Monday, October 5, 2015

Donald Trump as a Vindication of Left-Libertarianism

For libertarians, especially those among its more palatable flavors, election season isn't so much a time to savor sugary soliloquies. Nor is it a time to feel buried by the scorn of political defeat. More often than not, it's simply a time to shake our heads, and start important conversations.

But then there are those "other" libertarians; some just cannot restrain themselves from casting at least lukewarm approval upon one candidate or another. And while I don't have much of a dog in the fight as far as having...a dog in the fight, there is one thing that I find deeply disturbing about libertarian political support this particular election season; Trump. According to at least one recent survey (and we know how reliable those can be), the vast majority of "libertarian-minded" Republicans are throwing support behind the aforementioned reality TV phenom, while the most obvious libertarian favorite, Rand Paul, is being left in the political dust.

So what's my take on this? My take is that the left-libertarians have been right all along, and that their staunchest opponents have been more full of bluster and confusion than anything resembling a coherent stance.

Left-libertarians, to the consternation of their more mainstream counterparts, take a "thick" position on liberty. They believe that certain values outside of the general tenets of libertarianism are fundamental to its flourishing; particularly the values that underlie the libertarian stance itself - its reasons. It's argued that, if we do not support the adoption of these additional values, liberty will have a hard time thriving, or even getting off the ground at all.

Left-libertarianism's detractors don't buy into this story. They tell us that all libertarianism "is" is just what its tenets entail, no more and no less. Additionally, we're told, the attempts to broaden our defense of libertarianism either amount to or are conducive to the "hi-jacking" of libertarianism proper. And, indeed, most of the arguments (in particular the more hyperbolic) tend towards the former accusation.

Of course, there are some things that are problematic right off the bat with this counter-position. The first is that if these objections become too fervent, they lean into "thick" territory. This rarely stops at some meaningless argument about categorical distinctions. Instead, it typically devolves into this type of sentiment; "You should not adopt left-libertarianism. It's not really libertarian. They're socialists. It's dangerous for liberty."

If the issue isn't crystal clear, none of these positions, as advocated, are an essential part of libertarianism, in the "thin" sense. The maxims being lauded and pushed for are additional values outside of that thinly-viewed framework. Whether such views are coherent or not is one question. But it should be pointed out that, if opposition to left-libertarianism evolves upon these lines, it becomes a "thick" position, and thus whatever hope was had in these argument(s) for defeating thick conceptions of libertarianism instead whither and give way to its direct edification instead. And, in fact, it does seem to be the case that a great many of the people who (even just principally) reject thick views of libertarianism all-too-often outright embrace sociopolitical views that, by their own decrees, should be thought of as anything from "external to" to "irrelevant to" libertarianism.

This brings me to our crude-talking, toupee'd political savior de jour. What does left-libertarianism have to do with this clown or his popularity? Well, the idea behind a "thick" conception of libertarianism generally, and the left-libertarian incarnation of it specifically, is that being un-committed to these foundational, reinforcing values can lead you to misunderstand, misapply, or even unwittingly abandon the greater libertarian position. Enter Mr. Trump. What do all these so-called libertarians see in this prospect? From the back-and-forth I've been privy to, most generally, they simply like the fact that he's not politically correct. Embarrassingly, this seems to be the largest part of the whole unfortunate story.

Now, political correctness, or political incorrectness, is not a part of the "thin" libertarian line. But, it's true enough that a great number of more mainstream libertarians have, erringly in my opinion, adopted the political right's contempt for the notion. So what should libertarians think about something like political correctness anyways?

Well, contra our faux-thin counterparts, left-libertarians will likely tell you that the concept itself is a pretty mixed bag. There are a lot of things that are called "political correctness" that are reprehensible; various forms of thought-control and censorship chief among them. But they'll also likely tell you that there are many things called "political correctness" that are really just a call for civility, urging that we treat one another with the basic respect that is commensurate with acknowledging each other as persons...the same respect that our radical support of individual rights, properly conceived, flows directly from.

The values that best constitute our reasons for supporting individual liberties constitute reasons for respecting people in other ways. In fact, upon a minimal amount of reflection, it would be sort of odd if we had such a radical commitment to self-ownership and self-determination, but had absolutely no concern for the way that people treat each other more generally. This is the strength and insight of the left-libertarian view; it's dialectical. It allows us to sift the dross on issues like political correctness, and prevents us from falling into ideological positions that are ultimately untenable, or worse.

Beyond the issue of political correctness itself, many of Trump's supporters (and especially those of a "libertarian" persuasion) laud him for simply "bucking the system" with his politically incorrect pronouncements. Instead of seeing him for the hopeless pseudo-ideologue that he is, they see him as a brave maverick - someone who isn't afraid to speak his mind. While things like bravery are praiseworthy wherever it's found, it's worth considering what exactly constitutes bravery in the first place. In it's most base and popular modern conception, being courageous simply means attempting something dangerous. But, of course, there are more complex conceptions of courage, and what actions are going to count as courageous are going to be highly dependent on which conception you adopt.

For instance, the ancient Greeks believed in an idea called "the unity of virtue". They believed that all of the virtues were deeply interconnected. Any one virtue, properly understood, had to be informed by the others. So take the virtue of "courage" (or its rough equivalent). The virtue of courage is certainly concerned with our willingness to act in the face of danger. But that, alone, is not enough to be courageous. You could rush into a crowded street wielding a baseball bat and begin hitting people. Surely this is a dangerous undertaking. You're likely to be beaten yourself, and possibly killed. Should we call you courageous for overcoming your fears of reprisal and doing it anyway? The Greeks would have been inclined to say, "No." Having courage depends not on simply facing your fears, but facing them in the right way, at the right time, and for the right reasons. Giving into fear when you shouldn't is being a coward. Fighting the wrong fears is being a fool.

So, is Trump being brave by bucking this supposed "political correctness"? Well, on the ancient Greek view, he would only be brave insofar as whatever it is that he's doing fearlessly is good in the context of our other virtuous capacities as well; which is why I don't see him as brave or courageous at all. I see him for the populist sycophant he is, feeding on the misguided whims of the populace. And I see many libertarians all-too-willing to discard their principles in favor of him - because the commitments that underlie their belief in libertarianism are not grounded enough, and are easily uprooted by ideological commitments they've developed elsewhere.

But there's absolutely nothing about libertarianism proper that would lead me to that insight, nor the one about political correctness itself. Those positions are entailed by values external to libertarianism. But, more importantly, those are many of the same values that entail libertarianism itself too. This is a hugely important meta-political insight, and it's the difference between calmly maintaining a distance from evil and shaking its hand.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

On Morally Relative Moral Analysis: A Disconnect

There are threads being pulled in the context of many national discussions lately that all, troublingly, seem to lead back to the same bare argumentative spool. The argument is one that leads to a moral judgment in favor of, and sometimes absolving, an individual or group engaged in conflict. It goes something like this:

"X has been MORE moral than Y, therefore X's actions are morally just."

This strikes me as being morally obtuse, and even surprisingly so. It's surprising in that it ignores our most basic notions of morality, and yet undoubtedly it implies the use of a tiered moral analysis to arrive at such a conclusion - the person must FIRST make a moral assessment given the existing circumstances; and then once said assessment reveals a party to be relatively moral in their actions, then the initial assessment is abandoned. I could only describe it as a kind of moral meta-judgment.

One of the news-worthy events for which this kind of moral reasoning has been pervasive is Israel's recent actions towards Gaza. Defenders of the IDF have, of course, engaged in all kinds of broad arguments spanning from historical to religious contexts. But when it comes down to morally justifying any particular action, and specifically ones that have irrevocably diminished the lives of innocents, this aforementioned line of argumentation is prevalent. The moral claims are many, "Well, they try to pin-point strikes...they telegraph their punches far ahead of time...they've acted with incredible restraint...they're dealing with terrorists...their enemies use human shields...their enemies kill the innocent...their enemies are on a religious crusade."

Now, on their own, many or most of these claims can be (and probably are) true to some extent. And so, ignoring deeper arguments about the way in which the IDF is constituted, we could then claim that they may in fact be acting more morally than their enemies. But it still does not follow that their actions are just, only that their actions are relatively just.

Supporters of the relatively just seem to want to say that the impetus of what would otherwise be seen as immoral acts falls upon the relatively unjust. But it's not immediately clear by what kind of moral reasoning such a transference is possible. Any ethical framework of rights that validates the enforcement of others' obligations to respect your own life must surely bind you to respect the lives of others as well - even if, in many cases, it would prevent you from sufficiently enforcing the obligations of others towards you.

Say, for instance, that an armed man is attacking you from a distance. He has surrounded himself with innocent hostages. You are in possession of a firearm, but are not in a position to return fire without predictably harming or killing innocents. What can we say about this situation? Well, if we believe in some reasonable right to self-defense, we can conclude that you are within your rights to bring force against your attacker to stop him. On the other hand, adopting that conception of rights also places an obligation upon you to not take the lives of the innocents involved if at all possible. That obligation may not be ultimately indefeasible, but the presumption is at least very strong.

You fire at the attacker, taking the life of a hostage before bringing his attacks to a point of cessation. What can we say now? It's probably reasonable to conclude that your actions are at least relatively just when squared against those of the attacker. But were your actions, ultimately, morally just? If our obligations to respect the rights of others are fairly weak, then perhaps so. Although, it would seem that watering down our obligations to respect the lives of others would, conversely, reduce the paramountcy of the right to forcefully defend your own life. On the other hand, if those obligations aren't so easily defeasible, we may be left with the conclusion that both acts were unjust, and simply one less so than the other.

The move the defender of the relatively just seems to want to make here is to claim that the relatively unjust is at fault for the incident and, so, is morally responsible for the actions of both parties. In this claim, the defender of the relatively just would be both partially correct and partially incorrect. There is little doubt that it is the initial aggressor who is at "fault" - namely for setting the whole chain of events in motion. It is partially for this reason that he is likely to be relatively unjust. But it doesn't necessarily follow that the relatively unjust is wholly responsible, in a moral sense, for all of the choices of various other agents that interject further down the causal chain. In fact, it doesn't even necessarily follow that the party who initiated this particular causal chain of events will even end up being the relatively unjust party. Think, for example, of someone who firebombs a city in order to stop a murderer who resides there. Surely such a reaction is dreadfully more unjust than the unjust acts that preceded it, and surely it's our obligation to respect the lives of innocents that would lead us to the moral intuition that such an act would be morally unjustifiable.

It's that particular moral outlook that I find to be in concordance with so much of what I embrace in the libertarian ethic. So you can imagine my surprise as I've watched so many prominent libertarians, who had staunchly defended and used that kind of moral reasoning to decry the U.S. government's killing of innocents in its foreign entanglements, leap to the defense of Israel and the actions taken in its own quest for "defense." It's something that's been very hard to reconcile. The same arguments that neo-conservatives and various other nationalists have been using for decades to absolve themselves of moral responsibility for their actions are now being employed by many of the same people who fought them so vigorously. Here there is a disconnect.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Thick and Thin - Out of the Abyss

It's no secret that, as of the last several months, one sort of libertarian in-fight has risen to prominence within the heart of the movement; the battle over thick and thin conceptions of libertarianism. For the uninitiated, it's an argument about whether sets of values outside of the N.A.P. (Non-Aggression Principle) set are needed for, expected of, or implied by libertarianism as a school of thought. Admittedly, I myself was very skeptical of so-called "thick" conceptions of libertarianism. It seemed to me that the bundling of additional values with the N.A.P. could act as a wedge that could hold open a door for physical coercion.

That being said, I now think that not only have thicker conceptions of liberty (particularly of the left/eudaimonia variety) introduced incredibly valuable insights for the movement, but they actually provide much stronger, and more philosophically grounded, arguments for a very radical kind of libertarianism that its detractors aim to preserve. But what I wish to focus on here is not the many justifications for thick conceptions of libertarianism, but rather the reaction and behavior of many of its opponents which I find somewhat troubling. Here I will outline three particular categories of reaction that I see often enough to give one pause.

A. Bluster

This, of the three categories I'm outlining, is what most of what bothers me would fall under. And the subsequent categories could almost qualify as sub-categories to this one. These would be your emotional and irrational non-sequiturs. Often in a facetious, mocking tone, someone will reply to the notion of "thickism" with hyperbole and ad hominem.

"Well, I'd totally be on board with the 'thicks' but, you know, I'm not a commie."

These responses are completely devoid of substantive arguments. And, even explicitly prompting for arguments, you'll find yourself being given more of the same emotional reaction that you got previously. Moreover, they often seem confused that you don't believe refrains of "Commie!" and "Libtard!" to be actual arguments. This type of behavior has been insipidly pervasive throughout the thick/thin debate.

B. Character Assassination

Another form of argumentation (if we can call it that) is a slightly evolved version of the first which substitutes ludicrous, general assertions for more specific, and yet unrelated ones. Instead of grappling with the propositions themselves, some detractors pick out particular proponents of said propositions and attempt to refute those propositions by smearing the person behind them. And by merely knocking down certain people behind the ideas, they believe themselves to somehow be knocking down the ideas themselves. Of course, this is not how philosophical arguments work.

But, of course, this is only a side-step outside of the first behavior, improving little upon it. Instead of simply refuting ideas by claiming their proponents to be "communists", they can at least appear to have a formidable argument by providing evidence of their opponent's heterodoxy in some unrelated capacity. But this is merely another link in the chain. Calling out someone's heterodoxical parlay in one area or another is not enough to dismiss their idea(s), even if the divergence lies at the point of the subject that's currently being broached. The assertion collapses into an argument from authority/antiquity.

C. There is No Spoon

The third type of behavior is perhaps the oddest one. In this situation an interlocutor will claim victory in an argument by simply claiming that there is no argument to be had. This line of thinking goes something like:

"Thin libertarianism is the only libertarianism because libertarianism itself is thin. Of course you have other values, but they aren't related to your politics. You're just a libertarian."

But this is, I think pretty obviously, begging the question. It would be like Catholics arguing against Protestants by appealing to the idea that what it means to be Christian is simply to say that you're Catholic. Well, if you're Catholic, maybe that kind of defense makes sense to you. But Protestants believe themselves to have substantially different beliefs about certain aspects of Christianity; from its justifications, to its content, to its applications.

Now, for obvious reasons, you may wish to define out the "non-Catholic" parts as not being Christian anymore, but rather something else. But that would seem like a fairly peculiar way to look at things. If a deviant group has not truly deviated in any meaningful way, then what is the argument over? It would seem that simple engagement in an argument over the orthodoxy of this or that would entail at least, well, differing views on what should or should not be orthodox.


I've brought these things up because they are things I have seen repeatedly, over and over again, in various discussions over the last few months, and that is disconcerting. It's disconcerting because it's behavior that's unbecoming for libertarians. It's disconcerting because if we want to show the reasonableness of our political conclusions, we have to be able to appropriately illustrate the reasonableness of the concepts that underlie them. And, perhaps more personally, it's disconcerting because I've been the type of person who used to have those kinds of reactions.

I remember holding a standard neo-conservative political position. I remember the bristle and bluster I would exemplify when someone made arguments (good or bad) against my views. And, more importantly, I remember that among the monstrous sea of dissenting voices, it was those that exemplified reason and understanding that finally pulled me out of that abysmal place. And, like so many others, that was just the beginning for me. Person by person, like a chain, I was pulled by reasonable people to a reasonable place. I cannot over-stress this point.

So when I see libertarians, and particularly those of radical stripes, gnashing their teeth and substituting emotion for reason, what I see are shipwrecked friends leaving the beach and heading right back into the crashing waves. And I know that place. I know the chaos and destruction of it. I know what little good comes from it. And I know that perhaps the only thing more distressing than seeing the people still drowning in those waters is seeing survivors go back in and swim among the bodies with reckless abandon. We help no one by doing that. We need to return to higher ground.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

On Surfing and Diffusion of Power

A common and fundamental disagreement at the heart of a good part of American political discourse revolves around the nominal balance of power between the individual states and the federal government they constitute. Of course, the disagreements are not always expressed explicitly in these terms, but it is nonetheless integral to even the most base discourse. Should the greatest power be held by federal government, or spread among the states? I'd like to explore and confer my thoughts on this.

It's most common for modern conservatives to fall on the side of "states' rights" (at least nominally); that being that the balance of power should fall away from the federal government and into the arms of the individual states. The reasoning for this, as far as reasoning for something as bad as governments go, is a generally good one. It relies on the liberal insight that giving governing bodies power is dangerous, and that, if we must have them, their power should be divided as to pit government(s) against itself. It's not all that different than the rationale for divided powers among, say, the federal government itself.

And even beyond that (the self-juxtaposition of government power), there are also geo-political implications for power being spread out across multiple geographic entities. It leaves us with something that is more (albeit still only partially) analogous to market-competition. It's, at least in theory, easier to escape the despotism of one state by fleeing nearby to another. The prospect of escaping from underneath the thumb of an oppressive federal government seems a little less rosy.

So, this is the general idea. And I happen to think it's correct for the most part, but there is a good deal of opposition to it as well. Detractors will (and often do) claim that giving the individual states too much power will result in bad outcomes. It will allow the states, they say, to run roughshod over peoples' rights, and without a strong central government to provide correction, there will be terrible consequences. Well, do our detractors have a point?

If you think that their concerns are unfounded, they will be glad to point you to America's own history. There are certainly terrible things that states have done in the past to which the federal government justifiably put a stop to. Our history of slavery and the lingering oppression of racism seem to speak to that, do they not? After all, without the federal government, for how much longer would slavery have continued - particularly in the deep south? How much longer would have been acceptable?

I think those are serious questions and reservations; ones that honestly are not always responded to in the best way. So while I'm not going to offer any rhetorical support of individual state governance in itself (secession should end at the individual), let me at least offer my thoughts on why diffusion of power is still very important.

The criticism I want to make is that many of us have a very thin view of history. We have a view that is often, at best, cursory - a jumble of names and dates garnered from textbooks we didn't particularly enjoy reading in our youth. I think what we really get is a kind of contextless goop...and I mean this even in a post New-Left world. It's very easy to segment history in a way that we tend to pick and choose what we get out of it. And given the common progressive historical refrain regarding the justification for centralized power, a more complete understanding of historical implication is important.

Let's take the example of slavery, which is a pretty common example brought up in the course of justifying federal power. Now, it's true enough that, at certain points, the federal government stepped in and stopped certain states from upholding governing practices which were clearly wrong. But that is just a small slice of a more robust historical progression - a snapshot in time. The truth, of course, is that for the federal government to have had the democratic weight it would have taken to allow for such a thing, a cultural plurality of support must have already existed. And yet, it hadn't always existed either. So what are the implications of that?

Well, at some point slavery was generally accepted in the United States (even though there were, of course, many detractors as well). Throughout the 19th century, a cultural shift in the direction of abolition begin to swell - particularly among a few states in the north. These were the first governments in the Union to enact pro-abolitionist reform. And it was this period that stands as a historical inverse to the periods for which supporters of strong centralized government lend support.

This was a time before such sentiments flourished in any kind of meaningful demographic sense. States with strong anti-slave laws were, at the time, very out-of-step with the rest of the country. It's a time when the reins of centralized government were in the hands not of abolitionists, but of those who supported slavery. And because of that the whole of the country was burdened by deplorable laws such as the Fugitive Slave Act(s), which ostensibly forced anti-slave states to do the bidding of slaveholders by returning to them their refuged "property".

This isn't something that usually comes up in discussions about the balance of state power. And, quite frankly, that is just baffling considering the modern implications that are still in front of us right now. Right now there are states out there on the forefront of drug decriminalization and/or legalization. But, as far as I can tell, the D.E.A. is still busting down doors in no-knock raids and dragging people into cages on the daily (at record rates, no less). Or how about states that are opening up to gay marriage? Do supporters of centralized government imagine them to have the power to bar these states from doing such? What do they have to say about D.O.M.A.-type legislation?

The point of all this isn't to excuse the abuses of power perpetrated by individual states. They abound, and by my count they are no more or less wrong than the abuses of larger governments. The fundamental difference is that we've ostensibly limited the geographic scope of these particular governments a bit more. It's not a guarantee against corruption, it's just a backstop that arguably makes those instances easier to handle.

The argument for diffusion of government power is, at the very least, not completely insane. But, I think the larger point is that we need to kind of expand the context around the points in history we tend to focus on in our justifications. We tend to think that political movement and action is only present at the crest of that particular wave; that what happens between them is not important. But, in fact, it's all of what happens in between that leads to the crest in the first place. And so it goes too with history and politics. If we imagine ourselves competent enough to navigate those waves, we have to understand them in their entirety.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Limits of My World

I'm pretty disheartened to hear about the legal push-back against 23andme, a company that apparently offers incredibly accessible genetic testing/mapping. Regulators seem to have their eyes fixed on pulling them through the FDA wormhole. That it's going down in the way that it is isn't particularly surprising. What I find particularly unfortunate are the barbs being thrown by the government's supporters.

Putting aside arguments over the company's legal pragmatism or lack there-of in the run-up to this fight, there's something that I find increasingly despotic about the line of reasoning which constantly begs to save us from ourselves. Now, I don't want unsafe foods or unsafe drugs. Hell, I'm not particularly excited even by the thought of an unsafe refrigerator or toaster for that matter. And so I believe that third party review and verification is something that most consumers might kind of dig. But it's hard not to call into question these monolithic hierarchies of control and protocol; the alphabet soup of agencies that seemingly hold an increasing number of keys to an increasing number of locked doors. What are we to make of this predicament?

Well, I could choose to lay into the rather flaccid and unimpressive track record of these entities. How many countless people have been killed by how many countless consumables (or combinations thereof) thought to be safe by these agencies? And, maybe even worse, how many people are dying every single year because "unverified" consumables are out of their very terminal reach? I suppose I could even go into the ins and outs of exactly why monopolistic social structures of all kinds lead to inevitably poor outcomes for those who rely on them, but it's a point I find myself very tired of repeating.

What holds out as more interesting to me is the absolute pervasiveness of paternalism among the supporters of such regulatory schemes. Even stepping back from the specifics of this particular instance, it seems clear to me that we've almost completely accepted a sphere of permissiveness around our lives; that we've traded in any meaningful sense of autonomy or equality for what seems to be a woefully misguided sense of security and safety. Gone appear to be the days of a deeper sense of personal responsibility to ourselves and to others. We've managed to contract virtue itself out of our hands.

And at the barren heights of our conceived cleverness, what have we got to show for it? We steal in the name of charity. We war in the name of peace. We deprive in the name of security. Oh, how deeply conflicted we've become.

And so here I sit listening to countless people ridicule the defenders of freedom:

"Oh, well, I don't know about you, but I don't really miss the 'freedom' to buy unsafe, untested products. Are we really expected to believe that you'll be losing out because you can't buy snake oil?"


I do expect that of you.

I want the freedom to have any individual or group analyze my genetic make-up. I want the freedom to go to a church down the street that will lead me into believing in a false god. I want the freedom to be convinced by a blogger to start eating a steady diet of lard to improve my health. I want the freedom to engage in acupuncture therapy to cure my terminal illness. I want the freedom to buy a lighter so that I can bundle up my life-savings, in cash, and set it on fire. I want the freedom to go buy a gallon of bleach and then drink it. I want the freedom to get my 401k investment advice from a fortune teller. I want the freedom to move into some guy's compound and throw on some black clothes, dawn some Nike's, and drink shitty Kool-Aid in hopes of catching a UFO that's hiding behind a passing comet.

Sooner or later you and I are going to have to come to grips with the fact that freedom, in any amount, entails potential harm - both to ourselves and to others. And we have to realize that these ever-shifting proscriptive legal lines that we draw are ultimately arbitrary. Any and all freedoms that we enjoy, down to and including indulgence in the sacred religious texts we hold so dear (the Bible, etc.) can inform us in ways that are benign, malign, and all shades in between. The only way to make us truly safe from one another is to affect a world of individual isolation and complete arrest.

It's not clear to me that the supporters of far-reaching governmental oversight support such a vision of the future. So, then, I'm compelled to ask just what point one imagines such a reach to actually end at? It seems to me that many more people's live are entirely shifted (and often not for the better) by the common rhetoric of the priestly and metaphysical caste than by some arbitrary company providing a preliminary mapping of genetic markers for people. And yet the latter seems to be so much more obviously fit for our scorn and regulatory least according to the more vocal of us. So why is it so? Why impede and intervene upon something so seemingly innocuous while stopping miles short of the kind of social coercion that has a fairly clear track record of ruining so many lives? I should expect a relatively sound explanation for what seems to be so arbitrary of a distinction. And yet I don't think I'll find a satisfactory one. I think it should give us all a bit of pause.

Doubling Down on Prejudice

Over the years my position on free speech and its collision with political correctness has evolved fairly drastically. While I can say that I've held fairly steadfast to an absolutist conception of free speech, my views on reactionary speech and political correctness have more drastically shifted; moving from an almost complete excoriation of political correctness to a much wider embrace of it...and finally to something somewhat in between. I no longer see the contention between freedom of speech and our general duties of beneficence towards one another that I used to. And so I still hold sympathies on both sides of what seems like a common political schism.

All of that being said, there's an argument that I have heard one too many times lately (from defenders of free speech) that seems to not only ring hollow, but actually self-incriminating as well. It's an argument that gets pulled up when talking about the "correctness" (political or otherwise) of using what may be commonly seen as a prejudicial slur to excoriate (or even joke with) other people for whom the term would not literally apply. A common example would be a group of men who ridicule someone within the group for "chickening out" on something by calling them "gay". Obviously, many in the homosexual community would find that kind of behavior pretty offensive. What's almost just as offensive is this argument that I've seen people use to defend it.

The argument goes something like this:

"Well is it really that offensive? I mean, think about it. I'm not actually calling him gay. I'm just using it because that's what you say when you want to annoy someone."

Surprisingly enough, this line of argument is bought by a pretty large swath of people. And they seem fairly unaware of how they are clearly doubling down on the initial mistake. Let me flesh out that response by re-wording it, just to see if the issue can be teased out by those who might not see it:

"Oh, come on, I'm not really insulting him. I'm not saying he's actually gay. I mean, if I was, then that would really be an insult. But I'm not doing that."

It's really amazing how many people I've heard try to torpedo themselves into the clear by anchoring themselves to that line of thought. For anyone who is still unclear on the issue at hand, the error is not in the false identification of someone as being gay, but in the false identification of being gay as being something lesser. Chances are that if you're missing this finer point, you're probably missing the point of the argument against prejudiced terminology more generally.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Questions for Free-Market Moralists

Amia Srinivasan recently posed some tough questions to libertarians who like to moralize their support for free markets. The rest of her article aside, I thought I would give a quick but modest rebuttal to some of these questions (rebuttals which I might expand more on at a later date) ...

1. Is any exchange between two people in the absence of direct physical compulsion by one party against the other (or the threat thereof) necessarily free?

The answer to this question depends largely on what sense the word "free" is being applied. It is a word that is stretched over many uses, and there is a certain kind of ambiguity on which part of the question, as well as the author's overall point, relies on. There is a particular sense (1) of freedom (I'll call it the "political" sense) in which it implies the obligations that other people have to not compel you by force. This is the sense of the word that most libertarians employ (social, physical). But, of course, individuals can be compelled in other ways. I think, broadly, there are two additional categories to consider.

One other way (2) in which human beings are compelled is by suppressing each other in non-violent ways (social, non-physical). Verbal bullying, harassment, irrational hatred, derision, bigotry, extortion; these are ways in which individuals can be pushed around or coerced in non-physical ways. Admittedly, many libertarians acquiesce to this point of contention, embracing the heartless caricature being drawn before them. But one need not be this kind of libertarian to carry the mantle. In fact, many libertarians have fairly thick conceptions of ethical/moral obligations...conceptions that entail being thoroughly opposed to these kinds of coercion as well.

However, while they may recognize that such obligations exist, they may not believe them to be enforceable. There is a bevy of reasons for this (which I will not untangle at length here). One of the primary reasons is that physical impositions upon people in the aim of forcing them to abandon such behaviors would necessarily come at the cost of sacrificing freedom in the first established sense of the word. One could make the argument that the second sense of freedom is in some way more important or more primary than the first. But many libertarians would find this incoherent, as the whole justification for condemning such treatment of people as "bad" is thoroughly grounded in our right to self-ownership and "equality of authority." One may attack the prior convention, but not without sweeping the legs out from underneath the second.

The final way (3) in which people might be compelled is by their own material circumstances. Being biological organisms, humans must take action to continue living. When gasping, they must breathe. When thirsty, they must drink. When hungry, they must eat. We must consume, manipulate, and adapt to parts of our environment in order to continue living. If nothing else, surely most can agree on this. And so, in a very real sense (arguably stronger than the other two senses), we are not free from our naturally endowed obligations to ourselves. If you really want to know what it's like to be "compelled", try sitting in one place for a week without bothering to try to scrounge up some water. If a man should walk by and offer you a glass of water in exchange for your car, your desperate circumstances might compel you to oblige. And what can we say about this? Well, we can certainly say that such a by-passer may be neglecting his moral duties (beneficence) towards you. I think, were it truly an immediate question of life or death, we may even find libertarian grounds to allow you to not honor such an agreement if you should make it. But it is important to note that the imposition is not on behalf of the stranger in this situation. For you were not worse off with the offer than without it. The imposition, in this context, is on behalf of nature itself.

So, to answer the author's question, we can say:

(1) Largely, yes, in the first sense
(2) Sometimes, but not always, in the second sense
(3) Practically never, in the third sense

A thoroughly fleshed-out theory of libertarian ethics takes all three senses of the word into full (consequential) consideration. But since a good deal of that consideration is "upstream", it can often appear as though libertarians have nothing to say about (2) and (3). And, perhaps too often, the way libertarians sometimes handle these questions only invites such criticisms. That being said, making arguments against libertarianism in general that only apply to its weakest supporters says more about the author than it does about libertarianism.

Note: I find it interesting that the author chose, as an illustration, an example of a mother who feels she needs to resort to prostitution or selling her own organs in order to feed her children. Surely this is a grim situation. We might need to know more about her story to tease out any fine moral points. What I'd like to point out, however, is that although she seems to be finding herself a victim of most dire circumstances (3), we have already robbed her of the ability to make such a choice...even if it is the best one she could make. Society has decided to impose a prohibition (1) on such decisions. And so, while we may quibble about how "free" someone really is if forced up against such hard decisions, we've actually (in the process) literally restricted her freedom to make such a choice at all - even if it is the only thing that might afford her children a better life.

2. Is any free (not physically compelled) exchange morally permissible?

The answer to this question also, unfortunately, hinges on the use of the phrase "morally permissible." We could mean "moral, and therefore permissible" or we could just mean "permissible". This isn't a dodge of the question at hand, but bringing two highly contestable words together can cause a great deal of confusion (and sometimes purposefully). One can certainly find some kinds of "free exchanges" immoral, even in a libertarian sense. However, simply because something is, even in fact, immoral does not necessarily mean that it is not ultimately permissible (for reasons outlined above). So, for instance, in one sense it's not "morally permissible" to call people disparaging names as they pass on the street. I'm sure our author would agree that this is broadly immoral behavior. On the other hand I find it very likely that she would find it to be "permissible" behavior (provided she hasn't completely abandoned our right to speak freely as well). So I don't think I'm mincing words when I say that the answer turns on precisely what she means by "morally permissible."

For a rebuttal to her subsequent illustration, see my response above to her first question; namely parts (2) and (3).

3. Do people deserve all they are able, and only what they are able, to get through free exchange?

I must admit, I get both suspicious and weary when I see the term "deserve" thrown about so easily. What does it mean to "deserve" something? By what measure is it demonstrable? By what method should/could it be applied? And, more importantly, by whom?

If we replaced the word "deserve" with "need" we would probably get a more meaningful question. Clearly some people have a hard time with or simply cannot acquire what they "need" to sustain their lives (although, I believe that the "poor" most people have in mind when bandying about political ideologies is probably not exactly the people I might have in mind personally). It's also certainly true that many people are capable of creating and acquiring much more than they "need" to sustain their lives. It's certainly a duty of all of us to help lift up the former as best we can. But if we force others' hands in the matter, how can such virtue belong to us or them? And, more importantly, how can we come to regard the well-being of others in such high esteem if we care not about the individual rights of people to and of themselves (as their own ends) in the first place?

Our author concludes that any answer to this question in the affirmative will yield to an even more damning conclusion that such prosperity (or lack thereof) is largely a matter of luck. Of course, that's not a fact that many libertarians would disagree with. But it's also not one they would find particularly damning either. Proper upbringing, increased physical and mental capacities, access to resources - all these things give you a huge leg up on the world, no doubt. And all that life has to offer could sit in a vault, in the corner of a dark room. But without the key (volition), it matters not a damn bit how close to the vault you were placed. I'm certainly not trying to diminish the role of capacity and circumstance with regard to prosperity. But I think it's equally a fool's errand to minimize the role of volition and personal ambition as well. In any case, pointing out disparities in circumstance does not automatically get us into the clear with regards to using other human beings as means to our own ends.

4. Are people under no obligation to do anything they don’t freely want to do or freely commit themselves to doing?

Once again, the answer depends on what kind of "obligation" the author imagines. One might imagine that you're obligated to buy your struggling brother a meal if he's having a hard time putting together some money for food. Imagining that such an obligation is enforceable is quite a different thing. We might morally scoff at such a thing. We might even be morally called to castigate such a thing. But few people would be willing to employ force to make us do such a thing. And that hypothetical becomes even more interesting when you consider that many of those same people (such as our author, perhaps) believe we have even more credibly enforceable obligations to strangers than we do our own relatives. It needn't be a particularly damning point (I'm sure a healthy argument could be cooked up), but it's certainly a telling one.

Although the (recurring) point about enforceable and non-enforceable types of obligations seems to elude our author, it's worth noting that what obligations fall into which category is an entirely different question - the answers to which aren't always completely obvious or clear. That takes much more thoughtful consideration, and is worth discussing at length in its own right. But the fact that such boundaries may be fuzzy does not release us from recognizing that such a dichotomy exists; a dichotomy that surely exists in practice with our author if not embodied in her words. And libertarians needn't take our moral obligations to one another more or less seriously on the basis of their enforceability, despite the misunderstandings of our critics.