Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Perfect summary of what I mean by "libertarian social engineering" and why I hate it when people say being pro-liberty and libertarian are synonymous

(HT - Guinevere Nell)


  1. How would you know that this was from an ancap and not from an ancom (= anarcho communist)? (One could argue, given the red color and that a real ancap in contrast to an ancom would respect property rights, and therefor would not paint walls he does not own, it is quite unlikely that it was an ancap ;)

    Supposed it was an ancap, and leaving aside the issue with damaging private property of others; Why would that slogan be "social engineering" ?

  2. Good point on the red, but the right-left spectrum is a little tired... I'm not sure I recognize all that much of a difference between ancom and ancap :)

    How do you know it's not his fence?

    I'm not sure what your question really is on "social engineering". If you tell a bunch of people they can't organize society in a certain way (i.e. - the way we currently organize it), that seems like social engineering to me. If you maintain property rights, that's clearly social engineering too, right?

    It's hard to conceive of living socially with people outside our immediate kin group - where organization may be structured more by biological imperative - in a way that doesn't entail social engineering.

    This is all just semantics, of course. In the grand scheme of things it's even hard to separate "social engineering" from "biological imperative".

  3. Daniel I think a lot of ancoms would shed a tear at you saying theres no difference between them and ancaps. What ancaps actually seem to mean is that they want to ruled by corporations, whereas ancoms don't want to be ruled by anything more than a (very) local council.

  4. (Of course ancaps would contend that they weren't being ruled because everything in a market economy is 'voluntary', but they're free to set up their own society - their funeral.)

  5. Oh there is huge difference, not just the colors.

    Good point there as well. I don't know it of course, but I just never saw someone designing his own fence this ugly. :)

    I thought social engineering is trying to change the behavior of people through laws to the "better". Like extra taxes on cigarettes and alcohol, anti-discrimination laws, price controls etc.. This kind of stuff.

    Maintaining property rights is social engineering? Then everything a state did would be social engineering. And then of course you also had social engineering in anarcho capitalism.
    Only this would mean I would lack a term for describing laws that are not protecting other people or other people's property (settle disputes among people in society) but only were enacted to change specifically people's behavior because it was thought to be healthier for them or somehow morally better etc.. How would I call that then? (I admit I have not read Popper yet who coined the term as far as I know, so I don't know how he defined it).

    But I don't think stating your opinion and try to persuade people of whatever was social engineering, that really goes too far, don't you think?

  6. skylien - I think it's jarring for libertarians to hear, particularly in that language (that's a big part of the reason why I use that language). But I don't think it "goes too far" at all. The single biggest complaint against libertarians by non-libertarians who are also in the classical liberal tradition is that libertarianism places too many restrictions on the activities of free people. More libertarians need to recognize this.

    I understand that I embrace a degree of social engineering too (I would argue that my views don't re-engineer society anywhere near as radically as libertarians, though). But the point is to recognize when you're doing it, and accept the responsibilities and risks.

  7. If you use that term specifically in a different or at least unusual definition as a shocker for libertarians to only make them think that they also have a responsibility for what they argue, because it might cause great harm if they are wrong, is totally ok. Just be clear after you shocked them, or else it could be counterproductive.
    And by the way one can counter that you also have a responsibility if want to preserve the status quo to a certain extent (I am not saying that you'd think everything is perfect, far from it) because it also might cause great unnecessary harm which might be avoided if you would join the libertarians or somebody else.

    Granted it is easier to stay where you are, then going new ways in which the risk of causing more harm is of course bigger.

    Anyway I think most people genuinely believe in the system in which they believe, and that whoever is right will have the better arguments and better evidence in the very very long run.

    Need to go to bed now. Good night.

  8. Daniel Kuehn,

    It isn't jarring; it just makes you look stupid.

  9. Sokal Hoax

    The lib habit of redefining understood terms and renaming understood things is the kind of thing lampooned so well in that book. The idea is to get outsiders or ideological enemies to waste time arguing or to confuse them into believing that one has special knowledge. This example is perfect because it claims that a whole class of disagreeable politics (which is better defined than most) simply doesn't exist.

  10. Did anybody else notice that the picture is originally from UberHumor.com and other humor sites? Just sayin'. I think DK missed the joke.

  11. How dumb do you think I am, Joseph?

    You can't make my point without the punchline of the joke. I get the joke. And the joke here is really on anarchists/libertarians is it not?

    I could crack this particular joke any day of the week on the wide range of people who tell me (1.) that they are pro-liberty followed by, (2.) a detailed plan about how society MUST BE organized for it to support liberty.

    No, I got the joke Joseph. It's practically the theme of this blog.

  12. Daniel,

    One concern I have here is the conflation between Libertarianism as an American program of practical politics vs. libertarianism as political philosophy. It is obvious on its face that Libertarian practical politics requires social engineering. This was the major insight of the early 20th century socialist social theorists (e.g., claiming that the shift in British politics in the 19th century towards free market policies was intentional grand project while the moves towards the welfare state was more piecemeal reactions to specific problems).

    At the same time, however, libertarian political philosophy does not necessarily require grand social engineering projects and a "detailed plan about how society MUST BE organized for it to support liberty". I need to think about this a little more, but coming immediately to mind is Nozick's Utopia in ASU and A. John Simmons' "Consent Theory for Libertarians" (perhaps the relative indeterminacy of basic rights noted in Lomasky's Persons, Rights, and the Moral Community). There is thus an important strand of libertarian political philosophy that sets a baseline for political society and political obligation (voluntarism) but is indifferent to the institutional forms selected by those individuals making up the different political communities.

  13. Is this seriously how you think, Daniel_Kuehn? You some believe both that:

    1) "Spread anarchy" is "telling someone what to do" in the sense that self-described anarchists care about (i.e. state coercion), and

    2) This exchange -- of someone declining a request to spread anarchy -- mirrors the dynamics of your argument why libertarianism can be anti-liberty?

    Both are confused. If you need it explained,

    1) No, anarchists (of any type) do not oppose the verbal expression of a command to do something; they oppose its backing with force.

    2) The conflict between these people (over the merit of "spreading anarchy) has virtually nothing to do with the purported mechanism by which (you claim) spending less tax money on education reduces liberty.

  14. Whatever it says I can't abide graffiti.

  15. I guess I'm curious what is wrong with "libertarian social engineering" in the first place? As long as we're talking about voluntary stuff* here it shouldn't be that big of deal. It isn't some big "gotcha" deal. Popper makes a "social engineering" distinction too; piecemeal vs. utopian - most if not all libertarians fall into the former.

    Being pro-liberty is synonymous with with being a libertarian if your vision of liberty is a libertarian one. If it is a typical Democratic vision or a Republican one, then no, they aren't synonymous. I'm just going to assume that most libertarians assume this and don't expect to have to say it constantly in every conversation they have.

    This is the dumbest blog post I've ever seen here.

    *As far as I know, there is no libertarian vanguard promoting anything other than working through the normal processes that all political movements work through - there are groups of people who propose their own private islands, etc. but even all of that is voluntary.

  16. I could crack this particular joke any day of the week on the wide range of people who tell me (1.) that they are pro-liberty followed by, (2.) a detailed plan about how society MUST BE organized for it to support liberty.

    Dur, I could crack this joke any day of the week on all the morons who tell me that (1.) that they are pro-being-released-from-my-basement, followed by, (2.) a detailed plan for what I MUST DO to release them from the basement cage.

    You're really clever, Daniel_Kuehn. What were your GREs?

  17. Could you please just stop commenting here Silas? You're bringing down the whole thread.

  18. From the other thread:

    "Silas -
    Libertarians practically by definition reject central government agencies doing things. Since free people have organized to create central government agencies to do various things, breaking from that is nothing if not social engineering. Moreover, restricting people from creating these sorts of institutions that are antithetical to a broad sampling of libertarians is restricting what free people can do.

    I support restricting what free people can do too. I've always been up front in saying this. But I see at least two differences: (1.) the changes I want to make are much less radical a departure from the emergent order than the changes most libertarians want to make, and (2.) I'm willing to admit this is what I'm doing whereas most libertarians think that they're not doing it by definition."

  19. Daniel,

    What we have here is very similar to the distribution/redistribution conceptual/normative debate. Similar to many Marxists in the redistribution debate, political Libertarians look at the current institutional arrangement as a by-product of illegitimate law-making and societal control. They thus disagree with your claim that the current system is the product of "free people having organized to create central government agencies to do various things." So just as Marxists squirm when there is a claim of *re*-distribution (after all, the individuals did not have a legitimate claim over the resources in the first place), these political Libertarians squirm when there is a claim of Libertarian social engineering. In other words, they see no value in the status quo and thus see no wrong in intentional manipulation, so long as it brings forth a move towards a legitimate baseline.

  20. I'm not bringing down the whole thread, Daniel_Kuehn; I'm giving replies that topically explain the exact error I find you to be making. Feel free to delete them on the pretense that it's because they're mean or whatever. My last comment helpfully shows you exactly how your argument proves too much: liberty requires "precise instructions" in the same way that letting someone out of a cage requires "precise instructions"; this doesn't mean that the person advocating "liberty" is advertently demanding some narrow, restricted arrangement.

    Anyway, now that you put your reply in the right place:

    1) You don't seem to get the joke you claim to get. Whatever your views of the relative amount of freedom in a given political order, they're irrelvant on this point: the plain fact of the matter is that the anarchist posting the message is not somehow hypocritically violating his own positions in ways that review their incoherence. The anarchist does not oppose right of people to say, "spread anarchy" or "spread condoms" or "spread fascism".

    The joke (the one you "understand") only works because the responder is using a different meaning of "telling someone what to do" than anarchists advocate. Since you have a hard time getting this, I'll spell it out even more clearly. The two definitions of "telling someone to do X" are:

    a) Violently coercing someone to do X, and
    b) Verbally instructing someone to do X.

    The anarchist opposes a), the responder (deliberately) misinterprets it to mean b. Simple enough?

    2) I understand what you "admit"; my point (that you have not addressed) is that this disagreement has nothing to do with the (mis)communication occuring between the two people referenced in the picture.

  21. I might be missing something here. I interpret Daniel as reacting to a once popular argument of free-market institutional structures, that actual capitalistic societies are somehow "natural," a natural outcome of some type of spontaneous order mechanism (something along these lines). This picture was then contrasted to the Welfare State, the late 19th and early 20th century grand designs of science and expert control (the Weberian bureaucratic nightmare). Daniel's point is that this is not the case. To bring about a Libertarian political society requires not spontaneous order but intentional manipulation and direction by political actors. As I interpret Daniel, the question of coercion is basically irrelevant here. He is simply pointing out that, contra the Libertarian self-portrait, political Libertarianism itself requires social engineering (telling people what to do) just as much as the Welfare State. This takes no stand on which is morally legitimate and morally justifiable.

  22. You don't rise to the crudeness that justifies deleting. Nine times out of ten that you show your face here, I do wish you'd just comment somewhere else.

    re: "The joke (the one you "understand") only works because the responder is using a different meaning of "telling someone what to do" than anarchists advocate."

    Obviously. It's the different understandings that make the joke, Silas. Why are you think I'm not understanding this?

    re: "I understand what you "admit"; my point (that you have not addressed) is that this disagreement has nothing to do with the (mis)communication occuring between the two people referenced in the picture."

    Sure it does.

    Now run off - we really don't need trolls here.

  23. Obviously. It's the different understandings that make the joke, Silas. Why are you think I'm not understanding this?

    Because you're acting like it humorously conveys a valid point (to the viewer) rather than humorously shows a simple misunderstanding (between two people referenced by the picture)?

    I'm still not sure you understand the joke for real. Understanding the joke would be "hah -- that's not what the anarchist meant, although if you interpreted it that way it would be ironic". It does not count as "understanding the joke" when your reaction is, "hah, it's never impossible not to tell someone what to do because in the process you have to tell someone what to do".

    If you, as you claim, understand that the different meanings make the joke, the second explanation doesn't work, yet you're carrying around as if that's some novel insight, and is conveyed by the picture.

    Sure it does.

    Alright, work with me: How do you go from "hey, someone gave a funny reply by using a different meaning" to "This is why libertarianism is confused"? Is your point that your opponents are wrong because you change the meanings of their words from what they intend, or ...?

    And how is my articulation of your errors "trolling"? Is everyone who makes my argument trolling, or just those that do it the "way" I did?

  24. Silas, that was pretty much what I thought, as well. The joke was in the irony.

    Of course, the other thing that came to mind when I saw this a few weeks ago was the question of how does one "spread" a non-archon? It is kind of like saying, "breath the vacuum" or "kick the non-thing". Now, if the tagger was using the definition unrelated to archons, then it would make sense, but the response wouldn't have produced the irony to the statement.

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