My Just-So Story Brings All the Boys to the Yard (Libertarians Believe in Too Much Government, Part 1)


Farm Auction by Bill and Vicki Tracey on Flickr.

Imagine a group of people living before the advent of the state, or really even before any sort of organized society. Miraculously, these are people who manage to be born and grow up and make autonomous choices nonetheless, but leave that aside for now.

Let’s not imagine that, because there is nothing like a state or society yet, that there are no moral rules in place – that’s silly. There are certain general principles of right action that every normal person at least basically adheres to. No one is a moral saint, but if anyone is raped, or wantonly killed, or abandons an infant to exposure, or what have you, people are outraged.

One central moral principle in this state of nature is that we all have a right to feed and shelter ourselves. This is such a basic necessity of life that it just seems obvious to me, and if you don’t see it this way then I don’t think we can have a conversation. It simply beggars the mind that we could expect someone to starve herself to death or die of exposure when the means to avoid this are available to her.*

So, people begin to hunt, forage, and farm to feed themselves. Yay!

But, of course, not everyone wants to be a hunter/forager/farmer. So eventually some people say to each other, “you know, I am tired of how farming (let’s just say farming) takes up so much of my time, and anyway, you are a much better farmer than I am. What say we make a deal – I will spend my days writing epic poems, and you spend your days farming. At the end, I will recite my poetry to you, and you will give me some of the food you grow. Then we are both fed and entertained.”


Over time, as farming techniques spread and people realize more efficient means, and see the advantages of consolidating their farming, we start to see mergers. Less productive farmers will turn their land over to more productive farming associations. Sure, there will be some people who continue farming even though they could do something else, just because they enjoy it, farming is hard, often tedious labor, so most people do not. Eventually each region is served by a dominant nutritive association that organizes farming throughout the region, having absorbed all the other farmers who matter. Everyone else spends their time writing poetry or whatever other socially valuable work that they do.

But eventually the dominant nutritive associations have to do something about the smallholders. Their small farms break up the associations’ ability to farm efficiently and effectively, and endanger the ability of everyone to be able to get fed. So everyone would agree that, will they or nil they, smallholders will eventually need to join the nutritive associations and should not be permitted to farm their own land, at least not if it interferes with the ability to feed the population well.

We have now achieved an ultraminimal state. The nutritive association asserts a monopoly on the production of food, as it must do to ensure that the growing population can get fed appropriately.

But now we have a problem. What about people who cannot or will not pay the nutritive association for food? Are they to starve? We can’t have them starting up as smallholders; we’ve got to do something else. This isn’t any deep ownership issue – we just can’t have them trying to grow food where other people are trying to grow food, because it won’t work. Or trying to stop the association from growing food on land they’re growing food on. We’re talking pure use-conflict.

Clearly the solution is to bring everyone into the nutritive associations. Those who can pay, but would prefer not to, must pay. For those who cannot afford to pay, since we’re saying we don’t want them trying to subsist on their own, we tax everyone to sustain them.

Would we go beyond this minimal state, where the only legitimate function of the state is to ensure that everyone is fed? It’s not clear that we would. For instance, would we engage in redistribution of violence, so that people who are near those who use violence could be protected by some state agency?

Well, the nutritive associations could deal with much of this already. Anyone who interfered in the production or distribution of nutrition could have nutrition withheld. That is, after all, one of the few cases in which violating someone’s right to be fed would be justifiable. You can’t swing a sword if you’re starving! Beyond that, while it is unfortunate that someone may die from violence, it is not clear that anyone – aside from the violent person – violates any of their rights by failing to intervene. People might voluntarily band together to, say, shame the violent, or protect those vulnerable to violence, but it’s not at all clear that this is a legitimate function of an organization that controls a legitimate monopoly on food.


* In case you are either satire- or Nozick-impaired, this is an analogue of the basic position that self-ownership plays in libertarian theory. My principle strikes me as just as plausible, and has an even hoarier pedigree in Hobbes.

On Opinions of Online Education: Hit “Refresh”

The face of higher education is changing rapidly, and Public Agenda is working hard to help education leaders, faculty, students, policymakers and employers better navigate these complex changes.

One of the biggest developments in higher ed is online education. While public opinion on online ed is becoming more positive and the sector is growing, our research and other organizations' show that serious questions and uncertainties remain.

As of late last year, almost half of adults (48 percent) say an online degree “provides a similar quality of education as compared to traditional colleges or universities,” according to researchers at Northeastern University. Just a year and a half earlier, less than a third of adults (29 percent) thought the educational value of online courses is equal to that of classroom learning, according to a Pew poll.

This shift comes in light of impressive growth in the percent of all Americans who have taken online courses for credit. In 2011, 16 percent of Americans had taken an online course for credit, up from 6 percent in 2001, according to Pew. Among just those Americans who have at least some college education, more than a quarter (26 percent) have taken online courses for credit—a number that rose 13 percentage points just between 2005 and 2011.

And Pew’s 2011 data confirms what we would suspect: that those who have taken an online course are more likely than those who have not (by 12 points) to say its educational value is equal to that of a classroom class. Furthermore, most chief academic officers agree; more than three quarters say the learning outcomes of online instruction are the same or better than face-to-face instruction, according to a 2012 survey.

But, on the question of quality, some important stakeholders, including higher education faculty and employers, may remain unconvinced. Nearly 60 percent of faculty said they felt "more fear than excitement" about the growth of online education in a 2012 survey.

And employers tend to favor candidates who obtain their degrees in a traditional face-to-face setting over ones who completed a degree online, notes Nikolaos Linardopoulos at Rutgers University in a recent review of literature on the topic. However, employers ultimately consider the format of an applicant’s instruction—whether online or in-person—secondary to factors like the reputation of the institution from which the degree came, according to the author.


The Return of the Exiles

In the late 1950s, sociologist C. Wright Mills challenged the tendency of writers and other professionals to substitute whining and criticizing for action. He issued a call for what can be called "cultural organizing." "The writers among us bemoan the triviality of the mass media," wrote Mills. "But why do they allow themselves to be used in its silly routines by its silly managers? These media are part of our means of work, which have been expropriated from us... we ought to repossess our cultural apparatus and use it for our own purposes."

For all the differences between Barack Obama and Cornel West -- described in my recent column, "Higher Education and the Movement for a Citizen-Centered Democracy" -- both practice cultural organizing. They engage questions of American identity and the "next chapter of the American story."

Such cultural organizing takes seriously culture-shaping institutions like opinion journals, news and social media, motion pictures, entertainment industries and other sites of cultural production as settings for political struggle about the meaning of America, the identity of the American people, and the future of the society. Obama and West are unusual. The movement for a citizen-centered democracy needs to spread their examples.

In recent years, debates about the meaning and future of America have been dominated by a bellicose right wing, on the one hand, and a progressive intellectual and political establishment disengaged from -- even scornful of -- American identity on the other hand. Gary Gerstle has detailed progressives' secession from questions of American identity since the late sixties in American Crucible. His book is also a splendid account of battles in earlier years between exclusive racialized identities and civic democratic ideals about what America stands for.

Martha Nussbaum, an influential figure in liberal arts education, illustrates such secession in her 1994 essay in Boston Review, "Patriotism and Cosmopolitanism" and books such as Cultivating Humanity and Not For Profit. Nussbaum invokes the Greek tradition of the Stoics as the alternative to patriotism. Stoics held that "the accident of where one is born is just that, an accident; any human being might have been born in any nation." Nussbaum maintains that "emphasis on patriotic pride is both morally dangerous and, ultimately, subversive of some of the worthy goals patriotism sets out to serve [like] worthy moral ideals of justice and equality." She proposes that patriotism "erect[s] barriers between us and our fellow human beings." Her alternative, global citizenship, continues to hold sway in much of education and intellectual life.

I learned a different view in my college years, working in the Citizenship Education Program of the civil rights movement, directed by Dorothy Cotton. The Citizenship School Workbook, developed by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, affirmed that "we love our land -- America!"

The patriotism of the movement differed from bellicose nationalism and from global citizenship. Citizenship schools cultivated respect for other societies and their democratic struggles. As the Workbook put it, "in Africa and Asia new nations are being born as people of color everywhere are demanding the freedom to decide their destiny."

Citizenship schools practiced ground-level cultural organizing, which was in turn amplified in the larger public culture by leaders like Martin Luther King.

The movement's cultural organizing had roots in the populist movements of the 1930s. In The Big Tomorrow, Lary May describes how cultural workers in the film industry sought to change the values of "The American Dream," and had considerable success until the McCarthy repression of the 1950s. In Cultural Front, Michael Denning traces organizing among cultural workers of in the New Deal, including journalists, screenwriters and artists, scholars and educators.

Cultural organizers constituted what Denning calls an "historic bloc" addressing a myriad of issues but united by goals such as the struggle for racial and economic justice, the fight against fascism, and the effort not only to defend but also to deepen democracy. The populist concept of "the people" became central. "'The People' became the central trope of left culture, the imagined ground of political and cultural activity." This involved a contest over the meaning of "the American Dream" and "America" itself. "The figure of 'America' became a locus for battles over the trajectory of U.S. history, the meaning of race, ethnicity, and region in the United States, and the relation between ethnic nationalism, Americanism, and internationalism.... less a sign of 'harmony' than of the social conflicts of the depression."

The idea that professionals' work should aim at developing the civic capacities of people and communities and contribute to the enrichment of democratic culture was widespread. In the Harlem Renaissance, for instance, in the 1920s and 1930s, a range of professionals -- artists and poets, labor organizers, teachers, ministers and musicians, to list a few -- saw themselves as making visible the capacities of ordinary people.

James Weldon Johnson put it this way, "Harlem is more than a community; it is a large-scale laboratory experiment. Through his artistic efforts the Negro is smashing immemorial stereotypes." He saw blacks "impressing upon the national mind the conviction that he is an active and important force in American life; that he is a creator as well as a creature." The Harlem Renaissance meant that the black American was to be seen as "a contributor to the nation's common cultural store; in fine, he is helping to form American civilization."

Civic-minded professionals helped to sustain what Sara Evans and I call "free spaces," places rooted in the life of communities that have a public and democratic character, in which democratic cultural values and practices incubate. In Harlem, such spaces ranged from jazz spots like the Cotton Club to churches, labor study groups, locally owned businesses, union locals, the Harlem library, schools, and theater projects. These settings mingled with fluid boundaries to create a vital local public culture. People learned that what happened in Harlem mattered to "American civilization."

In the Great Depression, free spaces took root not only in Harlem but across the country, in towns as well as in cities, in cultural and educational practices of many different kinds. They amplified and communicated the populist movement.

In 1932, the writer Malcolm Cowley signaled such cultural organizing with his book Exiles' Return, calling for a repatriation of young American intellectuals and writers from Paris to join the emerging democratic movement.

We need a new Exiles' Return.

Harry C. Boyte is the Director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College and a Senior Fellow at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

The Return of the Exiles

In recent years, debates about the meaning and future of America have been dominated by a bellicose right wing, on the one hand, and a progressive intellectual and political establishment disengaged from -- even scornful of -- American identity.

The Return of the Exiles

In recent years, debates about the meaning and future of America have been dominated by a bellicose right wing, on the one hand, and a progressive intellectual and political establishment disengaged from -- even scornful of -- American identity.