Monday, January 14, 2008

From Utilitarianism to Libertarianism

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Given all my recent posts about presidential candidates, it might be worth taking a step back to remind ourselves “why we fight”: in truth, because I just want everyone to be happy.

That is, I’m a utilitarian, seeing increases in general happiness (on balance, long-term) as synonymous with good and decreases in happiness (everyone’s happiness, on balance, long-term) as synonymous with evil. Anyone opposed to this orientation is, to the degree they oppose it, rather fiendish, though few people consciously set out to be evil. More often — if they aren’t mere unreflective predators — they’ve just latched onto some crude proxy for happiness-maximization and come to treat that proxy as if it trumps happiness itself. Usually, they’ve (somewhat arbitrarily, to my mind) picked a set of intuited, metaphysical rules — whether Christian, Muslim, Kantian, Randian, Marxist, or egalitarian-liberal — and decided, as if bowing down before an invasion force of extraterrestrials, that that set of rules “ought” to take precedence over humanity’s happiness. Why? I don’t know.

Of course, it might just happen to be the case that adherence to one of those rule-sets maximizes human happiness — by getting everyone into a blissful Heaven, say, or by ending the alienation of labor — but those rule sets must themselves be evaluated by their capacity to create happiness, which is the more fundamental underlying foundation of all ethics. And there is no point in asking “Is happiness good?” — I’m treating that as definitional, but not in a way that begs the question. If you insist “good” means something else and the dictionaries come to agree with you, then take “good,” it’s yours — but the rational and decent person remains a happiness-increaser, even if happiness-increasing must now be called “schmood” instead of “good.” Happiness, we know from direct experience of it, is not subject to the same “Is this good?” regress of questions that, say, a proposed set of Marxist or Kantian rules is. The regress ends at happiness (and not merely one’s own happiness, as utilitarians are sometimes falsely accused of thinking — indeed, in my experience, are often accused of thinking even after you carefully explain to people that that’s not even what “utilitarianism” means and never has been).

One year ago (!), before this blog was even fully functional, my January 2007 Book Selection of the Month was Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, and for all his brilliance, he still unfairly dismissed utilitarianism as a solution to the problem of foundational ethics in that book on the grounds that basic utilitarianism tells us happiness is good but does not provide rich, detailed advice on how to achieve it (for which, quite rightly, he suggests we may need guidance from tradition and communities). This objection is (not coincidentally, I would argue) very similar to a criticism often targeted at libertarianism: that it presents us with the blank slate of freedom but does not tell us what things to do with our freedom.

But it can still be the case that happiness is the proper moral gauge (or liberty the proper framework for fostering individual happiness) even if we disagree about the substantive details of how to be happy — just as people may agree they want to be healthy without knowing what specific diet regimen or medicines will produce that outcome. Disagreement over the “subsequent” question of whether living like a Catholic or like a hippie or like a tech-nerd is the best route to happiness (or even a more complex and convoluted disagreement over the extent to which happiness should be treated as a conscious goal) need not undermine happiness’s status as the ultimate destination. Indeed, it seems likely that some people will most easily find happiness by living like hippies, some by living like tech-nerds, etc. — all the more reason to deduce the need for some sort of individual-liberty-based social system from the deeper goal of fostering happiness.

As a “rule utilitarian” as opposed to “act utilitarian,” I recognize the practical dangers of inviting people (selfish, biased, fallible people) to guess anew from moment to moment what actions are sanctioned by the pursuit of general happiness, so I counsel adherence to that set of rules most likely to foster happiness — and an extreme reluctance to violate those rules, lest they erode (indeed, they may in practice end up being adhered to more rigidly than the metaphysically-intuited pseudo-rules I mentioned at the start — but we never make the mistake of thinking the utilitarian rules are somehow more important than the total set of humans adhering to them, the way someone might declare, say, equality to be an ideal worth making all of humanity less happy in order to achieve).

“Happiness-Seeking and Free” Ought to Be Just the Beginning

Imagine my frustration in many moral and political arguments: I think that getting people to agree on the goodness of increasing happiness — and getting them to agree that liberty makes possible individual pursuit of happiness — is merely the starting point for ethical and psychological development (and does indeed leave us with a host of barely-explored sociological and psychological questions about how to shape the best possible life), but I can’t even get most people to agree on the happiness part or the liberty part, let alone my own idiosyncratic, more detailed recommendations for fostering happiness (read books, avoid callousness, be skeptical, foster friendships, have a good sense of humor, etc., etc.).

I know it must seem to some readers that by being a utilitarian and libertarian (not to mention a skeptic and an atheist) I’m pushing a very weird, obscure creed indeed, but try to imagine it from my perspective: I often feel like a pacifist in ancient Viking times saying, “Well, here’s my humble suggestion, for starters: let’s just all maybe consider not slaughtering each other constantly” — and hearing the ancient masses respond, “Are you crazy? Stop the slaughtering? We must do the slaughtering! That’s our whole way of life! The gods smile upon the slaughtering!” (No need to write in explaining that I’m oversimplifying the Viking way of life — I’m sure I am.)

But even if very few people are conscious adherents of utility or liberty, I think collectively, over time, humanity participates in some sorting processes (you might almost call them “evolutionary,” though not in the biological sense — for the most part) that produce good results precisely because they tend, in fits and starts, to weed out sources of misery and perpetuate sources of happiness (in analogizing these processes to each other, I echo Jonathan Rauch). Ranking these processes from the least-efficient to the most-efficient, I’d say they are:

•Democratic government (the most primitive of sorting processes, since it basically entails either that most of us must agree on a given course of action or that most of us must entrust some ruler or set of rulers to choose our course, whether those rulers are representatives or monarchs)

•Tradition (which deviates from utilitarian norms to the extent it is imposed on suffering participants by force but is nonetheless prone to some extent to preserve practices that work and aid survival and punish — weed out — practices that do not)

•Science (a competitive process of fact-checking, false-hypothesis-debunking, and constant reimagining with the goal of more closely, asymptotically approximating a correct description of reality, discarding failed hypotheses over time in the process — though science is done by humans, and they can certainly skew the process of science and act to protect an undeserving establishment with almost as much ease as an oligarchy can deform democratic processes or lying priests can perpetuate harmful traditions)

•Markets (the best weeding-out process of all, characterized by constant, rapid experimentation, with rewards for the ideas that work and cost-bearing for the proponents of the ideas that do not — to the extent markets prevail, happiness tends, over time, to be efficiently achieved)

Evolutionary, free markets are like fractals to government’s barbarous, simplistic circles — the millions of music-purchasing decisions made in a decentralized fashion each day occur with a subtlety that a single, once-a-year National Album Purchase could never have (likewise, we might not have fared well in a single up-or-down vote on the question “Reptiles-only or mammals-only?” 60 million years ago).

The need to let constant, decentralized, individuated happiness-seeking decisions be made explains, incidentally, why violence is especially immoral: you can’t easily exit a prison or kidnapper’s den, or even your own living room if a burglar (or abusive spouse) is holding a knife on you. Violence cuts off the evolutionary, happiness-seeking, efficiency-seeking, individual-wishes-respecting process. Instead of acting on your own preferences, they are overridden forcibly by someone else’s — and that other person, to put it in value-neutral terms for a moment, may not gain as much happiness from his actions as you lose. There’s no way to know whether he does, which is why all force-based interactions are dangerous, abandoning mutually-beneficial, mutually-pleasing transactions in favor of ones that may or may not bring about a net gain in happiness and quite likely leave one party weeping.

From Utility and the Epistemological Problem to Libertarianism

The economist Murray Rothbard, who I mentioned in a recent Retro-Journal entry, recognized in this epistemic hurdle for utilitarians a reason to adopt strict property rights (and he thus created a philosophical bridge between utilitarianism and libertarianism and made plain a practical connection between human happiness and markets, a historic intellectual achievement that puts us all in his debt no matter how much some of his associates late in his life, mentioned in recent entries on this blog, may have sounded like deranged militia men).

Property rights give each individual an inviolable sphere of action in which each interaction becomes a mutually-beneficial exchange — no matter how much initial social conditions vary (due to humanity’s barbarous, disutile, non-libertarian history) — mutually beneficial in the sense that the individuals who are party to a trade decide whether the trade (or the party invitation or the conversation or any other human interaction) is worth doing and leaves both parties better off than before by their own subjective, individual standards. The alternative is some subset of people — whether a monarch, “representatives,” or a mob — deciding, in what is quite likely an incorrect fashion, what they think should make everyone else happy and imposing it upon them with the threat of violence, whether in the form of imprisonment, fines, taxes, regulations, or simply a beating.

Well-timed beatings could perhaps in principle make people happier, but experience suggests why the odds are slim, and that realization should be expanded to skepticism about all forms of slavery, government, and physical coercion. Leave individuals as free as possible to dispose of their bodies and property as they individually see fit and the world (while it will not be perfect) will be perpetually improving, by its inhabitants’ individual standards, in a piecemeal fashion, something of which there is no guarantee anytime the tribe or mob or social-democratic collective runs roughshod over dissenting individuals’ wills in favor of its own.

Tragically, we are for now ruled by politicians, but we can hope to see the most pro-government politicians fail and be ousted, be they Democrats, Republicans, Islamists, or Communists — until the distant but hoped-for day that all government functions are finally privatized and words like “rulers” and “politicians” are things for the history books, much like “absolute monarch.”

Some Preference Sets Are Indeed Better Than Others

And one last wrinkle: Contrary to the simplest version of either utilitarianism or libertarianism, in which people’s preferences are taken as given and the question is merely how to get obstacles such as laws out of the way of their fulfillment, I recognize that some sets of desires enable humanity to engage in mutually-beneficial action more easily than others. A nation of sadists will have a harder time achieving happiness than a nation of people who enjoy making each other happy — which is why culture really does matter, and why someone like Martin Luther King (tomorrow being the anniversary of his birth, even if we celebrate it a week from now) is a truly heroic figure: he didn’t just change the nation’s laws, he changed people’s preferences in an immense way and thereby made it easier for all of us to interact happily with each other. That’s an important model for non-governmental change if ever there was one, with the legal changes mainly an after-effect of that shift in attitude.

And all this leaves thousands of questions unanswered — but there are thousands of books responding to those questions, fortunately, and this blog entry is just a tiny, tiny start. It might be enough to produce a kernel of curiosity in the mind of someone who’s previously looked at things in some radically opposed, anti-libertarian way, though. (And I’ll certainly be revisiting some of these issues in the months ahead, as I work on writing Conservatism for Punks, finish the remaining two thirds of my “Retro-Journal” — next stop 1994 — and grudgingly evaluate the presidential race.)

Some Related Items of Interest

•Applying libertarian ideas to something of greater moral urgency than minute variations in marginal U.S. tax rates, Karol Boudreaux and Paul Dragos Aligica suggest to analysts of Africa possible Paths to Property.

•Though I recall having a testy e-mail exchange with him about the utility of some people’s often-conflicted preference for smoking, I was delighted by Bryan Caplan’s recent Washington Post column explaining voter irrationality, which noted in passing the important point that voters’ various forms of ignorance don’t all “balance out” to make government an effective engine of happiness — the ignorant tend to be anti-trade protectionists and the informed to be pro-trade, for instance.

•News reports about the FBI having some of its wiretaps fail because the FBI neglected to pay its phonebills are a great reminder that government is just as inefficient and Soviet-like even when doing the handful of ostensibly vital things the right likes. (I fear this civilization will end not with someone villainous saying “Now your destiny is at hand!” but with someone saying something bureaucratic like “I ain’t authorized to let you use that containment suit here — you can try coming back next week maybe.”)

•If you agree that efficiency, happiness, and individual preference-fulfillment are strongly correlated — indeed, in some ways near-synonyms, rightly understood — you might enjoy this argument against gift-giving (a position Sasha Volokh, who I was lucky enough to have lunch with a couple times in recent months, greatly sympathizes with, at least in theory).


Brain said...

So what are your thoughts on the Scandinavian states all being consistently ranked as ideal places to live?

Todd Seavey said...

Pretty meaningless. In a world of about 170 countries, to extrapolate capitalism-vs.-socialism messages from things like whether the U.S. came in two slots above or below Denmark, while all the industrialized — and relatively speaking, capitalist — Western nations are way up at the top, given the inevitable vagueness and complicating factors (and inherent subjectivity) in such studies, would be very unwise. Lotta Europeans flocking here to live, I notice.

Brain said...

Actually, most Europeans coming here to live are from the ex-Soviet Bloc, and they are flocking at a greatly decreased rate than 10 or 20 years ago.

I think the worthwhile point to be made is that there are most of the developed world does an excellent job of increasing human happiness, arguably a better job than the United States, with a much more regulated economic system. Free market capitalism is great, but only when strongly moderated by government intervention.

Todd Seavey said...

The U.S. has long been and remains the most popular destination for immigrants.

These studies are not done by people who live in an ideological void but rather, routinely, by leftist academics who know quite well (in advance) that they can choose as decisive the one or two criteria by which a country like Sweden appears to come out ahead of the U.S. and make that “the” measure of human happiness.

In fact, if a criterion such as per capita income — seemingly neutral enough — were used as the gauge, Sweden would rank down with about the 49th or 50th U.S. state — and if that state were governed by a conservative such as Bush, it would no doubt be pointed to as proof positive of the failure of fiscal conservatism.

Luckily, the Swedes have in recent years begun voting for free-market candidates, hoping to stave off their otherwise inevitable decline. Regulation and welfare-statism are rationallly indefensible, extremely harmful, and immoral.

Dylan said...

I’m busy at work and don’t have time to look anything up at the moment, but I believe I’ve read somewhere that although Sweden is obviously a lot more socialist than the United States, it possesses some policies that, if adopted here, would make free-market advocates pretty happy.

Two that I seem to remember being mentioned:

1) It has no minimum wage.

2) It has a national school voucher system.

Correct me if I’m wrong. Or perhaps I’ll correct myself later when I’ve got time to investigate.