Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Millian Overload

So I've finally made it through all of the Mill-fest articles from last Friday. There is really a lot of good stuff there; I wish that I had time to comment on everything that I found to be of interest, for there is certainly a lot of it. I do plan to get to at least some of it in the near future, now that my Maymester course is over. Whether that in fact works out remains to be seen, though: there is still a book review to be written (if you're reading this and you work for Social Theory and Practice, I promise you it's on the way. Really. Soon. I swear.) There are also reservations to be made for my trip to Wales later this summer and background research to be completed for the projects I intend to work on there. Plus a whole host of personal stuff: you know, take Matt to the park after school whenever it's not raining; see friends before they disappear for parts unknown (well, not unknown, but at least inaccessible); catch up on old friendships; maybe cultivate some new ones, that sort of thing (y'all know who you are; consider yourselves shouted out to).

In the meantime, I did want to mention one point that really struck home to me. It's a bit embarrassing, really, as this sort of thing probably should have dawned on me earlier. I'm talking about Matt McIntosh's piece, Experiments in Living and Law. Here's a (rather lengthy) sample:
However, in many ways Mill did not apply his own reasoning on this point broadly or consistently enough. It seems not to have seriously occurred to him (in print, at least) to apply this same experimental pluralism to the realm of political order itself. Surely the fallibilism he applies at the level of individual experience should apply just as well at a higher scale.

The original founding philosophy of the United States can be considered a pre-emptive extension of Mill’s pluralism dating long before he formulated it; the notion of smaller political units being left free to shape their own laws, within the constraints of a few basic liberal principles, is a loose analogue of Mill’s principle of leaving individuals to pursue their own goals, subject to the constraint of not harming others. By letting the government of Massacheussetts pass laws very different from those of Texas, we have the advantage of learning from many experiments in governing rather than attempting the unwise task of deducing from our armchairs what would be the best policy for the entire country.

Of course, the analogy is imperfect: Mill’s argument works in a large part because individuals, as a rule, tend to internalize the consequences of their actions in their personal lives. Individuals bear the cost of their experiments, but government experiments as a rule have the character of public goods (or bads, as the case may be) – costs and benefits are not very strongly linked to the same sets of people. This results, predictably, in major infficiencies in the market for laws which seems to get worse as the scale and scope of government jurisdiction increases.

Following this pluralistic line of thought even further, then, it would seem even better to craft institutions that more fully internalize the costs and benefits of legal experiments, and allow for even more diverse experimentations. One way of moving in this direction is by breaking the current states up into smaller chunks and delegating lawmaking to as local a level as possible. A more complete solution, however, is polycentric law – the elimination of geographical monopolies on law, enabling even greater and more vibrant experimentation through competition on an open market.

Go read the whole thing.

Not yet, though. First I want to talk about it some. For starters, I have to ask: why the hell didn't I think of this? I mean, I'm a frickin' Mill scholar, and I've been hanging out at Catallarchy discussing the various merits of polycentrism for well over a year now. I've read any number of utilitarian defenses of libertarianism (hell, I made my students read Hayek last fall in political philosophy). Through all of that, however, I never once made the link from Mill's defense of experiments in living to radical experiments in governance. In my defense, I was maybe groping my way there in my discussion of liberalism after Mill, but I, like Mill, failed to carry my conclusions to their logical end.

This is not to say that I agree entirely with Matt's analysis. I think, for instance, that to describe Mill as a pluralist is to perhaps overlook the pretty considerable rationalist tendencies in his thinking (Brian Doss discusses Mill's rationalism/pluralism tensions at greater length here). And I have some worries about whether the arguments that Mill applies to individuals really will scale up properly. There is a good argument to be made, after all, that governments are other-regarding and hence not fit subjects for Mill's arguments about self-regarding liberty.

That said, however, I'm not really sure that I can see a very good Millian reason to disagree with Matt's analysis. Mill himself might disagree, but I'm not convinced that he could do so consistently. I can't say that I'm fully convinced of the value of this whole polycentrism thing. I'm still deeply suspicious that it would end in disaster. At the same time, I'm also growing more and more certain that as a good Millian liberal, I may have to sign on to the concept. But I'm still signing up for a contract that provides social services. Unless it costs too much. In which case, the hell with all those poor bastards.


Blogger Matt McIntosh said...

*cackles* We'll make a crazy drunken anarchist of you yet!

I actually dashed that post off in a bit of a rush and wasn't happy with it at the time (wanted to work in a good quote from the Logic and was worred that the argument needed more fleshing out), but looking at it again I kinda like the way it made the point with a minimum of words.

"I think, for instance, that to describe Mill as a pluralist is to perhaps overlook the pretty considerable rationalist tendencies in his thinking"

In my defense, I did acknowledge nearer to the beginning that he had "a foot in both camps." Certainly I play up the pluralist side of him because that's what I like most about him, but I knew that Brian would be handling that issue so I didn't feel like focusing on the other aspects of his thinking.

11:25 PM  
Anonymous Brian Doss said...

Perhaps this is heresy, but perhaps, similar in form to WOPR/Joshua's conclusion in Wargames, that the only rational move is pluralism in politics?

Seriously though, reading On Liberty as a basic thesis and then looking at the empirical results of large scale "rationalized" political organization vs. experiments in political living, the latter beats the former hands down, most likely due to the knowledge problem anticipated by Mill and formalized by Hayek. Thus, from a 21st century perspective having the benefit of hindsight and further theoretical work on the subject, a rationalist would have to conclude that the best way to organize political authority is to have it as devolved/decentralized as possible, leaving ever fewer and ever more meta responsibilities in the hands of the larger political forces.

11:07 AM  

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