Saturday, November 10, 2012

Libertarianism ad nauseam

Andrew Louis comments:
I've commented at length on my blog, but in short I'd say the major disagreement that you still seem to be standing on shaky ground with the idea of objectively determinable - i.e. you can't go from possession to ownership (as in, I'm being robbed, someone is taking my property) and still call that plainly objective with a context within which to define ownership.

I dunno. Maybe I'm just not being clear.

First, any short article has to take a lot for granted. The best I can do is try to be explicit about anything controversial I'm taking for granted. It's not really helpful to say, "Well, you have no justification for taking this or that for granted." Well, duh. That's what it means to take something for granted. The question is, how does taking or not taking this or that for granted actually change the argument? The same goes for distinctions of convenience. How does making a different distinction affect the argument? Louis and Horowitz do point out that yes, I'm taking things for granted, and yes, I'm making some distinctions of convenience that might have some gray areas, but I don't see in their work how it affects my argument.

More importantly, I do not go "from possession to ownership... and still call that plainly objective." Louis is skipping over the important bit. I explicitly define ownership as subjective and socially constructed. The question is, how do we evaluate social constructions? One method of evaluation is to say that we can socially construct political judgments (judgments of justice and injustice) only on the basis of objectively determinable facts. If we make different socially constructed political judgments about two situations where the relevant objective facts are the same, we are being inconsistent or hypocritical. Another method of evaluation is to say that we can socially construct not only on the basis of objective facts, but also on subjective facts, such as agreements, laws, etc. If we have agreed, for example, that citizens must pay taxes, or that renters must pay rent, then that agreement becomes relevant: we can consistently and non-hypocritically have different political judgments of two cases with the same objective facts, because they are distinguished on subjective facts, i.e. we might recognize that an agreement exists in one case, and no agreement exists in another.

I want to emphasize again that I do not believe that political and ethical judgments must necessarily be objectively consistent as in the first case above. I am introducing the distinction because I have with my own ears heard Libertarians argue that taxation are objectionable, regardless of any social constructions, because it has the same objective facts as other cases we judge as unjust expropriation. They also argue, however, that enforcement of agreements is permissible, even though they have the same objective facts as unjust expropriation, because of the existence of the social constructions of agreements and ownership. There are, perhaps, other ways to argue for the superiority of ownership, but arguing that social constructions in general cannot establish justice-relevant facts when one does not like a particular construction, and arguing that social constructions in general can establish justice-relevant facts when one does like a particular construction, is self-contradictory.

This distinction goes right over Louis's head:
Secondly I'd suggest that your analogy between taxes and absentee ownership (both being social constructs) isn't a valid analogy. In fact I'd suggest it's a category mistake. Yes they're both social constructions, however the initiated coercion is not against a concept of ownership in both cases. i.e. while they are both social constructs (which all ownership is), they are not both representative of the initiation of coercion against ownership. If I own property, whether directly (in that I, e.g., live there personally) or as an absentee owner, then what I do with that property is to a certain degree my business. If I’m an absentee owner renting space to an individual who fails to pay his rent (and we have some sort of rental agreement), then through coercion I’m going to kick him out. Now to make the analogy work with taxes it would have to presuppose that the government “owned” the money it was taking, but in fact it doesn’t. That we socially agree (to one extent or the other) to pay taxes does not entail ownership over that money and therefore the analogy fails.

Why should it matter that we label one social construction as "taxation" and another social construction as "ownership"? The choice of label seems the most specious distinction possible to make. If we can socially construct the concept of "ownership" to justify coercion, then we can just as easily socially construct the concept of "taxation" justify coercion. (If Louis is especially hung up on labels, then I suppose we could just change our socially constructed notion of ownership to actually give the government ownership of our money.)

Andrew reveals the crux of his argument and the relevance of my analysis: we "have to presuppose that the government “owned” the money it was taking, but in fact it doesn’t [emphasis added]." What facts, precisely, is Louis referring to here? Objectively determinable facts, in which case my argument about whether subjective social constructions must strictly supervene over only objectively determinable facts or whether subjective social constructions can create normatively relevant facts is directly pertinent.

Alternatively, Louis might simply be saying that some social constructions, such as ownership, are in some sense per se factual; some social constructions, such as as taxation, are in some sense per se non-factual, fictitious, or delusional. Another approach might be to say that some social constructions are per se privileged over others: the socially constructed concept of ownership inherently supersedes taxation.

Or maybe Louis has just had a revelation from God.

Perhaps someday, I'll see a Libertarian offer something better than argument from vehement assertion. I've given up on either Louis or Horowitz giving something better.

12 comments:

  1. Normative statements describe how things should be, good and bad etc. Positive statements describe how things actually are. I find this split more helpful than objective/subjective because there is less baggage.

    The Libertarians (you debated) are inferring a normative statement (ownership) from a positive statement (possession).

    The Positive school of philosophy, along with notable philosophisers like Hume, believe such an inference is not possible because such statements cannot be evaluated according to any measurable criteria or such an inference cannot be logical proven. Trying to solve the split between normative and positive led modern philosophy into the philosophy of language from which they have yet to emerge or into some theory of probability like Bayesian.

    It’s notable that normative statements are usually supported by throwing out a series of positive statements. But anyway it’s slice and diced, there’s a switch up somewhere to normative statements. “And that’s why we should not have taxation”. If that approach fails, then matters tend to fall back onto morality. “Oh taxes are immoral”. If reason doesn’t work, try faith.

    So if the objective libertarians involved in the real-life non-blog debate could explain 1) a theory of metaphysics around how human taxation and human ownership and human morality was not dependant on the human mind, 2) how they know this, 3) the logical proof that normative can be inferred from positive and 4) the epistemology to allow us to evaluate normative objective statements, 5) without making up Gods to ground their assertions....well I would be very impressed. Otherwise they must admit their preferences do not exist independently of themselves and we can get around to talking about why they are so afraid of governments.

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  2. Normative statements describe how things should be, good and bad etc. Positive statements describe how things actually are. I find this split more helpful than objective/subjective because there is less baggage.

    I prefer "descriptive" to "positive" only because of the philosophical argument between positivism a la Carnap and the Vienna Circle, and falsifiability a la Popper. This distinction has considerable merit, but I don't see it as an alternative to the objective/subjective distinction I'm making; I see these two sets of distinctions as distinguishing different things.

    The Libertarians (you debated) are inferring a normative statement (ownership) from a positive statement (possession).

    I do not believe they actually are. I believe they are doing something a little bit more sophisticated: they are saying, I think, that normative statements must be objectively consistent. However we happen to distinguish normative and descriptive statements, all normative statements must distinguish only between differences in objectively determinable fact. Making normative distinctions on the basis of subjective facts, especially labile, "arbitrary" facts such as agreements, is inconsistent, hypocritical, or unjustifiable. In this particular argument, which I've heard dozens of times, they do not infer ownership from possession; they simply argue that because the objective facts are substantively the same--expropriation of property by the initiation of coercion--it is a hypocritical contradiction to to condemn armed robbery on the one hand and condone taxation on the other. Regardless of how we've socially constructed the legitimacy of governments to enforce taxation, we must condemn both or condone both to avoid contradiction, and it is better to condemn both. Ergo Libertarianism.

    They can use this argument and still maintain a substantive separation between normative and descriptive statements. They do not, they might say, inferring ownership from possession (and they don't); they are merely consistent in applying the same norm to the same pattern of descriptive facts about reality notwithstanding different descriptive facts about our minds.

    Of course, my argument is that at least in some sense, we can maintain consistency in applying different norms to the same objective fact patterns, taking into account different descriptive facts about our minds, such as agreements, legitimacy of government, etc.

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    1. Also, just identifying one particular contradiction or inconsistency is not to say that others do not exist. I think Libertarians do frequently argue ought from is.

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    2. Thanks for explaining. Is it fair to say their argument is based around the law of identity? If A is bad in this objectively determinable context then A must also be bad in another objectively determinable context? And to claim otherwise leads to a contradiction which can not exist in objectively determinable contexts (law of non-contradiction) ?

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    3. They use other equally fallacious arguments, but yes, as best I can tell, that is one of them.

      Libs are a lot like Christian apologists: when one argument is foundering, they'll quickly jump to another. They'll hope the respondents will have forgotten the problems with the first argument when they come full circle.

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  3. we can get around to talking about why they are so afraid of governments.

    Corey Robin has already addressed this topic in The Reactionary Mind. Great book.

    According to Robin, Reactionaries (which include Libertarians) strive to maintain relations of domination/subordination, which they believe are essential to human nature.

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  4. I got you Larry, and think I see the bottom of this now. Any Libertarian who would want to make a case in this way I would say is in error as well.

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  5. Is it fair to say that these distinctions relate to the way "some" libertarians make their justifications, yet they are not ones you use to justify yours?

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    1. Yes. The whole exercise has been trying to parse a particular Libertarian argument as accurately and as charitably as I can.

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  6. For the record, I'm not a libertarian; I actually brought this up in one of our comment threads, I guess you missed it. Also, you sort of bailed on our last conversation, which means of course I'm going to look like I'm arguing via "vehement assertion" because you didn't stick around long enough to ask me to explain myself more fully. (Although, if you go back and look, I rather hope that you'll find a lack of vehemence on my part.)

    So: would you like me to explain myself more fully, perhaps in response to some specific objections on your end? Or do you not really care?

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    Replies
    1. I'm going to look like I'm arguing via "vehement assertion" because you didn't stick around long enough to ask me to explain myself more fully.

      I didn't mean to imply that you yourself were arguing specifically by vehement assertion, only that you offered nothing better. I still have no idea what you're arguing and why.

      [W]ould you like me to explain myself more fully, perhaps in response to some specific objections on your end? Or do you not really care?

      I've put as much effort as I'm going to into trying to understand your position and explaining my position to you. I don't think any additional effort will yield better results.

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    2. Yeah, so you don't really care. Fair enough.

      Delete

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