Saturday, November 20, 2004

Stupid libertarians

In this article by Paul Viminitz, found courtesy of the kick-ass Google Scholar (about which I was tipped off by Alina), he argues that libertarianism is either false or banal. That, given a two-person situation, we might accept libertarianism if it turns out to be true that, generally speaking, the two would prefer a system of liberty, would enforce it, and so on. The details here aren't so important. What is, however, is the following little bit that I think I have some things to say about.

Viminitz, in one section of the paper, says that most libertarians are committed to the view that liberty should trump most things, and that in almost all, or all, cases, we should favour liberty. That this isn't the libertarianism that I follow is uninteresting for the moment. Let's grant it. Viminitz then sets up a scenario where only one person has a drop of blood that could do the world some good, and she (Jones) doesn't want to give it up. Should we make her? He thinks that libertarians, to be sensible, should answer 'yes.'

Of course, that's what I would do. Universalist claims about all contexts run up against the problem of counterfactuals sufficiently absurd to make just about anyone squirm. Given a sufficiently dire situation, I would be surprised if any principle stood up. This is part of why I dumped objectivism several years ago. It appeared to me that the claims were just too strict, and claimed application in all contexts. It sounded too much like one of those, 'regardless of consequences' sorts of stories that remind me of that 'justice be done though the heavens may fall,' bit. Well if the heavens should fall, why would you want justice? So that we could what? Sit comfortably and reflect on the justice? But we can't--we're dead. So what's the point? No, clearly, that just won't do.

So Viminitz is right about that. But he concludes that, if in sufficiently dire situations, libertarians eschew their principles, why not under moderately dire situations? It begins to sound like what we mean when we say libertarianism of the sort that isn't as strict as all that is that we should respect the liberty of others insofar as it is in our interest. And, importantly, the lesson of libertarianism would be, according to Viminitz, that we be very careful about what that interest is, and think in a long-term sort of fashion. But that just makes us consequentialists of a 'maximize general interest' variety, and that sounds banal, doesn't it?

One easy way out is to admit all of this, and say that you're still a libertarian on the following grounds: You believe that in most, or all, circumstances, general liberty will be in everybody's interest. And there's meat on these bones, to be sure. It isn't banal to conclude that in some possible worlds, and in this one for sure, general liberty is in all our interests. Why is that meaty? Simply because policy prescriptions of the libertarian sort follow.

The other thing to do is to go back to the example and ask why an example like that should be relevant at all? Why might it not be relevant? It might not be relevant because libertarianism, at least the sort I adhere to, is an approach to institutional design, not necessarily an independent standard of interpersonal justice. Viewed institutionally, we ask different questions. The questions to ask are such that we yield general conclusions. I suppose we pursue this by way of induction from individual, specific cases, but those individual, specific cases should be consistent with some probability of likelihood. The blood example turns out to be masturbation. And while there is nothing wrong with masturbation, we should at least see what purpose it is supposed to serve. If we're libertarian because we think it a matter of justice that people control whatever they own, regardless of consequence, then we've got trouble, but if we're libertarian for institutional reasons, then cases of this sort should strike us as uninteresting from that point of view. They establish instances that do not appear to have any sort of clear association with other principles that might undermine the general case. And the fact that they are highly improbable means that we can accept them without abandoning the position. Yeah, when there is only one drop of blood, and it can do the whole world some good, the world being sanguinary, then take it.

And maybe, while we're making all these admittances (is that a word?), we should admit of another thing: libertarianism is a theory about what the state should do. If you conclude that the state should either entirely, or just about entirely, bugger off, then you're a libertarian. It doesn't matter if you accept natural rights, the story of property acquisition as Locke and Nozick tell it, some utilitarian story like Mill in On Liberty, take a Narvesonian contractarian approach, buy the public choice school of economics, or are convinced that for every dollar given to the government, about thirty to fourty cents will be spent on war and, though they might do a lot of good, it is naive to think that they won't also blow other people up, and you'd prefer a world with less welfare and less warfare, to a world of greater welfare and greater warfare (understanding that the two are linked).

Taken as an institutional question, Viminitz' point doesn't appear to have much bite. I'll take a second look at the paper later to make sure that I haven't missed his point. It's likely that, in my haste on seizing on one part of his paper, there is more going on. But I don't think so. I think plenty of people make just this sort of mistake when thinking about libertarianism, or are so busy coming up with Fukuyama-style libertarianism is dead sorts of (I'm tempted to say screeds, but that's not fair so:) papers, that they run roughshod over some subtleties. Which is the rant I leave you with. In all honesty, I can't tell you how many people have said that libertarianism is all well and good, but that there is this one fundamental problem with it that makes it obviously no good. I don't know of many sophisticated theories, of which libertarianism is a sort, that are susceptible to just that sort of dismissal. There isn't, near as I can tell, some one thing wrong with libertarianism that results in our being permitted to ignore it henceforth. If anything, there may be several things wrong with it, the culmination of which might result in our objection to the thesis. But it isn't one homogenous thing. So we shouldn't think that if we illustrate how Nozick or Narveson went wrong that we are entitled to cast this story of liberty to the flames. Far from it. It's obviously going to be a long and protracted battle on many fronts.

Friday, November 19, 2004

Libertarian property accounts

I'm posting this on both of my blogs (this one, and just because it is basically a rant about libertarianism, with some conventionalism thrown in as an alternate way of viewing libertarian property rights. The rant has its roots in this story about Robert Nozick's use of rent control laws to get lower rent in Cambridge. Nozick, of course, is the super famous libertarian who wrote Anarchy, State & Utopia. A lovely book, that everyone in philosophy courses treats as the first, and probably only, philosophical treatment of libertarianism (sigh).

For convention purposes, scan quickly down to the Hume bit. There I say that property is just a convention, and that it derives its force from a general following of the convention, rather than something inherent about our right to property in itself. (In a separate blog, I'll try and explain why I think we tell these morality stories. I think they are conventional as well! I owe this insight to my friend, Terrence Watson--although there is some chance that we came to this conclusion together. Terry was saying that moralists are used car salesmen, in his typical contrarian fashion, and we started to ask questions about why people buy into these odd stories about rights and duties and so on. The conclusion we reached is that morality is a sort of language, with its own set of conventions and associations. Thus stories link up with prior moral beliefs by association, and are either approved of or not on the grounds of the strength of the association. This sounds exactly like strong intuitionism. Which it is! Or, at least, we think it is. But this story later.)

This rant is a response to this post, and you can find a duplicate of it in the comment section there. It should also be pointed out that Julian Sanchez interviewed Nozick (this interview kicks serious ass) and Nozick comments briefly on the rent control affair under the section "Ecce Nozick."


There's a few things to say about your analysis. For one, I don't think Nozick has the sort of troubles you allude to. The link between my property, and who I give it to, is not obvious. You have a buried premise in your argument about who is the rightful inheritor of property. Presumably, you assume that your great, great, grandfather would have passed that property down along familial lines, eventually lining your pocket. But that doesn't follow from any libertarian principles. Recall that it's whomever the original property owner *chooses* to give the property to that is the principle of justice in transfer. Nothing about my blood lines entitles me to any part of my family's income, except as much as is required for me to reach adulthood (some libertarians dispute this. But it isn't contrary to libertarian principles to say that a child is *entitled* to as much as is sufficient to ensure some standard of education/health/food etc.) Thus, if there is no explicit declaration of property intentions, it is not unreasonable to conclude that the property goes to no one. It is a custom, and one most libertarians are happy with, that property goes to the kids, and closest of kin, but I see no natural rights justifications for this sort of linkage.

But that's within a natural rights sort of libertarianism. Clearly, there are other variants of that philosophy which would have even fewer problems with this issue. I, for instance, am a "hard-core libertarian" that subscribes to the philosophy on something like conventionalist, mutual advantage, contractarian sorts of grounds. I agree with Bentham that "natural rights" are nonsense upon stilts. And share the antipathy of some against rights as being matters of intuition or tastes. The principle de gustibus non est disputandum, seems totally applicable here. At any rate, I think Hume had it right when he said of property that its extent is determined by the ease with which we associate one idea/object with another idea/object. So, for instance, he points to a race between two Greek (what were they?) emissaries (or whatever) for the gates of a city to take control over the city on behalf of their country. The city had been abandoned, and forfeited. Hume says that, for one, emissaries are naturally associated with states, so it makes sense to have them declare the city on behalf of the country. If it were just a citizen of another country making the claim, it wouldn't have the force of association (by dint of imagination) to legitimize it. Similarly, the gates of the city have force in our imaginations again through association (at least back in those days) since poets and literary types always referred to the gates of cities as the focal point. Since these were salient, they would be considered legitimate for acquisition of the city in its entirety. Property, after all, is just a convention. And any convention requires that it be "agreed upon" (I say this to be in line with most social contract stories. The right thing to say here is "acquiesced with," since explicit agreement, or agreement at all, is unnecessary. All we have to do is abide by it for it to gain force.) by enough others to maintain the convention. On this account, property that has gone unclaimed, or was violated, for some period of time loses its association with the original owner over time. The less association, by way of imagination, the less legitimacy. Thus, over time, the injustice is not multiplied, it simply becomes an historical intrigue, rather than something we would even think of doing anything about right now.

Then there's the set of libertarians who are mostly interested in efficiency, rather than justice, strictly speaking. Rectifications of prior injustice serve no really efficient purpose, and tend to create social costs, rather than benefits. Thus it doesn't matter whether or not you received your property through the principle of justice in transfer historically, just that it is generally more efficient right now for you to keep that property. Of course, there are caveats here. For instance, rectifications of stolen property, of unjust transfers within some period of time, etc., do tend towards efficiency, since property rights, being efficient, require some security and stability. But there are obvious diminishing returns on rectifications, and the longer someone else has enjoyed property that, according to some principle of justice, ought to have been enjoyed by you, the fewer the gains from rectification. And you can be just as hard-core a libertarian and follow some efficiency guideline as some inflexible justice principle on the basis of rights (which are "just obvious" and "self-evident" if you look at it rightly, or read enough Ayn Rand).

At any rate, there isn't a homogenous story to be told here, and we shouldn't reflexively assume that libertarians derive their conclusions from the same natural rights story told by the Locke/Nozick/Rothbard/Rand axis.

The other interesting thing to say about this Nozick story is the following: Libertarians tend, in the main, to assume that people are profit-maximizers and cost-minimizers. They will seek their advantage. In this story, Nozick is clearly acting in accord with that insight about human nature, or human inclination, or whatever. Nozick is illustrating that he is homo economicus, just like he would say he is if pressed upon it. Of course, 'morality' is either a cost or benefit for homo economicus as well, but it is clearly much more foggy and difficult to analyze empirically compared with simple prices, and obvious economic costs. At any rate, the point here is to say that Nozick would possibly be violating a libertarian (and not just libertarian, but, I guess, economic in general) assumption about what we would do when we come to know that some benefit might accrue to us. Nozick became aware of rent control legislation, and acted upon it.

Capitalists, after all, push for regulations for obvious public choice reasons. This is why libertarians are less likely to get money from corporations than statists. Statists make rent-seeking possible, libertarians would dramatically reduce that opportunity.

Wow. What a long response. If you got this far, then it looks like I didn't bore you!

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

IPN posts

I'm working at the International Policy Network. A think tank of sorts, that prioritizes creating connections and sharing research amongst and between different think tanks around the world. They've been working, in particular, at setting up think tanks in places like Africa.

But they also produce their own studies, and fight the good fight with original material. I'm on board as a research assistant (or fellow, I'm not sure what the title is, really) in their Sustainable Development Network. Occasionally, I'm asked to post to the blog that they have running. And I've done this twice now. Once on Indoor Air Pollution, and the other time on Individual Tradeable Quotas in fishing.

The former is about energy consumption in poor places and how the sort of material people there use for energy contributes to health problems of all sorts. First world groups are trying to encourage alternative energy sources to combat the problem (which causes all sorts of respiratory ills). This is good news, in a sense, but the focus, says the blog, should be on increasing energy consumption regardless of source. There is a positive correlation between higher energy consumption and positive health and environmental outcomes. That might help here as well.

The latter is an attempt to involve the incentives of the market--in particular, of ownership and property rights--in the fishing industry around the world. Fish stocks are in a calamitous state, and political fights about fishing are as volatile and fervent as ever. ITQs suggest a way out. "Owning" some portion of the fish encourages husbandry of the resource. It has had success in places as disparate as Alaska, Australia, Canada, and, in particular, Iceland. Although implementation poses a political problem, once implemented, the quota system appears to work well.