Friday, February 17, 2012

A Rose By Any Other Name...

Gene has an interesting post over on his blog that I find myself heartily in agreement with while refusing to cede to what I consider to be the "flavor" of his particular argument. He starts out, fairly enough, pointing out that the broader liberal tradition is rooted in a positive (non-neutral) moral framework. I think most honest liberals would surely admit this much. I know, at least for radical libertarians, that the ethical/deontological arguments are the strongest forms of the libertarian political claim(s). He writes:

"The liberal illusion is this: that liberalism is morally neutral amongst the diverse moral viewpoints held by citizens, and only seeks to create a "meta-framework" in which they can get along peacefully."

As stated above, I think this point is actually fine as far as it goes. And to anyone who believes that libertarianism, liberalism, or even conservatism is devoid of a moral or ethical stance, they need to think about their claim a little more. But he loses me, in the very next sentence, on his usage of "coercion":

"In fact, liberalism, like every other approach to politics, is grounded in and promotes a particular moral view of society, and uses coercion to establish that view."

Gene has danced circles around libertarian arguments by brandishing the bladed qualifier of "idiosyncratic" when terms like "violence", "force", and "aggression" are brought to the table. After all, in the most broadly understood context, libertarians are opposed to none of these things. And if you have second thoughts about that, try to invade the home a self-described "libertarian" of the survivalist movement. You'll quickly find he's not opposed to force.

In that way, I think Gene does bring something important to the table. His argument isn't so much in opposition to principle as it is rhetoric. Libertarians don't (necessarily) oppose force. They believe in a system of justice based on the ethic(s) of self-ownership. So, properly understood, libertarians are against supposed breaches of the right of self-ownership in one or more of its forms. It is not neutral (morally). It does not escape Hume's Guillotine. That does not invalidate the principles therein or the broader idea. But it's an important rhetorical contention.

But I will say this about the "idiosyncratic" qualifier being lobbed at libertarians who use "aggression" or "coercion"; while I think that certain specific uses, topically, are not mainstream (taxes constituting aggression for instance), I do think they are mainstream in their principle application.

For instance, let's look at the word "coercion." The technical usage, as provided by my handy-dandy dictionary, looks something like "the use of force to obtain compliance." If we're using it in that sense, I have no objection to Gene's claim (unless he's claiming that libertarians actually claim to object to "coercion" in that particular sense...which is clearly not true). However I think the more common (read: less idiosyncratic) usage of the term is a little more subtle. Like the term "aggression", we seem to use "coercive" (more often than not) in the context of initiatory (wrongful) force.

Now, we can argue about what constitutes "wrongful" in that sense, but I don't think it's a stretch to see that this is the most common usage - even between people who differ on what constitutes its qualifiers. So, for instance, we wouldn't take pause to a claim of a high-ranking member of a crime syndicate "coercing" a business owner into joining a protection racket of some kind. However, we might give you a funny look if you claimed that the man subduing an attempted murderer is "coercing" the would-be assassin. And, once again, the same applies to terms like "aggression." So I don't think that the the libertarian usage of the terms are really idiosyncratic in principle application - only in particularly cemented political usages.

So my claim here is that the context of such words' usage is determined by some kind of principle(s). If we come to the conclusion that what separates the "good force" / "bad force" dichotomy is simply a clash between broader consequentialist-considerations people and self-ownership/rights people then maybe I'd let the "idiosyncratic" claim pass as libertarians are surely outnumbered in that regard. But it's clear, in a plethora of other contexts, that this deontoligically charged self-ownership view is a prominent part of almost all post-Enlightenment political outlooks. Simply put, there are plenty of people far away from libertarianism who think that if someone breaks into their house and steals a beer out of their fridge that it's wrong (read: "aggression") for reasons that have nothing to do with whether the world was a better place for it or not. No, these people believe they own that beer. And it's that taking of something that is rightfully owned that tinges the forceful taking with the colorful label of "aggression" or "coercion." If the man "forcefully" taking the beer rightfully owned it in the first place, there would be no talk of "coercion".

In this way, the broader libertarian project is focused on bringing disparate parts of the classically liberal tradition back to their philosophical roots; to show them that the foundational arguments against "theft" or "aggression" have little to do with who is doing the taking or why they are doing it. We're attempting to show them how, in terms of every other context they use it in, "aggression" is a violation of the principle(s) of self-ownership. In that light, I think the broader claim of neutrality is relative to the liberal framework we generally already agree on in the Western world. So no, me claiming that I shouldn't be allowed to take the belongings of a peaceful person is not a moral-free (value-free) claim. I haven't figured out a way to get an ought from an is. However, I can certainly (even if wrongly) make the claim that, based on the principals that would lead you to believe that taking someone's belongings is wrong, that taxation itself, for instance, is also wrong. And I would believe, at least if we agree on the basic principle involved, that it is on the person who sees conflicted applications as befitting to show how these two views of the same principle can philosophically coincide. Otherwise, or so I claim, we can achieve the less impressive task of at least deriving an ought from an ought.

If you believe that the "rightful" or "wrongful" nature of force appeals to and is constituted by the principle(s) of self-ownership then your claim of "rightful" force as it applies to taxation is in conflict with other applications you already accept and understand. So maybe the scope of the most common usage of "theft", "aggression", or "coercion" is smaller than that of the average libertarian. But I certainly won't commit to saying it's different in any way (principally) or "idiosyncratic" for that matter.

Again, all of this is actually kind of tangential to this particular post by Gene. So I don't want to give the impression that I disagree with his broader points on "moralizing." But I still find the particular argument/usage I'm pointing out to be contentious. I think it's worth exploring. Where's Wittgenstein when we need him?

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