Last post, I claimed that lots of libertarians are consequentialists. In this post, I want to try and state the kind of consequentialism I think most libertarians would sign on to if asked. This is the conception of consequentialism that is “implicit” in the writings of most (non-philosopher) libertarian consequentialists.
Let me be circumspect: many libertarians are consequentialists about politics if not morality generally. They think that coercive laws and policies are justified when they produce good consequences for people. Such libertarians are skeptical of additional moral criteria, like natural rights. Their mantra is “Maximize efficiency” but the mantra obscures a lot, as consequentialism can be qualified in many ways. The purpose of this post is not merely to articulate the version of consequentialism most common among libertarians but to introduce you to the genus consequentialism if you are interested.
My bet is that most libertarian consequentialists are what I shall call AMORE-3 utilitarians (“Three Love” utilitarians, if you like!). They are average, maximizing, ordinalist, rule, expected, egalitarian, efficiency utilitarians. Let’s get clear on what this means.
Nearly all of these definitions come from this encyclopedia entry, though they are modified to concern when political coercion is permitted.
Before I begin, note: everyone values good consequences; arguing for a law or policy based on its consequences does not make you a consequentialist. And so:
(1) Consequentialism: whether coercion is permitted depends only on consequences (as opposed to the circumstances or the intrinsic nature of the act or anything that happens before the act).
The definition does not by itself require a maximizing response to consequences.
(2) Maximizing Consequentialism: whether coercion is permitted depends only on which consequences are best (as opposed to merely satisfactory or an improvement over the status quo).
Maximizing is often contrasted with satisficing (doing well but less than the best). I think most libertarian consequentialists are maximizers partly due to their economics background which may lead them to think that satisficing is generally the most efficient way to maximize.
(3) Expected Consequentialism: whether coercion is permitted depends only on expected not actual consequences.
Libertarian consequentialists want consequentialism to be action-guiding. Accordingly, we should select among expected consequences not objective/mind-independent consequences.
(4) Egalitarian Consequentialism: in determining whether coercion is permitted, benefits to one person matter just as much as similar benefits to any other person.
As Bentham said, each person is to count for one and not more than one.
(5) Indirect (ultimately, rule) Consequentialism: whether coercion is permitted depends not merely on the value of the consequences of the act of coercion in question.
Indirect consequentialism opposes direct consequentialism, which holds that whether coercion is permitted depends only on the consequences of the act in question. Indirect consequentialism is generally contrasted with act-consequentialism. Libertarian consequentialists tend to focus on the evaluation of institutional rules and laws and probably want to avoid the drawbacks of act-consequentialism. And so:
(6) Rule Consequentialism: whether coercion is permitted depends on the general consequences of a rule.
Libertarian consequentialists understand rules differently. They might mean a specific law or something as broad as an entire system of coercive law. They also reject other forms of indirect consequentialism such as virtue consequentialism which evaluates things based on the consequences of possessing some set of virtues.
(7) Utilitarian Consequentialism: whether coercion is permitted depends only on the utility of the coercion in question.
I would say 99% of libertarian consequentialists are utilitarians. The thing to be maximized is utility not something more objective like The Good. What utility consists in is a matter of dispute in philosophy, but most libertarians think that utility consists in the satisfaction of preferences. Libertarian consequentalists are willing to put just about anything people prefer into a utility function, including stuff like having a nicer car than your neighbor and consuming the bitter tears of despair of your enemies. Libertarian consequentialists are nigh universally subjectivists about value – whether a state of affairs has value depends entirely on whether it is valued by at least one agent. So utility is understood in terms of subjective valuing.
(8) Ordinalist Utilitarianism: whether coercion is permitted depends only on ordinal utilities.
Ordinal utilities are comparative and non-numerical. Libertarian consequentialists tend to be skeptical that individuals have cardinal utilities (how would we number the scale?). They’re also skeptical of interpersonal comparisons of utility and so reject any cardinal scale of utility that applies across persons. In general, libertarian consequentialists think we should select those laws that will move people up their utility functions in terms of their rankings.
(9) Average Utilitarianism: whether coercion is permitted depends on the average utility among the relevant group’s members.
Average utilitarianism is contrasted with total or aggregate utilitarianism which holds that we should maximize utility for the entire set of persons. But Derek Parfit developed the famous “mere addition” paradox for total utilitarianism which holds that you can maximize utility simply by adding persons to the universe with lives whose utility is just barely positive. This leads to the “repugnant conclusion.” One response to the repugnant conclusion is to change over to average forms consequentialism. It doesn’t really avoid the repugnant conclusion, but some people think it helps. It avoids mere addition but still runs into its own problems (like preferring a 1 person/100 utils society to a million people with 99 utils society).
I don’t really know how libertarian consequentialists want to go on this one, but I figure they want to avoid the repugnant conclusion insofar as they can. Perhaps they want to throw in some kind of minimally decent life threshold standard as well. Tyler Cowen has some thoughtful reflections on these matters. Robin Hanson is pretty friendly to the repugnant conclusion, so he’s one exception. So if you’re worried about average utility and friendly to the repugnant conclusion, then perhaps “A” should stand for “aggregate” where what is to be maximized is aggregate utility rather than average utility.
(10) Efficiency Utilitarianism: coercion is permitted when it maximizes efficiency.
Libertarian consequentialists often talk about maximizing something called “efficiency,” but efficiency is usually just a stand-in term for utility. When libertarian consequentialists analyze the value of state coercion, they employ efficiency measures that somewhat vary. Some efficiency theorists understand efficiency in terms of the (weak) Pareto criterion, where a distribution is made more efficient when at least one person is better off and no one worse off. But the Paretian standard is pretty demanding because its bars policies that make anyone worse off at all. So for that reason libertarian consequentialists usually endorse the Kaldor-Hicks efficiency criterion. On this view, an outcome is more efficient if those made better off could in theory compensate those made worse off, leaving them better off than before the law or policy was implemented.
Bringing it all together:
(11) AMORE-3 Utilitarianism: coercion is permitted when the rule on which it is based maximizes average ordinal expected (Kaldor-Hicks?) efficiency.
The egalitarian descriptor is built into the average descriptor and efficiency is understood in terms of utility. And remember, AMORE-3 Utilitarianism concerns only institutional justice, i.e., the proper use of coercion, not right action generally.
I think AMORE-3 Utilitarianism is probably the plurality view among libertarian consequentialists (of course, I don’t know the percentages!). But if I’m right about this characterization, I’ll raise some problems for views in the general vicinity of AMORE-3 utilitarianism in future posts. So again I’d like your feedback.
This is the time for you to get all nit-picky and difficult about the sort of consequentialist you are or that you would be if you were a consequentialist or whether I’m right about the conception of consequentialism most libertarians affirm. Have fun.