Friday, December 5, 2008

State vs. Patriarchy

By conventional libertarian standards, there is a crucial difference between the state and the patriarchy.  One is oppressive, while the other isn’t.

Indeed, the patriarchy is on the losing end of law these days, and might even arguably be a victim itself of oppression by the state, given that affirmative action laws exist in part to guarantee women jobs they might not have secured in the free market, anti-harassment laws exist in part to shield women from unpleasant male banter, set-asides exist for subsidizing female-owned businesses, etc.  Does it not matter, in the minds of left-libertarians who think regular libertarians “need” feminism, that the law already oppresses in feminism’s favor, as it were?  Does this alone not make feminism a menace?

And if not, we really have reached the point where some libertarians are more alarmed by “social pressure” than by law — which is precisely the kind of thinking the movement was created to combat.  After all, isn’t every social arrangement reached by free people one in which lots of people are annoyed by the outcome and feel hemmed in by it?  Isn’t libertarianism’s unique contribution the observation that if you respect others’ right to act freely in accordance with property rights, you cannot claim that the resulting social patterns are evil, unjust, and unfree simply because they (arguably) don’t work in your favor?

What could be more Hegelian than claiming that all free action by other people, because it changes the social context in which you act, is impinging on your freedom?  This is how totalitarians are led to claim that there is no such thing as freedom — only changed contexts — and thus (to take something disturbing and wrong Stanley Fish once said to a group I was in) that there’s no real sense in which a Stalinist society is “less free” than a laissez-faire capitalist society.  And I’m not saying that’s demonstrably false, since it’s partly a matter of semantics — I’m just saying libertarians should be the last people to want to talk and philosophize this way.

(An aside about actual, i.e., state/physical, coercion: right now in Vol. 4, Issue 2 of Serf City, NYC’s delightful Libertarian Party newspaper, available all around town, there’s a Jim Lesczynski article, “New Yorkers Sue to Stop Illegal Pork,” which describes libertarian lawyer James Ostrowksi and others wisely noticing that the state of New York routinely violates its own state-constitutional clause banning government loans to private corporations — something now so routine at all levels of government, as people have been noticing in the past couple months, that one engine of parasitism, Advanced Micro Systems, receives $300 million in NY’s current budget.)


But if we’re going to play Hegelian games and talk in terms of “positive” freedom that’s facilitated by those social contexts we happen to find pleasing (rather than the mere “negative” freedom of property rights — that is, the right to be free from assault, theft, and fraud and otherwise do as you will), perhaps males should simply argue (why on Earth not?) that they are oppressed by, say, women’s unwillingness to have constant sex with them at the drop of a hat.

I mean, what exactly is the “correct” default for our social context anyway, if some contexts are supposedly unfree — due, presumably, to the fact that other people’s desires impede your own (damn them!)?  Apparently, it’s OK in at least many feminists’ minds (traditionally) to say men should be repressing desires such as wanting to ogle women, etc. — but how do we know, exactly, that women shouldn’t instead be trying harder to enjoy leers and catcalls — and male indifference to their emotional needs?  The utility calculus is not so clear, and I have not seen the Objective Lawbook in the Metaphysical Heavens that dictates all this — though I’m pretty sure the feminists think they have a better idea what that Lawbook says than I do, and they don’t think it sounds like an essay from Playboy.

But since (as people who know me well would attest, I think), I am not in fact eager to make the world more boorish, let me put the context-vs.-coercion distinction in a less loaded and less sex-related way: Does everyone have to be generally “encouraging” toward you for you to be (in some left-libertarian sense) free?

I mean, gender relations are especially interesting to some people, I guess, but is it clear that the average person (even a female) is held back by sexists more than, say, by really mean negative assholes in general?  If sexism must decrease for us to be free, do all assholes have to go away before we’re free?  How much does society have to change before I’m truly unhampered in my…positive flourishing or whatever this thing is that we’re replacing the hard-won ideal of market freedom with?

Do the Wall Streeters have to stop being intense and scary to be around?  Do the athletes have to stop making me self-conscious about my inability to bench press 300 lbs.?  Where and when does this social-contextualizing-for-freedom end exactly?  Did Kerry Howley explain all this somewhere so I’ll know — or do I just have to read lots of feminist blogs to find out when I’m behaving in a liberating fashion?  And why exactly should I not be more concerned with (for the sake of argument) making feminists acquainted with the pain they cause me by not doing more stripteases?  Wait, I know: because chivalry discourages whining.  Would that feminists were as easily embarrassed.


Will Wilkinson said...

Todd, This is a frustrating post. You act like you have some kind of intelligible theory of the definition of property rights and the coercion/non-coercion distinction. But you don’t. You have some preferences about how to draw those lines. You evidently think your preferences about what does and doesn’t count as a valid property right, or about what actions do and do not count as coercive, are especially well-justified. But it’s not clear to me why you think this. As far as I can see, you’re full of table-pounding bluster, and your preferences on how to draw property & coercion lines are no better justified or settled than many feminist preferences about how to draw between just and unjust coordinated social threats. Your attempt to contrast some kind of lucid uniquely “libertarian” system of well-justified bright-line constraints with some kind of structureless muddle of mere tastes is completely fake.

I think the core of our disagreement is this: you think libertarianism just is a certain set of arguments about property rights and coercion, such that if one rejects those arguments, one isn’t a libertarian. I think those arguments are bad, and so THAT VERSION of libertarianism is false. But I think there are other versions, which are more like contemporary liberalism, which are not false. You can keep insisting these other versions aren’t really “libertarian” if you want, though no one but your brand of libertarian is going to agree. But that’s not really the issue. The issue is that your version of libertarianism is false, and you should give it up. Unless you really are doing nothing more than arguing about the application of the word “libertarian,” you beg the question when you keep assuming contested premises to mount an argument against those who contest them.

Todd Seavey said...

And apparently, Will and I — along with Katherine Mangu-Ward — will be seen online Monday night on PJTV discussing these very issues. SO TUNE IN.

Will, it’s fine to disagree with me, but it is simply a _lie_, and a disturbing one, as you must well know, to claim that a property-rights-based version of libertarianism is simply one among many “libertarianisms” apparently rattling around out there in ideological space unnoticed by virtually any of us who call ourselves libertarians.

I don’t know where you think you found these other versions, and I don’t know why you keep flattering me by pretending that the property-adhering kind is uniquely Seaveyan, but keep it up and my reputation as the progenitor of the primary form of libertarianism will be greatly enhanced.

There are of course cases where it is ambiguous who owns what — that’s what lawyers are for, after all, and I would not suggest getting rid of them all — but for current purposes the point is that the relative clarity of property rights, not the never-ending free-for-all that is people’s conflicting cultural preferences, has long been the basis of libertarianism.

If you are suggesting that property is a completely amorphous concept akin to, say, “polite society” and thus of no greater legal or moral authority within libertarianism(s?), you do the idea of property a grotesque disservice and, again, I do not know why someone who thinks property is that uselessly amorphous a concept would consider himself part of a movement that again and again and again restates its belief in the non-violation of property rights as a litmus test for approrpriate policy.

This is not something _I_ made up, for crying out loud, and restating this obvious historical fact does not constitute “table-pounding,” you rude little revisionist. Libertarians repeatedly won Nobels as extensions of their free-market econ work, for example, _not_ for promoting — what? — some culturally-narrow (thick? liberating? who the hell knows) idea of the good life or proper ’tude. People in any movement have diverse individual opinions, but the common ground was always property rights.

And if you think, like all too many leftists, that property rights is an amorphous or meaningless concept — yet insist on calling yourself a libertarian — I’d love to hear what four or five of your alternate versions of property are. The one I’m familiar with is the “You can’t steal this thing because it’s mine, even if you’re calling yourself ‘government,’ but I’m free to sell it or contract it out” version.

Again, there’ll be ambiguous specific cases, but no real ambiguity that I or any other libertarians I routinely deal with had noticed prior to this argument arising about two months ago about whether property even matters or what property is. But then, how about a if I pick, from among the many “libertarianisms” supposedly out there, the kind that says we are not truly free until our social context is one in which your entire book collection resides, at no expense to me, in my apartment? (Please mail them.) What, you’re not familiar with that formulation of libertarianism? Are you just going to table-poundingly insist that Will’s stuff still belongs to Will? Do you know how narrow-minded and retrograde that sounds? Huff and puff and promote your own libertarian Will-owns-Will’s-stuff agenda if you must but etc. etc. etc.

Xine said...

I confess it would be fairer to read your blog, Mr. Wilkinson…but I’m trying to get tenure. So could you briefly explain what your preferred “version” of libertarianism is? I have read a couple of your responses to Todd’s posts in which you maintain he is too doctrinaire in maintaining “his” definition of libertarianism, and here you go further and say that it is “false.” But I’m completely unclear on how you define libertarianism, what unites these various “versions,” and why they are “not false.” I’d love the explanation, and perhaps others would too. Thanks.

Dirtyrottenvarmint said...

Ah, well. To me it seems that Todd’s working definition of property rights and the coercion/non-coercion distinction comes directly out of the Nozick tradition. Pretty much point for point, actually.

This series is becoming a must-read and a very welcome addition to the libertarian intellectual discussion. And not just the libertarian discussion: I wonder if Todd has been talking with Larry Auster? It certainly seems like it.

It’s disappointing that the intellectual debate has turned into one where one side advocates a theory of human social interactions and their net effect on individual liberty and other preferred social outcomes, and the other side replies with the academic equivalent of “Neener neener neener, you’re a stupid neanderthal and you’re wrong.” If Wilkinson, Howley, et. al. would deign to manifest a rational argument, perhaps they and Todd could have a meaningful debate.

Dirtyrottenvarmint said...

Mr. Wilkinson blogs at the Fly Bottle and there is a lot of interesting content there. Fans of Todd’s blog should probably check it out as well, in the interest of keeping an open mind. I don’t mean to denigrate Will’s, Howley’s, or others’ beliefs. I would agree that sometimes Todd seems to go a little over the top – though it always seems to me that he does so consciously, in order to make a point. My beef is with the content (or lack thereof) of the counterarguments thus far. The confluence of gender roles, social mores, and individual freedom is certainly a worthy topic for discussion. That discussion would be vastly improved by the introduction of real intellectual debate.

Abhishek Saha said...

Will, I like your writing, and think that your blog is great, but your comment above (and previous ones on this thread) have been extremely frustrating for me.

You call Todd’s version of libertarianism false. That is frustrating for two reasons. First off, false is a terrible word. (‘unfair’, ‘leads to consequences that do not agree with my conception of what the world should be’, etc., maybe but FALSE?) What does that even mean? Secondly, you are being terribly obtuse when you seem to imply that Todd’s brand of libertarianism is less deserving of the word. It is a plain historical fact that libertarianism has always been about protecting negative freedoms. Todd’s version is by far the more mainstream one and is the one I and most libertarians believe, at least from a deontological point of view. (There may be differences in policy, but to pretend that there is not a *fundamental difference* between social coercion and state coercion is contrary to every standard version of libertarianism).

Will, you are entitled to your views, and I would love to read more on why you think your ideology is superior, but if I understand your beliefs correctly, to pretend that what you espouse is a mainstream version of libertarianism is wrong. A person as intelligent as you should know that.

Will Wilkinson said...

Todd, I don’t think property is completely amorphous. But it’s more amorphous that Rand-Rothbard libertarianism makes it out to be. Likewise, the line between acceptable and unacceptable social exclusion isn’t all that amorphous either. There are rich bodies of literature that attempt to draw the distinction in principled ways, but you don’t care. That you refuse to rise to the defense of a particular conception of property and coercion suggests that you don’t have one, or that you think it is enough to appeal to authorities who you imagine do have one.

The libertarians who won Nobel Prizes basically share my broader political philosophy, not yours. Friedman was a good government, utilitarian classical liberal. Hayek had a complicated and not-at-all bright-liney conception of the evolution of norms and social rules, including property rights. (He’s practically a neo-Hegelian sociologist!) Buchanan is a rational choice contractarian. Vernon Smith is an empirical Hayekian. They all think property rights are VERY IMPORTANT to effective social coordination. So do I. But all think the justification of a property system is to be found in its consequences, not in some prior conception of natural rights, and certainly not a philosophic conception of coercion. The very same concern for consequences can drive a concern for non-state patterns of oppression.

Abhishek Saha said...

“The very same concern for consequences can drive a concern for non-state patterns of oppression. ”

Will, I am trying to understand your position better on non-state coercion because that seems to be the primary bone of contention. So, here’s a simple question for you. I asked it on your blog and didn’t get a reply. I think your response may make it easier for others to understand your position.

Do you think the state should outlaw discrimination by private parties based on sex, race etc? If you have a nuanced position on the matter, it would be great if you could state under what circumstances you are open to anti-discrimination laws.

Will Wilkinson said...

“Do you think the state should outlaw discrimination by private parties based on sex, race etc?”

Sometimes, yes. For example, in the United States there was centuries of state-sponsored oppression of women and blacks (among others). But finally establishing formal equality under the law hardly takes care of it when state action has encouraged and reinforced patterns of exclusion for centuries. Those patterns are sticky. In that context, certain well-defined limits on freedom of association that help to undermine the liberty-limiting patterns (which, again, were largely created by state action) quite likely enhance liberty on net.

Kerry Howley said...

Todd, you seem to think “libertarian” is simply another word for “Rothbardian.” So we’re reduced to discussing the merits of a Rothbardian conception of property rights. I understand that you fear the seeming arbitrariness of concerns about conformity and social pressure–sorry, “social pressure” — but you’re blind to the fact that your conception of justifiable coercion is not logically inevitable. There are no self-evident bright lines; some lines need to be drawn, and libertarians ought to have strong opinions about the best way to draw them.

If you’re looking for an educative treatise on the nature of social pressure and why it ought to matter to people who claim to care about autonomy, allow me to suggest a book called “The Fountainhead” by Ayn Rand.

Abhishek Saha said...

“Sometimes, yes. For example, in the United States there was centuries of state-sponsored oppression of women and blacks (among others). But finally establishing formal equality under the law hardly takes care of it when state action has encouraged and reinforced patterns of exclusion for centuries. Those patterns are sticky. In that context, certain well-defined limits on freedom of association that help to undermine the liberty-limiting patterns (which, again, were largely created by state action) quite likely enhance liberty on net. ”

Thanks. That is a coherent position and while I disagree with it, I do not consider it illogical. It simply means you weigh different kinds of liberty in a very different way than I do. What surprises me, however, is that you think this kind of ideology is libertarian. At least on the issue of non-state coercion, I think your position is fairly antithetical to what is usually meant by libertarianism. It certainly goes against the libertarian platform and the stated beliefs of most prominent libertarians.

Kerry, no one is claiming that social pressure is not important. In certain circumstances they may have a greater actual consequence on your life than state coercion. The issue however is whether the state has any business legally stopping purely social pressure. Libertarians generaly believe it shouldn’t, and most of them, as a matter of principle, believe there is a fundamental difference between social and state action. That difference is not just consequential but also deontological; it is about legitimacy.

I think Will’s response to the anti-discrimination law question most definitely puts his stand on social pressures out of the libertarian mainstream. I also happen to think his position is wrong, but that is a separate issue which I might return to in this thread.

Kerry Howley said...

Abhishek, your comments are full of random and unsubstantiated assertions on what “mainstream” libertarians may think (as opposed to those marginal, outsidery libertarians employed by Cato and Reason Magazine); as Will says, Friedman and Hayek are hardly on Todd’s side here. Todd’s position, as stated above, is that social conformity cannot be oppressive. Your framing of the issue has little to do with his post.

Todd Seavey said...

I would argue not that all prominent libertarians have been rigid property adherents but that property is what libertarians have in common and is the core of the philosophy — but that’s a topic I’ll delve into more in January, which will be this blog’s “Month of Liberty (i.e., Property).” Coming up before then: more feminism!

Mike Farmer said...

I fail to see how past state-sponsored oppression justifies a present coercion which determines the hiring practices of business owners.

Even from a utilitarian perspective, force and compliance are poor substitutes for freedom and committment. Is there any evidence that discrimination laws have ameliorated the problem of workplace discrimination sufficiently to justify the means?

Even if the laws have ameliorated the situation, there’s no justification for coercion, but I doubt the laws have helped, and that if society was left to freely choose, more progress would’ve been made as a result of social pressure to end discrimination. Being forced makes even the most non-discriminatory resentful.

Like most of these government efforts to institute fairness, they’re behind, and a reaction to, social movement to create change, and they actually present obstacles to committment brought about by moral arguments and free choice.

Someone will bring up slavery, and I will only say that no one knows if a more creative solution could have pushed forward the abolitionist movement and assured the southerners of economic viability without slavery. Plus, slavery was a basic violation of human rights, not a discrimination problem.

We only assume government intervention is necessary.

Abhishek Saha said...

Kerry, perhaps you failed to get my point, though I think I made it clearly enough. I was not claiming that the (Todd’s?) position that “social conformity cannot be oppressive” is the only libertarian way to look at social pressures. In fact that is not even what I think.

What I was saying is that *Will’s position*, that such social pressures should be outlawed by the state in certain circumstances, is un-libertarian. Since you wanted some substance, I’ll try to provide it.

From the LP platform:

“We oppose all violations of the right to private property, liberty of contract, and freedom of trade. The right to trade includes the right not to trade — for any reasons whatsoever.”

The LP, whether you like it or not, is made of a lot of libertarians. I wonder if you think they are mainstream?

I couldn’t find a quote by Friedman directly addressing anti-discrimination laws but here’s one by him that makes me pretty sure he’d oppose them:

“A society that puts equality – in the sense of equality of outcome – ahead of freedom will end up with neither equality nor freedom. The use of force to achieve equality will destroy freedom, and the force, introduced for good purposes, will end up in the hands of people who use it to promote their own interests. On the other hand, a society that puts freedom first will, as a happy by-product, end up with both greater freedom and greater equality”.

As for Reason magazine itself, I’d be extremely surprised if most of your staff are as supportive of anti-discrimination laws as Will seems to be. Here are a couple of cases (1, 2) that represent pretty much what’s been going on with these laws in the housing sphere. Do you think that these restrictions on freedom of association are justified for the large cause of undermining the’ liberty-limiting patterns”, whatever they might mean? Do you think my conception of the right role of the state in social pressures, apparently shared by the LP as well as libertarians as diverse as Rothbard, Friedman, Epstein and Volokh, is non-mainstream?

Abhishek Saha said...

On Friedman, here is another quote by him:

“One kind is the positive harm that one individual does another by physical force, or by forcing him to enter into a contract without his consent. An obvious example is the man who hits another over the head with a blackjack . . . . The second kind is the negative harm that occurs when two individuals are unable to find mutually acceptable contracts, as when I am unwilling to buy something that someone wants to sell me and therefore make him worse off than he would be if I bought the item . . . . There is a strong case for using government to prevent one person from imposing positive harm, which is to say, to prevent coercion. There is no case whatsoever for using government to avoid the negative kind of “harm.” On the contrary, such government intervention reduces freedom and limits voluntary cooperation.”

Since anti-discrimination are precisely intended to apply in a case when the parties involved are unable to find mutually acceptable contracts, (in this case, because one party is prejudiced), and these laws make the state override this decision, I’d say that Friedman’s quote shows pretty clearly which side he is on.

Kevin B. O'Reilly said...

What the hell were we talking about again? Is libertarianism incompatible with feminism, as Todd argued originally and continues to argue? Of course not. Not anymore than it is incompatible with being Amish, as Todd has eloquently (and contradictorily) argued. — check it.

Must a libertarian share a particular view of proper gender relations (short of legal force) often categorized as feminist? No, I don’t think so. And I’m not sure anyone’s made that argument.

Let’s flash back to Kerry’s Nov. 5 post: “States and patriarchies both engender certain patterns of behavior. Humans with female bodies have been dumped into a particular social category with various limiting assumptions, and they’re right to struggle against them.”

I don’t see anything there that could reasonably taken as saying the Cato Institute and the Feminist Majority Foundation ought to merge. Certainly, I don’t think a libertarian *can* agree with particular items on the feminist agenda, such as comparable worth or banning pornography, without acknowleding he’s made a major exception to achieve a certain social objective — which is what Will essentially did above WRT the Civil Rights Act.

(Must “a libertarian” always agree with libertarianism? Now that’s an interesting question for another time.)

Howley was just (rightly) pointing out that dismissing feminist concerns out of hand *on libertarian grounds* was a little silly.

So, then that original discussion evolved into a dialogue about libertarian foundations. For some reason, Will seems to think Seavey is a Rothbardian, when he is actually a utilitarian. One form of “property-rights based libertarianism” is the belief that property rights, properly secured, yield the best results — which is my understanding of what Todd believes. He also believes, as he has explicitly said, that trying to legislate social preferences about, say, gender relations *not only* violates property rights but is actually destructive of social harmony. Agree or disagree, it’s not a Randian argument.

I’m honestly not exactly sure what Will believes, though I’ve been reading his work for years. It seems to a kind of vague “capabilism” — the belief that a good society has some obligation to help individuals exercise their liberty and flourish. What does that amount to? A means-tested minimal welfare state? A negative income tax? As Will rightly points out, those are not particularly unusual or controversial policy views for a libertarian to hold. Todd may even share them. At the same time, Will’s underlying capabilism (a rough form of positive liberty whose precise dimensions are, apparently, yet to be determined) does strike me as a departure from the notion of “negative liberty.” Now, Will’s view may be right and negative liberty may be “false.” I dunno. I (sincerely) eagerly await Will’s ink-and-paper treatise. At the end of the day, as with many debates about libertarian foundations, I don’t see much daylight when the rubber hits the road on current policy.

Todd, Will and Kerry agree Social Security should be privatized and children should have a choice in scools. They all favor free trade and free labor. So what is the big argument here? Is it over whether it’s OK for a libertarian to use the word “oppressed” to describe a woman who feels pressured to stay at home with a newborn for a few years rather than six months? Really? This has all been fun to read, but I think y’all have shed a lot more heat than light.

dave said...

Is Feminism necessarily about using government to achieve a social objective? I don’t think the majority of politically correct language, for example, is illegal, but I’m sure many non-feminists, and feminism opponents would call the PC movement oppressive.

I’d actually argue that I have felt countless examples of feminists exerting social pressure, and I’m not sure I can name a single example where I’ve experienced my behavior being limited by the government in the name of feminism.

x. trapnel said...

I think Long & Johnson’s piece on Libertarian Feminism is worth reading in full, especially since both (I believe) have fairly “mainstream libertarian” (c’mon, admit that the very phrase is kind of laughable) views about what counts as a rights violation. As dave points out here, feminism needn’t be statist; radical feminism, in particular, has often been quite skeptical of the state. So anyone who wants a more thorough explication of (one version of) the “pro-feminist” side, please click through.

As for those who think force and fraud are the only things that matter for liberty (and why fraud, anyway? Shouldn’t fraudulent dealers lose out in the marketplace, like irrational discriminatory employers?), I’d recommend a careful rereading of J.S. Mill’s “On Liberty.” He’s still part of the movement, right?