Read with caution: Why 'The Law' lacks context for today’s readers

Frédéric Bastiat

Frédéric Bastiat

I read The Law by Frédéric Bastiat in 1977, when I was 19 years old and attending a small college in North Texas. The Law, along with other writings on liberty, had a profound effect on my intellectual development.

Sutherland Institute has distributed dozens of copies of The Law over the years to introduce responsible citizens to ideas on liberty. In fact, for several years The Law has been one of three books we provide inner-circle donors to get their minds focused on freedom (the other two books are The Road to Serfdom by Friedrich Hayek and Economics in One Lesson by Henry Hazlitt).

But last year I took The Law out of the Sutherland collection and replaced it with Freedom and Virtue: The Conservative/Libertarian Debate by George Carey. Frankly, I came to feel we had been doing more harm than good by sharing The Law in this manner.

I’ll explain.

Demographically speaking, Millennials tends to be increasingly progressive in their politics. Many gravitate to the progressive left (i.e., liberals) but many also lean toward the progressive right (i.e., libertarians). Surveys tell us that Millennials in Utah, including those among the predominant Mormon population, tend to focus more on individual liberties and less on the common good. That focus is more on “choice” among consenting adults and less on the full constellation of rights and responsibilities that are part of authentic freedom.

I feel The Law, appropriate for 1850 when it was written and even 100 years later, now simply fuels the modern appetite for selfish individualism and justifies selfishness as doctrine. As conservative icon Russell Kirk once quipped, “We flawed human creatures are sufficiently selfish already without being exhorted to pursue selfishness on principle.”

This isn’t to say that The Law isn’t valuable as political philosophy. But 2014 is not 1850 or even 1950 in terms of understanding and rationally applying ideas of individual liberty. Ideas stated rudimentarily, but refreshingly, even radically, in 1850, seem incomplete and immature today. Read more

Twice as good, half as well, never enough

half loaf cornbreadIs it more important to stand on principle, or get while the getting is good? Is settling for half a loaf selling out, or a step in the right direction? Does mixing metaphors like concrete weigh prose down, or liberate the literary soul?

OK, no one but the grammar police really cares about that last one. But the first two will decide the limited government movement’s fate. That’s what’s splitting us right now, you see. Libertarian-leaners, classical liberals, and “establishment” conservatives are less divided by issues and objectives than we are about timelines and roadmaps. We all want to see the same movie, but we’re wearing ourselves out haggling over which showing and how to get there. And whatever we decide, the other guys will be there first. Let’s see if I can stick with one metaphor long enough to explain why.

The reason they’ll be there first is because they’re running the theater. Government employees are predominantly big government-type people. That’s not meant as a pejorative. It’s simple common sense. If you think government is the answer and you care about the question, you are more likely to migrate to government employment (it used to be government service, but the days of the dollar-a-year man are gone) than someone who sees government as the problem; or more likely, who sees private work or charity as the answer.

The simple fact is that when conservatives engage in the political and bureaucratic arena, it’s almost always an away game. One reason is noted in this excellent piece by Kevin Williamson: “[C]onservatives are forever in a position of running against handouts, and handouts are popular.”

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Weakening the ‘old habits of decency’

The Cook County Juvenile Detention Facility and Court, Chicago.

A juvenile detention facility in Chicago.

A wonderfully stated warning regarding the effect of government largesse:

A sentimental utilitarianism argued that prosperity would abolish sin. It was a shallow argument, ignorant of history; for had it been true, all rich men’s sons, these many centuries past, would have been perfectly virtuous.

To the student of history, as contrasted with the doctrinaire positivistic reformer, it seems that people are decent, when they are decent, chiefly out of habit. They fall into habits of decent conduct by religious instruction, by settled family life, by assuming private responsibilities, by the old incentives of private gain and advancement in rewards for decent conduct. When the individual seems to run no risks; when food, shelter, and even comforts are guaranteed by the state, no matter what one’s conduct may be; when the state arrogates to itself a complex of responsibilities that formerly were undertaken by church, family, voluntary association, and the private person – why, then the old habits of decency are weakened, and the police constable and the Borstal* are required to maintain precariously by compulsion what once was taken for granted in Britain and elsewhere.”

– Russell Kirk, ‘The Sword of Imagination’

*youth detention center

‘The Yellow Bird’ and the limits of liberty

This post is a transcript of a 4-minute weekly radio commentary aired on several Utah radio stations.

canaryEnglish journalist and author G.K. Chesterton once wrote a parable about liberty titled “The Yellow Bird.” In this parable, a Russian scholar, Professor Ivanhov, is visiting a friend in the English countryside. The professor had just published a much-praised book, The Psychology of Liberty. In short, he’s a zealous advocate of individual liberty and the elimination of all restraints on human conduct.

The guest cottage in which he stayed houses a small yellow canary in a beautiful cage. The canary seemed very happy to be where it was. Its song resonated throughout the cottage. But being the champion of freedom he is, Professor Ivanhov is convinced the little creature would be much happier and more fulfilled out in the world. So he liberates the canary from its cage and out the window the bird flies.

But it doesn’t fly for long. The wild birds of the woods were not as discriminating as the professor regarding liberty and soon ravaged the little creature to nothing but feathers and bones.

The next day, Professor Ivanhov set his sights on liberating the poor goldfish swimming contentedly around their bowl. With a crash of glass, the goldfish were set free.

On his third day at the cottage, Professor Ivanhov, contemplating the arching “round prison” of the sky, ultimately blows up the guest cottage with him in it culminating the end of a life lived in absolute liberty.

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What’s fair about equal outcomes?


By Carl Graham

Have you come across this phrase before? “Equal people are not free and free people are not equal.” The point of that saying is that no society can guarantee equal outcomes for its members, and trying comes at the cost of freedom.

The reason is that people bring different attributes, talents, aspirations and even luck to the table. Equalizing those things means artificially holding some of them back and propping some of them up; in other words, taking away their freedom to succeed or fail or even to dream.

Enforced equality of outcomes would mean forcing beautiful people to wear masks, holding down stronger people with weights, depriving athletes or actors of the ability to use their talents, and more. I think we can all agree that wouldn’t be fair, so why is it fair to deprive risk-takers, hard workers and innovators of what they produce to make them equal with those who have worked less, taken fewer risks, or just aren’t blessed with the same skills and talents? Clearly it isn’t.

Attempts to equalize outcomes are the inevitable results of envy or of seeing the world as zero-sum. The envy argument speaks for itself. If you believe your failures are the fault of others, it’s not much of a leap to wish punishment on them. That’s hardly a fair or moral argument.

But those who believe in a zero-sum world think that winners must equal losers, and so the losers must be made whole. That’s not the way our world works. Nobody is worse off because Bill Gates is a billionaire. In fact, millions of people’s lives are much better because he had the incentive to bring PCs to the masses; and those who followed him and got rich building apps and hardware and businesses made even more people better off. They didn’t take slices of the pie away from others; they created their own slices and grew the pie for everyone else in the process. We should encourage that, not punish it.

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3 ideas that changed the world

Cuerpo_humano_jaqaruThe following post is a transcript of a 4-minute weekly radio commentary aired on several Utah radio stations.

Standing in a checkout line at the supermarket, I saw a special edition of Time magazine titled, “100 Ideas That Changed the World: History’s Greatest Breakthroughs, Inventions and Theories.” Because I’m in the idea business, I was curious, so I picked it up.

Many subjects and great people didn’t make the list – those subjects are important and the great people no doubt had significant influence in world history, but this particular magazine is about ideas. Photography made the list, as did the computer. The free market, electricity, television and geometry made the list. Every major religion is on the list, including every major proponent of those religions, and, of course, every major political philosophy and central advocate showed up. I was gratified to see that Edmund Burke’s conservatism made the list and was not surprised to find opponents of conservatism, such as utilitarianism, Marxism and atheism on the list.

But I got thinking: If I had to pick just three ideas that changed the world, which three ideas would I choose? I immediately set aside technology. For me the winner is clearly electricity and all of the science that preceded its unveiling. Electricity is the single technological difference between the modern world and the developing world (with clean water a close second).

No, I stuck with what I knew best: ideas about politics, religion and culture.

Read more

Thomas Jefferson and John Adams: Founding Fathers pass together on the 50th Fourth of July

Founding Fathers, political combatants and finally old-age companions: Thomas Jefferson and John Adams

Founding Fathers, political combatants and finally old-age companions: Thomas Jefferson and John Adams

As the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence drew near, twilight was fast approaching for two living American icons. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were dying. Former presidents both, of course, but more than that, the two had been catalysts at every major step in the formation and advancement of the infant United States: the arguments for freedom, the break from England, the writing of the Declaration of Independence, the Revolution, the Constitution, the early years of a new republic. But now the mortal sojourn was drawing to a close for these two men of immense capacity.

They had been invited to numerous Fourth of July celebrations in 1826, but each was too weak to attend any of them. Adams was asked for some thoughts that local leaders could share during the Quincy, Mass., festivities. “I will give you,” Adams proclaimed, “Independence forever!” When asked if would like to say anything else, he replied, “Not a word.”

Jefferson composed a letter that was shared widely across the country. He wrote, in part:

May it be to the world, what I believe it will be (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all) the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government…. All eyes are opened or opening to the rights of man. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few, booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately by the grace of God. These are the grounds of hope for others; for ourselves, let the annual return to this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them.

Neither was expected to live to the Fourth, but both men did. As Adams lay breathing with great difficulty, efforts were made to make him more comfortable by changing his position. He awoke and, told that it was the Fourth, said clearly, “It is a great day. It is a good day.” Read more

Conservatism and freedom: Sen. Lee gets it

familyof3Utah Senator Mike Lee delivered a superb exposition on how conservatism, accurately interpreted and applied, offers the best hope of providing the maximum amount of freedom and highest quality of life for more citizens than any other alternative. Sen. Lee spoke to the Faith and Freedom Coalition yesterday, saying,

We’re all committed to bedrock principles of individual liberty, individual rights, and personal responsibility.  But the reason we fight for individual freedom is the strength, vitality, and value of the communities free individuals form.

The alternative to big government is not small government. The alternative to big government is a thriving, flourishing nation of cooperative communities – where your success depends on your service.

It’s a free enterprise economy where everyone works for everyone else, competing to see who can figure out the best way to help the most people.

And it’s a voluntary civil society, where free individuals come together to meet each other’s needs, fill in the gaps, and make sure no one gets left behind.

Conservatism has never been a vision of isolated loners. Ours is a vision of husbands and wives; parents and children; neighbors and neighborhoods; volunteers and congregations; bosses and employees; businesses and customers; clubs, teams, groups, associations and friends. Read more

Defending the pillars of society

sutherland file pictures 008The following post is a transcript of a 4-minute weekly radio commentary aired on several Utah radio stations:

Last week, at the Sutherland Institute annual dinner, our special guest was Professor Robbie George from Princeton. Professor George is described by The New York Times as “this country’s most influential conservative Christian thinker.” His resume is so long that it took Utah Valley University President Matt Holland a full five minutes to go through it – President Holland being one of Professor George’s students.

To put it simply, Robbie George is on the front lines in defending marriage and family as a scholar, intellectual and lawyer. His National Organization for Marriage has been the foremost activist group in passing Proposition 8 in California and defending marriage laws throughout the nation.

In his remarks at the Sutherland annual dinner, Professor George addressed what he calls the “Five Pillars of a Decent and Dynamic Society.”

Any healthy society, any decent society, will rest upon three pillars. The first is respect for the human person—the individual human being and his dignity. Where this pillar is in place, the formal and informal institutions of society, and the beliefs and practices of the people, will be such that every member of the human family…is treated as a person—that is, as a subject bearing profound, inherent, and equal worth and dignity…. Read more

Scholar Robert P. George speaks at Sutherland dinner on the pillars of a decent society

robertgeorge2Princeton’s Robert P. George spoke at Sutherland Institute’s annual dinner on Tuesday, giving an impassioned defense of the traditional family structure as the key to a free, prosperous and happy society.

“Although no family is perfect, no institution matches the healthy family in its capacity to transmit to each new generation the understandings and traits of character,” he said in his speech.

“Every institution in society depends on something it cannot produce — that is, there being an ample supply of basically decent … men and women” who have learned their values in the family. “And if the family doesn’t produce them, they will not be produced.”

Here’s what the Deseret News reported:

Princeton University professor Robert P. George, once dubbed by The New York Times as “this country’s most influential conservative Christian thinker,” spoke to Utah leaders and students about the importance of protecting traditional marriage at a dinner hosted by the Sutherland Institute on Tuesday and a lecture at Brigham Young University’s Wheatley Institution on Wednesday.

George emphasized the biologically intact family as an indispensable pillar of a decent society.

Click here to read the rest of this story at the Deseret News website.

Click here to watch Sutherland Institute’s video of George’s speech at Tuesday’s dinner.