Friday, January 11, 2008

Libertarianism is either boring or insane

A decent synopsis of the Libertarian position is that you should be free to do whatever you want, so long as your freedom doesn’t impinge on the freedom of others.

This notion is used to explain why as many laws as possible should be abolished, drug laws are a typical example. Libs contrast themselves against people who want government to do more regulating of our lives.

Libertarians are okay with minimal government basically to maintain some basic infrastructure, military, and boundaries between your freedom impinging upon mine – but this is exactly why their position is non-sense.

They claim that the difference between themselves and other parties is that they want to free people from the strictures of unnecessary laws. But no one believes in implementing superfluous laws. The question among reasonable people is how much regulation is necessary, and most Libs agree some regulation is necessary. So most of them are not saying anything very interesting, theoretically. They're just Republicans; they're not a Revolution.

The only actual position a Libertarian could hold that would be theoretically interesting or meaningfully different than a Republican or Democrat would be if he proposed we abolish all laws, that is, we implement anarchy. And, that would be crazy.

Libertarianism has the speciousness of conspiracy theory. And like conspiracy theory, it’s ultimately either crazy for what it actually thinks or tedious for thinking it’s saying something interesting.


Ben said...

Well, like all political positions, I'd say it's a matter of leanings...of shades of grey, not absolutes. A self-identified libertarian would tend to be more skeptical of regulation than, say, a self-identified liberal.

And, of course, they believe the government has different roles. A liberal believes that government has a role in promoting equality and lifting up the poor. A libertarian believes that's not the proper place of government. That's not crazy (even though I think it's wrong) and it is saying something different than a liberal. (Switch the type of regulation from "economic" to "social" and the word "liberal" to "conservative" and the structure of the argument above runs pretty much the same.)

Honestly, Kenny, I don't think you're being fair to libertarians. And this is coming from a person who ardently disagrees with libertarians.

Kenny said...

Well, I think it's pretty clear that anarcho-libertarianism is actually insane, so I think it is fair on that count.

And I agree that it's basically about shades of grey, but any libertarian who isn't insane (as described above) is just a version of Republican. So, they can leave aside their notion that they're proposing anything theoretically interesting.

Further, the concepts they trade in 'do what you want as long as it doesn't affect others freedom,' is completely self-undermining non-sense, so we're back to insane as in non-sensical.

What I find off-putting about it generally is the sense Libs have about them as if they're the ones doing really raw, interesting thinking -- which they're not. They think like conspiracy theorists it only sounds interesting or intelligent if you don't scrutinize it at all.

-Dave said...

In the same sense, then, are militant communists basically just Democrats?

Anonymous said...

I can imagine a pro-libertarian might reply along the following lines.

To avoid the chaotic "war of all against all", we have given government a unique and frightening power: a monopoly on the use of coercive force. We need this behemoth for civil order, yet (libertarians argue) prudence and experience suggest building a strong and well-defined cage around it. For it is, after all, staffed only by men and not by angels.

So libertarians gravitate to bright-line tests, as with speech and religion.

Another such test concerns the sort of economic intervention that should be permitted the government.
Libertarians think it wrong to take a dollar from X by force and give it to Y, simply because X has more dollars. Some libertarians dislike this from prudence (enabling this sort of favoritism is far too dangerous a power to cede the behemoth), others from an innate moral logic (it is theft rather than charity). Some dislike it for both reasons.

But say what you like about the thread of logic that runs through these positions--"I am free to do what I like with my fist until it connects with your chin"--is it "boring"? Or does it lead to positions that are clearly "insane"?

I sense a straw man underneath your argument: you feel libertarians commit a theoretical sin of inconsistency by wanting any government at all. (Though I hope the above discussion of the behemoth somewhat disabuses you of that notion). And this sin of inconsistency banishes them from an Eden of Non-Contradiction into the gray wilderness of Democrats and Republicans, down here with everyone else. Yet, these libertarians still want to talk like they're above it all in Eden.

The only problem is, I don't know any libertarians who want this Eden you have outlined for them. They wants laws and order. And within that, they want us left maximally free to manage our own lives. They want the nuclear power of central government, caged within a cunningly designed reactor. (Witness meltdowns in Germany, the USSR, Cambodia, etc).

Whether you agree with this perspective or not, is it inherently boring? Inherently insane?

Neither Republicans nor Democrats entirely accept the libertarian position. Indeed, probably neither accepts even half of it. Would either party end the drug war, abolish the FDA, or phase out social security? But is it boring to advocate these positions because, on a muddy continuum, Republicans might be somewhat more likely to agree, and Democrats slightly less so?

And on the "insane" front--are these liberarian positions self-evidently crazy? We didn't used to have an FDA or social security. Were the 18th and 19th centuries rendered an unlivable chaos because of it?

If you divide the world into the bright-liners and the muddy grays (who say it's all a continuum, get off your high horse), I suppose there's a peculiar aptness for the muddy grayers to attack the bright-liners by arguing they too, are merely muddy gray--at least when they're not being flat out insane.

Anonymous said...

By the same reasoning, is the pro-life movement also boring or insane? And if not, what's the difference?

Both seem to be useful labels that give you a clear idea where someone is likely to stand.

Both have a pretty clearly defined goal that is not entirely shared by either major party.

Both can be damned by appeal to a straw man of utter consistency: like an imaginary figure of a pro-lifer who brooks no exceptions for IVF, rape, incest, the health of the mother--and who even, as long we're indulging in straw men, opposes the Rhythm Method as thwarting the natural results of marital urges.

And finally, both advocate positions that seem to be the opposite of boring. Banning abortion, ending the drug politics goes, these are pretty exciting whether you agree with them or not.

But are they boring anyway because the labels "Democrat" and "Republican" somehow already cover the field? Though Giuliani is pro-choice and Huckabee is the anti-libertarian.

Do both have an innate insanity to them that is somehow bound up in a lack of perfect consistency? Or would perfect consistency lead both to insane results? I'm not 100% sure where the "insanity" charge is coming from, but I suspect whatever makes libertarianism insane for you would make the pro-life movement equally insane.

Both are appeals to principle rather than political parties, perhaps because politics involves the "art of the possible" and coalition-building. But does the reality of pragmatism render it boring or insane to articulate principles?

Anonymous said...

Is the only interesting pro-life position one that holds an embryo sacrosanct in all circumstances?

You apparently get to define libertarianism back to zero law: advocate that and be insane, advocate anything less and be boring.

Do others get to define pro-life back to a sacrosanct embryo? Or one better: a sacrosanct egg + opportunity (re: the rhythm method)?

Anonymous said...

One final similarity between pro-lifers and libertarians: both are glibly dismissed with ad hominem, reductionist attacks.

Pro-lifers are dismissed as chauvinistic theocrats, libertarians as greedily self-centered Darwinians.

Opponents simply won't accept their belief at face value: that through a calm and rational process they have come believe that aborting a fetus is the murder of a human being, or that centralized government is dangerous and an array of precautions are needed to contain it.

kennyching said...

"Insane" is the anarchist.

I accept that Libertarian is a useful label for telling you what someone thinks of the drug war, etc.

But it is actually my experience that Libertarians talk as if they're in this theoretically interesting Eden of Non-Contradiction. And, as with Constitutional Originalists and biblical Literalists and Pro-Lifers, it's a useful starting point to show that we're all actually on the muddy spectrum. And it is boring to hear someone talking as if they are speaking from archmedian point when the only real difference between their perspective a muddy pragmatists is that they don't know it.

So when you claim what's interesting about your political philosophy is lack of government, but in reality you want there to be a significant amount of government, then I don't think it's a very interesting political philosophy.

That's not to say no position advocated by a Libertarian is interesting, but the purported underlying logic usually isn't.

The comparison between Libertarianism and Pro-Life is interesting. For one, it's not clear to me that even the most extreme Pro-Life position (opposition to Rhythm Method) is crazy in the same way Anarchy is, and since conception is generally the line drawn, you wouldn't have to go there. And, yes, I think Pro-Lifers should probably consider that all embryos are sacrosanct, including the left-overs at fertility clinics.

kennyching said...

Also, I don't think it's quite apt to complain of my reductionism when dealing with Libertarians when it's they who seem so proud of their principle of 'free to do as I like as long as I don't impinge on someone's freedom.' The formulation collapses under its own weight.

Beyond reductionist complaints, there's much more than can be said about the problems of Libertarianism, but brevity is the soul of getting anyone to read you in the blogosphere.

I'm not doubting the genuiness of concern that Libs have about central government; I'm just saying their approach to dealing with it isn't theoretically more interesting than how (R)s or (D)s deal with it.

Anonymous said...

"For one, it's not clear to me that even the most extreme Pro-Life position (opposition to Rhythm Method) is crazy in the same way Anarchy is, and since conception is generally the line drawn, you wouldn't have to go there."

Do you know any libertarians who want anarchy? You seem to be "drawing the line" for them in an uncharitable way.

Kenny said...

I don't know any (L)s who want anarchy, but the point isn't to call any particular (L) crazy/anarchist. That point simply proves that (L)s are actually "just on the muddy spectrum." It's useful to know that a certain position is not actually cleanly inside a bright line.

Kenny said...

The last (L) I spoke with was claiming that DUI laws should be abolished. He then quoted the (L) mantra, saying 'I should be able to do whatever I want as long as I don't hurt anyone,' and then noted that battery already makes him liable for the harm he might cause if he crashed his car into someone drunk. This is both a little bit crazy, and a little bit not-interesting.

I'm not saying this was the best presentation in the universe of the (L) position, but it's also not unrepresentative of typical (L) statements.

-Dave said...

"I'm just saying their approach to dealing with it isn't theoretically more interesting than how (R)s or (D)s deal with it."

I think you are saying more than that. You're not just saying it's not more interesting (which would allow it to be on par with Republicans and Democrats). You're saying it's demonstrably less interesting.

One possibility is that the libs you have spoken were ill-equiped to provide a more vigorous defense of their ideas. One guy you might consider as "insane," but who also has the education to deal with the matter more rigorously is Bryan Caplan, professor of economics at George Mason. The webpage's meta-tags label it "A well-known libertarian/anarchist professor's homepage; hosts the Museum of Communism and the Anarchist FAQ."

I'm not saying I agree, or that this is representative of all Libs, any more than I would say that any of the Presidential candidates are the whole embodiment of Republican or Democrat ideology.

Still waiting for an answer on the communist = democrat question I posed before. The point of it being, reducing all of political thought to a single dimension (in this case, the level of acceptable government involvement) is an over-simplification. Libertarians might be like Republicans on this issue, but there are others on which they are much more clearly like Democrats. This, in my mind, is sufficient reason to name them distinctly.

Kenny said...

I agree that (L) is a useful label, Dave—but I’m saying the theory underlying (L) is boring. I use “boring” to contrast where I think the (L) position actually is relative to what it’s proponents think it is, which is they like to put it forward as if it is very interesting, all generally flowing from the Libertarian Golden Rule. Also, yes, maybe it is not quite on par with (R) b/c the underlying logic is fallacious, so it's like getting the right answer for the wrong reason.

I don’t think I can answer your question regarding communists and Democrats because I don’t know much about the guiding philosophy of communists.

I’m sure there are high-level defenses of (L), such as Caplan’s, and I’d imagine they’d swing farther toward anarchism, which I’d probably be willing to argue is basically crazy either for being scary or nonsense. A variant of this whole argument I believe is found in the Law and Economics school, headed by Richard Posner, which basically holds that the law should be crafted to maximized economic well-being, which is a claim I find equally untenable to the (L)’s faith in de-regulation.

-Dave said...

When I speak of the communists, I'm thinking specifically in the need for a strong, centrally controlled entity to direct the outcomes which are most desireable in society.

Near as I can tell, that only varies from the philosophy of liberal Democrats in the degree needed, not the basic underlying idea.

"I use “boring” to contrast where I think the (L) position actually is relative to what it’s proponents think it is, which is they like to put it forward as if it is very interesting, all generally flowing from the Libertarian Golden Rule."

I'm still trying to deconstruct this. I'm assuming:

*What the argument actually is: We don't like government.
*What they like to say it is: (quoting William Wallace) Freedom! (because the "you can have your freedoms as long as you don't interfere with mine" is something that flows from the core philosophy. It is not, itself, THE core philosophy).

If your argument is that "the philosophy behind libertarianism isn't rigorous, but they like to say it is" then my answer is to examine the philosphers behind liberalism, not the average joe libertarian. Check out Caplan, or Ayn Rand, or even Alan Greenspan (who calls himself a "Libertarian Republican." I don't dismiss Christianity just because most Christians believe in the Trinity but can't say why.

"I don’t know much about the guiding philosophy of communists."

I'm not sure this isn't also true of libertarians. I'm sure you know the basics. But does your understanding of the "guiding philosophy" of libertarians go any deeper than "government bad!"

If it's a rigorous definition you want, you should ask the scholars, not the average joe.

If you're upset that the average joe puts a great deal of stock in an idea that he doesn't follow exclusively, then I suggest you broaden your criticism to the whole of the human race.

If you think it's just a dumb philosophy, then you may be right, but again - it's better to base the argument on the thinkers behind it, not the straw man of the "average libertarian."

You're attacking a broad label that has been an identifiable philosophy for longer than you've been alive. I think you err by marginalizing the adherents, arguing against a straw man of their thoughts, and by being upset when the straw man is not as distinct a philosophy as the adherents seem to think it is.

Kenny said...

It’s really just not true that I’m aiming my criticisms of (L) only at the common-man’s simplistic version of (L) while ignoring more sophisticated versions. I’ve cited Posner who is a (L) luminary, and I’ve done extensive work on his books and ideas. If you’d like the 20+-page version of this argument, I’ve got it. I’ve also read work by Louis Kaplow and Steven Shavell, Harvard profs who also advocate the (L) position.

And while it’s true, these guys are more sophisticated than the average man on the street, their arguments are ultimately just as self-undermining. So, am I attacking a straw man? Yes, but maybe that’s because it actually is one whether it’s being propped up by the layman or the scholar.

-Dave said...

I'll stand corrected on the element of "which Libertarians I'm addressing." I'm not familiar with those authors, so I can't speak to the content of their work.

I'll agree that those I'll call militant libertarians (with Ron Paul as a prime example) both overstate their case and are more than a little disconnected with reality. But I think there's also a large class of libertarians who fit the label, but aren't zealots on a crusade, but rather people with a much more restrictive view of the proper limits of governmental authority.

"The only actual position a Libertarian could hold that would be theoretically interesting or meaningfully different than a Republican or Democrat would be if he proposed we abolish all laws..."

If we can call Libertarians demonstrably different from both Republicans and Democrats, then this statement doesn't make sense to me. If we arbitrarily reduce all of political discourse to "how much regulation is necessary," then it's true, but that's a poor continuum to measure Republicans and Democrats by, as there are a number of things (like abortion) that Democrats say government should lay off of and Republicans say they should be involved with.

A better, and multi-dimensional question is "when is government regulation necessary?"

Your position distorts the Libertarian position by saying that "...most Libs agree some regulation is necessary. So most of them are not saying anything very interesting, theoretically. They're just Republicans", but this is not true, because the problem is not one-dimensional but multi-dimensional.

Imagine governmental policy as just two dimensions: economic policy (free-market or centrally controlled) and conservative social policy (war on drugs & ban abortion, or no).

On both spectrums, the Libertarian position is generally accurately described by "the government should be less involved." But this is not true of Republicans and Democrats.

If we add dimensions like "our government should spread 'freedom' to other countries" or "government should establish minimum standards for compensation" or "our government should pursue justice for oppressed people across the globe" we will find the same thing. Generally, the Libertarian position is "the government should do less" while the Republicans and Democrats have a more mixed reply.

Therefore I say Libertarians have a unique position in a debate amongst reasonable people about how much government regularion is necessary.

You're saying that because libertarians will allow even a single instance for government involvement, that their permission of a "necessary evil" means that they are talking non-sense.

Is supporting the death penalty non-sense if I believe murder and genocide are wrong? I'm personally willing to accept the death penalty, though my beliefs concerning murder and genocide render it a grave decision. I think a libertarian would think in such grave terms about granting the government any power. I think the liberal would take it as a given worthy area for government involvement and frame the debate as "to what extent" not "whether" the government should be involved.

The notecard version would be that a liberal sees rights as "liberties granted by the government" (such as a right to affordable healthcare) while the libertarian sees rights as inherent things deserved by man, independent of a government to sanction and provide them.

I find the libertarians to be substantively different (for me, addressing your criticism that it's "not interesting") than Republicans, and that ever admitting a proper, nonzero, role for government does not make their position inconsistent (it doesn't render their position "non-sense").

Kenny said...

I agree that (L) is a distinct political group from (R)s or (D)s, and so is politically interesting, and any one of their given positions may be interesting (although, most that I hear generally fall on the crazy side of the spectrum).

But what is uninteresting is their rationale for their different positions. The rationale can be revealed by this question: “Insofar as a (L) holds a different position than a (R), why does the (L) hold a different position?”

Here are some real-life examples:

On both prostitution and the drug war, (L)s say, ‘legalize because people should be free to control their own bodies, (so long as it doesn’t harm someone else.)’

The rule of the (L) is “freedom,” but the exception (unless it harms someone else) eats the rule.

So, the principle which an (L) uses to distinguish from himself from a (R) or (D) just isn’t interesting because it doesn’t really say anything.

Anonymous said...

Could Kenny be...a Libertarianophobe?

Anonymous said...

I've noticed Libertarianophobes tend to think the "boring or insane" argument they make against Libertarianism is much more unique and compelling than it really is.

They seem to think this Golden Dilemma puts them on a higher plane.

These "Golden Di-lemmings" as I like to call them are either...I'm free associating here...stupid or malignant. Or maybe tedious or oppressive. How about vacuous or malign?

Anyway I hope you will take this in the spirit it's offered: as the first substantive philosophical contribution to the emerging discipline of Libertarianophobinism.

Kenny said...

Clever, anon … but your post appears to me not to be a substantive response to the Libertarian Dilemma.

Stupid I may be, as only so many of us can crack 175 on the LSAT, and I am not one of them and you are. But my rudimentary intelligence suggests that the way to show an idea is stupid is to prove it. The way to show I've been picking on a straw man is to bring out the real man.

As it was you who was earlier complaining about ad hominem attacks, why you can’t simply accept that many non-vacuous people think Libertarianism revolves around a bad idea?

Try googling: James Boyle Libertarianism. Here’s a quote:
--We cannot simply say "Well, individuals have a right to do anything that does not harm another" because that answer simply dissolves into another value-laden debate about what counts as "a harm" in the first place.
James Boyle, Libertarianism, Property & Harm --

Would you say Prof. Boyle, is a Libertarianophobe? Stupid, tedious, vacuous, oppressive, etc.?

I am simply making the same point he is in the quote: the basic Libertarian maxims are nonsensical.

-Dave said...

I still think it does say something, because I don't think the caveat "eats the rule," because the caveat springs from the rule (roughly stated: because self-determination is the highest good, interfereing with another's self-determination is the worst bad).

I suppose that you could try and loosely interpret "interfering" or "harming," but there's a natural limit when the means used to prevent the harm overwhelm the harm that's being prevented. It's like in Assimov's stories, when to follow the "Three Laws of Robotics," robots end up enforcing a totalitarian nanny state to prevent people from harming themselves, because "A Robot cannot, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm."

Such an over-implementation of the exception (which would be the "eating of the rule," I think) is, on its surface, ridiculous. It might be a fuzzy line, subject to interpretation, but so is the "Terminator Line" dividing day from night on a planet. It's a surprisingly indistinct "line" up close, but it's also undeniable on a large scale. Day is, in fact, not night.

The flipside of your question is "When a (R) disagrees with a (L), why?" Generally, it's because the (R) believes it is immoral to do a given thing, or allow it to continue. There are a number of issues (school prayer? evolution? gay marriage? sodomy laws?) that are affected by the Christian influence on the Republican party.

In such cases, I think there is a legitimate disagreement in principle between a (R) and a (L), because the line that (L)s draw is "the government has no business doing that."

The principle behind it may be a monotonous drumbeat, but just as many of the significant disagreements between Christians and Mormons come down to (or start with) the authority (or lack thereof) of Joseph Smith, doesn't mean the disagreements aren't interesting.

Kenny said...

Dave, first, let me say I appreciate your response because I think it does get at my argument against the basic principle of Libertarianism.

Your point about the Terminator Line (I was at first wondering if this were a new t.v. series on Fox), is interesting. I recognize that if you look at the smallest components of anything, it’s always a matter of degree, but that doesn’t mean differences of degree can’t add up to differences of kind.

But I’m not sure this doesn’t work for my argument. Again, I’m not claiming that (L)s are uninteresting as a political category, a practical category; and so I’m not saying you can’t meaningfully classify them as on one side of the Terminator Line or another. I’m saying their guiding principle is incoherent or leads to absurd results, much like the Robotic nanny state.

So, when (L) says “government has no business doing that,” I say “why?” (L) says, “self-determination is the greatest good, and the only limit to my self-determination is if you interfere with another’s self-determination.” To me, the interesting part of this formulation is the latter part: what constitutes interference? To me the former part, the pro-freedom part, is uncontroversial. No one believes in needlessly limiting freedom.

But it’s this uncontroversial part that (L)s generally think is the interesting part of their philosophy. Google is reading my e-mail, and so I’m now getting an ad that reads “Join the Libertarians. We are the party of principle. Help us defend our freedoms.”

It’s like saying, my party is best because it wants what’s best for America. It’s not a useful principle because it doesn’t really tell you anything. So, back to the basic “government is bad,” it’s a useful formula for telling you what a (L) thinks, but not for explaining why an (L) thinks it.

Listen, I could be totally wrong. So far I’ve received stiff bi-partisan, criticism from three of the smartest people I know. But I still can’t see how the principles of (L) don’t either suggest anarchy or are uninteresting insofar as they don’t tell me anything.

Also, the (R) explanation of morality on the other hand, I think is very interesting as it basically is an appeal to Natural Law and a Creator, which is a theory that has legs.

-Dave said...

"'s a useful formula for telling you what a (L) thinks, but not for explaining why an (L) thinks it."

"So, when (L) says 'government has no business doing that,' I say 'why?'"

I think the general explanation is that government, composed of other people, can't be trusted with power any more than is absolutely necessary, because of the great and terrible power we grant it. It is, I grant, a position shared with Republicans (generally) but followed into other areas where Republicans will call intervention "necessary."

For example: Agricultural subsidies and price controls today. Why? In what way does this promote freedom, and at what price? The government is trying to do what is "best" (or, rather, buying midwest votes), but it tramples on the ability of people to self-determine to do so. I read a most interesting article a couple of years ago about a guy that was selling milk in CA, through a loophole, for less than the established price. Rather than compete, the milk industry lobbied the government to close the loophole, putting this guy out of business.

No one will admit to saying they want to limit freedom in any way that is not necessary, but it happens. A lot, I think. The government goes from providing a minimal infrastructure to trying to dictate a great many things.

I will grant this (and perhaps it is the point you are trying to make): Libertarian's don't have a well-defined answer, insofar as I have seen (and not counting anarchy) as to at what precise point "interference" is necessary.

But, I'm not sure that it's true of the Republicans or Democrats, either. We tend to couch our basic beliefs in vague principle as well, which is why we are today calling "cruel and unusual punishment" things that once would probably considered downright luxurious.

So I don't think we will really be able to draw a sharp dividing line and say "at this point our principles will stop and no further" and apply it in any large-scale analysis of any party. All we can speak about are large, macro-scale trends.

And I'd say it's a safe assumption that Libertarians would answer "at what point" by saying "a whole lot less than it is now."

A more technical answer, applicable across political parties, would be a cost-benefit analysis of the benefits of government interference and the costs of yielding power to the government. Using the previously admitted poor single-dimensional scale of "how much government", I think you will tend to see the following:

Compared to Libertarians, Democrats assign much lower costs to "interference" and higher benefits, so the equilibrium point is much higher. Republicans will assign similar to lower costs, but higher benefits, so the equilibrium point is higher. Libertarians to see very high costs, and rather low benefits, so the equilibrium point is rather low. This could be extended from a two-axis scale to a multi-dimensional surface, but the basic point is still there.

But, the principle doesn't suggest anarchy is inevitable, so long as the equilibrium point is above "no government at all." "Much Less" need not be "None."

"Join the Libertarians. We are the party of principle. Help us defend our freedoms."

That's no more or less unusual than the Republicans and Democrats who claim the same thing. I wouldn't say Libertarians are more principled, but I also wouldn't say they are less so. That they overstate the case is a problem, but one common to anyone who is passionate about something.

I've enjoyed the discussion. I have some Libertarian sympathies (since I consider the arm of government an unwieldy, but frighteningly powerful tool), but also believe there is some place for government to either advise or tell people what to do.

I'll apologize that it took me so long to try and get at the heart of what you're really saying.

And I'll toss this into the ring: How are Barack Obama and Libertarians similar? Both have a loosely defined philosophy, that promises "change" but can only indicate a direction, not specifics.

Kenny said...

I like your cost-benefit analysis of the different political positions, and I think fruitful debate or study could be had around the assignment of value each party puts on interference. So, I think a deeper problem I have with Libertarianism is that it insufficiently defines “harm to others,” and therefore shortchanges the benefit of interference.

Also, I think your suggestion that (L), as with (R) and (D) represents a valence more than a rigid principle.

I agree that (R)s and (D)s don’t necessarily have a more well-defined answer to the “why?” to their policy positions. What ‘works’ about both parties is that they’re “big tents,” which represent a conglomeration of policy positions—I suppose this is also true of (L)s as a political category.

So maybe a useful criticism of my own argument is that what’s interesting in politics isn’t rigid principle; maybe that’s interesting in philosophy, but in politics you’re dealing with a different beast altogether.

Some (L)s maybe bring my initial criticism upon themselves a bit by claiming “we are the party of principle.” It does still seem to me that many (L)s think that what’s exciting about their party is that it has a more rigorous principle at it’s core, but in reality their generally stated principle lacks the predictive power of a good theory.

The only reason I let Obama get away with his slogan of “change,” is that I trust the guy. Relative to (L)s “freedom slogan,” Obama’s “change” is better and worse and for the same reason. Because it’s so vague, it doesn’t undermine itself as the (L) Golden Rule appears to do—on the other hand it has virtually no content, making it untestable, unfalsifiable. But, I suppose it’s more of a slogan than a theory, and perhaps I should take the (L)s Golden Rule the same way.

-Dave said...

"So, I think a deeper problem I have with Libertarianism is that it insufficiently defines “harm to others,” and therefore shortchanges the benefit of interference."

... and at this point, you can start having a debate. This is the question to ask between Libertarians, Republicans, Democrats, the Green party, and many others.

"How much government interference is allowable to prevent a given infraction on a person or society's right to self-determination?"

"Well, individuals have a right to do anything that does not harm another..."

The Boyle quote is interesting, but my question for him would be "assuming that 'harm' has some meaning we can assign to it, is the Libertarian position true?" (purpose: is the loose definition of harm a real problem that allows you to ignore the statement, or a red herring that keeps you from answering the meat of it?)

Assuming there is some actual meaning to that word, then even if "harm" leads to a values-laden debate about what harm actually is, it can be bounded. Hence, the word should be - at least loosely - defined before the argument is rejected.

(I'm thinking in mathematical terms, here. Many functions are infinitely increasing, yet are limited in that they approach, but never meet or pass a given point... so while there is no hard line maximum point on the line, you can still talk rationally about a maximum limiting value)

That is to say, I believe that any reasonable definition of "harm" would render clearly unacceptable a large number of currently effective policies.

Kenny said...

Assuming you can agree on a definition of harm, I think the (L) formulation is pretty good. But it’s that agreement that’s hard to come by. (L)s think that the effects of prostitution and drug use can be compartmentalized to the people actively partaking, and because of this compartmentalization, this atomistic sense of how harm is done, they like their formulation. However, it would be quite easy to come up with arguments that prostitution and drug use harm lots of people other than those who actively partake by seeing society as more interconnected (and you don’t have to get too new-agey about our inter-connectedness, you just have to think about families of the drug-user or sex-user to see the people who might be harmed by prostitution and drug use other than the participants). But if you start deconstructing the lines between individuals in terms of how harm is suffered, I think (L)s would quickly get very uncomfortable with their own formulation.

To me, I would say, ‘yes’ if you properly define harm, the (L) formulation seems true.

At some level, I think there’s an issue of emphasis. Another way to put the same basic formulation is “gov’t should prevent people from harming one another, but otherwise leave them free to do as they please.” Logically it means the same thing as the typical (L) Golden Rule, but it carries a different emphasis.

-Dave said...

I think it means close to the same thing, but there's a critical difference in that shift of emphasis.

In the (L) formulation, the individual is the primary actor. In your formulation, the government is. In the (L) formulation, the right is defined as inherent to the person, in your it is dispensed by the government.

Once we can agree that given a bounded definition of "harm," the (L) rule is legitimate, the task is then to define harm.

I don't like your inclusion of prostitution here because in the same vein, the government allows harm by not outlawing adultery.

The reason you need a bounded definition of harm is because if you allow for esoteric interconnectedness arguments, you essentially unbound it. If any adverse effect on another person is prohibited, then a logical conclusion is that we should all withdraw from everything we do. When I buy clothing, I make it unavailable to someone else that may want it. When I bid for something on eBay, I deny it to someone who only chooses to pay less. By breathing I emit carbon dioxide. By eating I consume available resources. By bommenting on your blog I use electricity, largely generated by coal-fired plants. By simply existing, I reduce the available energy in the universe, converting it to entropy by the simple fact that I am.

Extreme? Sure. But the point is that there is, at some point, acceptable harm to another (which is the values-laden debate suggested), if you admit that we should be allowed to exist at all.

I would suggest that emotional discomfort for family members would not fall under the (L) definition of harm, because it is not the sort of harm that limits their ability to choose their own path.

This is, in essence, an ethical debate, I think. But, given that we all live with an accept some level of harm to another (meaning, you can't just say "prevent all harm"), you need some justification to say "this far, and no further." Perhaps drawing the line at "preventing the harm which allows another to choose their own course" is arbitrary. But what other line would be superior, and why?

Kenny said...

For me, it’s easy to envision prostitution’s contribution to divorce, and divorce’s contribution to societal problems. Children of divorce are more likely to end up divorced themselves, cutting against their ability to “choose for themselves” a path of marital satisfaction and its accompanying benefits. So, I just don’t think you can isolate the effects of prostitution to the participants in the act.

As you say, some harm is acceptable, and where we draw the line is just an intuitive judgment call. But this is where I think the (L) Golden Rule is weak: it presents itself as if “harm” is clearly and easily defined, which it isn’t. (L)s think that a strength of their position is how neatly they can draw the line (illustrated by their ad ‘we’re the party of principle’), but if that line can’t be neatly drawn after all, then the position is correspondingly weaker.

I’d be interested though, to hear further explanation of how to draw the line. To me, the line of ‘wherever one can still choose their own path in life’ is as difficult to “bind” as “harm.”

To me this also shows a Natural Law point, which is that our determinations are ultimately intuitive, that is, like Peano’s Axioms, can’t be further proven or defined. So, I agree it’s an ethical debate, but I think it’s even a metaphysical and religious debate.

So the line that I might suggest, off the top of my head, is more like the philosophical question of "what is the good?"

-Dave said...

And yet, you single out prostitution but not adultery. Unless the problem is in the exchange of money, why ban one but not the other?

One possible way of defining "harm" would be along the lines of (and forgive any errors I make here, being a layman speaking to a lawyer) how you need to have legal standing in court to sue because a given thing affects you (as with the recent Supreme Court decision concerning lawsuits brought by investors against Motorola for fradulent acts commited by Charter).

Can we imagine a man being able to bring a substantive suit against a brothel because his dad got divorced when he was a child and now the man has trouble commiting to a relationship? Is making a thing harder the same as actually denying it? Why, then we do that already, and with things even more vital than marriage. Agricultural policy makes it harder to get sugar from Brazil, or food to the poor in developing nations. Obviously, making a thing more difficult is not the same as expressly denying it.

Prostitution certainly causes more harm than increasing the entropy of the universe.

Both "choose your own path" and "harm" may both be fuzzy, in that they are subject to interpretation. But I'd also argue that the former is nevertheless more restrictive than the former (If "Choose your Own Path" (CYOP) is a subset of "Do No Harm" (DNH), and if there is an instance of DNH that is not included in CYOP, then CYOP is by definition a smaller set, even if both sets are not discrete). Therefore, if we're trying to reduce the fuzziness as much as possible it is a superior definition.


"As you say, some harm is acceptable, and where we draw the line is just an intuitive judgment call. But this is where I think the (L) Golden Rule is weak: it presents itself as if “harm” is clearly and easily defined, which it isn’t. (L)s think that a strength of their position is how neatly they can draw the line (illustrated by their ad ‘we’re the party of principle’), but if that line can’t be neatly drawn after all, then the position is correspondingly weaker."

Agreed. But the position is not wholly weak, just insufficient to make choices within the fuzzy line. Just because the Uncertainty Principle makes it impossible to define the precise locations of electrons, and there is a nonzero possibility that electrons for atoms in my body are miles and miles away, that doesn't mean that Chemistry that relies upon those electrons is altogetehr void. Which is why defining the fuzziness as clearly as possible is where the position rises or falls.

Kenny said...

I’m not necessarily singling out prostitution versus adultery; I think under a certain formulation of “harm” they’d both be fair game. The reason for bringing up prostitution is just that it’s a typical (L) position that is easily susceptible to being challenged using the (L)’s own term of “harm.”

The standing analogy is a good one with very similar line drawing issues. One of the criteria for standing is literally “harm,” and another is essentially “causation” (as in, the defendant being the “proximate” cause of the harm, as opposed to an insufficiently distant cause). And in standing there are debates among liberals and conservatives over the same issues of defining the terms, conservatives being more narrow than liberals in their definitions.

One distinction I’d draw between legal standing and the (L) philosophy is that standing in a court room is meant to be more concrete. The Constitution only gives jurisdiction to the courts over “cases and controversies,” which has been interpreted to mean a concrete controversy between certain parties. The other end of the spectrum is considered to be “policy,” which affects society at large, and courts aren’t supposed to get into that because it’s the province of the Legislature. But this is probably a reason to have a broader definition of causation and harm for legislation than over standing to bring a law suit.

That said, you’re right, it’s the same issue, although in a meaningfully different context.

I agree the (L) formulation is not wholly weak. My actual thought is that it represents one legitimate way of determining the Natural Law. My complaint against a lot of genres of political or legal philosophy is that they take one measure of the Natural Law and make it the Law itself. So, the various measurements economics offers us, I think, are legitimate ways of getting at the Natural Law – but they’re not the only ways. Similarly with the (L)’s philosophy. All disciplines bring something to the table, but each goes too far when it suggests it is the self-sufficient, pre-eminent discipline.

So, back to (L)s, I think the metric of personal freedom is useful, but not all-encompassing, and that there are sufficiently important other concepts to bring to the table so that focusing on personal freedom alone leads to distortion.

I realize the last several paras are pretty broad, but I’ll leave it to you to comment or challenge whatever you’d like clarified.