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Posts Tagged ‘ideology’

A pretty fair article by Ed Kilgore on the widening rift between progressives and libertarians.

One mini-saga of the past decade in American politics has been the flirtation—with talk of a deeper partnership—between progressives and libertarians. These two groups were driven together, in the main, by common hostility to huge chunks of the Bush administration’s agenda: endless, pointless wars; assaults on civil liberties; cynical vote-buying with federal dollars; and statist panders to the Christian right.

This cooperation reached its height during the 2006 election, in which, according to a new study by David Kirby and David Boaz, nearly half of libertarian voters supported Democratic congressional candidates—more than doubling the support levels from the previous midterm election in 2002.

Well, you can say goodbye to all that. The new Kirby/Boaz study reports that libertarian support for Democrats collapsed in 2008, despite many early favorable assessments of Barack Obama by libertarian commentators. Meanwhile, the economic crisis has raised the salience of issues on which libertarians and Dems most disagree. And there’s no question that during Obama’s first year—with the rise of the Tea Party movement and national debate over bailouts, deficits, and health care—libertarian hostility to the new administration has grown adamant and virtually universal.

[…]

So could “liberaltarianism” make a comeback in a not-too-distant future, when today’s passions have abated? You never know for sure, but the next major obstacle to cooperation may well be the Supreme Court’s decision on corporate political spending in Citizens United v. FEC, which libertarians celebrated as a victory for free speech, and most liberals denounced as a travesty if not a national disaster.

Cancel the Valentine’s Day hearts and flowers; this romance is dead.

I agree that “liberaltarianism” is kinda dead at the moment. Ed Kilgore thinks that progressives shouldn’t mind that too much. I disagree with his reasoning.

But 2008 showed that libertarian support is hardly crucial: Obama still won “libertarian” states such as Colorado and New Hampshire handily, even without their backing, and he generally performed better in the “libertarian West” than any Democratic nominee since LBJ.

I am sceptical of the claim that Obama lacked the backing of libertarians. Yes the Kirby-Boaz paper does say that McCain won libertarians about 70-30, but I suspect that study  oversamples southern conservatives. It is unfortunate they do not have a state-by state cross-tabs, which would give some indication how the libertarians voted in Colorado and New Hampshire. Moreover, even Kirby-Boaz conclude that Obama won the younger libertarians, the ones who will really matter in future elections.

True, most libertarians disagreed with large parts of the Obama agenda, but they also typically thought that McCain was far, far worse. Reason magazine’s survey of its writers in 2008 showed almost no support for McCain, almost everyone supported Obama or Barr. A majority of libertarian intellectuals, despite their misgivings, certainly preferred Obama over McCain.

Many of these people are now turning away from the Democrats. Kilgore is probably right about the inevitability of this break-up. From the point of view of electoral politics, however, the Democrats will ignore the libertarian vote at their own peril.

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Megan’s article reminded me of some thoughts I have had in the past about political polarizations.

There are several commonly held intellectual blinkers, or, to use a Robin Hanson terminology, roads to rationality ruin, that prevent us from properly appraising the value of a political position. This is true with respect to positions we support as well as those we oppose. In the past, I have blogged or linked to articles about several of these. One that is unfortunately rather common among  people who feel alienated from the thinking of the masses is the pleasure they derive from believing something different than most people. As Hanson says, this pleasure is evil because it clouds rational thinking. Another that seems to afflict a lot of people of every political stripe these days is to assume bad-faith on the part of their opponents. Megan’s article, linked above, is a great take on this issue. Then, there is the confirmation bias, which means that we tend to put more weight on evidence that agrees with things we already believe in, and discount those that don’t.

There is a common way in which many of these biases express themselves when actually appraising a political position. In a way, this expression is so common that people rarely write about it. However for precisely that reason I will repeat it here. And that is simply this, when evaluating a policy proposal, people tend to disproportionately look at only one side of the cost-benefit equation. (Those who support it, mainly look at the benefits, those who oppose it, mainly look at the costs). I am not saying that people are unaware of the other side, simply that they put far less effort in making an intellectually honest appraisal of it. This is related to but not the same as the confirmation bias. Think of the confirmation bias as a kind of blinker that biases evidence-gathering, and this as a blinker that biases decision-making.

Sometimes this blinker leads to contradictions within the views held by the same person. To start with an almost trivial example, polls show that most people favor cutting taxes. Yet, they also want the government to provide for a lot of things that would be impossible unless accompanied by extremely high levels of taxation.  Clearly there is a wide gap between what most people want and what most people are willing to pay. This is an example of the kind of dissonance I have been talking about. When thinking of benefits they want, people often fail to properly appraise the cost that is necessary to provide the benefit.

But at least the issue of taxation, when posed in a plain-vanilla style, is one that unites most people. So it is not really an issue that causes political polarization. Things get trickier when one moves on to more subtle questions.

For instance, should some version of the Glass-Steagall act, that was weakened over the years and ultimately repealed by Clinton, be reinstated? Most progressive say yes, conservatives and libertarians say no. And anyone who follows politics seems to have an opinion on that matter.

What seems to clear to me however, is that most people have something of a blinker on when appraising this issue. Progressives rarely consider in a detached manner the question of whether there are gains of uniting commercial and investment banking. Very few have read papers like this which argue that unified banking is actually safer, while they have all certainly read Krugman’s pieces. They tend to forget that that without the repeal of the Glass-Steagall, many of the acquisitions that mitigated the effects of the crazy financial meltdown in 2008 would have been legally impossible. On the other side of the spectrum, conservatives tend to ignore anything written by a liberal economist. This is perhaps justifiable when the issue is one you have thought deeply about already but such is rarely the case, especially about questions on current affairs which are politically charged. For instance, if asked whether unified banking (repeal of Glass Steagall) led certain institutions like Citi to make riskier ventures than they would have otherwise (this question, which is a very different one from whether the effects of the repeal were a net negative, has in my opinion the correct answer Yes), many conservatives would reflexibly answer no.

So my prescription to those wishing to seriously understand a subtle political issue is this. See what you initially think of the proposal. Do some research. Form an opinion. Then, look around. Think seriously about practical and philosophical objections to your position. If you are supporting a law under discussion, have you really considered its fiscal, social and moral costs? If you oppose it, have you considered its benefits?  Even if your morality/basic philosophy impels you to take one side, it is still important to research both sides. This is because of two reasons. One, you may otherwise overlook some opposing point that is also morally relevant to you. Two, because your moral philosophy can sometimes change or get more refined when faced with new arguments and evidence.

In short, do not claim to have a well-formed opinion on an issue until you have exhaustively researched the  opposing view. Anything less is intellectual laziness.

Talking of intellectual laziness, I am struck by two different contexts in which the word ‘extreme’ in used in politics.

One of them refers to people with political opinions that are fringe or out of whack with the mainstream. But having an opinion that is out-of-whack but well-considered should really have no negative connotation attached to it. If anything, it is among these people that one usually finds the visionary thinkers of each era. Furthermore, it is very difficult to evaluate out-of-whackness. What do you call someone who does not neatly fit into the conventional left-fight spectrum, for instance? Yet, the words extreme and extremist are bandied about in this context with implications that are not particularly positive.

The second, very different, context in which the word ‘extreme’ is used is with respect to strongly held political feelings, rather than fringeness of views. At the edge, it refers to people who are bitter, violent or reactionary in their political expression. Going through the blogosphere, I would estimate that about 80% of those who regularly comment on partisan blogs fall in this category. They tend to demonise the opposing view, assume bad-faith from the outset, are verbally vicious and show remarkable little evidence of having deeply considered both sides of the matter. Of course, it is possible I am wrong about some of them; after all, one reason to write is to quickly release frustration. Nonetheless, I do think that many of these people, which include not just a lot of commenters but also certain popular writers and journalists, radio and TV show hosts, and film directors, suffer from all the biases I have mentioned above. In short, whether they are right or wrong, they certainly are intellectually lazy, and thus do not deserve to be taken too seriously. People like those are much more deserving of the epithet extreme in a derogatory sense.

Now I of course realize that those who are extreme in the one sense are occasionally extreme in the other sense, but the difference between the two meanings is worth emphasizing.

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A pretty great post by Megan McArdle on open-mindedness, spite and political polarization.

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Here’s a great article by Tunku Varadarajan on the tea-party movement.

On right and left, “educated” people have given vent to their contempt for the Tea Party crowd, leading me to conclude that there must, surely, be considerable significance in a movement that has had scorn poured on it by such varied names […]

On the left, they are afraid that it will initiate a tidal wave that causes the loss of numerous House seats. On the right, the fear is that it will mount its own candidates and simply be a spoiler.

This fear would explain the sneering toward the Tea Partiers, the smugness with which they are looked down upon. As many in the movement note, you need only change the protesters ideologically and demographically, and you have merely another cool example of “community organizing.” […]

What bothers me, however, is that although ideological differences are at the bottom of the Tea Party assaults, the critique is almost purely aesthetic: The Tea Partiers, it is said, are crude, sloganeering, lemming-like, heartland Bible-Beltists who don’t understand policy or David Brooks’ subtleties. […]

It is hardly surprising that in times like these there should be a large, angry, populist movement. But populism does not conform to the standard left/right divide, and in different circumstances it can go either way. […]

Yes, the populists fear and hate the big businesses and Wall Street; but—and this is the heartening thing—they have not let this turn them against capitalism and the free market. They seem truly to have taken in the point, long emphasized by libertarians and others, that big business is not the same thing as capitalism or the free market, that it is in fact often their enemy. […]

[This video] makes me emotional, because this woman represents an America that Tocqueville would have lauded. I will take her any day over the “educated class,” the bureaucratic mollusks and the defeatist sad sacks in Washington. I do think the Tea Partiers are political amateurs, but the content of their politics is deadly serious. The professional politicians will dismiss them at their peril.

Read the whole thing.

Personally, I doubt if I’d ever attend a tea party even if I were in the States. Do their most frequently expressed sentiments reflect my political philosophy? No. Are they filled with a lot of nuts and weirdos? Yes. Do I think that the tea-part movement represents a positive change for America? Most certainly.

Let me be clear. The tea-party people are a hodgepotch bunch, a diverse mix of libertarians, fiscal conservatives, angry reactionaries, populists and social conservatives united by little else than anger at the state of the nation and contempt for those with power and influence. Yes, most of them are not primarily devoted to the cause of individual liberty, or any ideology in particular. But no populist movement can ever be truly for libertarianism, history has taught us that much. And the tea-party comes closer to the spirit of liberty than either of the two major parties.

It is true that some of their anger is misdirected, much of their political ideas naive; yet in their essentially grassroots opposition to the forces in power and their disdain for big government, they have created an environment which might lead to good things in the not too distant future. America today suffers from a near total political domination by the two main parties. And sadly, both parties represent entrenched interests and a desire to control you, in one way or the other.  A recent poll, however, found that the tea-party brand is today regarded more highly than either the Democrats or the Republicans. The spirit of this movement is just waiting to be tapped into by a serious, inspirational candidate with a real chance of winning. And maybe, just maybe, that candidate will be someone who will actually be able to affect some real changes in a positive direction.

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For those not following the Whole Foods controversy, this is roughly what happened: John Mackey, CEO and co-founder of Whole Foods, and a fairly committed libertarian who once debated Milton Friedman on corporate responsiblity to stakeholders, decided to pen an article against Obama-care at the WSJ. Here’s an excerpt.

Many promoters of health-care reform believe that people have an intrinsic ethical right to health care—to equal access to doctors, medicines and hospitals. While all of us empathize with those who are sick, how can we say that all people have more of an intrinsic right to health care than they have to food or shelter?

Health care is a service that we all need, but just like food and shelter it is best provided through voluntary and mutually beneficial market exchanges. A careful reading of both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution will not reveal any intrinsic right to health care, food or shelter. That’s because there isn’t any. This “right” has never existed in America.

He also suggested some sensible ideas for reform. Of course, in politics, sensible is a relative term.

• Equalize the tax laws so that employer-provided health insurance and individually owned health insurance have the same tax benefits. Now employer health insurance benefits are fully tax deductible, but individual health insurance is not. This is unfair.

• Repeal all state laws which prevent insurance companies from competing across state lines. We should all have the legal right to purchase health insurance from any insurance company in any state and we should be able use that insurance wherever we live. Health insurance should be portable.

• Repeal government mandates regarding what insurance companies must cover. These mandates have increased the cost of health insurance by billions of dollars. What is insured and what is not insured should be determined by individual customer preferences and not through special-interest lobbying.

• Enact tort reform to end the ruinous lawsuits that force doctors to pay insurance costs of hundreds of thousands of dollars per year. These costs are passed back to us through much higher prices for health care.

• Make costs transparent so that consumers understand what health-care treatments cost. How many people know the total cost of their last doctor’s visit and how that total breaks down? What other goods or services do we buy without knowing how much they will cost us?

• Enact Medicare reform. We need to face up to the actuarial fact that Medicare is heading towards bankruptcy and enact reforms that create greater patient empowerment, choice and responsibility.

• Finally, revise tax forms to make it easier for individuals to make a voluntary, tax-deductible donation to help the millions of people who have no insurance and aren’t covered by Medicare, Medicaid or the State Children’s Health Insurance Program.

Now, if you have ever shopped at Whole Foods (I have) it is fairly obvious what the reaction to Mackey’s oped would be. It was swift and expected.

To quote Epic Etheridge writing in the NY Times.

Reaction from pro-reform Whole Foods shoppers was swift and vociferous. As Brian Beutler noted the next day at TPM DC, Whole Food’s “Web site has been fielding angry comments all afternoon, and has had to set up an online forum where customers can vent their frustrations, and, oh, call for a boycott!”

Here’s a thought,” added Beutler. “If you own a major supermarket chain that caters to a great deal of liberal-minded people with money, don’t rail against the evils of health care reform in The Wall Street Journal.”

At Daily Kos, blogger DarkSyde wondered if Mackey had lost sight of his demographic — “Mr. Mackey, I’m not sure if you understand who it is that shops at your organic grocery chain” — and, in case that had happened, reminded him:

A lot of progressives, vegetarians, professional and amateur athletes, and others who care so much about the environment and what they eat that they’re still willing to shell out three bucks for an organic orange, even in the midst of the worst recession in sixty years. I was proud [Whole Foods] was based in my hometown of Austin, and defended it against most of the conservatives I knew growing up there, many of whom still hold your entire business in utter contempt. Some of them ridiculed me for shopping at Whole Foods, with all the “tree huggers and granola eaters and hippies” who, incidentally, made you a millionaire.

At the Huffington Post, Ben Wyskida said “the bottom line for me, reading Mackey’s op-ed, is that by shopping at Whole Foods I’m giving money to a Republican and I am supporting by proxy a donation to the RNC and to health scare front groups like Patients First. I don’t give money to Republicans, so I will have to cross Whole Foods off my list.”

I have three thoughts on this.

— Mr. Mackey will probably lose a few customers who do not want to shop at a chain because its CEO has views which differs from theirs. After all, the Boycott Whole Foods group in Facebook already has more than 13,000 members. But he will also gain customers of other ideological dispositions. Bloggers such as Radley Balko have been writing about this episode too. His readers will certainly be spending a few extra dollars there in the coming months. As for me, I will sacrifice my love for Trader Joe’s and instead make sure to spend money at Whole Foods whenever I come to the US.

— This episode again demonstrates the astonishing insularity of the Obama loving, NY Times reading urban, liberal, yuppie crowd (actually this would include a majority of my friends). They do not seem to realise that everyone who is not a Democrat does not become automatically a Republican. And Mr. Mackey has never been a Republican. He is a libertarian. More importantly, there is nothing contradictory or hypocritical about adhering to libertarian views while selling good organic food and paying ones employees well and doing all the things the Obama loving, NY Times reading, urban, liberal, yuppies claim to cherish. And responding to a polite expression of another point of view on the healthcare debate by boycotting the company the writer is emplyed at is as lame as lame gets, particularly when the actions of the company actually further your political goals overall. Really.

— Thirdly, I find substantial parallels between the Mackey saga and the Wynand saga. Gail Wynand, that is, the tragic character from The Fountainhead. When Wynand went against his own brand’s clientele to push something he believed in (Roark) it ended badly for him. I hope it does not for Mackey.

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Will Wikinson says:

Yet I hear again and again that, since the state should not be in the business of marriage, one should not, as a libertarian, have an opinion about how this business is to be carried out. Increasingly, I find this an obnoxious and shameful form of moral recusal. One cannot use an ideological image of perfect justice to excuse or ignore an obvious injustice within the actual imperfect system. That these injustices could not arise within one’s vision of the best society does not mean that they have not in fact arisen. That a debate would not occur in an ideal world does not mean that it is not occuring or that nothing morally hangs on its conclusion. To decide to sit out the debate, with an eye on utopia, is not a way to keep one’s hands clean.

I agree.

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Ryan Avent on the incompatibility of climate science and some libertarians:

That is to say, confronted by a problem demanding solutions inimical to libertarian beliefs, libertarians were faced with the choice of reneging on their beliefs or turning their back on science. Tellingly, they chose the latter. One might think that’s a rather drastic decision, given the role scientific endeavors have played in delivering the material prosperity so dear to the hearts of the libertarian world, and one would be right.

A belief system that cannot grapple with the fundamental reality of a situation is, quite simply, not a belief system worth having. 

I agree completely with Avent’s last sentence. I am also a libertarian. So what goes?

First off, Avent is wrong in his basic claim. There are very many libertarians who approach scientific questions scientifically. And most of them conclude that human induced climate change is real. Sure, some libertarians do turn their backs to science, but it is wrong to use that as an excuse to tar the whole movement.

Secondly, what Avent and others of his ilk forget is the question of how to deal with the problem of climate change is not merely a scientific one. It is perfectly consistent and reasonable to accept that AGW is happening and still reject most of the solutions being proferred. The question of what to do about any problem (or indeed, whether to do anything at all) depends not merely on an analysis of the problem (this is the scientific part) but also of how much value, that is costs and benefits you attach to each aspect of the problem and the possible solutions (and their consequences). This is where analysis and ideology interact in a complex manner.

I had a conversation with a friend a week ago. He asked me the following question: what would I do if I had to choose between truth and libertarianism? I answered that such a choice would never be necessary. Sure, the pursuits of truth and happiness do conflict, and so do freedom and happiness. But I cannot conceive of truth and freedom ever conflicting. I believe my moral axioms are good enough to ensure that.

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Eric Posner’s article on Cass Sunstein is an excellent profile of the man’s views and positions and it also accurately summarises why I am happy about the Sunstein appointment.

Sunstein has strong liberal instincts—his work is animated by his concern for the rights and well-being of poor and vulnerable people and oppressed groups—and he believes that government is there to help. But what makes his work so interesting and influential is that he has a hard-headed appreciation of the problems of government, and has explored, with extraordinary imagination, approaches to regulation that harness the power of government without unduly infringing on people’s freedom or in other ways producing bad outcomes.

The approach that has received the most attention recently is Sunstein’s argument (with Dick Thaler) in support of what they call “libertarian paternalism,” government policies that help prevent errors that people predictably make because of cognitive biases (Sunstein is a prominent critic of the rational actor model used by economists) without interfering with the choices of sophisticated people who know their interests better than the government does. This book is a perfect example of how Sunstein thinks. He shares the liberal-friendly view that people do not always act in their rational self-interest and therefore benefit from government regulation, but he rejects the strongly paternalistic policies that have done more harm than good and are in any event politically unpopular and have led to backlash. His middle way is a sophisticated attempt to support a kind of regulation that might do some good and enjoy political support from both sides of the spectrum, and hence actually have a chance to persist across administrations and vicissitudes in public opinion.

[…]

Sunstein is one of the most talented academics around. With his deep knowledge of government regulation, he would be the perfect head of OIRA. Among the many people I have met in academia and government, he is one of the least ideologically rigid, one of the most open to argument and evidence. His critics should at least admit that he will give a fair hearing to their concerns. He would be an extraordinary asset for the Obama administration.

To read all Sunstein-tagged posts on this blog, click here.

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Of the Browne resolutions, I find this one particularly important:

I resolve to cleanse myself of hate, resentment, and bitterness. Such things steal time and attention from the work that must be done.

Related to which I’d like to resolve:

I will not let myself be poisoned with negative emotions by things I view as evil but have no power to eradicate.

For God knows, there are so many of them!

Of course, a simpler (though not easier) solution is to stop viewing them as evil. I confess that I have thought of that possibility in the past.

Which reminds of this story. Would you trade your knowledge and moral principles for a simpler, more ignorant existence where you would be happier? I wouldn’t. After all, even if I did, that happy person wouldn’t be me. And there are parts of me that I value higher than an optimum level of serotonin and dopamine.

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The latest issue of Reason magazine has a long op-ed titled “The Libertarian moment.” Matt Welch and Nick Gillespie make the case that we are at the threshold of a new age of freedom. They cite as evidence relaxing social norms, increased permissiveness and the `soft libertarianism’ that the internet age has spawned.

I would be happy to be proved wrong but I cannot help feel that this is just a puff piece designed to fit in with Reason’s 40th anniversary. Most of the examples they cite could as easily apply to liberalism. Homosexuality may be getting more acceptable but so is the idea that offending speech ought to be regulated. Marijuana may be easier to find but smoking is much harder. Anti-discrimination laws are becoming wider in scope every day; political correctness more pervasive.  The nanny-state is getting more obscene, government more bloated, the deficit is a monster.

Even the word libertarianism is under attempted hijack from some who call themselves libertarian, yet fail to see the fundamental difference between negative and positive liberty, and between social pressure and state coercion.

These are tough times to be a libertarian. Perhaps Welch and Gillespie are right and change is on the way. After all, they say that the darkest hour comes before dawn. Till I see the sun though, I see little reason to believe that things are going to really change anytime soon.

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I came across this old post by Tyler Cowen today:

The libertarian vice is to assume that the quality of government is fixed.  The libertarian also argues that the quality of government is typically low, and this is usually the bone of contention, but that is not the point I wish to consider.  Often that dispute is a red herring.

If the quality of government is fixed, the battle is then “government vs. market.”  Not everyone will agree with libertarian views, but libertarians are comfortable on this terrain.

But sometimes governments do a pretty good job, even if you like me are generally skeptical of government.  The Finnish government has supported superb architecture.  The Swedes have made a good go at a welfare state.  The Interstate Highway System in the U.S. was a high-return investment.  In the area of foreign policy, we have done a good job juggling the China-Taiwan relationship.  Or how about the Aswan Dam for Egypt?  You might contest these particular examples but I assure you there are many others.

Read the whole thing. I think posts like these are important not just because they are accurate but because they define certain paths to rationality ruin that any thinking individual should make sure to avoid.

Also, I found this bit amusing:

Libertarianism and modern liberalism differ in many regards, and usually I am closer to the libertarian point of view.  But I am also a contrarian by nature.  If you want to make me feel more like a modern liberal, just go ahead and commit The Libertarian Vice.

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1.

And the moral is not the legal.

It is a distinction that often seems to be lost. Admittedly, most people, when faced with the distasteful, the unpleasant or the unfair have a natural impulse to ‘ban it’. That is an emotional response. As we grow up, we learn to separate the emotional from the rational. Libertarianism simply takes this ability to make distinctions to its logical conclusion.

Of course social and personal issues are important and they need to be addressed. It is a worthy goal to oppose hateful, discriminatory, bigoted or irrational conduct. The right way to do that however is by social means, such as ostracization or education. It is wrong to pretend that no harm is done by letting the political into the personal. Moreover, even when one is using purely social means to stop a harmful practice, it is important to keep the political-personal distinction in mind.

As Todd Seavey puts it in this excellent post:

Libertarianism’s chief strength, then, has always been in recognizing the vast gulf between, on one hand, myriad, never-ending social complaints (along with the conflicting social philosophies built around them) and, on the other hand, the minuscule and tightly constrained range of things that rise (or, if you prefer, fall) to the level of political/legal complaints.

The more causes for political complaint people believe themselves to have, the more likely a total state becomes. If selling trans fats — or simply calling a woman fat — is deemed an assault on social justice, a Kafkaesque web of petty laws becomes more likely.

[…] Maybe it’s high time we formulated a more-explicitly tiered language for talking about such distinctions, though: wrong vs. illegal vs. ought-to-be-illegal — grey area, merely unpleasant, bad idea but not really morally-loaded, etc. — since these things so often get lumped together. Libertarianism, though, like no other philosophy, hinges on recognizing these distinctions rather than treating That Which Is Bad as necessarily deserving of simultaneous avoidance, moral condemnation, outlawing, punishment by God, etc., etc., etc.

Most of my posts have been concerned with laws that arise from this failure to distinguish between the moral and the legal. There is the obscenity law, laws against prostitution, laws forbidding discrimination and hate speech, laws that regulate freedom of association, blackmail law and so on. Do these laws improve the ability of some people (the alleged victims) to make more out of their lives? Doubtful, but let us assume that they do. However, even then, any rational system of morality that makes the basic libertarian distinction between the personal and the political must conclude that such laws are immoral.

2.

That is not to say that all laws in this complex world can be straitjacketed into a strict property-rights system. First of all, property rights can be tricky to define in the borders. Secondly, we need to make sure that whatever political system we are proposing is sustainable. The real world is full of political ambiguities. A dogmatically libertarian state just isn’t in the cards, the poor aren’t going to magically go away, deregulation will hurt some people. Finally liberty may be the basic moral good but it is not the only good one needs to survive. And people on the edge will always choose survival first.

In short, we do need to worry about the consequences of everything, even libertarian prescriptions. I believe that it does make sense to have a certain level of mandatory taxation, even if some of that money will necessarily go into projects you do not support. It does make sense to have a certain minimum degree of redistribution and welfare to ensure equilibrium and also to help develop the basic capacities to exercise freedom in children. It makes sense to have compulsory security checks in certain places and it most certainly makes sense to prevent private citizens from acquiring nuclear weapons. It may even make sense to mandate certain consumer protection laws — such as those that deal with information disclosure — though I am less convinced about this. And so on.

What does not make sense, is to pretend that laws like the above —  all of which restrict some basic individual rights — are morally neutral/superior or liberty enhancing. They may be necessary and they may increase the happiness of many people and depending on my rational and empirical analysis of the particular issue I might even support them — but to claim that those laws are anything other than a necessary evil is unlibertarian.

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I would not be doing my job as a libertarian blogger if I did not link to the blog war between Todd Seavey on the one hand and Kerry Howley/Will Wilkinson on the other (with minor roles played by Helen Rittelmeyer and Julian Sanchez). The best link (in the sense that it points to almost all the other relevant links) is the post by Todd above; navigate from there! Keep in mind that all the characters in the fight are multiply related — not only are they all writers for Reason magazine but there is a complex boyfriend/girlfriend/ex-boyfriend web that connects them — as Todd triumphantly describes. Enjoy!

I will not take sides except to say that in their own ways, both Todd and Kerry are right. Todd is right in what the political or legislative aspect of libertarianism ought to concern itself with. State coercion is fundamentally different from social coercion, maximizing negative liberties is the correct political prescription, property rights do lie at the heart of freedom.

Let me be clear — I am not dismissing the importance of positive liberty. However, demands that too much positive liberty be provided by the state invariably leads to authoritarianism, as history has shown again and again. Moreover, the curtailment of your basic property and personal rights, in a purely moral sense, is in a different plane from not being able to make the most of your life. If anything, this distinction between negative and positive liberty (and between state and social coercion) is the essence of libertarianism.

But Kerry is also right that situations exist that do not involve state coercion but nonetheless are liberty-restricting, at least in the way the term ‘liberty’ is commonly used. The question is what is the right way to address these problems. If Kerry believes the correct way is through voluntary, social means, then I am completely with her. If, on the other hand, she thinks that the law should step in, then I agree with Todd that her views are incompatible with libertarianism.

As for Will Wilkinson, I do not quite know what to make of him. He is obviously very smart. He has written gloriously intelligent posts in the past — like this one — that are logically and intellectually perfect. He has, on multiple occasions, authored passionate defences of libertarianism such as this post from only a few weeks back. He has also written sentences like this:

[If libertarianism is the view] that coercive limits to liberty are justified only in defense of private property, or in the enforcement of contracts, then libertarianism is false, and I am not a libertarian.

which convince me that in his moral core he is not a libertarian but a liberal; it is only his impeccable analysis that so often lead him to libertarian solutions. I guess I’ll still take the bargain!

All this of course, reminds me of this gem of an anecdote by Milton Friedman:

I particularly recall a discussion [by a group of libertarian economists] on this issue, in the middle of which Ludwig Von Mises stood up, announded to the assembly “You are all a bunch of socialists”, and stormed out of the group.

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A post over at the Art of The Possible asking for libertarian perspectives on blackmail law morphs into an interesting discussion on private property, coercion, reputation and related philosophical issues.

I have detailed my position on blackmail law and related issues in the comment thread linked above, so I will not expound on it here. However there is one sentence from one of the comments that is worth repeating, especially for the benefit of non-libertarians:

[a]n insight that appears elsewhere in libertarian thinking (e.g. prostitution), namely that it shouldn’t be illegal to sell what one can legally give away for free.

This is of course, standard fare for libertarians, as it follows directly from the non-aggression principle. Nonetheless, I think it is an important insight that deserves to be highlighted separately because it clarifies the libertarian position on a lot of issues (blackmail, prostitution, minimum wage, social gambling vs for-profit gambling)  and applies to a great many situations in a more obvious manner than the NAP does.

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A nice follow-up by Robin Hanson to his earlier post I had linked to:

You just can’t fight “conformity” by indulging the evil pleasure of enjoying your conformity to a small tight-knit group of “non-conformists.”  All this does is promote some groups at the expense of other groups, and poisons your mind in the process.  It is like fighting “loyalty” by dogged devotion to an anti-loyalty alliance.

Best to clear your mind and emotions of group loyalties and resentments and ask, if this belief gave me no pleasure of rebelling against some folks or identifying with others, if it was just me alone choosing, would my best evidence suggest that this belief is true?  All else is the road to rationality ruin.

Indeed. Whether your views are simple and mainstream or whether you subscribe to some fringe philosophy such as libertarianism, it is always a sign of danger when your beliefs and conclusions are affected and (subconsciously) dictated by emotions derived from your identification. I guess the human psyche, by its very nature, is hopelessly susceptible to this kind of bias; the first step in fighting it is to realize that it exists and it is poisonous.

[Edit] Just in case it wasn’t clear, I am not saying one should have no emotions associated with one’s beliefs. However, you need to be wary when your emotion is at least partially derived from loyalty to your group or your ideology; for it can then affect your reasoning ability when faced with a new issue. The pleasure of non-conformity should not get in the way of dispassionate analysis. See Robin’s last paragraph above, also see my comment below.

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