Confessions of a Supply-Side Liberal

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Jessica Hammer: Venezuela’s Deadly Struggle


Image from “Venezuela’s March 8 Protests” by Brian Ries

Jessica Hammer is a student in my "Monetary and Financial Theory" class at the University of Michigan. Students in the class write three blog posts a week for an internal class blog. Of the ones they select as their own best work, I have been choosing a few to publish as guest posts on This is Jessica’s second appearance here. Her previous guest post is “Jessica Hammer: The World Poverty Situation is Better Than You Think.” This post about Venezuela is a grim but powerful complement to Ezequiel Tortorelli’s guest post, “The Trouble with Argentina.” Here is what Jessica has to say about Venezuela:


When someone hears about Venezuela, I suspect the first thing most people think of is oil. Of course, this is due to the fact that this country is an OPEC member and exports around 25 million barrels of oil to the United States each month. Venezuela has one of the most abundant oil sources in the world but, unfortunately, it is being wasted. Perhaps you remember ex-President Hugo Chavez, and his passing in recent years. Many hoped the tyrannical government would disappear along with him, but the power of “chavismo” (the support for Chavez’s socialist reforms) prevailed. But the current president (the used-to-be bus driver who received no college education and is bluntly incompetent) , Nicolas Maduro, is slowly losing control of the country – or so they hope. The world knows little about the horrid situation in Venezuela, and how this potentially-wealthy nation is destroying itself.

Caracas, the capital, is currently (and has been for a while) the world’s deadliest city. Not Baghdad or Mogadishu. Mexico is known for its drug-related violence, but its murder rate is well below Venezuela’s rate of 73 per 100,000 citizens. Caracas, however, experienced a soaring rate of more than 200 per 100,000 in 2012 (and 2013 was even higher). To put this into perspective, Venezuela’s murder rate is higher than the death rates of the US and the 27 countries of the EU combined. Violence is so predominant, that people live in constant fear of going outside. Most wealthy people have to travel with bodyguards in order to avoid kidnappers. I personally know a lot of Venezuelans, and they all know of someone who has been murdered – either friends, family, or friends of friends. Most cases like these are a result of robberies. But gun fights are common to establish property rights, personal disputes, or drug-related problems. And the problem isn’t only the fact that violence is so widespread; nearly 90% of murders go unpunished. The police are so corrupt that they are often the ones involved in murders.

As if this weren’t enough to put up with, Venezuelans face daily shortages of basic goods. The most common ones include toilet paper, flour, sugar, cooking oil, and chicken. Not only are there rations on available goods, but these goods are not readily available. Producers point to the price controls and the limitations on foreign currency, which limit the availability of resources needed for production. Also, there are viable claims that 30 billion dollars were robbed from Cadivi (the government body which administered currency exchange) by the government elite. This is seen as the cause for the country’s current shortage problems.

Additionally, inflation is among the highest in the world at 56%.  Maduro eliminated the Cadivi program last year, which Venezuelans used to transfer dollars overseas. Today, a dollar goes for 84.2 bolivares in the black market – 13 times more than the official rate. Toyota is halting production, while Ford is significantly reducing its production in Venezuela. Venezuela’s economy is in shambles.

And its government is worse. Without getting into too much detail, Venezuela’s government is best described as a raging civil war where the Chavistas in power have bought the support of enough people to think they can deceive the country into thinking that they are representing them. In the last elections, the result was announced before all the votes were counted. People took to social media to report the fraud. Pictures and videos of military men burning boxes of ballots quickly spread over Facebook and Twitter. But the government had enough power over the military to stay “enchufados” (plugged in), as the opposition says. However, beginning February 12th, Venezuelans have taken to the streets by the millions. They are peacefully protesting against the government that is driving their country into ruins. Sadly, many people have been killed as they continue to take to the streets in protest, and the government persistently uses military force to subdue them. Now, they are outraged that the government is so blunt in oppressing them – not even trying to hide it anymore.

It is tragic to see a country so rich in natural resources, with so much talent and potential, deprived of its capability to provide its people with a decent life-style. Corrupt governments have a far-reaching effect on the economic well-being of a country. Most people in the US, and many other democratic countries, don’t realize the deep extent of corruption that exists in places like Venezuela. My intent is to raise awareness about this. The Venezuelan government is not the only corrupt, undemocratic government in the world, but at the moment, it stands out as one that is close to being brought down in favor of a more open, honest government. More pressure from foreign governments is essential–along with the noble efforts of the Venezuelan people–to put Venezuela back on the path of freedom and democracy.

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John Locke: Revolutions are Always Motivated by Misrule as Well as Procedural Violations


John Locke

Jack Rakove, writes in his book Revolutionaries: A New History of the Invention of America (p. 309): 

In a key passage, Locke defined the prerogative of the executive not in terms of the time-encrusted powers of a king, but rather as a discretionary power to act “for the public good, without the prescription of the law, and sometimes even against it.” To this definition he added a shrewd observation: “Whilst employed for the benefit of the community, this true use of prerogative never is questioned: for the people are seldom or never scrupulous or nice in the point.”

This matches what I have seen in Department politics. By and large, as long as almost all the faculty agree with the results of a Department Chair’s actions, they tend to overlook procedural violations. It is only when they think that the Chair’s decisions are mistakes that the professors harp on the infringement of the faculty members’ right to be consulted. On the other hand, I have seen the combination of enough perceived mistakes and procedural violations lead to the academic small-time equivalent of revolution. 

The key to avoiding the perception of misrule is to make sure to know and fully take into account in one’s decisions what people want—especially what those with the ability to influence what others want.

Note: Everything I say here is descriptive (“positive”) rather than prescriptive (“normative”). There is a danger that comes from setting bad precedents about violating procedures that is not always fully taken into account. On the other hand, though I am deeply committed to constitutional government, one cannot avoid the logical possibility that a set of bylaws or constitutional rules inherited from the past might be too much of a straitjacket.

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Quartz #44—>The Case for Gay Marriage is Made in the Freedom of Religion


Link to the Column on Quartz

Here is the full text of my 44th Quartz column, "The case for gay marriage is made in the freedom of religion," now brought home to It was first published on January 11, 2014, 2013. (Based on pageviews in a column’s first 30 days, it is currently my 4th most viewed column ever.) Links to all my other columns can be found here.

This column is a followup to my Christmas column "That baby born in Bethlehem should inspire society to keep redeeming itself."

I want to make it clear that I am not making a narrowly legal argument in this column. It is addressed at least as much to current and future voters and legislators as to lawyers crafting arguments for judges.

If you want to mirror the content of this post on another site, that is possible for a limited time if you read the legal notice at this link and include both a link to the original Quartz column and the following copyright notice:

© January 11, 2014: Miles Kimball, as first published on Quartz. Used by permission according to a temporary nonexclusive license expiring June 30, 2015. All rights reserved.


Freedom of religion is a hard-won principle. In Europe, the wars of religion raged for over a century before the Peace of Westphalia  solidified freedom of religion for rulers in 1648. Freedom of religion for ordinary citizens was much slower in coming: the Bill of Rights to the US Constitution was a huge advance in that sphere.Then it took the US Civil War for the principle to be firmly established in the 14th amendment that the key provisions of the Bill of Rights apply to state laws as well: “nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”

The reason so much blood was shed before the principle of religious freedom was established is that it’s not a principle that comes naturally to the human mind. If a behavior or belief deeply offends God or the gods, then it doesn’t seem right to tolerate it. And if a behavior or belief will bring eternal damnation down on the heads of those involved (and those they might influence), then doesn’t the solicitous kindness of tough love demand doing whatever it takes to pull them away from that behavior or belief?

Within the United States, ground zero in the battle for freedom of religion is in Utah, where US District Court Judge Richard Shelby Federal judge ruled on Dec. 20, 2013 that Utah could not prohibit gay marriage. Utah is appealing, in a move that could put the case on a fast-track to the Supreme Court.

Gay marriage is a matter of religious freedom for two reasons: First, a substantial component of the opposition to legalizing gay marriage is religious in origin. This is particularly true in Utah, where the Mormon Church has taken a lead role in opposing gay marriage. Leave aside religious objections to gay marriage and what remains would be unlikely to garner much respect. As Judge Shelby reminded us in his opinion, “the regulation of constitutionally protected decisions, such as … whom [a person] shall marry, must be predicated on legitimate state concerns other than disagreement with the choice the individual has made.” It is easy to come up with religious concerns about gay marriage; not so easy to come up with “legitimate state concerns.”

What’s not said as often is that gay marriage is itself an exercise of religious freedom. As many with good marriages know from experience, marriage is one of the most powerful paths toward spiritual growth. A good spouse helps one to see the aspects of oneself that one is too blind to see, and inspires efforts to be a better person. And when two human beings  know each other so well, and interact so thickly, the family they create is something new and wonderful in the world, even when there are no children in the picture. And for those who do choose to have children, but cannot bear their own biologically, adoption is a tried and true path.

To those who would dispute that the freedom to marry the one person you love above all others is a matter of religious freedom, let me argue that if I am wrong that this is a matter of religious freedom, it is a freedom that should be treated in the same way. In his influential book A Theory of Justice (p. 220), John Rawls made this argument:

“This idea that arose historically with religious toleration can be extended to other instances. Thus we can suppose that the persons in the original position know that they have moral convictions although, as the veil of ignorance requires, they do not know what these convictions are. … the principles of justice can adjudicate between opposing moralities just as they regulate the claims of rival religions.”

Rawls’s point is that when something touches on a fundamental liberty—as the choice of whom to marry certainly does—people gain so much from that freedom they would not sell that freedom for anything. Imagine a time before you knew whether you would be gay or not—for many a time within actual childhood memory. Would you trade away the right to marry whom you choose for the right to prevent others from marrying whom they choose? No! Almost none of us would.

At the founding of our nation, we the people struck a bargain to live and let live in matters of religion. That freedom includes the freedom to believe that God frowns on gay marriage. But it does not include the freedom to impose one’s own view of God’s law as the law of the land—unless one can make a compelling argument that speaks to people of the whole range of different religious beliefs—or as John Rawls expresses it, “by reference to a common knowledge and understanding.” I know that my own religious beliefs make legalizing gay marriage an important part of the path toward God ([1,] [2,] [3]). In our republic, the way to arbitrate between warring religious beliefs is to privilege freedom.

I am always moved when I read stories of happy gay couples after legalization of gay marriage in one more state. I wish everyone could feel that way. But that is not the world we live in. For some, allowing a man to marry a man or a woman to marry a woman comes hard. But I ask them to do so in order to maintain the principles that guarantee their own freedom in matters close to their hearts.

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Quartz #43—>That Baby Born in Bethlehem Should Inspire Society to Keep Redeeming Itself


Link to the Column on Quartz

Here is the full text of my 43d Quartz column, “That baby born in Bethlehem should inspire society to keep redeeming itself,” now brought home to It was first published on December 8, 2013. Links to all my other columns can be found here.

I followed up the main theme of this column with my post "The Importance of the Next Generation: Thomas Jefferson Grokked It." I followed up the gay marriage theme with my column "The Case for Gay Marriage is Made in the Freedom of Religion." I also have a draft column on abortion policy that is waiting for a news hook as an occasion to publish it.

If you want to mirror the content of this post on another site, that is possible for a limited time if you read the legal notice at this link and include both a link to the original Quartz column and the following copyright notice:

© December 8, 2013: Miles Kimball, as first published on Quartz. Used by permission according to a temporary nonexclusive license expiring June 30, 2015. All rights reserved.


Among its many other meanings, Christmas points to a central truth of human life: a baby can grow up to change the world. But it is not just that a baby can grow up to change the world; in the human sense, babies are the world: a hundred-odd years from now, all of humanity will be made up of current and future babies.

Babies begin life with the genetic heritage of humankind, then very soon take hold of, reconfigure, and carry on the cultural heritage of humanity. The significance of young human beings as a group is obscured in daily life by the evident power of old human beings. But for anyone who cares about the long run, it is a big mistake to forget that the young are the ultimate judges for the fate of any aspect of culture.

Since those who are now young are the ultimate judges for our culture, it won’t do to neglect instilling in them the kind of morality and ethics that can make themgood judges. I have been grateful for the lessons in morality and ethics that I had as a child in a religious context, and with my own children, I saw many of these lessons instilled effectively in short moral lessons at the end of Tae Kwon Do martial arts classes. I don’t see any reason why that kind of secularized moral lessons can’t be taught in our schools, along with practical skills and a deep understanding of academic subjects, especially if we do right by kids by giving them time to learn by lengthening the school day and year.

In at least two controversies, the collective judgments of the young seem on target to me. Robert Putnam of Bowling Alonefame came to the University of Michigan a few years ago to talk about the research behind his more recent book with David Campbell, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us. He expressed surprise that many young people are becoming alienated from traditional religion when attitudes toward abortion among the young are similar to attitudes among those who are older. But the alienation from traditional religion did not surprise me at all given another fact he reported: the young are dramatically more accepting and supportive of gay marriage than those who are older. I am glad that the young are troubled by the conflict between reproductive freedom and reverence for the beginnings of human life presented by abortion on the one hand and abortion restrictions on the other. But there is no such conflict in the case of gay marriage, which pits the the rights of gay couples to make socially sanctioned commitments to one another and enjoy the dignity and practical benefits of a hallowed institution against ancient custom, theocratic impulses, and misfiring disgust instincts that most of the young rightly reject. In this, the young are (perhaps without knowing it) following the example of that baby born in Bethlehem, who always gave honor to those who had been pushed to the edges of the society in which he became a man.

The hot-button controversy of gay marriage is not the only area of our culture due for full-scale revision. Our nation and the world will soon become immensely richer, stronger, and wiser if young people around the world reject the idea I grew up with that intelligence is a fixed, inborn quantity. The truth that hard work adds enormously to intelligence can set them free. What will make an even bigger difference is if they also enshrine their youthful idealism in a vision of a better world that can not only motivate them when young, but also withstand the cares of middle-age to guide their efforts throughout their lives.

Knowing that those who are now young, or are as yet unborn, will soon hold the future of humanity in their hands should make us alarmed at the number of children who don’t have even the basics of life. By far, the worst cases are abroad. The simplest way to help is to stop exerting such great efforts to put obstacles in the way of a better life for them. But whether or not we are willing to do that, it is a good thing to donate to charities that help those in greatest need. Also, I give great honor to those economists working hard trying to figure out how to make poor countries rich.

For those of us already in the second halves of our lives, the fact that the young will soon replace us gives rise to an important strategic principle: however hard it may seem to change misguided institutions and policies, all it takes to succeed in such an effort is to durably convince the young that there is a better way. Max Planck, the father of quantum mechanics, said “Science progresses funeral by funeral.” In a direction not quite as likely to be positive, society evolves from funeral to funeral as well—the funerals of those whose viewpoints do not persuade the young.

It is a very common foolishness to look down on children as unimportant. The deep end of common sense is to respect children and to bring to bear our best efforts, both intellectually and materially, to help them become the best representatives of our species that the universe has ever seen.

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The Case for Gay Marriage is Made in the Freedom of Religion


Here is a link to my 44th column on Quartz, “The case for gay marriage is made in the freedom of religion.” 

This is a followup to my Christmas column "That baby born in Bethlehem should inspire society to keep redeeming itself."

I am not making a narrowly legal argument in "The case for gay marriage is made in the freedom of religion." It as addressed at least as much to current and future voters and legislators as to lawyers crafting arguments for judges.   

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Miles Kimball, Jason Becker and Jordan Weissmann Discuss Affirmative Action

Kids who get passable grades in high school despite serious outward disadvantages are more likely to have the grit needed to succeed in college than kids who get somewhat better grades despite every advantage. And it is especially valuable to increase the odds that kids who have overcome obstacles many others also face will gain a broader influence in society by admitting them to elite colleges. But outward disadvantage is much more than a matter of race alone.

You might be interested in this Twitter discussion of affirmative action in that light.

But the big injustice in education is that we haven’t fixed our K-12 schools for those at the bottom of the heap. Here is a start:

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Lars Christensen: Beating the Iron Law of Public Choice


The Iron Throne in The Game of Thrones

In his post "Beating the Iron Law of Public Choice: A Reply to Peter Boettke," Lars Christensen gives this description of the supposed Iron Law of Public Choice

the Iron Law of Public Choice – no matter how much would-be reformers try they will be up against a wall of resistance. Reforms are doomed to end in tears and reformers are doomed to end depressed and disappointed.

Lars gives this ancestry for the Iron Law of Public Choice: 

The students of Public Choice theory will learn from Bill Niskanen that bureaucrats has an informational advantage that they will use to maximizes budgets. They will learn that interest groups will lobby to increase government subsidies and special favours. Gordon Tulluck teaches us that groups will engage in wasteful rent-seeking. Mancur Olson will tell us that well-organized groups will highjack the political process. Voters will be rationally ignorant or even as Bryan Caplan claims rationally irrational.

 But at the end of the day, I agree with Lars when he says 

ideas – especially good and sound ideas – can beat the Iron Law of Public Choice.

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Anat Admati’s Words of Encouragement for People Trying to Save the World from Another Devastating Financial Crisis


Anat Admati

I was privileged to be copied on an email exchange between Anat Admati and someone who had worked hard to make the financial system more stable, but had gotten discouraged by the politics one runs into in such an effort. I loved Anat’s words of encouragement, which I think are apt for anyone who is trying to make a difference for greater financial stability in the real world. Anat kindly gave me permission to reprint a passage from that message here, after some very light editing:
…”policy makers’ indifference to reality” resonates. I had no idea just how bad it can be. First I was shocked at confusions and misunderstanding. Naively I thought that is mostly what it is, never mind why, if folks don’t understand, maybe they can’t be blamed. Then you come across the political issues and the capture and the picture becomes much uglier. I read a book recently and met the author called “Willful Blindness” — — part of the evidence is from experiments. It becomes about what people WANT to know, and then of course they have to be ABLE to do something about it, and they also have, again, to WANT to do something. By the time you get to actually doing something, well, the numbers are very few and far between. 
So I may have stirred the pot, but serious progress, maybe a little bit, reluctantly, hard to tell… it depends on expectations..
Anyway, I can understand the bruised feelings. In my case, especially since I am up against a lot of money, I also get bruised a lot and it’s hard to take. It’s easy to give up, but I get annoyed about the wrong side winning so I dust myself off and think of something else to do. Fortunately, I/we do have paying jobs and I feel by now that under the circumstances, it is virtually our duty to lobby on behalf of the public. The political economy of money and influence ends up messing up democracies, see Olsen etc…

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Michael Huemer’s Libertarianism

The Lone Ranger and Tonto (original storymoviemovie review)

I am not drawn to Libertarianism as it is usually argued(see my post"Libertarianism, a US Sovereign Wealth Fund, and I"), but I am drawn to Michael Huemer’s version of Libertarianism. I am not sure that he has the right practical solution for achieving the ethical ideals he champions, but the ethical ideals themselves must be taken very seriously. I want you to see some of the force of his argument. I actually find his arguments most powerful as applied in particular areas of concern, as you can see in my post "Michael Huemer’s Immigration Parable." I plan to post more of Michael’s “applications” in the future.

My own very brief summary of Michael’s argument is that it is only OK for the government to do what the Lone Ranger (along with Tonto and any number of other colleagues) could ethically do. But let me give you Michael’s own summary of his argument, with two passages from his book The Problem of Political Authority: An Examination of the Right to Coerce and the Duty to Obey:

Libertarianism is a minimal government (or, in extreme cases, no government) philosophy, according to which the government should do no more than protect the rights of individuals. Essentially, libertarians advocate the political conclusions defended in this chapter. But this position is very controversial in political philosophy. Many readers will wonder if we are really forced to it. Surely, to arrive at these radical conclusions, I must have made some extreme and highly controversial assumptions along the way, assumptions that most readers should feel free to reject. 

Libertarian authors have indeed frequently relied upon controversial assumption. Ayn Rand, for example, thought that capitalism could only be defended by appeal to ethical egoism, the theory that the right action for anyone in any circumstance is always the most selfish action. Robert Nozick is widely read as basing his libertarianism on an absolutist conception of individual rights, according to which an individual’s property rights and rights to be free from coercion can never be outweighed by any social consequences. Jan Narveson relies on a metaethical theory according to which the correct moral principles are determined by a hypothetical social contract. Because of the controversial nature of these ethical or metaethical theories, most readers find the libertarian arguments based on them easy to reject.  

I have appealed to nothing so controversial in my own reasoning. I reject the foundations for libertarianism mentioned in the preceding paragraph. I reject egoism, since I believe that individuals have substantial obligations to take into account the interests of others. I reject ethical absolutism, since I believe an individual’s rights may be overridden by sufficiently important needs of others. And I reject all forms of social contract theory, for reasons discussed in Chapters 2 and 3. 

The foundation of my libertarianism is much more modest: common sense morality. At first glance, it may seem paradoxical that such radical political conclusions could stem from anything labeled ‘common sense.’ I do not, of course, lay claim to common sense political views. I claim that revisionary political views emerge out of common sense moral views. As I see it, libertarian political philosophy rests on three broad ideas:

  1. nonagression principle in interpersonal ethics. Roughly, this is the idea that individuals should not attack, kill, steal from, or defraud one another and, in general, that individuals should not coerce one another, apart from a few special circumstances.
  2. A recognition of the coercive nature of government. When the state promulgates a law, the law is generally backed up by a threat of punishment, which is supported by credible threats of physical punishment, which is supported by credible threats of physical force directed against those who would disobey the law.
  3. skepticism of political authority. The upshot of this skepticism is, roughly, that the state may not do what it would be wrong for any nongovernmental person or organization to do. [pp. 176-177]

I have therefore focused on defending skepticism about authority by addressing the most interesting and important theories of authority. In defending this skepticism, I have, again, relied upon no particularly controversial ethical assumptions. I have considered the factors that are said to confer authority on the state and found that in each case, either those factors are not actually present (as in the case of consent-based accounts of authority) or those factors simply do not suffice to confer the sort of authority claimed by the state. The latter point is established by the fact that a nongovernmental agent to whom those factors applied would generally not be ascribed anything like political authority. I have suggested that the best explanation for the inclination to ascribe authority to the state lies in a collection of nonrational biases that would operate whether or not there were any legitimate authority. Most people never pause to question the notion of political authority, but once it is examined, the idea of a group of people with a special right to command everyone else fairly dissolves. [p. 178] 

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Michael Huemer on Moral Progress


Michael Huemer (from a University of Colorado Boulder website)

Michael Huemer is one of my favorite philosophers. His arguments are powerful, cogent, and well-written. In his book The Problem of Political Authority (pp. 331-332), he makes this case that there is a  ”general tendency for correct ideas to win out in the long run”: 

At any moment in history, it will be tempting to look around at all the people with bad ideas and conclude that humanity is too irrational and ignorant ever to grasp the important truths. But this is historical myopia. The most salient and important trend that stands out in any study of the intellectual history of the past 2000 years must surely be the gradual accretion of knowledge and the corresponding move from worse ideas to better ideas. The process is of course not monotonic—there are cases of stagnation and regression—but the undeniable difference between humanity’s knowledge today and its knowledge 2000 years ago is staggering. In the short run, the forces of prejudice may outweigh those of rationality. But prejudices can be worn down over time, while the basic truth of a given idea remains intact over the centuries, exerting whatever force it has on the human mind.

Sometimes it is said that, unlike the sciences, fields such as philosophy, ethics, and politics have made little or no progress in the last 2000 years. While the natural sciences have made the most impressive intellectual progress, the dramatic progress that has occurred in philosophical, moral, and political matters can be missed only through a modern lens that filters out all those issues that we no longer consider worth discussing because we have already resolved them. Throughout most of human history, slavery was widely accepted as just. The mass slaughter of foreigners for purposes of capturing land and resources, forcing conformity to one’s own religion, or exacting vengeance for perceived wrongs against one’s ancestors was often viewed with approval, if not glorified. Alexander ‘the Great’ was so called because of his prowess at waging what nearly anyone today would unhesitatingly judge to be unjust and vicious wars. Judicial torture and execution for minor offences was widely accepted. ‘Witches’ were burned at stake or drowned. Despotism was the standard form of government, under which people were granted no right to participate in the political process. Even when democracy was at last accepted in some countries, half the adult population was denied any rights of political participation because they were deemed inferior.

When people today say that there is little agreement in ethics and politics, they are ignoring all the issues in the preceding paragraph. For us, none of those issues is worth discussing, since the correct evaluation is intellectually trivial. ‘Should we torture someone to extract a confession of witchcraft and then execute her for being a witch?’ This question merits no more than a laugh. But practically speaking, these questions are far from trivial. Slow though it may have been in coming, the current consensus on all these questions represents and enormous advancement from terrible ideas to not-so-terrible ideas. 

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