Thursday, January 13, 2011

The subtleties of political and economic philosophy

The fundamental mistake I think that Libertarians make (besides being obtuse) is that the question is not whether or not we should have "liberty", but rather what kind of liberty do we want, and what kinds do we not want. There is, I think, something fundamentally intellectually dishonest about casting the kind of liberties you like as "liberties" and casting the kind of liberties you don't like as "coercion" or "oppression" or "hierarchical authority". This kind of discourse conflates an objective evaluation with a normative evaluation. I'm all for both objectivity and normativity, but they are fundamentally different kinds of discourse, fundamentally different kinds of arguments to establish fundamentally different kinds of positions.

There are of course still real "authoritarians", but the core authoritarian principle — that submission to authority is itself a good — is not really that popular, and those who state it explicitly are marginalized. Instead, a softer kind of authoritarianism generally cloaks itself in the language of small-ell libertarianism: some elite deserves privilege because only that elite — the owners of capital, the spokesmodels for God, the ideologically pure party — can establish and maintain the kind of liberties we want.

Objectively, liberty is doing what you want, with no social consequences for actually doing it. It's just not that hard. There are some liberties we know we want: I want, for example, the liberty to be an atheist, free of social consequences even though the majority of the population finds atheism objectionable. There are some liberties we know we don't want: I don't want — and I definitely don't want other people to have — the liberty to hit people on the head if you don't like them. Once we've made these normative judgments, we can start to describe them in objective terms, but we have to make the objective distinctions post hoc: It may be objectively true that in general we tend to actually dislike liberties that directly cause material harm, but it is not in any sense objectively true that we ought to dislike liberties that directly cause material harm.

So when I'm hearing about your political philosophy, I really don't care about the direct moral quality of your fundamental principles. Just saying you're for "liberty" and against "coercion" tells me little other than that — like everyone else — you're for everything good and against everything bad. I want to know what you consider good and bad; I want to know how those principles work out in the real world: What kinds of actual behavior among actual human beings as they exist today would those principles socially permit or constrain?

For example, I just don't want Bill Gates to have tens of billions of dollars, to use as he sees fit. I'm more-or-less pleased that he doesn't use his billions to be as gigantic an asshole as, say, the Koch brothers, but I don't want to depend on his good will to exercise so much economic power. I don't think there's really any reasonable sense in which we can say Gates "earned" his money (except in the tautological sense similar to "it's at the end of his arm, it must be a hand*," i.e. he has it, therefore he must have earned it.) But fundamentally I really don't care whether or not he "earned" it; he has way more economic power than I'm comfortable with any individual person having. In much the same sense, I don't want individuals to have private armies or police forces, no matter how or why they were able to assemble them.

*Two thousand internets if you can name the reference.

There are two options: either show me how your political system really does prevent the collection of such a large fortune, or show me how the collection of such a large fortune is in my interest, or in the interest of the vast majority of people (and why I should not care about those whose interests are not served.)

It's not really helpful to me to say you're against "coercion" or "hierarchical authority". Neither term has a particularly relevant objective definition. Coercion is the use of force or violence for ends you don't like; hierarchical authority is authority used in ways you don't like. What I really want to know is: What kind of a day-to-day behavior do you want? How does your system make that behavior happen? How do we keep the system from making a society I don't like? Broad outlines are acceptable to some extent, but I really want to make sure you're not just ignoring some of the considerable practical and philosophical complexities of politics and economics.

Let's look at a common Libertarian cliché: People should keep what they earn. Sounds good, but what does that principle really mean? Did Bill Gates actually earn tens of billions of dollars? How do we know, other than that we know he actually has that much money and he's never been convicted of putting a gun to someone's head. The principle that people should be able to keep whatever they get their hands on without using obvious violence or outright fraud sounds a lot less appealing, at least to me. Additionally, even a superficial study of economics reveals that "earn" is an extremely vague, ambiguous term. Do you mean an exchange of equal cost, or an exchange of equal use-value? Who decides the use-value of something? If it's an exchange of cost, should it be an exchange of individual unit cost, average cost, marginal cost, median cost, maximal cost or some other statistical property of cost? Most political and economic concepts have a lot of these kinds subtle implications; I want to see someone who advocates some political system to explore these subtleties.

I'm more than happy to discuss the subtleties of my own political-economic positions at considerable length, so long as I'm not being blatantly hectored or abused. Angrily denounce me a Stalinist and I'll dismiss you as an idiot; ask me how I would avoid Stalin's fucked-upedness and I'd be happy to discuss it.

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