Saturday, November 15, 2008

Invisible Hand vs. Rod Long


Kerry Howley recommended this essay by Roderick Long and Charles Johnson as a more-thoughtful exploration of libertarianism-feminism parallels than some of us have supposedly offered.

I will just say as a broad reaction and tease of more-complex future discussion:

•Isn’t libertarianism’s great strength (such as it is) precisely that it does not attempt to smuggle some specific vision of how life must be lived into its definition of freedom, as long as everyone respects everyone else’s property rights (including the right not to be bodily harmed)?

•If, indeed, both the hippie and the evangelical are free, isn’t it extremely dangerous for the libertarian — who could aim for a form of “neutrality” (if not about moral questions and advice-giving generally, at least about what actions are “free” ones) — to start taking sides (qua libertarian) and saying which of those two figures is “more free”?

•Shouldn’t I have received a memo if some lifestyles are now “more free” (in libertarian terms) than others, since last I knew I thought everything conforming to property rights qualified (not as a good idea, mind you, but as consistent with libertarianism)?

•Aren’t passages like the following from the Long/Johnson essay precisely the sort of thing I feared feminism would lead to (if it’s to be taken as a model for changing libertarian thinking today, rather than merely as a historical description)?

19th-century libertarians saw themselves as facing an interlocking system of private and public oppression, and thus recognized that political liberation could not be achieved except via a thoroughgoing transformation of society as a whole. While such libertarians would have been gratified by the extent to which overt governmental discrimination against women has been diminished in present-day Western societies, they would not have been willing to treat that sort of discrimination as the sole index of gender-based oppression in society.

Moses Harman, for example, maintained not only that the family was patriarchal because it was regulated by the patriarchal state, but also that the state was patriarchal because it was founded on the patriarchal family: “I recognize that the government of the United States is exclusive, jealous, partialistic, narrowly selfish, despotic, invasive, paternalistic, monopolistic, and cruel — logically and legitimately so because the unit and basis of that government is the family whose chief corner stone is institutional marriage” (In McElroy 199, p. 104). Harman saw the non-governmental sources of patriarchy as analogous to the non-governmental sources of chattel slavery (another social evil against which libertarians were especially active in fighting)…

•If that doesn’t make libertarians a bit nervous, what about this passage from the same essay?

19th century libertarian feminists, and the 21st century libertarian feminists that learn from their example, may find themselves far closer to Second Wave radical feminism than to liberalism. As we have argued, radical feminist history and theory offer a welcome challenge to the authoritarian theory of politics; radical feminists are also far more suspicious of the state as an institution, and as a means to sex equality in particular, than liberal feminists. While liberal feminists have bought into bureaucratic state action through mechanisms such as the EEOC and the proposed Equal Rights Amendment, Catharine MacKinnon has criticized the way in which feminist campaigns for sex equality “[have] been caught between giving more power to the state in each attempt to claim it for women and leaving unchecked power in the society to men”…

Catharine MacKinnon? Catharine MacKinnon who favors state censorship of sexist texts, is our model for a productive — and no doubt fun-filled! — dialogue about decreasing the size of the state and fostering free markets? Why don’t we just go for the gold here and argue that totalitarianism is really the best model for a fully-realized libertarianism while we’re at it? And that up is down and day is night?

If this is not the face of a political movement’s self-negation, I do not know what is. I would feign humility at this point by saying “I must be missing something here” — but you know I’m not. They’re just wrong.


Will Wilkinson said...

“Shouldn’t I have received a memo if some lifestyles are now “more free” (in libertarian terms) than others, since last I knew I thought everything conforming to property rights qualified (not as a good idea, mind you, but as consistent with libertarianism)?”

This is your memo. You’ve been served.

Seriously, your whole line of reply is just doggedly question-begging and non-responsive, Todd. The propositions at issue is precisely that there are threats to liberty other than the state and that a concern for liberty requires more than respect for property rights conceived in a particular way. You don’t advance your own position, or the conversation, by repeating, over and over, that when you were a kid “libertarianism” meant “property rights,” uphill ten miles both ways. You are evidently missing something, which is the value of liberty. If you insist on persuasively defining “libertarian” to mean “a political view that holds as the highest value the inviolability of a peculiar philosophical conception of property rights,” then no one is going to stop you, but it’s pretty clear you will have left the liberty out.

Ben A said...

It’s probably best to drop the terminological dispute. I would have said that that the term “libertarianism” has, historically, referred to a political doctrine emphasizing negative rights, as opposed to a consequentialist moral system focused on maximizing human freedom. But again: who cares about terminology. I care about what the government actually does. And I am not sure I fully grok the Will/Kerry positon.

I think I read Will fairly when he says that his libertarianism is about actively promoting liberty. And if this means we sacrifice property rights, then we sacrifice property rights — they aren’t the only component of liberty. So how does this play out? Right now if Joe Sexist decides he won’t consider women for work in his company, he can be sued. Is this a good idea or a bad idea? Old school “it’s all property rights” libertarianism might have said “that guy is morally wrong, but it shouldn’t be possible to sue him.” New school ‘liberty promoting’ libertarianism is going to do a consequentialist calculus on whether we want to have law suits or not. Right? And if we get good empirical data that pornography causes discriminatory attitudes that limit human freedom, again with the consequentialist analysis to decide if censorship is the way to go. Right?

(I should say that I am A-OK personally with both discrimination law and censorship — these aren’t meant to be a parade of horribles, I’m just trying to get the position straight.)

Todd Seavey said...

Will, it’s unfortunate I didn’t write a longer entry above than I did, because my intention, ultimately, was to point out that Wilkinson and Howley are guilty of what is called “the argument from persuasive definition,” that is, they are attempting to redefine a long-established term in an unfamiliar way to advance their own philosophical position. Really, I had notes saying that.

So you beat me to deployment of the term — except that in my case, deploying it would have been justified, as “libertarianism” has indeed been understood for _decades_ to be a philosophy centered on strict property adherence.

I have _absolutely_ no interest in “winning” an argument through mere possession of a tribal/political label (indeed, I’ve always said that if someone wins such an argument, the proper response is just to say “OK, congratulations, you’re an X [communitarian, green, what have you], now here’s the correct policy prescription, which is the important thing…”).

But it simply _is_ the case that most libertarians for the past several decades, from Robert Nozick to Ayn Rand to Murray Rothbard to the Libertarian Party to David Friedman and so on, have understood the philosophy to be one of strict property rights and not simply some vague, subjective advancement of “freedom” in the broad, uplifting, mushy sense of the word.

To even suggest that _I_ have invented some new-fangled definition of “libertarianism” by saying it’s strict property rights adherence is bogus revisionist history of a sort that I expect is pretty obvious — even shocking — to most libertarian readers.

But, hey, if you’re suggesting “Todd Seavey invented the idea that libertarianism equals strict property rights adherence,” I thank you for the awesome PR boost and would only ask that people henceforth treat Mises, Rothbard, Rand, Nozick, the LP, etc. as footnotes to me, or possibly as time travelers.

Dan Greenberg said...

I think Will Wilkinson has missed an important point. When in a dispute, accusing someone else of the fallacy of persuasive definition is always a risky move if and when there is genuine disagreement between the parties over the definition. At that point, it is important to realize that it will not settle the argument to refer back to the definition used in your or your friend’s weblog. In fact, if you are going to have a definitional dispute about what definition is free of persuasive redefinition, the resolution is going to rest on historical practice and commonly accepted, conventional meaning, not Will’s (or Todd’s or Kerry’s) emotional state. Very oddly, Will misses what I take to be the point of Todd’s repeated insistence — that, again, he (Todd) is attempting to rely on historical practice and commonly accepted, conventional meaning — and instead papers over what Todd is doing by means of a wisecrack that compares Todd to an out of touch old man that the times have passed by grumbling about how easy kids have it nowadays (if I am understanding the force of his ‘ten miles both ways’ quip correctly). This, to say the least, misfires.

I guess it comes as no surprise that I think that Will (and Kerry) are doing their best to pull off a gigantic persuasive redefinition, and that Will’s flourishing what is, fairly obviously, a relatively (as he says) “peculiar” view as the established one while accusing someone *else* of persuasive redefinition is more than a little bold. Philosopher, analyze thyself!

Dan Greenberg said...

Well, this is what happens when Todd and I have the same idea — he writes faster, sharper, and funnier.

Kevin B. O'Reilly said...

I don’t think the question is about whose *definition* of libertarianism is correct, but whose *vision* of libertarianism is correct. The “thick” version that Long, Wilkinson, Kerry and a few others are proposing is a departure from the strict property rights form that most libertarians have historically hewed to and do still today. They’re very well aware of that, which is why they are making their argument that the narrow vision is somehow dysfunctional.

Ken Silber said...

Here’s my proposal:

Libertarianism: political philosophy aimed at promoting or maximizing liberty.

Propertarianism: political philosophy aimed at promoting or maximizing property rights.

We could then draw Euler circles showing that these categories have considerable overlap, but that there are some libertarians who are not propertarians, and some propertarians who are not libertarians. I’ll leave it to others to determine the percentages.

Micha Ghertner said...


One point I took from David Friedman’s Machinery of Freedom is that conceptions of libertarianism based solely on adherence to strict property rights are deeply flawed, and ignore the complexity of those rights and the reasons why we want those rights in the first place.

And Kevin, one of the arguments made by proponents of thick libertarianism is that thin libertarianism, in practice, doesn’t really exist. We all have ideas about which sorts of strategies, alliances, and cultural norms are most conducive to promoting a more libertarian society. Rand had them, Rothbard had them, and I’m sure you have them as well.

You can fault Wilkinson and Howley for their willingness to compromise on the NAP, but neither Rand nor Hayek nor (Milton) Friedman nor Nozick were strictly NAP compatible anarcho-capitalists. Libertarianism is not synonymous with Rothbardianism.

W.C. Varones said...

Rod Long?

Any relation to Long Dong Silver?

W.C. Varones said...

And the Invisible Hand vs. Rod Long?

And the Long/Johnson essay?

Lester Hunt said...

What is the answer to Ben A’s question? Is the idea that “it’s about liberty, not property rights” supposed to lead to censorship (to fight anti-liberty ideas) and suing companies for non giving women jobs?

I really want to know.

Also, I guess I’ll make the obvious point that liberty vs. property is a false dichotomy from a Lockean point of view, where “property” includes self-ownership. In this tradition, liberty, as opposed to license, is the exercise of one’s rights.

Jesse Walker said...

Todd,didn’t you yourself defend a “thick” vision of libertarianism in Liberty many years ago, prompting a letter to the editor from Milton Friedman? Or am I thinking of someone else?

Todd Seavey said...

Well, given that the “thick”/”thin” distinction was not one I’d heard of back then — or strictly speaking, until yesterday — I’d hardly say labeling it “thick” made it somehow akin to the Wilkinson/Howley position.

And I don’t know that we want to get still further sidetracked by getting into the old _Liberty_ article — which both Milton Friedman and Jacob Levy wrote responses to — but its main point was precisely that we should not get sidetracked by p.c. cultural and subcultural issues when there is the core philosophical mission of promoting property rights to be done.

Now, if you want to say that “encouraging property rights” is a separate thing from simply “property rights,” you could argue that I’m guilty of playing culture warrior instead of mere property rights advocate — but in any case, as I hope I’ll find time to address further when I get home tonight, nothing I’ve said has been aimed at watering down the libertarian definition of freedom by adding (for example) feminist or for that matter ancient-Roman cultural requirements to it. At most, I’ve asked whether the culture is sufficiently _focused on property rights_ (and in that _Liberty_ article warned that the welfare state inevitably creates constituencies happy to use p.c. cultural arguments to perpetuate their goodies).

To put it another way: I would judge a cultural artifact such as _Quantum of Solace_ primarily by its aesthetic qualities, but if I’m pressed to judge it _by libertarian standards_ I suppose I’d have to say it makes resource-privatizing corporations look like predators and so is to that extent unlibertarian (you see the direct relevance to property rights). What I would not do is say: Bond is a misogynist, and I don’t like that because I wish free people behaved in a gender-neutral fashion, therefore I will somehow declare my resultant pique on that front to be libertarian pique.

And a few libertarians who start doing the latter does not a redefinition of the philosophy make, obviously. Enough do it, of course, and we property rights defenders ultimately do cede the term “libertarian” to them, hopefully taking the property rights adherents — and all those interested in funding a pro-property rights movement — with us to a new political label.

Jesse Walker said...

It was a different “thick” vision, but if I remember correctly, it was a thick-libertarian vision. Didn’t you explicitly declare that liberty is best advanced by particular cultural values, and that libertarians should therefore do what we can to advance those cultural values?

(My copy of the article is in Baltimore and I am in Ann Arbor, so these are genuine queries, not rhetorical questions.)

Todd Seavey said...

Reread my previous response. By describing the _Liberty_ article in sufficiently vague terms, you can make it _sound_ comparable to the Wilkinson/Howley tactic. This is something you should stop doing.

Jesse Walker said...

I am not, at this point, comparing it to their “tactic.” I am trying to refresh my memory, to see how closely your early’90s argument resembles what is now called thick libertarianism. There are many different flavors of thick libertarianism, and you can embrace thickness without embracing (indeed, while firmly opposing) Will and Kerry’s particular variant. But I seem to remember you making statements that go beyond what you’ve said in these posts, and which would (if you still believe them) disqualify you from objecting to thickness per se — though not, again, to the feminist variety of thickness for which Will and Kerry are arguing.

I realize that “seem to remember” is not a strong basis for anything, and that I should probably find a copy of the article if I want to carry this line of discussion any further.

Todd Seavey said...

Let’s just say for now that I would like to see female libertarians in particular resist the thick Long/Johnson but that some thickness might be useful, as I’ll go into later.

Xine said...

Todd, was that a joke? It sounded so dirty!

I would encourage feminists to welcome, rather than resist, a “thick long Johnson.”

x. trapnel said...

Charles Johnson’s “Libertarianism Through Thick and Thin” is quite good about distinguishing the different sorts of thickness, and why a commitment to non-aggression (or perhaps liberty more broadly) might require or incline one to supporting them. I strongly recommend it.

Christopher said...

Damn, Xine beat me to it, so to speak.

“I’m long, and I’m strong, and I’m down to get the friction on.” –Sir Mix Alot.

Todd Seavey said...

All right, if we’ve descended to this level, I will just leave this comment thread (returning to these topics in a full, more serious entry tonight or so) with the following tiny bit of cultural warfare: elevating things from Sir Mix-a-Lot to…Sir Mix-a-Lot/Gilbert and Sullivan mash-up (it’s been two and a half years since last I linked to it, so why not?):

Ladyblog » Blog Archive » I am Sometimes a Libertarian and Sometimes a Feminist, but Never Both at the Same Time said...

[...] The blog war between Kerry Howley and Will Wilkinson on one side and Todd Seavey on the other has attracted the attention of other bloggers, including our own Elizabeth Nolan Brown, and it’s such an interesting controversy that I can’t help weighing in (thereby perfecting the symmetry described here). The basic dilemma is easy to explain: Everybody agrees that women are treated differently than men in ways that sometimes make their lives difficult and constrain their choices; everybody also agrees that most of this discrimination stops short of a gun to the head; Kerry thinks that social pressure is a kind of coercion that libertarians should care about; Todd thinks social pressure is, at most, coercion-lite, and therefore not something that libertarians have to oppose. (Some libertarians might, but, Hell, some libertarians hate asparagus and we don’t make a plank out of that, even if the asparagus-haters are objectively correct.) [...]

John David Galt said...

I believe there’s room for more than one meaning of “libertarian” just as the word “free” can refer to freedom or price.

There are, and should be, a wide variety of voluntary social organizations, not limited to churches, some of which impose restrictions on their members that I would not care to live under. So long as everyone so restricted joined voluntarily and is free to leave (not subject to conditions that would imperil his safety), I don’t see that a libertarian case can be made for state intervention in how those people treat each other. (If those conditions are not met, that’s another story; and in many religious communities, both traditional and un-, I would find that many children born into them, at least, did not join voluntarily.)

Nevertheless, I do see a strong case for libertarians to engage in nonviolent social protests such as boycotts against such an organization. And to create counter-organizations to help people escape from, or avoid getting drawn into, the restrictive ones.

And while we’re at it: I see both workplaces and families as organizations to which all of the above can apply.

Wirkman Netizen » Blog Archive » One of the benefits of being an individualist is never having to truck with feminism said...

[...] I read through Seavey first, “The Invisible Hand vs. Rod Long.” Seavey, in addressing a paper by Roderick Long and Charles Johnson, lists a few questions to be answered. So I will try to respond to each one: Isn’t libertarianism’s great strength (such as it is) precisely that it does not attempt to smuggle some specific vision of how life must be lived into its definition of freedom, as long as everyone respects everyone else’s property rights (including the right not to be bodily harmed)? [...]