Thursday, November 01, 2012

Social constructions and Libertarianism

Social constructions are socially and subjectively created facts: a social construction labels some entity that exists only in the minds of (most) people in society. The most obvious example of a social construction is an agreement between two people. The agreement itself does not name any entity in the external, objective world (the physical world that does not include our minds); it names just the fact that some particular mental state is shared between the two people.

There's nothing weird or objectionable about social constructs; we've been creating social constructs since we began speaking. Indeed the primary function of speech is to create social constructs; although of undeniable importance, the utility of speech for communicating information about the external world is only secondary.

Ownership, as distinct from possession, is a social construct. Ownership might reference possession, but ownership and possession are different concepts. Possession is a physical fact; ownership is a shared idea, an idea in the minds of individual members of a society. Even were we to all agree that possession, and only possession, entails ownership, possession would label the physical fact of having some object in a person's physical control, an external fact; ownership would label the ideas in our minds that physical possession was legitimate.

Libertarianism (with absentee ownership) defines a specific social construction of ownership, one that does not correspond to possession. As best I can figure out, Libertarianism establishes ownership as only the unbroken chain of voluntary transfer of property from the original creator to the current owner, and the near-absolute power of the owners of property to use, not use, or destroy that property as they please.

In contrast, non-Libertarian philosophies construct ownership as in some way departing from either or both of the transfer principle or the absolute use principle. Liberal capitalism, for example, permits taxation (i.e. the government may legitimately compel the transfer of some property). Communism, as another example, forbids the private ownership of the means of production; the means of production may no more be privately owned than a human being.

It's more difficult to decide between social constructions than external referents. Both are, in a sense, socially created (e.g. we have simply agreed that the word "mass" refers to an object's tendency to resist acceleration), but a social construction does not refer to anything in the external world, and we cannot distinguish between conflicting social constructions directly on a scientific basis.

Hence the oft-repeated question: why should we prefer to legitimatize the Libertarian social construction of ownership to alternative social constructions of ownership? It cannot be that the Libertarian construction is scientifically determinable, because "ownership comes from the unbroken voluntary transfer from the original creator" does not directly reference anything in the external world, the world we can — if we are to believe the scientists — made decisions about using the evidence of our senses.

We can, of course, always appeal to pragmatism, an indirect scientific justification. We can say that legitimatizing this or that social construction will have specific external, scientifically determinable results, results we find clearly more or less preferable than other results.

The big problem with Libertarianism is that the deontic and the consequentialist justifications for Libertarianism both seem weak. Since Libertarianism is a social construct, not directly scientifically justifiable, I can't see any way to justify Libertarianism deontically by anything but argument by vehement assertion. And the pragmatic justification seems to rely on at best naive optimism and at worst a willful ignorance of facts. (The most administratively efficient* health care systems in the United States, for example, are Medicare/Medicaid and the Veterans Administration.) When the weaknesses in the pragmatic justification become apparent, Libertarians almost always seem to switch instantly to the deontic justification: whether or not it works "better" than current systems, the Libertarian version is intrinsically better because people will have more "choice." Of course, it would be great if any ideology were both deontically and consequentially preferable, but they seem to try to use each justification to shore up weaknesses in the other justification.

The switch between the deontic and pragmatic justification to shore up (and at worst distract) weaknesses in the other justification is most reminiscent of Christian Apologists. (While religious apologists hold no monopoly on fundamental defects of justification, they are the most vigorous and numerous examples.)

To a skeptic, if an argument is good enough to use to support a proposition, then its failure contradicts the proposition, or at least calls the truth of that proposition into serious question. If I believe something because of an argument, then if the argument fails the belief should fail too. If I believe something not because of some particular argument, then it seems dishonest to use that argument to support the belief.

For example, I believe that communism is better than capitalism because I believe the social ownership of the means of production would lead to more happiness and satisfaction in the world. I justify my communism on purely pragmatic grounds. If someone shows me that communism, or some aspect thereof, would lead to a worse outcome, then I will change my conception. For example, we know from experience that while it might be effective at quickly industrializing a poorly-industrialized country, unconstrained political rule by a self-selecting party elite has serious negative consequences when industrialization reaches a certain stage. I therefore abandon the idea of such a party elite. If the theory does not fit the facts, the theory must change.

An apologist, on the other hand, in some sense "just believes." The arguments and reasons proffered really have nothing to do with the foundation of the apologist's beliefs; the arguments are tools only of persuasion, not justification. Either the belief is mystical, revelatory, or the actual foundations of belief are at best subconscious and at worst intentionally covert.

Hence, to a certain extent, arguing with apologists is an exercise in futility. A rebuttal has no effect; they do no believe because of the argument, so even a decisive rebuttal does not undermine the belief. Furthermore, even showing that the argumentation is disingenuous in this sense is such a subtle point that only someone with considerable education, training, and experience in critical thinking and rational belief formation can spot the disingenuity, and those people are already strongly predisposed against mystical or covert belief.

Really, the only value in taking to apologists, religious, political, or ideological, is to try to gain insight into good questions to ask; even though their answers are defective, the questions are almost always valuable. Indeed, a good question is a thousand times better than a good answer. (Happily, there are a thousand times as many good answers as their are good questions.)

4 comments:

  1. From the top:
    “Social constructions are socially and subjectively created facts: a social construction labels some entity that exists only in the minds of (most) people in society. The most obvious example of a social construction is an agreement between two people. The agreement itself does not name any entity in the external, objective world (the physical world that does not include our minds); it names just the fact that some particular mental state is shared between the two people.”

    I’m not so sure this distinction works all the way through. You’re explicitly making a mind-matter distinction as it relates to social constructs. So when you say:

    “Ownership, as distinct from possession, is a social construct. Ownership might reference possession, but ownership and possession are different concepts. Possession is a physical fact; ownership is a shared idea…”

    You’re essentially saying because possession has some phenomenal characteristic that it’s objective and therefore not a construct, but the “essence” of possession (or so it seems). But there too this defines possession rather narrowly as merely the appearance of (let’s say) person “X” having something in their hand. How, though, is that any less of a social construct? In a way this tugs a bit at the “found vs. made” distinction where one would like to say, “we created the idea of a banking system, but the idea of a rock in hand is a phenomenon that was always there whether or not there was anyone there to make that distinction.” But the world (even though it may cause us to think, believe and say certain things) doesn’t supply us the reasons for thinking, believing, and saying certain things, we do. As such I’m really not sure that we can make any sense of the distinction and would argue that possession is every bit a social construct as ownership is. From there the difference between ownership and possession is a bit trivial in that possession is just the adjective we apply to persons who have things but don’t own things; it’s merely the application of either-or social convention. So the question here would be, how is “possession” any less a shared fact than “ownership” once we get rid of the distinction that there are subjective facts vs. objective facts? Why should we want to make that distinction?

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  2. So when you continue on to say:
    “Even were we to all agree that possession, and only possession, entails ownership, possession would label the physical fact of having some object in a person's physical control, an external fact; ownership would label the ideas in our minds that physical possession was legitimate.”

    Well, I’d argue that no, it’s only because you’re creating a distinction between “external facts” and “social conventions” that’s leading you to such a conclusion. If both are merely separate social conventions for two separate ideas, then conflating the two wouldn’t make sense for other reason outside of the external/internal distinction.

    Next you state:
    “Libertarianism (with absentee ownership) defines a specific social construction of ownership, one that does not correspond to possession.”

    This seems rather trivial though. Why state “specific”? Why should ownership entail possession?

    Continued:
    “As best I can figure out, Libertarianism establishes ownership as only the unbroken chain of voluntary transfer of property from the original creator to the current owner, and the near-absolute power of the owners of property to use, not use, or destroy that property as they please.”

    My open question to myself is, “what’s wrong with that?” Suppose that (and I imagine this is going to be the case in most cases) we’re talking about rental property. Why would a person get themselves involved in a social contract with an individual who has absentee ownership when your temporary “possession” of that property isn’t assured by anything?

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  3. Moving on you state:
    “It's more difficult to decide between social constructions than external referents. Both are, in a sense, socially created (e.g. we have simply agreed that the word "mass" refers to an object's tendency to resist acceleration), but a social construction does not refer to anything in the external world, and we cannot distinguish between conflicting social constructions directly on a scientific basis.”

    I’m not sure I really follow you here. Perhaps it’s the other way around in that you’re giving more to the word possession than it should really have? But even before that I don’t see how it’s more difficult to decide between “social constructs” and “external referents” because the difference between the two relates to a distinction I don’t think we can make any sense out of. You refer to scientific evidence as though we can “scientifically prove” that Bob posses “X” by virtue (for example) of just testing it out with our eyes as though testing for ownership by looking at a Title or Deed would be any different. The difference has to do with how we define the social construct, not that one is “objective” and one is “subjective”.

    You state:
    “Hence the oft-repeated question: why should we prefer to legitimatize the Libertarian social construction of ownership to alternative social constructions of ownership?”

    This would make sense only if we can make sense of the distinction between internal and external, and I don’t think we can.

    So when you continue:
    “It cannot be that the Libertarian construction is scientifically determinable, because "ownership comes from the unbroken voluntary transfer from the original creator" does not directly reference anything in the external world”

    I would suggest that it doesn’t make any sense to say that it’s scientifically determinable, or that it even should be. That’s a distinction that you’re creating, although perhaps at the same time that’s what Libertarians would like to argue. I certainly wouldn’t.


    To be continued…..

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  4. I'm not ignoring you, Andrew. :-) But, unfortunately, I have many demands on my time.

    If you were to put your thoughts into a coherent essay, I'd be happy to publish it here as a guest post. I might be able to deal with your questions more easily that way.

    ReplyDelete

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