Tuesday, April 10, 2012

W(h)ither Classical Liberalism (or libertarianism, or liberal-tarianism)?

Cato’s blog is hosting a great discussion about whether libertarianism has strayed too far from its classical liberal roots and gotten too doctrinaire (about which, more below).  I keep wanting to see broad coalitions form, but factionalism is all too tempting and fun. 

If I were more concerned about being liked, I would probably worry a great deal about tending to be perceived by each faction I encounter as being on the side of the other faction.  It’s not that I’m a contrarian or an enigma – I have pretty predictable and well-known positions (I wish I could look deep by saying they’ve changed radically over the past two decades, but they really haven’t). 

It’s just that there’s nothing like hanging out with Team A to make you see the merit in the arguments of Team Not-A, especially given all the unfair things most members of Team A are saying about them.  But then you hang out with Team Not-A and discover they’re just as unfair in the things they say about Team A (or possibly Team D), so, not wanting to encourage error, you feel obliged to put in a word for Team A – if only to keep Team Not-A’s minds limber.

(As I recently tweeted, I’m starting to feel as if feuding neoconservatives and paleoconservatives deserve each other, for instance – but let the record show I spent much of the Bush administration defending the former, or at least their good points, to the latter and now routinely have to defend the ascendant latter to the disgruntled former.  And I had started out an atheist teenager in the liberal Northeast who felt obliged to defend conservatism at left-leaning Brown.) 

The healthy form of the factionalism is robust small-d democratic debate and all that, and the more embarrassing (but highly amusing) form is vicious in-fighting among members of factions that are so minuscule to begin with that most outsiders weren’t even aware the faction existed, let alone its subdivisions (I get only twenty times as many Google hits for “anarcho-capitalism” as I do for my own name, and I’m nobody). 

But before you dismiss my impending tale of libertarians fighting with “liberal-tarians” – and anarcho-capitalists fighting with both (and with themselves) – as being about as relevant as Trotskyite factions that died out in the 1930s, do keep in mind that, for instance, the main arguments being mulled by the Supreme Court about whether to find Obamacare unconstitutional were first advanced by nearly-anarcho-capitalist Randy Barnett.

I say “nearly” because he’s technically a defender of “polycentric law” and gets annoyed if you just call him an anarchist.  Subdivisions


By liberal-tarians here I’m sort of thinking, despite their differences and in some cases lack of self-assigned labels, of Will Wilkinson, his fiancée Kerry Howley, Brink Lindsey – and my ongoing argument with Jacob Levy since we were undergrads – plus in some sense Julian Sanchez and the like, all inclined to think that traditionalists and Republicans are as great if not greater a threat to liberty than the demi-socialist Democrats.

Declaring oneself a highly-specific thing, with lots of prefixes slapped in front (post-neo-ovo-lacto-etc.) can be narcissistic, or simply an exercise in excessive precision, as some of the aforementioned people would agree.  Will – with whom I’ve disagreed about the “liberal-tarian” outreach effort he and others made from libertarianism to the left – even argues that labeling yourself a member of one political faction might actually make you stupider.

(In that linked piece, pointed out by Ross Kenyon, Will notes that more-doctrinaire anarcho-capitalist Bryan Caplan seems to disagree that labeling and factionalism makes you stupider, and Caplan embraces several factional labels...and ironically some of my very-radical younger anarcho-capitalist pals here in NYC think Caplan isn’t anarcho-capitalist enough...and on it goes.) 

Putting the old left/right tactical question aside for a moment (without too much residual animosity, I hope), I think Will’s basically right on the stupidity point – or rather, in his observation that overly emphatic self-identification can easily become mentally limiting (a point that can even apply to thinking too narrowly of oneself as, say, “a waiter,” as was observed by Sartre – who didn’t like to be called an existentialist, by the way). 

Now, it is self-aggrandizing to insist that you can’t be labeled even when the labels clearly apply (I seem to recall Gore Vidal once saying he has sex with men and women but refuses to be called bisexual, preferring “pansexual” or something like that – whereas, out of weariness and simple deference to physical reality, I will go right on calling cross-dressing males “he” even if they claim to be named “Sheila” or something now, not that this issue arises too often...though this is New York City).  But Will’s right that people get far too attached to those labels, and it can shut down normal mental processes. 

I wasn’t expecting to startle people I was arguing with the first few times I tried responding to “Then you’re not really a libertarian [or whatever]!” by saying
“Who cares?  Call me a schmibertarian [or whatever],” but it’s a surprisingly effective argumentative tactic, given how strongly attached to labels (and tribal identification) people are – and how strongly they expect you, too, to be attached to such things.  And it’s not that I’m disloyal or have no allegiances – but I honestly don’t want to waste time winning arguments over semantics and ambiguous tribal definitions.  Let’s get to the merits of the argument. 

I think I recall Will or someone calling me a Rothbardian, and I didn’t object because that’s approximately correct – but I also didn’t realize that, ironically, I was also being pigeonholed as a strict definitional/tribal boundary-minder...and that’s really not the case.  I mean (just to take one random example), I’ve got a strong position on whether a national sales tax should be imposed (my position is an emphatic no), but I’m not going to waste time telling you that “Gary Johnson cannot possibly be referred to as a libertarian because he thinks we should replace the IRS with a national sales tax.” 

I mean, I just don’t bogart the term that selfishly.  Call the man a libertarian (since he clearly believes in radically downsizing the government, protecting individual liberty, and adhering pretty strictly to property rights), and then call him wrong on some things.  It advances the argument beyond protracted name-calling. 


I swear my initial complaint about the liberal-tarian gambit (circa 2007) was not so much that we must never work with the filthy Democrats (let alone that we cannot work with people who work with the filthy Democrats) but, on the contrary, that the liberal-tarians seemed so very eager to burn all the bridges we’d been building to the Republicans for about a half-century, right before the Ron Paul movement took off (admittedly taking all us Reason/Cato types a bit by surprise) and offered real hope of making the GOP a home for many libertarians. 

They weren’t just claiming that we might find some friends on the left but (to take claims made by different ones at different times) that the Catholic Church is one of the chief threats to freedom, that the Tea Party is the GOP taking a turn for the worse, that the Republicans (but not Democrats) are “the party of torture,” etc.  All to some extent true, but not by any standard that leaves the Democrats looking good in comparison, I’d say. 

In any case, I’ll stop burning your bridges if you promise not to burn mine, which took some time to build.  But in practical, electoral terms, things didn’t turn out the way either the liberal-tarians or I had hoped.  If libertarianism is, as Nick Gillespie once put it, a marinade that should be spread on both major parties, the liberal-tarians’ plan was to nudge the liberals back toward their anti-government nineteenth century roots and mine was to keep reminding the neoconservatives that they’re half-right but the goal is a global marketplace, not a global empire or a slightly-more-theocratic welfare state.  And those appeared to be the only two dishes on offer.

Instead of either the left or right ending up slathered in our marinade, the left moved farther left (soon lamenting that Obama was, if anything, not FDR-like enough and then praising Occupy Wall Street) and, more surprisingly, the right basically split into two factions, angrily defining themselves against each other, with the neos I’d hoped to influence getting less libertarian in some ways (and more myopically pro-war, to the point of loving Joe Lieberman, even though they seemed to agree with him on no other issue) while the antiwar/paleo faction got much more openly libertarian – which is great – but vigorously distanced itself from the conservative/GOP mainstream I’d hoped they’d influence. 

I think this is actually a better path to be on, certainly a clearer one, over the long haul – but we should all probably stop making predictions. 

There’s more to life than crass strategizing, but I have to wince if it starts to look as if the strategy of some of my fellow libertarians is (or recently was): (1) avoid amassing the money of the Kochs, (2) avoid gaining the broad appeal of the Tea Party, (3) don’t mimic the intensity of religion, (4) don’t seek the big book sales of Ayn Rand, and (5) eschew the electoral engagement of Ron Paul's followers, followed by (6) be so beloved by the left that victory ensues.  Maybe I’m wrong, but that doesn’t sound like a good plan to me.


On a more philosophical, less partisan level, though, the liberal-tarians often seem to be making an admirable effort to create some room for debate and questioning by placing themselves in an intellectual tradition (liberalism, mainly of the pre-twentieth century sort) expansive enough to allow for multiple perspectives, grey areas, open questions, etc. – brain room more spacious than that provided by, say, Ayn Rand alone. 

Fair enough.  As a skeptic before all else, I respect efforts to be intellectually humble and engage with other philosophies. 

But it’s worth noting that my right-wing, arch-traditionalist friend Jim Kalb, for example, is also, quite explicitly, motivated by intellectual humility.  He, too, knows that the arrogant, doctrinaire rationalists can go awry and that immersing yourself in a range of other thinkers can be a safeguard against that sort of myopia.  He just thinks Western civilization – including religion – is a tradition broader and richer than its liberal subset alone, and you have to admit that’s true. 

Every thoughtful person wants at least enough wiggle room to be able to rethink things, bounce ideas off of each other, etc.  The question – even for those who spend all their time batting around tricky questions within anarcho-capitalism (and are atheists to boot) – is really in which form of mushiness you gain the most intellectual leeway without unleashing error and bad real-world consequences. 

Jacob’s BleedingHeartLibertarians co-blogger and fellow “liberal-tarian” Matt Zwolinski and other luminaries such as Rod Long wrestle with the liberal-tarian answer to that question (the embrace of the classical liberal tradition) on the Cato-Unbound blog this month.  I linked to their individual essays in my blog entry yesterday, and now they have begun to converse in briefer fashion, with the crucial opening question asked by Friedman: in essence, if you love John Rawls so much, why don’t you marry him? 

Or rather, are the liberal-tarians as intellectually cautious as they pretend to be – merely on guard against anarcho-capitalist dogmatism – or are they insistent on inserting big, ungainly things into libertarianism, trying to convince us that they are a comfy fit, and at times even trying to convince us, in Orwellian fashion, that these things were part of the movement all along (I think Kerry was guilty of this to some extent when she insisted a few years ago not merely that feminism tends to be compatible with libertarianism but that libertarianism had never been a philosophy defined primarily by strict adherence to property rights – Will seemed to agree with her but, as alluded to above, has since given up even calling himself a libertarian).

I kind of like Rawls myself, but his is a rather complex system by most people’s ethical standards, and no small thing to slip into another already-existing philosophy, especially not if that other philosophy may already have ways, as Friedman suggests, of coping with the same question (more concretely: I can worry about the poor in purely utilitarian terms without having to invoke Rawls’ “veils of ignorance” and what seem to me dangerously vague intuitions about fairness and inequality).  Sticking Rawls into libertarianism is like attaching a washing machine to a soufflé.

Actually, I have never seen a respected professional more contemptuously dismiss Rawls than Friedman does in his main Cato essay, which for me is about as satisfying as this one-minute clip from Invasion USA must be for some people (and for me, in fact).

An angry leftist I knew back at Brown may have gotten one thing profoundly right when she said, “Rawls’ theory can’t be the one that everyone is supposed to be following – it’s 600 pages long!”  By contrast, “No property violations” is as transmissible, memorable, and portable as the Ten Commandments (of which most Christians only seem to remember the three or four useful ones anyway). 


On the bright side (from my perspective), liberal-tarianism (odd as this may sound) doesn’t necessarily have to lead in a left-liberal direction.  In fact, I am encouraged by the fact that one of the contributors to the Cato debate, Brown professor and Free Market Fairness author John Tomasi, despite having appeared on a panel of liberal-tarians, has also called himself a fusionist (as I frequently called myself during the aforementioned neoconservative period), a term normally used to describe people who think markets and tradition can be wedded (which is to say, usually conservatives – this was seen as the core National Review philosophy for decades before the neoconservatives fully took over, to put it sloppily). 

If Tomasi envisions not a Republican-bashing festival but a newer fusionism so broad that it can encompass both right and left – resolving the contradictions in a libertarian way – then he’s an intellectual after my own heart. 

I don’t want to have just a compound in Alabama or New Hampshire with ten anarcho-capitalists in it and no one else.  I’d love it if everyone from bailout-hating Occupants to mercantilist Clintonians to extremism-averse moderates to globalist neocons to decentralizing paleos to libertarians of all stripes to anarchists decided they could agree that markets work better than governments and the fighting stopped forever.  If that means letting everyone from the hippies to the fundamentalists frame the idea of property in their own philosophical language to some extent, fine (from “Hands off my stash” to “Thou shalt not steal”).

But here’s the crucial thing – and the reason we shouldn’t just cede the movement to the liberal-tarians.  As David Friedman said in his initial contribution to the Cato dialogue, the idea of strict property adherence, from which the liberal-tarians recoil as if from a short children’s-poem version of libertarianism, is an idea that has a long history within the classical liberal tradition, and – though he doesn’t come right out and say this – maybe it is the most important part. 

If I’m willing to entertain the somewhat radical and unconservative idea that religions may have contributed to civilization in large part because bundled within them were rules against stealing and assault, would it kill the liberal-tarians to consider the possibility that the vaunted liberal tradition was good precisely because it contained an inchoate strict-property-rights philosophy within in it?  Maybe anarcho-capitalism is a refinement, not a reduction.  Much like science is an improvement over “natural philosophy” and modern Austrian (or Chicago School, if you prefer) economics is an improvement over the earliest writings of the physiocrats.

What could be more retrograde – more narrow-mindedly conservative, if you will – than to assume that our forebears’ vague notions must be superior to any present-day reformulations?  And, by the way, doesn’t the truth at some point matter more than pedigree?  What if those embarrassing, fringey anarcho-capitalists are correct?  Once you start down the road of saying popularity trumps philosophical accuracy, after all, you’re well down the road of just checking the latest polls. 

And do consider the possibility – since most of the liberal-tarians are academics to at least some degree – that you may be biased in favor of keeping things vague because it gives you stuff to think about.  No, really.  And this, I now confess, is the real worry behind nearly every blanket insult I’ve directed at academia (as opposed to political correctness specifically) over the years since graduating from Brown. 

Intellectuals, though they often oversimplify reality, still prefer theories complex enough to baffle the common man – and, coincidentally or not, keep bureaucrats, academics, lawyers, and theologians occupied.  This way lies the passivity of the common (and, yes, fairly conservative) man and the resignation to rule by distant experts.  Instead, we owe the common man “simple rules for a complex world,” not just to put his mind at ease but because those rules would do far more good than the squabbling and new-fangled plans of most of the experts and rulers. 

One’s job as a professor might not last as long if the answer to most political problems were merely “property.”  But maybe you (and the politicians) should find a new job.  (Then again, here’s what a career in “social justice” looks like in the real world, if high-minded pragmatists are really determined to import that dangerous concept into libertarianism.)

On this front, I think this parenthetical from Rod Long’s essay in the Cato debate (reacting to Zwolinski and Tomasi) speaks volumes:

I’m not sure why Z&T don’t include Nozick, since most of what they say about the first three [hardcore property adherents] applies much more obviously to him

Is it so unfair to suggest that Zwolinksi and Tomasi don’t attack Nozick because...he’s a respected academic?  He’s if anything more formulaic in his property adherence than Mises et al – but he keeps professors employed talking about him, so if we think of the liberal tradition as a centuries-long professional gabfest, he’s doing his part.  But I sure hope our moral priority is the freedom and prosperity of the human race – not maintaining professors’ sense of professional self-respect. 

Rod Long goes on to poke many holes in the liberal-tarian view of intellectual history, engaging them on their own chosen turf – and he does much to marshal all other forms of libertarianism, from Rand to Hayek, against liberal-tarianism, which is itself a great coalition-bolstering service.


Furthermore: I know how annoying and simpleminded the doctrinaire can sound, especially to professors who treasure nuance, but how can the liberal-tarians dismiss those libertarians who fear de-emphasizing property will quickly yield statism – when the liberal-tarians are living proof that watering down the property rights rule immediately (sometimes in the same sentence!) spawns talk of redistribution and government welfare provision?  Have you not stopped to think about this “coincidence”?  Am I Charlie Brown that you expect me to try kicking a non-property-centered philosophy even if you keep yanking it away at the last moment and putting some sort of small, ostensibly harmelss welfare state or carbon-trading scheme or something in its place?  Do you really think markets work or not?

And this is why – as a rule-utilitarian (and not a deontologist) – I don’t want people to treat property as just one mushy value amongst other mushy values (parliamentarianism, feminism, whatever).  Almost no one adheres to anarcho-capitalist rules for truly arbitrary reasons and says hell-or-high-water, after all.  They know and rightly fear the alternatives – as the liberal-tarians have once again demonstrated that they should!


And it is at this point that it’d be nice if some vastly more sophisticated and charismatic version of Gary Johnson came along to explain, in true fusionist fashion, how property rights can not only be a firm foundation for politics but, properly handled, the foundation for a very broad, winning coalition.  You can emphasize property – and avoid ever violating that ground rule – without alienating every faction that thinks in other terms.  Tease out the pro-property elements already present in their thinking and unite them against the state.  That’s the only way this is ever going to work, and now – when both the Republicans and the libertarians are divided – would be a great time to try it. 

But the real Johnson is not a moving, sweeping, philosophical, big-picture kind of guy, I fear.  He’s great in his way, but he doesn’t transform lives and the political spectrum in quite the same way that, say, a less-weird version of Ron Paul might have if such a person prevailed in the GOP primaries.  Johnson may well get the highest-ever LP vote count, but he’s still kind of boring.  Indeed, even if he manages to get more votes than Ron Paul over the course of 2012, Paul will likely have more lasting impact and leave behind more inspired and devoted imitators. 

AND TWO WEEKS FROM TODAY, I’LL ACTUALLY VOTE FOR RON PAUL, in the New York primary.  (One more bit of biz before then, though: everyone has DETENTION this weekend, as I’ll explain tomorrow in a movie-going invitation to the world.)  But who knows?  Paul leans paleolibertarian, but maybe the liberal-tarian approach will suddenly become highly relevant about two weeks after I cast my Paul vote, when the Libertarian Party picks Johnson as its presidential candidate at its convention in Vegas.  Can the movement turn on an ideological dime and transfer most of Paul’s support to Johnson? 

That’s one of many things we’ll have to discuss in Williamsburg on May 17, as my new series of bar events begins.  More soon.  Don’t steal anything in the interim.  


Bryan Caplan said...

Wittiest post I've read in ages. Wow.

Jacob T. Levy said...

Oh, dear. I've long foreseen Todd and Bryan joining forces. That this is what brings them together makes me fear that there's something Sith-like about the pairing.

Todd Seavey said...

Yet he sort of reminds _me_ of _you_. Some sort of Hegelian synthesis, perhaps.

Kevin V said...

As a BHLer myself, I'd really like to know what this means: "And this is why – as a rule-utilitarian (and not a deontologist) – I don’t want people to treat property as just one mushy value amongst other mushy values (parliamentarianism, feminism, whatever)."

Is the idea that rule-u recommends spreading an ardent belief in absolute property rights even if absolute property rights can't be justified on rule-u grounds? I need some help here.

Todd Seavey said...

The argument is that property _can_ be defended on rule-utilitarian grounds, making the liberal-tarians' aversion to all those deontological arguments irrelevant. Do the practical thing: Spread anarcho-capitalism.

Robert Hutchinson said...

A good discussion, that would be better without the transphobic aside.

Todd Seavey said...

No, _you_ don't get to dictate others' use of pronouns, you arrogant, self-absorbed person. And fear has nothing at all to do with it, making you a lousy amateur psychiatrist as well, so pick a new hobby.

Robert Hutchinson said...

I'm dictating! Wow. Ha ha.

So glad you're on the side of liberty.

Todd Seavey said...

I am indeed. Thus I know "sensitivity" does not trump freedom of speech. Thinking it does is one of the more obvious reasons to reject the creeping liberalism deforming one corner of libertarianism, and the Newspeak that inevitably comes with it. Lived that in college, not gonna do it again in this lifetime. That is all.

Robert Hutchinson said...

You seem to have confused me with Congress. Admittedly, we've never met.

Kevin V said...

But most of the BHLers are deontologists ... just not the self-ownership sort. We can more than a merely utilitarian case for liberty, but without the side-constraint natural rights view. But surely you know that ... right? I mean, Tomasi explicitly defends a Rawlsian view.

Kevin V said...

Ack, we *want* more than a merely rule-u case ...

Todd Seavey said...

The more deontological you get, the more absurd and dangerous it is that you intuit countless rules beyond property. It is no coincidence that Rawls began with an interest in theology -- of a quite absurd kind, linking the Trinity to collectivism under socialism -- and went on to intuit whatever he damn well pleased behind the imaginary veil of ignorance.

Who knows what will pop out of deontological BHLers' fevered imaginations next -- and inflicted on a hapless citizenry? Must the genders have equal social influence (really? why?)? Must drastic income disparity be avoided (really? why?)?

Back in the real world, there is pain and pleasure, material surroundings, and the basic econ and scientific methods that enable us to understand them. Ditch the elaborate political fantasizing and spare the innocent your metaphysical discoveries, as I hope you'd spare them punishment meted on on behalf of an imaginary god.

It's not time to end anarcho-capitalism. It's time for an end to bullshitting.

Stephan Kinsella said...

Damn, great post. I had not realized Seavey was an anarchist.

Paul Marks said...

Rawlsianism is based on the idea that "justice" is the "distribution" of income and wealth in a way that is to the advantage of the "least favoured". Classical liberalism (and libertarianism) is based on the idea that "justice" is TO EACH THEIR OWN - the non aggression principle. Libertarianism without the non aggression principle (without the idea that justice is to to-each-their-own, not "distribution" of income and wealth) is like Hamlet without the Prince.

Julie near Chicago said...

A government can protect each citizen’s liberty, or it can bind everyone tightly in a net of rules to ensure some “social” goal–for instance, that of “social justice.” But the condition of liberty is the antithesis of such binding, so the dreams of the well-meaning but not-really-libertarians such as Dr. Zwolinski will fail. Because you cannot have both.

Dr. Zwolinski may think he’s a libertarian, but only if he stretches the definition to include people who do not think the primary object of libertarianism is liberty.

Old Odd Jobs said...

Great post.