Sunday, February 6, 2011

Losing my contractarianism...

...I haven't entirely yet, but I feel as if it is looming. I'm attempting a controlled descent into this pragmatism business, which I feel is warranted. James, after all, willed himself to believe in God and argued that he had warrant for doing that. This idea that beliefs are functional and we can pick up beliefs like we pick up hammers or rakes - trying them out, assessing their utility - seems to give me warrant to do this. If there is no chance of conclusively establishing a correspondence between perception and reality, all that we have available to us is to assess experientially the value of certain beliefs in navigating the every day world we live in.

One belief I have consciously "kept" is a contractarian emphasis on property rights (because it's easier to talk about how rights function if you conceive of all rights as a sort of property right). Social contract theory has always bothered me tremendously, and although I've always agreed with Bentham on rights ("nonsense on stilts"), we certainly act as if rights meant something, even if they are fundamentally meaningless. That seemed to make them more productive than the idea of a social contract, which we don't even pretend is real (or so I think). So I've been interested in talking about democratic self-governance in contractarian terms in order to justify the common sense of how democratic self-government works without slipping into a naive libertarianism (i.e. - "I didn't agree to be governed so the state is illegitimate"). A lot of these attempts in the past have been "government of the gaps" attempts, similar to "God of the gaps" apologetics. I find both of these to be unsatisfying. It seems both insufficient and something of an insult to your subject of inquiry. "Government of the gaps" proofs amount to a litany of market failures. "God of the gaps" proofs amount to fillers for where science hasn't made a case (yet). But you can also understand why people might make these attempts. With the tremendous progress of science, they hypothesis of God (to uses Laplace's formulation), no longer seemed necessary. Anyone truly interested in justifying the idea of God had to reckon with this. There was no point in denying the science. The same goes with market economics. No modern non-Marxist economist wants to overthrow market economics. The advances are obvious, and yet there is an intuition that this doesn't simply negate the state. But the state can't be justified on claims that do violence to our insights about the market. If I were given the choice, I would choose the market - hence a "government of the gaps" argument emerges. But that just doesn't seem right. A lot of us don't feel like the government is naturally opposed to the market the way naive libertarians suggest, but because of the way the argument is structured it can be hard to explain why. So in my attempt at understanding why democratic self-government is "justified", but not on the basis of a "government of the gaps", I've hit on a few basic reasons that I find to be convincing and not "government of the gaps":

1. Macroeconomic instability - Keynesian democratic socialization of investment. Macroeconomic stability emerges because of aggregation issues and monetary issues as a problem distinct from microeconomic stability and efficiency, which property rights and free exchange are able to guarantee.

2. Temporal autarky - Jefferson referred to it as "swindling futurity". We are coerced by generations that come before us and we coerce generations that come after us, so a contractarian system grounded on contemporary rights and exchanges is necessarily a coercive system. Democratic self-government is tasked with reducing these coercions.

3. Necrocratic political economy - Our system of political economy is necrocratic - it is ruled by the dead. Property rights crystallize past inequalities and pass them on to future generations by the roullete wheel that is birth. Coercion in the past only takes one generation to legitimize itself. This is also a major concern of Jefferson and Paine*.

These start to provide, without losing a contractarian perspective at all (indeed with introducing what I think is a more robust contractarianism), a basis for democratic self-government that may be coercive from a naive contractarianism, but which is ultimately a reduction of coercion. It provides a broad basis particularly for (1.) investments, (2.) egalitarianism, (3.) education, and (4.) social stabilization. Add to this basic agreed upon justifications for police powers, and you largely have a picture of that which American democratic self-government had taken for itself.

But it also provides the seeds of the unraveling of contractarianism. What you start to see is that "property rights" are historically contingent and are themselves inherently coercive (democratic self-government is, after all, a response to the coercion of the property rights regime). As Dewey wrote "this relativity of liberty to the existing distribution of powers of action, while meaning that there is no such thing as absolute liberty, also necessarily means that wherever there is liberty at one place there is restraint at some other place. The system of liberties that exists at any time is always the system of restraints or controls that exist at that time. No one can do anything except in relation to what others can do and cannot do. These... points are general. But they cannot be dismissed as mere abstractions. For when they are applied either in idea or in action they mean that liberty is always a social question, not an individual one. For the liberties that any individual actually has depends upon the distribution of powers or liberties that exists, and this distribution is identical with actual social arrangements, legal and political - and, at the present time, economic, in a peculiarly important way."

I feel like I've chased contractarianism to its implications, and come back out at something like social contract theory! I'm losing my contractarianism. If this gets pursued far enough, clearly the same old problems with social contract theory are going to come up.

So what does one conclude? Well, precisely the point that these are just beliefs that we use because they are useful, not because of any correspondence with reality. Rights are a convenient fiction. When we pretend that we are real and think about them long enough as if they are real, we run into all sorts of self-contradictions that force us to conclude that system of private property rights is necessarily coercive. The solution, however, is social and coercive as well. This is largely where I've come out; my respect for abstractions like "property rights" and "self-government" has both dwindled and been reinforced. It's dwindled because their fundamental fictive nature seems more or less obvious to me now. But it has been reinforced because I'm starting to see how the interplay of these two fictions produces real results. We have a guide of sorts for when self-government reduces and when it increases coercion. We have a guide for when property rights reduce and when they increase coercion.

Writing this is in many ways just an attempt to think through all these ideas again... I will be going to "debate" Jan Helfeld later today, and I am increasingly of the opinion that his method does not get to the heart of the issue... although I'm concerned I won't be able to adequately express why. We shall see.

* I recently came across an interesting post by Gavin Kennedy on Adam Smith that has a great passage from Cantillon emphasizing this "necrocratic political economy" problem: "It does not appear that Providence has given the Right of the Possession of Land to one Man preferably to another: the most ancient Titles are founded on violence and Conquest. … But howsoever people come into the property and possession of Land we have already observed that it always falls into the hands of a few in proportion to the total inhabitants"


  1. Since you are about to become an ex-contractarian, can you explain to me something about social contract theory?

    Why do social contract theories suppose some hypothetical situation that never happened? Whether it's that State of Nature that Locke spoke about or the Noble Savage that Rousseau spoke about the Original Position that Rawls spoke about, all of it involves making up a fictional story and working down from there. I am guessing there is a high chance I am strawmanning their arguments, since it all ends up being more complicated in the end. But why? What's the use?

    I think Messrs. Locke, Rawls, Rousseau,.etc make the dangerous mistake of reaching conclusions by first setting aside all the facts.

    It would be safer if the contractarians all said that their fictional situations are only useful for describing what would happen in that fictional situation - just a useful model, but nothing more and nothing less.

  2. I highly recommend you read Hayek's "The Fatal Conceit" now! (Social norms emerging via evolutionary selection process, an anti-foundationalist view of rights, etc.)

  3. Prateek - that has always bothered me about the social contract theorists too. So perhaps I'm using the term the wrong way, but when I say "contractarian" I'm thinking about guys like Nozick - that see individuals contracting with each other but reject the social contract. I used to think that contractarian approach was firmer than the social contract approach. Now I'm having concerns about both.

    Because they imagine these primordial states that simply aren't real, they are decontextualized and dehistoricized. It's philosophy as mythos, not philosophy as analysis.

    Am I using "contractarian" wrong? I always understood it to be guys like Nozick, not guys like Rawls.

    Strangeloop - yes, I think Hayek is exactly on track in terms of emergent order. Haven't read Fatal Conceit yet.

  4. Debate with Jan today went great, btw. We broke on a lot of underlying metaphysical lines. That man is not a fan of Kant or anyone after him at all. He called my approach philosophical poison. I called his an opiate. Nice guy though.

  5. Rights are nonsense on stilts?

    I would recommend reading a bit of Rothbard, Rand, Kant, Spooner, or Hoppe.

    The entire reason murder is immoral is because it violates private property rights (even where in an isolated incident it may lead to a more satisfactory state).

  6. Mattheus -
    I thought the context from mentioning Bentham was clear - "natural rights" are nonsense on stilts. You know I'd be the last one to question the significance of property rights. But I will question the sensibility of this idea of "natural rights" (although, as I said, it's a convenient way to talk about it and a convenient mechanism for reifying the concept).

  7. Noticed your comments over at...

    Almost didn't leave a comment here on your blog. Was about to close this tab when I decided to look on your tag cloud for "opportunity cost". Didn't find it...but I did find "pragmatism".

    Have you ever considered what the outcome would be of allowing taxpayers to directly allocate their taxes? If you get a's my latest blog entry on the subject...A Taxpayer Division of Labor.


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