Consequentialism – Bleeding Heart Libertarians http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com Free Markets and Social Justice Fri, 19 Jan 2018 15:05:02 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.9.2 http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/cropped-site-icon-BHL-32x32.png Consequentialism – Bleeding Heart Libertarians http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com 32 32 22756168 Tu Quoque: The Dictators Might Misuse You Objection to Against Democracy http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2017/12/tu-quoque-dictators-might-misuse-objection-democracy/ http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2017/12/tu-quoque-dictators-might-misuse-objection-democracy/#comments Sat, 02 Dec 2017 16:16:46 +0000 http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/?p=12093 A few times, political theorists—most recently Jeff Isaac at Indiana’s Ostrom Workshop—have raised a particular objection to Against Democracy. (I mention political theorists because I think it’s interesting that theorists,...

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A few times, political theorists—most recently Jeff Isaac at Indiana’s Ostrom Workshop—have raised a particular objection to Against Democracy. (I mention political theorists because I think it’s interesting that theorists, rather than philosophers, are the ones who always make this objection. I think it reflects differences in attitudes about what theorists and philosopher see themselves as doing.)

The objection goes roughly as follows:

The Dictators Might Misuse You Objection

In Against Democracy, you document at great length the pathological behaviors of voters. You argue voters are mostly ignorant and misinformed about basic political facts, about the social science needed to evaluate those facts, that they vote for non-cognitive reasons, that political participation exacerbates our biases, and that all this has a negative effect on the quality of government and policy.

But dictator, oligarchs, the Chinese Communist party, cronies, elites, and others are gonna salivate over such arguments. They’re going to use them to consolidate their power and justify excluding their enemies.

Sure, you, Brennan, aren’t arguing for such exclusions. (In fact, your preferred form of epistocracy—Government-by-Simulated-Oracle—might not even qualify as epistocratic, as it actually allows everyone, even children, to vote, and doesn’t really give any individual extra weight.) But nevertheless, if your ideas became popular, people are going to use your language to justify their abusive, cronyist, oligarchical, or authoritarian behavior. You can’t ignore the context you find yourself in. You aren’t just writing this stuff for other philosophers, but are getting read and interviewed by the mass media and laypeople around the world.

Let’s write this out in premise-conclusion form. The objection contains both an empirical claim and a normative claim:

The Dictators Might Misuse You Objection

 

  1. Empirical premise: Bad people will use your rhetoric to justify their bad behavior.

  2. Normative premise: If bad people will misuse your rhetoric to justify their bad behavior, then it’s wrong to write what you wrote.

  3. Normative conclusion: Therefore, it’s wrong to write what you wrote.

 

Don’t get this objection confused with two closely related objections:

 

  1. Reductio ad absurdum: In fact, Against Democracy implies that the Chinese Communist Party is just, so therefore it’s false.

  2. Government failure: In the real world, the institutions you recommend we investigate and experiment with would lead to massive abuse and government failure, and so would be even worse than democracy. (I bring that objection up myself and it’s why the book ends up being so cautious and modest in the end.)

 

A is just wrong. B is an important worry, but I’ve already covered B in the book.

 

The Dictators Might Misuse You Objection doesn’t say that AD in fact justifies dictatorship or authoritarianism, or that in practice the institutions I recommend would unfortunately decay into that. Rather, it just says that the anti-democratic stuff about voter pathologies, etc., will be used by dictators to justify themselves.

Premise 1 of the objection is probably true. What about premise 2?

I don’t buy it. Two major problems:

First, this seems to suggest that there is a heckler’s veto in philosophy. Nietzsche didn’t defend fascism—on the contrary, he sort of anticipated it and critiqued it before it came about—but fascists and Nazis nevertheless misused his rhetoric to defend themselves. Does that mean Nietzsche, had he known that, should have shut his trap?

In general, it’s implausible that just because other people react badly to what you write or say, you therefore have a duty not to write it or say it. Otherwise, we’re saying that other people get to veto our permission to write and speak because they misbehave.

Second, and this I think is fatal to the objection, is tu quoque! All around the world, for well over a hundred years, dictators, fascists, communist totalitarian states, oligarchs, rent-seekers, and others have already been misusing democratic theory to justify their abuses. They hold sham elections. They name their countries the Democratic People’s Republic of this and that. They claim to represent true democracy. They quote liberally from democratic theorists to justify their anti-democratic activity. They sometimes even pay democratic theorists (hi, Ben Barber) to consult for them, and sometimes even get those theorists (still here, Ben?) to shill for them. Sometimes the theorists even do it for free, as they celebrate a Mugabe as a democratic revolutionary for a while, until it becomes too obvious that the democratic revolutionary is actually just another dictator.

 

So, in short, my basic response to the objection is:

Okay, what you’re saying is that if the ideas in Against Democracy become really popular, then dictators will start using my language the way they currently use yours. According to your objection, in the future, my rhetoric might be as dangerous as yours actually is right now. My book and rhetoric could be evil because it could, if I get popular enough, suffer from all the same problems your books and your rhetoric already suffer from. I might become the unwitting and unintentional and unwitting handmaiden of evil, just like you people currently are.

 

In short: the democratic political theorists are unwittingly my ideas are dangerous because dictators might do to epistocratic theorists what they currently do to democratic theorists. So, their objection is radically self-effacing. (Maybe that’s why many of them are such bad writers—They want to avoid dictators quoting them?)

Look, we all face this problem. If an economist explains that trade barriers might be efficient under unusual conditions C, then cronyist politicians will lie and say C obtains all the time. If just war theorists say that defensive war is permitted under conditions D, then George W will claim we’re in D when it suits him. If environmentalists say that certain regulations will help the environment, then John Deere will misuse their arguments to get a rent that forces their competitors to license a John Deere patent. Etc.

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Ethicists statement on compensating bone marrow donors http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2016/09/ethicists-statement-compensating-bone-marrow-donors/ http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2016/09/ethicists-statement-compensating-bone-marrow-donors/#comments Wed, 07 Sep 2016 18:28:08 +0000 http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/?p=11099 A former student of mine, Doug Grant, founded a company called Hemeos. Hemeos was founded in the wake of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision in Flynn v. Holder....

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A former student of mine, Doug Grant, founded a company called Hemeos.

Hemeos was founded in the wake of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals decision in Flynn v. Holder. Flynn held that paying people for bone marrow donations through a process called peripheral blood stem cell apheresis was perfectly legal. They reasoned that this type of donation is too similar to an ordinary blood donation, or blood plasma donation, for the former to be prohibited while the latter is permitted.

That ruling came down in 2012. With over 1,000 people dying every year for want of a matching donor — a problem that especially affects minorities — you would think that investors would be lining up to get Hemeos off and running.

But the Department of Health and Human Services has the power, under the National Organ Transplant Act of 1984, to simply change the language of the rule, and make compensating bone marrow donors through apheresis illegal again. And it looks like they intend to.

They proposed a rule in 2013 that would make it illegal again. They set a deadline of July 2015 for a final decision. But they were crushed with over 500 public comments, and so put it off. My understanding is that the overwhelming majority of those commenters were opposed to the new rule (here’s a sample letter sent to the HHS).

And of course they were. However, HHS still had an “out.” They could claim that while economists can argue that it would be more “efficient,” and while other social scientists can complain about the fact that they can’t run studies to test the efficacy of a compensatory system, they had ethics on their side. Exploitation! Coercion! And, of course, commodification! The three ethical terrors of markets in sacred things, like bone marrow.

But none of those arguments actually apply in this case. In fact, all of those arguments are flawed.

What’s worse is that they simply fail to consider the (significant) moral weight of preventing unnecessary deaths. Even if they were right that exploitation, for example, counts against permitting a compensatory model, or that a commodification attitude towards our bodies is a bad thing (note: will some social scientist please compare jurisdictions where commercial surrogacy is permitted with those where they are illegal to test people’s attitudes towards women’s reproductive labor?), those considerations would still be outweighed by preventing, say, 500 unnecessary deaths. Better that 500 people think of their bodies as commodities than that 500 people die. Better that 500 people be exploited in this way than 500 people die.

They had this simple “out”, until today.

After today, they will have to rethink their moral position, or at least explicitly deal with some of the arguments against their view. They can’t lazily rely on whispering the magical ethical terrors as a way to stop the conversation.

Today, we released an open letter from professional ethicists about this issue. Plenty of bleeding heart libertarians are signatories, but so is Peter Singer, and Kim Krawiec, and Michelle Meyer, and Jeffrey Moriarty, and others who are not libertarian. The argument in the open letter is not a “Markets without Limits” argument. It is specifically tailored to this issue. It is sufficiently ecumenical to capture any and every political viewpoint.

The letter offers arguments against the claims made by HHS and others in support of the new rule. It also argues forcefully that making compensation for bone marrow donations through apheresis illegal is itself unethical.

What the HHS proposes to do is unethical. They should stop trying to pass this rule.

Paying people for bone marrow donations through apheresis is legal. It should continue to be legal. A compensatory model will save more lives. That’s sufficient reason to keep it legal.

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A Dissenting View on Guns: Why Rights-Based Arguments Against Gun Control Fail http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2016/03/a-dissenting-view-on-guns-why-rights-based-arguments-against-gun-control-fail/ http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2016/03/a-dissenting-view-on-guns-why-rights-based-arguments-against-gun-control-fail/#comments Fri, 18 Mar 2016 17:35:53 +0000 http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/?p=10506 Bobby is a brilliant scientist. So brilliant, in fact, that he builds a functional atomic bomb in his garage. Of course, Bobby strictly adheres to the non-aggression principle, so he...

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Bobby is a brilliant scientist. So brilliant, in fact, that he builds a functional atomic bomb in his garage. Of course, Bobby strictly adheres to the non-aggression principle, so he has no plans to use his bomb to attack others. But he’s proud of his scientific accomplishment and hangs the bomb on his fireplace mantel as a trophy.

Should Bobby be permitted to possess this atomic bomb? Surely not. The reason is simple: the risk to others is simply too great.

So what’s the point of this parable? It offers a reductio ad absurdum of the typical rights-based arguments that libertarians make against gun control. The first such argument asserts that gun control deprives people of a means of self-defense. That’s certainly true. But bomb control—depriving Bobby of his bomb—deprives Bobby of a means of self-defense.

To see why, suppose Bobby posts a sign on his front lawn alerting potential intruders that he’ll bomb them should they enter his house. That’s a pretty effective means of defending himself. (You’re probably thinking that this is a bad way of defending himself, since he’ll die too. Fair enough. But just imagine that he can run into a bomb shelter before the bomb detonates. Or just change the example: to defend himself, he releases into the atmosphere a synthetic, lethal, airborne disease to which he is immune.). Nevertheless, depriving Bobby of this means of self-defense is justified on the grounds that not depriving him of this means of self-defense would mean tolerating intolerably high risks to others.

Another libertarian objection to gun control is that it deprives individuals of their private property. But bomb control deprives Bobby of his private property. Bobby justly acquired all of his materials, mixed his labor with them, and produced the bomb. On a Lockean story, Bobby privately owns the bomb. Nevertheless, depriving Bobby of this bit of private property is justified on the grounds that not depriving him of this bit of private property would mean tolerating intolerably high risks to others.

The final objection I’ll consider is that gun control opens the door to state tyranny. Gunless citizens are less equipped to resist abuses of state power. But an atomic bomb is at least as effective in deterring state oppression as a handgun. Nevertheless, depriving Bobby of this means of deterring tyranny is justified on the grounds that not depriving him of this means of deterring tyranny would mean tolerating intolerably high risks to others.

To be clear: my argument is not that gun control is justified. I take no stand on the issue. In fact, that’s pretty much my point: the case for or against gun control shouldn’t be made on the basis of philosophical arguments about rights. Instead, the issue should be decided on the basis of a cost-benefit analysis: e.g., does robust access to guns increase or decrease the general risk of violent crime, death, etc? That’s a social scientific question. What I do claim is that the kinds of rights-based arguments against gun restriction that libertarians often make are unsuccessful.

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Morality and Market Process http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2016/02/morality-and-market-process/ http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2016/02/morality-and-market-process/#comments Sun, 07 Feb 2016 14:41:13 +0000 http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/?p=10272 I’m not sure others will find this argument persuasive. But one argument for the morality of markets goes like this: A. It is wrong to use something someone else values more....

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I’m not sure others will find this argument persuasive. But one argument for the morality of markets goes like this:

A. It is wrong to use something someone else values more.

B.  But theft is also wrong, even if the thief values the object more than the current owner.

Prices give a signal that someone else values the item more, solving (partially) problem A.

And then the possibility of exchange means that markets can solve problem B, since  there are bargains where both parties are better off, but the person who values the item more ends up with it.

A happy consequence of this system is that we can never run out of anything where property rights are specified clearly and prices are allowed to adjust to reflect scarcity and signal the fact that other people value an item more than the current owner.

Or…so I claim, here.

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Samaritanism and Duties http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2015/09/reasons-and-requirements/ http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2015/09/reasons-and-requirements/#comments Sat, 05 Sep 2015 17:27:00 +0000 http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/?p=9726 Singer’s famous example is taken to establish that some acts of Samaritanism are morally required. He writes, “if it is in our power to prevent something very bad from happening,...

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Singer’s famous example is taken to establish that some acts of Samaritanism are morally required. He writes, “if it is in our power to prevent something very bad from happening, without sacrificing anything morally significant, we ought, morally, to do it.”

There are three ways to interpret this claim:

1) Strong Duties: There are positive duties. This means it is morally impermissible pursue nonmoral projects instead of assisting others who are very needy. Chris says something like this when he points out that it seems that you would be morally required to throw your new TV in front of a runaway car in order to save a child.

2) Some Duties: Yes, there are positive duties. Samaritanism are morally required and it is impermissible to fail to help people. But we are not required to sacrifice our nonmoral projects to satisfy them in all cases. Sometimes, nonmoral projects can outweigh positive duties because unlike negative duties, positive duties are sensitive to costs.

3) No Duties: People have decisive moral reason to be good Samaritans (we ought, morally, to do it). But Samaritanism is not morally required. That is, it is permissible to pursue nonmoral projects even though you have decisive moral reason not to. This distinction appeals to moral categories like the supererogatory or the suberogatory, which make room for morally better and worse actions that are we are not required to do or avoid. Samaritanism is supererogatory, pursuing nonmoral projects is suberogatory in many cases.

All three of these options are compatible with the claim that you should give some or a lot of your income to charity. You should volunteer to tutor refugee children instead of going to yoga. You should rescue those in need. You should make the world a better place.

The first option seemingly classifies most people’s non-moral pursuits as morally impermissible. The theory seems committed to something like what Williams calls negative responsibility, the idea that we are responsible for the bad things we allow in the same sense that we are responsible for what we do. But we do not think that most people’s ordinary failures of assistance are wrong in the same way that it is wrong to injure or kill someone, even if both choices result in equally bad states of affairs.

The second option seems ad-hoc. If people in need have a claim to our assistance, why should it matter how costly it is to satisfy our duties to them? We do not say the same about negative duties. No matter how much I value a nonmoral project, I am not permitted to injure another person to achieve that project. So why would I be permitted to fail in my duties of assistance for the sake of my nonmoral projects?

The third option is off the table for most people. Matt writes, “The idea that individuals have no positive duties toward strangers is entirely implausible.” But is it? That idea does not deny that a person has decisive moral reason to help strangers. It just denies that helping is a requirement. Such a position can still capture the thought that you should help people, while also explaining why it is morally permissible to pursue nonmoral projects, even if they are not very important to us.

And here is another benefit of the third option. I think we should take accusations of moral impermissibility seriously. It means that someone has a claim, that her right has been violated, that she has been wronged by whomever acted impermissibly. People who act impermissibly are liable to be sanctioned. Blame is warranted (insofar as blame is a sanction), coercive or forceful interference to prevent impermissible conduct is permissible, and punishment can be justified as well.*

But it doesn’t seem like people are liable to be sanctioned at all for going to dinner at a restaurant, buying birthday gifts for their children, taking a yoga class instead of volunteering, or pursuing other morally insignificant projects even when it would not be costly to give them up. I am skeptical that it is morally impermissible (in this sense) for people to pursue non-moral projects, even though there is decisive moral reason to rescue others and donate to charity. For these reasons, I think the third option deserves a second look.

 

 

In some cases, a person could be liable to be sanctioned or punished because he did something impermissible, but it is not possible to permissibly sanction him in a way that is proportionate to the wrongful act. In these cases there should be legal ‘rights to do wrong,’ but the fact that an act shouldn’t be sanctioned or punished doesn’t make it permissible.

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We’re Obligated to Save Many Drowning Children: In Defense of Singer http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2015/08/were-obligated-to-save-many-drowning-children-in-defense-of-singer/ http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2015/08/were-obligated-to-save-many-drowning-children-in-defense-of-singer/#comments Fri, 28 Aug 2015 16:32:49 +0000 http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/?p=9678 Jason wrote a nice post the other day on Peter Singer’s famous drowning child thought experiment. In short, Jason argues that showing that we’d be obligated to save one drowning...

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Jason wrote a nice post the other day on Peter Singer’s famous drowning child thought experiment. In short, Jason argues that showing that we’d be obligated to save one drowning child at the cost of ruining the iPhone in our pocket isn’t enough to establish that we’re obligated to perpetually spend big chunks of our disposable income on life-saving aid. Rather, we’d need to show that we would be obligated to constantly save many drowning children (so many that you will never be able to save them all). And, as Jason notes, even if you think you must save one drowning child, you might not think that “you must dedicate your life to, or even spend a huge amount of time on, saving children” when many are drowning.

Jason says that this doesn’t show that Singer’s conclusion is wrong, just that the drowning child thought experiment doesn’t establish that conclusion. So here’s my attempt to show that Singer is right–that is, to show that we are obligated to save many drowning children even at a significant personal cost.

To see why, let’s change the analogy a bit. Suppose UPS has just delivered the new TV you ordered. As you’re about to pull into your driveway, you’re horrified to discover that your brakes don’t work. You can either do nothing and keep your hands off the wheel, in which case you will hit and kill (or at least severely injure) a child playing in the street or you can swerve into your new TV. It’s obvious what the right thing to do is: save the kid at the cost of your TV. The next day, after getting your brakes fixed, you’re driving home and see that this time UPS has delivered the new watch you ordered. But it turns out the mechanic did a bad job on the brakes and they’ve gone out. So once again, you’re faced with a choice: do you let the car hit and kill (or at least severely injure) another child playing in the street or do you swerve into the watch? Clearly, you should save the kid at the cost of your new watch. “But I sacrificed my TV yesterday and so it’s okay for me to save my watch today” isn’t a good enough excuse to justify the death of the child. Now imagine that this scenario replays itself every day, with a new delivery and another child. At what point will you let a child get hit in order to save your Amazon order? You would probably think it very wrong to not sacrifice most, if not all, of your daily Amazon orders for the sake of saving the lives of neighborhood children. So then shouldn’t we also think it very wrong not to sacrifice most, if not all, of our luxury purchases for the sake of saving the lives of children across the globe?

Update: In the comments, it was suggested that the car accident would be a case of active killing whereas letting a child drown (or die of starvation) is passively “letting die.” In the thought experiment above, I specified that you would keep your hands off the wheel and let the car continue on its path to make it the case that you are in fact letting the child die rather than actively killing her. In any event, you can modify the scenario to make this distinction clearer and the conclusion stands. Imagine that one of your neighbors has the car with the terrible brakes, but each day you can prevent the car from killing a child by tossing your large Amazon box in its path. Even in this case, it is clear that it would be very wrong to not sacrifice most, if not all, of your deliveries to save the children.

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Capitalism and the Humanization of the Family http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2015/05/capitalism-and-the-humanization-of-the-family/ http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2015/05/capitalism-and-the-humanization-of-the-family/#comments Wed, 13 May 2015 20:22:38 +0000 http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/?p=9288 With my book Hayek’s Modern Family just a few months from publication, I thought I’d provide a little preview of one strand of my argument there. Whatever the scientific merits of...

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With my book Hayek’s Modern Family just a few months from publication, I thought I’d provide a little preview of one strand of my argument there.

Whatever the scientific merits of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, it serves as a useful heuristic to capture the upward progress of humanity over the last two or three centuries. From millennia of poverty in which ensuring the basics of food and physical safety were day-to-day challenges for the vast majority of humanity, an increasing proportion of the population has reached a point where those struggles are non-existent. In the Western world, the overwhelming majority of the population does not worry moment-to-moment about their physical safety or where their next meal is coming from. The percentage of people living on less than $1.25 a day continues to fall, and fall rapidly, while people in other parts of the world continue to climb close to Western levels of wealth and comfort. Pulling ourselves out of poverty is perhaps humanity’s greatest achievement. Creating a world in which a substantial majority of the seven billion people on the planet live at least relatively long lives of reasonable comfort is a feat sometimes overlooked.

Even among those who recognize this accomplishment, fewer still recognize that the institutions of market capitalism and respect for trade and profit that it requires are the main reason for that upward climb. Understanding how capitalism has met our material needs is one thing, but as we more easily meet our material needs, we open up the ability to pursue all kinds of non-material values. The less time and fewer resources we have to spend on life’s necessities, the more we have to spend on things we want simply because we enjoy them. In 100 years, we’ve almost doubled the percentage of the income of the average American household being spent on things other than food, clothing, and shelter. We indulge our toys and our hobbies like never before. We give gifts and we travel. Even what we do spend on the necessities can be spent on not just items that are merely functional, but those that please us aesthetically. Our expenditures on food are on vastly better food than a century ago, if not even a generation ago.

More generally, this expansion of wealth has freed us to engage in education, art, and leisure that was possible only to a tiny fraction of humanity for most of our history. Even relatively poor Americans can get a college education and have access to books, music, and art that even the wealthy of generations past did not have. For others, the expansion of wealth is an opportunity to create knowledge, music, literature, and art that would not have been available generations before. Even the fact that so many young people spend the first 18 to 22 years of their lives just learning and not engaged in much in the way of economic production is a luxury of the wealth capitalism has produced.

Consider these points in light of the frequent complaint that capitalism makes people overly materialistic and focused disproportionately on money and profit. By contrast, I would argue that market capitalism has freed us from a focus on the material and the narrowly economic by producing so much material well-being and economic growth that such concerns can be less central to our daily lives. Capitalism has freed us to pursue an ever-expanding range of non-material interests and values.

The history of the family is a good example of this point. The changes in economic activity and the wealth that capitalism brought have freed the family from a concern with material survival and have opened the space for it to be the site of our deepest non-material aspirations.  We look to the family for love and emotional satisfaction rather than sheer survival.

For most of human history the family was hardly the Victorian domestic ideal. Children died young and those who did not were expected to work hard for the household and eventually leave to earn their own keep at what would to us be a young age. Like the cattle, children and women were seen as assets to be managed by the male head of the household. Often this meant that the needs of humans were less important than those of cattle, or that the opportunity cost in terms of market production foregone of engaging in human labor-intensive forms of child care was simply too high. The pre-industrial and pre-capitalist family was simply not a pleasant place. Capitalism, and the wealth it brought, began to change all of this almost completely for the better.

It is in this way that the evolution of the modern family is an application of Deirdre McCloskey’s argument in The Bourgeois Virtues. Capitalism offered ways to earn income outside of the household and in doing so slowly eliminated the family’s role as an institution of market production and thereby removed it from the realm of narrow economic calculation and “Prudence Only,” or at least “Prudence Mostly.” Without a need to treat family members instrumentally as parts of a production process, and with the means to treat them as ends in themselves now available as a result of higher incomes capitalism produced, the family became the focal point of the altruism of intimate associations. The improved economic and legal status of women and children, the gradual equalization of the marital relationship, and the ascendance of the virtue of Love as the basis for marriage and the parent-child relationship, all reflect the ways in which capitalism made possible and nourished other virtues.

As Prudence began to spend more time out of the household and in the market, capitalism made it possible for Love (and perhaps Faith and Hope as well), to come in and take its full and rightful place at the family table. In making this transition possible, capitalism thereby humanized the family. By providing us with such bountiful material wealth, capitalism has enabled us to treat other people, including our families, less instrumentally. The less we have to worry about the material, the more we can engage in the non-material.

Today many take for granted the idea that the family is an institution in which we can aspire to our deepest emotional connections, and that is thereby an oasis from the supposed instrumental rationality of the market. However, the idea that families are first and foremost about such connections and that they offer a respite from the world of instrumental rationality and economic calculation is a relative recent change. It is also a change that was a consequence of capitalism and industrialization.  It is one of the tragic ironies of our time that capitalism gets blamed for our supposed materialism and for turning human relationships into calculative and instrumental ones, when in fact it has been capitalism that has both enabled us to explore our non-material values in ways never possible before and has, in the process, humanized the most universal and central of our relationships, those within the family.

 

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Inequality, Mobility, and Being Poor in America http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2015/02/inequality-mobility-and-being-poor-in-america/ http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2015/02/inequality-mobility-and-being-poor-in-america/#comments Mon, 02 Feb 2015 23:09:17 +0000 http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/?p=8909 That’s the title of a recent paper of mine that is now forthcoming in Social Philosophy and Policy, as part of a conference and symposium coordinated by Mark LeBar. I have...

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That’s the title of a recent paper of mine that is now forthcoming in Social Philosophy and Policy, as part of a conference and symposium coordinated by Mark LeBar. I have put a draft version up at SSRN for those who would like to take a look at it.  I will try to link the final version if possible.  Here’s the abstract:

Abstract:

The conventional narrative that the last generation has seen the rich get richer and the poor get poorer while the middle class gets hollowed out has serious flaws. First, the claims of growing inequality overlook data on income mobility. It is not the same households who are rich and poor each year, and many poor households become richer over time. Second, the claim of middle class stagnation is largely a statistical deception based on an incomplete interpretation of median household income. The middle class has shrunk but so has the percentage of poor households as the percentage of rich households has grown significantly in the last few decades. Third, looking at consumption rather than income enables us to see both the absolute gains of poor US households and the narrowing of the gap with the wealthy. Poor US households are more likely to have basic appliances than the average household of the 1970s, and those appliances are of much higher quality. Together these three points offer a much more optimistic view of the degree of inequality and the ability of the poor to become rich. The picture is not all rosy and a final section discusses the relevance of housing, health care, and education costs to this argument.

 

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The Uneasy Marriage of Liberty and Democracy http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2015/01/the-uneasy-marriage-of-liberty-and-democracy/ http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2015/01/the-uneasy-marriage-of-liberty-and-democracy/#comments Sun, 04 Jan 2015 16:41:18 +0000 http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/?p=8828 Michael Huemer writes that if seven friends at the bar decide by a vote of 6 to 1 that you should pay for everyone’s drinks, you are not obligated to...

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Michael Huemer writes that if seven friends at the bar decide by a vote of 6 to 1 that you should pay for everyone’s drinks, you are not obligated to pay despite the fact that you’ve been out voted. There is indeed a flavor of ad populum fallacy in arguments for democracy. A false proposition X does not improve its truth-value by a majority believing in X.

Yet democracy and liberty have been invariably associated. We speak of liberal democracies, meaning roughly those societies that prize liberty and allow laws and rulers to be selected by popular vote. Tyrants, in contrast, suppress liberty and elections. So democracy and liberty seem to go hand in hand, both through history and in common parlance. This union is reinforced by the obvious fact that the democratic state, deficient as it may be, is better than the undemocratic state.

Here I’d like to raise a narrower question: what is the proper place of democracy in a classical-liberal or libertarian (libertarian, for short) view of politics? By democracy I simply mean a political system where many binding decisions are adopted by majority rule.

A common account of democracy is this: The majority can properly make binding political decisions except on matters covered by the bill of rights. People have rights. Those individual rights are enumerated: right to free expression, to the exercise of religion, to privacy, freedom against arbitrary arrest, etc. A majority decision cannot violate them (although their boundaries are uncertain). But by the same token, the majority can make enforceable decisions about any aspect of social life not covered by the bill of rights. This is called a constitutional democracy.

Two features of constitutional democracy are worth noting. The first is that there is no default right to freedom. My constitutional rights are enumerated; everything else is fair game for regulation by the majority. Suppose I am a chess player and the majority, for whatever reason, bans chess. Now chess playing is not a constitutional right; therefore, the majority might freely regulate that activity.  It doesn’t matter how important chess is to me: playing it is not a right. The ban is stupid, but not unlawful.

The second feature is that private property is not really on the list either. (Sure, we have eminent domain, but if I sell my house and then the majority taxes me at 99%, then that’s fine, no compensation owed.) High-liberal conceptions of distributive justice on which this idea of constitutional democracy rests require very low protection of private property.

So constitutional democracy thus understood is unsatisfactory to a libertarian. Not only there is no default right to engage in morally innocent behavior, as the majority can regulate or ban that behavior at will, but also the majority can redistribute resources at pleasure as long as it complies with due process and the rule of law.

In view of these difficulties, has democracy a rightful place in libertarian thought? Let’s examine the possibilities:

  • Anarchism: Our individual moral rights, including private property, exhaust the moral-political universe. Legitimate social outcomes are those yielded by voluntary transactions, and not by majority vote. In this conception democracy has no place. No group is entitled to gang up against any other group or person merely on account of the fact that they are a majority.
  • MinimalState Libertarianism: For the reasons Locke, Nozick and others give, a state may emerge spontaneously. This state, however, has minimal functions (defense, police) and its powers are strictly limited. Yet the society must make decisions that affect all, and unanimity rule is impracticable. So, democracy is introduced to make decisions that concern the proper functions of government, and only those (it is unclear that this requires electing the rulers.)
  • PublicGoods Libertarianism: This is an extension of the previous argument. Just as defense, an essential state function, is a public good, so are other goods (clean air, street lighting). These are goods that everyone wants but cannot be produced privately for well-known technical reasons (nonexcludability and nonrivalry in consumption, which produce free-riding.) The government’s job is, then, to supply those public goods, and democracy is needed to organize that provision, including taxation for that purpose.
  • Kantian Libertarianism: The state is needed to protect external freedom, constituted by the provisional rights that had become legally consolidated. With one exception, the state is not entitled to redistribute wealth, but it is required to enact the criminal and civil codes that enforce and define the contours of people’s external freedom (the exception is sufficientarian poverty relief required by Kant’s commitment to freedom.) Democratic procedures are needed to implement all this, including the appropriate taxation. The idea here is that democracy is a tool that is entirely subservient to guaranteeing and protecting rights. (Some folks do not think this is a libertarian system, but, in a paper yet to be published, Bas van der Vossen and I think it is.)
  • Utilitarian Libertarianism: It is unclear what role democracy has in a utilitarian defense of libertarianism of the kind offered by Friedman and others. One line of argument is that democracy is causally correlated with the general welfare. Another line of argument is that democracy embodies preference aggregation, which is a utilitarian theme. A third argument is that democracy is needed to have the government rotate often, which in turn prevents bad governments from doing too much damage. It seems to me that utilitarian libertarians defend markets on utilitarian grounds, and rights only secondarily, as vehicles for enabling market agents to interact freely and thus achieve the great general benefits of a capitalist society. Democracy, in turn, is just another instrument that hopefully will enhance markets in various ways.

One thing seems certain to me. Libertarians cannot endorse democracy with the kind of arguments offered by theories of deliberative democracy, inspired by Rousseau’s theory of the general will. These arguments value democracy for independent reasons, such as its higher epistemic value or its aptness to treat everyone equally. To libertarians, in contrast, the residual political space is occupied by individual freedom, and not by the general will. It is not as if our rights are limited and enumerated, and the rest is up for grabs by majority decision. It is the other way around: the majority’s powers are limited and enumerated, and the rest is the space where we can act freely. Democracy is at best a secondary tool needed for three purposes: to select the rulers, to enforce and define our rights, and to produce goods and services that cannot be privately produced.

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The Limits of Secession http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2014/09/the-limits-of-secession/ http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2014/09/the-limits-of-secession/#comments Mon, 15 Sep 2014 21:19:36 +0000 http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/?p=8585 Outside libertarian circles, many believe that communities may democratically choose virtually any political and economic system they wish. The imminent Scotland vote (see James Taylor’s recent post) suggests some general...

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Outside libertarian circles, many believe that communities may democratically choose virtually any political and economic system they wish. The imminent Scotland vote (see James Taylor’s recent post) suggests some general reflections on the the following issue: what kinds of secession choices may the inhabitants of a territory make? (Two caveats: First, I do not suggest that any or all of the following reflections apply to Scotland; in fact, I suspect they do not. Second, I think the following reflections may apply beyond secession to the general question of democratic authority, but I do not address it here.)

The issue of secession is complex, so I want to confine myself to the issue just described: Assuming that the people in the territory in question have otherwise the right to secede, what limits are there to the new state they intend to create?

Let us start with (what I believe is) a simple case. Imagine that province Outpost wants to secede from rights-respecting state Ruritania in order to establish a new totalitarian state where people will have no rights. They hold a referendum and the majority of Outpostians approve the secession. I take it the secession would be morally unacceptable, even if voted by the majority of the people of Outpost. Ruritania has an obligation to protect the rights of Outpostians that are threatened by the proposed secession (I do not believe this is solved by granting the right of exit, not only because emigration costs may be prohibitive, but also because it is false that if in a moment of weakness I voted for a tyrannical government I have lost my rights forever.)

Now let us consider a less simple case. The province Insula wants to secede from Randia, a free-market, rights-respecting state, to establish a new democratic-socialist state. Once successful, the secessionists intend to expropriate all means of production while simultaneously guaranteeing the civil and political rights people presently enjoy. The majority of inhabitants in Insula, that is, want to abandon Randia’s free market and establish a socialist economy. They hold a referendum and the majority approves the secession. Is this permissible? Most people will say yes. Global-justice writers and international lawyers concur in this regard. The idea is that, as long as a state respects traditional civil and political rights, its economic arrangements, including the extent and strength of property rights, are properly a matter for democratic deliberation and decision.

Now think about someone who owns a farm in Insula. The new state will expropriate his farm, and the compensation, if any, will be insufficient.  The referendum, in fact, has amounted to a violation of his property rights, which he presently enjoys under Randian law.  Further, Insula’s minority has expressed the view, supported by the evidence, that the contemplated socialist arrangements will cause general impoverishment. The standard of living all currently enjoy in Randia will predictably drop.  These problems illustrate two points: (1) the incidents of property (own, use, dispose) are essential to persons’ life plans, and (2) suppressing property rights (beyond a threshold) predictably leads to the destruction of markets and consequent general impoverishment. It would seem, then, that Randia, like Ruritania in the previous case, has an obligation to protect its citizens who live in Insula (at least the dissenters) against these ills.

If so, the mainstream position is wrong, at least in its unqualified version. A majority cannot legitimately run roughshod over people’s property rights in this way. More precisely, I suggest that a majority cannot validly choose to (1) violate property rights beyond a certain threshold; and 2) subject everyone to a system that seriously hampers or destroys markets. This suggestion, of course, raises as many problems as it solves. It requires specifying a deontological threshold for property rights. It requires specifying when the state’s regulatory action seriously hampers or destroys markets. Since most economic regimes fall somewhere between the two examples I gave, laissez-faire and democratic socialism, determining at which point state taxation and regulation violate people’s autonomy or destroy markets is a Herculean task.

But the central point remains, and it is a disarmingly simple one: a state, or a majority, may not validly choose just any economic system. If it is true that property rights are an essential expression of our autonomy and that they are the precondition of markets, which in turn are the engine of prosperity, then an economic system that suppresses them is unjust, even if supported by a majority.

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