James Leroy Wilson's blog

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

The Wisdom to Know the Difference

The older I get, the less and less I care about the great moral and philsophical issues of the day. That's because these questions are, in themselves, secondary. If I believe I have neither the power nor the right to change it, I'm not too concerned about it. Why should I be made miserable by things I can't change?

On the Democratic Freedom Caucus yahoo group, the geo-libertarian Dan Sullivan said something I wished I had. I'm paraphrasing, but Sullivan said that the question is jurisdiction; the question of who makes the decision must be answered before we decide what is right or wrong, good or bad, science or religion, etc. Sullivan added that small jurisdictions are more favorable to liberty, because the harder it is to leave or escape, the more coercive is the relationship. I would add that liberty is highest political end because it allows people to peacefully dissolve undesirable relationships.

I'm not bothered all that much by what goes on in other jurisdictions. Other countries, other states, other cities, other neighborhoods, other families, other people. If something really troubles me that is going on elsewhere, I can either use persuasion to the best of my ability, or at my own risk intervene personally or support those who are working for change. But I'm not interested in using my tax dollars to force the changes I desire.

It's almost as if I've adopted the Serenity prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr as a politcal philosophy:

God grant me the SERENITY to
accept the things I cannot change;
COURAGE to change the things I can;
and WISDOM to know the difference.

What can I change? My life and my surroundings. My thoughts. My associations. Perhaps even the policies of the jurisdictions I am (willingly or unwillingly) subject to. For example, the U.S.-Mexico border patrol in Texas is something I have a right to be concerned about as a citizen of the United States, but the admission policies of Texas's public universities is not. I may have an opinion, but I also know that federal intervention on that question is inappropriate and unconstitutional. The border is international and impacts me as a U.S. citizen; Texas's own laws do not.

What can't I change? A lot of things. Other people. Foreign laws and customs. Relgious doctrines. Economic laws.

Now, everything changes through time, and I may influence the change one way or another through various means of persuasion. But we can safely agree that the prayer is about serenity to accept the things we cannot personally and physically change for the better. The use of force does change things, and I can always support those who use force to change things. But are the changes for the better?

If there's an iron law in the universe, it is that you can not get the changes you want through force. You may get some encouraging immediate results, but in the long run the reaction to the use of force will never satisfy you. Prohibition, after all, did cut alcohol consumption, but that doesn't mean it was a success. When you persuade, people will willingly change; when you use force, people will do as little as possible to avoid harsh treatment, and then direct their energies as far away from you as they can. Even when they comply with the new laws, people do not behave the way those who forced the change intended. The people find loopholes, or are driven to even worse behaviors then the ones that were banned. The Law of Unintended Consequences can also be called the Law of Forced Change. All life reacts badly to force, to threats, to fear.

Saying that I don't care about other people's moral behavior, laws of other states, or the regimes of other countries is another way of saying that I have the "serenity" to know I can't change them; I don't believe I have the jurisdiction to force the changes I may want. On some level, of course, I do care. There are some things I'd rather see, and some things I'd rather have people not do, but only voluntarily. I wish more people had my values, which is different from wishing they unwillingly conformed to my behaviorial standards. From my perspective, the world isn't perfect. Should I then try to make it perfect? Might that not prevent it from being your version of perfect? Can not we pursue happiness in the absence of a perfect world?

To impose the changes I would want, even if they are intended to correct some injustice in another state or "liberate" another country, is a contradiction. I can only seek the changes I want through persuasion; anything else will bring about a world I don't want.


  1. Freedom is a fine thing (as indeed is minding one's business), and (small el) libertarianism is a worthy component of conservative philosophy, but (big-el) Libertarianism is just another seductive but sadly misguided ideology from the production line of ideologies-that-sound-marvellous-until-enacted that brought us Communism and Fascism.

    It's easy to argue that forceful coercion in general is wrong. In most cases it is - file that under the morally obvious.

    But it's sadly mistaken to argue that force can never succeed. The 20th Century includes a long list of instances where a relatively small group of thugs and gangsters gained control of whole societies - often for generations - and nearly controlled the entire world, using ruthless application of force. In every case, these gangster states were only removed from power by the application (or threat of) righteous force.

    Also, to use alcohol prohibition to justify this argument is mistaken. The people of America were perfectly entitled to legislate on alcohol supply. This law failed because (1) America was infested with millions of criminals from the most backward parts of Europe, (2) there was widespread corruption of the worst sort throughout the political and legal systems and (3) like the situation with drugs and vice today, good people lacked the will to enforce what they thought was morally right - happening as it did at a time where traditional morality was under unprecedented ideological and philosophical attack.

    Furthermore, I don't know if this is your position, but suggesting that the failure of prohibition was an ideological certainty leads to another favourite (big-el) Libertarian position, ending the prohibition on hard drugs.

    Apologies if I have read too much into this post or misinterpreted your position, but the absurd proposition that I can be made more free by living in a community awash with drugs and vice (more so even that now) is the main reason I file (big-el) Libertarianism in the trash can of sadly misguided ideologies.

  2. The topic here is, what gives you the RIGHT to impose whatever it is you want to impose on other people? And furthermore, can it WORK?

    You fall into the same trap you accuse other ideologues of falling into. The problem with Prohibition and the War on Drugs wasn't the policy, it was the people! But that's my point: these laws CAN'T work!

  3. Seriously, I think that's silly.

    1) It's not 'me' imposing my autocratic will on people, it's a majority of the people democratically choosing to define the nature of the society they live in. There are ethical (and constitutional) limits to what can be legislated, but drugs, vice and even alcohol are things that affect everyone - significantly. Controlling policies like this are one aspect of a free people controlling their shared destiny.

    2) To say a law is a failure because someone - even many people - contravene it... what sort of position is that?!

    3) It's a matter of opinion as to whether laws against drugs can work. People said we 'can't stop communism', that we 'couldn't' do a lot things. It's a real struggle, for sure, against evil and powerful criminal organisations, and cynical and entrenched political interests, as well as fanatically committed political radicals. And the will to succeed has been sorely lacking. So, we'll have to agree to disagree on whether we can succeed.

    Where I disagree profoundly is the assertion that 'we' (the anti-hard-drug majority) have no right to even try - no right to have a say in the shape of the society we and our families inhabit. That to me is profoundly anti-libertarian (in the small-el sense), to deny us such basic freedoms as the right to shape the world our kids grow up in. And this is the central contradiction at the heart of (big-el) Libertarian ideology.

  4. 1) I fail to see how a majority has any greater moral authority to limit our freedoms than does a King. What makes a King so wise to know which drugs are "moral" enough for licit medicinal uses and which are not? Why would a majority of the people be so informed and wise?

    You say that there are ethical limits to what can be legislated: what to you think they are? Constitutionally, the Libertarians are so clearly in the right regarding drug possession as they are on gun ownership. The Constitution no where permits the feds to do such a thing, meaning it is prohibited by the Tenth Amendment. At least the alcohol prohibitionists had the ethics and intelligence to know they had to amend the Constitution to get what they want. Drug warriors, like gun grabbers, (and like communists and fascists, who pioneered effective gun control and drug control) take the low roads and short cuts - claiming majoritarian right to get what they want no matter what the Constitution says. If you want drug prohibition, amend the Constitution. Otherwise, we must repeal, and refuse to enforce, the laws on the books.

    2) My position is that YOU blamed failure on people. Look up your first comment. This is what statists always do. It could be civil rights laws or poverty or crappy government schools - the fault is never in the policy or its intention, it's always corruption or lack of will. Which is another way of repeating my point: people react badly to the imposition of force.

    3)You have the right to try. Keep drugs out of your own neighborhood or town if you want. Draw up contracts and drug test your employees. Make anti-drug pledges and covenants with kids. But whether or not another state allows drugs is no more your business than if drugs were allowed in Nova Scotia, Nigeria, or Mars.

    Also, the distinction between small l and big L libertarians is normally the distinction betwee Libertarian Party members and non-members.

    But even if you mean "moderate" libertarian, keep in mind that a majoritarian right to control the non-violent, non-fraudulent behavior of other people is so completely outside the definition of "libertarian," one could say it is the antithesis of it. In libertarian philosophy, there is no contradiction between individual rights and group rights, because there is no collective freedom or collective right to run roughshod over the choices of indidividuals. You may disagree with that and believe in a majoritarian right to legislate morality, but keep in mind that there is, and never was, anything libertarian about this position. So you might want to stop using the word.

  5. Libertarianism (big-el) is not a homogenous ideology like Communism, so pardon me if I'm tarring you with someone else's brush, and apologies also for this string of comments, I know it's not really good netiquet.

    I don't call myself a Libertarian, I call myself a Christian Conservative, so I guess my position follows from there. But I do respect the notion of fighting to preserve and expand individual liberty.

    But this being an imperfect world, any idea taken to its logical extreme will produce unwelcome consequences, after all Socilaism was inspired by the desire for social equity - which in the late 19th Century seemed like a very noble idea.

    Drugs are already poorly controlled. Laws are ignored, sentences are imposed at their minimum level, corruption creeps into law enforcement (in my city, they had to disband the entire Drug Squad - can you believe that?). It's impossible to keep this plague in the living rooms of reasonable people making private choices - people aren't that good. It ends up on the street corners and outside our schools. The same applies to prostitution, porn and other forms of vice.

    I just can't agree with that, no matter how consistent and noble-sounding the philosophy/ideology underpinning it.

    Anyway, thanks for you time.

    Kip Watson

  6. Fascinating discussion between you two... I am enjoying it thoroughly!

    If I make interject....

    Drugs are already poorly controlled. Laws are ignored, sentences are imposed at their minimum level, corruption creeps into law enforcement (in my city, they had to disband the entire Drug Squad - can you believe that?). It's impossible to keep this plague in the living rooms of reasonable people making private choices - people aren't that good. It ends up on the street corners and outside our schools. The same applies to prostitution, porn and other forms of vice.

    I need to ask you...WHY do you think that these things are so infectious as they are? Is it possible that the economic incentives created by the black market - which is created by our public policy - is what encourages people to ignore laws, engage in corrupt practices, push deadly, addictive substances to kids, and so on and so forth? Just like gun bans which leave guns in the hands of violent criminals (who don't obey laws)..drug laws will leave control of drugs in the hands of people who have no qualms about the destruction they cause, thus empowering and enriching the worst elements of society....

    As a lib myself, I have to admit...for as UNlibertarian as this may sound...I'd prefer drugs to be legal and regulated, than what they are now...which is illegal and UNregulated.... And any product that is illegal will always be unregulated.

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