Sunday, October 14, 2012

Thoughts on Libertarianism

As I mentioned, I'm going to be debating/speaking with a Libertarian on campus next week. I have some questions about Libertarianism I'm hoping he will answer.

The most obvious questions is, what precisely is Libertarianism? Is it just a laundry list of political positions? There's nothing wrong with that — both the Democratic and Republican parties take this approach; it's called a "platform" — but it would be nice to know if there really is a cohesive, non-trivial philosophy underneath.

Without putting words in anyone's mouth, the most concise description of Libertarianism I've heard is that state power should prohibit the initiation of coercion, and only the initiation of coercion. But this description doesn't seem coherent; specifically, the initiation of coercion seems to equivocate with the use of force the speaker does not like or that goes against his or her personal or class interests. Again, there's nothing wrong with a specialized, subjectivist, interests-based political philosophy, but it doesn't seem helpful to label a subjectivist philosophy as objective, and it's dishonest to justify a specialized interpretation with our moral intuitions about the general, literal interpretation.

Is Libertarianism better because it's more moral, or is it more moral because it's better? In other words, is Libertarianism justified on moral grounds or pragmatic grounds?

Are there objective reasons to consider the use of economic power non-coercive? Or is it just that Libertarians approve of economic power and disapprove of physical, directly violent power? Again, it's unproblematic to approve of one kind of power and disapprove of another, but does Libertarianism make the distinction explicit, and does it refrain from equivocation to leverage moral intuition?

14 comments:

  1. I'm uncertain how to verbally support or advocate for the devil regarding the topic, but I will lend you some fuel you may use how you see fit.
    Curry County, Oregon, has one of the lowest property tax rates in the country, no sales tax, decreased tourist income for hotels, and has recently lost federal forestry subsidies meant to make up for the loss of logging income over the past several years.
    Curry County is on the verge of closing its jail, being down to just a few sheriff's deputies, losing all county services, six teachers for 200 students at the high school level, and losing its justice system except for the county assessor.
    It's a fact, I know as I lived there recently, that it's a destination for Libertarians attracted by the low taxes. No one will vote for any increases, and in fact have voted down the budget when they could. If you need law enforcement call the sheriff and leave a message; if it's a felony they'll get back to you on Monday.
    If you need to take the time to look this up you'll find more than what I just wrote based on county meetings and newspaper projections.
    Signed, Not A Libertarian.

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  2. What’s the big deal that coercion would be contingent? Is the concern that Libertarianism corrupts to totalitarianism based on the ability to make the definition whatever one wants? Perhaps I’m not understanding you correctly?

    Then you said, “Is Libertarianism better because it's more moral, or is it more moral because it's better?”. What’s the difference? I mean you’re creating that distinction, i.e. you’re bringing that to the conversation and creating a dilemma that just isn’t there. We always pick what’s better, and what’s better is always what’s more moral…. Unless of course your idea of morality rests in some sort of absolute, some Platonic essence; but then (and I’m not being sarcastic here) I’d love to hear that.

    Then based upon your finish I can only gather that you assume Libertarianism asserts (if, implicitly), or you again are just bring it to the conversation, the idea that economic power (but more precisely corporations) should govern what we do and who we are….? Because we allow it to be coercive by corruptive default.

    You seem to be drawing on what you feel to be the result of Libertarianism as opposed to the intent.

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  3. I’ll toss out a little nibble.
    There’s no doubt about it that labor unions did a lot for this country, and brought it to where it is today not just economically, but socially and morally. However, just like any old tool in the tool box, things outweigh their usage; or perhaps just no longer fit the context of the current conversation. Perhaps morally people have come to think (given their current status and circumstance) you know what, you should be able to monopolize a labor specialty any more than you should be able to monopolize an industry. But what’s really changed? I think what’s changed is the context of the conversations we’re having and the manner with which we react, that’s all.

    “Dude” will run its course, rest assured, but what it meant will carry forward in the form of something else. Libertarianism is just slowly becoming the new conversation everyone is having. It’s doesn’t have all its ends folded up tight, the corners aren’t really nice and creased and lots of different people are having lots of different sorts of conversations under its banner. I mean it’s people who may say, “I want open and free economy with total social liberties where those liberties do not infringe upon the needs and interests [liberties] of others”. But, you know, that’s just a slogan.

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  4. Andrew: Take a deep breath. Relax. I'm really asking real questions here, as an honest seeker after the truth.

    What’s the big deal that coercion would be contingent?

    I think it is a big deal. The real rub is: if coercion is contingent, what is it contingent on? How do you justify the contingencies in a coherent manner?

    I asked, "Is Libertarianism better because it's more moral, or is it more moral because it's better?" You asked, "What’s the difference?"

    As a philosopher, I think the difference is very important: is Libertarianism an deontic philosophy, or a pragmatic philosophy? The question goes to the justification of Libertarianism. If it's a deontic philosophy, then "Libertarianism is right" does not depend on our judgment of the outcomes; if it's a pragmatic philosophy, then "Libertarianism is right" depends directly on our judgment of the outcomes.

    In other words, if Libertarianism is a deontic philosophy, then the rational conclusion that "A Libertarian society produces (or tends to produce) outcomes in X" means that "outcomes in X" are good by definition. If it's a pragmatic philosophy, then "A Libertarian society produces (or tends to produce) outcomes in X," means that if and only if "outcomes in X" are independently judged good, then Libertarianism would therefore be good.

    We always pick what’s better, and what’s better is always what’s more moral.

    As a meta-ethical subjective relativist, I'd certainly endorse that statement. But the question then becomes: does Libertarianism produce better outcomes, or is Libertarianism somehow intrinsically better, and therefore its outcomes are good by definition?

    You seem to be drawing on what you feel to be the result of Libertarianism as opposed to the intent.

    Indeed I am. The road to hell, it is said, is paved with good intentions.

    I think what’s changed is the context of the conversations we’re having and the manner with which we react, that’s all.

    An astute observation, to be sure. But has the context changed for the better or the worse?

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  5. Libertarianism is appealing when trust in government and fellow citizens break down. But what does libertarianism offer people except economic servitude?

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  6. “Andrew: Take a deep breath. Relax. I'm really asking real questions here, as an honest seeker after the truth.”

    Sheesh, maybe that did sound like my panties got a little caught up there….. Touche’

    On contingency:
    Well, hm, I suppose I should say up front that I don’t tend think that political ideologies necessarily abide by certain philosophical schools. Rather I think that a philosophical position is something that someone brings to it. In any case, contingency… Asking what something is contingent upon seems to reintroduce that which contingency would very much like to remove from the equation in the first place, namely, essence, or some absolute. Contingency itself though (or what is something contingent to in a practical sense) stands in relation to an audience and the context within witch that audience speaks.

    You state:
    “As a philosopher, I think the difference is very important: is Libertarianism a deontic philosophy, or a pragmatic philosophy? “

    Again, I don’t think Libertarianism is necessarily underpinned by a philosophical school. In general I think this is relative to whatever speaker you happen to be up against. So in my case, since I’m a pragmatist, you’re going to get pragmatic justifications and ultimately have a conversation on pragmatism vs. whatever philosophical school you adhere to.

    On this exchange”
    AL: “You seem to be drawing on what you feel to be the result of Libertarianism as opposed to the intent.”
    BB: “Indeed I am. The road to hell, it is said, is paved with good intentions.”

    So… Here’s what bothers me about this. The manner with which political ideologies take hold don’t really relate to the ideology in the way one would like it to, so I think you end up with two different conversations. For example, political ideologies don’t replace themselves in the same way you can replace the engine in a car (and I’d just assume focus on the political environment in the US). What you have is what you stated earlier I think , which is a platform, or an ideology and within that ideology are many avenues of thought, many different tools, many different conversations. Some of those conversations make their way into public discourse and become the new conversation that everyone is having (maybe becoming law and/or legislation) and some of them don’t. Because of this a good question would not be, “Do we want Libertarianism? Is it good?” but rather, “Do we want to weave Libertarianism into the public narrative?”

    I think it’s important to note that political theory is contingent upon creating a public dialogue that leads to certain human interactions. So you can imagine that whatever you started with is never going to be what you end up with as the ideology is always affected by the public narrative. It’s not like a scientific theory where all the variables can be accounted for…..

    In any case, to get to the better or worse question: I struggle a bit here because that again brings a standard (or essence) back into the philosophical system that doesn’t belong there (at least as a pragmatist). I don’t think there’s a [G]ood we’re trying to achieve (at least not in the Platonic sense). I mean, how will we ever know we’ve achieved that goal? Whether or not something is better or worse always exists within the current context of the conversation, not some essence of Good. I mean I can imagine (and this is my Star Trek Next Generation analogy) a society where killing off old people is quite alright, perfectly justified and everyone is on board, and who are we to say otherwise?

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  7. No worries, Andrew.

    I don’t tend think that political ideologies necessarily abide by certain philosophical schools.

    I'm not sure I understand where you're going with this. I'm speaking of "philosophy" in the broad sense: how we think about our politics. The philosopher in me always asks questions. What precisely do you mean? How do you know? If it's not a matter of knowledge, what is your justification? (I'm using "justification" in its broadest, vaguest sense; politics, being normative, is an obvious candidate for some non-epistemic justification.)

    That's why I ask the essential vs. pragmatic question. Questions about essences seem to need epistemic justification; questions about pragmatism seem to entail beneficial justifications.

    To bring things around to the topic at hand: what precisely is Libertarianism? Or, perhaps even more narrowly focused, what do you personally mean by Libertarianism? I'm perfectly happy discussing what you and only you mean by Libertarianism, and discussing what I and only I mean by Communism. And Libertarianism can mean whatever you want it to mean; it's not like there's a specific and obviously canonical definition an idiosyncratic definition risks equivocation with.

    But I do what to know what you mean, and how, in the broadest sense, you justify your position.

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  8. For me Libertarianism is about allowing the individual and culture drive moral forces, and to allow the individual exercise whatever idiosyncratic behaviors and actions they choose so as they don’t infringe upon the needs and interests of other individuals.

    I think this would be pretty consistent with the idea that Libertarianism seeks to mitigate coercion. But then I think we’re on different pages with that as I think this, “state power should prohibit the initiation of coercion, and only the initiation of coercion…” is much to explicit.

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  9. I would say also "to specific"

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  10. How did the debate go?

    (BTW it's good to see Andrew back blogging)

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  11. The debate went pretty well. It was kind of unfocused; we're going to go with a more rigorous format for the next debate.

    I'll get to you ASAP, Andrew. I've been busy busy busy. :-)

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  12. The philosophy of libertarianism, for tha vasst majority of libertarians, is largely the "philosophy of liberty" (if you juse type that in a youtube search engine, you'll come up with a decent, brief summary video). It's pretty much just basic Locke.

    It all stems from one first principle, "self ownership". Past that it is a big chain of reasoning from that first premise:

    1. You own yourself. You have sole ethical jurisdiction over your body, and self determinism.
    2. You owned yourself in the past, and you own yourself in the future.
    3. If someone takes materials that you labored on in the past, they have taken your labor, which violates your determinism.
    4. If someone takes your liberty, they have taken your self determinism.
    5. If someone takes your life, then they have taken your self determinism in the future.
    6. Since no one has the right to do those things, then they also do not have the right to delegate those activities to another, no matter how many of them there are.

    It basically goes on from there. It's actually one of the most "formal" systems of political ethics around, and many will even go as far as to assert moral realism.

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