Should Americans Be Celebrating the Second of July?

It may not roll of the tongue as well as Fourth of July, but technically, the legal separation of the Thirteen Colonies from Great Britain – e.g. independence – did not occur on this day in 1776, but two days earlier, when the Second Continental Congress voted to approve formal independence. (Note that the American Revolutionary War had already begun over a year before we got around to formally declaring independence!)

A draft of the declaration had already been commissioned almost a month earlier: on June 11, the Committee of Five – comprised of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert R. Livingston – was appointed to get to work on such a document for a future vote. After discussing the general outline of the document, the Committee decided that Jefferson should write the first draft, which was subsequently amended in some parts by Adams and Franklin (the Committee, including Jefferson himself, had wanted Adams to write the draft, but the latter convinced them otherwise and promised to work closely with Jefferson). Continue reading

John Locke — Far From the Paragon of Classical Liberty

If Locke is viewed, correctly, as an advocate of expropriation and enslavement, what are the implications for classical liberalism and libertarianism? The most important is that there is no justification for treating property rights as fundamental human rights, on par with personal liberty and freedom of speech.

The true liberal tradition is represented not by Locke, but by John Stuart Mill, whose wholehearted commitment to political freedom was consistent with his eventual adoption of socialism (admittedly in a rather refined and abstract form).

Mill wasn’t perfect, as is evidenced by his support of British imperialism, for which he worked as an official of the East India Company, and more generally by his support for limitations on democratic majorities. But Mill’s version of liberalism became more democratic as experience showed that fears about dictatorial majorities were unfounded. By contrast, Locke’s classical liberalism has hardened into propertarian dogma.

As Mill recognized, markets and property rights are institutions that are justified by their usefulness, not by any fundamental human right. Where markets work well, governments should not interfere with them. But, when they fail, as they so often do, it is entirely appropriate to modify property rights and market outcomes, or to replace them altogether with direct public control.

Received ideas change only slowly, and the standard view of Locke as a defender of liberty is likely to persist for years to come. Still, the reassessment is underway, and the outcome is inevitable. Locke was a theoretical advocate of, and a personal participant in, expropriation and enslavement. His classical liberalism offers no guarantee of freedom to anyone except owners of capitalist private property.

— , “John Locke Against Freedom

On This Day, July 1st…

In addition to Canada Day — of which I wish a happy one to my friends in the Great White North — today is the anniversary of several important and/or interesting events. [All photos courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.]

First, a shoutout to Canada Day: it commemorates the “British North America Act” of 1867 (officially the “Constitution Act”), in which most of Britain’s remaining North American colonies — Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and the Province of Canada — were united into a federation of four provinces (the Province of Canada being divided into Ontario and French-dominated Quebec). This new “Dominion of Canada” was a largely independent constitutional kingdom in its own right, though it remained under nominal and limited British governance, the last vestiges of which were ended in 1982 with the Canada Act (though such powers had long since been mostly symbolic).

In 1874, after a slow and inauspicious start, the Remington No. 1 typewriter, designed by American inventor Christopher Latham Sholeswent, went on sale, becoming the first commercially successful typewriter. Its ability to facilitate rapid correspondence and communication helped expand industrialization and modernity. The typewriter’s proliferation was met with anxieties we could relate with today, such as people opting for cold and impersonal communication, and privacy being jeopardized by so much information going around (hence why it took time to be adopted.

The typewriter also unwittingly advanced the social and economic prospects of women, since it was marketed with attractive women as tradeshows (a now novel advertizing approach) and was presented as being simple enough for a woman to do. Sexist as this is by our standards, it nonetheless meant women could enter the relatively more respectable clerical industry, opening the door into greater financial and professional opportunity.

Painting by Jan Matejko.

In 1569, the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania signed the Union of Lublin, merging into a single state: the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. Lasting until the late 18th century, the multiethnic empire was one of the largest in both population and size in European history. Its complex and comparatively free political system featured proto-concepts of democracy, federalism, constitutional governance, and individual liberty (known collectively as “The Golden Liberty). Until the emergence of the United States and Republican France – ironically around the time of its demise – the Polish-Lithuanian state would be one of the most sophisticated and free political entities in the world.

In 1915, World War I German fighter pilot Kurt Wintgens became the first person to shoot down another plane in aerial combat using a synchronized machine gun (e.g. a gun engineered to shoot through a spinning propeller without the bullets striking the blades). Prior to this achievement, plans were strictly for reconnaissance, with pilots at most having to use personal armaments to shoot at each other (imagine that sight). For better or worse, this event marked the beginning of militarized airplanes and aerial combat as we know it.

In 1935, Grant Park Music Festival was kicked off in Chicago’s Grant Park, remaining the only annual, free, and outdoor classical music concert series in the U.S. The ten-week series began as an effort to lift the spirits of residents during the Great Depression. It has since become a nonprofit and a staple in Chicago and its iconic urban park.

Finally, in 1999 the Scottish Parliament gained legislative governance over Scotland, solidifying the region’s increasing autonomy within the United Kingdom. This process of devolution means that Scotland’s democratically elected legislature has almost full control over matters such as education, public health, agricultural policy, and justice (things such as defense, foreign policy, social security, and other national concerns remain the purview of the British Government).

We Need More Philosophy in Public Life

In several posts (most recently here) I have advocated for philosophy to play a bigger role in society, policymaking, and public life. Philosophy should be standard part of primary and secondary school curricula, and professional philosophers should be consulted by both public and private sector institutions. Average people should utilize the tools and principles of philosophy, such as free inquiry and rational argumentation, and apply it to a broad range of matter of human concern, from metaphysics to ethics.

Writing for NPR, psychologist Tania Lombrozo similarly argues that philosophy should be a part of national and social issues, with philosophers themselves needing to play a bigger role in the topics, controversies, and concerns going on in the public sphere.

Many questions fall under the purview of philosophy precisely because they’re entangled in values — they’re not only about the science, the realm of the factual. And in the case of climate change, there’s no less at stake than the fate of our species and our planet.

What responsibility do the rich have to the poor when it comes to mitigating the effects of climate change? What responsibility do developed countries have to poor countries? What obligations do we have to future generations? What obligations do we have to other species? Is there intrinsic value to biodiversity?

Answers to these questions will guide policy and politics. Let’s hope we answer them wisely — with the thoughtfulness, care and rigor that characterize the best philosophy.

Like any academic discipline, philosophy has its specialties and subspecialties, its own jargon and insider disputes. I admit: A lot of philosophy can be obscure, at least to the uninitiated. And a lot of philosophers do spend their time in the field’s inner crannies (just like scientists and any other specialists), shielded from the 24-hour news cycle. (Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa, a philosopher writing a book about knowledge and knowledge ascriptions, joked last week in a tweet: “I keep accidentally thinking about the world instead of focusing like I should on the semantics of knowledge ascriptions.”)

To paraphrase Shannon Rupp, there is no aspect of your life that does not benefit from being able to think with clarity. Whether you are a professional philosopher or an enthusiast like myself, there is a lot to gain from applying a philosophical mindset to the pressing social, political, economic, and moral issues of our time. There will certainly be no shortage of arguments, debates, and discussions to be had — at the very least let us imbue them with proper perspective and intentions.

Sir Nicholas Winton, The “British Schindler”, Dies At 106

Winton saved 669 mostly Jewish children from Czechoslovakia destined for the concentration camps, and worked to get many of them adopted. His heroism remained unknown for fifty years. From ABC:

Born in London in 1909 to parents of German Jewish descent, Winton himself was raised as a Christian. He was a 29-year-old clerk at the London Stock Exchange when a friend contacted him and told him to cancel the skiing holiday they had planned in late 1938 and travel instead to Czechoslovakia.

Alarmed by the influx of refugees from the Sudetenland region recently annexed by Germany, Winton and his friend feared — correctly — that Czechoslovakia soon would be invaded by the Nazis and Jewish residents from there would be sent to concentration camps.

While supporters in Britain were working to get Jewish intellectuals and communists out of Czechoslovakia, no one was trying to save the children, so Winton took the task upon himself.

Returning to Britain, Winton persuaded British officials to accept children, as long as foster homes were found and a 50-pound guarantee was paid for each one to ensure they had enough money to return home later. Their stays were only expected to be temporary.

Setting himself up as the one-man children’s section of the British Committee for Refugees from Czechoslovakia, Winton set about finding homes and guarantors, drawing up lists of about 6,000 children, publishing pictures to encourage British families to agree to take them.

The following video, in which he unknowingly meets those he saved, still gets me.

America’s Early Alcoholic History

Though alcohol is a billion-dollar industry in the United States (as in many nations) — and its consumption is virtually customary in nearly all events, festivities, and social gatherings, public and intimate — Americans’ love of drink is not what it once was. As The Atlantic reports:

Early America was also a much, much wetter place than it is now, modern frat culture notwithstanding. Instead of binge-drinking in short bursts, Americans often imbibed all day long. “Right after the Constitution is ratified, you could see the alcoholic consumption starting to go up”, said Bustard. Over the next four decades, Americans kept drinking steadily more, hitting a peak of 7.1 gallons of pure alcohol per person per year in 1830. By comparison, in 2013, Americans older than 14 each drank an average of 2.34 gallons of pure alcohol—an estimate which measures how much ethanol people consumed, regardless of how strong or weak their drinks were. Although some colonial-era beers might have been even weaker than today’s light beers, people drank a lot more of them.

In part, heavy alcohol consumption was a way to stay hydrated: Often, clean water wasn’t always accessible. Hard liquor, on the other hand, was readily available, Bustard said; farmers frequently distilled their grain into alcohol. Rush “may have been observing what’s going on on the frontier”, Bustard said, “thinking, you know: What’s the country going to come to?”

This love of drink was not just perceived as public health problem (though the concept would not emerge until the late 19th century), but even a political one. Continue reading

Finland and the Netherlands Experiment With Basic Income

Finland became the first country in Europe to announce plans for the implementation of a basic income program, according to the Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN). (To recap: a basic income is a universal, unconditional form of payment to individuals that covers their living costs. It allow people to choose to work more flexible hours and devote more time to non-work related activities, from caregiving and volunteering, to studying and leisure.)

The commitment consists of one line: ‘Implement a Basic Income experiment’, in the ‘Health and Welfare’ section of the programme.

The main party of government, the Centre Party and the new Prime Minister Juha Sipilä, are known to be supportive of Basic Income, but his new government partners, the populist Finns Party and conservative NCP have not spoken publicly on the issue. The scant reference to Basic Income raises some doubts about the government’s commitment to the policy.

So while it is far from a done deal — especially as the government has yet to release any further details, including a timeframe — it is nonetheless a big step, as few other countries, even in socially progressive Europe, have ever made such a formal, nationwide commitment.

Meanwhile, the fourth largest city in the Netherlands, another country that has been mulling over a basic income, is set to implement a plan of its own. The intention is not only to determine if a basic income will help people in absolute terms, but to see how its efficiency compares to the status quo of welfare payments. From The Independent:

University College Utrecht has paired with the city to place people on welfare on a living income, to see if a system of welfare without requirements will be successful.

Alderman for Work and Income Victor Everhardt told DeStad Utrecht: “One group is will have compensation and consideration for an allowance, another group with a basic income without rules and of course a control group which adhere to the current rules.”

“Our data shows that less than 1.5 percent abuse the welfare, but, before we get into all kinds of principled debate about whether we should or should not enter, we need to first examine if basic income even really works.

“What happens if someone gets a monthly amount without rules and controls? Will someone sitting passively at home or do people develop themselves and provide a meaningful contribution to our society?”

It is not surprising that the Dutch would lead the way in this experiment, given that they already have a well-established fondness for less traditional work environments — 46.1 percent of the labor force works part-time, the highest proportion in the European Union, and the nation is nonetheless broadly prosperous, with a high rate of life satisfaction. This is a country that already leads the way in work-life balance, so it would be interesting to see how this endeavor goes and whether it will catch on elsewhere in the country or beyond.

Finland and the Netherlands are the first developed nations to experiment with a guaranteed basic income since the 1970s, when Canada conducted a pilot project dubbed “Mincome” in a small town, with great results. Other experiments have been performed more recently in India, Namibia and Brazil, each one of them reporting measurable, positive outcomes in everything from poverty reduction to healthcare and general wellness.

As BIEN notes, there is an increasing interest in Basic Income worldwide, as well there should be: from mounting inequality to a dearth of well-paying and sustainable jobs, there are plenty of good reasons to consider at least trying out this streamlined and promising approach to alleviating poverty and improving quality of life.

The Countries With the Greatest Well-Being

According to the most recent Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, Panama once again takes the top spot in the number of people reporting high personal well-being, followed by Costa Rica in second place and Puerto Rico in third.

In fourth place was Switzerland, the top European country, which along with Austria (in ninth place) was the only non-Latin American country in the top ten.

The United States came in at No. 23, one spot behind Israel and one ahead of Canada.

This is the second time the report has been compiled (see the first one’s results here). It looks at how more than 146,000 randomly selected adults, spanning 145 countries and areas, respond to questions about five areas related to their well-being: purpose; social; financial; community; and physical. Here are the specific questions, courtesy of NPR. Continue reading

Same-Sex Marriage Legalized in the U.S.

As most readers have no doubt already heard, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled today that same-sex marriage is legal throughout the country.

As the New York Times notes, this landmark decision was the culmination of a rapid arc of progress that first came to the fore back in the early 1990s, when the first states began explicitly banning gay marriage. Only in 2003 did a sole state, Massachusetts, allow for gay and lesbian couples to marry.

screenshot-www.nytimes.com 2015-06-26 13-13-16

This rise in marriage equality was the result in a rapid turnaround in public opinion: from only 27 percent public approval in 1996, according to Gallup, to 60 percent as of this year. As The Washington Post observes, this is far more rapid and dramatic a change than most social issues (such as abortion and capital punishment).

The decision was based primarily on the Fourteenth Amendment, namely its Equal Protection Clause, which requires each state to provide equal protection under the law to all people within its jurisdiction.  Continue reading