contrast, is largely right on both.  The world needed a new book to be pro-market and pro-business at the same time, and Tyler’s Big Business delivers the package.  I’m almost tempted to quote Keynes:

In my opinion it is a grand book … Morally and philosophically I find myself in agreement with virtually the whole of it: and not only in agreement with it, but in deeply moved agreement.

Highlights include:

1. A popularization of Bloom and van Reenen’s work on the power of management:

We must take a moment to appreciate the particular character of American business. By global standards, its overall performance is remarkably impressive. Stanford economist Nicholas Bloom and a group of co-authors studied and compared management practices in some of the major economies, including the United States. Their survey assessed how well a workplace uses incentives, the quality of performance measures and reviews, whether top management aims at long-term goals, whether top creators are well rewarded, and whether the firm attracts and retains quality employees, among other relevant metrics…

So at the end of all of these measurements of management quality, which country comes out on top? The United States is a clear first…

Management really matters. Let’s say we take two American plants producing comparable wares, but one of those plants is in the 90th percentile in terms of productivity, while the other is in the 10th percentile. The former plant will have a productivity level four times higher than the latter plant, due to superior management practices. It has been estimated that Chinese firms could increase their productivity by 30–50 percent and Indian firms could do so by 40–60 percent merely by improving their management practices up to an American level of quality.

2. Business practices and promotes good manners and civility.  Despite modern political hysteria…

the world of American business has never been more productive, more tolerant, and more cooperative. It is not just a source of GDP and prosperity; it is a ray of normalcy and predictability in its steady focus on producing what can be profitably sold to customers. Successful businesses grow dynamically, but they also try to create oases of stability and tolerance in which they can perfect their production methods and which help to attract and retain talent…

American big business in particular has led the way toward making America more socially inclusive. McDonald’s, General Electric, Procter & Gamble, and many of the major tech companies, among many others, were defining health and other legal benefits for same-sex partners before the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage… This push for tolerance shouldn’t come as any surprise. Big business has lots of customers and relies on the value of brand names. It doesn’t want any group of those customers to feel put out or discriminated against or to have cause for complaint…

3. Some deliberate (?) understatement on fraud:

Most of all, business is criticized for being fraudulent and ripping us off. While there is plenty of fraud in business, the commercial sector isn’t any more fraudulent than individuals in other capacities, and it may even be somewhat less fraudulent.

I’d say there’s no “may even be somewhat less fraudulent” about it!  Who wouldn’t trust Amazon or Uber or Airbnb over a random American who promised to provide the same product?

4. Business thinks long-term, usually:

It can be very difficult to distinguish between short-termism and an inability to see into the future. The failed Netflix competitors were mainly not venal rip-off artists; rather, most of them genuinely did not see that providing massive amounts of streaming content would prove to be a winning strategy. If half of the time businesses think too short-term and the other half of the

time too long-term, there will be thousands of valid examples and anecdotes about excessive short-term thinking and planning, and they aren’t necessarily related to CEO dishonesty.

And:

Of course, markets also think long-term when it comes to successes, and that long-term mentality is encouraged through CEO pay structures. Consider Amazon, which has a stratospherically high share price, even though the quarterly earnings reports usually fail to show a sizable profit. Whether you think that valuation has been justified or not, it is a clear example of how markets can consider the broader, longer-term picture. Circa 2018, Jeff Bezos ended up as the richest man in the world, and he achieved that status by sticking with some long-run goals.

5. Employment may not be fun, but it’s meaningful and prevents misery:

Another way to think about the non-pay-related benefits of having a job is to consider the well-known and indeed sky-high personal costs of unemployment. Not having a job when you want to be working damages happiness and health well beyond what the lost income alone would account for. For instance, the unemployed are more likely to have mental health problems, are more likely to commit suicide, and are significantly less happy. Sometimes there is a causality problem behind any inference—for instance, do people kill themselves because they are unemployed, or are they unemployed because possible suicidal tendencies make them less well suited to do well in a job interview? Still, as best we can tell, unemployment makes a lot of individual lives much, much worse. In the well-known study by economists Andrew E. Clark and Andrew J. Oswald, involuntary unemployment is worse for individual happiness than is marital divorce or separation.

6. Even much-maligned low-skilled jobs have unsung psychological benefits:

In contemporary American society, poorer individuals are more likely to have problems with divorce, spousal abuse, drug addiction in the family, children dropping out of school, and a variety of other fairly common social problems. These problems plague rich and poor alike, but they are more frequent in poorer families and, furthermore, very often wreak greater devastation on poorer families, which have fewer resources to cope with them. The workplace, however, is a partial equalizer here. At least in this sample, the poorer individuals found relatively greater solace in the workplace than did the richer individuals.

7. Employers’ alleged mistreatment of individual workers is often for the greater good of their whole team:

Along these lines, I hear so many criticisms that companies do not give workers enough personal or intellectual freedom. For instance, many critics have noted that companies have the right to fire workers for their Facebook or other social media postings. Surely that sounds like an unjustified infringement on freedom of speech. But on closer inspection, the stance of the companies is often quite defensible. Unfortunately, a lot of workers put racist, sexist, or otherwise discomforting comments and photos on their Facebook pages, on Twitter, or elsewhere. When employers fire them, very often it is to protect the freedom of the other workers—namely, the ability of those other workers to enjoy the workplace environment free of harassment and threats. It’s not always or even usually a question of the employer versus the workers, or the old story of a struggle between worker and boss struggle. Rather, the boss is trying, sometimes in vain, to adjudicate conflicting notions of workplace freedom among the workers. In other words, the firings are in part an employer attempt to take the overall preferences of the workers into account.

8. Big business is often the cure for monopoly rather than the disease:

[Y]ou can think of Amazon and Walmart as two big reasons a lot of collusive and price-fixing schemes don’t work anymore or don’t have a major impact on consumers. Amazon and Walmart are the two biggest retailers in America, and both compete by keeping prices low—permanently, it seems. Their goal is to become dominant platforms for a wide variety of goods and to use low prices to boost their reputation and their focal status as the place to go shopping. By now both companies are old news, and it is increasingly difficult to argue that their strategies are eventual market domination and then someday super-high monopoly prices. Instead, their strategies seem to be perpetually low prices, followed by taking in insanely large amounts of business and using data collection to outcompete their rivals on the basis of cost and quality service.

My main criticism: Tyler is so pro-business that he often forgets (at least rhetorically) to be pro-market.  He spends minimal time calling for moderate deregulation – and even less calling for radical deregulation.  So while he effectively calls attention to everything business does for us, he barely shows readers how much business could do for us if government got out of the way.  Above all, Tyler mentions the following only in passing – or not at all:

1. The evils of housing regulation.  Business is ready, willing, and able to build mega-cities worth of affordable housing in the most desirable places in the country – the moment land-use regulations permit.

2. The evils of immigration restriction.  Perhaps to broaden his audience, Tyler fails to mention the eagerness of business to provide international workers with the opportunity to use their talents for the enrichment of mankind.  If I were him, I would have highlighted (a) how much business has done to increase immigration, and (b) how much business has engaged in righteous civil disobedience by hiring workers despite our unjust immigration laws.

3. The evils of labor market regulation.  Tyler barely mentions the many awful side effects of much-loved labor market regulations.  This was a mighty missed opportunity to lambast the horrors of European labor market regulationBig Business was also a great opportunity to explain why discrimination is usually bad for profitability, making anti-discrimination regulations superfluous at best.  Indeed, Tyler could have used the ubiquitous employment of illegal immigrants to illustrate these truths.

Fortunately, it’s not too late for Tyler to correct his unfortunate omissions on his blog.  Big business has been miscast as an anti-hero, but populist regulation is a Thanos-level supervillain.

P.S. Exercise for the reader: Name a better book cover than Tyler’s!

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Climate Strike

I was the chauffeur last Friday who took my youngest granddaughters to the Climate Strike demonstration in front of the Fayette County, KY, Courthouse. I did this at the request of their mother, my daughter, the hydrologist who works for the Kentucky Environmental Protection Agency.  The young women are a teen and a pre-teen on the cusp.

These may seem to be odd arrangements and relationships for someone, such as I, who has a very decided stance on global warming. Just last week, I wrote a blog entry that criticized those who would hide behind complexity.  But I will hasten to add that global warming is very complicated — too complicated for humans, apparently.  Let me make some observations:

  • I supported my granddaughters and my daughter because I support their spirit of civil disobedience.  The point of the climate strike was that school children would skip school to express their impatience with the seeming complacency of their elders.
  • I was concerned for the safety of my granddaughters.  This turned out to be misoverestimated, but I am a contemporary of those gunned down at Kent State University, so I always get queasy when people come up against the police state.
  • I had lots of time on the 60 mile round-trip to Lexington to share information with my granddaughters — and I have the rest of my lifetime as well, just so long as we expect one another to be rational.
  • Most of our climate information comes to us from people whose hair is on fire — the media, the deniers, the protesters, the promoters, and the politicians.  How many pictures have we seen just this year of the edge of the ice.  There is always an edge to the ice!  Somewhere!  The Earth is not covered in solid ice.  Yet these photos are presented to us as evidence that all the ice in the world is melting at a breakneck pace.
  • At demonstrations, you will nearly always hear that you must vote.  I pointed out to the young women that those of us who are over 18 only get to vote against Mitch McConnell once every 6 years, while the coal industry gets to vote every day, with dollars.  The deck is stacked.
  • One of the entities at the Lexington event, distributing flyers and speaking through a bullhorn, was the Kentucky Democratic Socialists.  They claimed to have an environmental project to justify their presence, but one suspects they have a project for every occasion.  Their agenda suggests that they were politicizing this event.
  • The crowd was underwhelming.  About twenty minutes in, I counted just over forty people, and school children were less than half of that number.
  • Three suits watched us from the vestibule of the federal courthouse.  US Marshals?  FBI?
  • Most of the high school students who spoke at the event were articulate, but they are the outliers.
  • Although I am a scientist, I am jaded about people who claim that authority as their main argument for a holding.  As a scientist, I always suspect fortune telling and handwaving.
  • It would not surprise me if the world were indeed in a warming phase, of some finite duration.
  • It would surprise me to find that there is some set of incontrovertible evidence predicting the future.  I am reminded of Butch Cassidy‘s movie prognostication that “The fall will probably kill ya.”  Are we sure that nothing else will get us before global warming does?
  • Do we think that politicians even care?  Do we think that corporate CEO’s, who are concerned only with this year’s books, care about the future?
  • Anthropogenic is the 50 cent word we use to show we are smart enough not to insist that humans take the blame for global warming.  Human nature is part of Nature.  We are the ones who buy extended cab pickup trucks and Mercedes SUV’s as soon as gas prices dip slightly.
  • Do we think that people, who have been engaged in war throughout their history, will suddenly do something that makes sense?
  • Do we think the Earth was created only for the short term health and welfare of the few generations living today?
  • I am not a denier.  I am not a decrier.  I am not a seer.  I am not a fearmonger.  I am not a scientist who thinks he is part of a priesthood.

— Verbal Vol

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The First Rule of AIPAC Is: You Do Not Talk about AIPAC

Washington’s political establishment went berserk when US Representative Ilhan Omar (D-MN) publicly noted that US-Israel relations are “all about the Benjamins”  — slang for $100 bills, referring to money shoveled at American politicians by the American Israel Public Affairs Group (AIPAC).

Omar was accused of antisemitism — immediately by Republicans, shortly after by members of her own party — and bullied into apologizing. She may or may not be prejudiced against Jews,  but even if she is, that wasn’t her real offense.

Her real offense was  publicly mentioning the irrefutable fact that many members of Congress take their marching orders from a foreign power’s lobbying apparatus (an apparatus not, as required by law, registered under the Foreign Agents Registration Act), at least partly because those marching orders come with promises of significant donations to those politicians’ campaigns.

AIPAC itself doesn’t make direct donations to political campaigns. But AIPAC and other pro-Israel lobbying groups like Christians United For Israel punch well above their weight in American politics, largely by motivating their supporters to financially support and work for “pro-Israel” candidates in general elections and help weed out “anti-Israel” candidates in party primaries.

By the way, “pro-Israel” in this context always means “supportive of the jingoism of Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party,” and never “supportive of the many Israelis who’d like peace with the Palestinian Arabs.”

One AIPAC supporter  alone, casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, spent $65 million getting Republicans elected, including $25 million supporting Donald Trump, in 2016.  But that $25 million was only put into action after Trump retreated from his early position of “neutrality” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, publicly prostrated himself to AIPAC in a speech at one of its events, and pronounced himself “the most pro-Israel presidential candidate in history.”

But: We’re not supposed to talk about that. Ever. And it’s easy to see why.

If most Americans noticed that many  members of Congress (as well as most presidents) are selling their influence over US policy to a foreign power, we might do something about it.

For decades, howling “antisemitism” any time the matter came up proved an effective tactic for shutting down public discussion of the “special relationship” under which Israel receives lavish foreign aid subsidies, effective control of US foreign policy in the Middle East, and lately even state (and pending federal) legislation requiring government contractors to sign loyalty oaths to Israel’s government.

The Israeli lobby’s power to prevent that discussion seems to be slipping, however. Why? In part because the lobby’s money and political support, which used to be spent buying both sides of the partisan aisle, has begun tilting heavily Republican in recent years, freeing some Democrats to not “stay bought.” And in part because the newest generation of politicians includes some like Ilhan Omar who aren’t for sale (to Israel, anyway).

Decades of unquestioning obedience to the Israel lobby has drawn the US into needless and costly conflicts  not even remotely related to the defense of the United States. We’ll be better off when the “special relationship,” and the corruption underlying it, ends.

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How School Districts Weaponize Child Protection Services Against Uncooperative Parents

Schooling is adept at rooting out individuality and enforcing compliance. In his book, Understanding Power, Noam Chomsky writes: “In fact, the whole educational and professional training system is a very elaborate filter, which just weeds out people who are too independent, and who think for themselves, and who don’t know how to be submissive, and so on—because they’re dysfunctional to the institutions.”

This filtering process begins very early in a child’s schooling as conformity is rewarded and divergence is punished.

Public Schooling Breeds Obedience

Most of us played this game as schoolchildren. We know the rules. The kids who raise their hands, color in the lines, and obey succeed; the kids who challenge the rules struggle. The problem now is that the rules are extending beyond the classroom. Parents are increasingly required to obey, to conform to a school’s demands even if they believe such orders may not be appropriate for their child.

In my advocacy work with homeschooling families across the country, I frequently hear stories from parents who decided to homeschool their kids because schools were pressuring them to comply with various special education plans, push medications onto their children, or submit to other restrictive procedures they felt were not in their child’s best interest. Even more heartbreaking is the growing trend of school officials to unleash child protective services (CPS) on parents, homeschooling or not, who refuse to give in to a district’s demands.

Weaponizing Child Protective Services

An investigative report by The Hechinger Report and HuffPost released last month revealed that schools are increasingly using child protective services as a “weapon” against parents. It said:

Fed up with what they see as obstinate parents who don’t agree to special education services for their child, or disruptive kids who make learning difficult, schools sometimes use the threat of a child-protection investigation to strong-arm parents into complying with the school’s wishes or transferring their children to a new school. That approach is not only improper, but it can be devastating for families, even if the allegations are ultimately determined to be unfounded.

More troubling, these threats disproportionately target low-income and minority parents. According to the report:

Such families also have fewer resources to fight back. When a family in a wealthy Brooklyn neighborhood learned roughly two years ago that their child’s school had initiated an ACS [New York’s Administration for Children’s Services] investigation against them, they sued the city education department. Parents from lower-income, majority-black and Latino neighborhoods, few of whom can afford that option, say such investigations can be a regular, even expected, part of parenting.

Bullying Proactive Parents

For parents who are unhappy with their child’s school and decide to withdraw their child for homeschooling, threats of child welfare investigations can sometimes turn to actions. In Massachusetts, a mother is reportedly suing the Worcester Public Schools after school officials called the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families (DCF) on her for alleged “educational neglect,” even though the mother contends that she dutifully filed her homeschooling paperwork for her eight-year-old son mid-year.

Brian Huskie, a public high school teacher and homeschooling father in New York, noted a similar case last year with one of his students. Dissatisfied with the school, the parents decided to remove their daughter from the district, filed the necessary homeschooling paperwork, and were soon visited by child protective services investigating “educational neglect.” Huskie detailed the incident on his blog, writing that the school made a “decision to weaponize CPS against a district family.”

Parents who push back against a district’s recommendations or withdraw their child from school for homeschooling are often trying to ensure their child’s well-being. Questioning various educational interventions and examining alternatives is part of a parent’s job. They should be praised for looking out for their child’s best interest, while schools should be sure that they use social services agencies to investigate serious claims of abuse and neglect—not just district snubs or paperwork quarrels.

If, as Chomsky suggests, many of us have grown acquiescent to power due to our successful schooling, it can be hard to challenge authority. It can be even harder when that authority is strengthened by government force and when we may not have the resources to fight it.

Supporting parents, broadening their education choices, and respecting their decisions are crucial steps in liberating families and curbing government coercion.

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Spinoza – A Man for Our Troubled Times

In these interesting times, we all need someone to admire. I have found such a one in Benedict de Spinoza (1632-1677), the 17th-century rationalist liberal philosopher who advocated freedom of thought and expression, toleration, and simple kindness.

Spinoza lived in what at the time was the most liberal place on earth, the Dutch Republic, his Jewish Portuguese family having moved there after Portugal expelled its Jewish population in 1497. He seems to have been a free thinker at an early age, and it apparently got him into trouble with the Jewish community of Amsterdam. In 1656, at the tender age 23, his synagogue banned him for life from the community for “abominable heresies … and … monstrous deeds.” The excommunication decree — the charem — left no doubt about how the Jews of Amsterdam were to regard the young man:

By decree of the angels and by the command of the holy men, we excommunicate, expel, curse and damn Baruch de Espinoza, with the consent of God, Blessed be He, and with the consent of the entire holy congregation, and in front of these holy scrolls with the 613 precepts which are written therein; cursing him with the excommunication with which Joshua banned Jericho and with the curse which Elisha cursed the boys and with all the castigations which are written in the Book of the Law. Cursed be he by day and cursed be he by night; cursed be he when he lies down and cursed be he when he rises up. Cursed be he when he goes out and cursed be he when he comes in. The Lord will not spare him, but then the anger of the Lord and his jealousy shall smoke against that man, and all the curses that are written in this book shall lie upon him, and the Lord shall blot out his name from under heaven. And the Lord shall separate him unto evil out of all the tribes of Israel, according to all the curses of the covenant that are written in this book of the law. But you that cleave unto the Lord your God are alive every one of you this day.

It ordered “that no one should communicate with him neither in writing nor accord him any favor nor stay with him under the same roof nor within four cubits [six feet] in his vicinity; nor shall he read any treatise composed or written by him.”

Spinoza was not upset with this development; he apparently thought his excommunication merely saved him the trouble of leaving the community on his own initiative. So he changed his name from the Hebrew word for blessed, Baruch,  to the Latin equivalent, Benedictus. However, he lived in a time and place in which being unaffiliated with any community had its disadvantages.

What had he done to deserve this treatment? No one is really sure because he had not yet written a word, and he would not publish a book for several years. But he must have been talking to friends about the philosophy he was formulating. If so, we should have no problem understanding why Spinoza would have outraged the Jewish authorities, who feared anything that might jeopardize the community’s relatively free status in the Protestant republic. His writings, published between those of Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, would reject the immortality of the soul and the divine origin of the Bible, while arguing that God was nothing more than nature, or existence, itself, without a consciousness or will with which to command, reward, punish, or listen to human beings. His famous phrase was Deus sive Natura, God or/as Nature. For Spinoza, nothing could be beyond nature and logic; thus, no supernatural being or realm existed.

When I (along with others) nominate Spinoza for hero status, I am thinking specifically of his political philosophy, which he expressed in his anonymously published A Theological-Political Treatise (1670), which was condemned as “a book forged in hell.” The authorship of the book soon became an open secret, and all but his book on Descartes were banned in the Dutch Republic and elsewhere. Spinoza also lived in interesting times, which were no doubt on his mind as he formulated his outlook: the Thirty Years’ War ended in 1648 and the English Civil War raged from 1642 to 1651.

As the libertarian philosopher Douglas Den Uyl notes in God, Man, and Well-Being: Spinoza’s Modern Humanism, Spinoza was very much in the tradition of Greek philosophy, but he went the Greek thinkers one better by rejecting the state as a shaper of souls and promoter of virtue. What Spinoza called “blessedness” cannot be achieved through external forces but only through an internal process that individuals undertake. (Den Uyl’s earlier book on Spinoza, a doctoral dissertation, is Power, State, and Freedom: An Interpretation of Spinoza’s Political Philosophy.)

For Spinoza (alas, no anarchist, but see Daniel Garber’s lecture at 44:00), the socially contracted democratic-republican state had one task: to produce security — full stop. Security enables individuals to 1) live in safety, 2) pursue understanding, which is the key to activeness, power in the sense of efficacy, virtue, and excellence, and 3) enjoy the benefits of cooperation with others through the division of labor. But, properly, number two is neither the state’s direct nor indirect goal. Against the claim that Spinoza looked to the state to promote virtue if only indirectly, Den Uyl refers to Spinoza’s unfinished Political Treatise, where he writes, “The best way to organize a state is easily discovered by considering the purpose of civil order, which is nothing other than peace and security of life.” Virtue is not even an indirect goal? No, because, Den Uyl points out, the failure of people to become more virtuous would not indicate a deficiency in the state. Virtue is a private internal matter.

As an aside, I note that for Spinoza, living actively according to reason (understanding), rather than passively according to appetites and (other) “external” forces, enables one to accomplish more than one’s own flourishing directly; it also encourages others to live according to reason, which in turn further promotes one’s own flourishing.

Another Spinoza scholar who finds this political philosophy especially worth studying today is Steven Nadler. In his 2016 Aeon article “Why Spinoza Still Matters” (from which many of the Spinoza quotes below are taken), Nadler writes:

At a time when Americans seem willing to bargain away their freedoms for security, when politicians talk of banning people of a certain faith from our shores, and when religious zealotry exercises greater influence on matters of law and public policy, Spinoza’s philosophy – especially his defence of democracy, liberty, secularity and toleration – has never been more timely. In his distress over the deteriorating political situation in the Dutch Republic, and despite the personal danger he faced, Spinoza did not hesitate to boldly defend the radical Enlightenment values that he, along with many of his compatriots, held dear. In Spinoza we can find inspiration for resistance to oppressive authority and a role model for intellectual opposition to those who, through the encouragement of irrational beliefs and the maintenance of ignorance, try to get citizens to act contrary to their own best interests….

The political ideal that Spinoza promotes in the Theological-Political Treatise is a secular, democratic commonwealth, one that is free from meddling by ecclesiastics. Spinoza is one of history’s most eloquent advocates for freedom and toleration.

In his treatise, Spinoza was quite clear: “The state can pursue no safer course than to regard piety and religion as consisting solely in the exercise of charity and just dealing, and that the right of the sovereign, both in religious and secular spheres, should be restricted to men’s actions, with everyone being allowed to think what he will and to say what he thinks.”

And: “Freedom to philosophise [on all things –SR] may not only be allowed without danger to piety and the stability of the republic, but that it cannot be refused without destroying the peace of the republic and piety itself.”

Further: “A government that attempts to control men’s minds is regarded as tyrannical, and a sovereign is thought to wrong his subjects and infringe their right when he seeks to prescribe for every man what he should accept as true and reject as false, and what are the beliefs that will inspire him with devotion to God. All these are matters belonging to individual right, which no man can surrender even if he should so wish.”

Nadler elaborates: “No matter what laws are enacted against speech and other means of expression, citizens will continue to say what they believe, only now they will do so in secret. Any attempt to suppress freedom of expression will, once again, only weaken the bonds of loyalty that unite subjects to sovereign. In Spinoza’s view, intolerant laws lead ultimately to anger, revenge and sedition.”

For Spinoza, it was not enough to have only the freedom to think any thoughts. “The more difficult case,” Nadler writes, “concerns the liberty of citizens to express those beliefs, either in speech or in writing. And here Spinoza goes further than anyone else in the 17th century:

‘Utter failure will attend any attempt in a commonwealth to force men to speak only as prescribed by the sovereign despite their different and opposing opinions.… The most tyrannical government will be one where the individual is denied the freedom to express and to communicate to others what he thinks, and a moderate government is one where this freedom is granted to every man.’”

Alas, Spinoza was no modern libertarian, although (as Nadler emphasizes) he was a far better liberal than John Locke, whose Letter Concerning Toleration did not extend the courtesy to the beliefs, not to mention the public displays, of atheists and Catholics.

Nevertheless, Spinoza thought one can be free “in any kind of state.” How so? The free person is guided by reason, he wrote, and reason favors peace; therefore, the reasonable person obeys the state’s laws because “peace … cannot be attained unless the general laws of the state be respected. Therefore the more he is free, the more constantly will he respect the laws of his country, and obey the commands of the sovereign power to which he is subject.” Now Spinoza might have been thinking of a commonwealth in which the laws are perfectly appropriate to rational persons — except that he says we can be free in any kind of state. Does it follow that ignoring unjust statutes really risks general civil strife? I think Spinoza would reply, in a Hobbesian way, that “justice is dependent on the laws of the authorities.” Yes, civil strife is not conducive to the good life, but neither are unjust statutes.

Spinoza drew a more-or-less bright line between the expression of thoughts and action. As Nadler points out (in this video), Spinoza thought the secular authority had a right to dictate how religion was publicly practiced in order to safeguard the peace. Practitioners of alternative religions should be fully free to think and say what they please, but their public rites were to be permitted only within prescribed limits. As one can see, Spinoza is in some respects a Hobbesian though he was more liberal because Hobbes, unlike Spinoza, had the sovereign serving as the arbiter of right opinion in religious and other matters — for the sake of civil peace, of course. The one time that Spinoza mentions Hobbes is in a note in his treatise: “Now reason (though Hobbes thinks otherwise) is always on the side of peace, which cannot be attained unless the general laws of the state be respected.”

Spinoza wrote:

The rites of religion and the outward observances of piety should be in accordance with the public peace and well-being, and should therefore be determined by the sovereign power alone. I speak here only of the outward observances of piety and the external rites of religion, not of piety, itself, nor of the inward worship of God, nor the means by which the mind is inwardly led to do homage to God in singleness of heart.

Moreover, Nadler says, “Spinoza does not support the absolute freedom of speech. He explicitly states that the expression of seditious ideas is not to be tolerated by the sovereign. There’s to be no protection for speech that advocates the overthrow of the government, disobedience to its laws, or harm to fellow citizens.” Citizens should be free to argue for repeal of laws, but that’s about it; they may not rebel or even express ideas that implicitly call for rebellion because it would undermine the social contract and peace. Nadler acknowledges that, despite Spinoza’s definition of seditious beliefs, the vagueness of that phrase and his notion of implicitly inciting rebellion properly trouble civil libertarians.

Nevertheless, Spinoza ends his treatise on a high note: “The safest way for a state is to lay down the rule that religion is comprised solely in the exercise of charity and justice, and that the rights of rulers in sacred, no less than in secular matters, should merely have to do with actions, but that every man should think what he likes and say what he thinks.” Not bad for 1677.

Spinoza knew he was entirely free in the world’s freest state. (Friends had been persecuted by the state for their ideas.) Besides not putting his name on the book, which was written in Latin rather than the vernacular, he wrote in his final paragraph:

It remains only to call attention to the fact that I have written nothing which I do not most willingly submit to the examination and approval of my country’s rulers; and that I am willing to retract anything which they shall decide to be repugnant to the laws, or prejudicial to the public good. I know that I am a man, and as a man liable to error, but against error I have taken scrupulous care, and have striven to keep in entire accordance with the laws of my country, with loyalty, and with morality.

Whatever his limits, we have much to learn from and admire about Spinoza, especially these days.

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