Bitcoin’s Value Is Purely Subjective

While one Bitcoin token is currently approaching 5’000 US$, many people wonder why Bitcoin has «value» in the first place.

The first question that arises: Might those people actually mean «price» instead of «value»? Price and value are entirely different concepts. They cannot be the same logically. A person only sells, or buys, a good if the price that she can realize is higher, or lower, than her personal valuation of that specific good. Therefore, identity of price and value would bring the economy to a halt.

Secondly and more importantly, the phrasing of the initial question is misled. Value is not something intrinsic that is part of an object. This becomes obvious when taking a closer look at Bitcoin. A Bitcoin token consists of nothing but digital data that are stored in an electronic wallet and in the distributed network. (That set of digital data confers on its holder the power of control over Bitcoin tokens.)

«Value is not something intrinsic that is part of an object.»

Think of bananas: They are beyond doubt highly nutritious. Most people enjoy eating them. However, imagine that humans couldn’t digest bananas. While bananas would still be the same physically, we wouldn’t crave them at all though. There is nothing intrinsic about the value of bananas. Yes, they make sense in our case but they might as well not!

Since value is not an «ontological» property of an object, value must be subjective (look up Austrian Economics). Value thus lies in the eye of the beholder. This has major implications: When I value an object dearly, this doesn’t mean that others do as well (or to the same extent). They may even assign a negative value to that object; hence they hate it. Therefore, interpersonal utility comparisons, widely spread in politics and academia nowadays, are literally of no value. This, in turn, means that the positive effects of policies must be limited. Politics, however, is a different topic I don’t want to delve into here.

So, we have to ask ourselves what those «properties» are that make Bitcoin tokens valuable to its users. This question cannot be answered conclusively (for the reasons mentioned above). At least let’s try a conceptual approach:

Libertarians probably use the network because they prefer «stateless» cryptocurrencies to legal tender and bank-issued money. They don’t like money that can be created at will and out of thin air.

Techies and academics may engage in it because the underlying distributed ledger technology has become a new interesting research area. It allows for «trustless systems», be it payment systems or «decentralized autonomous organizations» (DAOs).

Criminals may value the Bitcoin network’s capabilities to disguise their transactions. They presumably like that they are not forced to go through the banking system anymore.

Most people (e.g., venture capitalists) probably hold Bitcoins because they can either take part in «initial coin offerings» (ICOs) or they speculate for a rise in prices. This can also be described as Bitcoin’s «bubble economy».

Importantly, at the end of the day, the different categories of stakeholders in the Bitcoin network get something in return for their money and time invested in the venture. Obviously, the whole thing is not risk-free. In their eyes and minds, however, Bitcoins are sufficiently valuable to go with it, for different reasons though.

«In their eyes and minds, however, Bitcoins are valuable, for different reasons though.»

Some people argue that Bitcoin derives its «value» from the electricity put to work within the mining procedure. This, however, sounds like a slightly adapted version of the mistaken «labor theory of value». Certainly, electricity is a prerequisite for the decentralized proof of work-approach, which eventually makes the Bitcoin network secure («electricity-turned-trust»). However, the amount of electricity, while undoubtedly contributing to a positive subjective valuation of users, is not the value of the network itself. In fact, current electricity costs are nowhere near the «value», or price, of a Bitcoin token. For the same reason neither does Bitcoin’s value stem from its «trustless» database (the «blockchain») nor from the algorithmic scarcity (∼21 million), which is embedded in the Bitcoin protocol. These features of the Bitcoin network are only reasons why people use the network.

Take gold as an example: Its useful properties (relatively scarce, malleable, durable etc.) have contributed to its use as money for thousands of years. However, people had to discover gold to be more beneficial than earlier kinds of media of exchange in the first place. «Discovering» value is a purely mental, or psychological, process.

«Discovering value is a purely mental, or psychological, process.»

So, next time when someone asks you whether it is the artificial scarcity, the electricity injected into the network, the «network effects», or even the pseudonymity of transactions, you know that these useful network features only act as potential reasons why people may assign some value to Bitcoin. However, those reasons are not the value of Bitcoin. Never! Valuation is always the subjective result of our mind.

Soaring market prices follow from there…

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Equality, Individualism, and Tolerance: The Essences of a Free and Open Society

When making perfumes, a maître perfumer has to observe certain rules: At first, he selects base, middle and top notes from the spectrum of essential oils (and oftentimes he uses synthetics as well). Then, he mixes the oils together and lets the blend sit for a couple of days. Before diluting the oils with pure alcohol, he wants to make sure the blend is a perfect match.

The master perfumer is highly aware of the fact that each addition can have a material effect on the other notes. Starting with the most basic notes, such as woody, smoky and resinous oils, he creates the “story” of the perfume. It’s the “base notes” that make up a long-lasting and therefore promising scent. From there, the perfumer introduces the middle and top notes into the fragrance. Singling out those middle and top notes is a very delicate exercise since there exists dozens, if not hundreds, thereof.

“Ethics is a little bit like perfumery.”

Ethics is a little bit like perfumery. First, there is the principle of equality, the most momentous discovery of humanity. Equality is concerned with everything that touches on basic human qualities, such as gender, race, religious belief, and sexual orientation. Although we are – quite obviously – not identical, we are equally human! There is no acceptable way of flouting this basic “axiomatic” assumption about humanity. Thus it can be compared to the base notes of a perfume. As much as the “story” of a scent is composed by those fundamental oils, equality makes up the basic structure of humanity: The Old Testament refers to the unity of God’s creation; it’s the stoic idea that everyone is their own master; and legal equality and the necessity of overcoming social prejudice are eventually central motifs in the Age of Reason and Enlightenment.

Second, there is also the principle of individualism embodying the unlimited upside potential of every human being. It allows everyone to develop their skills and to attenuate their weaknesses. Therefore, individualism entails diversity. However, diversity is a challenge for societies since it requires a huge amount of tolerance towards different outcomes. As regards perfumes, middle and top notes must resonate with the base notes, the basic structure of a blend. In fact, as long as every person respects the basic structure of society, according to which all are equal but also infinitely different, the consequences of individualism are compatible with equality, and even a precondition for it.

Present as well as long gone totalitarian dictatorships have shown contempt for either equality (e.g., Nazism) or individualism (e.g., Communism), and in fact most of the time even for both. Their proponents claim that people have to surrender one to get the other. This is blatant nonsense given the fact that the rule of law and free markets have provided both the framework of equality before the law and a clear vision of enabling individuals to pursue happiness. Under these conditions, public and private spheres have become mutually consistent in a historically unprecedented scale. People can now find meaning in their lives because they are allowed to grow their individuality within a fair public order. In contrast, the absolute belief in the state as the final answer is a tragically flawed notion.

”  …if we follow the right formula and choose the essences wisely, we can indeed create a free and open society.”

The radical idea that we need an everlasting “base note” (equality) as well as “middle” (peaceful individualism in all its facets) and “top notes” (tolerance) to create “the most perfect scent” that there can be (a free and open society) is as much a pressing issue today as it ever was. Fundamentally, if we follow the right formula and choose the essences wisely, we can indeed create a free and open society.

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The Allegory of the Cave – A Warning Against Political and Ideological Bigotry

Plato’s allegory of the cave (from Republic) is probably the best known simile for truth-seeking. It’s based on a talk between Socrates and Plato’s older brother Glaucon. However, as much as it describes epistemology, it is metaphorically concerned with political corruption and ideological bigotry as well.

Plato’s allegory begins as follows: Socrates is likening the “prisoners” dwelling in a cave to us humans.

“From the beginning people like this have never managed, whether on their own or with the help of others, to see anything besides the shadows that are continually projected on the wall opposite them by the glow of the fire.”

This critical description of humans is fundamental to the allegory. Socrates argues that people consider “real” what they see (artifacts on the wall) and hear (sounds reverberating off the wall), thereby remaining ignorant about the truth.

Now, Plato sets the stage for the philosopher, the wise man, to free the prisoners, one by one, from “their lack of insight”.

At first, the prisoner that is now unchained can’t see the fire (which used to be behind him as the source of the artifacts on the wall). Steadily, though, he gets used to the light of the flame. Then, the prisoner has to be taken out of the cave into daylight, sometimes against his will. As described by Plato, this will often be a very hurtful process; knowledge can indeed be uncomfortable and deterrent to those who don’t want to see it. And because it is this way, sometimes people will even turn around and go back into darkness. This must be what Immanuel Kant meant when he was referring to enlightenment as overcoming cowardice and laziness (“sapere aude”). In addition, there is no shortcut to acquiring knowledge about the world than profound and radical educational efforts, as pointed out by the Prussian thinker Wilhelm von Humboldt. 

“No, however, if someone, using force, were to pull him (who had been freed from his chains) away from there and to drag him up the cave’s rough and steep ascent and not to let go of him until he had dragged him out into the light of the sun, would not the one who had been dragged like this feel, in the process, pain and rage?”

Being in the daylight, the former prisoner needs to get accustomed to the alien brightness. Once he is able to see though, he will see the things themselves. At first, these things might be the stars and the moon in the night sky since they are more pleasant to look at than the sun.

Eventually, the liberated (and emancipated) person will be able to stare into the sun itself, being able “to contemplate of what sort [she] is”. He will consider himself lucky to have found wisdom while condemning the other prisoners for remaining blind to the truth.

Now, the allegory is getting more political. Socrates is asking Glaucon:

“Do you think the one who had gotten out of the cave would still envy those within the cave and would want to compete with them who are esteemed and who have power?”

For the emancipated prisoner going back into the cave would become “filling his eyes with darkness” again. Furthermore, the rare sparkle of wisdom in his eyes would cause ridicule among the prisoners. And if he dared to drag them into the light as well, the moment his hands tried to get hold of them, they would kill him.

The quintessence in Plato’s simile is that truth may sometimes hurt the holders of outdated beliefs and views. More importantly, though, truth may not always prevail and may eventually be sacrificed (together with the protagonists that were trying to advance their ideas) on the altar of political power and ideological bigotry.

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Warum man seinen Cappuccino rasch trinken sollte…

Zeit fasziniert mich. Wer sich näher mit dem Phänomen der Zeit beschäftigt, merkt, dass wir eigentlich nur sehr wenig davon verstehen. Was ist Zeit? Welche Elemente machen unser Zeitgefühl aus? Und weshalb ist unser landläufiges Verständnis von Zeit so anders als dasjenige der Physik?

Zeit ist die Uhr des Lebens

3 Milliarden Mal schlägt unser Herz im Durschnitt; anschliessend sind wir tot. Die Zahl ist zwar riesig, doch stimmt sie uns zugleich nachdenklich. Zeit wird gemeinhin als “kostbar” empfunden. Und weil sie für jeden Menschen gleichermassen gilt, kommt ihr anders als materiellem Reichtum eine egalisierende Wirkung zu. So verstanden ist Zeit die grosse philosophische (resp. theologische) Nivellierung; ein Naturgesetz also, nach dem sich jeder zu richten hat.

Drei Konzepte der Zeit möchte ich im Folgenden anschauen:

Erstens: Zeit in der alltäglichen Wahrnehmung

Wir haben ein klares Verständnis davon, dass Zeit eine Aneinanderreihung von Momenten ist, der wir hilflos ausgesetzt sind. Diese spezifische Art der Wahrnehmung der Zeit gibt uns das Gefühl der Vergangenheit und der Zukunft, und dass es scheinbar nur eine Richtung der Zeit gibt, nämlich von der Vergangenheit über die Gegenwart in die Zukunft (“Pfeil der Zeit”).

“Eine Sandburg, die einmal zerstört ist, baut sich nicht von selbst wieder auf.”

Eine Sandburg, die einmal zerstört ist, baut sich nicht von selbst wieder auf. Auf jeden Fall hat dies niemand bisher beobachten können. Physiker führen die wahrgenommene Richtung der Zeit auf die Zunahme der Entropie (Mass der Unordnung) im Universum zurück. Einem Cappuccino gleich, der zu Beginn eine klare Trennung von Kaffee und Milchschaum kennt, jedoch allmählich zu diffundieren beginnt, wird das Universum mit der Zeit, ausgehend vom Big Bang, “unordentlicher”. Diese Annahme wird getroffen, weil es mehr Wege gibt und damit wahrscheinlicher ist, dass sich Unordentlichkeit einstellt als dass sich die Bausteine dieser Welt spontan zu etwas “Ordentlichem” formen, wie etwa zu Galaxien, Planeten, Menschen, Hühnereiern oder eben Sandburgen.

Entsprechend folgen wir auch intuitiv einer chronologischen Abfolge, wenn wir von Erlebnissen erzählen (Ursache-Wirkung bzw. Kausalität). Beispielsweise stecken wir uns zuerst mit einer Grippe im Büro an (oder verlieben uns), die in der Folge zu einer Erkrankung führt (zur Beziehung), welche wir schliesslich mit Medikamenten und Bettruhe zu Hause erfolgreich behandeln (Trennung…).

Der tägliche Sprachgebrauch ist ein Indikator dafür, wie bedeutsam Zeit zur abstrakten Ordnung unserer Erlebnisse und zu deren Kommunikation mit anderen Menschen ist: Beispielsweise können wir uns problemlos um 20:00 Uhr verabreden; wir sprechen von “vorher” und “nachher” und verstehen ganz genau, was unser Gegenüber damit meint; und schliesslich ist uns Menschen der Nordhalbkugel klar, was es bedeutet, wenn die Blumen blühen (Frühling), die Hitze einkehrt (Sommer), die Blätter der Bäume sich rot färben (Herbst) oder der erste Schnee fällt (Winter).

Zeit ist im Alltag allgegenwärtig, als ob wir über einen Ort, einen Menschen oder unsere Gefühle sprechen würden. Ohne temporale Begrifflichkeiten als sprachliches Hilfsmittel wäre ein Grossteil unserer Kommunikation un- oder zumindest missverständlich. Wir haben uns darum auf einen sprachlichen Standard geeinigt, welcher dem Faktor Zeit einen bedeutenden semantischen Platz einräumt.

Zweitens: Zeit als psychologisches Phänomen

Umgekehrt begreifen wir Zeit auf eine Weise, die nicht zwingend mit der objektiven Realität der Zeit übereinstimmen muss. So stellen wir fest, dass wir Zeit anders wahrgenommen haben, als wir noch Kinder waren. Erinnern wir uns doch einmal zurück an unseren ersten Urlaub am Meer – wie unendlich lang uns dieser doch vorkam! Dieses rein intuitive Gefühl ist tatsächlich real, wie Psychologen nachweisen konnten. Demnach nehmen Kinder grundsätzlich den Zeitverlauf langsamer wahr als ältere Menschen. Tatsache ist, dass Kinder alle Erfahrungen zum ersten Mal machen müssen; wenn wir hingegen älter werden, besitzen wir mehr Routine und viele Dinge kommen uns wie “déjà-vus” vor. Dies kann dazu führen, dass uns der Zeitablauf schneller vorkommt.

Andererseits nehmen wir die Zeit als langsamer verstreichend wahr, wenn wir gelangweilt in einem Flugzeug zu sitzen haben, bevor wir endlich am Strand liegen können. Die “Zeit totschlagen” kann damit rasch zur Hauptaufgabe bei Langeweile werden. Beim Lesen einer interessanten Lektüre oder in einem Moment der Anspannung, wie etwa an einer Prüfung, vergeht hingegen die Zeit “wie im Flug”.

Paradoxerweise erscheinen uns retrospektiv allerdings oft gerade die spannenden Zeiten als sehr langwierige Perioden, wohingegen die ereignisarmen Phasen nur schlecht in unserer Erinnerung zu haften vermögen.

Unser Gehirn ist auch die Quelle, die uns ein extrem starkes subjektives Gegenwartsgefühl gibt, wobei der Gegenwartsmoment immer nur eine rein logische Annahme ist und nicht der objektiven Realität entsprechen kann, weist doch jeder Reiz eine minimale Übertragungsverzögerung von wenigen Milli- oder sogar bloss Mikrosekunden auf. Wir leben also (biologisch streng genommen) immer in der Vergangenheit!

Wir leben also (biologisch streng genommen) immer in der Vergangenheit!

Drittens: Zeit als messbare Grösse

In der Physik ist Zeit schliesslich eine messbare Grösse. Das Messen der Zeit findet mittels Uhren statt. Wesensmerkmal von Uhren ist dabei eine Periodizität in ihrer Funktionsweise. So misst der Herzschlag etwa unsere Lebenszeit, die Sonne (in Relation zur Erde) die Tageslänge, der Mond (in Relation zur Erde) den Monat und der Umlauf der Erde um die Sonne das Jahr. Menschen nutzten diese Naturerscheinungen bereits sehr früh, um Uhren zu bauen (z.B. Sonnen-, Sand- und Wasseruhren) und Kalender zu konstruieren (z.B. Stonehenge [umstritten], Islamischer Mondkalender, Gregorianischer Sonnenkalender). Mechanische Uhren kamen erst viel später als Zeitmesser hinzu.

Diese Uhren sind allerdings relativ ungenau, da sie den unterschiedlichsten Kräften und Veränderungen ausgesetzt sind, wie etwa Schwankungen der Lufttemperatur oder des Luftdrucks. Demgegenüber sind Atomuhren weniger störungsanfällig, da sie auf den Schwingungen der zerfallenden Atome beruhen. Dieser Kleinstbereich ist deutlich weniger “noisy”.

Bei Isaac Newton waren Zeit und Raum noch feste Konstanten. Albert Einstein räumte aber mit der Newtonschen Theorie auf, indem er aufzeigte, dass die Raumzeit eine eigene Dimension darstellt, die abhängig vom Betrachter lediglich relativ gilt. Grundsätzlich bedeutet dies, dass die Zeit nicht für alle Menschen dieselbe, sondern abhängig von der Geschwindigkeit des untersuchten Systems und die ihn umgebende Gravitation ist. Dies führt zur von Einstein berechneten Zeitdilatation. Damit stellt die Physik die Zeit als universelle Konstante in Frage. Entsprechend sprechen Physiker heute von einer bloss subjektiven Auffassung davon, was Zeit darstellt, oder sogar von einer Illusion!

Zeit und menschliches Bewusstsein werden damit auf eine ähnliche Ebene gestellt. Über beide Phänomene wissen wir heute nur wenig.

“Zeit und menschliches Bewusstsein werden damit auf eine ähnliche Ebene gestellt. Über beide Phänomene wissen wir heute nur wenig.”

“Primitives” Verständnis von Zeit genügt oft…

Zeit ist eine ungemein facettenreiche Idee. Für den Nichtphysiker genügt allerdings das Konzept der Zeit, wie wir sie im Alltag wahrnehmen. Diese Auffassung ist sozusagen real genug und lässt uns genügend effizient und fehlerlos miteinander kommunizieren. Auf jeden Fall hindert uns unser “primitives” Zeitverständnis nicht daran, die Komplexität eines Cappuccinos wertschätzen zu können!

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Nathan der Aufgeklärte

G. E. Lessing schrieb Nathan der Weise im Jahre 1779, ein Theaterstück bestehend sowohl aus dramatischen als auch komödischen Elementen. Die Geschichte spielt im Jerusalem des 12. Jahrhunderts, in einer Zeit also, welche von Glaubenskriegen und militärischer Konfrontation zwischen Christentum und Islam geprägt war.

So handelt auch Lessings Werk von Religion und den Glauben an Gott, aber in typisch aufklärerischer Manier auch von der Wahrheit. Interessanterweise verbindet alle Protagonisten eine relativ offene Geisteshaltung: Der Saladin etwa wirkt wie ein Monarch des aufgeklärten Absolutismus, welcher für das friedliche Zusammenleben der religiösen Gruppen in seinem Territorium zu sorgen versucht. Zudem nennt man sich trotz theologischer Differenzen “Freunde”, wie etwa Nathan und Al-Hafi in ihrem ersten Auftritt.

Andererseits wird diese aufgeklärte Haltung regelmässig durch vorurteilsbehaftete Äusserungen wieder in Frage gestellt (Tempelherr: “Jud’ ist Jude.”). Dasselbe gilt für Dajas immer wieder aufkeimenden Fanatismus; sie meint es zwar gut (“Blumen”), kann sich allerdings nicht vom spannungsgeladenen Denken lösen, wonach alle Menschen ausser gläubige Christen am Ende ihres Lebens verdammt sein müssen (“Unkraut”).

In der Person Nathans finden wir eine aufklärerische Kritik an Äusserlichkeiten, die den eigentlichen Menschen nicht ausmachen. Diese Kritik geht weit über die religiöse Überzeugung hinaus und umfasst auch Herkunft, Funktion in der Gesellschaft und soziale Stellung. So fragt etwa der Derwisch Al-Hafi:

“Könnt ich nicht ein Kerl im Staat geworden sein, des Freundschaft euch ungelegen wäre?

Worauf Nathan antwortet:

“Wenn dein Herz noch Derwisch ist, so wag ich’s drauf. Der Kerl im Staat, ist nur dein Kleid.”

Leitmotive im Buch sind auch Familienbande und Zugehörigkeit. Diese Themen werden im Nathan sodann mit religiöser Toleranz und Kosmopolitismus vermischt. So spielt es für Nathan und seine Pflegetochter Recha keine Rolle, als herauskommt, dass er Jude und sie Christin ist, weil er die ganze Zeit ein guter Vater für sie gewesen ist. Hier werden Oberflächlichkeiten letztendlich nicht mehr hinterfragt. Die Gesamtheit der Dinge zählt; der Mensch wird aufgrund seiner Handlungen beurteilt, wohingegen er die religiöse Tradition der Familie nicht frei bestimmen konnte. Wie bei Voltaire kommt dabei das Ethos von Humanität, Toleranz und Weltoffenheit beim freimaurerisch geprägten Lessing zum Ausdruck. Zudem finden wir einen starken Individualismus vor, wenn Nathan zum Tempelherrn sagt:

“Wir müssen, müssen Freunde sein! – Verachtet mein Volk so sehr Ihr wollt. Wir haben beide unser Volk nicht auserlesen. Sind wir unser Volk? Was heisst den Volk? Sind Christ und Jude eher Christ und Jude, als Mensch? Ah! wenn ich einen mehr in Euch gefunden hätte, dem es g’nügt, ein Mensch zu heissen!”

Es soll hier ein weiterer Punkt angesprochen werden: Natur und Vernunft in Lessings Werk. Um mit Kant zu sprechen: Der Mensch ist fähig (er muss nur wollen), sich seines eigenen Verstandes zu bedienen, um die Welt um ihn als Einheit zu erkennen, die er letztlich mit der Vernunft deuten kann. Lessings Nathan enthält darum Anspielungen auf die zunehmende Bedeutung der Naturwissenschaften zu seiner Zeit. Dies kommt beispielsweise in Saladins Schachspiel mit seiner Schwester Sittah zum Ausdruck, oder aber in der Ablehnung von wunderbaren Wendungen, die angeblich göttlichen Ursprungs zu sein haben. Religion und Natur (und damit auch der Verstand) werden bei Lessing in Einklang miteinander gebracht. In den Worten des Tempelherrn:

“Natur, so leugst du nicht! So widerspricht sich Gott in seinen Werken nicht!”

Die berühmteste Darstellung der Gleichwertigkeit der Religionen (im Sinne eines deistischen Weltbildes) finden wir allerdings in Nathans Ringparabel, welche er auf Saladins Ersuchen vorträgt. Saladin legt Nathan die Frage vor, welche der drei monotheistischen Religionen er für die “wahre” halte. Nathan antwortet darauf mit einem Gleichnis: Er erzählt von einem Vater mit drei Söhnen. Seinem liebsten Sohn soll der Vater am Ende seines Lebens einen Ring übertragen, der diesen Sohn nach dem Tod des Vaters zum neuen Hausherren macht. Als der Vater allerdings bemerkt, dass er seine Söhne alle gleich liebt, lässt er zwei weitere, ja identische Ringe anfertigen. Der Vater gibt nun jedem Sohn einen Ring. Keiner weiss allerdings, wessen Ring der echte sei.

Nun, laut Nathan sind alle Ringe (Religionen) des Vaters (Gott) gleich, denn sie basieren alle auf Geschichten (Prophezeiungen), welche sich an dessen Söhne richten (Angehörige der jeweiligen Glaubensrichtung). Und diese Geschichten seien schliesslich innerhalb der Familie und Sippe weitergegeben worden, die deren Angehörige jedoch nicht zu hinterfragen wagen. Aber weshalb sollen wir die Angehörigen anderer Religionen kritisieren, wenn sie doch bloss die Geschichten ihrer Ahnen zu glauben pflegen? Oder anders ausgedrückt: wer in Syrien geboren wird, ist wohl Muslim, während eine Italienerin am ehesten der katholischen Kirche angehört. Der kulturelle Hintergrund prägt uns also ganz wesentlich – das ist eine der Hauptaussagen bei Lessing.

Im Nathan ist darüber hinaus auch jeder Mensch zugleich “Richter”, der sich sein eigenes Bild über die Religionen machen muss.

“Dass er [Vater] euch alle drei geliebt, und gleich geliebt. […] Es eifre jeder [Sohn] seiner unbestochnen von Vorurteilen freien Liebe nach!”

Mit seiner Antwort weist also Nathan letztlich Saladins Frage nach dem “wahren” Glauben zurück. Gott, so Nathan, liebe alle Menschen, vollkommen gleich, welcher Glaubensrichtung (Ring) sie angehören. Darum: statt Tyrannei des einen Rings verlange Gott von seinen Gläubigern Toleranz gegenüber Andersgläubigen. Ein Motiv, das bis heute eine überragende Bedeutung behält. Entsprechend überrascht es nicht, dass in Lessings Werk dem Saladin das letzte Wort zukommt – wohl gedacht als Auftrag an den weltlichen Herrscher, für Toleranz unter den Religionen zu sorgen.

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Why Liberals Should Be More Optimistic

Optimists think that the course of events will be positive, for them personally or for society in general. Realists, on the other hand, think that the course of events might turn out to be positive; they concede, however, that they can’t really know since reality consists of complex phenomena. Optimism and realism are sometimes used as contradictory concepts. That doesn’t necessarily follow though.

Liberal thinkers can often be described as optimists with a strong sense of reality. On the one hand, they hope that a particular situation will turn out well; they even provide policy recommendations in order to facilitate the process. On the other hand, liberal thinkers are skeptical of what men, in particular politicians and bureaucrats, are capable of achieving. They have a realistic perception about the nature of humans and their capabilities.

Liberal thinkers can often be described as optimists with a strong sense of reality.

Personally, I’ve always perceived liberalism as a philosophy advocating a realistic optimism. For instance, we can look back to the big controversy about socialist planning in the 1920s (the “socialist calculation debate“). Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich A. von Hayek and later Murray N. Rothbard argued that a planned economy must inevitably fail at some point because its planners lack the knowledge necessary to determine economic in- and outputs. Mises and Hayek were proven right with their predictions when the Soviet system collapsed economically and politically in the early 1990s. They were pessimistic about the Soviet economy, but both Mises and Hayek felt optimistic about their own policy proposals regarding the market economy.

Many people nowadays think that capitalism and the free enterprise system have failed, given widespread poverty, the waste of resources, corruption, and so on. However, contrary to common belief, figures show that the world has become a fundamentally better place (please click on the picture to increase its size):

Liberals (read libertarians) can (and should) be more optimistic given the continuing overall trend which constantly confirms that people have become healthier, live in freer societies, and are better educated than in the 19th century (let alone earlier periods of mankind).

At the same time, we have been warned that we should remain skeptical towards supposed panaceas and prophecies coming from the ones that think they will change the world single-handedly; the ones that feel confident that they possess the recipes to solve all the ills of mankind; and those claiming that their proposed solutions are without alternative. In his Nobel Prize lecture, Hayek invoked us not to be imprudent or foolish when it comes to people that pretend to know everything (“The Pretence of Knowledge”). His statement emphasizes that we should exercise restraint in our own dealings, but also remain extremely cautious about what politics can actually accomplish for the good of society.

To conclude this short essay, I’d like to quote Karl Popper. He was that kind of optimistic thinker with an insistent sense of reality:

“The future is open. It is not predetermined and thus cannot be predicted – except by accident. The possibilities that lie in the future are infinite. When I say ‘It is our duty to remain optimists’, this includes not only the openness of the future but also that which all of us contribute to it by everything we do: we are all responsible for what the future holds in store. Thus it is our duty, not to prophesy evil, but, rather, to fight for a better world.”

Karl Popper, The Myth of the Framework, 1994

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The Right to Discriminate – It’s Not About Being Gay or Racist

An Alexandria gym terminated the membership of white nationalist Richard Spencer last week after another gym member confronted him with his racist views. Quite naturally, the private company used its right to discriminate. The media generally applauded the gym’s decision.

On the other hand, various court decisions according to which Christian bakers and florists were legally required to bake a wedding cake resp. to provide wedding bouquets of flowers for gay couples have sparked a huge controversy about the issue of discrimination for religious reasons.

Two different types of discrimination

Some people have argued that those court rulings would also apply to the (more theoretical) case in which a Jewish baker refuses his services to a neo-Nazi.

With good reason, however, our society distinguishes between the discriminatory actions and their underlying motivations.

In fact, there is a huge difference between being gay and being racist. We can even argue that they belong to different moral categories. Being gay is concerned with sexual orientation. In contrast, racists define themselves through their hatred towards a certain group of people. The former is an involuntary condition; the latter is a freely chosen political ideology. Also, a Christian baker invokes his religious beliefs, while a Jewish baker rejects to serve a neo-Nazi based on the historical experience.

So, the whole analogy with the Jewish baker somehow seems to collapse on closer inspection. We could close the case here. However, there is good reason not to do that too prematurely.

Reasons to allow discriminatory actions nevertheless

There are – at least – four reasons why discrimination should be allowed even in the cases of the Christian baker and florist:

    • Discrimination is ubiquitous: Admittedly, to discriminate people is not a nice thing. However, it is part of life. When decisions are made, discrimination ensues quite naturally. For example, a restaurant that has only five tables with ten seats has to turn down the eleventh guest; an employer cannot offer more work than she actually needs. If she does so blithely, she will likely go out of business; and so forth. Moreover, the right to discriminate is quite obviously not reserved to companies but it is also an important right of consumers. No one would argue that consumers are required to shop at a certain bakery or flower shop.
    • Prevention of harm, not causing harm: The task of the government is to prevent harm between its citizens. To deny services to a person almost never poses great harm to that person. On the other hand, forcing people to do something is a discriminatory action in itself; it is a full-fledged attack on the freedom of association. In fact, people in a free society shouldn’t arbitrarily come up with entitlements to the services of someone else.
    • There should be no control of the mind: To criminalize decisions that are based on strong motivations, such as religious beliefs, is a dangerous path that could end up on a slippery slope. It unduly prevents people from speaking their mind. It is even a form of “compelled speech” since bakers and florists are forced to provide their services.
    • The whole legal intervention could backfire on minorities: Most importantly, instead of protecting minorities and disenfranchised groups from being discriminated, anti-discrimination policies will likely effect more discrimination: Because laws increase the cost of compliance, private companies will try to find ways to reject members of minorities on spurious grounds. For example, individuals belonging to vulnerable groups, such as older employees, already have difficulties to get a job because labor laws overly protect them from being fired; doctors don’t accept patients because they cannot provide the language translations required by the law; finally, families don’t find an apartment because the requirements to terminate their lease are prohibitively high. In the end, anti-discrimination laws are much more harmful for the legitimate interests of minorities and disenfranchised people. Or, in the words of Dan Sanchez:

“Authoritarian restriction is a game much better suited for the mighty than for the marginalized.”

Bottom line

The right to discriminate should be considered permissible for whatever reason. It only applies to the private sector, however, be it in professional or more personal dealings. Ultimately, deliberately forgoing business opportunities or being racist are costly behaviors in the market place.

Government services, in contrast, are strictly bound by the constitutional principle of equal treatment. This hasn’t always been the case, as the history of the segregation laws in the U.S. teaches us, and it should therefore be emphasized here.

We should never force a Jewish baker to engage with a neo-Nazi – in any way. This is probably common sense. However, just as little as we punish a gym that terminates its contractual relationship with a racist member, we should forbid the Christian baker (florist, photographer, …) to turn down a gay couple. Personally, I don’t welcome the baker’s decision. However, it is simply not up to me to determine the generally accepted boundaries of the right to discriminate; and neither is it to anyone else.

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Der Suizid im Liberalismus

“Es gibt nur ein wirklich ernstes philosophisches Problem: den Selbstmord. Sich entscheiden, ob das Leben es wert ist, gelebt zu werden oder nicht, heißt auf die Grundfrage der Philosophie antworten. Alles andere – ob die Welt drei Dimensionen und der Geist neun oder zwölf Kategorien hat – kommt später. Das sind Spielereien; erst muss man antworten.”

(Albert Camus, Le Mythe de Sisyphe, 1942, dt. Übersetzung)

Nicht erst seit Albert Camus ist der Suizid ein kontroverses Thema in der Philosophie. Der Liberalimus setzt sich als politische Philosophie lediglich indirekt mit der Thematik auseinander, da er weder Verbote noch Gebote ausspricht, sondern den Suizid als Teil der Menschenwürde auffasst.

Griechische Philosophie und Stoa

Eine grundsätzlich ablehnende Haltung gebenüber dem Suizid finden wir bei Sokrates, der in Platons “Phaidon” die Entscheidung über Leben und Tod den Göttern überlässt. Aristoteles schloss sich dieser Meinung an.

Demgegenüber finden wir insbesondere bei den Stoikern eine positive Haltung gegenüber dem Suizid. Für den Stoiker ist nicht entscheidend, dass man lebt, sondern wie man lebt. Namentlich schrieb Seneca in den Briefen an Lucilius:

„Finden wirst du auch Lehrer der Philosophie, die bestreiten, man dürfe Gewalt antun dem eigenen Leben, und es für Gotteslästerung erklären, selbst sein eigener Mörder zu werden […] Wer das sagt, sieht nicht, dass er den Weg zur Freiheit verschließt. Nichts besseres hat uns das ewige Gesetz geleistet, als dass es uns einen einzigen Eingang in das Leben gegeben, Ausgänge viele. Ich soll warten auf einer Krankheit Grausamkeit oder eines Menschen, obwohl ich in der Lage bin, mitten durch die Qualen ins Freie zu gehen und Widerwärtiges beiseite zu stoßen? Das ist das einzige, weswegen wir über das Leben nicht klagen können: niemanden hält es.“

(Epistulae Morales ad Lucilium 70.14-15).


Diese klaren Worte wurden jedoch von der Kirche abgelehnt. Im ersten Buch seines Werks “De Civitate Dei” (Gottesstaat) betonte der Kirchenvater Augustinus im 5. Jahrhundert n. Chr., dass der Dekalog (zehn Gebote) nicht nur die Fremdtötung sondern auch den Suizid mitumfasse:

“Allerdings nämlich ist, wenn es nicht einmal gestattet ist, aus eigener Vollmacht einen Übeltäter zu töten, es sei denn, daß ein Gesetz die Befugnis gibt, ihn zu töten, natürlich auch der Selbstmörder ein Mörder, und er lädt durch den Selbstmord umso größere Schuld auf sich, je weniger er schuld ist an der Ursache, die ihn zum Selbstmord treibt.”

(Buch 1, 17)

Anders als bei Seneca soll es für den gläubigen Christen keinen eigenständigen Ausweg aus dem Leben geben dürfen. Das Leben erhält damit einen Eigenwert, über den nur Gott bestimmen kann. Er gibt Leben, und er alleine entscheidet, wann er es zurück nimmt.

Im Unterschied zu den fernöstlichen Weltanschauungen (Hinduismus, Konfuzianismus und teils Buddhismus) folgen alle grossen abrahamitischen Religionen dieser Prämisse.

Humanismus und Aufklärung

Der Liberalismus findet nicht nur in den griechischen und römischen Ideen seine Vorläufer, sondern insbesondere auch bei den Denkern des Humanismus. Michel de Montaigne hat sich fast wortwörtlich der Meinung Senecas angeschlossen, als er in seinen Essais (1580) schrieb:

„[…] man sagt, […] das gnädigste Geschenk der Natur, das uns jeden Grund zur Klage über unser Los nehme, bestehe darin, dass sie uns den Schlüssel zum Weg ins Freie überlassen habe. Sie hat nur einen Eingang ins Leben vorgesehen, aber hunderttausend Ausgänge.“

(Essais 2,3)

In Weiterentwicklung der antiken Tradition (insb. der “humanitas” in Ciceros Werk) betonte der Humanismus die Würde des Individuums aufgrund seiner Natur und Vernunft.

Die Entscheidungsfreiheit wurde sodann als wesentlicher Bestandteil der Menschenwürde betrachtet. In den Worten Samuel von Pufendorfs (1672):

„Der Mensch ist von höchster Würde, weil er eine Seele hat, die ausgezeichnet ist durch das Licht des Verstandes, durch die Fähigkeit, die Dinge zu beurteilen und sich frei zu entscheiden, und die sich in vielen Künsten auskennt.“

(De iure naturae et gentium, 2. Buch, 1. Kapitel, § 5)

Ferner beschäftigte sich David Hume in seiner Schrift “Of suicide” (1777) ausführlich mit der Thematik. Dabei kam Hume zum Schluss, dass moralische Verurteilungen fehl am Platz seien. Der Suizid sei weder moralisch noch unmoralisch, sondern ein tröstender Notausgang für den Einzelnen, “[which] would effectually free him from all danger of misery”.

Dem entgegnete Immanuel Kant, dass der Suizid dem Grundgesetz der praktischen Vernunft widerspreche, wonach der Mensch durch sein Handeln sich selbst zu bestätigen habe. Der Mensch sei eben Zweck, und niemals Mittel. Indem der Suizident den Suizid wähle, stelle er im Widerspruch zu seiner Vernunft sein Menschsein in Frage. Für Kant ist die “Selbstentleibung” darum ein Verbrechen, ja Mord (Die Metaphysik der Sitten, § 6, 1797). Weil bei Kant das Prinzip der Selbsterhaltung bereits in der Prämisse steckt, ist die Entscheidungsfreiheit im Suizid lediglich eine vermeintliche.

Suizid im Nationalsozialismus

In einer Gesellschaft, in welcher das öffentliche Interesse mit Zwang vor das Eigeninteresse gestellt wird, kann der sebstbestimmte Tod zu einem politischen Akt werden: Wenigstens die Entscheidung über ihren Tod wollten viele Juden und Personen verfolgter Minderheiten nicht den Nationalsozialisten überlassen. So waren ihre Handlungen Ausdruck des Widestands gegen eine Ordnung, welche das Leben ganz grundsätzlich nicht wertschätzte.

Es ist darum nicht erstaunlich, dass auch Deutsche, die den Suizid wählten, als minderwertige Menschen angesehen wurden. Eine solche Handlung wurde zudem als Pflichtverletzung gegenüber dem Staat betrachtet. Ironischerweise wählte letztendlich auch Adolf Hitler angesichts der Ausweglosigkeit des Krieges den Freitod. Für seine Anhänger wurde sein Suizid zum hochstilisierten Beweis des Märtyrertums.

Straffreiheit und Toleranz in der modernen liberalen Ordnung

Mit der Anerkennung der Glaubensfreiheit in den demokratischen Verfassungen des Westens wurde der Suizid von seiner metaphysischen Ballast befreit: Nunmehr bestimmte der Staat über die dessen Legalität. Relativ bald etablierte sich die Einsicht, dass der Suizid grundsätzlich straffrei sein sollte (in Preussen bspw. 1851), wobei sich die Diskussionen allerdings in vielen Staaten bis heute um das zulässige Mass der Beihilfe zum Suizid drehen.

Der Liberalismus als politische Philosophie kann grundsätzlich nichts über das Psychologische und Seelische aussagen. In Ludwig von Mises’ Worten (1927):

“Nicht aus Geringschätzung der seelischen Güter richtet der Liberalismus sein Augenmerk ausschliesslich auf das Materielle, sondern weil er der Überzeugung ist, daß das Höchste und Tiefste im Menschen durch äussere Regelung nicht berührt werden können. Er sucht nur äusseren Wohlstand zu schaffen, weil er weiß, daß der innere, der seelische Reichtum dem Menschen nicht von außen kommen kann, sondern nur aus der eigenen Brust. Er will nichts anderes schaffen als die äußeren Vorbedingungen für die Entfaltung des inneren Lebens.”

(Liberalismus, 4)

Der klassische Liberalismus fordert indes Toleranz. Er fordert Toleranz gegenüber Andersdenkenden und Andershandelnden. Die liberale Haltung besteht also im respektvollen Umgang mit einem zumeist psychologischen Phänomen, das in der Regel für Aussenstehende nur schwer oder gar nicht fassbar ist.

Der Suizid soll als Realisierung des letzten Willens offenstehen. Wo auch immer ein Mensch nach reiflicher Überlegung zur Überzeugung gelangt, dass er diesen Weg wählen möchte, soll ihm dieses natürliche Recht nicht verwehrt werden können – weder von einer religiösen Gruppierung noch vom Staat. Der Mensch – in Anlehnung an Hume – schuldet der Gemeinschaft nichts; sein freier Wille soll nicht durch Nützlichkeitserwägungen eingeschränkt werden können.

Für einen Liberalen muss sich eine solche Haltung bereits aus der Verfügungshoheit über den eigenen Körper ergeben. Ein Verbot würde nämlich immer auch die (freilich rein hypothetische) vollständige Fremdkontrolle des eigenen Körpers bedeuten.

Anders als Kant meinte, stellt der Suizid auch keine moralische Selbstverneinung dar, sondern die Verwirklichung des freien letzten Willens. Nur wenn dieser freie Wille eingeschränkt ist, im Sinne Ludwig Wittgensteins eine „Überrumpelung“ (Kontrollverlust) vorliegt, kann nicht von einer „reiflich überlegten“ Entscheidung gesprochen werden.

Der Liberalismus setzt dem selbstgewählten Tod allerdings dort eine Schranke, wo andere Menschen zu Schaden kommen könnten. Keine Toleranz erhält darum der Selbstmordattentäter, der sich aufgrund seiner intoleranten Ideologie tötet. Problematisch (aber verständlich) ist die Frage, ob das Vorliegen einer Verantwortung des Suizidenten für andere Menschen, wie etwa seine Kinder, die Suizidhandlung als verwerflich erscheinen lässt.

Die Toleranz gegenüber der Entscheidungsfreiheit und damit der Würde des Menschen ist die Stärke des Liberalismus. Diese Toleranz ist nicht bedingt oder abhängig vom Willen einer Autorität, und sie macht insbesondere vor dem Tod nicht halt.



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The Fallacious Romance of Politics with the Concept of Public Interest

The theory that there exists a thing called „public interest“ is a fallacious belief based on a romantic idea of political man. In truth, the overwhelming evidence shows us that governments are more likely to fail than markets, and when they do, the consequences of their failure are more catastrophic.

Political man vs. economic man

Most of Western political thought is grounded in the idea that the ruling class acts reasonably and in the best interest of the people it governs. This idea dates back to Plato’s Republic, in which the “philosopher kings” shall exercise absolute powers over the citizenry, only kept in check by their virtues of benevolence and knowledge. According to Plato, philosophers have to lead the way as kings, or rather kings have to grow into philosophers.

Plato famously likened the governance of the state with the command of a naval vessel when he wrote:

“[…] the true pilot must pay attention to the year and seasons and sky and stars and winds, and whatever else belongs to his art, if he intends to be really qualified for the command of a ship […].”

Plato’s writing received intellectual resistance by many classical liberals, including Milton Friedman who brilliantly responded to his interviewer on a TV show in 1979:

“Is it really true that political self-interest is nobler somehow than economic self-interest? You know I think you are taking a lot of things for granted. And just tell me where in the world you find these angels that are going to organize society for us?”

The purpose of this short essay is to show that the belief that there are two different types of human beings is delusive. In fact, there has hardly ever existed a convincing story that there are those who pursue the interests of the public benevolently, the so-called political man, on the one hand, and those who are only interested in their personal advancement, the so-called economic man, on the other hand.

The concept of public interest in the theory of regulation

The public interest theory of regulation explains, in general terms, that regulation seeks the protection and benefit of the public at large, such as for reasons of security or health. Apparently, these are very vague terms, which are in need of a definition.

In contrast, we can all ascertain our personal interests that are based on our own preferences. A farmer, for instance, usually wants to maintain or increase the value of his land, on which his cattle graze. A company, on the other hand, might want to acquire the farmer’s property at the lowest possible price to build a new factory on it. The rationale of economic exchange is that both farmer and company would strike a bargain, each from their own perspective, if they agreed on the purchase of the land.

What exactly, then, is public interest? You would expect an entire bookshelf filled with straightforward answers to that question. However, the concept has deliberately been left open to interpretation by the legislator and judiciary. Further, it is difficult to define such a concept since the terminology doesn’t say anything about its substance. It is clear, however, that public interest cannot correspond to a specific private interest.

Now, imagine that a government agency plans to build a railroad track across the property of said farmer. In line with the law on expropriation, the agency claims that building the track is in the public interest since everyone uses the train now and then, or rather that trains are just an important pillar of the local economy. Therefore, they conclude, the property must be taken away from the farmer. Well, this does seem fair given the farmer receives an appropriate compensation equal to the market value, doesn’t it?

The concept of social welfare in economics

How do the officials of that railroad agency estimate the farmer’s individual welfare loss? After all, he couldn’t be willing to sell his property at all. However, welfare economists make it easier for the authorities.

Mainstream economic analysis of law has come up with a simple answer to the question. The transaction must satisfy the criterion of (improved) Pareto efficiency in order to be considered beneficial for society: It suffices if the general public benefits more from taking away the farmer’s property than the farmer loses, given that his loss is compensated appropriately. More precisely, the welfare function is served justice if the farmer receives a compensation that doesn’t worsen his position compared with his original situation as a landowner. According to the Pareto calculus, no one should be worse off after the transaction than before. However, because the state is on the „other side“ of the transaction, the farmer’s individual preference to sell or not to sell doesn’t carry any weight in the equation. That’s the rationale of political exchange.

But how can the government be sure what the public truly wants? In fact, it almost never can. Conceptually, it is just assumed that elected politicians and their policies will increase social welfare. This sweeping assumption makes up the alleged public interest. To suggest, however, that all citizens (except for the farmer) share the same social preferences (building the railroad track) is outright fallacious. The problem doesn’t disappear in a direct democratic system; the opinions of politicians or bureaucrats are only replaced by the majority’s desire for some sort of public welfare, to which minorities have to be subordinate.

It should thus come as no surprise that eminent domain has encouraged governments to take advantage of the poor and politically powerless historically.

Welfare economics generally emphasizes the importance of property rights. The same theory, however, allows for expropriation under the conditions mentioned above. In doing so, the argument becomes an entirely utilitarian one: Property turns into a matter of monetary compensation; even more, the concept of property is ultimately reduced to a mere tentative claim instead of full ownership. This is true for the farmer’s land as much as it is for any kind of property.

Public choice’s critique of politics

Early critics of arbitrary public policies undertook an analysis of political exchange. David Hume famously stated that we should govern public employees the way we treat „knaves“:

„Political writers have established it as a maxim, that, in contriving any system of government, and fixing the several checks and controuls of the constitution, every man ought to be supposed a knave, and to have no other end, in all his actions, than private interest. By this interest we must govern him, and, by means of it, make him, notwithstanding his insatiable avarice and ambition, co-operate to public good. Without this, say they, we shall in vain boast of the advantages of any constitution, and shall find, in the end, that we have no security for our liberties or possessions, except the good-will of our rulers; that is, we shall have no security at all.“

(David Hume, Of the Independency of the Parliament, 1777, in: Eugene F. Miller (ed.), David Hume. Essays. Moral, Political, Literary, Indianapolis 1987, Essay VI, 42-43)

Hume anticipated a whole new research field in economics and political science, beginning with Knut Wicksell, Ludwig von Mises, and later the Virginia School of political economy (among many more). The proponents of public choice argue that the distinction between economic and political man is fallacious on the ground that politicians don’t run for office because they only have the public interest in mind, but rather pursue their self-interest and other motivations.

I don’t claim that politicians never act out of other reasons than pure self-interest. However, public policies will more often than not be undermined by special interest groups, trying to pass off their private interests as the „public interest“. In fact, as everyone else, politicians react to the incentives of their biggest financial backers, and seldom behave in ways that reflect the interest of their constituency, let alone the „public interest“. In the case of the farmer, it is plausible to presume that railroad corporations have used their power to influence the legislator and bureaucrats in their favor, resulting in the confiscation of the farmer’s land.

Constitutional constraints, and the protection of individual liberty

How, then, can we limit political power in line with a free society? Typically, classical liberals have sought to restrict the competences of the government in the first place. Both James M. Buchanan and Gordon Tullock, the founders of the Virginia School, advocated the implementation of constitutional constraints, within which political decisions are made. They provided a theory of government failure, thereby questioning the common belief that politics is some sort of romantic relationship between the state and its citizens:

„The romance is gone, perhaps never to be regained. The socialist paradise is lost. Politicians and bureaucrats are seen as ordinary persons much like the rest of us, and „politics“ is viewed as a set of arrangements, a game if you will, in which many players with quite disparate objectives interact so as to generate a set of outcomes that may not be either internally consistent or efficient by any standards.“

(James M. Buchanan, Politics without Romance: A Sketch of Positive Public Choice Theory and Its Normative Implications, in: The Logical Foundations of Constitutional Liberty, The Collected Works of James M. Buchanan, Indianapolis 1999, Vol. 1, 57)

Western constitutions were initially grounded on a classical liberal foundation. However, most governments have resorted to very broad interpretations of alleged public interests, be it in the area of eminent domain or national security. As it is the case with social justice (Hayek’s „weasel word“), everything can somehow be subsumed under the term „public interest“. The challenge, however, lies in securing individual liberties in the sense of the Lockean trinity „life, liberty, and property“ against all future prevailing odds. This is consonant with what Adam Smith and F.A. Hayek meant by „liberty under the law“. After freeing it from its non-existent romance intellectually, the relationship between the state and its citizens should be put back on a strong legal foundation, keeping political agents in check.

A society based on the principles of peaceful cooperation is in the public interest

A concept as shallow and unclear as the concept of public interest must pose a constant danger to freedom. We should therefore abandon the concept of public interest altogether, and replace it with a classical liberal approach instead. For all intents and purposes, the protection of individual liberties against unwarranted actions of both government and citizens is in the long-term interest of society.

In other words, legitimate government intervention should be confined to prevent citizens from being harmed by their fellow men and their property from being stolen or impaired. Therefore, public interest ultimately comes down to the production of rules that allow for peaceful cooperation and the pursuit of individual interests. Any other interpretation of public interest (or social welfare for that matter) is based on unrealistic behavioral assumptions about politics.

Hayek similarly wrote:

“In this sense the general welfare […] consists of what we have already seen to be the purpose of the rules of law, namely that abstract order of the whole which does not aim at the achievement of known particular results but is preserved as a means for assisting in the pursuit of a great variety of individual purposes.”

(Friedrich A. Hayek, Law, Legislation and Liberty: The Mirage of Social Justice, Vol. 2, London 1998, 5)

Certainly, difficult questions of weighing individual rights against each other will arise in many instances. This, however, is actually the „art of navigation“ Plato should have pointed to instead of promoting a special ruling class. If we are not willing to give up the foundation of an open and peaceful society in the long run, this is the only sensible way to interpret the concept of public interest.

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The Right to Be Let Alone in a World of Cultural Diversity

The right to be let alone, as Justice Louis Brandeis famously put it in “Olmstead v. United States”, is commonly associated with the right to privacy in the Fourth Amendment. The constitutional “[…] right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures […]” critically separates the spheres of life and wards off many dangers from the government. However, in a society so culturally diverse as ours, the right to be let alone takes on much greater significance than just separating the spheres between the individual and the state.

Bridges are not built overnight

A recent poll shows that Americans are divided on the role of culture in their society. Coming from Europe, the U.S. is undoubtedly a much more culturally diverse nation than most European countries, if not all. Unlike Switzerland, for example, Americans cannot rely on ethnic kinship for a shared identity. The U.S. is truly a nation of immigrants. The more surprising are the results of that poll showing that conservative and social-democratic opinions diverge in terms of fundamental cultural values.

If we accept the fact that culture matters, we also have to concede that foreign culture should have a place in our society.

Culture is a delicate issue. F.A. Hayek argued that culture matters and that it shouldn’t be denied in the political processes of a constitutional democracy, unless one wants to question the stability of a society. However, culture isn’t a rigid phenomenon either. The basic values of a society can change, and quite obviously, have done so significantly. Slavery, for example, once a shared value among many Americans and Europeans, was abolished in a justified fight against unjust values.

If we accept the fact that culture matters, we also have to concede that foreign culture should have a place in our society. This doesn’t mean, though, that people native to a country have to give up on their own values. Quite naturally, the burden of responsibility must rest on those who immigrate to a foreign culture. However, we shouldn’t expect that everyone is willing to assimilate entirely. And this is where the crux begins.

The “great society”, not government is the solution

Many bureaucrats think that seamless integration is simply a question of the right laws and forceful state mediation between two cultures. They assume that by designing sophisticated programs immigrants will necessarily start feeling as members of society. This is wrong, though. Hayek made clear that culture doesn’t work that way:

“[…] the extended order resulted not from human design or intention but spontaneously: it arose from unintentionally conforming to certain traditional and largely moral practices, many of which men tend to dislike, whose significance they usually fail to understand, whose validity they cannot prove, and which have nonetheless fairly rapidly spread by means of an evolutionary selection – the comparative increase of population and wealth – of those groups that happened to follow them.”

(F. A. Hayek, in: W. W. Bartley, III (ed.), The Fatal Conceit, Vol. 1 of The Collected Works of F. A. Hayek, Chicago 1988, 6)

To put it in a nutshell, culture is omnipresent, it possesses a formative role in life like no other informal social institution. Cultural values are deeply embedded in social relations, parenting, education, and so forth, which is why we should never expect perfect assimilation from top-down integration programs, as sophisticated as they may be.

However, the market, unlike any other institution, has the power to create peaceful cooperation among people of different cultures. It creates opportunities for those who are willing to integrate and to accept the traditions of the local population. Even more importantly, the market discourages people from thinking in entitlements. The culture of dependency, created by the welfare state, has not only made millions of individuals depending but has also evoked antipathy for foreigners and their diverse values with which they arrive at our borders. As Donald Trump’s presidential campaign platform impressively showed, once the state has created the feeling of being left behind, politics quickly becomes an outlet for racial slurs and cultural defamation.

A government siding with one group of its population is highly problematic. In doing so, it does not only sow a lot of mistrust and resentment among those people with conflicting opinions but also conveys the belief that government is able to solve the problem, if necessary using force.

What remains for us to do then?

What then are the ideal conditions for the peaceful coexistence of people of a different cultural background? The German classical liberal economist and philosopher, Roland Baader, once said that there exists only one human right, the right to be let alone (“Das einzig wahre Menschenrecht ist das Recht, in Ruhe gelassen zu werden […]”). This is in fact how every human tribe started off before becoming part of a more involved society. Well, some groups, like the Amish people in the U.S. and Canada, believe in the fulfilled existence of remaining unaffected by unfamiliar values till this day.

Oftentimes, however, foregoing the opportunities of cooperation will cost those people dear. In his book “Living Economics”, Peter Boettke shows that there exist myriad institutions that allow people to engage actively with each other, while living peacefully side by side. It is these “organic” institutions of self-governance that have proven themselves valuable throughout the world and that have supported people in coming together and starting exchanging not only goods but eventually ideas and their cultural heritage.

However, to concede that culture matters, that of immigrants as much as ours, is the first step to recognize that peaceful community relies on everyone’s right to be let alone if he or she wishes to do so.

In a very biological sense, the right to be let alone gives us the time needed to prepare ourselves for the world outside of our “cultural backyard”. It is true that we will always have to accept that some people are not willing to become part of a more heterogenous society. As I said, this is their very right. And sometimes, we’ll even have to defend the principles of an open society against violent aggressors. However, to concede that culture matters, that of immigrants as much as ours, is the first step to recognize that peaceful community relies on everyone’s right to be let alone if he or she wishes to do so.

Published by The Libertarian Institute

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