Sunday, September 4, 2011

principled ideological fuzziness

Some days I wonder if I should even consider myself a libertarian any longer, since I reside in the ambiguous borderlands of progressive liberalism and libertarianism. Every time I tell someone I'm a libertarian, I find myself hedging "No, not that kind of libertarian!" So I enjoyed Will Wilkinson's recent piece at the New Republic: A Libertarian's Lament: Why Ron Paul Is An Embarrassment To The Creed. The whole thing is worth reading, but I really liked this bit:
In any case, the philosophical basis of Paul's property-rights absolutism is mysterious. Like many libertarians, Paul sees ironclad property rights as a straightforward implication of the moral impermissibility of coercion in human affairs. But, of course, a system of property is itself a system of coercion. If I cannot waltz into your home, raid your fridge, and make myself a hoagie, it is because you might shoot at me or call the cops to drag me off at gunpoint. If you're like me, you think the enforcement of property rights through the use of violence, or the treat thereof, is justified. But it does need to be justified.
Here’s my best attempt: A system of secure property rights is conducive to a society of peaceful cooperation that benefits even the least among us. The important thing for libertarians to remember—and the thing that Ron Paul forgets, or, rather, never knew—is that a system of secure property rights is a means to a peaceful society of mutual benefit, not an end in itself. And there are other legitimate public goods beyond the police protection of property rights. The need to finance the provision of these goods can justifiably limit our property rights, just as a system of property can justifiably limit our right to free movement. The use of official coercion to collect necessary taxes is no more or less problematic than the use of official coercion to enforce claims to legitimate property.
Maybe this is all Ayn Rand's fault, but I think many (certainly not all!) libertarians come to the philosophy in a blinding flash of enlightenment, where the truth of something like the Principle of Non-Aggression is made clear, and let's run to the ends of the earth with it. I don't want to be condescending here; I was an anarchist for many years because I took the PNA very seriously. But Wilkinson points out here that, rather than flowing elegantly out of the PNA, property rights are a separate beast entirely, and actually constitute a framework of aggression. This is a shame because a system of property rights and principled non-aggression both seem like good ideas to me.

But we can't have it all. Some really nice ideas rather clumsily butt heads with one another. I was an anarchist for so long because I couldn't see how you could get from a state of nature to a state of monopoly governments wielding violent force. But eventually I decided there was no 'state of nature', or rather, the real state of nature is that we humans are apes, only recently quit the African savanna, and our vaunted morals have old, deep roots as evolutionary adaptations to the problems associated with fostering cooperation and keeping a social group from fragmenting.

Evolution has shaped our moral concerns. But evolution doesn't care much about rigorously adhering to consistent principles. It's hodge-podge all the way, mixing and matching to solve problems that are themselves constantly evolving. So it would be a little surprising if, in our modern world of complex interactions, we found that public policy was reducible to one or more ethical principles that were both easily stated and universally applicable.

Something I remember from reading Michael Shermer's The Science of Good and Evil several years ago is his hammering home the idea of a "provisional morality". This is a morality crafted with genetic and cultural evolution in mind, and it consist not of hard and fast principles, but of fuzzier principles that worked "for most people, in most situations, most of the time." (I don't have the book with me, so that might not be his exact wording). I think this is the best we can do with our ethics and with political philosophy.

Property is an excellent social technology as long as we realize the edges are blurry and ill-defined. They are contingent upon other social considerations, like the fact that present distribution of property is unjustified and unjustifiable. Likewise, a prohibition of coercion is great until it's inconvenient, where what constitutes "inconvenient" has to be hashed out by competing social concerns. Democracy is fine and dandy until it becomes ridiculous (Is de facto gerontocracy justified merely because young people are less motivated to vote?)

This sounds hopelessly slippery. Libertarianism in the style of Ron Paul is attractive because it is easy; there are simple rules to apply to every situation. A less ridiculous libertarianism is more difficult to apply, but it provides value by offering a set of insights (for example, actions carried out by the State rely on violence or the threat of violence) and suggesting that we should demand very good reasons to override the first-order moral reaction to those insights ("Gentlemen, leave your guns outside." really is a good rule for most people, in most situations, most of the time.)

Finally, also commenting on Wilkinson's essay, Eli Dourado made a useful distinction:
Let’s call an action justified if, all things considered, it is the best action to have taken. Let’s call an action satisfying if we can go further and say that we are glad that it happened. It should be obvious that an action can be justified but not satisfying.
Take statements of the form: I wanted person X to do action Y, so I made X do Y. Y can be a number of things: give me candy, have an abortion, not have an abortion, eat vegetables, stop picking on the other kids, not trespass on my property, stop gunning down innocent victims, pay for Timmy’s leukemia treatment.
The action of making X do Y is sometimes justified (depending on what Y is and the circumstances and, sometimes, on who X is), but it should never be satisfying. If an intruder came into my house and threatened my family, I might (might!) be justified in shooting and killing the intruder. But if I were satisfied that I got to justifiably shoot and kill someone, it would represent serious moral deficiency.
I feel that way about all coercion; it should never be satisfying, even when it is justified. Yet when I observe real-world taxation, I see a lot of satisfaction. People seem glad, for instance, that taxation is progressive. It’s not just a resigned, “Well, this is the most justified level of progressivity.” People are satisfied that those who they want to pay taxes are doing it.


  1. I'm not sure that in our society there's that much of a distinction between justified and satisfying, once you get far enough away from where justice is doled out. A lot of people were satisfied-- thrilled, even-- when the US forces killed Osama bin Laden. But I think even those people would be creeped out if the soldier who shot bin Laden took personal satisfaction in doing it. But, a just society *is* satisfying, and being satisfied with coercion (as it's often seen as the only means to the end) is permissible as long as you aren't the one coercing.

    Outsourcing justice to the state the way we do gives us that luxury of a nice simple rule: "taking satisfaction in coercing someone else is forbidden." If someone were hurting my family and I had to shoot them to stop them, I can't say I wouldn't take some satisfaction in doing it-- revenge is human, after all-- and I'd probably be a little disturbed by that. But since we have systemized coercion that would prevent that scenario or punish accordingly (at least for privileged folks like me), I won't ever have to worry about that fuzziness.

  2. I see your point, but I don't think I'm a bit more cynical than you are. In the case of the ObL killing, I'm just thinking of all the thick-necked comments I read on Twitter about "Whoa, bro, just think if you were the bro to pull the trigger--Pussy for life!"

    I agree outsourcing justice to the state is a clever adaptation. But it has its own costs too. When you aren't the one doing the coercing, it might affect what you consider just and unjust coercion. As a polity, we seem to have decided many deaths of innocent people are justified in our various military engagements. If each citizen had to pull the trigger individually before death or dismemberment happened, maybe the number of deaths we consider justified would go down (or up! Who knows!)?

  3. I agree with you on all counts. I was making an observation, not an endorsement. I had interpreted Dourado's comment to mean that we are more tolerant of taxes, compared to other kinds of coercion. I was suggesting that we don't feel that way about taxes because we think taxes are special; we feel that way because we're not the ones taking people's money. But maybe that was the same point he was trying to make.