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.

3 Comments:

Blogger Dick Move said...

Libertarians are like snowflakes...

... no two are exactly alike. And hey, Pete, what’s up with these short posts? Tell us what you really think.

3:04 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

From Will...

Freedoms are not institutional. Or, rather, the institutions of any society are merely an extension of the individual, ergo whatever mores we impose on an istituion should properly reflect the overall ethos of a society. That said, the scenario of teh drop of blood that could save humanity becomes a genuine test of freedons, and is a valid question. If liberty does not stand up to lifeboat ethics it can't stand at all.
The simple truth is that the "world" that is at risk without this drop of blood would need to come together to negotiate for this blood. Diplomacy, tact, and education are all part of the "freedom" package. In any genuine scenario, the donor would certainly be afforded compensation specific to their needs or wants, assuming the individual is in fact coherant and sane.

2:17 PM  
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10:20 PM  

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