Friday, July 29, 2011

Vulgar Libertarians: Left Edition

I was just recently listening to a Thinking Liberty interview with the infamous Kevin Carson. Having never heard him speak, while having read several of his pieces at C4SS, I found the interview pretty interesting. For one, the calibre of questions provided by the hosts and the listeners seemed to be quite high given the subjects. It was a nice departure from my frequent audio stomping ground, Free Talk Live.

Part of what I found particularly fascinating were his critiques of right-leaning libertarians; a group he more broadly has termed as "vulgar libertarians." His claim is that the supposed "vulgar libertarian" defense of free-markets tends to give way to an ipso facto defense of the business structure that has been established in our current not-so-free-market. I actually agree with a good deal of this proposition as far as it goes. But I think it ironically, and conversely, describes another form of vulgar libertarianism that forms on the left portion of that spectrum.

It's worth noting that there are plenty of people both on the right and also within the libertarian ranks who simply do not realize how many corporations operate at an advantage, in some aspects, because of the absence of a free market. Of course, on the other hand, they operate at a disadvantage under the current regime in other respects, but that may be a discussion for a different day. In any case, Carson is right to call such people out. And he is right that many libertarians are too quick to defend the corporate beneficiaries of the state while attacking beneficiaries among the lower classes (I won't delve into the class-analysis here). But I would like to say something in defense of ANCAPS, propertarians, thin libertarians, and even some paleo-conservatives out there...

I think, perhaps, that the left-leaning libertarian belief that a freer state of affairs will result in a more equitable state of affairs has led them, paradoxically, to engage in a similar kind of vulgarism when they defend lower-class privilege (at the behest of the state) from right-leaning critics. Of course, a lot of this does depend on who you believe is benefiting from the state and who is not, and it's even more tenuous when you break advantage down to an individual level (on net) instead of an aggregate at the class level - a lazy analysis which I believe is woefully inappropriate. I think this creates a mutual distrust and misunderstanding between the two groups more generally. Left-libertarians often end up defending various forms of welfare, or at least its recipients, public employees, state-regulated unions, and other privileged groups within the lower class in precisely the same way their detractors often unwittingly defend the upper classes.

My basic thought on this is that those on the left have a political thrust centered primarily in at least a somewhat consequentialist social-egalitarianism. There are plenty of exceptions, but many believe that free markets are good precisely because their results are more equitable. Those on the right (within the libertarian spectrum) have a thrust grounded in a deontological view of property rights and justice. The right-leaning side sees massive expropriation born out of redistributive social programs to help the lower class. They sympathize with the perceived victims of expropriation. The left-leaning side sees a class of people they sympathize with at the start (because of their egalitarian beliefs) and consequentially (that is important to note) they believe in a system that will help those who need it. The difference between this group and normal leftists seems to be largely that they see free markets as a vehicle to move in that direction while their political brethren don't.

So while it is certainly true that many "vulgar libertarians" do not consider the many advantages higher classes receive at the hand of government, I think many left-libertarians are so wrapped up in their consequential egalitarianism that they fail to see the many rights-violations that the more "Randian" among us so vociferously object to. It's not even, necessarily, that those on the left are wrong - I'm sure there are countless instances where they are right. However, if their support for various political advantages enabled by the lower class is simply that the upper classes, on net, take far more from the poor than the poor take from them, then they must engage in an effort far more empirical (sorting through all effective taxes and subsidies of all natures) and on an individual level in order to make wildly general claims about the relative feast or famine of entire classes of people. It's the least I would expect from anyone wanting to call themselves a "libertarian."

Many other people have certainly tried to sort through this confusion among left and right with regards to free markets (Roderick long denotes something he calls conflationism). I have a feeling there's much more to story - and I'm not really aware of too many people taking what I would consider a neutral look at the problem (on both sides). But I think a good start would be for those more oriented on the right side of the spectrum to question their wayward support of specific corporations should an argument move in that direction. But I also call upon those on the left to recognize the deontological arguments at hand and to question the line of thought that leads them to believe that every low man on the totem pole is worse off than he'd be in a truly free society - my guess is that it's often not the case.

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Tale of the Slave(s)

Alex Tabarrok has seemingly stirred up a hornets' nest over at Marginal Revolution by leveling a blow at bloggers on the left for their use of the following data which seem to indicate that people who consume tax credit/sheltering don't believe they're the beneficiaries of government subsidies:

Alex's contention? Well, they aren't subsidies.

It's an interesting question that highlights some of the opposing biases between the left and the right, generally speaking. I have many sympathies that fall in line with those of Alex it would seem. If we start from the general proposition that taxes represent previously owned wealth, at least nominally, I think it's a hard conclusion to escape. If someone walks up to you and your friends in the middle of the street and demands your wallets, but tells you (and just you) to keep $20 of what's in your wallet, does that $20 represent a subsidy?

My inclination is to say, "No, of course not." After all, if you had $100 in your wallet then you've net -$80 from the "transaction." The net beneficiary of interaction at the individual level is the thief. On the other hand, and more broadly speaking, if we use subsidy to loosely describe comparative advantage, well now we have something for the left to rally around. So, much to our shared chagrin I'm sure, we're back to a perspective of inequity on an individual basis vs. inequity more relatively speaking. In a sense, maybe both sides are right to the extent that they use their own definitions for "subsidy."

Ironically, it's debates like this that have mellowed me a bit while still holding fairly radical political conclusions. To figure out if someone is a beneficiary of government "subsidy", in any form, I think it depends on a number of factors. We have to look at all the direct cuts and subsidies against all the direct forms of taxation. Then we need to weigh that against any indirect subsidies or protections an individual might receive and also any indirect taxation they might be shouldering. Once we've gotten to that point, we'd have to figure out how many tax dollars, through public programs and services, they actually consume. Then, and only then, could you safely declare that the next/last X dollars credited to that individual would qualify as a subsidy - on net. I think that basic test would apply to all individuals, rich or poor, regardless of the subsidy in question. Seeing as how difficult in practice it might be to even determine if any individual is a tax-feeder or tax-eater, you can imagine my lack of enthusiasm for even attempting to make the same assessment regarding entire groups or classes of people. I don't think the analysis is quite as useful as the proponents on all sides think it is.

Nevertheless, I found something quite disturbing about a good deal of the comments following the post in question. Almost all of the objections had a tinge of one or both of the following assessments:

1. Taxation is not slavery - someone has to pay for the programs.
2. If we have to pay, then withholding your pay is stealing from others.

The first objection, I believe, is probably the most blatant (and common) form of cognitive dissonance I see in the political realm. To call it a non sequitur would be a bit of an understatement. Whether something be necessary or not has little to do with if it is, in fact, slavery. If you believe the expropriation of labor or its product is needed, then that only grants you that slavery is needed, not that it isn't slavery.

The first objection also keenly reminded me of Nozick's Tale of the Slave - which continues to throw a lot of progressives into a tizzy. Nozick's classic setup is a better refutation of the first objection than my own, but it doesn't really handle the second objection directly. However, it made me wonder, in that framework, if we had postulated at any step that the slave-owner should let a slave work an hour less, would those on the left call that refunded labor/time a subsidy to that slave? Would they collectively decry the slave as a net beneficiary of the slave-master? Would we think him silly to not consider his singular hour a freedom a subsidy? If you you would, then you don't understand Alex's point.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Callahan Finds His Inner Singer, Part II

Over at Crash Landing, and coincidentally enough while I was on vacation, Gene Callahan deconstructed one of my previous posts concerning his piece about obligations.

Before I respond, let me first be a little candid. I have no academic background in political theory or philosophy more generally. My knowledge extends only as far as my personal interest and passion takes me - and that will not begin to touch the lot of knowledge that Dr. Callahan has at his disposal. So, even though I disagree with him fairly often, I want to note that I have nothing but respect for him, as he affords his readers a privilege that too few of the dissenters of the liberty movement do; arguing from first principles.

All of that being said, although we'll ultimately still disagree to a large degree, I'd like to clarify a couple of the points that Callahan finds contentious.
Ryan begins by accusing me of misunderstanding the scope of libertarianism: "Libertarianism, in the strictly political sense, is concerned with justice and the (property) rights that govern it."

Ryan here is stating the very problem I was noting as though it were something I had overlooked! The problem with libertarianism, I was suggesting, is precisely that it thinks justice is only about property rights. They are a part of justice, but just a part.
For me, I think this most clearly elucidates the ideological division in question. And I think, from an argumentative point, he's right to press on this as I do believe that this is actually the crux of the conversation that should be had. If you believe in positive liberty then, of course, such positive obligations are a matter of "justice". Of course, by the same token, if that sense of positive rights, say, extends to the ownership of other individuals for example (chattel slavery) then detaining and returning runaway slaves is also a matter of "justice." My guess is that Dr. Callahan would not defend it as such. In my view, the very real "injustice" of that situation does and must spring from the right of self-ownership exclusively. The relevant exclusivity of the matter may become more apparent after addressing his next point.

"While I'll offer that, in order to claim ANY rights outside of property rights you must dismantle property rights altogether..."

Well, what can one say to this other than, "You're political ideology has made you somewhat mad"? (Ryan, I don't doubt you're as sane as most -- and saner than me! -- when it comes to not seeing purple elephants, holding down a job, etc. This is a very specific madness.) If we say someone has a legal obligation to help someone in mortal danger when the person is right in front of them, there is no one better positioned to help, and there is no risk to the rescuer, then... That's it? That person no longer owns their home or their car?
Not to be snarky here, but my honest answer is, "No, absolutely not." Or at least not in the sense that he may claim a "right" to it any longer - and this is precisely the problem. At least from my conceptual viewpoint, saying that you have a "right" to something is saying that you have a de-coupled, autonomous, exclusive, and authoritative power over something; control and ownership that is absolute, as such, specifically because it emanates from self-ownership and more generally the concept of homesteading (which I won't go at lengths to defend here for brevity). If I say that I have a right to a home or a car then I am, in a classic liberal fashion, likely referring to negative rights - saying that I have a right for no one else to cede authority over such property away from me. When and if that "right" to the car or house is conditional, and particularly when that conditional nature falls outside of the boundaries of consent (on behalf of myself or others whose negative rights I may have violated) then there is a very real sense in which it's not a right at all - but rather a privilege. To put it more simply, if I have acquired the right to object X and, because of some condition that I may have no control over, you are allowed to "justly" confiscate object X, then what real "right" did I ever have to it? If we're going to dilute the conception of "rights" down to conditional default-level possession of some sort, then it would seem we should drop the pretense of "rights" altogether - as that seems to be what would delineate a right from a privilege in the first place.
Again, we have madness posing as thought. ALL rights anywhere ever have had stipulations and conditions on them, as they always must.
This is true if you view rights in one of two ways (which libertarians, apparently, do not):

1. Rights are defined by positive law.
2. Rights refer to something other that property rights or the "negative rights" framework that follows from property rights.

Barring those important (and reciprocally idiosyncratic) stipulations, rights are not conditional.
The right to free speech famously does not extend to the right to shout "Fire!" in a crowded theater. But to Ryan, that condition "throws that right out the window": not being able to start a stampede that might kill people is exactly the same as the total censorship that existed in the USSR.
Here I must remind Dr. Callahan that if he's going to pigeon-hole me and others for our supposedly idiosyncratic views of justice then he could probably extend a similar courtesy by not assuming away certain rights based on what has or has not been incorporated into positive law. That such legislation exists certainly does not settle, at least in the context of this conversation, whether such a right does or does not exist and more explicitly whether such legislation should exist. To invoke a previously used example, and in the vein of this particular point, the right of self-ownership famously did not extend (for a time) to certain human beings in this country. Even federal legislation, such as the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, would seem to indicate that no such right (as an absolute) existed at all. But I would be surprised to hear Dr. Callahan argue that such a right, nevertheless, did not or does not exist.

But, more explicitly, as far as absolute rights are concerned (ie: to the extent that they aren't privileges) then yes - you have every "right" to yell "fire". Whether you have a right to yell it in a movie theater is a different question altogether. I think the way the question is being framed is actually indicative of the problem I'm trying to point out. The premise actually tries to bind a right (free speech) with a non-right (using someone else's property). You have a right to speak freely anywhere at anytime (after all, we still agree that we own our physical bodies, do we not?). You don't, however, have a right to use the property of others. I think this causes a lot of confusion - and admittedly I think it's particularly confusing among libertarians.

Libertarians often seem to act like you simply concede all your rights once you are on someone else's property. This is a particularly common contention for non-libertarians and I think libertarians are often simply incorrect regarding this proposition. Take for instance a dinner at your house to which you have invited several neighbors to attend. At the door you tell them that there will be no talking, whatsoever, once in the house. Do the guests still have the right to speak? Many libertarians would say that they don't. I disagree. What is actually taking place, from a rights perspective, is that the owner of said property is laying out conditions for which he will revoke user-privileges regarding his property; this is the sole extent of his power over the guests.

In this context, movie-goers at a theater have no "right" to be in the theater at all. However they have a very real right to speak (in any and every context). The owner of the theater, however, retains the right to remove them if they speak (in any and every context) if they make such a stipulation. In that way, I have no problem with the private prohibition of speech upon one's own property - no one's rights have been violated at all. Contrast this with a third party who tries exert authority over the property rights of business owners or patrons and we have a different matter altogether. Of course, the practical answer to the worry of the ever impending threat of theater-stampede is to simply patron the theaters which have stricter private policies concerning such instigating behavior - but Dr. Callahan, being familiar with libertarian ideas, is quite aware of this.

I'd like to also note that that one need not be completely oblivious to the spectrum of difference in consequence to note that principles don't simply evaporate in the face of such consequence. Matter has a gravitational property whether in the context of a feather falling to earth or a plane filled with passengers. Preventing people from yelling "fire" in a theater is clearly not the same as censorship in the Soviet Union. However, claiming it's different in principle is another story altogether.
"then extrapolate the drowning child analogy into its intended application through the polity."

Intended by whom? By the strawman builder, that's whom.
If the drowning child analogy is not meant to apply a particular ethical or political view to political theory more generally (or reality as it may be) then what is the point of invoking it in a political context? Are we not talking about justifications for and exceptions to rights? Are we, perhaps then, only exclusively actually talking only about drowning people with no particular political implications? I would guess not. I'm building no "strawman" here.
"It seems like such a principle would call us to give as long as one needs. But the world isn't a pond with a single drowning child. The world is a pond with hundreds of millions of "drowning children" and we are billions of passersby. As I type this, thousands upon thousands of people are dying from starvation and disease. I could be using this time, marginally, to save them. Am I guilty of injustice? Should I be punished? Should I be locked away in a cage?

"And this is where things stop making sense..."

Well, all-or-nothing thinking makes it very hard to make sense of much of the real world, I grant you. For instance, it can make you believe nutty things like having a very limited obligation to help very specific people in very specific circumstances is exactly the same as having an unlimited obligation to help all people in all circumstances.
I'm not contending that they are the same - in the same way that I'm not contending that stopping someone from yelling "fire" in a crowded theater is the same as censorship in the Soviet Union; and in the same way that I'm not contending that a feather falling to the ground is the same as a plane falling to the ground. I'm asking you to deconstruct gravity. I'm asking you how principles, as such, are circumvented, delineated, navigated and ultimately contradicted without being broken altogether. Poking an unsuspecting woman with a pencil doesn't make you a rapist. But the same principle that leads you to determine that rape is wrong also leads you to believe that poking her with the pencil is wrong. Pointing out the difference in severity of the two situations or merely trying to wave the matter away with the ambiguities of "prudence" doesn't make the principle of the matter disappear. And that is largely my point.

I think it's perfectly consistent to have a world with positive rights or negative rights, but not both. The concepts conflict in almost the most diametrically opposing sense. A claim as a right in one sense NECESSARILY detracts from a right in the other sense; so that in at least one of the two senses, it cannot truly be a "right" at all. That is the primary contention - that, logically, you cannot have a party with a positive "right" to X and another party with a negative "right" to X. The extent to which one party has a right in one fashion is exactly the extent to which the adjacent party does not have a right in the other fashion. And without that exclusivity of authority (ownership) then, again, it is no "right" at all - merely a privilege.