Monday, June 30, 2008

Giving the wrong answer vs. no answer

Ok, Bret inspired me to post this.

No good political philosophy can answer every political question without sliding into dangerous idealism. But we can certainly hope that a philosophy will give us constructive ways to think about every question. As an example liberalism argues that government should give people more and better options if a mechanism can be found to reliably do so. On it's own, this doesn't settle the question over whether we should - for example - support universal health care. But it at least gives us a way to organize our subjective judgments to make a political decision.

In contrast to liberalism, libertarianism seems a much more far-reaching. It says that "I should be allowed to do anything I want, as long as it doesn't harm others". This is a simplification of course. But instead of leaving difficult questions open - like liberalism or conservatism for that matter - it seems to give us exactly the wrong answer on a host of issues.

Is the government allowed to regulate portions of the economy merely because doing so will lead to prosperity? Libertarianism says no. Not unless you can show it involves someone harming someone else. So goodbye universal health care or even preventing insurers from discriminating against those with hereditary conditions. And the federal reserve system is out as well.

But that's not all, because there's nothing in the libertarian formulation that seems to account for the level at which government programs are enacted. So I don't see why street-lights or Bart or Cal trans, or even state parks or zoning laws are allowable under this philosophy. And indeed, there are many libertarians that think just that.

Ok. Now that I've made libertarians angry by over-simplifying their views let me step back and recognize that this probably isn't what most libertarians think. On the occasions that I've made this argument to libertarians their response was basically to whip off the mask and to reveal a totally different, non-libertarian, philosophy underneath. For some it's radical federalism: the belief that somehow local government is better than federal government (which is wrong for a whole host of reasons). For others it's a kind of soft liberalism that dares-not-speak-its-name: people should be left alone unless we can prove there's a really good reason to do so. For others it's good old conservatism: they just want to cut the welfare state to force people to turn to churches and other similar organizations for support.

I don't think you get this with other philosophies. Liberalism doesn't always give you an answer, but at least you don't have to jettison it to get pragmatic solutions to everyday problems. With a lot of libertarians on the other hand, it really does seem like it's just an attitude masquerading as a philosophy.


Bret said...

Libertarianism can be an attitude masquerading as a philosophy, by degrees, quite the same way that Liberalism can. For every person who grumbles that "taxes are just too dadgum high", there is someone who insists that the Federal Government has an obligation to do something about the exorbitant price of Pudding Treats.

I'm sure Lew Rockwell and Franklin Roosevelt would make a merry time of it if they were here to comment!

Tommaso Sciortino said...

Fair enough. I would encourage both tax-damning libertarians and pudding-treat liberals to find a better, more descriptive name for their philosophy.

Bret said...

What I'm trying to say, I suppose, is that at their most accessible levels, most political philosophies are pretty stupid. At their highest levels, they all have fundamental problems.

Take your techno-liberalism for example. Correct me if I lay it out incorrectly. The overriding goal is the most good for the most people, right? And since Government is a very powerful institution, it should be carefully wielded to ensure it provides the most good.

Assuming I'm on track so far, here is the major problem I see: How do you decide what 'good' is? Once you do decide, do you follow up by compelling active participation by dissenters? How do you do that? If you fail to corral the necessary participation, will your system for achieving 'good' still function as intended?

This is the Liberal analogue to the question Libertarians get asked constantly, which is, "What about when the market fails?"

Libertarianism's strength is that it attracts enthusiastic participation from all economically active elements in society. Liberalism's strength is that, given a reasonably talented Civil Service, it quickly advances the collective interest.

Tommaso Sciortino said...

How do you decide what "good" is? Good question. But at least it's a question that you can go about answering. Libertarianism doesn't leave you with a question. It leaves you with a bad answer that you have to disown while you look for some other way to decide what you believe. It just seems odd is all.

Bret said...

Saying that's a question you can go about answering is like me responding to a question about free market failings by saying the market never really fails. The Great Depression would have eventually worked itself out. That would have been a terrible way to (not) handle it, but it's true.

If you can convincingly answer the question of what is good, then where is your overwhelming Liberal majority? The inherent problem of government for the greatest good, is that nobody agrees on what that even is (although you're more likely to agree the smaller your political unit gets. Smells like Federalism!) Liberalism founders on the reality of self-interest, precisely to the extent that it tries to abridge it (witness Communism).

Paul said...

I'd go back a few steps and argue that liberalism is not primarily about "the most good for the most people". That seems sufficiently vague that it wouldn't really distinguish liberalism from anything else. Who opposes more goodness?

I prefer Tom's formulation in his post: as much as possible, "government should give people more and better options". That's a much more concrete goal, and serves to distinguish liberalism from other ideologies.

Tommaso Sciortino said...

"Liberalism founders on the reality of self-interest, precisely to the extent that it tries to abridge it (witness Communism)."

Whoa! I think we're getting into some weird territory here. Check out my formulation of Liberalism "government should give people more and better options if a mechanism can be found to reliably do so." The last part is key. Communism couldn't account for pragmatic concerns about whether a program could be administered by the state effectively because they made the having the government do things a moral rights based question.

That's the same mistake libertarianism makes. They argue that it violates human rights to tax people to pay for Medicare. Sure, they'll also argue that it's inefficient (i.e. it doesn't lead to more and better choices) but even if that wasn't true they'd still oppose it.

The rights-based argument is probably appealing to Libertarians because it's a lot less work than having to immerse yourself in the weeds of public policy research to determine which programs are efficient and which ones aren't. As a liberal I'd much rather have that argument. And one way to force people to drop the rights-based argument is to point out how bat-sh*t crazy it is when applied consistently.

Bret said...

@ The rights-based argument is probably appealing to Libertarians because it's a lot less work.

It's rarely credible or helpful to attribute a movement, of all things, to laziness.

As for the formulation of 'more and better options', it is essentially the same thing. Who decides what the better options are? Who is against better options? At what point is 'more' simply a waste?

The problem is not merely that these questions are difficult to answer; the system you propose must be inherently confiscatory. Sooner or later, someone will pay for someone else's options. If you propose a purely fee-based system that does not rely on compulsion at all, I would say well, that's the equivalent of a free market, and the way it ought to be whenever possible.

Compulsion is justifiable on behalf of certain public goods, which are automatically enjoyed by all: defense, clean air, free pudding, to name a few.

But beyond a certain range, it amounts to a selective subsidy, no matter how well meaning. That sort of thing, by degrees, leads to black markets, and people 'opting out', which is not good for the whole.

I'm not saying Liberalism has gone too far in America, all caps. But I do maintain that it frequently does so in little ways, and that the potential for it to do so again, to our common detriment, always exists.

Paul said...

Well, my ideal formulation is really "maximize meaningful options", which emphasizes 1) that an option that cannot realistically be chosen is not, in fact, worth considering an asset and 2) that there may be a point beyond which additional options offer no additional value. (I think Tom's formulation can handle those things, too, but maybe people see the "more" and miss the "better" part.)

There might be some disagreement at the margins about which sets of options are better or worse, but it's usually not hard to identify which options are meaningful to people. Usually the people in question have preferences that aren't hard to infer.

I would find arguments about government confiscation and compulsion more compelling if they came with a plausible description of the line beyond which such confiscation is not acceptable. If it's just that there's a point beyond which the confiscation is counter-productive, that's inarguable but irrelevant. It's trivial to agree that a philosophy should not endorse actions that are counter-productive to its goals.

Everybody (here) agrees that there are some situations in which government coercion is justified. The question is, what are the criteria by which we judge whether coercion is justified? For somebody like Tom or me the criterion is roughly: It's justified if it improves the quality of the set of options available to people.

The point of Tom's post, as I read it, is that libertarianism doesn't have a plausible criterion to offer.