Monday, July 07, 2008

Incoherence vs "unrecognized subtlety"

This whole discussion about libertarianism and liberalism is so facinating I'm sad I missed a lot of it due to a super-long awesome wedding party. Reading the comments however I think I have bit more to add.

Though it's generally never a good idea I'd like to draw a distinction between my own views and Paul's when he writes:
...The point is that when you put pressure on thinking that is ostensibly "libertarian", you tend to find a hodge-podge of other philosophies being applied in selective ways. Sometimes it's strict constructionism, sometimes it's about negative liberty, sometimes it's about the inefficiency of government. That makes the arguments difficult to engage with and, I think, suggests that the philosophy itself is somewhat incoherent.
Paul writes that since many libertarians don't seem to be applying their claimed precepts in a regular way that those individuals probably have an incoherent philosophy. I disagree. In the same way that a native English speaker can form coherent sentences without having to memorize thousands of grammatical rules, so to can people subscribe to and practice a coherent political philosophy without being consciously aware of which values they are applying and how. Indeed, I suspect that most politically aware people have very regular system of rules and values for making political decisions that they follow even if they are mistaken about the nature of their own political philosophy.

Allow me to be the first to plead guilty to being mistaken about my own beliefs. In rereading my previous post on liberalism I realize that it does a poor job of explaining what I believe. In fact, it seems that I defined liberalism so broadly that it could probably include most of conservatism. I guess this shouldn't be surprising. Both liberals and conservatives agree that the government should be used to make people's lives better - they just differ as to the best way. Liberals want to use government to create a high-speed rail system. Conservatives want to use it to stop people from drinking too much.

The only thing my definition does manage to do is distinguish my philosophy with the rights-based constricted ones like Communism and Libertarianism where rights based arguments - not efficiency ones - are used much more more often to define the role of the state in the economy.

But back to my crappy definition of liberalism. I first recognized this shortcoming when I started trying use the "more better options" business to explain why I support the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA). It turns out it's pretty difficult. The "more, better options" doesn't include any concept of fairness which is pretty important. I think I ought to think about exactly how that figures in and if that can be used to distinguish conservatism from liberalism.


Bret said...

I think, on a technical level, what we're really talking about is, Tom, Bret, and Paul.

Tommaso Sciortino said...

Fair enough.

Paul said...

While I agree that it's possible, as a logical matter, that people can "subscribe to and practice a coherent political philosophy without being consciously aware of which values they are applying", as a practical matter I see no evidence that that is, in fact, the case for most people, least of all libertarians.

I think if you were correct about this, Tom, it wouldn't be too hard to determine what "coherent political philosophy" was being practiced by particular people. But, in fact, it's virtually impossible to do so.

Returning to your language example, I'd say that one remarkable feature of language is that almost nobody actually adheres to the rules of grammar in a truly consistent way. Just ask Rebecca!

Paul said...

It also occurs to me that I really don't think your definition of liberalism is too broad, or includes much of conservatism. Conservatism tends to be indifferent to (and often tries to minimize) the number and quality of meaningful options available to people. Hence things like dry counties and most of the rest of the Republican social agenda.

Bret said...

Conservatism tries to reduce meaningful options? That's ridiculous. Conservatism simply holds that the market is better at providing options than the government is!

Paul said...

Is that sarcasm? It's hard to tell.

Tommaso Sciortino said...

Modern conservatism and modern liberalism both spring from the classic liberalism that held markets in high esteem. But of course, holding them in high esteem doesn't mean you think they work better always and everywhere. Social conservatives certainly don't believe that the market is capable of providing the cultural options they want - that's why they support free speech restrictions like flag burning amendments, V-chip mandates, etc.

Paul said...

Yeah, if you cut through the rhetorical flourishes of conservative ideology, conservatism is pretty clearly indifferent to providing "more and better options" on the economic front, and outright opposed to "more and better options" on the social front.

The economic aspect of that point is maybe less clear than the social aspect, so to say a little more about it: I think the typical argument is that markets distribute resources most efficiently. Efficiency, however, has nothing per se to do with maximizing the quality of option sets available to people, it's just about not wasting inputs. Without an additional argument about the distribution of outputs, conservatism can't rightly be said to be concerned primarily with optimizing sets of options for as many people as possible.

(Now, I do think there's a tendency for free-marketeers to, on the fly, decide that in addition to being the most efficient system, the free market is also the best at doing whatever the subject at hand is. I don't think that quite rises to the level of being part of the ideology. It just sort of muddies the waters.)

But in any event, I think Tom's right and that we shouldn't pretend that "conservative" just means "economic conservative". The conservative social agenda is pretty blatantly anti-option in a lot of ways.