Thoughts on economics and liberty

Category: Philosophy

Frederick Douglass and Gandhi both wanted the poor to be left free

Gandhi wrote: ‘All the help that the poor need is that the world gets off their backs’.

And Frederick Douglass wrote: “if the Negro cannot stand on his own legs, let him fall”.

The common theme is to STOP the “do-gooders” particularly government from destroying the poor with their misguided charity.

The article below has particular relevance in India with its strong affirmative action policies.


Who was it who said, “if the Negro cannot stand on his own legs, let him fall”?

Ronald Reagan? Newt Gingrich? Charles Murray?

Not even close. It was Frederick Douglass!

This was part of a speech in which Douglass also said: “Everybody has asked the question… ‘What shall we do with the Negro?’ I have had but one answer from the beginning. Do nothing with us! Your doing with us has already played the mischief with us. Do nothing with us!”

Frederick Douglass had achieved a deeper understanding in the 19th century than any of the black “leaders” of today. Those whites who feel a need to do something with blacks and for blacks have been some of the most dangerous “friends” of blacks.

Academia is the home of many such “friends,” which is why there are not only double standards of admissions to colleges but also in some places double standards in grading. The late David Riesman called it “affirmative grading.”

A professor at one of California’s state universities where black students are allowed to graduate on the basis of easier standards put it bluntly: “We are just lying to these black students when we give them degrees.” That lie is particularly deadly when the degree is a medical degree, authorizing someone to treat sick people or perform surgery on children.

For years, Dr. Patrick Chavis was held up as a shining example of the success of affirmative action, for he was admitted to medical school as a result of minority preferences and went back to the black community to practice medicine. In fact, he was publicly praised by the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights—just two weeks before his license was suspended, after his patients died under conditions that brought the matter to the attention of the Medical Board of California.

An administrative law judge referred to Chavis’ “inability to perform some of the most basic duties required of a physician.” A year later, after a fuller investigation, his license was revoked.

Those who had for years been using Chavis as a shining example of the success of affirmative action suddenly changed tactics and claimed that an isolated example of failure proved nothing. Sadly, Chavis was not an isolated example.

When a professor at the Harvard Medical School declared publicly, back in the 1970s, that black students were being allowed to graduate from that institution without meeting the same standards as others, he was denounced as a “racist”for saying that it was cruel to “allow trusting patients to pay for our irresponsibility”—trusting black patients, in many cases.

Why do supposedly responsible people create such dangerous double standards? Some imagine that they are being friends to blacks by lowering the standards for them. Some don’t think that blacks have what it takes to meet real standards, and that colleges and universities will lose their “diversity”—and perhaps federal money with it—if they don’t lower the standards, in order to get an acceptable racial body count.

My own experience as a teacher was that black students would meet higher standards if you refused to lower the standards for them. This was not the royal road to popularity, either with the students themselves or with the “friends” of blacks on the faculty and in the administration. But, when the dust finally settled, the students met the standards.

We have gotten so used to abysmal performances from black students, beginning in failing ghetto schools, that it is hard for some to believe that black students once did a lot better than they do today, at least in places and times with good schools. As far back as the First World War, black soldiers from New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and Ohio scored higher on mental tests than white soldiers from Georgia, Arkansas, Kentucky, and Mississippi.

During the 1940s, black students in Harlem schools had test scores very similar to those of white working class students on the lower east side of New York. Sometimes the Harlem scores were a little higher or a little lower, but they were never miles behind, the way they are today in many ghetto schools. If blacks could do better back when their opportunities were worse, why can’t today’s ghetto students do better? Perhaps blacks have too many “friends” today.

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JS Mill’s “On Liberty” is about elitism, not freedom. Thanks to Thomas Sowell for pointing this out.

I’m currently studying JS Mill’s serious errors in the formulation of the concept of natural monopoly, on which I’ll put out a blog post in due course. Mill was wrong on a number of other issues as well, and veered towards socialism towards the end of his life.

But this article by Sowell is crucial as it distils the core argument of On Liberty, which is about elitism, not freedom.


Among the many writings of John Stuart Mill, the one most likely to have been read by people living today is On Liberty, and the ideas expressed in it taken as most characteristic of Mill’s philosophy. Yet this small and plainly written work is often profoundly misunderstood.

Although On Liberty has become a symbol invoked against the intrusions of government into people’s personal lives or its stifling of ideas, Mill was unmistakably clear that intrusive government was not the object of his concern in this particular essay. He asserted, “the era of pains and penalties for political discussion has, in our own country, passed away.”1 Even a government press prosecution the year before On Liberty was published “has not” in Mill’s words, “induced me to alter a single word of the text.”2 Various other government restrictions Mill dismissed as “but rags and remnants of persecution.”3 The government was not what Mill feared nor what On Liberty was meant to warn against. It was the social “tyranny of the majority”4 and “the despotism of Custom”5 that he opposed in On Liberty.He said:

In England, from the peculiar circumstances of our political history, though the yoke of opinion is perhaps heavier, that of law is lighter, than in most other countries of Europe; and there is considerable jealousy of direct interference, by the legislative or the executive power, with private conduct; not so much from any just regard for the independence of the individual as from the still subsisting habit of looking on the government as representing an opposite interest to the public.6

What then is the subject of On Liberty? Mill says in the first paragraph of that essay that its subject is “the nature and limits of the power which can be legitimately exercised by society over the individual”7society, not government. Mill declared:

Like other tyrannies, the tyranny of the majority was at first, and is still vulgarly, held in dread, chiefly as operating through the acts of the public authorities. But reflecting persons perceived that when society itself is the tyrant—society collectively, over the separate individuals who compose it? Its means of tyrannizing are not restricted to acts which it may do by the hands of its political functionaries. Society can and does execute its own mandate: and if it issues wrong mandates instead of right, it practices a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression.8

While society’s disapproval is “not usually upheld by such extreme penalties” as government may have at its disposal, there are “fewer means of escape,” with social disapproval “penetrating more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself.”9 Mill says in On Liberty: “Our merely social intolerance kills no one, roots out no opinions, but induces men to disguise them, or to abstain from any active effort for their diffusion.”10 Admitting that some rules of conduct must be imposed, both by law and by public opinion, Mill nevertheless thought that “the sole end for which mankind is warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of any of their number, is self-protection.”11On Liberty argued that individuals should be free to do as they like “without detriment to their estimation” in the eyes of others.12 This was, however, an asymmetrical principle, as Mill applied it. To say that people should be free to do as they like “without detriment to their estimation” in the eyes of others is to say that others have no right to express their own opinions or even to quietly shun those whose conduct they disapprove.

This central principle elaborated in On Liberty is asymmetrical in yet another way. It becomes clear, especially in the later parts of On Liberty, that Mill’s special concern is with the effects of public opinion and customs on the intellectual elite. “Customs are made for customary circumstances and customary characters,”13 he says. Exceptional people should be exempt from the influence of mass public opinion—but mass public opinion should not be exempt from the influence of the intellectual elite. On the contrary, one of the arguments for the exemption of the elite from the social influence of the masses is that this will enable the elite to develop in ways that can then enable them to exert social influence over the masses:

There is always need of persons not only to discover new truths, and point out when what were once truths are true no longer, but to commence new practices, and set the examples of more enlightened conduct, and better taste and sense in human life. It is true that this benefit is not capable of being rendered by everybody alike: there are but few persons, in comparison with the whole of mankind, whose experiments, if adopted by others, would be likely to be any improvement on established practice. But these few are the salt of the earth;without them, human life would become a stagnant pool.14

Thus On Liberty, which seems at first to be an argument for being non-judgmental towards individuals in general, turns out to be an argument for a one-way non-judgmental attitude toward special individuals who are to apply social influence on others that others are to refrain from applying to them.

Throughout Mill’s writings over his lifetime, special intellectual elites were depicted as the salvation of society in general and of the masses in particular. Great things could be achieved, Mill said in one of his early writings, “if the superior spirits would but join with each other” for social betterment.15 He called upon the universities to “send forth into society a succession of minds, not the creatures of their age, but capable of being its improvers and regenerators.”16

According to On Liberty, democracy can rise above mediocrity, only where “the sovereign Many have let themselves be guided (which in their best times they always have done) by the counsels and influence of a more highly gifted and instructed One or Few.17 On Liberty is an argument for the differential treatment of an intellectual elite, cast in the language of greater freedom for all. In this and in Mill’s other writings, it is these elites—“the best and wisest,”18 the “thinking minds,”19 “the most cultivated intellects in the country,”20 “those who have been in advance of society in thought and feeling”21—that he looked to for the progress of society. What Mill called “the general progress of the human mind” was in reality the special progress of special minds who were to lead others. Even when they lacked the power or influence to carry out this role, the intellectual elite had the duty of “keeping alive the sacred fire in a few minds when we are unable to do more,” as Mill wrote to a friend.22

In short, the excogitated conclusions of the intellectual elite were more or less automatically assumed to be superior to the life experiences of millions, as distilled into social values and customs. The role of the masses was to be taught by their betters and the role of their betters was to be taught by the best. Mill wrote to Harriet Taylor that they must write in order to provide material from which “thinkers, when there are any after us, may nourish themselves & then dilute for other people.”23 As for the masses, Harriet Taylor wrote to Mill that “for the great mass of peoples I think wisdom would be to make the utmost of sensation while they are young enough & then die.”24

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Yudhisthira’s dog – a fable that represents the pinnacle of human ethics

Nishkam Karma (desireless action) is an ideal worth following, But there is a really interesting tale of great moral value – from the Mahabharat.

See this – a fine exposition.


Finally the disillusioned Pandavas decide it is time to leave the world. Yudhishthira reminds Arjuna: ‘Time cooks every creature in its cauldron.’ They crown Abhimanyu’s son Parikshit, Arjuna’s grandson, who continues the dynasty at Hastinapura. (It is to Parikshit’s son, Janamejaya, that the story of the Mahabharata is told at the beginning of Book One.) The Pandavas set out on foot towards the east, in the direction of the Himalayas. On the way, Draupadi and Yudhishthira’s brothers fall one by one. Yudhishthira trudges on alone, ‘never looking down’. A stray dog follows him. As he nears heaven, Indra, king of the gods, approaches him in his celestial chariot.

‘Get in,’ says Indra, welcoming him to heaven.

‘But this dog, O lord of the past and the future, is devoted to me. Let him come with me,’ pleads Yudhishthira.

‘You have become immortal like me,’ says Indra. ‘Leave the dog. There is nothing cruel in that. There is no place for dogs in heaven.’

‘But people say that abandoning someone devoted to you’, replies Yudhishthira, ‘is a bottomless evil, equal—according to the general opinion—to killing a brahmin. And I think so too.’

The god, Dharma, who has been present all along in the guise of the stray dog, transforms himself into his own form and speaks to Yudhishthira, offering affection and gentle words of praise:

Great king, you weep with all creatures. Because you turned down the celestial chariot, by insisting, ‘This dog is devoted to me,’ there is no one your equal in heaven. You have won the highest goal of going to heaven with your own body. 7

It had been a trial all along. Yudhishthira’s father, Dharma, had been testing him. Recall, Kunti could not have children from Pandu. So, she employed a boon that she had received from a holy man. Thus, she had the gods sire her children. Yudhishthira was born from the god Dharma. The epic often refers to Yudhishthira as dharmaputra, Dharma’s son, but he now meets his real father formally. Dharma is happy that his son has passed the test.

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Is there any merit in Yascha Mounk’s thesis about populist democracies? Not really.

I chanced upon Yascha Mounk through Sagarika Ghose (she’d particularly recommended that I read him, when I met her in October 2018).

So what’s his main thesis? I’ve summarised from this paper.

Who are populist leaders?
“In a wide swath of countries across Europe and North America, a new crop of populists has entered parliament or even ascended to executive power. … Populist politicians as France’s Marine Le Pen, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, and Donald Trump in the United States”

What do they do?
“Most populists are democratic in that they do actually seek to translate popular views on issues such as migration into public policy. At the same time, they are illiberal in their readiness, once in power, to attack independent institutions, undermine the rule of law, and violate the rights of minorities. … While the form populism takes may initially be democratic, its long-term effect is to undermine not only liberalism, but democracy as well. … As we have seen in countries from Venezuela to Hungary, attacks by populists on independent institutions and the rule of law. . .. Evidence from countries including Hungary, Turkey, and Venezuela suggests that illiberal democracies are always in danger of degenerating into electoral dictatorships.

Why do we have them?

“Rich individuals and big corporations favor trade treaties, independent central banks, and powerful bureaucratic agencies because they can capture the professionals who work for these institutions, bending their work until it furthers the interests of the wealthy and powerful. In short, most members of the political class favor technocracy because its opaque institutional apparatus makes it easier for them to ignore the popular will.”

He then adds that this is not the only cause – there are many complexities involved.


Based on this limited review, I am not persuaded that Yascha Mounk has understood the real issues – that in the long run (of hundreds of years) liberty and democracy is constantly being expanded. Liberty does not follow a linear course, but people continuously learn and re-learn.

Neither have we reached the end of history as Fukuyama wrote about, nor is there any special advance towards illiberal democracy. Conflating Trump with Maduro is a category error. Trump is no Modi, either. Trump has problems of character and I would not vote for him, but he is a democrat. Most importantly, Trump is bound by the US Constitution which sets the limits of his power. Maduro and the communists do not believe in any limitation of state power anyway. We can’t compare these enemies of liberty with Trump, no matter how abhorrent Trump’s personal behaviour might be.

So is there any cause for concern? Yes and no. Yes, because the forces for liberty have to fight every battle anew in each generation. No, because the forces of liberty have incrementally imposed institutions of liberty on a wide range of countries and these countries are unlikely to deviate too much from the liberal norm.







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