Let the wind between howl, lonely and wild

Let the wind between howl, lonely and wildJohn Tomasi has a thought-provoking post up at Bleeding Heart Libertarians on the yawning divide between classical liberals and libertarians on the one hand and high liberals on the other.

Off one coast, we have the two camps of the defenders of private economic liberty: the libertarians and the classical liberals. By classical liberals I have in mind a run of free market thinkers including Adam Smith, F.A. Hayek and Richard Epstein. The distinctive political commitment of classical liberalism is to private economic liberty—though classical liberals allow taxation to support a limited range of government provided social goods (education vouchers, a safety net). Some thinkers in this tradition argue from natural rights, but most employ consequentialist or ends-directed forms of reasoning. The philosophical base of this position is a conception of the person as a seeker of happiness or utility.

Hunkered down on the ice next to the classical liberals are the libertarians. Nozick is the paradigm here, though anarcho-capitalist such as Murray Rothbard roll out their blankets on the edges of this same camp. The distinctive political commitment of libertarians is also to private economic liberty—though libertarians tend to treat economic liberties as even more weighty than the classical liberals do (“taxation is theft”). Libertarians can be consequentialists, but they more often employ what we might call naturalistic forms of justification. They find their philosophical base in the idea of the person as a self-owner.

On the opposite coast are the high liberals:

The distinctive political commitment of high liberals is not to private economic liberty but to social justice: social institutions should be arranged so as to benefit all members of society, including the poor. High liberals minimize or deny the importance of private economic liberty. After all, such liberties limit the power of government to “spread the wealth around,” a strategy that high liberals see as plainly required by their commitment to social justice. Rather than a consequentialist or naturalist form of reasoning, high liberals characteristically employ deliberative forms of justification. A set of institutions is just and legitimate only if it is acceptable in principle to the citizens who are to live there. The philosophical base of high liberalism is not a utility seeker or a self-owner but an idea of the person as a democratic citizen. This is a person committed to living with his fellow citizens on terms that all can endorse, regardless of the particular social or economic position each inhabits.

Tomasi writes that in the first two camps, “social justice” is a “phrase they are told they must not speak.” In the latter camp, “private economic liberty” is a “phrase only rarely and dismissively heard.”

I find myself wandering hither and thither across the frozen sea. I suppose to me these are both phrases that ought to be uttered by anyone who cares about either issue. Perhaps that makes me a bleeding-heart-libertarian. I know that I have become more and more disenchanted with the left, and yet I cannot help but think that libertarians would be better off avoiding too much affiliation with the right. Liberal-tarianism is not dead yet, and I aim to pick up where I left off. Liberalism is a big tent as far as I’m concerned, even if icy lakes lie between one pole and the other.

I’m not sure exactly what differentiates classical liberals, liberal-tarians, and bleeding-heart-libertarians. What I do know is that I am too Hayekian not to be a bottom-up liberal (to borrow Tim Lee’s phrase) and too egalitarian not to be a bit of a lefty nonetheless. I don’t mind speaking of social justice and economic freedom in the same breath. In many ways they are complimentary, not mutually exclusive, as Jason has admirably illustrated in these pages.

In any case, the issues of greatest importance to me remain the same: equal rights for all and especially an end to marriage inequality, a ceasefire in the war on drugs, and a withdrawal of troops overseas and a return to some semblance of peace and non-interventionism. The rest is up for debate. How to construct and sustain a society that is at once flourishing and economically vibrant yet also just and fair is probably the single most important question for me (outside of our militarism and security state issues at least). Nobody, so far as I can tell, has satisfying answer. Pieces of the truth lie scattered about the ideas of the many.

And that’s why we blog, or at least why I blog. To ask questions, try on ideas, and then cast them aside when they are no longer useful, or when they’ve proven to be false in some way, or insufficient. When I have run out of nostalgia or romanticism or whatever other thing has colored my ideas, I default to doubt, to skepticism. And I suppose that, if nothing else, makes me a libertarian of some variety or other, however shabby.

 

 

 

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28 thoughts on “Let the wind between howl, lonely and wild

  1. Scepticism is commendable and all too rare. Policy problem are some of the most complex problems to be addressed by human minds.

    I think I need to write a full post to do the subject justice.

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  2. Tomasi makes some rather grandiose claims about how a bleeding heart ariety of libertarianism (or classical liberalism?) might truly bridge what in his own description seem to be some pretty well-defined, and even well-grounded fundamental differences between, broadly, two opposing camps. I suppose we need to wait to see just what he delivers on that front, but I have to say that on this question, and generally, I’m not sure I see what, conceptually, is so problematic about clear choices among ideas, dialectics, oppositions, etc. They’re not the only mode of thinking that is valid of course, but they’re certainly not inherently illegitimate or even undesirable, in my view. And in this case, I think the ideas in question really do stack up in this way.

    This is not to say that I think the idea of bleeding heart libertarianism is a non-starter or a bad label in some way. I actually prefer it to liberaltarian, because I think it is more specific about what it is trying to deal with (namely, for the most part, questions of distributional justice in classical and modern liberal, and libertarian, thought).

    But, and again, this does prejudge Tomasi’s next installment somewhat and I expect to revisit this hunch, at the moment I’m having a hard time coming up with the basic idea that he might have –the killer argumentative ap, as it were — that he has up his sleeve to subvert this oppositional paradigm, if it isn’t simply a variation on the hoary consequentialist-libertarian claim that state schemes to improve the condition of (poor) people tend to fail if they involve distortions of markets, at that, in the end, bleeding heart liberals and others committed to social justice are best off embracing the value of respect for individual economic liberty because, when all the resulting choices get aggregated, the social outcomes end up more like what the social-justice types wanted to begin with, the result has been arrived at more efficiently, and, as a bonus, people’s liberties haven’t been unduly infringed. That’s a libertarian claim I’ve always had more respect for than many others, if only because it is indeed plausible and offers a testable hypothesis that lays the groundwork for in my view the kind of research program that would pay the most dividends for applying our diligence in terms of public policy implications, and because it concerns itself with social liberals’ values rather than attacking them on rights grounds that to me have always seemed to pale compared to the social needs against which it’s asked that they be weighed.

    As I say, that’s an argument — the argument, really — that I see as the most productive one to be undertaken between the camps that Tomasi describes. But it wouldn’t be a new one — certainly not so novel that it offers a brand new philosophical path of sorts, which some of Tomasi’s rhetoric about his forthcoming ideas suggests is what he thinks he has. Claiming that libertarian means are really the best means to “high liberals'” ends, while also upholding rights-libertarians naturalistic commitments is pretty much just what libertarians have been doing for a number of decades now, in places, I’d argue, as established and well-trodden as the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal as well as other, not-exactly-underground publications such as Reason, or indeed a host of economics and other academic journals. But perhaps that won’t be the thrust of his vision for “BHL.” I’m excited to find out.

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    • I had much the same thoughts about his claims for BHLs. Which is why I really just skirted that part altogether. I mean, I’m sort of still waiting for an answer to that question and I’ve been reading that blog since its inception.

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    • There is another argument, which is essentially this – We can accept Rothbard’s or Nozick’s reasoning that an argument from rights can only justify a very limited or non-existent state, but also dispute the mapping from the world in which their argument is set to the real world, and justify some amount of state interference in the economy in the context of the real world of the back of that. Left-wing individualist anarchist types quite often do this. For example, they may favor the eventual abolition of medicaid , but at the same time not favour abolishing it right now, until the many many other pieces of government interference that prevent medical services being provided for the poor have been dealt with.

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  3. social justice: social institutions should be arranged so as to benefit all members of society, including the poor. High liberals minimize or deny the importance of private economic liberty.

    The key thing Rawls always said about determining who the worst off are is that they are the worst off as calculated throughout their entire lifespans and not at any single point in time. Interpretations of Rawls by those on the left and the right which fail to understand the full force of this point often misconstrue him as advocating heavily redistributive policies.

    The key to the liberal-tarian consensus is that a free market combined with private property rights is the best way to secure the well being of the worst off

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      • “Rather than a consequentialist or naturalist form of reasoning, high liberals characteristically employ deliberative forms of justification.”

        If this is true its unfortunate, because the consequentialist route seems pretty fertile at the moment. E.g. everyone really would be better off if wealth at the top were used to realize the creative ambitions of those closer to the bottom and middle, rather than have capital trickle down in the form of overdraft fees, variable interest rates, etc.

        For those who think a public option would force the private sector to compete in health insurance, I’m not sure why that logic doesn’t also apply to loan provision.

        For me the problem with Hayekian social safety nets is that they feel more “bleeding heart.” Oh, there are these poor people and we need to help them, rather than, oh there are all these under productive people that if given proper nutrition, better education, and a safer more respectable environment to live in might all produce bucket loads more wealth in the future than not.

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  4. Seems to me that once one rejects Rand, Rothbard, Nozick, those with a rather pure disdain for government, a “taxation is theft” belief as the starting point, your are pretty much left discussing boundaries. Boundaries as to what is appropriate government taking. There is an acknowledgment at BHL, the name serves as a spoiler alert, that government has legitimate functions that strict libertarians would reject.

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  5. “I find myself wandering hither and thither across the frozen sea. I suppose to me these are both phrases that ought to be uttered by anyone who cares about either issue. Perhaps that makes me a bleeding-heart-libertarian.”

    Actually, you might find it interesting to look at the differences between what he’s calling the classical liberals and the (more dogmatic) libertariarians, because in a lot of ways it mirrors your discomforts with the Left (or Right for that matter). A lot of abstract analysis around a belief of the way things ought to be, not as much engagement with the actual state of affairs or what we accept to be plausible.

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  6. Is it me or is it that fiscal consevatives spend a rediculous amount of time re-articulating their political ideology for themselves or for the the false other who is so seemingly politically galvanized against them? What I understand about fiscal conservatives is that some will tolerate status quo to an extent in terms of taxation; but little is actually being done by classical liberals and fiscal conservatives to reform the taxation system. I think the all-or-nothing absolutists movement among conservatives enables the Statist agendas because some reform is a brushed aside as if nothing was done at all. The better question might be is why does political life attract so many bad tantrum-prone children posing as grown ups, narcissist frauds posing as caring leaders, sociopathic corporations who insist on assuming human rights while denying the same to real people, and intellectuals frozen by the paralysis of analysis who shrug off action items as “terrestrial” and “pedestrian”. The navel gazing done by fiscal conservatives is a secret wish for political port in a storm. Its a fantasy. The nature of politics is a storm on purpose, so that some have and others don’t. I hate politics, but it doesn’t make me immune to the inheritance. I believe accepting this makes me an adult, who doesn’t have to have their government choose their vegetables for them.

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  7. “And that’s why we blog, or at least why I blog. To ask questions, try on ideas, and then cast them aside when they are no longer useful, or when they’ve proven to be false in some way, or insufficient.”

    This, in fact, is precisely why I started blogging. Thinking aloud, conversing, finding an excuse to put ideas into written form… In a way, it’s always been a selfish kind of enterprise at core.

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  8. Wouldn’t it be fair to observe the Liberal and the Libertarian are more defined by their prophets than by their policies? I don’t consider Adam Smith particularly liberal, given his numerous caveats to undemocratic government interference where it served the general welfare. The first identifiable Liberal was John Locke, by my reckoning. If you don’t agree, at least you’ll agree it’s a matter of which prophets you find compelling. It’s Locke who gives us the Consent of the Governed.

    Free markets aren’t free, a point I’ve made many times before. Only a well-regulated market can attain any semblance of Max Weber and then Hayek’s markets, where a price mechanism can begin to optimize resources. The knowledge economy depends on honest dealings and therefore regulation.

    The Libertarian is a liberal, malgré lui. He just has a different focus. Where the Liberal sees the individual as a member of a free and just society, the Libertarian asserts the society is only as just as its members are free.

    Despair grips me every time the phrase “equal rights” arises. The phrase is a begged question. Justice is usually a matter of who has the better lawyer and equality, especially economic equality, is an ignis fatuus. In programming languages, equality is a sternly composed term, with definite meaning. We are not equal and never have been. Oh, we might have been born equal but that’s where equality ends.

    Every time mankind has tried to institute equality, it’s proven a miserable failure, usually culminating in a nightmare regime where the shortages are divided among the peasants and the Party Members are more equal than the others and all are equal before the mad god-emperor, a comedian playing to an audience too afraid to laugh.

    The Libertarian is probably correct, insofar as we mustn’t wring our hands too much over the issue of equality, for we shall never have it. Nobody walks out of the courthouse happy after a good decision. We will require a modicum of government, with regulation of markets varying with the degree of risk. Free will and objectivity as set forth by Nozick are probably illusions, too, which is why I could never be a Libertarian. We are more than what we do: we are and therefore we do.

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