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.

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