Off to the Seminar Table

Off to the Seminar Table — I'll be gone over the weekend to attend a seminar about welfare and individual responsibility with a bunch of grad students, so I won't be posting. However, I'll try to make it up to you Sunday night. My hope is that a bunch of Ph.D. students from ritzier schools than mine will stimulate some fresh thoughts. If so, I'll share them. Oh, and won't you be lucky.

The Benevolent Market — Also

The Benevolent Market — Also in Reason, check out Ron Bailey's piece on some cross cultural experiments conducted by anthropologists and economists. It turns out that people experienced with markets are nicer. The experiments are part of a fascinating larger project to develop a realistic alternative to the startlingly silly homo economicus model of human behavior.

Experimental economics is a fantastically interesting field that I think is finally beginning to get some of the recognition it deserves. If you are on the Nobel Committee, you should nominate this man:

Herbert Gintis, who is featured in Bailey's piece, has always struck me as a very cool, intellectually open guy. He occasionally makes great contributions to the big evolutionary psychology email listserv. And he writes very useful Amazon reviews. And outstanding books on game theory. I declare Gintis my favorite leftist! (Everybody should have one.)

Ready, Set, Refute! — I

Ready, Set, Refute! — I have just looked into the heart of the coming evil. Is it a terrorist plot? No! It's a philosophy book… about taxes! NYU's Thomas Nagel and Liam Murphy have teamed up to justify the inherently violent redistributive functions of the managerial welfare state in The Myth of Ownership: Taxes and Justice.

From the publisher's blurb:

Taking as a guiding principle the conventional nature of private property, Murphy and Nagel show how taxes can only be evaluated as part of the overall system of property rights that they help to create.

Does this imply that the system of property rights doesn't exist unless a tax funded state helps create it? Hmmm….

The authors have been doing the colloquium rounds. So you can read parts of the forthcoming book here. Right from the start, the authors go after libertarian conceptions of justice, which are indeed an impediment. It's heartening to know that Nagel, among the most eminent living moral philosophers, sees that he has to beat up on libertarianism before he can move forward. Indeed, it's heartening that the welfare statists feel the need to write book length moral defenses of taxation. At one point, academics took its goodness for granted.

But the fight is far from won! I expect it to be a very sophisticated and intelligent apology, well appreciated by a philosophically hungry left. So its probably a book well worth getting to know.

Political Ecology — You may

Political Ecology — You may know about the idea in biology of the evolutionary stable strategy. An implication of the idea is that a mix of strategies can be in a sort of equilibrium, while a single or pure strategy may be unstable.

Here's the classic example, from the originator of the idea, John Maynard Smith:

As an example, imagine that two populations, one of them aggressive (hawks) and one passive (doves). Hawks will always battle their neighbors over any resource. Doves won't fight under any circumstances. A population made up entirely of doves would be unstable; that is, if a mutation caused the introduction of a single hawk, it would have an immediate advantage, and the hawkish behavior would bully the doves out of existence.

But a hawks-only population would also be unstable. A single dove introduced by mutation would have a long-term advantage. That's because the hawks' constantly aggressive behavior leads to frequent injury, while the dove, refusing to fight, escapes that risk.

Through application of game theory, Smith showed that there is a particular ratio of hawks to doves that forms what he called an “evolutionary stable strategy” for the species. Thus, selection actually works to maintain a balance of different characteristics in the population.

I've always felt a pang of skepticism when strongly ideological people say “If only everyone was [a subscriber to the speaker's ideology], then the world would be just great!” Maybe my suspicion is that pure strategies in politics are recipes for trouble. Historically, the healthiest regimes have head a fair degree of ideological plurality. Might there be some optimal distribution of liberals, conservatives, libertarians, and so forth in a population, each stymying the others to just the right degree — a system of ideological checks and balances? The analogy is quite loose, but are there politically stable strategies?

Folks very motivated to legalize heroin are unlikely to be the same folks who are motivated to keep neighborhoods especially suitable for wholesome childrearing, and vice versa. Folks concentrated on lowering the capital gains taxes may not be focused on directly bettering the plight of the poor. Would it be possible to believe that a mixed political stategy is best, yet still remain a devoted ideological purist, quite aware that one merely fills a necessary and useful niche? Or can a purist properly fill her niche ony when she believes that the world is going to fall apart unless all are converted?

Positive Rights and the Branching

Positive Rights and the Branching Garden of Paths — How about a little wandering, inconclusive speculative philosophy? Libertarians tend to conceive of harm in terms of rights violations. I steal your car, I've harmed you. The state denies me the ability to use my property for certain purposes, and I'm harmed. I've been thinking about cases where the major harm isn't so much a traditional rights violation like these, but where people get screwed when something that might have been brought into existence isn't.

Suppose the state forces pharmaceutical companies to sell AIDS drugs at cost. Since there's no profit in it, the companies put a halt to AIDS r & d. Now, suppose that if they'd continued r & d for one more year, a cure to AIDS would have been discovered. That year, millions die of AIDS.

Now, on the normal rights analysis, the state has harmed the drug companies by denying them the right to choose their price. And that's right. But, obviously, the millions of people who died but who wouldn't have are the one's who really got screwed. But we don't say that their rights were violated. Why not?

Well, if the victims had their rights violated, then that means that they had a right, in some sense, to the availability of the drug. But libertarians reject positive rights. I'm thinking that we may be sort of wrong to do this. One of the main lessons of the libertarian tradition is that of the seen and the unseen. The state screws us by making impossible nice things that would have otherwise developed. Aren't we entitled to at least the possibility of these nice things? Can't this be part of a libertarian rights theory?

Assuming the falsity of determinism, at any point in time, there are a multitude of possible future histories. At some future histories, we fare better, and at others we fare worse. Suppose we're at a fork in history. On the left, there is a richly branching future history (because, let's say, we have encouraged scientific discovery). We can go down only one possible path, but there are an enormous number of paths here we could take. On the right, there is a sparsely branching future history (due to banning science, say). In effect, by choosing left, future possibilities geometrically multiply; by choosing to go right, we're left with a badly pruned tree and a meager set of futures. It seems that what dynamists and progressive libertarians are groping for is the point that policies that foreseeably prune the tree of possible beneficial futures constitutes a sort of harm to our future selves. Indeed, I want to say that we are entitled, in some sense, to the future with the broadest range of possibilities for the advancement of human life.

Suppose stem cell research and cloning is encouraged, but not banned. This opens up, suppose, a possible future where we live to 150 years, and many others where we live to around 100. There's no guarantee that we get to the best possible future, but it's open, and other good ones are likely. Now, suppose this sort of research is banned and there's then no possible future where most of us can live past 90. I submit that our future selves will have been harmed by the ban, and we have a right to not be so harmed, aside from the more direct rights violations involved in the ban.

I feel strongly that I have been harmed by our system of socialized education. By analogy with markets for other services, it seems reasonable to believe that had education been on the market for the last century or so, excellence in education would likely far exceed the reach of our imagination. Who knows what diseases have gone uncured, what inventions have gone unbuilt, what works of art have gone uncreated, because of the institutionalization of an enervating mindcrushing system. I've been told that I was lucky to attend the public schools in Iowa, among the best in the US. However, compared to some of the possible educations closed off by the public monopoly, “best in the US” is something like “richest man in Bangladesh”. Can I sue?

In a way, I'm arguing for the opposite of the precautionary principle. The precautionary principle more or less says that if a state action today can close off a very bad possible future history, the state is obliged to take that action, even if the that possible future is very improbable. I'm saying that if a state action today will likely close off very good possible futures, then the state is obliged to refrain from undertaking that action. We don't have a right to any particular possible future, but only to the realization of one among the best set of possible futures. Or, perhaps better, to the institutional structure most likely to give rise to the best set of possible futures (it may be that a regime of negative rights is the only structure that can satisfy the positive entitlement.)

Of course, the problem is knowledge. We can't look into our crystal balls and see how decisions today open up or close off the space of possibility. And, naturally, there is wild disagreement about which possible futures would be the best ones. I have no idea at this point how to formalize entitlements to possible futures in a political philosophy. Nevertheless, I think there's a compelling intuition here, and it's worth thinking about, and worth formulating more clearly and forcefully.

Progressive Libertarianism — Peter St.

Progressive Libertarianism — Peter St. Andre has some great thoughts on moral progress and the attitude that distinguishes progressives from paleos. It looks like we've been thinking quite along the same lines. Peter also mentions 'urban libertarianism'. Maybe 'cosmopolitan libertarianism' is better… Hmmm… Cosmopolitan progressive libertarianism. How could you be against that!? I especially like Peter's addendum to the lefty bumper slogan: “If you want peace, work for justice… If you want justice, work for freedom.”

Libertarianism: Left and Right —

Libertarianism: Left and Right — I just ran across an essay, “What Libertarianism Isn't” by Ed Feser, on, written in the wake of the “cultural libertarianism” debate instigated by Jonah Goldberg. In his essay, Feser argues that libertarianism, the right, and traditional morality fit hand in glove, and that folks like Nick Gillespie of Reason have made a big mistake in celebrating transgressive pop culture, and in extending a hand to the cultural left instead of remaining monogamously wedded to the right. I think Feser's position is badly mistaken. We need to spread the love around!

My comments below will make much more sense if you read Feser first.

One of Feser's main contentions is that:

There is, in particular, nothing in libertarianism that entails that one ought to be in the least bit hostile to or even suspicious of traditional morality or traditional moralists. There is thus no reason whatsoever why libertarians and conservatives ought to be divided over the question of traditional morality.

No reason whatsoever?I find it fantastic to suggest, as Feser does, that libertarianism and traditional morality are cozily complementary. It's not far wrong to say the whole history of humankind has been characterized by affronts to liberty in the name of morality. A morality that forbids the coercive enforcement of moral norms is traditional morality in rather the way punk is traditional music. Sure, it's now part of the scene, it's got a history, and a culture has grown up around it, but the history is short, the culture is young, and only a spate of people care much about it. Funny sort of tradition, that. In order to get libertarianism and genuinely traditional morality to fit together, one must dismantle traditional morality and extract one of the mainsprings–the part that says it is morally permissible and often obligatory to compel people with the threat of violence to meet their moral obligations. Once you've put things back together again, you haven't anything traditional in the normal sense of the word.

Feser argues that Nick, Virginia, and folks like myself present a false alternative. One can either choose traditional morality and coercion, or weak-kneed amoralism and freedom, “as if there were no third position, viz. that of those who reject the use of state power to enforce traditional morality, but are nevertheless critical of those who flaunt it.” Well, it looks to me like Feser's giving us a false alternative: either traditional morality or none at all. But there's always non-traditional morality, and that's what I would defend (and what I read Nick to be defending). I'd argue that the correct moral theory is a modestly relativistic individualism. Relativistic because the good life varies from person to person. Modest because the range of possible good lives is limited by biology and experiential development. And I'm certainly willing to make strong moral judgments about people and policies that interfere with our ability to discover and pursue the best kind of lives for ourselves.

Now, it strikes me that Feser's missing the implicit argument of Reason after its cultural turn. The argument is that libertarianism supports free-markets (among other things). Markets in fact give rise to an active consumer culture. Consumer culture provides people with the ability to pick among a variety of lifestyles and modes of expression, and to develop an individualized style and sense of identity that contributes to a more satisfying life than could otherwise be had. Because modestly relativistic individualism is true, this is a great moral boon. Capitalist consumer culture helps us to search the space of possible good lives, and thus makes it easier to discover the best kind of life for ourselves. However, commercial culture does in fact tend to undermine traditional morality. Traditional morality does in fact tend to be authoritarian and express itself politically. (Whether or not it must “in principle,” it does). And, proponents of traditional morality do in fact react to challenges to traditional morality with coercive limits on markets and freedom. Because libertarianism defends markets, markets produce consumer culture, and consumer culture undermines traditional morality, libertarianism and traditional morality really are at odds. Most conservatives understand this, and that's why they are antagonistic to libertarianism.

Feser argues strenuously that traditionally sexual and family morality are a necessary part of the good and free society. He ridiculously asserts that “everybody knows this.” It turns out that what everybody knows it that we must maintain a social ethos that abhors adultery, divorce, pre-marital sex, (homosexuality?), and pornography. And we all know that we've got to drop the ruse that marriage might be a vehicle for personal satisfaction, and just suck it up and sacrifice ourselves for the kids.

Let's just suppose, thankfully contrary to fact, that Feser is right about this. He needs to deliver some goods before he can claim a coherent position. First, he needs to show us how it is possible to put these norms into place without employing coercive means. And he needs to argue, against the history of the world, that a society where such norms were dominant would not use coercive means to defend them against the inevitably corrosive forces of consumer culture. I don't think he can deliver. Indeed, I think he's caught in a bad dilemma. If we don't have strong families, then (says Feser) we don't have a bulwark against the state. And we don't have strong families unless we've got traditional sexual morality. But markets undermine traditional sexual morality. So either we have to use the state to protect traditional sexual morality or we lose the protection against the state that the family affords. But if we have to use the state to preserve our bulwark against the state, then the point of having the bulwark is vitiated. I think Feser's right about the importance of intermediary institutions, but I think he's wrong that they've got to be traditional family and religion, and so I don't think there's really a problem. But I think he's got a problem.

Several times Feser asserts that we've experienced serious moral decline of late. I flat out disagree. I think we've experienced serious (net) moral advance. (The left is responsible for a little, the right is responsible for a little, and the market is responsible for most.) This is really the nub of the issue between conservative and progressive libertarians. Feser argues that libertarians and conservatives are joined in their picture of the dignity of man, while the left sees humans as “little more than clever animals, or as cogs in a vast social machine, helpless victims of forces beyond their control.” The most one can really get out of this is the suspicion that Feser sees lots of conservatives socially, and finds that he can fit in by spouting demeaning falsehoods about the left. The claim's just ridiculous on the face of it. One need only be awake to observe that great swaths of the right explicitly avow that human beings are fundamentally flawed, corrupt and base creatures, who are undeserving of love and salvation, but get it anyway from an inscrutable, magical being. I don't see the dignity in that. And, to look at the other side of it, much of the left is evidently animated by a genuine belief in human dignity and the value of each person, and genuinely care (often rather more than the glib right) about issues of exploitation and dehumanization, although they are more often mistaken about the causes.

I'm sure that libertarianism won't get far culturally without the help of the cultural arbiters — the artists, media and literary intellectuals. And we have no hope of gaining their help without showing how libertarianism has interesting things to say about the issues they care about, and how libertarianism best supports the kinds of lives they themselves want to live. Conservatives have always been as great a threat to personal liberty as liberals have been a threat to the market. Once it is shown that libertarianism and traditional morality are indeed in serious tension, it is worse than arbitrary to suggest that libertarians should remain locked up in a room with the right. Of course, the company we keep is up to each of us, and if we want to consign ourselves to irrelevance, that's a choice we are free to make.

Out of the Darkness —

Out of the Darkness — Yes. I disappeared. I hope you have not abandoned me, though I could not blame you. The static blog reeks of death. If you must know, I went into seclusion to study the dark arts of the social and cognitive sciences to unlock the secrets of the social world. You may think to yourself, “Well, I certainly don't feel like a plaything of forces beyond my comprehension.” Exactly. Forces beyond your comprehension are… beyond your comprehension! As all good compatibilists know, being a free will is nothing more than feeling like a free will. But every now and again, ask yourself: “Exactly, why do I want to do this?” You will tell yourself a story about yourself. Now… do you really believe it?

Pathologizing Dissent — A while

Pathologizing Dissent — A while back I gave a little analysis of the PoMo/AntiGlobo left. The upshot was that left chose to reject reason and progress, rather than socialism, when reason showed that socialism is hopeless and capitalism leads to progress. However, I was stumped by the way in which this arm of the left justifies itself. Having given up reason and logic, what can one do? Shout? Well, yes, shout. But upon reading Paul Gottfried's cranky but learned After Liberalism, I think I've filled the gap.

The old left, the one that believed in reason and progress, felt it was the role of state institutions to preserve the democracy, which requires a democratic citizenry. However, now and again the hoi polloi don't know what's good for them, and they go and vote in the National Socialists, or the Republicans. So, as a bulwark against tyranny, the state must implement a program of mental hygiene to stave off authoritarian tendencies and preserve democratic virtue. As each flicker of “antiliberal” sentiment was stamped out, a new inferno — of sexism, racism, of homophobia, xenophobia, or tax cuts — would be seen to rage, naturally necessitating an ever expanding bureaucracy, a greater reach for the public schools, and so forth, in order to keep the 'liberal' in liberal democracy.

In short, the rational, progressive ideology of the left came to be perceived by its adherents not so much as an ideology, but as a definition of social “health.” And as the case for socialism shattered, the conviction that the state must benevolently tend to the pathologies of its citizenry remained quite intact. Indeed, it was only too easy to substitute the rhetoric of health for arguments of reason. If you disagree with the left, you are not so much wrong as you are sick. Bring evidence against affirmative action; find yourself assigned to sensitivity training. In a brilliantly Foucauldian turn of phrase, Gottfried argues that the left undercuts disagreement by “pathologizing dissent.”

Thus, the PoMo left sleeps at night by means of a blithe faith that their conception of the political good is a sign of their true and balanced souls. Yet faith it is. The hard question is only pushed back a step. What are the reasons for believing that these political arrangements characterize social “health”? Where's the evidence? Well, to merely ask such questions is, of course, a symptom of sickness, say, of one's denial of one's own oppression or one's complicity in the structure of systematized exploitation. Thus we're caught in the impregnable self-justifying circle. If it comes to that, you can do any number of things. Pelt your interlocutors with spare volumes of Popper. Argue louder. Tell them they're the sick ones. Or just call bullshit and walk away.