Posts Tagged ‘personal’

(Post updated)

In my earlier post on this theme, I expressed my opposition to using coercive legal means to advance social goals and my moral abhorrence for laws which censor expression, ban consensual behavior or limit freedom of association. I wrote:

Any rational system of morality that makes the basic libertarian distinction between the personal and the political must conclude that laws [which restrict individual liberty] are immoral.

To give another side of the issue, I am also surprised when people think that it is ‘unlibertarian’ to attempt to modify other people’s behavior — for good or bad — through non-coercive means. A controlling husband who does not want his wife to dance with other men, a guy who ‘makes’  his girlfriend eat healthy foods, a friend who tries to emotionally pressurize you to give up smoking or a lover who makes you give up something you love as a precondition of being with you are not in any way violating the non-aggression principle. Such behavior can be sensible or irrational, helpful or counter-productive but as long as they do not involve actual coercion, they are neither libertarian nor unlibertarian.

Let me focus on the cases when the controlling behavior is generally seen as bad or unfair. In those examples, the offending party may not often act in an understanding or considerate manner. However they certainly have the right to be inconsiderate. I most definitely have the right to demand that my partner do things in a certain way. The partner also has the right to refuse. At that point, each of us has the right to suggest a compromise, let the other’s wish prevail or end the relationship. As a general principle, I think such controlling behavior is a terrible idea because even if the other person acts as you wish, she will usually resent it and if you do it often enough, end the relationship with you. However, simply because an idea is terrible does not mean it violates another’s liberty. When private, consensual relationships are involved, everyone has the right to stay in it strictly on their terms.

For instance I would never date a deeply religious person. I would also prefer that my partner’s tastes and convictions are compatible with mine. I might attempt to persuade her to do things in a certain way if they are important to me, even if those things are essentially her personal matter. If the matter is core and non-negotiable, I would even make it clear that we cannot be together if she does not change. These actions may or may not be the best thing for the relationship but they certainly are a natural consequence of my liberty to live my life (which includes my associations and relationships) on the exact terms I wish.

Libertarianism deals with the legal and the political. The meme that it also governs one’s behavior in a purely social or personal setting  is misguided and display a lack of understanding of the underlying philosophical principles. That is not to say that social and personal behavior is not important or that the pros and cons of a particular kind of behavior should not be discussed; merely that such discussions (or any ethics/principles underlying it) are distinct from the principles that underlie individual liberty. Using pressure and emotional leverage to make a friend change his behavior is fundamentally different from having a law that mandates this behavior change. Social pressure is on an entirely different plane from legal coercion. Friendships, marriages and relationships can be ended by either party for any reason, rational or irrational; an oppressive law can never be escaped from.

The personal is not the political. Period.

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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.


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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It can’t be the coffee.

I was really trying to sleep — lying down, waiting for thoughts to leave me in the same way they do every night, but they simply refused to. This has happened in the past when I have drunk a cup of coffee too late in the day. But why today? I am fairly certain that a small cup almost twelve hours ago cannot be responsible for my thoughts veering, suddenly and completely unexpectedly, to her. Not her — who took me so much longer to get over — but her. (Not that the distinction is very important, for I almost never think of any of them these days anymore. I did somewhat more frequently about three years ago, and this old email must have been the result of such a sentimental moment. But these days — perhaps once every couple of months.) The only explanation I can imagine for this unexpected occurence today is that Rat’s presence may have struck some forgotten corner of my subconscious memory.

So I lay down and thought of random things. A little bit of Bangalore, a little bit of Agumbe. And you know how memories are. Some disappear some amalgamate in a free flowing manner without commas or discipline.  We were lying naked together, utterly contented in the moment. Boating and Aromas of China. Many smiles some tears.

Many of my memories about her are concentrated in those last three or four days which contained some of the most beautiful moments of my undergrad years. Strange how it all just ends. I don’t remember if I told her how much I enjoyed those few days. If she is reading this, she would know of course.

But as I said, I rarely — almost never — think of her anymore. Or her, for that matter, or even her. And those rare occasions when I do are surprisingly correlated with late hours like these when I should be sleeping. Instead, here I am typing things of little interest to my readers and which I will probably think of as embarassing or unnecessary the next morning.

Time to make another attempt at sleep. Even if I can’t, I’ll resist posting any more poorly written, rambling descriptions of times I spent many years ago with ex-girlfriends who I am no longer in touch with.

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You know you are not happy when you wish you could make time go faster.

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(Updated 6/13)

In response to an emailed comment by a certain reader, I feel it is appropriate to clarify my stand on free speech.

I frequently say I believe in complete freedom of speech, no hate-speech exceptions, etc. However when I say complete freedom of speech, I use the term only to refer to expressed opinions. My stand does not extend to protection of false factual claims. I do indeed believe it should be a offence, under certain circumstances, to make specific objectively false statements about others. In other words, I do not advocate repeal of laws against defamation.

(Of course, in some countries it is fashionable to use defamation laws to punish statements that are essentially opinions, or claims that are offensive but true. Needless to say, I find both disgusting.)

There are certain other circumstances where speech can be legitimately regulated. Without discussing them individually, let me just mention that they all fall into one of the two narrow categories listed below:

a) Making objectively false statements that directly hurt the reputation of others. This includes defamation as discussed above, and related matters. In my view, these should be civil offences.

b) Causing imminent and grave violence through speech. This includes situations like ordering your followers to commit a crime, shouting fire in a crowded theatre, directly inciting a riot, telling a companion to step to his left in a dark mountain knowing there is a deep gorge there, using fighting words (defined in a very narrow sense as in current US law). The word ‘imminent’ (as defined in current US law, say) is very important; thus speech that worsens communal harmony and leads to an increased likelihood of violence would not qualify, nor would mere advocacy of a crime. In my view, it should be a criminal offence to violate this exception.

I should stress that these exceptions to free speech are very narrow. In particular, they do not cover opinions, however hurtful.  I believe that offending someone’s feelings through your opinions (e.g. hate speech, religious views) should be completely legal. Similarly I uphold an absolute right to freedom of expression; obscene pictures and blasphemous cartoons are not actionable in my book.

Why then, the two exceptions listed above? I view them as examples of breach of implicit contract, or, in some cases as initiation of force. The people on the theatre, or your friend in the mountain, have an implicit expectation (as long as you have not told them otherwise) that you will not shout ‘fire’ without reason or cause them to fall to their death.

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My interview with the Pakistani Spectator.

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Apropos of nothing…I remembered myself from ten years back.

When I hated all mongerers of superstition; when I simply could not fathom why the government did not declare the practice of astrology, quackery, faith-healing and all related unscientific mumbo-jumbo illegal; when I would have liked all religious extremists and preachers of hate put behind bars; when the ultimate aim of the government to me was the advancement of a scientific spirit; when I truly believed that the world would be a better place if those who were caught in the warp of irrationality and actively spread dogmatism were silenced, by force if necessary; when I was fifteen.

Today, as then, I believe in the scientific spirit. But I no longer believe in coercion. Does that make me a wiser person?

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I haven’t had much time to blog this weekend. Ideas for posts came and went. News broke, and got stale. I gave them all a haughty ignore and, with single minded devotion, concentrated on my L-functions.

One of the drawbacks of being a fourth year grad student is that you need to do a lot of research quickly enough to produce a decent body of work by next winter — for the perusal of the grim committee that will go through your job application. And I am a fourth year grad math student. My research consists of proving things — by the power of thought. Which means I work when I think and I … umm … think when I walk. So when do I blog?

Yet, being a student comes with its perks. One of them is that I get student-priced tickets for concerts. So I went to the Pasadena symphony yesterday to hear an evening of music. They were playing three piano concertos by Mozart, my favourite composer.

The pianist was superb. He played beautifully. The music was pure and simple and true. It was mostly joyous, sometimes moving and deep, but without an iota of negativity. It was a bit like the best kind of mathematics.

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Online reading has its merits, but there’s nothing like sitting in a comfortable couch and flipping the pages of a favourite magazine. So, four weeks ago, I signed up for a year’s subscription of Reason, and my first copy arrived today. Delicious.

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My housemate sent me an email yesterday which I thought was rather funny and am reproducing in full below.

No pathbreaking results in research; no car to take me places; not particularly proficient at arts or sports; and now the house has run out of eggs, milk and veggies too. But there’s a part of me that keeps telling me that it could be worse – we could run short of bread too.


Other grad students will probably identify with the situation.

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It’s a brilliant morning. The air is cool and fresh, the sunshine abundant and there’s not a cloud in the sky. I sit on a metal chair outside Corner Bakery sipping my coffee. 

The road is full of colourful kids. It’s the annual parade day. They walk, they smile, some wobble along on their tiny bikes wearing their impossibly cute red helmets. The proud mothers and the enthusiastic drummers follow. I eat my breakfast, watching happiness and listening to the sound of drums and twinkling bells. Occasionally I read the mathematical paper I have brought along. I am struck by a sudden urge to extol, to write about this. But the air is magical, the beauty exquisite and I cannot make myself get up. There is too much love and freshness around. I sit there smiling, musing, dreaming – what?

Oh outdoor cafes, I love you so!

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Clive Crook is an excellent essayist and this passage -from his sterling tribute to Milton Friedman– is particularly close to my heart.

There is no great mystery about the reason for this double standard. Freedoms that express themselves through market relations—the freedom to buy and sell—are widely regarded as ethically compromised. This is the freedom to gratify one’s greed, to exploit others, to con and be conned, where the market is a jungle, a war of all against all. There is a germ of truth in all that, of course, enough to lend it plausibility. But it misses the larger truth, of the market as an astoundingly productive system of voluntary cooperation, in which people of myriad beliefs, loyalties, and faiths can engage with others, freely, and to their enormous mutual benefit. If Friedman, with all his powers of persuasion, could not convince people of that larger truth, it is hard to say what will.

Milton Friedman was, if I may use a word worn from abuse for it is the only one that feels right, a giant. It is a cliche to say that some people will never die. In Friedman’s case it feels like the truth.

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