Category Archives: Philosophy

Richard Overton – An Arrow against All Tyrants

Richard Overton – An Arrow against All Tyrants

In this short 1646 pamphlet, Overton favors civil disobedience, the higher rule of law and principle over faulty man-made legislation, the separation of powers, and religious freedom. All this at a time when an absolute monarch, Charles I, held the throne. And he wrote it from prison. Overton had guts, give him that. The parallels with today’s political debates and the competing principles behind them is startling.


Charles de Secondat Baron de Montesquieu – The Spirit of Laws

Charles de Secondat Baron de Montesquieu – The Spirit of Laws

One of the most important texts of the French Enlightenment. Interested in human progress, Montesquieu sought out larger laws of history that might explain why some countries are rich and others poor, why some have despotic governments while others use a lighter touch, and why social customs differ—and how this might affect future progress.

Montesquieu also offers a defense of free trade, which he called doux commerce, or sweet or gentle commerce. The theory is that trade and economic interdependence foster peace and prevent war, a sentiment U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull very much had in mind in attempting to rebuild post-Depression trade infrastructure and prevent World War III.

Montesquieu also offers an early version of the quantity theory of money. Finally, he in ludes lengthy narrative histories of Roman and French law.

If all that sounds a little scattershot, that’s because it is. The book almost has a stream of consciousness quality, as though Montesquieu, like Montaigne before him, simply wrote down whatever arguments and facts he had in his head as he sat at his desk.

John Stuart Mill – Utilitarianism

John Stuart Mill – Utilitarianism

More of a defense against critics than an explanation of what utilitarianism actually is. There are some good arguments here, but Mill’s main rebuttal to utilitarianism’s shortcomings is to treat them as exceptions, and largely carry on as before.

Anthony de Jasay – The State

Anthony de Jasay – The State

This book consists of five chapters. The first imagines what society would look like without any state at all; the last imagines a total state. The chapters in between look at in-between states. De Jasay shares deep insights in social contract theory. For example, states compete with each other in a Hobbesian state of nature, even if individuals no longer do.

Jasay is also skeptical of utilitarianism as a guide to public policy. Because interpersonal utility comparisons are impossible, it is impossible to honestly tell other people what is best for them. This is a major impediment to well-intentioned arguments for state intervention.

Thomas Hobbes – Leviathan

Thomas Hobbes – Leviathan

One of the earliest and best expositions of social contract theory. Hobbes also had a more accurate view of human nature than Locke or especially Rousseau, with whom he is often contrasted. The third and fourth parts of Leviathan are bogged down by theology and needless definitions of terms, and Hobbes’ royal absolutism is based more on arguments by assertion and authority than on reason or empiricism. Still, Leviathan has earned its place in political philosophy’s canon.

Don’t Trust Political Memes, and Don’t Share Them

Think of this post as a public service message.

In some ways, memes are the 21st century version of the comic strip or the political cartoon. They can be quite funny, and they make their point in just a second or two. Memes have been a boon for comic-strip-style humor. Someone needs to fill the void left by Calvin and Hobbes and The Far Side, and a lot of people have ably volunteered. Anyone with a joke and basic computer skills can make a funny meme, and millions of people can share the fun. National distributors no longer serve as gatekeepers and censors, allowing some unique talents to shine that would have remained dark just a decade or two ago. This has been a wonderful development.

But for many reasons, political memes are typically riddled with factual errors and offer little more than confirmation bias. They should be shunned, not shared.

Here is a quick statistics lesson from one political meme I saw making the rounds recently. That’s not to pick on this meme specifically. There are millions like it, just as bad, floating around the Internet. This is just one I happened to see, though I should note that Turning Point USA has a poor reputation, even by its genre’s low standards.

Also keep in mind that this meme is on the correct side of its issue. Imagine how wrong the wrong ones can be! As Frederic Bastiat wrote, “The worst thing that can happen to a good cause is, not to be skillfully attacked, but to be ineptly defended.”

Here is the meme:

turning point meme

Here is a list of things it gets wrong.

1: This meme is undated and cites no sources.

2: There is no publication titled “World Economic Freedom Index.”

3: For indexes that do exist, their data do not go back 60 years. They go back to 1970 for the Fraser/Cato index, and 1995 for the Heritage/WSJ index.

4: Venezuela does rank 179th in the 2018 Heritage/WSJ index. But it gives no rankings from roughly 60 years ago. If the 4th place figure comes from a different index, that is not a valid apples-to-apples comparison. But we don’t know where that figure comes from. None is cited. Google doesn’t turn one up, either. For all we know, some intern could have just made it up, and now people are sharing it.

5: Hugo Chavez was first elected in 1998. His brand of socialism was 14 years old when Turning Point USA was founded in 2012, not 10 years before this undated meme was created.

That’s five errors in one meme that took less than ten minutes to dig up. That says more about Turning Point USA and political memes in general than it does about Venezuela’s ongoing tragedy.

Don’t trust unsourced political memes, don’t share them, and take people who heavily rely on them as seriously as they deserve–even, or especially, if they share your ideological priors.

Joshua Greene – Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them

Joshua Greene – Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them

A defense of utilitarianism that is actually far more interesting for its insights on evolutionary psychology. The brain has evolved some surprising methods for getting along with others—or not getting along. Greene also explores how they apply in a modern world so different from the hunter-gatherer world we have only recently escaped, from politics to everyday life.