Rights, Liberalism, Public Reason and Political Correctness

A lot happened to me this last couple of weeks. Jerry Gaus visited the National University of Singapore. Even though he is a libertarian and a Rawlsian, he challenged some of my deeper suppositions on a number of issues. I’ve also recently purchased Kingdoms of Amalur which is an awesome game and is sucking up my time. So of course I missed a couple of posts about the incredibly ignorant and misogynistic things that some politician said. Of course, some of our commenters, took the opportunity to be more than a bit obnoxious, going on about political correctness and other stuff. Meanwhile, Kyle Cupp has been doing a series of posts trying to show why natural rights is an absurd idea. Kyle’s more problematic idea, is not found in those posts, but in a slightly older one. Here is an excerpt:

Roberto de Mattei may be the Christianist par excellence, but he’s not entirely off base. He’s correct that error has no rights, so to speak, but wrong to conclude that the State shouldn’t therefore have the obligation of religious neutrality. The wisdom of separating of Church and State has its basis not on the supposed rights of error, but rather on 1) the principle that each person ought to seek the truth in her own way and in accordance with her own conscience (which may, in practice, mean a public, communal pursuit) and 2) the prudence of separating the power of priests and the power of princes.

True freedom is ordered toward the true and the good, as de Mattei rightly implies; however, while religious liberty may be best understood as the freedom to practice true religion, when the State takes a stand on what is and is not this true religion—and what in a religion is truth and what is error—it coercively sets the course for the pursuit of religious truth for those under its power, infringing their right and duty to seek truth in their own way.

The problematic part is where he says error has no rights.  So, here is an opportunity for me to tie all this together in one post where I will try to give a brief account of why error has rights, why we should care about such rights, why that means that policies should be justifiable to others in terms of reasons that are accessible to them and why being politically correct is important. Much of the content in what follows I owe to discussions with Jerry Gaus. These are not original ideas on my part, but taken from his book: The Order of Public Reason.

The problem with comprehensive conceptions of the good

The basic model that I see Cupp operating under is the idea that there is some objective good life, and the correct scheme of rights and liberties is the one that leads to more people living this good and proper life. Under this model, there is nothing per se wrong with banning obscenity. Even if there are lots of grey areas and that we as humans are likely to make mistakes, if there is some clear cut case of obscenity, then it should be banned. It is not only the catholic-right who buy into such a framework, large swaths of the left do as well. Arguments about whether or not there should be a right to something often devolve into arguments as to whether it is morally right or wrong, whether it affects things that are genuinely valuable etc. However, even if there is an objectively good life, we face two problems. The first is that it is difficult to establish why any particular way of living is genuinely good on a philosophical basis. More relevantly, even if we could do the former, many people who we ordinarily think as competent to run their own lives disagree deeply as to what the good life consists of (or if there is any objectively good life in the first place). There is therefore a more immediate and practical problem that faces us. How can a pluralistic society exist? How can people with deeply contradictory views about what the good is come together and coordinate their actions on some common set of rules and standards? Note that the set of rules ad standards cannot diverge or else coordination cannot take place. For example, everyone has to agree on which side of the road to drive on or you’re going to risk head on collisions. Now one way is just to say: I’m right, they’re wrong so either convince everyone or find a way to come into power and put the right rules in place – other people and their wrong conceptions of the good be damned!

Society, cooperation and coercion

Intuitively, there seems to be something problematic about such coercion. If I were to just say coercion is intrinsically wrong, not only would I be begging the question, I would also be merely offering my own conception of the good in place of someone else. People with other conceptions of the good could just as well look askance at mine and ask why they should abide by rules that arise merely from my own conception of the good. Let me instead merely try to draw out what society is and how it relates to cooperation and coercion. This doesn’t say anything about whether we should regard others as full members of society.

Society, at the very least, is a system of coordination. In any functioning society, people, who even though they pursue radically different ends, can still interact with each other peaceably. There are few conflicts and where such arise, there are clear systems of adjudication. One society can be said to differ from another in that each society has its own set of basic institutions and norms. Society is more than just coordination. It is about cooperation as well, where cooperation is coordination for mutual benefit. When we look at the practice of eremetism, we see that people voluntarily leave society when they wish to give up a large slew of benefits for some reason (to make a political point, or to achieve enlightenment or closeness to God) or if they see no further benefit to staying in society. At the extreme, where people see no benefit to society, they will leave and that society at the least will cease to be. From the other side of the issue, when society deems a particular person too harmful to it, they try to forcibly remove him from society. He is banished, killed or sequestered in some far away place where he does not have much if any contact with society. When prison terms are over, we regard the ex-convict as rejoining society as though for a while he wasn’t. So, the idea that society is a system of mutual cooperation over time is one that seems uncontroversial.

Society, two kinds of coercion and public justification

What I want to do here is draw attention to two kinds of coercion. Consider the following situation:

You are at a bridge which is rather old and rickety and is barely holding together by a thread. It is so fragile that the next person to cross is likely to cause the bridge to collapse and the person to fall into the ravine below. You are in the midst of setting up a detour sign when you see your friend running towards the bridge. You try to call to him to stop but he says that he is in a hurry. He seems extremely agitated and in his current state is unlikely to listen to any entreaties. The only way to stop him is to tackle him and restrain him by force.

Under one description of the situation,

1. Your friend in fact values his life strongly and would not cross the bridge if doing so involved great risk to his life. However, because he is agitated, hie fails to see that the bridge is indeed too dangerous to cross. Perhaps if he was less in a hurry, he would see that it was indeed too dangerous and would not cross

Under an alternative description

2. Your friend is in fact suicidal and is in fact planning to jump off the bridge. Even were he in a calmer frame of mind, he would still try to cross because he wants to die.

Without going into the deep morality of coercion, one of the key ways in which coercion would be different in each case is that in the former, even though we coerce the person, we still regard him as having the minimal capacity to set the direction of his own life and carrying it out in some reasonable manner. In the latter situation, we think that his capacity to set the direction of his life is in fact flawed and in fact do not regard him as a fully cooperating member of society.

At the very least when it comes to psychopaths, such a judgment is the case. We do not regard psychopaths as people whose reason we can appeal to. Their behaviour can only be controlled by threats and incentives. Quite properly then, we do not regard psychopaths as reasonable. Neither are they properly full cooperating members of society. One way to perceive the original issue is whether people who fail to comprehend our reasons are adequately rational. The corollary is that when we advance claims on others which cannot be justified to them based on reason that they have access to, we fail to treat them as fully cooperating members of society. The implication is that full members of society only advance claims on each other that can be justified by reasons that all full members can accept/ make sense of/ have access to. Of course, any particular individual failure to accept a reason does not mean that such reasons are inaccessible. There is a delicate line to walk here in distinguishing between cases where a reason was accessible, but somehow was not given due consideration and cases where a reason is genuinely inaccessible to a person.

Proposal: Expanding the circle of the reasonable

All I have done so far is try to set up a framework with which to think about the claims we make on each other and the reasons we use to back up such claims. The more our reasons are based on conceptions of the good which are not shared with others, the more must be prepared to coercively back up our claims as others will be less likely to abide by claims for which they see no reason to abide by. This also means that we also see those who have to be coerced as less than adequately reasonable members of society. i.e. the circle of people whom we consider adequately reasonable is small. This doesn’t necessarily mean that such claims are therefore wrong. However, here, I propose (without making any claim as to the nature of the proposal) that we should expand that circle to include as many people as feasible. In a pluralistic society, this means that only a subset of our reasons are available to justify the claims we make on each other. When we expand our circle of who we count as adequately reasonable, we forego acting on some reasons that we find morally salient. Of course, the question comes up as to why anyone would even choose to do something like this?

Abstracting the situation as a prisoner’s dilemna*

What I present is perhaps, a partial solution to the problem. Let me lay out what seems to be a truism. Those claims that others make on us which are fully supported by the reasons that we do possess and are not undermined by reasons we possess will seem to us to have the most going for them. We are often fully prepared to accede to those claims. Those claims which are supported by reasons that we possess, but are also undermined or over-ridden by other reasons that we possess seem to have less going for them. Nevertheless, because they have some reasons that we think are important that support such claims, we think that they have at least something to them. Our readiness to comply with such claims is still greater than their readiness to comply with claims that are not in any way supported by reasons which we have access to. At the other end of the equation, we of course are going to see a situation where we can make any claim on others according to the reasons that we possess as a better situation, ceteris paribus, than one in which we have to restrict what kinds of claims we can make. And the limit where we cannot make any kinds of claims whatsoever on others is going to strike us as unacceptable. This gives us roughly four kinds of situations.

A – I only advance claims on others that they have support from their reasons. Others similarly only advance claims on me that are supported by reasons that I hold.

B – Others refrain from advancing claims on me that my reasons do not support, but I successfully advance claim on others that their reasons do not support.

C – I refrain from advancing claims on others for which they have no supporting reasons, but they advance claims on me which I find unreasonable (unsupported to any degree by reasons that I have)

D – I advance claims on others that they find unreasonable and others likewise advance claims on me that I find unreasonable.

Necessarily, we are going to prefer D > C and B > A.

A is of course always going to be preferrable to C.

Now, it could be possible that the reasons that we do share are really too weak and the reasons which I have private access to are the really strong ones and the kinds of duties that the claim imposes are not onerous at all. In such a case, D is preferrable to A. But as a matter of fact, this rarely occurs. What tends to be the case is that the burden imposed by a claim that I see as as unreasonable is greater than the burden imposed by the requirement to only advance claims that others can see as reasonable. Of course, depending on who the others in question are, the latter burden may increase as the shared basis of reasoning shrinks. But, at the same time, as the shared basis of reasoning shrinks, the kinds of claims they may advance on us can become wildly more onerous. Let us suppose that for a broad range of cases in the actual world A is preferrable to D. However, when we have B > A > D > C, we have a prisoner’s dilemna.

The classic solution to the Prisoner’s Dilemna and Norms

As a matter of fact, we know that B and C are not Nash equilibrium. If we are at B, others can start advancing unreasonable (to me) claims against me and thus move us to D. Similarly, from C, I can start advancing unreasonable (to them) claims against others and thus move to D. A situation at A can be moved to D via B or C depending on who defects first. However, we rarely find Bs or Cs in the world. We often find a lot of Ds. But we also find a fair number of A’s. How can that be? Computer simulations have shown that a Nash equilibrium of A can develop if participants used a tit for tat strategy to cooperate unless the person playing defected in his previous move against someone who did not defect. Implementing requires people to build up a reputation and requires close monitoring. Unfortunately, this is neither very effective nor particularly scalable either. Elinor Ostrom’s work on collective action problems is very salient here. What Ostrom found was that many societies and communities were able to maintain their position at A via norms. Norms evoke certain reactive attitudes when they are in effect. People feel guilty when they violate the norm, they are resentful of others and blame them when those others violate said norm. Norms are actually a lot more scalable. What makes Norms effective? Well, one of the things that makes norms effective is the idea of standing. When I internalise a norm, I realise that I cannot make a claim on others to abide by a norm unless I have standing to do so and I do not have standing unless I abide by those norms. Another thing that makes norms stable is that the community refuses to play the game with people who they know have not adopted the norm. i.e. norms are a better signal than reputation. We can therefore see how a society which has already put into place cooperative norms not develop into a B or C situation.

A meta-Norm of Public Justification.

Let us go back to matter at hand: When we are trying to propose norms and standards that everyone is to live by and we want to treat everyone as far as we can as beings amenable to reasons. When we do this, we are going to have to give up on proposing norms or standards that are supported only by reasons that others find incomprehensible. We know that living in a society where everyone has adopted such a meta-norm will be preferrable according to our own conception of the good than living in a society where there is no such meta-norm. Bonus points if you can find space for such a meta-norm for within your own conception of the good. Are the prospects of developing and establishing such a norm  limited? Not necessarily. We are already half-way there. We already feel resentful of people who make claims on us that we do not find to be supported by reasons that we can understand. All that is really left is to feel guilty when we make such claims on others. One useful observation is that as societies integrate into the global market order, the way their members play ultimatum games converge to a 50-50 split. Communities which exhibit less integration and fewer market interactions can play in radically different ways. As people trade with one another, they start seeing one another as equals to be respected rather than to be pushed into compliance with some set of norms. If the fairness norm is catching, then we have hope of coming to a basis by which we can establish the meta-norm of public justification.

Can Public Reason yield Rights?

I want to address this rather briefly just for the sake of completeness. After all, if we cannot get a set of rules out of public reason, then it would be problematic. The answer is a bit complicated. Society probably won’t just converge to one particular set of social norms and stay there. What Gaus imagines is a multiple equilibria model. There will be multiple acceptable systems and society will remain in a flux between all these acceptable systems. However, this family of acceptable systems itself will be stable and robust and resemble each other more than other unacceptable systems. Can we get a rough idea as to what such systems will be like? Yes. Even if we are not aware of the actual public reasons that will justify a system in any one society, we can do for social norms what micro-economics does for market interactions.

As a rough idea about where to start, we can observe that the social norms that will be converged on are those that are acceptable to everyone. A device that can select such norms is an initial contract situation. i.e. there is some social contract theory which will deliver the goods. Keep in mind that the social norms must be acceptable to everyone (except the psychotic) and not just some or a majority. This means that there must be some device that prevents the choosing parties from knowing who they will end up as. Also note that this is a system that will be generated by shared reasons. So, we subtract beliefs that divide us. The parties who end up making the initial choice will therefore not have any beliefs about controversial matters, but will instead know that they may end up having those beliefs. i.e. Not just any social contract device, but one with a veil of ignorance will yield the kind of principles that people will converge to.

Extending to Political Correctness

 When people rail against political correctness, the kinds of reasons that they give kind of parallels the objections given when people resist public reason. When it comes to public reason, as we have seen, saying that my claim is justified by what is objectively good and true does not cut it if no one else but you and your narrow circle of compatriots is able to apprehend the good. Similarly, we must be circumspect when we talk about sensitive issues. We don’t get closer to the truth by starting flame wars. So, if we want to have productive discussions, we have to take the trouble to spell out exactly what we mean and be extremely careful to show how we are not being bigots. At the same time the guys on the other side should not use the word bigot too loosely. As a matter of convention, bigot is a word that characterises a person who has a really horrible character flaw. Using it in ways that refer to the more common ways all of us pre-judge everything to some extent does not quite convey the valence attached to the word. Trying to reduce the valence attached to the word is not necessarily a good idea either, as not only do we have existing terms for the milder thing, we don’t want to provide cover for the more horrible thing either. We engage in discussions because we, perhaps optimistically, hope that our interlocutors are sufficiently capable of understanding what we say and following the argument. If we don’t offer each other the basic minimum of respect that we owe to people who are able to understand and perhaps even change their mind when they read what we write, why are we writing in the first place?


*Is it spelled dilemma or dilemna?

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28 thoughts on “Rights, Liberalism, Public Reason and Political Correctness

  1. Correct spelling is “dilemma,” two “m”s.

    And if I can get my syllabi done today, I’ll actually read your interesting post with enough attention to say something substantive.

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  2. Great post, Murali

    A far as I can tell, this matches up pretty much exactly with my beliefs on these issues.

    I agree that the best solution to the problems with how we interact is to construct institutional processes, protocols and norms to discourage win-lose activities (my shortcut term for “advancing claims on others which they do not support”). If we agree to not go for the big win of exploiting them and they agree to the same toward us, and we can all agree to institutions which enforce this norm, then we can advance or progress in total. “A” is the path to progress, the other roads degenerate down to “D.”

    In the abstract, this does imply that you need people to agree — to reach a “calculus of consent” to these rules and institutions. The appropriate way to establish this is to focus on a fairly broad, fairly sparse set of generalized norms which don’t create winners and losers based upon our station in life. The “veil” is a great way to think about this, revealing that Rawls’ ideas can merge well with classical liberalism. It also implies minimal rule wrestling at future dates, as massive rule manipulation is unlikely to be unanimous.

    It also leads to institutional choice and competition, two concepts which James H and I stressed in the Democracy forum. Since people may not be consistent in their values and goals, having multiple options available increases the range of potential norms and protocols that they can agree to without coercion. This also introduces the constructive level of competition that Hayek stresses can lead to beneficial institutional evolution. It becomes a learning process based upon people’s choices, the feedback they get based upon those choices and the comparative information that they get by seeing how their institutional choices benchmark against others.

    The next question becomes what types of claims or interferences against others are acceptable in these institutions which we would agree to? My rough way of addressing this is to ask what types of harm are acceptable? For example, it is reasonable to agree to the harm of waiting at a red light to gain the benefit of coordinated traffic. It is reasonable to agree that we can tackle a friend to prevent them from accidentally killing self.

    But is it reasonable to harm another by competing with them to cooperate with someone else? For example, what if two people are competing to sell an apple to one customer? One gains and one does nor gain. Furthermore the one who “loses” out on the sale could have been the incumbent who has been selling that apple to that customer for the last twenty years. Some would consider that a harm. I wouldn’t.

    Finally this leads to the topic of tolerance. It is possible to have desires that apply not to ourselves, but to others. For example, I could desire that you become a Christian. The problem is that if you disagree, then we are starting with a win-lose desire. The only positive sum way out of this dilemma is to abstain from intolerant desires where we wish to coerce others against their will. Intolerance leads right back into the prisoners dilemma.

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  3. Does error have rights? One might as well, with Orwell, observe that 2 + 2 = 5. Man is a rule-follower. If the sequence of numeric symbols were 1, 2, 3, 5, 4, we might be able to tolerate such a statement. But in point of fact, the only way we could accept 2 + 2 = 5 would be if we were forced to say so.

    Nor is there any objective Good Life. The adjective Good is subjective. And what is this business about Clear Cut Obscenity? More subjective judgment. Obscenity might be defined by statute but we ought to leave it to a judge to determine if any law has been violated, or indeed if the law ought to be repealed. “I know it when I see it” is not enough justification for attacking obscenity while the First Amendment is still in effect.

    How do we resolve contradictory viewpoints? We don’t. We have laws which serve to constrain us. Choose either the left or right side of the road to drive on, it really doesn’t matter which side, but we must choose one. In a choice between two arbitrary and contradictory goods, we must make a choice. And we do.

    Society isn’t a system of coordination. It’s a set of ground rules which provide for maximal freedom. We don’t want too much cooperating or we’ll get into monopolies and collusion and all sorts of system-gaming.

    Lady Justice is blindfolded. But sometimes she peeks. Oliver Wendell Holmes’ Bad Man theory of justice: if the law has predictive value, if men know that crimes will always result in punishments, they will be good as varies the truth of that prediction. Before the law, we are all sociopaths: ignorance of the law is no excuse. Before an impartial judge, (which isn’t the case in some systems, where the judge is also the prosecutor) we ought to be presumed innocent, given due process, convicted on the basis of evidence and not hearsay.

    There’s no rationality to any of this: the judge might as well be a Martian. His rationality is limited to that of a primitive vision system, looking for congruence between the definition of the crime and what’s presented to his court. But Justice peeks: the judge is not a Martian. He and the jury do form opinions.

    The Prisoner’s Dilemma has its own problems. Despite all the research and the Nash Equilibrium, we know how prisoners actually behave in prisons. Prisoners form alliances, gangs. Even within the Cook Country Jail, where I did some literacy work, the non-gang-aligned will form alliances: that group is called the Neutrons, from neutral. All such alliances fundamentally oppose the wardens. If they do cooperate with the wardens, it’s only to act in defence of their own alliance.

    Society is always based on the premise of Us versus Them. The Prisoner’s Dilemma fails because the prisoners can communicate. They operate on their own set of rules: nobody cooperates with the warden unless there’s a good reason. It’s the same reason the defence attorneys tell their clients to shut up: an open mouth gathers no feet.

    What’s with all this shouting-down of the word Bigot? Sound sorta PC to me. We can’t call people what they are, obstinately devoted to their own opinions and prejudices, intolerant of some out-group? Earlier I mentioned Oliver Wendell Holmes’ Bad Man Theory. He said this of bigotry: “The mind of a bigot is like the pupil of the eye; the more light you pour upon it, the more it will contract.”. It’s a useful, descriptive noun and it’s still in the dictionary. It derives from “By God” and I find bigotry more prevalent where that phrase is heard more frequently, and more’s the pity that I must say so, for it is true.

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    • Society isn’t a system of coordination. It’s a set of ground rules which provide for maximal freedom.

      We could wish the latter were true, but it’s not. Can’t be, since objectively societies around the world differ in the amount of freedom they have.

      The Prisoner’s Dilemma has its own problems. Despite all the research and the Nash Equilibrium, we know how prisoners actually behave in prisons.

      The PR actually doesn’t refer at all to how people behave in prisons, although what we learn from it can be applied to prisons as it can to everything else. But to say that prisoners form alliances does little to nothing to undermine the concept of the prisoner’s dilemma. To say that it fails because the prisoners communicate shows that you have a very basic familiarity with the PD, but haven’t reviewed the extensive research on the PD and communication of various types.

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    • Start with this paper

      Then look at the guys at this site

      There are roughly three ways in which you can be a Rawlsian and a libertarian

      1) You agree with the way Rawls has framed the problem and think that his project is important. You even think that the way he initially goes about solving it is somewhere in the ballpark. You don’t necessarily accept the full description of the original position, though you may endorse something similar (kind of the way Hayek did). This will then lead you to endorse a more traditional libertarian set of principles.

      2) You go so far as to think that Rawls’s original position is the correct device with which to choose the principles of justice. You just think that more libertarian principles will be chosen. Maybe more importance will be afforded to private property rights as a basic liberty. This leads to straightforwardly libertarian conclusions

      3) You agree with Rawls on almost everything including the pirnciples of justice. You just think that the kind of institutions the principles recommend are classical liberal ones rather than the more leftist ones.

      4) You realise that Rawls was a bit of an odd duck and that when he was arguing against libertarianism, he was arguing against Nozick, Rand and Rothbard’s formulations. Rawls’s description of his ideal society “property owning democracy” is kind of vague and may plausibly (if with minor tweaks) be given a libertarian interpretation. Though, this latter way is questionable. Rawls says some things that give it a libertarian interpretation, but he says other things which don’t

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      • I agree completely. The veil is a great way to set up the intellectual exercise to describe what type of world people would choose. Rawls was just wrong on some of his assumptions.

        I strongly suspect even the most liberal members of this site, if faced with living with their choice, would choose a more libertarian society. It would be more prosperous, with better safety nets.

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        • We’re already with you on a great deal of items, including much of the economics. Honestly, my main gripe is with modern conservatism (read: corporatism). And in that regard, my main gripe with most libertarians (not necessarily you) is where I see them playing directly into the hands of the corporatists.

          We’re not going to see eye-to-eye but we don’t have to be blood enemies either.

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  4. Rawls was just wrong on some of his assumptions.

    Care to be more specific?

    I strongly suspect even the most liberal members of this site, if faced with living with their choice, would choose a more libertarian society.

    Because libertarians and liberals have some overlapping perspectives I agree that there are some policy prescriptions that would be shared. But given the divergences in reasoning the libertarian-liberal entente meets major difficulties early on. Private discrimination, second generation (economic and social) rights – let alone third generation (solidarity/group) rights – not ground that’s shared. To me, the libertarian list of primary goods is far too short and the pathways libertarians offer for primary good provision are far too limited.

    Liberals tend towards a society that looks more social democratic than libertarian. Also, if I thought libertarianism adequately captured the principles resulting from the veil of ignorance thought experiment, I probably would be a libertarian instead of a liberal.

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      • Creon,
        I believe the questionable assumptions are related to a combination of the following four, totally interrelated, concepts:
        1) people’s propensity toward loss aversion
        2) time frames
        3) the effects of feedback
        4) dynamic vs. static systems

        I believe people will choose societies which allow them the greatest likely opportunity to accomplish their personal goals over time, not one which minimizes the downside at a point in time. This is especially true in a dynamic world, where incentives and feedback and learning play out over time. In other words, I believe the liberal version of Rawls leads to a static situation with lower average standard of living, lower immediate downside, but greater long term downside. The key over the long haul — which libertarians stress — is to have a society which generates growing prosperity. This in effects funds the safety nets, which can become more comprehensive over time as we become richer. It is important though that the safety nets not harm the incentives which generate the prosperity.

        In summary, people will tend to choose societies which work well, become more prosperous over time, and which optimize not just their immediate needs, but the long term needs of themselves, their kids and their grand kids. My conception of the liberal state is a world which cannibalized its growth for immediate redistribution. Fast forward a generation or two, and you will be comparing a frozen, impoverished state against a growing (more libertarian) state which can afford more for even the neediest members.

        I’m not saying liberals would choose the libertarian course at point A. They obviously won’t. However, over time, as their choice becomes a frozen world of zero sum redistribution, their later selves and progeny will see the results of thinking short term. People flock to real opportunity, not dogma.

        Just to drive the point home, if the social democratic model leads to 2% growth and the free enterprise model leads to 4% growth, in a few generations, the social democratic choice becomes totally irrelevant. It’s as likely to be chosen as becoming a hunter gatherer today.

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    • Also, if I thought libertarianism adequately captured the principles resulting from the veil of ignorance thought experiment, I probably would be a libertarian instead of a liberal.

      Rawls certainly doesn’tt hink that group rights are part of the primary goods. In fact, the list of primary goods that Rawls specifies look a lot like the libertarian list of primary goods.

      I suppose it is an empirical matter, but I believe that free markets + reasonably sized safety net best instantiate the two principles of justice. Now, we may differ over what size of safety net counts as reasonable, but I don’t think that is too far from the libertarian project (friedman and hayek) that it would seem implausiible that libertarianism does an adequate job of covering the two principles of justice.

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      • Also more saliently, I envision that things like group rights are going to be one of those things that cannot be publicly justified. While I can envision a safety net, or even a minimum basic income, it doesn’t seem to be the case that I necessarily envision that people have robust rights to democratic control of the workplace. How would you actually go about publicly justifying such rights. On the other hand, things tht we all share common ground on tend to be individualist considerations. i.e. it is a bare-bones social morality that forms the basis of what we can justify publicly because the barebones one is what we share. But the barebones one cannot ge you much more than our standard list of classical liberal indivdual liberties and perhaps some of the welfare state.

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            • The one thing even worse than me vs. you thinking …

              Roger, your theory reduces to “me vs you” thinking. Even if an exchange or transaction is positive sum, the relationship between the two participants may be (and in fact will be by a certain very plausible conception of what we mean by the term “rational subjective utility maximizer”) antagonistic. Each participant wants (rationally!) to maximize their subjective utility.

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              • SW,

                Yeah, but if interactions are voluntary and honest, then any interaction between consenting adults with feedback can be reasonably sure to be subjectively positive. Otherwise they would refrain from participating. No?

                When I buy a surf board from a private party, I give him cash which I value less than the board, and he gives me a board for the higher valued cash. A win win. We do of course argue over the relative gains (he wants more cash, I want less) , but the existence of competing buyers and sellers makes the interaction fair and reduces or eliminates the effects of power imbalance in the negotiation.

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      • Murali,

        And respect as a primary good? Can libertarianism accommodate this? Libertarian approaches to private discrimination I’ve seen have real difficulty dealing with legacies of patriarchy, racism, and privilege – let alone endorsing any interventions to confront ongoing discrimination.

        I think your contributions here (at 11:28a and 11:35a) have served to demonstrate my point that we part ways really early on – so the libertarian* conceptual analysis of second and third generation rights will always look really incomplete from my perspective. Upon their mention you pose questions as to whether they meet public justification thresholds and reemphasize a focus on the individual rights-bearer and first generation rights.

        In short, the counterargument goes that the various generations of rights are interconnected. Separating the one from the other serves to undermine the remaining pool of rights, so to vastly oversimplify**:

        1. bread without free speech, not good.
        2. free speech without bread, not good.
        3. free speech and bread, good but not satisfactory, because of #4.
        4. free speech & bread, without development, not good.

        Now I’m not saying that libertarians celebrate the latter scenarios 1. and 2., but the emphasis for libertarians lay in the individual and the individual’s (very often) negative rights. From my perspective, at the expense of broader conceptualizations of human dignity and human rights held both individually and in groups.

        * – Forgive me if libertarian doesn’t capture your perspective, just for the purposes of laying out the competing perspectives it’s easier to just say libertarian here.

        ** – So I can’t emphasize enough how much of a simplification this is, and that I realize this is a reduction of huge debates about negative and positive rights, the meaning and use of rights, foundations and purposes of rights… shelves of books on the topic.

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      • ” but I don’t think that is too far from the libertarian project (friedman and hayek) that it would seem implausiible that libertarianism does an adequate job of covering the two principles of justice.”

        Unless you view, from an Austrian Economic perspective, Hayek and Friedman as more modern liberal than libertarian, thus, wrong on economics.

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        • Oh, so you want to be that way about it huh? I thought we had all gone marginal already.

          Unless you view, from an Austrian Economic perspective, Hayek and Friedman as more modern liberal than libertarian, thus, wrong on economics.

          You realise that this is completely illogical right?

          Because, if the only mistake Hayek and Friedman make is that they have an incorrect view of economics (because in some weird world Hayek was not an Austrian economist or not sufficiently Austrian), then you are saying that if they had the right view of economics, they would not have advocated for some social safety net. i.e. if their normative framework was A-Ok. So, there is nothing in principle, wrong with the idea that the basic social institutions should secure basic liberties and consistent with them securing such basic liberties, th economic framework should function to provide equal opportunitiws for all and be to the greatest benefit of the worst off. I mean, if only you had the right positive picture of the world, you won’t make the mistakes that Friedman and Hayek made right? Even the slightest safety net will cause the worst off among us to be even worse off right?

          I think you’re off base about economics, but since I’m not an economist, what the hell do I and the other 95%+ economists who are not Austrians know? But anyway, that doesn’t mean that you have anything against the normative framework that Rawls provides.

          Or maybe the problem isn’t just with the economics. Maybe you object to the idea that economic institutions should be evaluated by the standard of how as a whole they improve the lifetime prospects of the worst off. Of course, then you have to tell me why that is wrong? Of ocurse, if you can’t exlain this to me in terms of reasons that I can appreciate, you are just oppressing me.

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          • ” but I don’t think that is too far from the libertarian project (friedman and hayek) that it would seem implausiible that libertarianism does an adequate job of covering the two principles of justice.”

            Unless you view, from an Austrian Economic perspective, Hayek and Friedman as more modern liberal than libertarian, thus, wrong on economics.


            Damn, I simply said the premise is wrong — Hayek and Friedman as libertarians — if you think as I do. I don’t know what you are going on about.

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              • Its only a stretch if you think Hayek and Friedman aren’t libertarians. But saying that they aren’t libertrians is a stretch. They are conventionally regarded as libertarians or at the least classical liberals. It is your characterisation of them as modern liberals which is the stretch. You will have to provide quite a bit of argument to show why we our current conventions about labelling who is a libertarian and who is not are to be discarded in favour of your idiosyncratic and extreme set of definitions.

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