Bas van der Vossen – Bleeding Heart Libertarians http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com Free Markets and Social Justice Wed, 15 Nov 2017 17:16:21 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.8.3 http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/cropped-site-icon-BHL-32x32.png Bas van der Vossen – Bleeding Heart Libertarians http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com 32 32 22756168 Humanitarian non-intervention http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2017/05/humanitarian-non-intervention/ http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2017/05/humanitarian-non-intervention/#comments Mon, 01 May 2017 21:29:50 +0000 http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/?p=11762 Over the past two posts, I have explained why we should be skeptical of foreign military interventions. Historically, military interventions have extremely low success rates. And there are structural reasons...

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Over the past two posts, I have explained why we should be skeptical of foreign military interventions. Historically, military interventions have extremely low success rates. And there are structural reasons for this. Interveners typically have conflicting aims (peacekeeping and nation-building require different things). Interveners typically lack the kind of knowledge they would need to successfully bring about those aims. And democratic politics skews decision-making away from what would be strategically best to pursue those aims, and toward what is politically easiest to sell.

These problems aren’t new, and they aren’t going away. The things that make interventions so difficult to pull off remain present today, and so we should – as a rule – refrain from intervention. (The phrase “as a rule” seems to have confused some people. Here’s what I mean: there is a presumption against intervention, which can be overridden in cases that are clear exceptions in terms of the problems above.)

Nevertheless, many people – including some in the comments section to a previous post – want to keep intervening, even if doing so means ignoring the evidence that such interventions have very low chances of success. Why?

One possible reason: some people have the intuition that I am being too gloomy about the possibility of doing good through military action. But we really shouldn’t rely on intuitions here. As is well-known, we suffer from various psychological biases, including an over-confidence bias. As Kahneman and Tverski famously showed, we tend to exaggerate our abilities to bring about good outcomes (we think we’re smarter than average, have better leadership abilities, better morals, and so on). And we do the opposite with others, especially when we can classify them as members of a certain group (which we can then see as inferior). We tend to underestimate their abilities, character, and the likelihood that they will resist our efforts. Most importantly, we underestimate the role of randomness and (bad) luck.

We are built, then, to think that interventions can be more successful than they actually are, or will be. And, again, the empirical evidence about the success rates of interventions does not support optimism. (The history of intervention spans a long period of time, and many different kinds of conflicts, interveners, and methods. And while some surely do worse than others, even under the best of conditions interventions still do not succeed very often at all. I offer a detailed discussion in Debating Humanitarian Intervention.)

The problem here is not just failing to bring about good. When interventions fail, they often make things worse. They cause deaths and suffering of themselves, they have a tendency to prolong the conflict, and they may have pretty bad ripple effects elsewhere too.

The non-interventionist position, then, is not some selfish or callous view. Most of the time, non-intervention is the humanitarian thing to do.

Does this mean that we should just do nothing? Can we stand idly by when quite literally hundreds of thousands of people are being slaughtered in a place like Syria? Obviously, the answer cannot be yes. This may be the most compelling worry about rejecting the interventionist position.

But the non-interventionist position is decidedly not a position of complacency or inaction. It is not a defense of “politics as usual.” (After all, intervention is politics as usual.) Rather, it is a call to try things that work, rather than keep on doing things that have created more misery time and again.

In particular, this means we are facing even stronger reasons to open our borders, in this case to people fleeing places ravaged by violence, oppression, and conflict. Here is how I put the point in Debating Humanitarian Intervention:

The aim of the interventionist is to bring peace and stability to places where people are forced to live under conditions of oppression, conflict, and war. But there are two variables to this equation: the people and the places in which they live. Unfortunately, the quality of the institutions that govern places is highly inert. Bad institutions incentivize political and social elites to keep them bad. Their extractive ways of life depend on it. And there isn’t much that we as outsiders can do about it.

Fortunately, the people living in these places are not so inert. They can and often are willing to move. And we, as outsiders, can make it much easier for them to do so. The truly humanitarian response to suffering and oppression around the world, then, is not to try and fix other countries through the use of violence. The truly humanitarian response is to make it as easy as possible for those who are forced to live in these countries to leave for better places.

Instead, our governments do pretty much the worst thing imaginable. They export violence to other countries, while keeping the victims of that violence trapped in their dysfunctional societies. It is difficult to imagine a less humanitarian view than that.

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Against intervention – ex ante / ex post http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2017/04/intervention-ex-ante-ex-post/ http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2017/04/intervention-ex-ante-ex-post/#comments Mon, 24 Apr 2017 13:03:04 +0000 http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/?p=11752 As I explained in my previous post, military interventions are almost never morally acceptable. The basic reason is relatively straightforward. Such interventions fail much more often than they succeed. And...

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As I explained in my previous post, military interventions are almost never morally acceptable. The basic reason is relatively straightforward. Such interventions fail much more often than they succeed. And so, as a rule, we should not undertake them.

Fernando disagrees. He believes that refraining from interventions is unacceptable. My view is too close to pacifism. I find this puzzling. I don’t see why getting closer to pacifism than the kind of wanton interventionism we see today counts as an objection. It’s a conclusion. And pretty clearly the right one at that, I’d say.

Fernando proposes that interventions, and in particular the Syrian one, are justified if three conditions are justified. Here are the conditions:

the Syria bombings will be justified if (1) they had a just cause; (2) the commander, Trump, weighed consequences responsibly, and (3) the bombings satisfied proportionality, that is, they turned out well.

It’s not clear to me (at all) why Fernando thinks this position actually licenses the interventions he wants. Right before concluding that the Syrian attacks are justified, he admits that “there are serious doubts about (2).” But, on his view, shouldn’t that mean that the intervention is wrong? I would add that there very serious doubts about (3) too. As I pointed out before, the track record of intervention gives us zero reason to believe this will work out. (And there are good reasons for believing that this trend will continue into the future.)

So if interventions are acceptable only if both nothing went wrong ahead of time, and things worked out in the end, then the Syrian case begins to look quite worrying. But Syria really isn’t exceptional in this way. The cases where both nothing went wrong ahead of time and things worked out in the end are few and far between. You can probably count them on the fingers of one hand.* If interventions are justified only when both these things go well, means accepting an even more pacifist conclusion than I defend.

I actually think it’s better to choose how to evaluate interventions. Either we should judge them on how they work out ex post, or we should judge them on the decisions ex ante. In Debating Humanitarian Intervention, I offer several arguments for why a purely ex post approach won’t do. And these problems cannot be avoided in the standard ways. (That is, they don’t go away by simply saying that doing something that was ex ante wrong or irresponsible makes an agent culpable or excused, while the ex post wrongness makes the act unjustifiable. That’s a response that works well in most cases, but there are cases in which it’s obviously and deeply mistaken.**)

The best option, then, is to simply accept that being responsible ex ante is what matters. Of course that means that sometimes we might forego things that might have worked out in the end, simply because there was no good reason to believe they would do so. But that’s something I’m comfortable with. It also means sometimes doing things because it’s the right thing to do ex ante, and then accepting that, even though they didn’t work out, it was still the right thing to do. That’s something I’m less comfortable with, but still can accept. After all, if you’d put us in the same position, we’d do the same thing all over again. Stronger: we wouldn’t want anyone to do anything else.

Most theories of just war pay lip service to these ex ante ideas. They accept a “success condition” for justified intervention. The success condition is ex ante in nature – it refers to the prospects of success, not actual success. But as soon as we accept that, we must also accept that interventions are almost never justified. There is simply not enough reason to think, right now, that we’ll end up doing them well.

 

* There is a rich literature chronicling the crappy decision-making procedures used by intervening powers when deciding whether or not to attack. If you’re interested, this is a good starting point.

** I have offered a shorter version of the argument here. But much of my thinking about this has been shaped by the brilliant work of Michael Zimmerman’s, see e.g. here and here.

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Against Attacking Syria http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2017/04/against-attacking-syria/ http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2017/04/against-attacking-syria/#comments Mon, 10 Apr 2017 20:30:30 +0000 http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/?p=11720 Fernando supports the US attack on Syria, if tentatively. I’m (even) less sure. Like Fernando, I think that the moral questions involved are complex. Unfortunately, many commentators fall back on...

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Fernando supports the US attack on Syria, if tentatively. I’m (even) less sure. Like Fernando, I think that the moral questions involved are complex. Unfortunately, many commentators fall back on slogans.

I agree, of course, that Assad is an awful tyrant. The world would be better off without him. No quarrel there. But that’s not enough to justify military strikes. What’s needed, in addition, is for the harm that such a strike imposes to be justifiable in their own right.

In our forthcoming book Debating Humanitarian Intervention, I distinguish between two kinds of justifications. First, harms may be justified because people are liable to them – most notably, because they’ve forfeited their rights against those harms. Second, there are what we might call lesser-evil justifications. These involve harms to people who are not liable to them, but whose rights can be justifiably overridden in order to achieve something morally more important.

When we are dealing with this second kind of justification, I argue, attacks must meet a so-called success condition. This condition, roughly, requires that attacks have a good enough chance of bringing about a just goal (just in light of the expected harms, that is). Only then can we justify imposing harms on people who have rights against those harms being imposed.

Reports about the actual harms imposed by these strikes vary wildly. Fernando linked to a report suggesting no collateral damage. The L.A. Times reports that Syrian officials claim 15 people were killed, nine of whom lived in surrounding villages. It is hard to know which is closer to the truth at this point. Even if we assume – which may not be true – that the airport personnel was liable to being attacked, should these reports of civilian casualties be true, it is hard to see the harms as proportional, and thus justifiable. I think Fernando would agree.

Here’s something about which Fernando and I disagree. In my view, insofar as the morality of the strikes is concerned, the most important thing isn’t how they actually worked out. More precisely, if we want to know whether the attack was morally justified, whether they were the right thing to do, we should not look at its actual results. Instead, we should look at its ex ante prospects – what the chances of success or failure were at the time the attack was undertaken.

This, too, is difficult to ascertain. Each case must be judged on its own merits, and the people actually making this decision (fortunately) have more and better information at their disposal than we do. However, generally speaking, the prospects of interventions being successful – and thus satisfying the success condition – are very bad.

The empirical literature on intervention is not particularly uplifting. Interventions fail much more often than they succeed, and they frequently end up making things worse. In what’s the best empirical study of military intervention I’ve seen, political scientist Patrick Regan studied 175 military interventions that occurred in the period 1944-1994. Regan finds that interventions in general succeed to reduce violence and loss of life in only about 30 percent of the cases.

Of course, not all interventions are alike. Under the most favorable circumstances, interventions manage to reduce violence and loss of life in about 50 percent of the cases. These cases are interventions that are undertaken unilaterally by major powers in intense conflicts on behalf of the existing government. While the Syrian conflict is certainly intense, and the strike was taken unilaterally, it did oppose the existing government. Such interventions typically succeed much less frequently in reducing violence. Indeed, they often lengthen and worsen a conflict. (Especially when the intervention attracts a counter-intervention on behalf of the other side.)

There are good reasons why we should expect results like these. Foreign military and political leaders – despite knowing more than you and me – typically know very little about the situation on the ground. Interventions must often cope with internally conflicting goals. And there are strong political pressures on the leaders to select strategies that are not well suited to the conflict.

Let me focus on this last point here. In Debating Humanitarian Intervention, I write:

Since democratic leaders are accountable to their voters, the political system in which they operate is designed to skew their decisions towards the interest of their people. Generally, of course, this is a good idea, as protects people against the use of political power for the private interests of the leaders. But the system does not just steer decisions away from the private interests of politicians, it steers them away from the interests of anyone to whom the decision-makers are not accountable. This includes, of course, the citizens of countries that are the target of military interventions.

Unfortunately, the interests of the people (and interest-groups) of intervening countries are generally not well aligned with the interests of the people whom intervention is supposed to help. The voters in intervening countries have a strong interest in limiting potential casualties among their own armed forces, in limiting the financial cost of intervention, and in avoiding a lengthy military presence in the target country. Each of these moves interventions away from what’s required for a good chance of success.

This, of course, explains why airstrikes are the preferred method of intervention these days. We call them “surgical”, but they are mostly clean in the sense of making it easier for us to ignore how dirty our hands might be. One more quote:

In politics, the lives of foreigners have almost no value. And so the same dynamics plague political decisions about how to intervene. Interveners choose their strategies primarily with an eye on maintaining domestic support, not on optimizing the chances of success. Since the main goal is to minimize casualties on one’s own side, interventions often depend heavily on air power. But while this kind of engagement minimizes domestic political costs, it is rarely strategically optimal. Committing ground troops is often a better strategy, yet too tough to sell to voters back home.

If it’s true, of course, as Fernando said, that “this means commanders almost never are permitted to act.” He seems not willing to live with that conclusion. I think it’s the only morally acceptable position to take, given the dangers we impose on innocent people whenever we do intervene.

One last thing. It is controversial to say, as I have, that the most important thing, in terms of justification, are the ex ante prospects of the attack, not the actual consequences. Many of you will want to resist this. Many of you will say that the ex ante prospects determine whether Trump was culpable for attacking, but the actual outcomes determine whether the attack was the right thing or the wrong thing to do. I think this is an important mistake, for reasons to which I will return in a later post.

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Some thoughts on the minimum wage http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2016/04/some-thoughts-on-the-minimum-wage/ http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2016/04/some-thoughts-on-the-minimum-wage/#comments Thu, 14 Apr 2016 17:32:34 +0000 http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/?p=10639 As you know, California is phasing in a $15 minimum wage. As Matt has explained, this is very likely a very bad idea. But: could a minimum wage law be...

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As you know, California is phasing in a $15 minimum wage. As Matt has explained, this is very likely a very bad idea. But: could a minimum wage law be a requirement of justice?

I don’t mean to ask whether justice might require some coercive measures to benefit a group of people. Let’s suppose that it can. (It’s almost certain that the minimum wage won’t help the group one would want to help the most, again for reasons Matt discussed, but set that aside, too.)

I also don’t mean to ask whether justice might ever allow interference with freedom of contract. Let’s suppose again that it does, at least sometimes.

My question is more specific – about this particular kind of freedom of contract. Minimum wage laws apply only to a subset of employment relations, namely bilateral ones. These are not the only employment relations. Importantly, people can be, and often are, self-employed. But minimum wages laws don’t apply to self-employment.

One reason is obvious: it’s not clear how they could apply to self-employment. Such a law would be plainly unenforceable. But equally plainly, even if we could enforce it, such a minimum wage law would be a terrible idea. There is simply no good reason to prevent people from working for themselves at whatever rate they choose is worth their time.

But this has a bizarre result. People can apparently work for themselves for, say, $8 an hour, without an injustice being done. They just can’t work for someone else for the same price. Or, to put it the other way around, people can employ themselves for $8 an hour, they just can’t employ anyone else at the same rate.

It’s not that difficult to come up with reasons why people might want to work for themselves for only $8 an hour. One might enjoy the work, or find a kind of fulfillment in it, even though it doesn’t really pay the bills. One might treat it as an investment, accepting a low income now in the hope that this line of work will become more profitable later. It might, more regrettably, be one’s best option. And so on.

But one might want to work for others for the very same reasons. If one thinks it’s a good deal to be self-employed at a low wage, it might similarly be a good deal to be employed by others on the same terms. So why is one allowed but not the other? The worry here is a general one. Why would it ever be okay for people to offer a benefit to themselves but not to others?  After all, those others will have their reasons for accepting employment at a low wage. And imposing a minimum wage law won’t change anything about that.

John Rawls wrote that a just society is a cooperative venture for mutual advantage. And these are mutually advantageous exchanges. Of course, any thinker worth their salt knows that mutual advantage isn’t a conversation stopper. It’s possible for exchanges to benefit both parties and still be wrong. But mutual advantage does matter. And any thinker worth their salt also knows that issuing blanket prohibitions on productive exchanges is no way for a society to flourish. The same goes for the people within it.

Again, it’s an open question whether there ought to be policies in support of the poor (or even in support of the working poor – which is not the same). But even if so, a minimum wage law remains a bad idea.

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Open Borders True and False http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2015/09/open-borders-true-and-false/ http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2015/09/open-borders-true-and-false/#comments Mon, 21 Sep 2015 12:43:32 +0000 http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/?p=9830 This has been the summer of immigration. And it’s not a good thing. The violence in Syria alone has caused millions of people to seek refuge in Europe. And Europe,...

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This has been the summer of immigration. And it’s not a good thing. The violence in Syria alone has caused millions of people to seek refuge in Europe. And Europe, in old fashioned style, is trying its very hardest to turn them away. I don’t buy that I am responsible for what my fellow nationals do or say. Nevertheless, I am embarrassed.

When I tell people I am in favor of open borders, they often bring up cases like this. But what, they snicker, about things like the European refugee crisis? Isn’t the implication of the open borders position clearly that we must let all those people in? And doesn’t that clearly reduce the position to the absurd?

The standard response here is to make a distinction. There is a difference, it is said, between normal immigrants, often labeled “economic” migrants, and refugees. The people fleeing the Syrian conflict are refugees, and that means their claims to enter better countries are categorically different. Theirs is a much stronger claim, than those of “mere” immigrants.

Let’s set aside the obvious. The claims of refugees are extremely weighty. Their lives are at stake and they are trying to make a better life for themselves and their loved ones. Only the extremely callous would begrudge them that.

But the distinction is suspicious. It makes sense only if we first accept that countries have a right to deny people entry at all. Only if we concede that does the weighing up of differential claims begin to matter. Yet, if we concede that, it also becomes much easier to resist even the claims of refugees. Perhaps countries in the region should shelter these people. Perhaps it’s someone else’s problem. Perhaps we have done enough. Perhaps … who knows what.

The point should not be conceded. Most readers here will be familiar with Michael Huemer’s arguments. If you are not, check them out here. I have taken on more interesting and challenging defenses of closed borders myself here. I will be blogging more about this soon. (I promise.) The upshot: an honest reading of the arguments pro and con, I believe, is that there is no good justification for countries’ purported right to exclude migrants, full stop. And if no good justification exists, there is no difference between the “mere” immigrant and the refugee. Both come looking for a safer, better life. Both would like to make such a life for themselves, if only we let them. And both have as good a claim of being here as we might.

This is the truth that the snickerers see. Whatever we see about refugees will have implications about what we say about immigration in general. But that is about as far as it goes. For what’s false in their view is at least as important.

Suppose that the influx of refugees is really too much for Europe to handle. Suppose that letting these people in would really endanger social and political stability in the ways that the doomsayers claim. These are empirical conjectures, but let’s grant them for the moment. Imagine that things are really dire. What of it? Is this really the reductio ad absurdum of the open borders position?

Let’s make something absolutely clear. Even if the open borders view were committed to allowing all Syrian refugees unfettered access, it is by no means obvious that this constitutes a reductio. People are dying. Keeping them out – with razor wire, no less – is not something I’d like to stand for.

But the real mistake here is this to think that the test of a theory is how it performs in exceptional circumstances. The mistake is that we can find out what is true in general by looking at the exception. The Syrian crisis is an emergency situation, and the millions of refugees it has caused are trying to escape it. This is not run-of-the-mill stuff.

Philosophers often like to exploit these kind of cases. We search for counter-examples. But social and political life often does not allow for this way of reasoning. The fact that a drowning person can grab the nearest lifesaver – even though it’s not his – does not disprove the existence of property rights. And similarly, the fact – if it is a fact – that sudden and overwhelming influxes of migration ought to be regulated or controlled does not disprove that generally borders ought to be open. The exception is not the rule.

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When Civility Matters http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2014/09/when-civility-matters/ http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2014/09/when-civility-matters/#comments Mon, 15 Sep 2014 21:33:04 +0000 http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/?p=8589 Paul Krugman thinks that civility in discussion is not that important. Roughly stated, the idea is this. Sure, we should be polite and civil to our interlocutors, he writes, but...

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Paul Krugman thinks that civility in discussion is not that important. Roughly stated, the idea is this. Sure, we should be polite and civil to our interlocutors, he writes, but some interlocutors are beyond the pale. To those, you can be as rude and dismissive as you’d like. The difference is whether the other is seriously interested in finding the truth.

 When there’s an honest, good-faith economic debate — say, the ongoing controversy about the effects of quantitative easing — by all means let’s be civil. But in my experience demands for civility almost always come from people who have forfeited the right to the respect they demand.

Krugman’s stated target is a kind of stereotypical Austrian economists. (Of whom we have a few here.) For the sake of argument, let’s say he is right about this, and that these people are not serious scholars. Most stereotypes have a grain of truth to them. If so, that would be a tremendous indictment of these people. As you know, I take honestly searching for the truth pretty seriously.

But Krugman calls their ideas cockroaches and zombies. The implication, of course, is that they should not be taken seriously, but eradicated. Brian Leiter seems to agree. In response to Krugman’s post, Leiter linked to one of his essays. It contains the following (important) passage:

Understanding is impeded by uncivil language from the teacher towards the student. Insults, disparaging or derivise (sic) remarks, or expressions of contempt make their targets defensive, alienated, and angry. It is hard to see how such a response is conducive to learning and understanding.

The point is “to insure that the student is, both cognitively and affectively, maximally able to understand and learn”.

Leiter is right, and the point is very important. Civility in the classroom is required to facilitate effective learning. If you ridicule or dismiss people’s beliefs, or the people themselves, you make them shut off. When we think poorly of our teachers as persons or thinkers, we stop taking their ideas seriously. We dismiss them out of hand. Such are the workings of psychological bias.

The significance of this point goes further than that, however. True, civility is important so that other people might continue to learn and discuss with an open mind. But it is just as important for us to learn and discuss with an open mind. When we ridicule or dismiss other people’s beliefs, we shut ourselves off. And no responsible thinker should want to do that, ever.

This is especially true of political views, where the temptation to ridicule and dismiss views with which one disagrees is much, much greater than in other areas of inquiry. When we can either face up to hard questions and admit to some confusion or uncertainty, or dismiss the other as a moron and continue to feel good about our having our hearts in the right place, you can count on our minds taking the latter option almost all of the time.

The problem here is that we judge who is beyond the pale in terms of the moral, political, and social scientific views we already accept. And it is all too easy to put more and more people beyond the pale – especially those with views that, if they were somehow right, would be real threats to our most cherished ways of thinking.

Far too often, libertarians attack egalitarian ideas, philosophers, and politicians as thinly veiled Stalinists. If they do not explicitly defend full-blown socialism, they say, that is only because they do not fully explicate their ideas. It is safe to say that the egalitarians themselves do not feel like this criticism really addresses their views, or even takes them seriously. The combination of the two is no coincidence.

Those who attack libertarians – including Krugman – often attack them as dumb, insensitive, cold-hearted, gun-waiving morons. (Just Google “Slate.com and libertarianism”.) Needless to say, most libertarians do not think these attacks puts much pressure on their views, or even them seriously. The combination of the two is no coincidence.

It is tempting to think we can be rude to those who are beyond the pale. But that is exactly the problem. It is with them that should our hardest to be civil.

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Libertarianism at SEP (and a few words on Self-Ownership) http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2014/08/libertarianism-at-sep-and-a-few-words-on-self-ownership/ http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2014/08/libertarianism-at-sep-and-a-few-words-on-self-ownership/#comments Thu, 21 Aug 2014 19:16:32 +0000 http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/?p=8478 A little while ago, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy published its revised entry on Libertarianism, co-authored by Peter Vallentyne and myself. The entry focuses on libertarian theory in the narrow...

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A little while ago, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy published its revised entry on Libertarianism, co-authored by Peter Vallentyne and myself. The entry focuses on libertarian theory in the narrow sense, a self-contained moral theory built on ideas about self-ownership and the possibility of private ownership of the external things.

Focusing on libertarianism in that sense of course leaves a lot of things out – including a number of views defended by people on this blog. Many of us reject the idea of self-ownership in its logically strongest form. The entry discusses some of the reasons why one might want to reject that idea.

Personally, I do not think self-ownership in its strongest form is all that attractive (Peter may disagree with me here, I am not sure). Still, I consider myself someone who believes in self-ownership. Compare this to ownership of land or resources. To say someone is an owner of land is to say something substantive. It may not rule out everything that the strongest possible form of land ownership would rule out, but it rules out a lot. There are many things we cannot do to an owner or his/her property without violating the owner’s rights. Real-life property rights know their limits, but they matter greatly nonetheless.

So too, I think, for self-ownership. As we point out in the entry, to deny the strongest form of self-ownership does not remove the real attraction of that ideal. Self-ownership gives expression to the unique position of dominion of every individual over him or herself, and the respect this demands in others. And while accepting, say, duties or liabilities to rescue moves us away from the ideal in its strongest form, it does not entail its denial. Real-life self-ownership may not rule out everything that the logically strongest form of self-ownership would rule out, but it rules out a lot. It prohibits treating people as if their bodies, talents, and efforts were a common resource for others to mine. And that, too, matters greatly.

The entry discusses a lot more, such as the position of non-human animals, enforcement rights, and the possibility of appropriation. On the latter point, Peter and I agree: any acceptable moral theory must allow individuals to unilaterally appropriate parts of the external world for their private use. We disagree on the distributive conditions attached to appropriation, but that is another topic for another day. For now: go check it out!

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Why Philosophers Should Stay Out of Politics http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2014/07/why-philosophers-should-stay-out-of-politics/ http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2014/07/why-philosophers-should-stay-out-of-politics/#comments Wed, 23 Jul 2014 02:57:20 +0000 http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/?p=8308 Two years ago I participated in an NEH summer seminar for political philosophers. This was during the campaign for the 2012 Presidential election. One evening over drinks, I asked the...

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Two years ago I participated in an NEH summer seminar for political philosophers. This was during the campaign for the 2012 Presidential election. One evening over drinks, I asked the others (15 or so philosophers from around the country) whether they had ever contributed any money to a political campaign. It turned out that everyone at the table but me had contributed to the Obama campaign that year.

As anyone who has spent some time in academia knows, this is hardly atypical. Many academics (philosophers and non-philosophers) spend considerable amounts of time and money on political activism. They vote (duh), put signs in their yard, attend party rallies, and so on. Heck, at my school “community-engaged scholarship” is now among the conditions of tenure.

Around the same time, I was reading Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow and Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind. Both books discuss the ways in which partisanship can bias our thinking. And so I started worrying about this. Because, as anyone who has spent some time in academia also knows, academics (philosophers included) are hardly the most ideologically diverse group. The ideological spectrum ranges roughly from left to extreme left. For a field that is supposed to think openly, critically, and honestly about the nature and purpose of politics, this is not a healthy state of affairs. The risk of people confirming one another’s preconceptions, or worse, trying to one-up each other, is simply too great.

(By the way, it’s likely that the risk is at least somewhat of a reality. I know of many libertarians who think that the level of argument and rigor that reviewers demand of their arguments is not quite the same as what is demanded of arguments for egalitarian conclusions. That is anecdotal evidence. For other fields, there is more robust empirical evidence. Psychologists Yoel Inbar and Joris Lammers have found that in their field ideological bias is very much a real thing.)

I mention this episode because it had a significant effect on how I think about the responsibilities of being a philosopher. I now think it is morally wrong for philosophers, and other academics who engage in politically relevant work, to be politically active (yes, you read that correctly).

The argument for this conclusion is, I think, startlingly simple. I develop it in detail in a now forthcoming paper In Defense of the Ivory Tower: Why Philosophers Should Stay out of Politics. Here is a quick summary of the argument:

  1. People who take up a certain role or profession thereby acquire a prima facie moral duty to make a reasonable effort to avoid those things that predictably make them worse at their tasks
  2. The task of political philosophers is to seek the truth about political issues
  3. Being politically active predictably makes us worse at seeking the truth about political issues
  4. Therefore, political philosophers have a prima faciemoral duty to avoid being politically active

I have given this paper at a number of universities, and I have found that a lot of people are very resistant to the conclusion (to say the least). But each of the argument’s premises is true, I think, and so the conclusion must be true as well.

Lots of people resist premise (3). But that is really not up for debate. It is an empirical question whether political activism harms our ability to seek the truth about politics. And the empirical evidence is just overwhelming: it does. (You can find a bunch of cites in the paper, in addition to Haidt and Kahneman.)

Over at The Philosophers’ Cocoon, Marcus Arvan offers a different objection. He says he disagrees with premise (2), but his real objection is actually a bit different. Marcus suggests that there can be permissible trade-offs between activism and scholarship, such that surely a teensy little tiny bit of activism is surely okay, even if it harms our scholarship. It is too simple, Marcus suggests, to say that we should forgo activism if it makes us worse at philosophy.

I don’t find this a powerful objection. Here is the reply I give in the paper, and it still seems plausible to me. The reason people want to be activist is that they want to make the world a better place. That’s cool – I want that too. But there are many, many ways to achieve this. And activism is but one of these. (It is also, I should add, a really inefficient way.) My point, then, is simple: if philosophers (and other academics) want to make the world a better place, they should do it in ways that do not make them bad at their jobs. That means they should do it without political activism.

So the argument stands, I think. But Marcus ends with a good question. What the hell am I doing on a blog with the word libertarians in its name? If political affiliations harm our ability to seek the truth, and seek the truth we must, then am I not being irresponsible as well? And he is right, there is a real risk in this. By self-labeling as a libertarian, I risk becoming biased in favor of certain arguments, premises, and conclusions, and against others. And that, to be sure, is something I want to avoid.

The honest answer is that I thought hard about it when I was asked to join the blog. (My wife asked the same question as Marcus did when I told her I was thinking of joining.) I decided that there was little additional risk to joining. For one, I have always seen myself as a reluctant libertarian. I grew up a Rawlsian and slowly moved away from those views toward more libertarian views. But I never became an “in the fold” kind of guy. So I apply the label only partially to myself. On the other hand, I am pretty deeply convinced of a number of things that will inevitably put me in a libertarian (or libertarian-like) camp. And this is something I know. So insofar as I do apply the label “libertarian” to myself, joining the blog didn’t add much to it.

Or so I told myself. But that is, of course, exactly the sort of things that a biased person will tell himself. I am aware of that. What won the day, finally, was that the blog has no “party-line.” We have people here who defend basic income, parental licensing, Israel, Palestine, and lord knows what other view will come up next. We are a weird bunch. And I like the blog because of this. I think it helps show people just how diverse, and intellectually rich the libertarian part of the conversation is (or can be). It helps me stay on my toes. And I wanted to contribute to that. So here I am.

Perhaps that was a mistake. I am open to persuasion. I made pretty radical changes to my life after becoming convinced of my thesis of non-activism. I no longer follow the political news, I have tried to distance myself from any sympathies I might have had for parties, movements or politicians (that one was easy), and so on. I highly recommend it. But maybe I didn’t go quite far enough. If someone can convince me, I’ll leave. Take your best shot.

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The Drug Debate Remains Frustrating http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2014/06/the-drug-debate-remains-frustrating/ http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2014/06/the-drug-debate-remains-frustrating/#comments Sat, 07 Jun 2014 13:44:52 +0000 http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/?p=7960 The New York Times seems to have made up its mind: pot should be illegal. It has recently run pieces that suggest things in Colorado are going very bad indeed since...

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The New York Times seems to have made up its mind: pot should be illegal. It has recently run pieces that suggest things in Colorado are going very bad indeed since the legalization of marijuana, and a first-hand scare story about a “bad trip”. Edible products seem to be the new target of choice, I guess because it is easier to scaremonger with things you eat than things you smoke.

Both pieces rely heavily on anecdotal evidence – and the former manages to even combine the observations that sales have been lower than expected, and that there is little hard data available about the effects of legalization, with various claims about the harms it has been doing.

Fortunately, Vox.com has been doing a great job reporting some, you know, actual facts about these issues. As they show, the data that is available shows what anyone who has taken the time to look into these things has known for a long time now: drug legalization makes things better, not worse.

This is old news. But wouldn’t it be nice if newspapers reported the true old news instead of harmful but “new” lies? Maybe then harebrained politicians like Chuck Schumer will stop asking, yet again, for ramping up the drug war – even though we know this is a terrible idea.

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Try Freedom Stories Needs Your Money http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2014/05/try-freedom-stories-needs-your-money/ http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2014/05/try-freedom-stories-needs-your-money/#comments Fri, 30 May 2014 13:22:29 +0000 http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/?p=7898 A few days ago, we ran this interesting guest post by Molly Thrasher. Her project, Try Freedom Stories, tries to highlight non-governmental solutions to social problems.  They are making some...

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A few days ago, we ran this interesting guest post by Molly Thrasher. Her project, Try Freedom Stories, tries to highlight non-governmental solutions to social problems.  They are making some awesome documentaries. Go check them out.

What Molly was too polite to point out, though, is that Try Freedom Stories is currently running a fund raising campaign to keep up their great work. I hope you will consider donating some money to Try Freedom Stories. (I have.) They really deserve your support.

You can donate to Try Freedom Stories here.

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