Who Spends More, Left or Right?”, a report from the Montreal Economic Institute by by Michel Kelly-Gagnon and Vincent Geloso. In an analysis of spending per GDP in Quebec, Canada, and the U.S., they found that “In reality, there is no systematic relation, for any of the three governments, between the left-wing or right-wing ideologies of the parties in power and the evolution of public spending as a share of GDP. In all three cases, it is actually left-wing governments that most reduced the relative size of government, and in one of the three cases (the United States), it is a right-wing government that most increased it.”
NB: I have only glanced at this and am not vouching for the methodology or the result. But it seems plausible; the result in the U.S., at least, has been known for quite a while.
Libertarians often get taken in by words from conservatives, and many avow that we should prefer conservative government because conservatives at least occasionally talk about cutting the size of the state. But talk is all that it is. They do sometimes cut benefits to the poor– and because such benefits are justifiable under some theories, sometimes libertarians seem to emphasize cutting them with a little too much enthusiasm. But completely unjustifiable spending, spending that redistributes upward and that keeps crony firms alive and that overspends on defense and so on, is spending, too.
Given no systematic change in the amount of state spending, I’ll prefer spending that is more progressive over spending that is more regressive. Hence, an urge to break the fusionist alliance with the right, and hence BHL.
Recent events in Bangladesh have brought moral questions surrounding sweatshops into the spotlight again. And many consumers are wondering whether they might be doing something wrong by purchasing goods that are made in Bangladeshi textile firms. Some are calling for a boycott of clothing companies like Joe Fresh that outsource production there.
In response, people like Matt Yglesias and Richard Epstein have argued that a boycott is exactly the wrong idea, and have defended the lower labor standards employed by Bangladeshi firms. Others are not convinced.
Given the high heat and low light these debates often generate, this NPR Planet Money podcast is a nicely balanced look at the issue. It discusses the opportunities sweatshop jobs provide to Bangladeshi women, the reasons why Bangladesh seems to be stuck in the “t-shirt phase” of development, and how it might get itself out. And there’s more to come. Thanks to Jonathan Anomaly for the pointer.
More BHL on sweatshops:
Consider this a Robin Hanson-style post.
Obama ran on transparency, civil liberties, press freedom, and a less militaristic foreign policy. However, his record is poor. His presidency has been more like a third Bush II term. How should we interpret that?
1. Obama was never sincere.
2. Obama was sincere, but power corrupts.
3. Obama was sincere, but he doesn’t have sufficient power to do what he said he wanted to do. He couldn’t close Guantanamo even if he wanted to. He can’t help but treat Bradley Manning like that.
4. Obama was sincere, but he now knows things that we don’t know, and changed his mind. In fact, the world is a lot scarier and more dangerous than civil libertarians realize, but he cannot share with us the information that would make us accept his seemingly bad policies. If Obama knew years ago what he knows now, he would have supported Bush II more.
5. Add 2 and 4 together: 4, except Obama and the insiders are mistaken in what they think they know, because power corrupts.
Like Glenn Greenwald, I’m inclined to go with 5. But given that Obama has had such a turnaround from his posturing as a candidate, shouldn’t I increase my degree of credence in 4?
I was looking around the website of the Center for the Philosophy of Freedom at the University of Arizona, with which many of the BHL bloggers have been affiliated in one way or another. I ran across a page I hadn’t noticed before, with a mission statement that seems to me worthy of widespread emulation. (The statement has the very strong ring of David Schmidtz to it, but I don’t know for sure whether he wrote it.)
Core Intellectual Values
These are core values that we will not compromise.
We aim to stand up from our desks at the end of every day knowing something that we did not know when we sat down that morning. We do not teach from old lecture notes. With our students we will share what we know, along with our uncertainties & struggles. Our students will know the joy & trepidation of exploring the intellectual frontier.
We are in the business of theorizing, but when we theorize, we draw maps whose worth stands or falls with their accuracy in representing reality. We draw distinctions not to obscure differences but to sort them out. When we make empirical claims, we back them up not by turning them into empty tautologies but by offering the kind of data that are relevant to the testing of scientific hypotheses. In short, if your definition makes it unnecessary to check the facts, then you need to check your definition.
We realize that if you want to maintain your passion for work, & want people to be better off for having read your work, or for having been your student, you have to stand for something. But whatever you stand for, you have to stand for honest scholarship first. Truth comes first. If and when the truth turns out incompatible with our beliefs, we change our beliefs.
We will not demonize those who disagree with us. Our engagements will be constructive.
A blog is something different from an academic research and teaching school, and different norms apply in different settings– but these seem to me very attractive norms and ones to aspire to live up to, in university and non-university settings alike.
In a recent post, Bas van der Vossen urges libertarians to think more about human rights. I agree, so I write this commentary in the spirit of a friendly amendment.
I think it is important at the outset to distinguish two spheres of endeavor. The first is the academic study of human rights; the second is the practice of human rights.
1) The Philosophy of Human Rights
With respect to the philosophy of human rights, libertarians virtually invented the idea (think about Locke, Paine, the Declaration of Independence, and modernly Nozick, the work on Locke by A. John Simmons, and the classic essay by left-libertarian Hillel Steiner). So I gather Bas is thinking about the lack of significant contemporary post-Nozickian writing in the field. Leading human rights writers like Jim Griffin and Joseph Raz do not have (perhaps, I’m not sure) a libertarian counterpart. We should also distinguish conceptual questions (what is a right? are rights reducible to other concepts?) from normative questions (are there socio-economic rights alongside the traditional Lockean, civil and political rights? how should conflicts of rights be resolved?) Now of course there is no reason why libertarians, if they so wish, would not contribute to the literature. The conceptual issues do not require ideological orientation. And the normative issues fold into current debates about the proper role of the state and the existence and scope of redistributive obligations. There is nothing special about rights that is not parasitic on these debates.
2) The Practice of Human Rights
This is a different story. In the beginning, the human rights movement was truly non-partisan. It included liberals, conservatives, libertarians, Democrats, Republicans, and independents. But starting about the mid 70s, the practice of human rights became increasingly captured by the political Left. This capture did not deprive the human rights movement of effectiveness. Human rights activists, like libertarians and just about any other normal human being, are appalled at obvious abuses of state power. These activists have made a real difference ever since the inception of the movement. They have saved lives. Libertarians should gladly join and support the human rights movement when it fights for powerless victims of tyranny.
However, some bad things happened when the movement became populated by left-wing activists. The movement became soft with left-wing regimes, especially those targeted by conservative U.S. administrations. For many years, Eastern European thugs and Cuba got a pass from the movement. Indeed, the double-standard problem is so severe that human rights advocates never even conceded that the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the Taliban were good things (you can concede this while saying that those wars were illegal or unwise, see my debate with Human Rights Watch here). The only reason for this reluctance was, of course, their partisan repugnance to praise anything George W. Bush would do, even if Bush’s action meant, for example, saving millions of Afghani women from the cruel yoke of the Taliban. Better Saddam and the Taliban than Bush: that’s what the once-inspiring human rights movement had come down to. (To be fair, conservatives are partly to blame for this double-standard rift, as they became soft with anti-communist right-wing regimes.)
Second, and perhaps more important, the human rights movement never endorsed economic liberties, property and contract. This, even in the face of a growing consensus among economists that market-friendly institutions are highly correlated with prosperity and human welfare. As a result, the human rights movement has gone from a concern with abuse of state power to an endorsement of more state power under the guise of socio-economic rights. Human rights advocates today are statists and, as such, unfriendly to libertarians. They also tend to be economically-illiterate, so they don’t always recommend bad solutions solely out of partisan or statist convictions. Here is an example (there are many: just browse the opinions of the Committee that interprets the ICSECR). In 2003 the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, in an opinion obviously targeted at the United States (another common bias of human rights practitioners,) held that undocumented migrants should enjoy virtually all the labor rights that legally resident workers have. To someone who understands basic economics (indeed, you have to understand only the law of supply and demand) it is obvious that, should employers in the receiving country comply with the panoply of labor rights that the Court happily enumerates, they will hire less undocumented workers. If the Court’s goal was to help poor migrant workers, its way of doing so was patently counterproductive. With such friends, immigrants need no enemies. (I leave aside, because they are easy targets, the most grotesque manifestations of the human rights movement, such as the U.N. Human Rights Council’s promotion of the criminalization of blasphemy, or the one-sided obsession of human rights advocates with Israel.)
3) What Is the Problem?
Here is my friendly disagreement with Bas. He says that the language of human rights is the lingua franca of the world, and that libertarians should be wary of being accused of violating human rights. This cannot be right. First, if (half of) the language of human rights reeks of statism and economic ignorance, then libertarians should be critical, not jump on the bandwagon out of fear of being accused of this or that. Second, and more subtly: if one shows the typical human rights activist that unhampered markets would help the poor, they routinely cling to their statist views. In other words: the possibility that the goal of socio-economic rights, the alleviation of poverty, may result from deregulating, and not the other way around, is unacceptable in limine to them. This can only be due to one of three reasons: either dishonesty; or economic illiteracy (as indicated above); or their love of the state, their unwavering attachment to the idea that all solutions must come from government. (Don’t take my word for this: look here what happened to a human rights scholar who suggested that there should be a right to trade. He was insulted and mocked by Phillip Alston, a well-known human rights legal academic who is supposed to be a moderate on these issues.)
Finally, I detect a misconception among people not trained in law about the circumstances under which treaty (or other) rules become binding law. Treaties do not bind non-parties; and even with regard to parties, the ICESCR establishes the principle of “progressive realization” of socio-economic rights. This means, in good English, that you do not have a right to a house, but are only entitled, if at all, that your government make a good-faith effort to reduce homelessness. This is an aggregative goal, not a right in the legal or philosophical sense. Socio-economic rights lack deontological bite. So libertarians need not refrain from recommending deregulation of markets out of fear of being accused of acquiescing in human rights violations. If libertarians wish to become involved in the human rights movement, their first task should be, in my judgment, to vindicate private property rights and freedom of contract and trade as human rights that are crucial to achieve the goals that the movement has always professed.
But maybe all Bas is suggesting is that libertarian scholars should write more about human rights. With that I agree.
Unless we accept Zwolinski and his fellow Bleeding Hearts as the final arbiters in this matter, we will need clearly defined criteria by which we can identify legitimate exceptions to the NAP, and distinguish them from purported exceptions that cannot be justified. Again, it will not do for Zwolinski (or anyone else) to proclaim that x is an exception to the NAP unless he also explains and justifies the criteria we should use to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate exceptions.
This seems wrong, though I might not quite grasp what Smith has in mind here.
Most of us have a significant degree of moral knowledge, even though most of us cannot articulate a theory that codifies, justifies, or explains this knowledge. And, it’s not at all clear one needs to have a theory in order to have moral knowledge. In fact, one can probably subscribe to the wrong theory and still have moral knowledge. So, for instance, MLK jr. probably thought that morality depended in some way on the existence of God, but even though that’s wrong, MLK jr. still knew that racism was wrong. Ayn Rand advocated ethical egoism, but even though ethical egoism (including her esoteric version of it) is wrong, she still knew it is wrong to kill people for fun. If pressed to articulate a full moral theory, I’d say some version of Rossian pluralism comes closest to the truth, but even if I’m wrong about that, it doesn’t mean I don’t know that I’m obligated to feed my kids.
Just as we can have knowledge about what to do in particular situations, we can also know that a principle is flawed or has exceptions, even if we cannot articulate a principle that explains all the exceptions. So, for instance, most normal people know that it is usually wrong to lie. And most people also can articulate cases where lying is permissible. Most people know that you are permitted to lie to the murderer at the door. But probably most people cannot give a good account of just when lying is permissible. Their moral knowledge is implicit and tacit.
I once refereed a paper in bioethics, a field I know little about. The paper articulated a theory of when cells count as human individuals. I noticed, contrary to the author’s intent, that the theory had a perverse implication: if I decide to scrape off some living cells from my tongue, thus killing the cells, I thereby commit murder. Now, I don’t have a theory of just when human cells become sufficiently person-like to acquire rights. If I had to articulate such a theory on the spot, experts on those questions could probably rip my pet theory to shreds. Still, it was easy for me to see that the principles advocated by the author had serious problems and couldn’t be right.
Similarly, the students in my introductory class can all identify that “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” presents a strong objection to certain crude forms of utilitarianism, even if none of these students can articulate a good theory of when it is and is not okay to try to promote general happiness.
Smith’s argument seems to presuppose that Rossian pluralism is wrong. If Rossian pluralism is true, then it will turn out that competent moral agents will be able to identify exceptions to general moral rules, but there simply is no way in principle to perfectly codify all of those exceptions.
A good chunk of my dissertation was on the issue of moral knowledge without moral theory, so if there’s interest, I might press this further.
Note an area of agreement: I agree with Smith that choosing a theory is comparative. All moral theories–in fact, probably all theories in all fields–will have counterexamples and problems. It’s part of the nature of theorizing. For a good account of why, see the introductory chapter of David Schmidtz’s Elements of Justice.
The Nation has just published a piece by BHL’s old friend Corey Robin where Robin tries to draw a significant connection between Austrian economics’ view of economic value and Nietzsche’s far broader value skepticism (also see Robin’s CT post here). The upshot, from what I can tell, is that Austrians are guilty both of a kind of nihilism about objective value (whatever that is) and that they implicitly endorse the sort of elitism that is more explicit in Nietzsche’s writings. The argument fails. After a quick summary of the argument, I’ll outline some major and some more minor errors. The post takes the form of a list because I think the piece is replete with errors and confusions, so weaving them together may not be possible or worthwhile.
I want to emphasize at the outset that none of my criticisms depend on the truth of libertarianism in any way. Any sufficiently informed reader should be able to appreciate the force of my concerns. Consequently, I hope that replies can stick to Robin’s historical claims and my replies, not on the truth or falsity of libertarianism.
Robin roughly claims that the move to the subjective theory of economic value in economics was a move towards a form of objective value nihilism. Objective value nihilism in turn allows Austrian economists in particular to argue that markets are an expression of morality because markets are expressions of subjective value. And since (Robin assumes) Austrians admit that aristocratic tastes drive economic productivity, we can infer that Austrians believe that aristocratic valuations (and thus aristocracy) expresses moral value. This contorted argument serves Robin’s career-long attempt to shoehorn every non-leftist into a single group of people who hate equality.
Major Substantive Errors
(1) For Robin to draw an interesting, sound and illuminating connection between Nietzsche and the Austrians (specifically Mises and Hayek), he must establish two claims: (i) that Nietzsche and the Austrians share the relevant, important views (in this case, a radical subjectivity about “value”) and (ii) that they were unique in sharing these views. Robin fails to establish either claim.
A. Claim (i) is severely weakened by the fact that Robin equivocates on the meaning of the term “value” all across the essay. Robin fails to distinguish between use-value and exchange-value, economic value and moral value, and between any particular form of value and “value” itself. I won’t count them all. If you’re interested in verifying my claim, just search the text of the article for “value” and see for yourself.
B. Robin himself provides examples that undermine claim (ii), such as the fact that Walras, a social democrat, was one of the original marginal revolutionaries. Further, he acknowledges that Marx had subjectivist elements in his theory of value (I will revisit this in a moment). But there are other cases. Oskar Lange, Mises’s great intellectual opponent and one of the chief architects of market socialism, was a marginalist and subjectivist through and through. If even Mises’s chief opponent shared his theory of value, how can there be an interesting, illuminating connection between Nietzsche and the Austrians? (And in fact there are deep tensions between Nietzsche and the Austrians. Lester Hunt has documented Nietzsche’s deep hostility to spontaneous order here).
(2) But suppose we scrutinize one of Robin’s most well-developed and specific claims, namely that there is an interesting and illuminating connection between Nietzsche’s and Hayek’s view about the importance of great men setting out new forms of valuation for social development. Even here the argument fails. The only passages from Hayek that can even be construed out of context to support this argument is Hayek’s claim in The Constitution of Liberty that synchronic (simultaneous) inequalities of wealth can work to the benefit of the least-advantaged over time because the luxury consumption of the rich paves the way for manufacturers to create cheaper versions of the same goods and market them to the masses. But Hayek’s discussion here is in no way an endorsement of an aristocratic system of values, or an endorsement of the claim that aristocrats should somehow be the moral model for society as a whole, or that only some people can live or deserve to live full, flourishing lives.
(3) What’s more, Hayek thought pretty much everyone’s value judgments were riddled with ignorance, not just the poor or wage-laborers. To be an elitist, presumably you need to think that the intellectual, cultural and moral judgments of the elite are good or in some way substantively correct. In contrast, if you think everyone is a deeply cognitively limited agent, but that some are more limited than others, the elitism charge is harder to defend.
(4) Robin overdraws the distinction between the labor theory of value and the subjective theory of value. Remember that for practically all its advocates, the labor theory was a theory of exchange value, not use value. Even Marx was a subjectivist about economic use value. Plus, Marx claimed that exchange value was determined by socially necessary labor hours, a subjectivist idea. Robin recognizes that Marx’s theory was more complex, but this doesn’t stop him from resting a lot on the distinction between the two theories of value.
(5) Robin: “Mises and Hayek pursued a different path, one Nietzsche would never had dared to take: they made the market the very expression of morality.” Mises was a utilitarian, so that cannot be true. Morality can be promoted outside of the market by any utility-increasing action. Hayek was, in my view, an evolutionary contractarian (see here). On his view, evolved social rules are morally binding insofar as they are universally acceptable to all. Neither moral theory makes market relations “the very expression” of morality. Morality can be expressed in all sorts of ways. Also, what does it even mean for the market to be “the very expression” of morality?
- Contra Robin, the marginalists were not focused primarily on the consumer in contrast to the producer. My understanding is that the marginalists were concerned with giving a broader account of acting man, whether he is a consumer or a producer. It is true that the marginalists reversed the cost of production theories of value that suggested that the value of the inputs determined the value of the outputs. In that sense, it is all about consumers, but only in that sense. Marginalism itself is not restricted to consumers. In fact, the core idea at stake in the socialist calculation debate was to explain how subjectivism and marginalism mattered for producers. Plus, the modern focus on consumption comes from critics of the market (think Keynes). If I’m wrong, after having read Jevons, Menger, Walras, Mises, Lange and Hayek, I would like to see the passages Robin has in mind.
- Menger thought that economic valuation is subjective but affirmed an Aristotelian conception of human flourishing, following Brentano. So he believed both in subjective economic value and a more objective conception of well-being. If Robin’s thesis is correct, this should not be.
- The article equivocates on the notion of “economic” behavior and action. Mises thought praxeology applied to all human action and so man was essentially an economizing being. His analysis of choice was universal. To say that Mises reduced all value to economic value implies that economic value is something substantively psychological, a subset of valuation generally. But Mises’s understanding of the economizing man was far more general.
- Robin claims that for the Austrians “the economy becomes a theater of self-disclosure, the stage upon which we discover and reveal our ultimate ends.” And that “the Austrians saw the economy as the disciplining agent of all ethical action, a moment of—and opportunity for—moral artistry.” I don’t know about you, but doesn’t that contradict the Hayek passage he mentions in the immediately preceding paragraphs? Hayek: “There are many things which are more important than anything which economic gains or losses are likely to affect, which for us stand high above the amenities and even above many of the necessities of life which are affected by the economic ups and downs.” Robin calls this obvious tension “paradoxical” but why isn’t it just a serious difficulty for the generalizations he wants to make?
- Were Hayek and Mises really new in thinking that one’s agency can be expressed effectively in market relations? What is especially “Austrian” about that point?
- And what on God’s Green Earth does this have to do with fascism?
- Robin says that for Schumpeter, “the entrepreneur emerges as a legislator of values and new ways of being.” Robin claims this while simultaneously acknowledging that for Schumpeter the entrepreneur actually has relatively little control over market outcomes. If entrepreneurs have little control over outcomes, how can they be legislators of value?
- Robin: “Hayek developed this notion into a full-blown theory of the wealthy and the well-born as an avant-garde of taste, as makers of new horizons of value from which the rest of humanity took its bears.” I need citations to evaluate this claim. The only thing in Hayek that he could base this claim on is Hayek’s claim in The Constitution of Liberty that I have already discussed. Surely we need more than one data point to vindicate Robin’s thesis.
- Why does Robin think that his claim that Hayek thought liberty has merely instrumental value is original? There is no “Ah ha!” here. This has been widely understood for a long time.
- Robin is wrong that Hayek only cares about the “freedom of that unknown and untapped figure of invention” because he misreads Hayek when Hayek says, “What is important is not what freedom I personally would like to exercise but what freedom some person may need in order to do things beneficial to society.” The unknown person is not necessarily an elite entrepreneur, or even probably an elite entrepreneur.
- Another erroneous claim: Hayek did not equate the culturally innovative class with the “men of capital.” Robin has offered us no reason at all to support Hayek thought these classes were coextensive.
- Robin: “Deep inside Hayek’s understanding of freedom, then, is the notion that the freedom of some is worth more than the freedom of others.” But as I’ve already argued, in the passage Robin refers to, Hayek has confined his focus to the general effects of the richer members of society using their market freedom to buy luxury goods. Hayek elsewhere repeatedly emphasizes that through a system of general, predictable rules, all will benefit, both in terms of wealth and freedom. In this passage, Hayek is not making any kind of conceptual claim about the nature of freedom.
- I just have to say this again: what does any of the Hayek exegesis have to do with Nietzsche in particular?
- Robin ends with a Hayek smear. When Hayek was eighty he said that Pinochet was an improvement on Allende. This was a serious mistake in judgment, but it is not significant for Hayek’s body of work in any way. Why would it be?
- Robin’s conclusion: “Still, it’s difficult to escape the conclusion that though Nietzschean politics may have fought the battles, Nietzschean economics won the war.” Austrian economics just isn’t in any important or illuminating way Nietzschean. There is no evidence of direct influence, which Robin acknowledges, so his entire argument must rely on identifying unique conceptual and ideological commonalities. But as we have seen, Robin fails to do so.
Robin’s work is continually plagued by his desire to impose a good guy/bad guy narrative on the history of ideas. Every non-leftist is somehow an enemy of equality. That same flaw pervades this essay. The argument is too complex and poorly executed because Robin knew where he wanted to go ahead of time. Somehow Hayek was going to end up an enemy of equality. Lo and behold, via an extremely tenuous connection with Nietzsche, he is.
Further, many of Robin’s arguments are guilt-by-association (Mises and Hayek with Nietzsche and Hayek with Pinochet at the end). That’s a bad way to do intellectual history because it leads us to focus on personal flaws rather than the development and interplay of ideas.
Finally, remember that in this post I made absolutely no claim that depends on the truth of libertarianism. Any sufficiently informed reader could appreciate my concerns.
In “Starving for Virtue? Eudaimonism and Public Reason versus Rothbardianism,” Kevin V. continues to defend the compatibility of public-reason liberalism with eudaimonism. I continue to dissent.
Death Before Dishonour
Let’s start with my biggest gripe. Kevin quotes (or almost quotes – he changes my “eudaimonist” to “eudaemonist”) (no, that’s not my biggest gripe) my remark that “from a eudaimonist perspective … it is more in one’s self-interest to die justly than to live unjustly – better to suffer as a decent person than to survive as a predator.”
Kevin find this “troubling,” on the grounds that, as he reads it, it apparently implies that “if a Rothbardian society left a non-trivial number of people in a position where they could only regularly meet their basic needs by taking a small fraction of the holdings of the very richest members of society, the needy should choose to suffer because such great suffering is required by virtue.”
Here I feel as though the entire content of my initial post is being ignored. After all, the question of the likely regular results of a system of rights is part of what goes into the determination of that system’s legitimacy in the first place, since the content of justice is informed by benevolence and prudence. So whatever suffering the principles of justice demand is suffering that has already passed a consequentialist test. Kevin’s counterfactual, then, in effect asks us to forget the initial consequentialist test and impose a new one at this second stage, and to treat its failing the second test as being still quite as possible as if there had been no initial test. It’s as though Kevin really wants to argue with an orthodox Rothbardian instead of with me. Note the wording: “if a Rothbardian society ….” [emphasis added] But how on earth could that be the appropriate counterfactual?
My position is this: if a just society required people to starve, then they should choose to starve. I don’t think that should be controversial; it seems close to being a tautology. But the question of whether a Rothbardian society would require people to starve is relevant (not the sole relevant factor, but a weighty one) to determining whether, and to what extent, justice is Rothbardian.
I feel a bit as though I had said “The butler is the murderer, therefore he should be arrested,” and Kevin had replied, “You say the butler should be arrested; that commits you to saying that he should be arrested even if he’s not the murderer – how ‘troubling’!”
Yes, this is in effect my “double-counting” objection, to which Kevin replies by doubling down, or more precisely tripling down: “then I demand we triple-count,” he says. How this insistence that the deck be stacked in favour of his own position doesn’t count as “sectarian” I’m not sure.
In any case, adding more weight to the consequentialist side isn’t going to make that much difference. For even if we applied a solely consequentialist standard, leaving all deontic considerations out of account entirely, we’d still get – for the sorts of reasons Hume discusses in his “seditious bigot” passage – a fairly firm version of the NAP. That version would of course be less firm than the one I favour, which in turn is less firm than the one that a purely deontic approach with no admixture of consequentialist considerations would yield. Still, a purely consequentialist account and a purely deontological account are both going to generate versions of the NAP, and in effect all that’s left to the eudaimonist is to work out a reconciliation bill between the two.
Kevin writes: “Roderick expects us to reconceive the ordinary notion of a benefit so completely that the needy non-Rothbardian does not benefit from taking a small portion of a mega-rich person’s holdings.” But again, that’s not my claim. And given that I said explicitly in my initial post that the NAP in extreme circumstances can allow compensated taking rather than forbidding taking entirely, I don’t know why Kevin interprets me otherwise. I do not claim a) that the needy cannot benefit from taking without consent. What I do claim is that b) the needy cannot benefit from unjust taking without consent. When taking is unjust and when it’s not will depend on circumstances; sometimes there’s good news for the needy (you get to steal a loaf of bread) and sometimes there isn’t (you don’t get to kick the other guy out of the lifeboat).
As for Kevin’s reluctance to countenance the possibility of radical reconceptions of benefit, I think that possibility is always on the table once you accept eudaimonism. After all, a central theme running from Socrates through Plato and Aristotle to Cicero and the Stoics and Scholastics is that it is more in one’s self-interest to suffer injustice than to commit it; that’s the point of Gyges’ Ring, the Choice of Herakles, and all that. The more radical eudaimonists (e.g. the Stoics) held that suffering injustice is no harm at all; the more moderate eudaimonists (e.g. Aristotle) held only that it is a smaller harm than committing injustice. Soul of moderation that I am, I agree with Aristotle against the Stoics; but even the Aristotelean thesis is radically counterintuitive by common-sense standards. (It is nevertheless, I think, dialectically implied by common-sense standards.) A eudaimonism that abandoned the Aristotelean thesis would be a eudaimonism that abandoned the reciprocal determination of justice and prudence, which is to say, no eudaimonism at all. Those who can’t face the reconceiving-of-benefit heat need to decide whether they really want to be in the eudaimonist kitchen.
E Pluribus Unum
Kevin writes: “One of the most curious claims in Roderick’s post is the seeming denial of reasonable pluralism.” I find this one of the most curious claims in Kevin’s post. After all, the claim that Kevin makes for reasonable pluralism here is that “some rational and reasonable people have sufficient reason from their own point of view to reject the NAP.” [emphasis added] And the claim of mine that he takes to disagree with this is my denial that rejecting NAP is “ordinarily a purely reasonable or innocent mistake.” [emphasis added again] Just as Kevin’s “some” grants the existence of culpable dissent, so my “ordinarily” grants the existence of non-culpable dissent. So plainly Kevin and I agree that the rejection of NAP is not always culpable. We disagree about how likely it is to be culpable in practice, but that’s another question. Why Kevin later says that “Roderick implausibly denies” that “one can reasonably reject the NAP,” having already quoted the passage that shows I don’t deny this, I cannot imagine.
I think we also disagree about what it is for something to be a vice. To clarify: I do not think a vice always has to be culpable. If one has a settled disposition to act in accordance with the wrong principles of justice, then one suffers from the vice of injustice, even if one does so innocently. The same point applies to other virtues; people raised in either an unusually macho or an unusually timid cultural milieu may non-culpably form mistaken notions of what courage requires, but their lack of culpability does not transform their rash or cowardly states of character into the virtue of courage. (Though I also think lack of culpability is less common here than Kevin supposes.)
I’m not sure why Kevin gives such weight to the fact that “many smart, thoughtful and careful people in the world” reject NAP. Throughout most of history, many smart, thoughtful and careful people in the world have likewise accepted slavery, male supremacy, and the like. I suspect our descendants will look back at our generation with something like the same mixed emotions that we have when we look back at Aristotle, Cicero, and Jefferson, brilliant and conscientious people who behaved in ways that would today put them on a par with Ariel Castro. (I think their context makes them less culpable than Castro – but decidedly culpable all the same.) Most smart, thoughtful, and careful people nowadays seem to view with complacency the practice of, e.g., throwing people into rape rooms for using the wrong herb; I don’t think this complacency is innocent, but even if it were, it’s seriously screwed up and undeserving of respect.
I also don’t quite know what it could mean – especially in a eudaimonist context, where the mean determines the optimum, and departures therefrom are vicious – to say that we could “have sufficient reason to accept” principles that we recognise as being “less than fully just.” If a principle is less than fully just, then it is unjust. The only sense I can make of this idea is if justice were being thought of not as a matter of deontic side-constraints but instead as a goal to be maximised, so you try to get as much of it as you can, and sometimes you fall short. But Kevin rejects this interpretation, leaving me guessing as to what he has in mind instead.
Kevin writes: “contra Roderick, I do think we have a sufficiently clear grasp of the nature of justice and legitimacy, and the common good despite our plural views about the good,” and thus “do not need to secure rational consensus on the nature of the good life to determine the proper principles of justice” – and “thank goodness for that,” since were this not so, we would have “no way to cooperate on moral terms without first agreeing on … the right conception of the good.”
Kevin here seems to me to be blurring the lines between what I take to be three importantly different questions:
- a) How much agreement on the nature of the good is required in order to determine the content of justice with full specificity?
- b) How much agreement on the nature of the good is required in order to determine the content of justice in broad outline?
- c) How much agreement on the nature of the good is required in order to establish terms of cooperation that will in practice be broadly just?
I think the amount of agreement required for (a) is much higher than for (b), which in turn is much higher than for (c). Hence I want to resist what I take to be Kevin’s suggestion that if we set the bar high for (a), we have to set it equally high for (b) and (c) as well.
Sauce for the Goose
I don’t quite follow Kevin’s response to my Libby/Colin case. Kevin says that the NAP is “way more restrictive than a PJP,” since all that a PJP rules out is “when either side insists on imposing her favorite sectarian rule on others who have sufficient reason to reject it.” This supposedly mild restriction, if interpreted literally, seems to me to be an annihilating blow to any coherent resolution of the conflict.
Justice is about the legitimate use of force. People who disagree about justice thereby disagree about when it’s legitimate to use force. If disagreements about justice can be reasonable, then ipso facto people can reasonably use force against other people who reasonably disagree with them – in which case, farewell to PJP. On the other hand, if we insist on PJP, and so insist that it’s unreasonable to use force against those who reasonably disagree, we are thereby insisting that it’s unreasonable for the disagreeing parties to act on their conceptions of justice – which means in turn that we have abandoned the idea that the disagreement is reasonable (since we can hardly say that it is reasonable to believe that doing X is justified, but unreasonable to do X). Far from being a sensible response to reasonable pluralism, PJP is inconsistent with reasonable pluralism about justice.
Now one way to reply to this objection is to insist that reasonable pluralism applies only to disagreements about the good, not to disagreements about justice. But this would surely be special pleading; all the reasons for granting reasonable disagreements about the good apply just as much to justice (especially, but not only, if we accept reciprocal determination). And if we grant that there are reasonable disagreements about justice, we have thereby granted what the public-reason approach is at pains to deny. Reasonable disagreements about justice → reasonable disagreements about rights-claims → reasonable disagreements about which claims are legitimately enforceable → reasonableness of the belief that one may legitimately enforce one’s claims against those who reasonably reject them → reasonableness of enforcing one’s claims against those who reasonably reject them. One can embrace reasonable pluralism or PJP, but not both.
Public Reason As Victim Disarmament
Kevin thinks that his acknowledgment of a right to self-defense against innocent threats doesn’t imply, as I take it to imply, that it’s “sometimes okay to coerce people on the basis of norms they reasonably and innocently reject.” The reason, he says, is that “rights to bodily integrity” are easy to justify. I’m baffled by this response. The whole point at issue is the content of the right to bodily integrity. After all, the enforcement of rights – including property claims (of any sort, Rothbardian or Rawlsian or Gausian or whatever) – generally involves impinging on bodily integrity; so not all impinging on bodily integrity is prohibited. And if the threat is innocent, then evidently the aggressor and the defender do not agree as to whether this is one of the prohibited cases.
One could, of course, have a rule saying that one is never allowed to attack someone’s bodily integrity except in response to aggression specifically against bodily integrity. Such a rule would avoid my objection. But the rule is not a promising one. As I’ve written elsewhere:
Imagine a world in which people freely expropriate other people’s possessions; nobody initiates force directly against another person’s body, but subject to that constraint, people regularly grab any external resource they can get their hands on, regardless of who has made or been using the resource. Any conception of aggression according to which the world so described is free of aggression is not a plausible one.
And if one does grant the legitimacy of using force against others’ bodies in defense of property-claims – of placing a thief under arrest, for example – then Kevin’s appeal to the special character of bodily integrity seems like a non sequitur. Either public reason allows the use of bodily force against innocent transgressors of property claims, or it doesn’t. If it does, then the public-reason objection to Rothbardian property claims fails. If it doesn’t, then it demands that the correct go defenseless against the mistaken – and makes any property regime difficult to enforce.
I would go further, of course, and say that the fact that enforcement of property claims must sometimes impinge on bodily integrity implies that we cannot justify any property claims at all unless we acknowledge such claims as being extensions of the right to bodily integrity – in which case their stringency will be correspondingly enhanced.
Kevin writes: “We cannot live in moral relations with absolutely everyone ever. But at least public reason liberals try.” But that is precisely what I deny. If public reason liberals are prepared to violate the NAP – prepared, e.g., to treat other people’s labour (or the products of that labour, which I think Nozick was right to treat as being on a par) as being at their disposal – then living in moral relations with other people is exactly what’s being abandoned.
Quick Postscript on Matt’s and Jason’s Latest; or, Toontown’s Not Bad, It’s Just Drawn that Way
Matt’s discussion leaves it unclear (at least to me) whether or not he distinguishes between two different theses: a) that the NAP should be applied in a nuanced, context-sensitive, consequence-sensitive way; and b) that the NAP should be, if not rejected, then at least downgraded to a mere defeasible presumption or rule of thumb.
Certainly Bill Bradford did not distinguish them, as Matt’s quotation from “Ethan O. Waters” illustrates. But for reasons I’ve explained earlier, I do distinguish them, accepting (a) but not (b).
Jason begins by offering two examples of “cartoon libertarianism” – a) the view that “any risk I impose upon you without your consent is wrong and violates your rights,” and b) the view that distribution licensed by the Rawlsian difference principle “involves unjust aggression against innocent people and their property.” This is an odd pair of examples; for a) is something that virtually no libertarian holds, while b) is something that almost every libertarian holds. Hence I worry that the concept of “cartoon libertarianism” is what Rand would call a “package deal,” serving to conflate obviously silly positions with positions that Jason merely happens to disagree with.
Jason goes on to offer a list of symptoms of cartoon libertarianism. Many of the symptoms are described so tendentiously that they essentially have cartoonishness built into them – like using “dogmatically” in the definition. (If you reason dogmatically, you may be dogmatic! Whoa!) It’s certainly fair to take libertarians to task for dismissive caricaturing of their opponents; but doing this is a way that itself amounts to dismissive caricaturing seems rather to defeat one’s point.
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