Monday, January 16, 2012

Perhaps this is part of the confusion...

So when I read Jeff Sachs talking about "to the exclusion of..." I interpreted it as meaning "if liberty comes into conflict with equality, choose liberty" or "if liberty comes into conflict with democracy, choose liberty". That seemed like a fair assessment of libertarianism to me.

It seems prepostrous to me to read that as "libertarians, by definition, don't care about human welfare or equality or any of these other values". But perhaps it's because some people are reading it that way that they are up in arms... that may explain the Horwitz post that I found so puzzling.

I don't think it's sensible to read the Sachs article as saying you hate puppies and orphans.

I do think it's sensible to read the Sachs article as saying that the classical liberal value of liberty is prioritized over other classical liberal values by libertarians.


  1. I hate to be that pain-in-the-ass and note that "libertarians" are not *necessarily* committed to "if liberty comes into conflict with equality, choose liberty" or "if liberty comes into conflict with democracy, choose liberty". As argued by Thomas Nagel and Ronald Dworkin, libertarianism could be interpreted as a philosophy setting forth its own conception of equality, so the values of equality and liberty cannot come into conflict (this is a very Dworkinian and monistic interpretation). At the risk of violating blogger etiquette, here are some brief remarks about libertarianism and equality:

    That being said, I happen to disagree somewhat with Nagel here and I do think that the values underlying the idea of "freedom" *and* equality and the values which freedom instantiates (personal autonomy, human dignity, or what Lomasky describes as the fact of separate individuals as project pursuers) are the driving force behind libertarianism as a political ideal.

  2. Hume -
    No I think that makes a lot of sense. I think Sachs's point about prioritizing the value of liberty is a good basic definition. I don't think it necessarily covers all contingencies.

    I also agree with you about the definitions. One thing you realize from talking about libertarians long enough is that what they are talking about when they talk about "liberty" is often quite different from what other people may talk about. And a lot of definitions on all sides are ultimately circular. We use whatever definitions we use because they frame the sort of ideas we're promoting.

    I'm somewhat unclear on your last paragraph. So would you say that is in agreement with Sachs or not?

  3. The problem with Sack's article is that he presumes that all forms of good intention must lead towards political action in favour of that intention. Complaining about definitions of libertarianism misses the point, what's important here is whether we live in a simple or complex world. Sacks writes as though the refusal of a political ideology to approve of state action in a particular direction demonstrates that ideology doesn't care about moving in that direction.

    "Perhaps the rich person should be generous and give charity to the neighbor, the libertarian might say (or might not), but there is nothing that the government should do. The moral value of saving the poor person's life simply does not register when compared with the liberty of the rich person. "

    No consequentialist libertarian is saying that "the poor person's life simply does not register when compared with the liberty of the rich person". The argument is that things are much more complicated than that, and the long-run progress of society must be considered. Of course Sacks know this, he simply chooses not to mention it in this article. One could argue that he didn't have space, in my view if he didn't have space to mention that very important point then he should not have published the article at all.

  4. I'd like to add for anyone that's interested (and I know you've already mentioned him previously) that there are several Roderick Long pieces and lectures freely available that explore how various "liberal" values are alike and/or different and how libertarians might be unique in how they frame the relationship between those values. I've found it pretty useful reading as a fairly radical libertarian myself. It's something that is drastically under-explored by most libertarians who classify as "thin."

  5. I sense that part of the problem is that libertarians do not (nor should they be expected to!) perceive a dichotomy between liberty and equality. So Dworkin has been there already. I agree that self-identified modern libertarians may be actually constructing a unique concept of "equality," but there is more to it than that; I think that their definition of equality focuses very much on a concept of absolute values, rather than tactical values. There is a good reason for this, too.

    Current alludes to this when he writes of "the long-run progress of society;" it is similar to a follower of Saint Aquinas stating that lying is always bad because we seek harmony between deed and thought; a harmonious world does not follow, in that line of thinking, from a disorderly or self-contradictory process.

    However, tactics matter. One of Daniel's earlier posts today highlights one example where a naive dismissal of confounding factors results in de facto inequality, which can nevertheless be eliminated in a controlled setting - in other words, the result of a society, environmental factors, or other biases, rather than a real result of ostensible racial characteristics binding individuals to a type. (I also must point out that typical authors following Saint Aquinas do not fall prey to many of the naive beliefs ascribed to them, and are perfectly capable of discerning cases that are not covered by simple strictures; they recognize tactics - their concern is that lying, deliberately being misleading, shirks one's duty to do greater good, even in the case of the murderer looking for his victim.)

    It is the viewpoint of the "modern left" that not taking into account the fact of a bias (merely because of the potential of equality) shifts the burden from those who may be helping to enforce the bias (which, as Bill Cosby reminds us, is not solely the doing of whites) to those who suffer more limited options because of it. This isn't merely a pie-in-the-sky view; it takes money to make money, as they say. At some point, moving upwards in a free economic system requires one have some kind of assets beyind native ingenuity - some access to real resources like schooling.

  6. Also, I would like to thank Daniel for getting right to the heart of it and describing it as "choose X over Y." While I have some reservations about the utility of such an approach, I can't articulate a better simple approach in cases where there are seeming discrepancies (other than to point out that many of these supposed dichotomies are false, but that is not what the divide is concerned with).

    It seems to be a fact of the universe that, given the apparent impossibility of proving all the foundations for axiomatic systems (I would certainly count ethical or moral priorities amongst such systems), there will always be some criticisms to be levied against one system or another. This is no less true, for example, of utilitarianism; yet utilitarianism is (or has been) broadly well-received in the public sphere as a good starting point for public policy, as seen in the widely-adopted Cost Benefit Analysis procedure of public policy design.

    The problem arises when you stubbornly insist that CBA, or libertarianism, or whatever flavor of the month you choose, is the only usable rubric for determining validity of an action that you run into problems. Krugman, for example, never makes this error (i.e. the generational indebtedness/transfers debate in which many people wished to believe he only had one yardstick for a just policy design).

    Any policy should be as compatible with other systems as possible, given some important limitations; it's obviously not feasible or even desirable to seek approval from Murder Incorporated or the League of Dastardly Doers. For me, one of the key questions is how many rubrics for ethical validation you need, because single ones never seem complete.

  7. Being libertarian is nothing but a propaganda tool which would make Goebbels proud. It is nothing but the rationalization of greed and selfishness. It presents no new ideas. Every proposition was well understood by the time of the Revolution, which rejected the entire idea.

    Joining with others to revolt is diametrically opposed to Rand's view that one should not give pennies to a street beggar.

  8. I think part of the problem is that libertarians don't all agree on this idea of liberty as the only value. Many of us just want to put our thumb on the liberty scale, not sit in it. After all, apart from the rothbardians, few libertarians are actually opposed to tax-financing of the military, law enforcement and the justice system. Friedman advocated for a minimum income tax, Hayek liked publicly-provided healthcare etc... As I see it, libertarians presume that intervention is a mistake and want to put the burden of proof on the side of the interventionist. Not throw out the idea without hearing them out.

    It's actually painful to argue sometimes because there is this weird assumption that all libertarians want to get rid of all the government. I think those of us who are not anarcho-capitalists are a bit tired of having to constantly distinguish ourselves from the rothbardians and try to discuss our position for what it is as opposed to what it is caricatured as. That probably accounts for some of the reaction.


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