Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Marginal Revolution?

This morning I was treated to an interesting response from Tyler Cowen to Bryan Caplan regarding Caplan's discussion of liberty in the 19th century as compared to liberty in the 20th century. Cowen felt that there was a point his fellow blogger was overlooking:

"I have no interest in recapping and evaluating the whole thing but I'd like to make a simple but neglected point: negative liberty and positive liberty are not separable.

Here is one simple scenario. Let's say the government tells me I have to buy and place a five-foot ceramic grizzly bear statue on my front lawn. How bad an act of coercion is that? If I have an upper-middle class income, it's an inconvenience and an aesthetic blight but no great tragedy. If I have a Haitian per capita income, it is a very bad act of coercion and it will impinge on my life prospects severely. I either give up some food or they send me to jail.

In other words, even theories of negative liberty -- purely libertarian theories where only negative liberty seems to matter -- require standards for degrees of coercion."

Now, I'm not going to presume to speak for libertarians, radicals, et al who might have been offended by reading his claims. But I can't help but see an inherent disconnect in his reasoning in this particular case. Not only is the claim a non sequitur, but it ignores what is probably one of the most important advancements within his own realm of economics.

It's certainly true that "libertarians" cling to a sense of negative-liberty - a system of rights based on freedom from aggression and coercion; and they deny the corollary concept of positive-liberty - the right to be furnished with particular goods or services (food, shelter, medicine, etc.). These two concepts are largely seen to be mutually exclusive to some degree - the ideal of positive rights would posit a physical obligation for other people to labor on the behalf of other individuals to provide the goods and services those individuals claim a title to. This obviously conflicts with the conception of negative-liberty, at least as it is commonly viewed.

I generally share some sympathy for Cowen, who seems to have some "libertarian" ideas on occasion. But sometimes I wonder if he thinks he's too cool for the room in constantly sticking his fingers in the eyes of his libertarian brethren by making such cringe-worthy claims. The problem I have with his statements in this particular instance is two-fold:

The first issue is that I'm really not all that sure he's discussing the concept of positive-liberty at all. He's certainly discussing the concept of negative-liberty in his scenario; being forced to put a statue on your lawn. But it's not clear, ultimately, where positive-liberty applies. Is the insinuation that communities have a positive-right to bear statues? Maybe it's a poorly formed example. I don't want to be too critical here. But maybe the hypothetical situation would have been more exemplary of the negative-liberty/positive-liberty conflict (or lack thereof?) by discussing the proposition of forcing everyone to donate to some housing subsidy or something else in this vein.

That brings me to my second issue. It seems, instead, that he is actually (albeit unknowingly) imploring negative-liberty theorists to recognize marginal preference in situations they deem to be "unjust." Even if he formulated his hypothetical in a better way, it still doesn't follow that the apparent preferences of negative-liberty-advocates indicate an embrace of positive-liberty. It seems that what Cowen might actually be doing is pitting the general concept of negative-liberty against subjective value as an unintended proxy for the concept of positive-liberty.

Let's say that you have an innocent man that is punched by one person and has his leg cut off by another person. It's not only possible but probable that even the most devout negative-liberty proponent will understand that the cutting off of the leg was likely less preferable than being punched in the face. Noticing such a preference does NOT negate the concept of such an ideal, but rather reveals the marginal subjective value of a bruise on your face over the loss of a limb. In the same way, making a subjective judgement about the preference of having the wealthy buy bear statues as opposed to the poor, having the father of every family lose a finger as opposed to the women and children, or having one person die as opposed to a million people does NOT deny that freedoms have been abridged. It just reveals that when we have a choice between two scenarios where freedoms ARE being abridged that we may have an aggregated preference for the lesser of those abridgements at the margin.

Cowen continues:

"...purely libertarian theories where only negative liberty seems to matter -- require standards for degrees of coercion. Those standards will very often depend on how much wealth the victims of the coercion have and they will depend on a more general concept of positive liberty."

If the general concepts of liberty (positive OR negative) fail to evade the suppositions of philosophers like Hume, then Cowen's statements here died on their way to the "guillotine." If he is implying that negative-liberty implies positive-liberty explicitly because current justice systems are more sympathetic to victims of crime based on their income, then you're attempting to make a normative statement based on a positive one. And thinking it through even further, the existence of such a preference in courts would have been the result of the initially normative line of thought that compensation should be offset by the characteristics of the victim as opposed to the characteristics of the crime itself. You're not just trying to presume an "ought" on the basis of an "is", but rather an "ought" on the basis of an "ought!"

On the other hand, if his conjecture is that negative-liberty theorists will arrive at the same conclusions, then I think he's going to have a rough road ahead in justifying such a statement. I think there are certainly some libertarians who might have such sympathies. But I believe a large number of self-proclaimed libertarians don't try to make a morally subjective distinction between victims based on their wealth, color, creed, or any number of other factors one might propose. The commonly libertarian concept of justice is rooted in restitution as opposed to punishment. That is to say; an issue arises when a person has been deprived of liberty or property.

The libertarian generally doesn't care who the victim is or what attributes he may hold. What generally matters is that the victim, whomever he may be, is compensated for what he was been deprived of and is made whole again. So, a lot of libertarians would find it silly to charge two different people who have stolen one-hundred dollars from someone else differently just because their respective victims had a disparity in their income. Both victims were deprived of one-hundred dollars and thus, to be made whole, both should be compensated for that amount.

Notice that this is not to say that someone who embraces negative-liberty couldn't have a subjective preference for such a crime happening to someone with a larger discretionary income rather than a smaller one. The subtle realization here is that ultimately all preferences are subjective (yes...even the concepts of property and negative liberty). They do not posit themselves by means of some external independent force or phenomenon (much to the chagrin of natural law theorists, et al). And yes, this is problematic for any implied ethical concept, regardless of its nature.

The irony, of course, is that Cowen is making a normative ethical claim that some positive value of some nominal amount of dollars is more for the poor man than it is for the rich man. But all he is doing is projecting his own preference into the proposed solution. He skirts the obvious dilemma by positing two extremes for which a vast majority of people would share his preference (I would!). But his normative claims start crumbling when other hypotheticals are presented. For instance, if you had two people that got kicked in the face, one a dying cancer patient, and the other a paraplegic, who should be compensated more? Is someone like Cowen going to side-step and try to claim that the two conditions are identical in value? Do you think that some people would have more sympathy for the AIDS patient (believing it to be worse) while others would similarly have more sympathy for the cancer patient?

If we lived in a society where the aggregate sympathy was in the direction of the wealthy (say, if we culturally over-glorified productive capacity more than we do now), would it follow that the wealthier person should be compensated more, comparatively? Would it follow that this was an extension of positive rights; that we believed that wealthy people had more of a "right" to money than the poor. Or would it simply mean that we had a subjective preference that, in the case that a crime should occur, the victim would be poor? I tend to believe the latter.

For this reason, I'm a bit hesitant to interject a scale of degrees of violation beyond acknowledging my own subjective beliefs. Even though I largely embrace the concept of negative-liberty, i would never make the claim that stealing a car from someone is worse than stealing a toaster. We see the market-value of a toaster and conclude that the stealing of the car is less preferable (and most times it would be). However, what if the toaster was given to you by a deceased relative, and you value that toaster dearly...enough to where you'd let go of that car, at the margin, to prevent that toaster from being taken. This is where a fair, corollary criticism of the concept of restitution as justice could be made.

In a courtroom, it's a little hard to convince a jury that the value of that toaster is more than that of a car, even if it is such in a very real way for you personally. Instead, they are far more likely to be swayed not only by their own subjective value of the item, but on the market-price for other toasters. After all, prices are just the aggregate of peoples' subjective values - at least this is what the marginal revolution should have taught us.

So, I'm not saying that there isn't a fair share of criticism to go around here. Believers in negative-liberty would find it well to check their own premises and conclusions when engaged in such discussions. But what I am saying is that while you can certainly lay claim that the concept of negative-liberty is a preference unto itself, you can't posit that such believers are BOUND to also believe in positive-liberty simply because they have a personally subjective preference for one perceived evil as opposed to another. I could have a preference that a man would have a bucket of sand stolen from him before a gallon of water would be. Reciprocally he could prefer the gallon of water be stolen, even if most of us would find more marginal utility in having a bucket of sand. In the same way, I could just as validly hold a preference that two poor people be murdered as opposed to one wealthy person. For that matter, so could society as a whole. But that wouldn't change the fact that our ethical claim regarding murder would stem from a concept of negative liberty. And it certainly wouldn't invite the concept that society is "owed" an additional victim whenever a murder of a poor person is committed.

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