By John Stang
Via Matt Yglesias:
And all of that is to the good. I have some problems with the existing state of traffic regulation, I think we don’t do enough to regulate air pollution, and I think intellectual property law is largely too strict in this country. But I don’t think we should do without traffic regulation, halt all harm-inflicting air pollution, or have no intellectual property laws. It turns out that for a modern capitalist economy to function, you need to constrain individual liberty a fair amount relative to what a strict natural rights reading would entail. It also turns out that the original set of liberal thinkers who propounded natural rights theory were writing before digital reproduction or automobiles were invented and before air pollution was really understood properly and they didn’t deal with these issues not-yet-arisen issues in a satisfactory manner. Which is fine. But I think most of the people around today who praise those thinkers and their style of argumentation don’t actually think we should throw the whole idea of a modern technologically advanced society overboard in the name of adherence to a strict Lockean doctrine. This is why, in fact, why political arguments about economic policy so often end up turning on disputes about the models and empirical results of people like Cochrane and DeLong. We’re mostly operating in a sphere of pragmatic “let’s make things better” thinking about policy, not a realm of strict rights-based reasoning. People want to know whether the roads are well-designed to facilitate people’s desire for convenience and prosperity, not whether or not permitting right turns on red lights is more respectful of human rights.
My biggest beef with Ron Paul and his “strict constitutionalism” is just that, it’s too strict. For Paul, the Tea Party, and others, if it was not in the constitution in 1789, it was beyond the purview of what the founders intended government to do and should be thrown out. The second part to that argument is a theory that the role of government should be to protect you from abuses by government, which is not a bad thing I might add. The problem with both these ideas is that the world has, obviously, radically changed since the time of John Locke and John Stuart Mill. As Yglesias points out, humanity has discovered different problems, of an economic nature and social nature, that the individual cannot control and a third party entity, goverrnment, must step in to fix it. This means the role of government must expand.
This also extends to other basic human rights. The right to universal healthcare was not thought about in 1789 because it didn’t occur to anyone, not that you wanted health insurance for 18th century medical practices that might kill you faster than doing nothing. The concept of education for all was very limited in scope. Not to mention that the global economy was not as interconnected as it is today, causing a drastic shift in the idea of “rights” as they exist today. Ideas such as “interest rates” and “monetary policy” also meant little, thus there was no reason for a central banking system until Alexander Hamilton’s grand design.
The point to all this is that governments and constitutions should adapt to modern philosophical thought. The founders didn’t think of everything and the constitution was not written on stone tablets that came down from Mount Sinai. The modern bureaucratic state, for all its flaws, did form for a purpose. Maybe instead of trying to roll back the clock, it would be easier to adapt.