Sunday, February 22, 2009

The "God of the Gaps," Political-Philosophy-Style


One curse of being substantially smarter than the average person but not wanting to flaunt it — due to being genuinely kind, of course — is frequently realizing you’ve been overly generous, by too hastily assuming other people know what the hell’s going on. Contact with said other people, then, can sometimes be very disillusioning.

Take one’s fellow libertarians, for example. After being steeped in the philosophy for a couple decades, it’s easy to carelessly assume that nearly all libertarians have grappled with — and presumably seen through — the most obvious, PoliSci 101-type counterarguments to the creed they ostensibly treat as their moral and political foundation (except in so far as the deeper bedrock is, say, utilitarianism, as in my case). What have they been doing with their spare time if they haven’t confronted counterarguments, after all?

Just the other night, alas, I encountered someone who has, in essence, been a professional libertarian, so to speak, in years past yet now seems to think that the whole idea of basing a philosophy on property is thrown into doubt (apparently requiring some other “culturally”-dictated source of legal legitimacy altogether) by mere areas of inevitable ambiguity in property law (ambiguities that would exist whether a law code were libertarian or identical to the law code we have now, I should add), such as setting noise-pollution levels or deciding whether an odor is bad enough to warrant an injunction.

I’m stating the argument much more briefly but more clearly than it was put at the time, as a service to the reader — a service more people ought to render in speaking as well, rather than rapidly tossing out half-formed ideas, as the most careless and shallow thinkers are prone to do, treating argument as a sort of performance art aimed at one-upmanship instead of truth-seeking, though alcohol consumption at parties is an understandable partial excuse for all people engaged in such conversations (whereas enjoying game-like one-upmanship for its own sake is not and tends to be something done by bullshitters and other intellectually-dishonest types, as well as people who just like hearing themselves talk, rarely the genuinely intellectually curious, a more patient lot).


Of course, even the most diehard anarcho-capitalist tomes, such as David Friedman’s Machinery of Freedom, have analyzed ambiguities such as noise pollution at length, so it’s not as if anarcho-capitalists are shying away from them, let alone completely unaware of them (except maybe some of the ones I bump into at parties).

Though there is a variety of ways of dealing with such ambiguities, including leaving them to decentralized common-law court decisions, there’s (a) no reason to junk the whole system because of them (anymore than Hitler’s election all by itself should persuade democracy advocates to completely abandon democracy as a source of political legitimacy, though I might argue there are other reasons) and (b) no good reason to think that such solutions as people come up with, though they may vary, will necessarily vary in ways that are richly culturally determined (or to put it another way, strongly correlated with culture) so as to alter the very basis of the law code itself (culture over property, say, or culture over pragmatic utility).

That is, just because hypothetical future Jordanian libertarians decide to deal with the ambiguities by convening an annual legislature-like council, whereas hypothetical future Irish libertarians go the common-law courts route, doesn’t necessarily mean any substantially culture-rich element has even been introduced into law (their differing choices may not have even had much to do with the ostensible moral wellsprings of the local cultures). Similarly, ornithologists engaged in counting birds in different parts of the world may pick different methods of resolving ambiguities about what counts as a newly-observed plumage pattern, but it is entirely likely that, say, the method picked in Japan will have nothing distinctively Shinto about it and that the method picked in India will have nothing distinctively Hindu about it. They may just pick arbitrarily different numbers of colors as the hurdles for distinctiveness, say.

(I’m sure it’s already the case that both Jordanian and Japanese land surveyors face occasional uncertainty about where even something as clear-cut as a land property line lies, not for political reasons but merely because surveying land can be tricky, but there’s little reason to believe you’d even be able to tell which method for resolving such disputes was used where if you read their respective instruction manuals, just as science texts of sufficient complexity sound nearly the same all over.)


But people with some agenda — an axe to grind whether political, religious, or aesthetic — are usually plenty eager to pounce on any perceived ambiguity (usually with a tone suggesting they discovered the ambiguity themselves) and suggest that the solution is (surprise!) the wholesale importation of whatever philosophical cure-all they’re pushing.

The notorious “God of the gaps” leaps up to “solve” every uncertainty in science, social democracy or unlibertarian “cultural norms” lie in wait for any problem in property law not so clear-cut as to be solved in one short sentence, linguistics majors ratchet up and down their standards for terminological exactness as their own argumentative needs require, and lawyers are more than happy to see you head to court anytime you realize that you and your business partner have poorly worded one inconsequential phrase in a long contract.

So many of these problems could be avoided if people would calm down, be a bit less eager to portray themselves as poking novel holes in theories that have been battered and remained standing numerous times since before they were born, and stop thinking that if they zigzag rapidly through a conversation they’re likely to settle age-old questions in five minutes of cocktail chatter that have already been dealt with numerous times in dry, encyclopedic tomes without eureka-like resolutions (don’t act like you’re immanentizing the eschaton, as some wise and cautious conservatives like to say, when you may simply be arriving late to the conversation wired from too much coffee).

And lest it sound like I’m complaining unduly about my (genuinely beloved) fellow libertarians, who are hardly the worst offenders in all this, let me just add that I’m about ready to strangle the next liberal (though he no doubt means well too, of course) whose eyes light up as if he thinks he’s thought of one I’ve never heard before and says, smugly, “There’s one thing you’re forgetting: What about the poor?!” (Of course, these days, with everyone from Wall Streeters to Afghanis on the dole in some sense, the focus on the poor seems to be getting watered down a bit, for good or ill. Sigh.)

By contrast, I have some nice things to say about Bobby Jindal tomorrow, on the eve of his official GOP State of the Union response speech.

1 comment:

Ken Silber said...

Hitler wasn’t elected. He lost an election, and then was appointed by a democratic government. He didn’t have any nanny tax issues, though, so in that regard some of Obama’s appointees are WORSE THAN HITLER.