Wednesday, July 02, 2008

What's liberalism

I think Bret brings up some good points in the post below and he's opened my eyes to how unclear I've been in my formulation of what liberalism is. In order to help myself think more clearly (and help give others firmer grounds upon which to attack any mistakes I might be making) let me try to restate my definition of Liberalism.

"Liberalism argues that government should give people more and better options if a mechanism can be found to reliably do so."

There are a lot of things that are left unsaid here so let me break it down into bite-sized pieces.

"...government should give people more and better options..."

The idea here is that it would be nice if we had more options, and if the options we had were better. Obviously these two desires can conflict. It would be nice if I had the option of getting good health care. In fact, I'd like it so much I'd be willing to trade my current condition (many bad options) for one in which having good health care was my only option.

Furthermore the "people" in the above phrase is important too. It would be unfair for government to expand one person's opportunities at the expense of everyone else. Taken to the extreme this would be confiscatory as Bret rightly points out. However, we should recognize that the services provided by government are a package deal. As long as the overall affect is to expand the opportunities for the vast majority (i.e. "people") I think we can excuse the odd program which is basically confiscatory if taken alone. I would put Social Security and the Civil Rights act into this group. With such programs, government can reach out to improve the options of people who are left behind by other programs.

(As a corollary to the above, people who eat pudding do not, as a class, constitute a group that has been ill-served by government so a program to help them could not be justified.)

Now the question naturally arises: Who decides what's more and better and for whom? Bret asked precisely these questions and they are good ones. If you're just trying to decide what you personally support, then use your own metric. If we're trying to decide what the government should actually do, well... this is why we have a democracy. With the proper minority protections in place (which our constitutions provides in spades) I see no problem in resolving these questions at the ballot box.

"...if a mechanism can be found to reliably do so."

Lastly, government should only act if it can do so effectively, technically and politically. On a technical level, we should only support government programs if we expect them to produce the intended effect if carried out competently (i.e. No to price-caps and wage controls). On the political level, we should only support program if we think they're going to be politically sustainable in the long term. Thus we need to be wary of regulatory capture, rent seeking, and good old fashioned unintended consequences.

This last issue is - I suspect - what Bret is getting at when he calls me a "techno-liberal". I suspect he thinks I'm only looking at the technical aspects of government programs while ignoring the very real threats posed by government failures like regulatory capture. If that is the case then I'll assure everyone that I am aware of these issues and even made a point to include them in my formulation of Liberalism and indeed, in my personal political beliefs. This is why I support a carbon tax much more strongly than cap-n-trade.

So, to sum up: There are a lot of judgment calls that this formulation leaves open. Of course there is: it's a pragmatic philosophy that doesn't pretend to give you all the answers. Still, much better no answer than a wrong one.


Paul said...

"Now the question naturally arises: Who decides what's more and better and for whom?"

I agree with your response to this point, but I'm not sure I understand what the force of this objection is supposed to be in the first place.

I take it the point is supposed to be that while it's fairly straight-forward to figure out what one person wants for himself or herself, it's tough to develop a consensus among multiple people. Therefore, we should defer, in a very extreme way, to individual autonomy. Something like liberalism is just going to get hopelessly mired in trying to figure out what is "good" and who it's good for.

But, really, individuals often don't know what's good for themselves, either. They struggle and agonize over decisions, frequently make poor choices, etc. Identifying what's "good" is hard for individuals, too!

So what's supposed to be the problem with a political philosophy that requires identifying which things are better than others?

Bret said...

The problem, succinctly, is that under Libertarianism, I'm responsible for my bad choices. Under Liberalism, we're all responsible for everyone's bad choices. When people feel put upon unfairly, they begin to dodge the system, to the detriment of all.

Why should my tax money pay for emergency-room care for someone who needs it because of their own irresponsible behavior?

I don't need to push as far as Communism's failure to suggest the extremes of poorly applied Liberalism. Witness the labor market in France; a well-documented example of a system simply withering on the vine because too many 'better options' were attached to it.

None of this of course means to suggest that Liberalism as a whole needs to be immediately discarded! My core belief is that Liberals in ascendancy need a loyal opposition in Libertarians, and vice-versa.

I find it odd that I've admitted the failings of Libertarianism (that I'm aware of) right out the gate, and I can't get either of you to concede the smallest point. Tom has defined Liberalism twice in a row on the main page of this blog since I started -posting in the comments section-.

I was hoping I could get my core beliefs on stable ground more quickly, so that we could get to the meat of how we relate to specific issues!

Tommaso Sciortino said...

I never said that Liberalism would always lead to good results. As you say, there is always the possibility that you will be held responsible for the bad choices of others. Liberalism holds that this risk can be worth taking when the reward to (cautiously!) working together is great enough.

When the city council decides to put in street lights there is the risk that it's a bad choice and that everyone will have to pay for it. As a liberal I feel comfortable taking such risks since otherwise our world would look like Mad Max and *we'd all be worse off*.

Being punished for the bad choices of others is bad. Having to fight in the Thunderdome for Tina Turner's entertainment is also bad. I recognize both as being bad things we ought to avoid. It seems that libertarianism doesn't since it doesn't seem to give us any way of *justifying* occasionally using government coercion to work together. Instead, when confronted with situations where government coercion is necessary to maintain our standard of living, libertarian proponents seem to wink and say "oh yeah, well, obviously in extreme cases you can't take all this rights-stuff I've been talking about seriously." or “Well, obviously all this stuff is null and void if enough people riot.” But there's the problem. Who gets to decide what the extreme cases are?

Let's get to the heart of the issue: national defense. If libertarians are to act as a good-faith opposition to liberalism it's going to have to accept the legitimacy of forcing people to pay taxes to maintain national defense even though it seems to be in violation of the "Don't do things if it might harm X for the bad decisions of Y" rule. On what grounds do they justify that? Who gets to decide which government policies qualify under that exception?

Liberalism and Libertarianism both lead to similar quandaries. But it seems to me that liberalism is up front about these issues and incorporates them into the philosophy. It's clear about which subjective criteria you should use when making that decision. Libertarianism doesn't seem to incorporate this decision making process. It doesn't seem to be clear about how you decide when government coercion is ok.

It may be that I'm misunderstanding so if I am treat this as an open invitation to enlighten me.

Bret said...

Libertarianism is profoundly clear on when coercion is okay: it is right there in the Constitution.

National Defense is an example I used earlier of a benefit all citizens enjoy automatically. Are Canadian troops abridging your right to free speech? No? Then you're enjoying that benefit.

Note my frustration that Con.I.8 specifically calls the Post Office into being, when this is -not- a benefit automatically enjoyed by all. The sting is lessened because it is fee-based, and optional (ie - FedEx is allowed to exist, I am allowed to use it, and Post Office doesn't receive too much General funding).

In other words, I'm aware that the Founding Fathers didn't define a good rights-abridgment choice (proportionate to the extent that the benefit is automatically enjoyed by all) exactly the way I do. C'est la vie. They also kept slaves and didn't brush after meals.

We now seem to have reduced Liberalism and Libertarianism to the parallel problems of the Legislature deciding what is good, vs. what is a permissible abridgment of natural rights. This is where philosophy sort of ends.. the process is still guided by values, but now rests on Legislative skill.

Liberals would like to promote as much common good as possible, but recognize that the wrong move (lets simplify and say) hurts the economy for no reason. Libertarians would like to secure as much personal liberty as possible, but recognize that going too far risks social instability.

This is the gray area where we may have productive discussions, I think.

Bret said...

Okay that link got cut off somehow. If you Google "US Constitution" you'll find it. I was specifically linking Art.I Sec.8

Tommaso Sciortino said...

Ok, maybe I'm understanding you better. But I'm not clear on "proportionate to the extent that the benefit is automatically enjoyed by all". Couldn't you argue that Social Security - being available to all citizens - qualifies? What about Universal Health Care (so long as it really is universal)?

Bret said...

Well, Social Security's a bit of a bear. Nobody pays in the same amount, nobody gets out the same amount, and nobody gets out precisely what they paid in. Even though technically, everyone is in on it, we're not all enjoying it at the same level.

I suspect it would be the same for Universal Healthcare, depending on how they finance it.

I think it's worth noting that the crucial component of the two programs you cite is income redistribution. It is redistribution for a specific purpose, such as care of the sick or elderly, but it can nonetheless be reduced to a certain number of dollars that need to be taken from Joe and given to Bob.

Clean air and national defense, on the other hand, are problems that cannot be solved by individuals privately buying what they need. They're not caused by lack of funds, but rather by others forcefully violating your natural rights. Government intrusion therefore seems a more natural methodology.

I'm not an expert on any of the above systems of regulation, but my suspicion is that the market could do better where the solution appears to be income redistribution.

Paul said...

Bret, I think it would be helpful if you made it clearer when you were talking about libertarianism and when you were talking about strict constructionism. As long as we keep sliding back and forth between the two as if they were interchangeable, it's never going to be possible to address your particular points.

To repeat what I've said before, libertarianism and strict constructionism are not the same thing. The libertarian account is incompatible with liberalism at any level of government. Strict constructionism is compatible with liberalism as long as it's not enacted at the federal level.

That's because the two philosophies explain government illegitimacy in different ways. To a libertarian, you might get natural rights-based arguments or arguments about positive vs. negative liberty. To a strict constructionist, the question is just whether the government action is proscribed by the Constitution.

But under no interpretation are the two philosophies actually the same.

Paul said...

What does it mean to say the market would be "better" at something? More efficient? Better for all individuals involved?

Tommaso Sciortino said...

"Well, Social Security's a bit of a bear. Nobody pays in the same amount, nobody gets out the same amount, and nobody gets out precisely what they paid in. Even though technically, everyone is in on it, we're not all enjoying it at the same level."

Couldn't you make the same arguments about national security? After all, even a flat-tax would ask more from some people than others to fund the military - and people living on the border or near natural resources are at greater risk of invasion than those who live in middle-of-nowhere Texas. How do you justify taxing we Californians to pay for the the defense of those dare-devils who choose to live in oh-so-invadable Alaska?

Bret said...

I think that goes to the nature of national defense: it isn't based on our ability to literally blunt a surprise invasion. It's based on the general sense that invading America from any direction would be a bad, bad idea.

Social Security, by contrast, does not work by having a huge pool of money that, by its very hugeness, makes it likely that you'll never have to spend it.

I guess I'm not aware that strict constructionism and libertarianism are mutually separate ways of thinking. I suppose they might contradict each other if the Constitution contained something that was profoundly heavy-handed. But maybe I'm not thinking about this the right way? I might be missing what you're getting at.

Paul said...

Libertarianism and strict constructionism are, in fact, mutually exclusive in a lot of situations (e.g., on the question of vast, intrusive state governments), but I think the problem I'm having is that it's not clear to me which line your taking at any particular time. You slide back and forth between them.

Maybe the clearest example is your claim that "Libertarianism is profoundly clear on when coercion is okay: it is right there in the Constitution."

I don't know how to make sense of a claim like that unless you mean to suggest that libertarianism and strict constructionism are actually the same philosophy. But they're not!

If the bottom line of your argument is that the text of the Constitution is what determines when coercion is justified, then you are making the strict constructionist argument about coercion. On the other hand, if the bottom line of your argument is that people have certain natural rights that ought only to be infringed in such-and-such circumstances, or if the bottom line of your argument is that, in practice, government action is almost never effective, then you are making a libertarian argument.

And note that these philosophies actually have radically different implications for just governance. On the strict constructionist account, state and local governments would be allowed to engage in absolutely any form of coercion not expressly prohibited by the Constitution. Libertarianism, on the other hand, doesn't recognize that kind of distinction: government is government, and rights are rights. (Libertarianism can also make value judgments about possible amendments to the Constitution; strict constructionism cannot.)

I think Tom and I are actually trying to make the same point in different ways. 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.

Bret said...

@Paul, I think I see your point.

It seems to me, where Libertarianism would say "No force except in response to force", strict constructionism would say "Government action, precisely as provided herein." The latter, given the Constitution, is a codification of the former.

@'under strict construction, states would be allowed to engage in absolutely any form of coercion not expressly prohibited by the Constitution.'

Maybe I haven't thought this through, but it doesn't seem to me that a strict construction of the Constitution allows excessive state government coercion.

Granted, State Constitutions contain 'necessary and proper' clauses of varying strengths, and this seems to lead to a wider range of command-economy type actions at the State level (since these do not trigger 14th amendment Federal action). There, I grant, you have a point: these things are legal (constructionist) but confiscatory (anti-Libertarian). I would address them by saying that these actions are sometimes justifiable in terms of the social stability and economic benefit they provide. That Libertarianism rejects them is a failing of Libertarianism.

You have a good point that a strict constructionist would make no value judgment about a proposed amendment to the Constitution. I certainly -would- do that.

@Sometimes it's strict constructionism, sometimes it's about negative liberty, sometimes it's about the inefficiency of government.

If I had seen this list out of context, I would have titled it, 'ways that people can object to Liberalism'. I still don't necessarily see how these things are internally contradictory, except as outlined above.

I think what's been proven here is that I'm not an orthodox Libertarian: I recognize (and have posted this here before) that Libertarianism relies on the free market to react to social problems, and as such, is very capable of collapsing due to unrest before those problems can be solved by the market. This is bad, and I don't have an answer for it, except to mix in Liberalism where it seems most appropriate.

You may therefore fairly say that Libertarianism has serious structural flaws. But so does Liberalism, interpreted with the same rigor.

Paul said...

I agree that liberalism has fairly significant problems. The distinction I would make is that while liberalism is often difficult to implement effectively, it is nevertheless a plausible, coherent political philosophy. (And not so difficult to implement that it isn't often implemented with a great deal of success.)

My feeling about libertarianism is that it is neither plausible nor coherent as a philosophy, although I think in its practical application it's somewhat more straightforward than liberalism.

Bret said...

I think Libertarianism can be shown to work, in its pure form, on a small scale. Essentially, when the populace relies mainly on economic interactions where there are few barriers to entry (the market reacts quickly to people's problems), a low likelihood of asymmetry (everyone knows what a bad apple looks like; not as many know how to read an insurance policy), and a high threshold for civil disorder (everyone knows their neighbors), there is essentially no reason to invent Liberalism, or to accept it as a cultural import.

This may seem trivial, but it is one of the explanations I default to for why we have "Two Americas".

Paul said...

I don't understand whether your argument there is empirical or hypothetical. And if it applies only to small-scale societies, what's the relevance to a large-scale society like the US of A?

Bret said...

Well it was meant as a counterargument to the notion that Libertarianism is not plausible or coherent as a pure philosophy. I think it is, just not one that applies as such on a large scale.

It is empirical insofar as we are generally aware that small towns tend

1) not to need complex social services
2) to vote conservative

But that's all I got.

Paul said...

Well, what I meant "plausible" and "coherent", there, to refer to the theories, not their implementation. That's what I meant when I said I thought its practical implementation was reasonably straight-forward. (More so than liberalism, in my view.) The premises that libertarianism operates on are, I think, not especially plausible, and in any case my experience is that many libertarians have a pretty hard time picking a set of premises and applying them in an internally coherent way.

That said, I also think it is implausible that libertarianism could be implemented on a moderate-to-large scale without disastrous (but straight-forward!) results. So I think it's implausibility all around, then.

As for small scales, it's not like small towns operate in isolation from larger societies; they're part of the larger societies. It's not like small town residents don't, say, participate in Social Security. Moreover, it's well documented that many of these less-populous areas tend to receive disproportionately more federal dollars than they pay in. (For instance, relatively liberal, urban states tend to subsidize relatively conservative, rural states through the federal system.)