Monday, December 10, 2012

BOOK NOTE: “Free Market Fairness” by John Tomasi (and a Dionysium debate tonight)

What better way to spend Human Rights Day than reading about John Tomasi’s book Free Market Fairness, which aims to show that modern liberals and libertarians share more moral common ground than they realize, and then attending tonight’s libertarians-vs.-leftists Dionysium debate (moderated by me) at Muchmore’s (featuring Matt Welch, John Carney, Lynn Parramore, and Dan Gerstein)?

Rather than arguing against government per se, Tomasi aims merely to show that individual economic freedom (the ability to make your own decisions, buy and sell as you wish, start your own business) deserves to be added to the short list of other freedoms, such as the conventional short list of civil liberties (speech, worship) that modern liberals already respect.  (You can see from nearby photos that the owners of my apartment building take a dim view of theft – and that Satanic activities such as horn-wearing, viewing Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, and attaching Allison Oldak’s fish hat to the ceiling as art may be occurring at Muchmore’s).

If Tomasi is correct, basic liberal moral concerns may do the work of undergirding a libertarian code of law, as surprising a turn of events to some as this small (pack-oriented) dog carrying a (disobedient, independent-minded) cat around.  (That video is far less disturbing, by the way, than this footage noted by Phil Saxton of a catfish attacking and eating a bird).

Tomasi strives to avoid basing his main arguments on specific empirical claims (growth rates, bureaucratic inefficiency, etc.) but does start with one profound historical observation about why modern (or “high”) liberalism may have seemed like a necessary shift in the twentieth century but also seem dated (perhaps in its “twilight,” he writes) now, and that is the unexpected proliferation of economic choices available to average citizens beginning in recent times.

A few very large, nearly universal questions – such as whether the farms would be able to bring crops to harvest and whether factory workers would have enough to eat – loomed large in the nineteenth century and led circa the early twentieth to polished theories of fairness and equality and central planning being promulgated, with so much success that laissez-faire has a bad reputation in intellectual and political circles to this day (whereas, as Tomasi notes, Adam Smith was criticized in his own day for being almost obsessed with securing the well-being of the poor, which motivated his free-market advocacy).

But if individuals vary, and because of that we recognize the importance of letting varied voices be heard, and varied religions be practiced, might an era of a thousand different cell phones, TV channels, clothing styles, literature subgenres, car designs, and business plans not warrant protection for the freedom to behave like a capitalist?  Aren’t these economic choices as much a part of our “self-authorship” and identity as the ideas we get from reading our preferred political manifestos and religious (or irreligious) tracts?  Don’t we have the right to strive, fail, succeed, and experiment in this realm as well?  And might not an intrusive state – at some point, even if not necessarily by its mere existence – interfere with that right?

I wholeheartedly agree, of course, and even share Tomasi’s intuition that it’s fair to ask the Rawlsian question “How are the worst-off faring under this system?” even while laying down simple, property-rights-based groundrules for a Hayekian social order.  He takes care to draw a distinction between this cautious (and possibly minimal-state-justifying) classical liberal (more or less nineteenth-century) view and the more hardcore libertarian view of people (like me) who think they logically lead to treating property rights as more or less inviolate.


My main criticism of Free Market Fairness, and in the grand scheme of things (all my past griping about the liberal-tarians notwithstanding) it is
of course a subtle one, is that even as Tomasi shows great courage (and diplomacy, patience, and an unmistakable gentleness) in raising these libertarian concerns while being a political science and philosophy professor at high-liberal Brown University, he may still be guilty (just as any of us may be) of mistaking debate within his own community for the timeless and universal debates that truly matter and that ought to be had. 

Or, as I have more crudely (and deliberately provocatively) put it in the past, maybe the liberal-tarian (or, in Tomasi’s formulation, market democratic) project is not so much true as it is potentially pleasing to all those left-leaning professors who might otherwise not want to talk to us.  Now, saying that libertarian professors might have a strong desire to ingratiate themselves with an otherwise left-wing professoriate is not to dismiss their views altogether – they might be entirely correct.  And it might even be correct, history-altering strategy (as might libertarians infiltrating a future Hillary Clinton presidential campaign for all I know – crazier things have happened). 

But we should at least admit that while professors of political theory are a minuscule portion of the Earth’s population, their views are in this book quite explicitly assumed to be the necessary starting point for political reflection.  (In a sense, I’m saying that libertarians, like anyone else, may unwittingly reshape their views to fit in, even when they ought not to.  As Critical Review and The Righteous Mind remind us, spending time around likeminded people can have the negative result of making one more fanatical – but it can also make one realize that one was needlessly embarrassed about those views before.  This animated conversation written by Bretigne Shaffer, for example, captures how odd statists might sound – and feel – if they were as accustomed to being the odd man out as most libertarians are.)

I only ask that liberal-tarian-ish academics admit that their claims may be strategically true without necessarily for a moment being morally true – and what’s really, actually, (arguably) timelessly morally true is, of course, supposed to matter very much for philosophers.  I’m all for being smart about rhetoric and letting that be shaped in part by the tenor of the times (thus my oft-expressed desire for conservatives to stop sounding so unhip, for example), but we should be very wary of letting those rhetorical concerns – or the specific audiences we must address – alter the very foundations of our philosophies and moral judgments. 

When Tomasi looks with real pain at the metaphorical frozen sea that he sees tragically separating the shore upon which high-liberal discussion occurs from the shore upon which libertarian, self-ownership-oriented discussion occurs, it is no doubt a poignantly accurate description of life in a modern political science department at an elite university.  But does that make it the best metaphor for the political and moral rights of the other 7 billion people on the planet? 

And even in practical terms – though Tomasi explicitly wants to avoid consequentialist and utilitarian thinking (of the sort I prefer) – can he be all that confident that humanity will in the long run be best served by a fusion of individualist and Rawlsian thinking about shared citizenship rather than (as I’m inclined to think) by taking the more radical (but perhaps in time more easily promulgated) view that a bright line has been transgressed any time property is violated – and thus that government, far from being a shared project of equal citizens, is a form of universal predation far too dangerous to be worth letting out of the box if it can be driven from human life altogether? 

(Tomasi is not averse to certain sorts of practical questions with moral implications, especially of the sort that resonate for both libertarians and Rawlsians: He asks, for instance: if the poor are objectively better off with markets than with egalitarianism, who cares about their relative position?  How kind are you being by caring more about the abstraction of equality than the reality of the concrete conditions of the poor?)

If, hypothetically, we were living relatively happy government-free lives now, would we ever even consider unleashing this thing that killed over 100 million people in the last century, just for the sake of the rather vague and abstract ideals of shared citizenship, etc., etc. that Tomasi describes himself sharing with high liberals in this book?  Unless Tomasi really believes that government is immensely helpful (and I’m not sure he does), maybe he shouldn’t be launching schooners of compromise across that frozen lake of non-discourse no matter how interesting – or, let us be frank, career-enhancing – dialogue with those on the other shore might be. 


And I do not mean career-enhancing in the crassest sense (my apologies for even jokingly phrasing it that way in the past).   A man simply interested in money would not be a lonely libertarian in a left-leaning academic profession, obviously.  He might just rob banks.  I simply mean that productive, peaceful dialogue with co-workers is something we all value, but it may not be perfectly correlated with the values best promulgated in the wider world if one wants to make humanity at large as happy as possible and may nonetheless subconsciously bias which philosophical conclusions we find most appealing.

Think of it this way: I’m more or less a “fusionist” in the late-twentieth-century sense of thinking that elements of libertarian and conservative thought blend naturally (Tomasi scrupulously avoids almost any mention of conventional conservatives in Free Market Fairness but uses the term “fusionism” at times for his own project and is most likely acutely aware of the right-fusionist project), but even when I find myself (as a result) frequently dealing with religious believers (frequently by northeastern media/intellectual standards, anyway), I do not spend vast amounts of intellectual energy reconciling religious and libertarian views, since I don’t really think there’s any getting around the truth of atheism.

Imagine, though, how I might start to sound if I were a mushier sort of agnostic and I worked at a theological seminary (assume there were positions of influence open to non-believers).  I have no doubt I could immerse myself in thousands of years of theological thinking and carve out an area of common ground where my fellow secularists could speak in newly-civil terms with the orthodox on certain broad cosmic matters that transcended their specific disagreements.  And having done so, I would probably be quite proud of myself.  I might even regard my atheist colleagues as embarrassing sticks-in-the-mud who were interfering with the high-toned dialogue I was fostering.  But would I really be doing the right thing?  Peace among my immediate colleagues might be nice – but maybe I should be pushing hard for atheism. 

Just as I said of The Righteous Mind last week that it could tempt us into thinking that views that sit nicely in the brain are more important than views that are true of the external world, so too could Free Market Fairness tempt us into thinking that views that keep the peace among political science professors are more important than views that rescue humanity from the ravages of this thing called government.  To determine the relative importance of those missions, I think we have little choice but to resort to consequentialist utilitarian estimations of the amount of damage government does – and a broader psychological survey of what sorts of political philosophies are least likely to decay into dangerous forms of statism. 

In short, Tomasi (who loves complex, sometimes overlong metaphors himself) wants to replace that frozen lake with some bridges, and that sounds nice at first – but what if humanity would be better off replacing that frozen lake with a deep, deep chasm and warning people never to cross it or try living on the high liberal side?  I know that sounds harsh (I know I often sound harsh to those who don’t know me well enough to trust that I have warmhearted motives), but it might be the tough love that philosophizing humans need, given how badly they misuse government. 


Take Thomas Kuhn as a less-politicized example.  As a philosopher of science, he’s widely beloved for the open-minded, liberal-sounding view that we should be willing to consider even very strange new ideas that seem at first unscientific, given that a shift in our entire scientific paradigm in the near future is always possible.  That sounds nice – but consider the fact that for these reasons he encouraged his friend John Mack, the Harvard psychiatrist, to pursue his hypnotic regression experiments suggesting (to Mack) that many people have been abducted by extraterrestrials. 

Assume for the sake of argument that (as I believe) these “memories” are imaginary (produced from hearing other such tales, seeing related movies, suffering universal fears of abduction and strange predators in the night, possibly picking up encouraging cues from Mack himself, etc.).  Might we all be better off if Mack had listened to skeptical, nay-saying colleagues at Harvard instead of to open-minded Kuhn? 

I think many thousands of lives have probably been worsened by Mack – and millions unnecessarily made to live in fear – in part because Kuhn wanted to avoid rigidity in his rules of evidence and prove his open-mindedness about reformulating existing academic philosophies.  I’m not calling for rigid conservatism in all things – just saying that before we engage in the all-too-tempting business of concocting new paradigms, we should have lots of good evidence on our side that it will yield real benefits for most of humanity (not just a select few professors) and lead to the truth instead of just to appealing notions. 

(Mack was mentioned during a panel that included real UFO believers that I unexpectedly found myself witnessing during the great, otherwise sci-fi-oriented Philip K. Dick Film Festival over the weekend in Williamsburg, the first of a trilogy of major sci-fi Fridays for me, since I’ll see The Hobbit this coming Friday and reread Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles the Friday after that, to faux-celebrate the arrival of the purported Mayan Doomsday – though, believe me, I really do morally weigh whether I might inadvertently encourage belief in nonsense by doing such things.  On a similar consequentialist note, I often find myself wondering whether paranoia, perhaps even schizophrenia, like that which inspired much of Dick’s work, ought to be celebrated, condemned, or both – though I will say that in an era of both surveillance and terrorism, paranoia may be the easiest, most natural defensive response on the part of private citizens.)

Even while stressing that the truth must come before PR concerns, I am more prone than most intellectuals (I think) to recognize that intellectual time and energy are finite and that we should therefore be wary of spending too much time sending humanity down blind alleys even if it produces short-term insights (or short-term peace).  People hoping to promulgate atheism, for instance, probably shouldn’t allow themselves to get drawn into protracted debates about, say, whether Catholicism is better than Protestantism.  And perhaps libertarians (or classical liberals or what have you) are making a moral error by devoting too much time to coming up with subtly more liberty-friendly conceptions of the state if we are better off trying to make it more socially acceptable to talk of eliminating the state altogether. 

I now take this more anarchic view, much as I realize it is as frightening and potentially unpopular as taking the nerve-wracking step from the safety of espousing a vague Unitarian-sounding agnosticism to frankly endorsing atheism.  But at some point the crap must be cut or it will never end. 


Similarly, my problems with the BleedingHeartLibertarians approach, in a nutshell (and Tomasi is a blogger at that site), are:

(A) If someone says sex, class, and race may be reasons to violate property, maybe the libertarian’s function should be to say no, not to waste precious intellectual time and resources intead saying, “Hold on – we may have left some things off that list!  Maybe it should be sex, class, race, status as a laborer, immigration status, functioning as a capitalist, being a midget, etc., etc.”  You’re at least not plainly helping if you implicitly reaffirm the earlier statist arguments instead of ending them.

(B) My narrower strategic concern with the explicit “liberal-tarian” political project, which Tomasi briefly name-checks without falling prey to its worst defects, is that (as espoused by some participants) it at least used to seem far less interested in building bridges to liberalism than in burning bridges to American conservatism, which is, for all its terrible flaws, roughly the only political movement in the world that promotes stricter property adherence and commands the allegiance of a plurality of voters in a given country. 

I can sympathize with the desire to remain philosophically pure and uncompromising, but if one is instead going to bridge-build it must be acknowledged that conservatism is not “as far gone” (in the direction of statism) as liberalism – and has not been gone for as long (about a decade for conservatism vs. about a century for liberalism).  So, it is petty and strange to write off the right while (to put it crudely) sucking up to the unabashedly statist Democratic Party.  As one friend of mine said of a prominent liberal-tarian, “It’s not so much that his views are infuriating, more just baffling.” 

Tomasi wastes no time bashing conservatives (he really doesn’t speak of them at all), but it is fair to be suspicious of liberal-tarians who, for example, cannot see any reverence for freedom, individualism, limited government, or constitutionalism in the Tea Party movement but can discern these things on the academic left. 


My concerns above are a far cry, though, from seeing Rawls as the diametric opposite of libertarianism (that would instead be something like totalitarianism).  Indeed, I am pleased to see that a libertarian acquaintance, Robert Anthony Peters, is promoting a Rawls-themed musical, I kid you not. 

On the other hand, maybe Rawls will be forgotten in a half-century and it’s a mistake to invest so much energy into performing what in effect operates as buttressing subsidiary scholarship related to his legacy.  Lest we think of him as a paragon of rationality who must be contended with, it’s worth noting that his youthful thesis was recently unveiled and shows him to have been inclined toward trinitarian theology when young (perhaps like some Italian relatives of Tomasi) and thus to think that metaphysics reveals collectivism to be inherent in individualism in the same way that a community of three beings is inherent in the unity of God (according to believers). 

And we trust a guy inclined to that sort of mysticism to intuit how liberalism and indeed the whole social order should be founded?  (Really?   Are you sure about that?  By the way, this trinity idea is now infecting not only liberalism but the DC Comics universe, since their recently-rebooted reality is supposedly based on a mystical rule of threes leading up to some sort of “Trinity War” next year.  If the idea of the trinity also becomes pervasive in rock music, everything I love will have been ruined by it.) 

I will definitely say this for Tomasi’s bold outreach effort, though: It fits in with my own ever-growing, coalition-desiring sense that if political ideas needn’t divide (that is, do not of intellectual necessity produce enemies), then they shouldn’t divide.  Err on the side of avoiding schisms, basically.  That’s one reason I’m going to stay offline more – and re-emerge with a sparer, more cautious philosophical lexicon at some point, most likely.  There’s a point at which language is so straightforward it sets off almost no cultural/psychological “alarm bells” in potential critics, and it is at this cautious, science-like level that politics may need to proceed to avoid wasting more decades on right-left sparring.  I’ll have to get back to you on the details regarding this notion.

In the meantime, by way of wishing you happy holidays, I will say that while at my parents’ house in Connecticut recently, I learned what might be called a fusionist lesson about the origins of Santa.  He is, of course, based on a (probably) real Christian saint...but a saint from now mostly-Muslim Turkey...later popular in trading-empire-running Amsterdam as a patron saint of seafarers and merchants...who ended up leaping the pond to New Amsterdam...and was depicted in his modern form in (more or less classical liberal) nineteenth-century Thomas Nast cartoons...and then was finally popularized in the omnipresent fashion familiar to us only a century ago by, yes, the advertising department of Coca-Cola.

Perhaps we are all in this together.  I’ll keep that in mind over the holiday (while doing just a few mostly movie-oriented blog entries) and, even more so, in the first of next month’s Book Entries, which will be a look at the online rough draft of David Friedman’s book in progress that is so fusionist (if you want to look at it that way) that it dares ask what even an anarcho-capitalist like him (or me) can learn from a sympathetic look at Legal Systems Very Different from Ours.  (Note that he is not to be confused with this David Friedman.)  And see you tonight at 8pm at Muchmore’s, I hope.

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