Monday, June 25, 2012

“Liberaltarians” Finale

I have a confession to make: I invented “Free Market Fairness.” 

Well, all due credit must go to the Brown professor who actually wrote a book by that title – John Tomasi – and now to the critics with whom he has been engaged in a productive dialogue on the BleedingHeartLibertarians site for the past two weeks.

But just as Tomasi was excited to discover that libertarian economist Friedrich Hayek had briefly engaged in speculations similar to those of left-liberal philosopher John Rawls three decades before Rawls’ book A Theory of Justice, so too did I suggest about a decade ago – mostly in private places like an e-mail to Critical Review editor Jeffrey Friedman – that if people’s basic pragmatic objection to libertarianism is that they think the poor will end up starving, maybe we should all just agree to embrace “anarcho-capitalism with a Rawlsian escape clause.”

That is, we have an anarcho-capitalist law code – property rights recognized as (privately) legally enforceable but no government whatsoever – but with the caveat that more conventional (and still minimal) elements of governmental law kick in in the event that resulting conditions are sufficiently awful.  If people are starving (or some other litmus test) – and, crucially, if no one quickly comes up with a better voluntary solution – then and only then can you tax and redistribute a little. 

Everyone wins this way, both the liberty-seekers and the worried left-liberals.  Think of it as a “virtual safety net,” kicking in only if needed.  And I suspect it never would be.  But the creepy truth, of course, is that many people want there to be a government bossing you around all the time whether it proves necessary or not – and, like teachers unions, they dread ever letting the public learn firsthand whether the government can be dispensed with.  Social democrats think it’s inherently valuable to govern you. 

Is it any wonder they tend to love power-worshipping philosophers like Nietzsche, Schmitt, and Foucault despite seeming, superficially, to be on completely different pages politically from those figures?

So, Seavey:Tomasi::Hayek:Rawls.

A couple years later, I even made a note to myself suggesting Compassionate Capitalism as a possible title for a book on the subject.  This is, of course, another reminder to do (quickly) instead of just imagining (as are my notes for a possible movie about a president fighting vampires, though I wanted to make it Teddy Roosevelt). 


Of course, there are others interested in these philosophical intersections, including Will Wilkinson, who has called himself a “Rawlsekian” (partly Rawls-influenced, partly Hayek-influenced).  It’s sort of fitting I mention Will’s and Jacob Levy’s somewhat mushy philosophical faction six days prior to Canada Day, since it seems like that nation, to which both of them have ties, keeps cropping up in frustratingly-moderate political conversations (see: David Brooks).

But the sorts of people who respect Hegel and fist-raising campaigns for “social justice” dominate political science and philosophy departments, so
we purportedly need to suck up to them, or at least talk to them, somehow (though in a fluid and rapidly-changing world, I’d urge people to question that assumption – maybe, for instance, we’d make greater progress by not talking to them and indeed by discouraging people from attending liberal arts colleges, or encouraging them to take economics classes instead of political philosophy). 

In any case, as a consequentialist (which Tomasi also purports to be, despite explicitly eschewing facts and history in formulating his own Rawls-meets-Hayek model of a just society) – and not merely as an anti-intellectual, despite what some might think – I think I’m allowed to ask pragmatic questions such as “If we are not merely talking about which principles are true but also how to frame them for purposes of rhetoric, political alliance-making, and tradition-adopting, aren’t I allowed to ask what sorts of people will be encouraged by us adopting their language?” 

Put very briefly in more technical terms: A good utilitarian consequentialist like me actually should ask himself not just which principles would be best in an ideal world but which ones are likely to produce the happiest results in the form most likely to end up being propagated among ordinary real people, a conservative – and potentially very traditionalist – point that must feed back into the formulation of the principles themselves, tending to keep them simple and easily-taught, not 600 pages long and read only by professors. 

(You can only add so many footnotes to the marvelous rule “property” before most people’s eyes glaze over and the elites, experts, and exploiters step in to run the show in the public’s stead.  Might Tea Party-like and Ron Paul-endorsed footnotes sell more easily than multiple treatises on Rawls?  I’m no longer inclined to rule out any options, but real-world evidence currently suggests the paleolibertarian path is more fertile ground than either the leftward path or the neoconservative one.)

Most of the advocates of “social justice” I’ve read about or met – including perhaps a majority of Democrats, feminists, and self-described liberals (these all being minority factions in the U.S., by the way) – seem pretty damn hostile to the free markets, property rights, and individualism that made up most of the good points about the libertarian philosophy last time I checked (this explains the sometimes-hostile sparring in which I’ve engaged, roughly since the Financial Crisis began, with the so-called “liberaltarians” who sought to drag the philosophy I love in that strange direction). 

We should be very cautious about giving them an inch, but the liberal-tarians run to embrace them with open arms, proudly displaying their shared contempt for conservatives all the way. 


Is it so wrong to think the left-libertarians are either self-destructively confused, excessively flattering to the enemy’s sensibilities, or a bit too concerned about ingratiating themselves with the (academic and media) powers that be (all perhaps on a subconscious rather than conniving level)?  I mean, can even as thoughtful and diplomatic-seeming a fellow as Tomasi honestly say he’d be engaged in showing all the parallels between our thinking and that of the welfare-statist left if, say, there were only four people in the world who believed in welfare-statist leftism?  Can we at least admit there’s something wrong with a philosophy (or philosophical faction) founded on fear of being outnumbered?

If we all admit that part of the motivation for this whole morphing “liberaltarian”/BleedingHeartLibertarian/market democracy project is “outreach,” it’s at least fair to judge it by which direction it tends to nudge people.  Of course, the criteria for judging are themselves in flux, which complicates things, but if the relevant set of judges are all sort-of in agreement that something like a vague version of traditionally-libertarian metrics – getting more people to believe in freedom and individual happiness as good things – is the correct measure, what is the net impact of BHL (as I’ll call it for simplicity)? 

Well, lacking hard stats (certainly lacking hard long-term stats), I’m thrown back on crude hunches and anecdotal impressions – but mine tend to be right, I’ve gradually, humbly concluded over the past couple decades.  And I’ve yet to encounter anyone who said they were won over to belief in markets and liberty precisely by the liberal, mushy, open-ended quality of BHL. 

On the contrary, I think the libertarian movement is growing by leaps and bounds due to a new generation prone to make clear, short, precise, some might say fanatical anarcho-capitalist arguments that skip right over two centuries of classical liberal meandering and ask the hard, direct, easily-repeated questions like “Do you own your body or do other people?” – but at the same time BHL is pulling in the opposite direction and priding itself on its ostensibly greater nuance and sophistication. 

What if it’s both wrong and less popular, though? 

I can see a strong case for saying strict property rights are strongly correlated to preference fulfillment – and thus to human happiness (regardless of whether one thinks of this as a utilitarian, rule-utilitarian, or rights-based argument).  I can also see a booming political movement of people who believe this, confirming my rarely-spoken youthful suspicion that clarity, simplicity, and moral directness sell in a way that number-crunching stats and political compromise do not.  I do not see Democrats and “social justice” advocates rushing to meet the liberal-tarians half way.

I do see things like a Catholic acquaintance of mine, a conservative affiliated with the Heritage Foundation, expressing his excitement that Tomasi, finally, is the libertarian who has admitted the failure of libertarianism – the classical liberal who says that individual and property rights can’t get the job done after all.  Meanwhile, politically-ambiguous Reihan Salam over at National Review, having read part of the BHL site’s Tomasi symposium, expresses newfound enthusiasm, not for libertarianism, but for the BHL idea (captured by Elizabeth Anderson) that perhaps we should regulate workplaces to make them more “democratic” and non-authoritarian instead of letting individuals contract for whatever office arrangements the market will bear.

This is progress, I guess – in the wrong direction.  But, hey, they’ll let us into the faculty lounge, so who cares what happens to civilization or how the next election goes? 


I was more of a gradualist myself not long ago, hoping to nudge the right’s rhetoric in our direction in much the same way Tomasi et al hope to nudge the left – and indeed, I’m newly content to let people try all possible approaches simultaneously (I have met libertarians running for office, for instance, as Republicans, as Libertarians, and as Democrats, and that’s great – more about some of them, as well as Romney, tomorrow).  But a thought more recently nudging me in a radical direction is abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison’s prescient warning that “Gradualism in theory is perpetuity in practice.” 

There is always the risk that in playing double agent you simply become the enemy.  At times, in talking to the liberal-tarians, you feel a bit like you’re having the following dialogue:

YOU: Bad news: social democracy causes all manner of inefficiencies and intrusions on people’s private decisions.  Worse, it appears that once strict property rights are abandoned, things almost inevitably decay into social democracy.

A BHL: Huh.  Well, don’t despair – I have great news!  If we just abandon strict property rights, we can join the social democrats!

YOU: Uh.  You may have misheard me a moment ago...

A BHL: Stop being a dogmatist!  We can preserve and improve libertarianism, the philosophy based on the idea that you should be free to do things that don’t violate property rights, simply by abandoning the idea that it’s particularly important whether you violate property rights. 

YOU: What?

A BHL: [Pauses.]  And now we are all friends! 

YOU: Is there something wrong with you?

I notice that an earlier Wilkinson contribution to the BHL site elicited a comment in response from a former Joseph Stiglitz speechwriter who made the point that coercion is not special – which may tell us all we need to know about Stiglitz, who I earlier caught flak for calling unserious.  Will humanity really be better off if we play nice with these people instead of calling them dangerous?

Indeed, I have a frightening prediction about how it all ends: As a new wave of creepy Cass-Sunstein-like statism permeates libertarianism and the right, instead of the BHL crowd looking with horror on what they have wrought, revisionist egotism will persuade them that no one was talking about liberty at all before they came along.  But they were – and more persuasively. 

On a broader and more positive note, though, I always used to say it’d be great if libertarianism were relevant and popular enough for people to start arguing over its internal divisions – and that in the meantime we might as well just stick to the unpopular-enough-already case for shrinking government at all.  Maybe it’s actually relevant and popular enough now to start having those internal arguments in public.  Let’s hope we don’t fly to pieces because of it, though. 

In the interests of keeping the peace while the debate proceeds, I will adopt a newly-moderate tone at the monthly onstage debates I host (the Dionysium), focus my intellectual efforts there on cross-pollination and dialogue instead of crushing error, and maybe in my spare time write a book about how we can all achieve political consensus (if I don’t have time to pitch that, someone pay me to write on this topic – or any, really – on a regular basis). 


Meanwhile, of course, there are some left-libertarians who would have me believe that feminism is, despite all appearances, a great expression of individual freedom, not collectivist guilt, egalitarianism, and distrust of unplanned market outcomes.  They probably like “social justice,” too – but, funny thing, only about a quarter of Americans call themselves feminists and they tend to be people who hate markets, so I’m not sure why we think that’s the direction in which to march seeking allies. 

Why, look!  Here’s a tweet about social justice from SocialistGirls I saw just the other day: “The revolutionary girl puts the fight for social justice ahead of brand names and designer jeans and all these products of exploitation.”  Sounds like a more typical use of the term “social justice” to me than does Tomasi’s usage.  Wanna have a contest where you try to recruit people like that and I go to some Young Republicans gatherings and we see who makes the most converts? 

(I think I’d win that one even more easily than my bet with Jacob Levy about whether government expands faster under Obama, always one admittedly fraught with contingencies.  I wonder if he’d at least admit Milton Friedman-praising Romney sounds better than the now continually market-bashing Obama, even if we both plan to vote for Gary Johnson?)

Even the makers of this amusing feminist comedy clip can’t resist including an implicit condemnation of gold standard-praising capitalists while they’re reminding us that anyone who thinks male and female brains differ is an idiot.  This is not a coincidence – as is pretty obvious to everyone except, it seems, some liberal-tarians. 

Maybe the whole liberal-tarian drift, with its de-emphasis of property rights, is just an inevitable, recurring consequence of the intellectuals controlling an idea for long enough.  Sooner or later, intellectuals always end up deciding (surprise!) that mental freedom matters more than material freedom (speech yes, property maybe, in short).  Intellectuals easily forget this, though: Mental freedom is pretty cheap, given that the authorities can never really get inside your skull anyway.  So telling me the government will “only” control the material, external resources of the world – while leaving me heaps of freedom in other realms – is a bit like saying, “We’re only going to withhold the kind of food you eat with your mouth, but you will have complete freedom of choice when it comes to knee-intake food.  Knock yourself out!”

And so, up go my taxes, while the intellectuals chip away at...gender preconceptions...or excessively Western cosmological models...or something.  Hey, thanks a ton, really. 


BHL site contributor Jessica Flanigan not only worries whether workplaces might sometimes be too sexist to foster sufficiently individualist-liberal forms of autonomy, she notes in passing in one entry that she thinks Scandinavian governments are in some respects superior to our own, that she’s not confident empirical evidence would vindicate market economies as the best kind, and that ultimately the empirical facts don’t matter greatly in her conception of justice anyway (echoing Tomasi to some degree). 

Wait, so on top of it all, even though they pride themselves on rejecting non-empirical, supposedly dogmatic cases for liberty like those created by Rand and Rothbard, they are themselves concocting non-empirical images of the autonomous individual that are supposed to inspire people without regard to economic facts?  Who died and made these people the kings and queens of metaphysics?  As Brian Doherty points out, the academics complain that Rand and Rothbard aren’t rigorous – but are the academics?  I’m keen to see Doherty’s copy of Free Market Fairness, by the way, since he says he scribbled a couple mentions of me and my likely objections in the margins.  Really should make that L.A. trip this year.

(At least down-to-earth Deirdre McCloskey – who should perhaps be made both king and queen of metaphysics – weighed in on the BHL site with an awesome list of left-liberals’ false empirical assumptions that I declared “the best blog entry ever,” as in turn noted at CafeHayek.)

Is this imagineering really helping the cause?  These quasi-libertarians sound like they barely like the market themselves, and I’m supposed to think they’ve got the master PR strategy for getting others to like it?  Look, I don’t need a Ph.D. to be skeptical about all this.  It might impair my thinking, I fear.  And I really don’t want to turn this into mere heretic-hunting – truth is the important thing, not being doctrinaire (hard as it plainly is for the BHLs to believe anyone libertarian can disagree with them for non-dogmatic reasons) – but: can the BHLs go two minutes without concocting a new reason to move stateward? 

I mean, this may sound like a dumb question, but: Whether it’s Will Wilkinson dropping the “libertarian” label in favor of “liberal” or even Virginia Postrel simply eschewing the former, do the (label-dropping) apostates ever get more anti-government as opposed to more statist?  (It’s not just a trick question that assumes libertarianism as the only possible endpoint on the pro/anti government spectrum: I would accept an ex-libertarian who has become some sort of pacifist left-anarchist as at least arguably less statist than a libertarian.)  Is it so wrong to see stateward drift as a problem, for reasons not of dogmatism but for reasons similar to the slippery-slope concerns that made almost all of us libertarians in the first place? 

Even if Virginia’s largely philosophically unchanged, her switch is at least a small public dissociation from libertarians, which implies...some sort of uncertainty.  There’s at least something different going on there than in the mind of someone who says, for instance, “I’m a libertarian even though some libertarians are stupid or crazy.”  With that, we can all agree – I’m proud of my friend Austin Petersen arguing against conspiracy theorists this weekend at the PorcFest libertarian gathering in New Hampshire, for instance, and I can’t blame anyone for wanting to avoid looking kooky by association. 

(Then again, the youth seem to keep getting more comfortable with enviably Dadaist kookiness – one of Tomasi’s own recent students told me the other day that Brown’s anti-rape SafeWalk program now advertises with ironic posters that would have been unthinkable in my dour day, showing an immense and hungry-seeming President William Howard Taft and warning that TAFT FEEDS AT NIGHT.)

I worry that the state remains a temptation for many people even when they don’t claim to have new evidence it’s a beneficial thing.  This is troubling.  Are any of the apostates from my side really convinced there are problems only the state can solve?  I’m not, and I’m no longer convinced that caution means erring on the minarchist as opposed to anarchist side of things, either.  Why are you, if you really are?

(Sidenote: It appears that a fairly balanced, non-rosy but non-apocalyptic film depiction of an anarcho-capitalist society may finally be coming to the big screen – I mean, aside from Galt’s Gulch in the third Atlas Shrugged movie, if that really happens next year.  I mean a film adaptation of Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, which I’m pleased to say will likely seem more plausible as a near-future scenario today than when he wrote it twenty years ago, in the hip cyber-year 1992.)


I’m certainly not just imagining the danger of the BHLs deciding that multiple intellectual influences, including mainstream liberal ones, ought readily to imply greater comfort with violating property rights.  In his online video dialogue with fellow Brown prof Glenn Loury, Tomasi was quick to assure one and all that his philosophy, unlike libertarianism proper, envisions a “range” of “social services.”  Must it?  Really? 

Tomasi’s retort last Monday to his first critic in the BHL symposium contains this line that sums up how worrying all this appears to someone who thinks (after careful, utterly non-dogmatic consideration) that Rothbard was right:

“The scope of my thickened set of basic economic liberties is narrow enough to permit the regulatory and confiscatory powers of government required by classical liberal institutions.

“As Freeman observes, in Free Market Fairness I seek to revive a classical liberalism in a (broadly) deontic tradition, rather than the consequentialist approach of classical liberal economist-philosophers of the last century (and, I might add, I aim do this without falling into a deontic libertarianism such as that of Nozick).  Of course, my revival of classical liberalism comes with a twist since, along with thick economic liberty, FMF affirms a robust ideal of distributive justice too.”

Indeed, Tomasi nearly skipped Nozick in one of the political theory classes he taught, his former student noted in passing.  Don’t run quite so far away, John, hard though your path at Brown must be. 

Tomasi told his second critic on the site, “Market democracy is a (nascent) research program.”  Is it really, despite the two centuries of market liberalism he keeps invoking?  Should I not be worried about what lies ahead for it, if my only assurance, really, is it won’t be libertarianism?

(Well, thanks to a heads-up from David Boaz at the newly Objectivist-run and no longer power-struggle-torn Cato Institute, I’m going to check out a non-partisan online-activists gathering Tuesday night, so I can practice my own brand of diplomacy and outreach.  We’ll see how it goes.)


Maybe the best thing to do, really, is stop all forms of piggybacking on other political movements. 

I mean, we all sort of know that right and left aren’t the only options.  Consider some of the others for a moment to see how ridiculous this whole method of outreach may in fact be.  I could make libertarianism sound like, say, a form of Taoism, too – maybe you could as well, gentle reader – but absent the sticky situation of being a minority in China, why bother, if you see what I mean. 

I could act all triumphalist at this juncture by saying the unexpected successes of the Ron Paul movement mean right-fusionism, not left-accommodationism, is the way to go.  But I would think there’s an even more encouraging, less divisive message in recent gains: The potential revealed by the Pauls’ successes means: we don't have to hide.

As for what to do about the more short-term, concrete matter of libertarian but non-libertarian Republican but Tea Party-loyal Rand Paul endorsing but not fully endorsing Romney: more on that comparatively earthy, tactical topic tomorrow.

P.S. And since this is my blog’s “Month of Religion,” I should note another outreach-oriented book, Rev. Robert Sirico’s Defending the Free Market: The Moral Case for a Free Economy, from the Catholic-friendly libertarians at the Acton Institute (which might well have been more or less the name of the Mont Pelerin Society if Hayek had had his way – but his colleagues didn’t want to name the group after Catholics like Acton and De Tocqueville, as Jacob Levy notes).


Gerard said...

Meanwhile, politically-ambiguous Reihan Salam over at National Review...

Now who's playing the diplomat?

Eric Hanneken said...

“But a thought more recently nudging me in a radical direction is abolitionist William Graham Sumner’s prescient warning that ‘Gradualism in theory is perpetuity in practice.’”

That quote is usually attributed to William Lloyd Garrison, although I haven't found the source. Garrison is probably whom you meant anyway, given “abolitionist.”

Todd Seavey said...

You are of course correct. Thanks (fixed above now).