Thoughts on Anti-Political Libertarianism

When I was growing up, in the 1990s, there was a commonly held view that people were becoming anti-political, and that a rejection of politics meant a more libertarian world. If politics became irrelevant, then government would become irrelevant. Technology would leave it behind. Silicon Valley was to be the anti-Washington, center of the anti-political America. All this contrasts with the idea of self-government, that people hold government in check and make sure it represents them. The more sophisticated you were, the idea went, the more you rejected politics.

If we reject politics, we have no ability to resist any group (a technocratic elite, for instance) that gains control of government and declares itself “beyond politics.” In fact, distaste for politics may lead them to embrace such a group. Techno-utopian anti-political sentiment can easily become: “get politics out of the way, so that technical experts can run government pragmatically.”

At TED talks, where futurists and thought leaders get together and figure out how to make the world a better place, this “post-political” ideology is prevalent. I recall seeing an Al Gore TED in which a questioner told Gore it was sad he failed to become President simply because of a “design flaw” in the Constitution, presumably meaning the Electoral College. Using such technological language to frame an understanding of the political world leaves no place for competing goals or ideas, only unintentional glitches in a program whose goals we all agree on.

So a distaste for vulgar, petty politics is, by itself, not much of a grounding for libertarianism. Barack Obama’s “get politics out of the way, so I can implement my grand vision” is not at bottom so different from libertarian Nick Gillespie’s “get politics out of the way, so I can express my individuality by smoking pot, listening to Nirvana, and choosing a highly personalized eggplant or ice cream flavor.” (Gillespie: “There is no mainstream…There are only alternative lifestyles now, so in a real sense I think we’re living in a semi-libertarian world.”) And it is perfectly possible to have a state that is free of political constraints and an economy that delivers more and more ice cream flavors every year, as China has shown.

Liberaltarians are people who think the culture they are most comfortable with, blue state culture, is more receptive to libertarian thinking than red state culture.  This is because they think we are still living in the 1990s, when there was no ideological left.  But the zeitgeist has shifted greatly, and really, the liberaltarians drifted with it. For all their supposed independence, the Bush years and cultural polarization combined to make a certain kind of libertarian more inclined to identify with the blue state camp, and more hostile to things like religion, patriotism and natural law, that can ground opposition to that camp’s enthusiasms. Relatedly, this year’s Libertarian Presidential candidate is of course the most reasonable, centrist, mainstream, serious Libertarian of all time, Gary Johnson. He favors forcing bakers to bake at gay weddings; there must be no dissent against the reasonable, centrist state religion. (So much for “there is no mainstream”! But Johnson’s for unlimited choices in ice cream flavor.)


As an illustration of the libertarian anti-political ideal, consider Shakespeare’s Falstaff. He’s a Reason magazine reader, a sophisticated amoralist, anti-war and anti-patriotism. He is certainly not a rebel, however. The political commitments involved in becoming a rebel would be inconceivable for him. The rebel is Hotspur, who has the fighting spirit that Falstaff thoroughly rejects. As Harold Bloom writes, “Going to the battle, Hotspur cries out, ‘Doomsday is near, die all, die merrily,’ while Falstaff, on the battlefield, says, ‘Give me life.’”

In fact, Falstaff is a friend of the state, and deploys his wit against rebellion. The rebel Earl of Worcester comes to negotiate; King Henry IV asks why he has taken up arms against the King; the Earl says he didn’t want war. Henry asks “You have not sought it! How comes it, then?” Falstaff says “Rebellion lay in his way, and he found it.” Clearly, he instinctively sides with the crown and his dear friend Prince Hal. In his rationalism, he gently pokes fun at reverence for the throne, but the throne can do without reverence and be justified instead on the grounds of Hobbesian rationalism.

Theories on Trump

First, I’ll look at why Trump won the Republican nomination, even I and a lot of people thought he wouldn’t. Basically, why didn’t the things people thought would stop him actually stop him. Then I’ll consider the separate question of the actual source of his appeal.

Part of the problem was he had support from self-described moderates and self-described conservatives. Whereas normally liberal states help defeat anti-establishment conservatives, in this case they supported the anti-establishment moderate. He was a pragmatist who would bring his business acumen to Washington, and so presumably attracted a lot of Mitt Romney 2012 voters.

What was also necessary for him to win, though, was the polarization in the anti-Trump vote. The sort of moderates who see conservatism as too vulgar, and favor deference to respectable opinion, naturally opposed Trump, but they could not rally behind Ted Cruz. They became Kasich bitter-enders. Conservatives could not stand Kasich. People like me kept expecting a convergence toward Rubio, and it finally looked like it was going to happen, and then somehow it didn’t. Why not?

Movement conservatives embraced unreasonable expectations of Congressional Republicans and concluded that they couldn’t be trusted. Of course, we knew that, but usually that sort of thing ends up being all talk. Did the Tea Party really think the post-2010 Republican Party hadn’t changed from the Party of George W. Bush? Apparently so. “Insiders” (Boehner, McConnell, Paul Ryan and, by association, Rubio) weren’t delivering much in the way of policy victories, and couldn’t find other ways of proving to Tea Partiers that their intentions were good. Cruz, with the government shutdown, signaled commitment.

I happen to think conservatives were mistaken, and that Boehner and McConnell were quite good at what they did. But there weren’t any outstanding proofs of this. And conservatives wanted proof. Social trust allows societies to function; requiring a really complete proof of trustworthiness is inefficient. Breakdown in trust is a big part of our political crisis, and the Tea Party is part of this larger society, so naturally it participates in this distrust. (The lower social trust is, of course, the more rational it then becomes for people to distrust each other.) After 16 years of failed Presidencies (the same amount of times worth of failed Presidencies as we had between LBJ’s second term and Carter’s Presidency, inclusive), after TARP, after Obamacare, the Tea Party just couldn’t bring itself to give the benefit of the doubt to anyone in “the political class.” In that sense, it really wasn’t about Boehner-McConnell-Ryan-Rubio themselves.


But what about Trump’s own appeal (to what is, we should always bear in mind, a minority of Republicans)? Here’s some explanations:

  1. His proposed Muslim immigration ban. Anti-establishment, anti-Islam candidates are big in Europe; why shouldn’t they be in the U.S.?

2. The departure of college-educated voters, experts and people with respectable opinions from the Republican Party. There is less deterrent for a candidate to say non-respectable things when the people who are turned off by such things are voting the other way regardless.

3. Masses of nominally conservative voters are voting on identity rather than policy. A voter may not know much about policy or, more importantly, be able to predict what policy issues will come up; but he wants to know that in general that people in power are acting in his interests, and aren’t beholden to the interests of bad people. Part of social trust breaking down of course is that people are more likely to vote in this way; people of other identities are more likely to act to keep you down, therefore you have to act to keep them down. See for instance Syria.

Progressives have in the last decade expressed, in rhetoric and action, increasing contempt for the “out group”- old people, white people (by which they mean “the wrong kind of white people,”) America (meaning “the wrong kind of Americans”), people without a college education, and so forth. Progressives have conveyed that people who are declining in social status have deserved this decline, that they are on the “wrong side of History.” (Of course, elite conservatives and Republicans have their own set of problems with these voters- Mitt Romney’s 47%.)

The conservative intelligentsia responds to progressive identity politics with universalist arguments for moral truth or equality under the law or universal human reason; or else arguments for a national common good. Sometimes, they respond with nationalism, which is (or can be) its own form of identity politics. But at the popular level, the counter to identity politics is…identity politics, fighting fire with fire.

Relatedly, a movement conservative is focused on policy. If Democrats pass Obamacare, the answer is to repeal Obamacare.Probably a big part of the reason Democrats went ahead and passed Obamacare, despite public opposition, is that they believed the kind of person who was against Obamacare (which was the majority of the public) is really too contemptible to deserve a political voice. They had no right to be “anti-government”; they themselves were more dependent on government than anyone, and thus should be grateful to the governing class, which ruled in their interests and knew them.

But for a movement conservative, Obamacare itself, not the cultural contempt that leads to it, is the problem.  For a voter voting on cultural identity, Obamacare is only a data point in a larger story, a symptom of a general problem.  They are responding to the contempt itself, which they see expressed in countless other ways.  Their goals are therefore necessarily vaguer, less defined. They are drawn to a candidate who signals identity with them.

4. Masses of nominally moderate voters are voting on identity rather than policy. As I mentioned, Trump has appeal to Romney voters as a businessman who will run government competently (so again, we’re not talking about a focus on policy issues, but on “competence over ideology.”) His story is a bit different from Romney’s- he presents himself as the master of the art of the deal. He will ruthlessly outsmart competitors (China) the way they have hitherto done to us, and will break gridlock to make bipartisan deals with Democrats.

He also presents a similar image to McCain’s- outsider, teller of politically incorrect truths, enemy of party orthodoxy, special interests and money in politics (he was “self-funding,” of course.) All these are good signaling devices to attract centrist voters who are interested in identity politics- money in politics especially so. Such voters are confident something is wrong with government- otherwise, it would fix things. They don’t themselves know what needs to be done (otherwise, they would vote for whoever promised to do these things), but they are confident a leader could figure it out if only he weren’t beholden to the wrong sort of people. They are convinced the politicians are acting in someone else’s interest rather than theirs, even though they can’t precisely identify how these interests are in conflict.

McCain’s famous straight talk was also comparable to the approach of Trump, whose voters believe he “tells it like it is.”  (McCain even talked about “Gooks” in Vietnam!)  A key difference is that whereas McCain won free publicity by straight talking in ways that appealed to the media, Trump wins free publicity by making the media hate him. The media says “look at this horrible thing Trump said,” but the audience doesn’t all share the media’s values. Here again the breakdown in trust may be responsible for the difference between what was effective for McCain and what is effective for Trump; people are no longer willing to accept the media as an authoritative arbiter. Those who still trust the media voted for Kasich.


But a policy-centered explanation for Trump’s rise is available, too. Back in September 2015, Ross Douthat made the case that Trump’s rise had some policy basis to it. Rather, it was Ben Carson (remember- September 2015) whose boom was personality driven, as evangelicals indulged in their regrettable tendency to pin their hopes on a heroic political savior. Trump, in contrast, was “populist and nationalist, a critic of open immigration and free trade and a backer of Social Security and progressive taxation, and he’s drawing support from working-class Republicans who tend to share those views.”

However, the reason Republican candidates tend to back upper bracket tax cuts is because all the passion within the Party is on that side. In any case the kind of upper-bracket tax cuts championed by “mainstream” Republicans like GW Bush, Mitt Romney and Marco Rubio advocate aren’t big enough for it to be worth anyone’s while getting worked up about them (Douthat always writes as if people like Steve Forbes or Ted Cruz routinely win Republican nominations; it’s how he indulges his own need for us versus them thinking.)

It is true that supporting Trump would make sense for a single-issue anti-immigration voter. But single-issue immigration candidates like Tom Tancredo never got anywhere in GOP primaries, and immigration opponents have shown a solid ability to keep the GOP in line without such people.

One possible conclusion is, then, is that Trump took the positions that made sense for a candidate pursuing the voters he was pursuing, but those policy positions don’t explain his support.

But then, other anti-immigration Republicans don’t tend to oppose free trade, so their appeal to an economically nationalist voter isn’t as complete. Then there’s the more general Jacksonianism- isolationist foreign policy, keeping out the Muslims, the argument that football is becoming too soft, keeping Jackson himself on the $20, where he’s the only voice for tens of millions of Americans. With this list, of course, we see policy substance and cultural signaling inextricably entwined; and of course the division I have been maintaining between them is artificial, though useful.

There were other ways in which Trump’s policy pitch was distinctive.  Most Republicans’ climate change talk reflects the views of conservative voters. It took place at an elite level, focused on scientific debate and cost-benefit analysis, the same things that liberal elites focus on but from the other side. Trump’s focus, by contrast, is on the loss of coal jobs, and the need to put those people back to work. When movement conservatives think of the catastrophes of the Obama years, the loss of coal jobs probably doesn’t come to mind, but at the popular level that is one of the issues that animates opposition to Obama.

Trump makes the most natural appeal to voters who know someone who’s been laid off from a coal job. For those who don’t, the concrete pitch probably still works- the Trump voter will engage in abstract thought, but needs a concrete starting point to do so. If Trump will fight for coal workers’ jobs, he’ll fight for everyone else’s jobs, too. His coal stance is consistent with a pattern; he’s also protecting jobs by making sure the Chinese don’t get the better of us on trade, after all.

Mississippi Religious Freedom Law Struck Down

A judge struck down a Mississippi law designed to protect opponents of gay marriage. Unlike other Religious Freedom Restoration Act bills, which are broadly worded to protect any religious belief, the Mississippi law explicitly protects religious beliefs about marriage. The judge’s argument was that by singling out only specific religious beliefs for protection, the law is endorsing these beliefs. Which is a debatable point, but at least it sounds like a nice, neutral argument, doesn’t it?

But then there’s this account of oral arguments (

“The judge was asking the state, what were the nonreligious reasons for this bill? And they said, ‘Well, Obergeffell (the Court case legalizing gay marriage) tipped the tables of justice away from people who are against gay marriage.’

“And Judge Reeves said, ‘Well, isn’t that like saying Brown v. Board of Education tipped the tables away from segregationists.’”

And that’s not nearly so neutral, is it? The justification has suddenly morphed to “these religious beliefs are wrong, so I’m going to strike down a law protecting them.”

Whether Voters are Rational

If they aren’t, why are they so good at getting what they want? Consider the Presidencies of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Clinton had to do conservative things to appeal to the median voter, and Bush had to do liberal things for the same reason. Some note that despite this, liberals hated Bush, and conservatives hated Clinton, and say that this shows irrationality. But it also shows voters getting what they want. To the extent both candidates offer the same basic set of substantive policies, the only remaining source of differentiation is a set of symbolic policies, and various forms of cultural signaling. So voters are rational enough, or politicians think they’re rational enough, that they get what they want substantively regardless, and the only thing left to vote on is irrational factors.

On the other hand, there are differences between the Parties. After all, not everything is about chasing the median voter. Another part of winning is to appeal to various constituencies. But aren’t these constituencies pretty good at getting what they want? Pro-gun voters are famously good at getting their way, for instance. The abortion issue has been one of the biggest substantive disagreements in American politics for decades, and people passionate about that issue quite rationally became single-issue voters and took over the respective political parties. But not everyone is strongly pro-life or pro-choice; you need to give people non-substantive reasons to vote as well.

“But wait,” you might be saying. “If similarities between the Parties proves voters are rational, and differences also prove they are rational; if voting on substance proves voters are rational, and voting on style also proves they are rational, what would make them irrational?” Indications of voter irrationality might include: an inability to get what they want; routinely voting for exciting, charismatic or superficially appealing candidates; and voting on style at the expense of substance (not just in the absence of substantive reasons to vote.

The only time recently that I can think of when an American political party really defied the voters was the Democrats passing Obamacare in 2009. When that was happening, voters in Massachusetts rejected their superficial preference for the Democratic Party and elected Scott Brown, a pro-choice, anti-Obamacare Republican perfectly suited to the state’s actual political preferences, to try to stop the bill’s passage. In the 2010 election, similarly, voters rejected Democrats in a landslide. This doesn’t add up to a proof that voters are rational, but it adds up to a lack of evidence that they are irrational. If you go back far enough, you can find other instances of Parties defying public opinion: Dukakis opposed the death penalty in 1988, and lost big; Goldwater rejected the New Deal in 1964 and lost in a landslide.


Sometimes, people indict voters by pointing to their ignorance of certain facts. For instance, “A…1996…survey found that…70 percent believed the federal budget deficit had risen in the previous five years while only 12 percent said correctly that the deficit had declined.” True, but the times when people appear to actually treat the deficit as a voting issue are those times when it really is peaking, such as 1992 and 2010. “Interviewees on the average thought that the unemployment rate of a little over 5 percent stood at over 20 percent.” Sure, but election results famously correlate well to actual economic data. Similarly, I’ve read that voters told pollsters in the mid-80s that they still thought inflation was really high. But again, they seem to have treated inflation as an actual voting issue in the 70s, when it really was high. When it declined, they rewarded Reagan with a 49 state landslide in 1984.

Of course, if election results correlated too perfectly with economic data, we could object that voters were only slightly rational- that they were using a crude criterion and ignoring circumstances. But there are outliers. In the 1982 election, for instance, the economy remained in recession, but Republicans lost only 26 House seats and no Senate seats, less than models would have predicted. Reagan’s “stay the course” message succeeded. As a 2010 New Republic article described it:

“Reagan blamed the Democrats for leaving him with ‘the worst economic mess in half a century.’ ‘Slowly, but surely, we are lifting the economy out of the mess created over the past several decades,’ he said. ‘We are on the road back.’ The Democrats, he charged, had caused the recession through profligate spending, which had caused inflation, which had caused unemployment…

“According to the NBC/Associated Press exit polls, when voters were asked whether Reagan’s economic program would eventually help or hurt the economy, 46 percent said it would help and 45 percent said it would hurt. Forty-four percent of voters blamed the Democrats for the country’s economic ills and only 41 percent blamed Reagan. A mere six percent of voters saw Reagan’s program as a ‘success,’ while 36 percent thought it was a failure. But 49 percent thought that ‘Reagan needs time for his economic program to succeed.’ That was, public opinion analyst William Schneider concluded, ‘precisely the president’s argument in his “stay the course” campaign.’” So apparently, voters can be persuaded to evaluate the policies themselves, not just take a “post hoc, ergo propter hoc” look at the results.


Mark Twain’s “Corn Pone Opinion” was a typical essay on the stupid, conformist masses. In it he wrote “men think they think upon great political questions, and they do; but they think with their party, not independently…In our late canvass half of the nation passionately believed that in silver lay salvation, the other half as passionately believed that that way lay destruction. Do you believe that a tenth part of the people, on either side, had any rational excuse for having an opinion about the matter at all.” But people lined up according to their interests. As Wikipedia says : “Everyone agreed that free silver would raise prices; the question was whether or not this inflationary measure would be beneficial…The debate pitted the pro-gold financial establishment of the Northeast, along with railroads, factories and businessmen, who were creditors who would benefit from disinflation (resulting from demand pressures on the relatively fixed gold money supply against a backdrop of unprecedented economic expansion), against poor farmers who would benefit from higher prices for their crops (resulting from the prospective expansion of the money supply by allowing silver to also circulate as money).”



Ben Carson and the Pyramids

It has come out that Ben Carson believes Joseph built the pyramids to store grain. Vox has an “explainer” article, called “Ben Carson’s bizarre theory about the pyramids, explained.”  It correctly accuses Carson of forcing history into a Biblical context. Vox then itself forces Carson’s remarks into the “religion versus science” narrative. But the matter has nothing to do with science. It does not involve falsification, replicated experiments, laws of nature or anything like that.

What people really mean when they say they favor science over religion isn’t generally that they know even the first thing about science, but that they trust the opinion of experts they consider authoritative. Now when it comes to the purpose of the pyramids, I do the same thing, but only because it is the sort of thing that is an easily established fact. If I did check out the evidence, it would be decisive, a matter of fact, and there would be nothing to debate or examine about the matter, so I don’t bother checking out the evidence, since archaeologists and the like have already done so. But all this is a matter of context, not a generalized trust in experts.

So much for the science part of science versus religion. As for the religion part, Vox argues that Carson’s problem is that he interprets the story literally, whereas actually it is “a mere allegory about God’s grace (since God was willing to provide a vision to save so many people.)” There is no further explanation at the internet’s greatest explainer site, which seems to hide all its most provocative and questionable ideas in parenthesis or in passing mentions, while being very earnest and thorough about establishing obvious or incidental matters, such as that experts reject Carson’s theory.

I’m not saying the Joseph story can’t be interpreted as allegory, but I’d like much, much more elaboration on Vox’s interpretiation. At what point does Genesis break into allegory? I mean, yes, the Garden of Eden, the Flood and so forth, but where does it break back into allegory? We have a story that’s moving right along, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and all that, and it seems like Genesis is making historical claims about flesh-and-blood people. They’re the patriarchs, for God’s sake, and really they’re historical figures. They’re acting like real people, not symbols, and doing real people things rather than symbolic things. They have supernatural experiences, of course, but that’s exactly the sort of experiences founders of a religion would be expected to have.

And surely the sons of Jacob don’t suddenly become allegorical figures. We’re talking about the founders of the twelve tribes of Israel. They have to be real people, too, right? We’re getting closer to the present, so don’t we have to keep it more real? And they all end up in Egypt somehow, or else how does Moses get them out? You can’t tell me the Hebrews didn’t think that Egypt thing was real. And Joseph’s cruel toying with his brothers when they come for food is very elaborate and realistic.

Of course there’s all the dreams and interpreting. The dreams themselves are heavily allegorical, of course, as those in the story recount and interpret them. Playing on people’s dreams is exactly how one does rise to power, so it seems reasonable to think the story is presenting Joseph’s rise as literal, too. On the other hand, maybe there’s elements of political allegory here.


Vox goes on to talk about Carson’s rejection of the Big Bang. Carson’s argument was that the big bang theory cannot explain the existence of the ordered universe. Carson holds that, as an explanation of the universe, the big bang requires too much faith. Vox quotes a guy at Slate called Phil Plait who says (to paraphrase) “No! No it doesn’t!”

Shouldn’t an explainy article outline the evidence for the big bang (not just link to a guy who links to Wikipedia and some other stuff)? And, especially since Carson at least hinted at alluding to the way the Big Bang blurs the lines between physics and metaphysics (both by his very accusation that it requires faith, and his mention of the metaphysical theories involving infinite big bangs), shouldn’t an honest explanation at least address this side of things?

For instance, the big bang theory doesn’t explain where our universe came from. It just takes us really close to the beginning, is all. Beyond that be dragons. That doesn’t mean the theory is wrong. It isn’t supposed to be an explanation of the existence of the universe, but of other things. But a real response to Carson would make this point.

Explanations that go further often take us to an eternal realm outside our universe and, if I understand correctly, outside the laws of physics, and so are metaphysical. But we get no discussion of any of this.

Vox does link to another article by Plait at Slate on the separate but related question of whether science itself is faith-based; in other words, whether it requires any presuppositions. Plait’s answer, to paraphrase: “No! No! NO!!! Absolutely not at all!” And then (now quoting directly): “Science is not faith-based, and here’s why. The scientific method makes one assumption, and one assumption only.”  Well, so much for that!

The “one assumption” behind science is that “the Universe obeys a set of rules. That’s it.” Okay, that’s a start. “There is one corollary, and that is that if the Universe follows these rules, then those rules can be deduced by observing the way the Universe behaves. This follows naturally [oh does it now!]; if it obeys the rules, then the rules must be revealed by that behavior.” Not a corollary at all, but more assumptions: that our brains bear a relationship to the rest of the universe such that 1) observations provide reliable data about the universe 2) our brains can understand the laws of the universe, but cannot deduce them as logical necessities (hence the need for experiment); in other words, our reason is powerful but not too powerful.

And are the rules directly revealed by observation of behavior? Of course not (much less can we conclude this has to be the case merely from the fact that there are rules.) The question is what conditions we have to create for nature to reveal her secrets, or what mental processes we have to apply. Plait’s answer is curiously Aristotelian (observation and deduction), but modern science is a combination of mathematics (so the assumption is that the universe’s laws are largely mathematical) and controlled experiment (so the assumption is observation yields laws of physics only under this sort of condition.)

Elsewhere in his piece, however, Plait takes a completely different approach. He does indicate that he endorses the mathematical and experimental approach. Moreover, he argues that science’s purported presuppositions are in fact themselves confirmed by science: “Science is even subject to itself. If the method didn’t work, we’d see it.” Now, this is a much better argument. If the universe didn’t operate on mathematical laws, we wouldn’t be able to derive any mathematical laws.

On the other hand, Plait tells us “science is provisional.” If that’s the case, and if Plait is right that science itself is the basis for our belief in the scientific method, then we have only provisional knowledge that the scientific method works or that the universe is governed by laws.


Tyler Cowen, meanwhile, argues against ridiculing Carson’s belief about the pyramids, writing “we do not make fun of those who believe openly in the Trinity, Virgin Brith, ex cathedra, and many other beliefs which are to my mind slightly less plausible claims…What Ben Carson has done is to commit the unpardonable sin of talking about his religion as if he actually takes it seriously.” He rejects “[t]he notion that it is fine to believe something about a deity or deities, or a divine book, as long as you do not take that said belief very seriously and treat it only as a social affiliation or an ornamental badge of honor. Bully for Ben Carson for reminding us that a religion actually consists of beliefs about the world.”

Obviously, the argument is directed at people who share the assumptions that almost all religious claims are implausible, but that we should generally respect religious belief nonetheless. Apply these general rules to Carson, too, is part of what he is saying.

But the distinction between mainstream and non-mainstream “implausible beliefs” is different from the distinction between seriously and non-seriously held beliefs, and Cowen seems to conflate the two. As Cowen suggests, the more seriously one takes a religious belief, the more likely it is to trouble the sort of atheist or agnostic who generally claims to respect religious belief. This is true, to an extent, even of “mainstream” religious beliefs.

And while it is true in a sense that Carson’s pyramids theory comes from taking his religion seriously, taking his religion seriously in no way requires that he hold this theory. His interpretation forces the pyramids into a Biblical framework, but there is no need for the two to overlap at all. Really he is making up his own claims, which are rather independent of any text or preexisting authority, text or revelation. But he doesn’t claim divine inspiration for his own theories. So they aren’t really religious, and therefore are fair game.

And if he did claim divine inspiration, if he thought he himself was a prophet, wouldn’t that be all the more reason to reject him as a Presidential candidate? It’s one thing to elect someone who (falsely, let’s say) believes someone else was a prophet, another to elect someone who is himself a false prophet.

I don’t at all agree that the Virgin Birth is more implausible than Carson’s pyramids theory. It requires a miracle is all. It can never be disproven, in the sense that we can’t have direct knowledge that Joseph impregnated Mary with Jesus. On the other hand, Carson’s theory can be disproven; we have direct, physical evidence of when and why the pyramids were built. Carson’s theory would not, however, require a miracle, which is presumably why Cowen finds it “slightly more plausible.” It is in violation of facts, but not general scientific laws.

If you hold that God (if He exists) cannot or will not perform miracles, you are making a theological claim that is difficult to prove; whereas if you hold that the pyramids were built to improve Pharaohs’ prospects in the next world, you are making a factual claim which is rather easy to prove.

And of course the former claim would imply that all Christianity is wrong (God remains detached from the world; he certainly cannot become part of it.) The latter would not. Religion involves truth claims, yes, but not just any random truth claims.

Debate Over Tax Rates

Marco Rubio’s tax cut proposal has led to debate over how to determine whether a tax plan is progressive or regressive. Rubio’s critics hold that any tax cut that benefits the rich more than the poor is regressive; since the rich have more income than the poor, cutting taxes more or less naturally comes out as regressive by this definition.

For example, Rubio’s tax cut benefits someone in the top 1% by $223,000. Clearly, a middle income person cannot get a tax cut this size, because such a person doesn’t have an income of $223,000, much less pays $223,000 in taxes.

Rubio holds that one ought to instead look at the effect of tax cuts as a percentage of income.

Dylan Matthews at Vox holds that “who gets more money ‘numerically’ is actually what matters here. Tax cuts cost money. That money can either go to poor people, or it can go to rich people.” This is a badly underdeveloped argument.* It doesn’t at all follow directly: it matters who gets more money because “that money” can either go to rich people or poor people? We must be skipping steps. Does it matter because of some theory of distributive justice? Does it matter because of some impact it has on the world? If you say one thing is more important than another, it must be with respect to some moral goal or outcome you see as important, or it must be intrinsically important. In any case, it implies you have some larger idea about what is important. “Money can either go to rich people or poor people” really doesn’t get us anywhere.

Nevertheless, we can find clues in Matthews’ rhetoric as to what he must mean.

In the first place, consider his claim that “That money” can either go to the rich and the poor. If we’re talking about tax cuts, it can’t. The poor hardly have any money, and they hardly pay any taxes, so obviously they can’t get a tax cut of $223,000. But if you look at it not as cutting taxes, but as the government giving out money it had all along, it’s a different matter: we have “that money,” and government has to decide how to divvy it up. In that case, it would seem quite unjust to give more of it government to begin with, as does his choice of the phrase “who gets more money,” rather than “who keeps more money.”

Matthews’ assumption that tax cuts are a thing given us by government may simply reflect a status quo bias that treats current tax rates as natural, or it may be based on an unacknowledged assumption that all money ultimately belongs to government. But surely the latter isn’t right. In that case, what justification is there for government to allow some of us more money than others? Perhaps as an incentive to work, but then it is government deciding how much of different kinds of work and products we need, which of course is no good…or else it’s free market exchanges that determine how much people make, in which case the money is no longer coming from the government, after all.

If I am right and taxes are a cost, incurring this cost requires justification of some kind. “Tax cuts for the rich” rhetoric treats high taxes on the rich as a benefit; the tax cut is bad intrinsically because it brings down taxes on the rich, and not (only) because it has the effect of preventing desirable spending.

We should judge the fairness or rightness of a tax policy based on where it leaves tax rates. That’s really all we need to worry about. Thus if we think a steeply progressive tax code is good, and a tax policy leaves the code in a steeply progressive state, well then what’s not to like about it? We don’t need to worry about where the tax code was before, and so don’t need to worry about whether the tax cut is progressive or regressive, even in Rubiovian percentage-of-income terms. Otherwise, again, we are engaging in status quo bias, and/or failing to regard taxes as a cost requiring justification.

* and characteristically Voxian: he spends seven paragraphs and two gigantic charts establishing what we already know, that Rubio’s cuts benefit the rich more than the poor in dollar terms, and only blips an argument on the actual subject of disagreement.


Ezra Klein, on the other hand, approaches the matter sensibly and argues against Rubio’s tax cuts on the ground that they would require cut or elimination of desirable programs. He seemingly frames this as a defense of the “tax cuts for the rich” argument, but actually it is an independent argument.

Klein’s argument is that Rubio’s tax cuts will force us to cut programs for the poor, especially since he wants to eliminate the deficit and doesn’t want to cut defense spending. Klein says Rubio hasn’t offered spending offsets. It’s always reasonable to criticize a politician for this, though that won’t stop them from all doing it. But there’s no particular reason to assume the cuts will all hit the poor (or that by fiating his tax cut into existence, we have to also fiat his zero deficit aspiration into existence.) Maybe we means test Medicare and social security, or just cut them across the board or otherwise reform them. Maybe we cut the highway budget drastically. Maybe we take 10% off the top of everything.

In fact, one of the difficulties of the whole policy wonk project is that you can never say what the actual opportunity costs are of anything. Say I want to spend $20 billion on curing cancer. There’s really no counterfactual where we can say what we would have done otherwise, and thus “where the money comes from.” Perhaps it means we get rid of farm subsidies, perhaps it means we don’t do universal preschool when we otherwise would, perhaps it means we eventually increase taxes $20 billion.

Of course it would seem that the same problem applies to individual decisions, but there’s a difference: if I spend $10, I don’t know exactly how I “would have spent” the $10 otherwise, but I at least have some idea of my current priorities, and the kind of thing I spend $10 on. In the case of government, there is no one single actor. Some people are lobbying for a cancer cure, some people are lobbying for agriculture subsidies, some people are lobbying for a tax cut. How much power different groups and actors have determines the result. So it is not “let’s get rid of the least important federal spending and use the money to cure cancer,” but “let’s spend money to cure cancer and see where the chips fall.” A perfectly scrupulous Presidential candidate who always offsets everything in his budget proposal will not solve this problem, because Presidents do not unilaterally set budgets.

Evaluating a Debate on Slavery and the Constitution

In the New York Times, historian Sean Wilentz argues that slavery was not a national institution but a local one, as the Constitution was not a pro-slavery document; it tolerated but did not actively affirm slavery. The United States was not, contra Bernie Sanders, founded on racism and slavery.

At Vox, Julia Azari has a rebuttal. The headline is “Yes, slavery is a part of our national history.” If this headline is anything to go by, she is debating a different thesis than Wilentz is (and indeed, affirming a claim that nobody would ever dispute). Wilentz is debating the claim that slavery was a national institution, whereas she is debating whether it is part of our national history, which is a much broader thing. For one thing, in the history of America and other nations, the process whereby a group of people comes to see itself as a nation involves much more than their forming a government together, or coming under the jurisdiction of a government, though this can be part of the process.

For another, “part of our national history” can mean simply “a thing that happened in this nation.” If Wilentz thoroughly proved his claims about the Constitution and the Founding, it would be ridiculous to use this to prove “slavery is not part of our national history.”

All this is a long way of saying Vox has created a strawman. Perhaps Azari didn’t write the headline, and Vox’s headline writer made a mistake that made her appear non-responsive. Her article opens with an accurate characterization of Wilentz as saying “that slavery in the original U.S. Constitution was a local, rather than a national institution.” However, in the body of her article Azari writes that she’s “disappointed by [Wilentz’s] characterization of American nationhood and of its struggles over race, past and present.” (emphasis mine.) This is back to the straw man version, treating Wilentz’s thesis as being about our organic, volk history rather than about founding principles and documents.

Azari writes at one point “to suggest that the early American republic was characterized by a clear boundary between national issues and local issues is to miss the basis of much of the political conflict from the Founding to the Civil War.” The clear boundary argument I will deal with shortly. But as for the political conflict from Founding to Civil War- Wilentz’s piece is all about this! Calhoun interpreted the Constitution as positively affirming slavery, Lincoln did not, he says. He doesn’t ignore organic development, or how the interpretations of the founding text shape history. The difference is he also looks to the text itself, and concludes that one side, Lincoln’s was objectively right about the meaning of the text, and makes arguments to support this position. Azari takes Calhoun’s side, but ignores these arguments.

Deliberately ignores, in fact. “Others will, I’m sure, take issue with Wilentz’s reading of the Constitutional text.” Which would be necessary to refute his argument. “But I think far more informative for understanding nationhood and race are the events that breathed governing life into the Constitution in the decades that followed.” There we are again with nationhood.


Azari’s main argument against Wilentz is to reject a clear boundary between national and state issues, and so weaken the distinction between national and local institutions: “The provisions of the Constitution intended to clarify what should be left to the states and what could fall under national control have never been obvious in their meaning.” She points to debate over the Constitutionality of the national bank, and over control over navigation of waterways (Gibbons v. Ogden.) Let’s grant for the sake of argument that the Constitution was unclear on these matters, specifically: 1) that the necessary and proper clause is ambiguous (does Congress’s action have to be absolutely necessary for “carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers,” in which case the Bank is out? Or does it just have to be necessary in a colloquial sense, by far the most convenient approach, in which case it’s in); and 2) the interstate commerce clause is ambiguous (does commerce include navigation? If so, New York cannot grant a navigation monopoly on an interstate waterway, as that encroaches on a power enumerated to Congress. Note that this is different from New Deal debates over the interstate commerce clause.) Let’s grant her these ambiguities. It doesn’t follow from this that the boundary was unclear on slavery.

And supposing that you did find ambiguity on the boundary between federal and state power on slavery, what would it mean- that the Constitution maybe gave Congress the power to ban slavery? That would make it a maybe anti-slavery document, not a pro-slavery document, and so could hardly be an argument against Wilentz’s thesis, or an argument for the Bernie Sanders/John Calhoun position that the Constitution or the Founding affirmed slavery. Indeed, she ends up supporting her argument that the Constitution involved the federal government in slavery by pointing to the way opponents of slavery used it to try to stop slavery’s expansion, beginning with the Northwest Ordinances. “The Republican Party was formed in the 1850s around the idea of preventing slavery’s expansion, and around a strong concept of nation. But they didn’t invent either of these ideas.” You mean the nation and opposing slavery kind of went hand-in-hand? I’m so confused- which side is she arguing at this point?

Azari then notes that several Presidents owned slaves, the connection to the Constitution being as follows: “one of the most important purposes of the presidency in the early republic was to embody the national character of the Constitution.” Which is a bit of a stretch as a matter of Constitutional interpretation, but no article like this would be complete without an obligatory mention the slave-owning Founders, in case anyone has forgotten this uncomfortable, hushed-up fact. As Azari says, “Thinking about our early presidents as slaveholders isn’t anyone’s favorite patriotic exercise. But it happened.”


One thing Azari notes is that “it’s not clear what the precise implications of [Wilentz’s thesis] should be, according to Wilentz’s account.” Wilentz gives hints at this in saying it is unfortunate that, in his words, “advocates for racial justice…reject Lincoln and [Frederick] Douglas’s view of the Constitution in favor of Calhoun’s.” I would guess that he finds it unfortunate that they thus leave themselves unable to appeal to the American founding. You can be the sort of radical who demands the consistent application of foundational principles, or the sort who calls for rejecting foundational principles; Wilentz’s article lends support to the view that in this case, the former approach makes more sense than the latter.

But one could argue that this does not make a practical difference, and certainly Wilentz does not spell it out. Then again, Wilentz presents his article as a refutation of those like Bernie Sanders, who asserted at Liberty University that the U.S. “in many ways was created, and I’m sorry to have to say this, from way back, on racist principles, that’s a fact.” Azari and Vox did not run an article saying it wasn’t clear what the implications were of Sanders’ claim.

Wilentz is responding to an idea that is part of common discourse on the left, where people obviously think it has some implications. What these are may indeed be unclear, but if the idea does indeed have implications, then Wilentz’s refutation does, too.

Of course, the Constitution-as-pro-slavery argument is generally just a weapon in the historical portion of the culture wars. For instance, when Republicans had the Constitution read on the House floor after their 2010 takeover, one of the liberals’ objections was that we ought not respect the Constitution so much, due to the three-fifths compromise. Undoubtedly this episode is familiar to everyone writing at Vox, so in a sense it is not necessary for them to be so in-the-dark about what the implications of this argument could be.

But in a sense, the implications really were unclear- okay, the Constitution is bad, what then? We have a U.S. federal government- ought we to dismantle it? Does it have any alternative source of legitimacy, now that the Constitution that brought it into existence and expressed the consent of the governed is debunked?


And certainly people on the left, particularly at Vox, can be quite fanatical about their historical culture wars- show Matthew Yglesias a Confederate flag and he will fly into a fury, largely because he believes secession is treason. Azari’s argument calls this into question in a number of ways; and, while she is in no way obligated to support the Vox party line, it is not at all likely she has any idea she isn’t doing so.

In the first place, when she argues for a blurred line between state and federal authority, she doesn’t mean merely on the question of what federal powers are, but the meta question of who gets to decide them. “[T]he question of whether the federal government was constituted by a compact of states, or represented a distinct entity on its own – a whole greater than the sum of its parts, legally – was a big controversy in the early republic. Andrew Jackson rejected the ‘compact theory’ approach when he rejected South Carolina’s attempt to nullify tariff laws. Not everyone bought it, as evidenced by the eventual secession of the Confederate states. But to suggest that the early American republic was characterized by a clear boundary between national issues and local issues is to miss the basis of much of the political conflict from the Founding to the Civil War.”

I don’t mean she’s wrong here, only that the implications would disturb her readers if they thought about them. She presents the Civil War as an extension of a legitimate conflict over a genuinely unclear issue (in fact, as genuinely being about states’ rights!) So taking up arms for your state against the United States becomes a complex question, not one justifying righteous fury of bloggers 150 years later.

For Wilentz, by contrast, the Civil War was about “a simple question: Did the Constitution of the United States recognize slavery – property in humans – in national law.” This is surely much more in line with the standard Vox position, and yet Azari tears it down and leaves Calhoun’s position strong.