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May 19, 2009

Thought for the Day

In Letter Six of the "Philosophical Letters," a famous passage occurs. Voltaire observes, "Go into the Exchange in London [the Stock Exchange], that place more venerable than many a court, and you will see representatives of all the nations assembled there for the profit of mankind. There the Jew, the Mahometan, and the Christian deal with one another as if they were of the same religion, and reserve the name of infidel for those who go bankrupt." After conducting business with each other, the Christian and the Jew went their separate ways. As Voltaire phrased it, "On leaving these peaceable and free assemblies, some go to the synagogue, others in search of a drink..." In the end, Voltaire declared that "all are satisfied."

Commerce, the free market, established an arena within which widely diverse people willingly dealt with each other solely for economic benefit. Then, they separated. They walked away from each other to pursue different interests and cultural values behind the closed doors of their own lives.

There are two parts to Voltaire's explanation of England's social harmony. First, the freedom of people to associate as legal equals. That is, the Christian and the Jew could trade with each other secure in the knowledge that their contracts would be legally binding despite their religious differences. Second, the freedom of people to walk away from each other and to not associate. That is, the freedom to peacefully and personally discriminate against anyone for any reason. The right to discriminate -- to close your front door behind you -- was a prerequisite of social harmony.

Let me be clear. I am not talking about embedding discrimination into the law. Quite the opposite. I am saying that the law must protect the person and property of all people equally. Passed this point, however, everyone has the right to refuse to associate with anyone else for any reason: religion, sex, the color of their skin, the music they hum.

The "Philosophical Letters" reversed a traditionally accepted argument in Voltaire's Europe on how to create a harmonious society. Traditionally, France had attempted to enforce a homogeneous system of values upon its people in the belief that common values were necessary to ensure peace and harmony. Common values were seen to be the social glue that held together the social fabric. Thus, those in authority needed to centrally plan and to rigorously enforce the values that should be practiced by the common people. After all, if people were allowed to choose and practice their own values, especially religious ones, then civil chaos and conflict would ensue.

Voltaire argued that the opposite was true. The imposition of homogeneous values -- the denial of the right to personally discriminate -- was what led to conflict and religious wars. Instead of common values and governmental control, it was diversity and personal freedom that created a thriving and peaceful society. Voltaire commented, "If there were only one religion in England, there would be danger of tyranny; if there were two, they would cut each other's throats; but there are thirty, and they live happily together in peace."


Posted by Cassandra at May 19, 2009 07:34 AM

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Do you mean 'past' as opposed to 'passed?'

Just asking. Your post gave me a lot to think about. Today is one of those chilly, windy spring days and nothing has gone right so far this week.

In reading your post, I am so glad I live in a country where the closed door represents privacy,
my right to disassociate if I so choose for whatever reason. I am not in a particularly good mood today, and I am not going to inflict it on the rest of the world, as I choose to not rain on someone else's parade.

If I were a sick, sadistic puppy, I might.


Seriously, good post and something I needed to chew on.

Posted by: Cricket at May 19, 2009 11:11 AM

Lest you think I did not click on the link, I did. I love the Institute. Wendy McElroy's article was excellent, although the ending surprised me, considering the legality of prostitution in certain countries of the EU.

However, I also took another meaning from your post, so I hope you don't mind.

Posted by: Cricket at May 19, 2009 11:19 AM

My religious principles are so conservative that the Pope has scarcely anything on me. But the bedrock of those principles is the belief that free, individual human beings are incomparably more important than institutions. So while I'm not sure the U.S. Constitution truly embodies the famous "right to privacy," I think it probably would be a good thing if it did, and my deepest political conviction is that the true test of a good government is whether it knows when to butt out. Your post perfectly summed up my views of the right role of government: to protect the persons and property of its citizens, and otherwise to leave them alone to pursue their own notions of welfare and happiness.

Posted by: Texan99 at May 19, 2009 11:27 AM

Some of those notions of welfare and happiness are okay until businesses make decisions that affect the health, welfare and rights of others.

I speak from experience on that one, and I am sure others can relate as well.

Posted by: Cricket at May 19, 2009 01:21 PM

Well, that sort of argues for the libertarian take on the issue of the law imposing a moral standard.

Far better to say that gov't shouldn't be involved in moral issues at all than to set spark to the tinderbox of the battle for whose morals shall be enshrined.

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at May 19, 2009 01:31 PM

than to set spark to the tinderbox of the battle for whose morals shall be enshrined

Watch it, buddy :p

Posted by: Miss July at May 19, 2009 03:38 PM

Seriously, I think it depends upon how you define "morals". As someone argued rather persuasively earlier, people being what they are, someone's morals are going to be enshrined into law.

The question is, "to what extent", and "whose"?

I think most people would prefer to see matters like sex left out of the law, but in practice I haven't seen that happen. Instead, the law creates and defines where the law can intrude and where it can't. But those who want gay marriage would argue the law already does enshrine heteronormative morals into law.

Posted by: Cassandra at May 19, 2009 03:41 PM

Well, that's the difference between practice and theory.

In theory there is no difference. In practice, however, there is a great deal of difference.

It's actually one of the problems I have with libertarian as a philosophy. Just as communism fails because it assumes everyone can abandon their individualistic nature and act solely in the collective interest, libertarianism fails because it assumes everyone can abandon their tribal natures and act solely in their individual interests.

I believe human nature leans quite heavily to the individualist side, but I don't think we'll ever completely purge our tribal instincts to desire to be part of a homogenous group.

So, from a practical matter, while it will likely never be completely purged, by minimizing the extent you also minimize the importance of whose.

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at May 19, 2009 04:53 PM

"the law must protect the person and property of all people equally."

I think that's what Jefferson meant by "created equal". At least, part of what he meant.

Cricket: "Some of those notions of welfare and happiness are okay until businesses make decisions that affect the health, welfare and rights of others."

I think we could make a good case for substituting "government" for "business". The decisions govrnment is making now, affect the health and welfare of us all, for good or ill.

Gonnano:"It's actually one of the problems I have with libertarian as a philosophy."

Somebody wrote earlier today that the problem with libertarians is that they're too theoretical, and have a hard time reconciling the theory with practice.

That might not be an attribute peculiar to libertarians.

Posted by: ZZMike at May 19, 2009 08:32 PM

Well, there's at least the communists to add to that group :-)

Seriously, though, it's not even just peculiar to those two philosophies.

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at May 20, 2009 09:40 AM