Sunday, May 28, 2006

Pluralism, Polycentrism, the Harm Principle and the Future of Liberalism

Okay, so maybe making claims about the future of liberalism is a bit overblown. But I hate thinking of titles, so just deal with it. Wow, there's a really professional start to a post. It is Memorial Day weekend though, and I'm feeling casual. Or more causal than usual. Didn't think that was possible, did you? Enough of this. Let's get to the serious stuff.

So in my last post, I confessed to finding Matt McIntosh's argument that Mill's defense of experiments in living ought to commit him to a defense of polycentric law to be pretty plausible. I mentioned there that I had some worries about scaling up; the more that I've considered the issue, the stronger those reservations have grown. I think that Matt is on to something, but I'm not fully convinced that the argument Matt offers gets Mill all the way to polycentrism. Since classes are out and I can't force any of this onto my students, I figured that I'd use this space to think out loud a bit. Bear with me.

First a refresher. The gist of Matt's argument is to extend the rationale for experiments in living beyond the individual sphere and into the political one. The initial Millian argument, of course, is that individuals are far and away the best judges of their own happiness. Even if sometimes you might plausibly know better than I what would make me happy, you won't know so very reliably. Indeed, it is unlikely that we will ever really know before the fact that your ideas about what will best serve my interests are better than my ideas. Given the high degree of error, it makes far more sense to allow me to live my own life according to my own ideas. Moreover, it could very well be the case that my own unorthodox way of living my life would actually be better for a lot of people. We won't know that, however, until at least someone gives it a shot. Thus we as a society ought to tolerate--nay, encourage--various experiments in living. If my experiment turns out to be a failure, well, then I've harmed only myself and the rest of society has learned something about how not to live.

Matt then claims that the same rationale can be applied to governments. Political structures do have real world consequences. Sometimes those consequences turn out to be pretty good ones (liberal democracy paired with some form of capitalism has worked out rather nicely in a number of places). Other times those experiments are disastrous (North Korea anyone?). Still, it is hard to know in advance what sorts of structures will work and what sorts won't. So why not allow experiments in, well, governing as well? Federalism already embodies this principle to a limited extent. Polycentrism simply takes the next logical step; rather than making me move to another state if I don't like the policies in this one, why not simply let me cancel my existing contracts with my private legal service and sign up with a competitor?

So far, so good. I think (reluctantly) that Matt is correct. Mill's arguments ought to extend in precisely this way. But that does not entail a full-bore commitment to pluralism, something that Mill, I think, rightly recognizes. Mill does not, as Matt and Brian Doss both note, wholeheartedly embrace pluralism. Indeed, I would go so far as to argue that Mill embraces rationalism fully and that the pluralistic elements in Mill's thinking are constrained entirely by his rationalism. Let's consider just the basic argument for experiments in living. Yes, it's true that Mill does defend various experiments. But his arguments for experiments in living, in chapter 3 of OL, already presuppose the basic limitations of the harm principle laid down in chapter 1. That is, I am free to engage in any sort of life that I wish, so long as that sort of life does not itself harm others.

That standard is relatively straightforward when we apply it to individuals. The question, though, is how we ought to scale up that basic restriction when we move from individuals to political structures. What happens when we find some particular political arrangement to be in violation of the harm principle? What, to pick a random example, do we say when one of the private legal services offers sharia law? Fine, one might say. If people voluntarily sign up for a particular view of the law, then what business of mine is it that they do so? And I'll agree to a certain extent. For the first generation of customers, sharia law is a perfectly legitimate option. But what happens in the second generation? What shall we say about the girls who are treated as second-class citizens, who grow into women unable to act in a way that is fully autonomous? When they remain customers of sharia law (because the very law under which they already live does not allow them any independent voice), have they done so freely? Even if they actually claim to prefer sharia law, can we really believe them at this point?

My basic worry here is the same worry that drives the rationalist branch of liberalism. Taking people's preferences as we find them ignores the fact that families, cultures, and institutions can be coercive. Yes, states are a threat to individual freedom. Yes, states can be and often are the biggest threats to individual freedom. But I would venture the claim that in our current (fairly free) society, it isn't the state that is the biggest threat to freedom these days. Indeed, in a democracy, the state merely acts as the instrument that restricts freedom. It is society itself, however, that wields that instrument. Government in a real democracy is not some mysterious bogeyman that sneaks up in the night to steal our freedom. "The Government" consists of a bunch of individuals whom we have elected and whom we can kick out. If our government steals our freedoms, it is only because we ourselves have consented to have it stolen. My freedom to pass the bong during my gay wedding held at the walk-up abortion clinic heated by my own private nuclear reactor and guarded by M-60 wielding Mexicans who can't speak a single fucking word of English isn't threatened by some group of rich white guys who have just decided that they don't like these sorts of things. Rather, the rich white guys vote against all of these sorts of things because the rest of the damn voters don't like those sorts of things. No, it's not government that is restricting my freedom. The only army that is a real threat to me is the army of suburbanites with their well-kept lawns, their soccer practices and piano lessons, and their disdain for anything that's actually, you know, fun.

End of rant.

What all of this means, then, is that Mill's arguments for what we might call individual pluralism are couched in a specific context. Mill creates a large space for individual experiments in living only because he already assumes the existence of a state that will protect individuals from experiments that violate the harm principle. Polycentrism, however, offers no such protection. My private legal system (together with my private defense agency) will provide me with whatever services that I wish to pay for. What it cannot do, however, is to protect me when my family/community/religion coerces me into signing up for services that oppress me.

So will Mill's arguments scale up to something like a federalist liberal democracy? You betcha. There is plenty of room for experiments in governing, but there is still a central set of rules that place limits what kinds of experiments are permitted and there is still a central authority to enforce those limits. Polycentrism offers no such safeguards. So while the arguments for experiments in living, considered in isolation, would seem to entail polycentrism, I think that the basic requirements of Mill's rationalism still commit him to at least some role for a central government. Mill the federalist? Yes. Mill the crazy, drunken anarchist? No, no and no. Well, maybe yes on the first one. He did wait until he was 45 to get laid. And the man called himself a hedonist. Tsk, tsk.

4 Comments:

Blogger John T. Kennedy said...

"If our government steals our freedoms, it is only because we ourselves have consented to have it stolen."

I'll assume you know what you've consented to, but what could lead you to believe that I've consented to have your government steal anything?

I've consented to no such thing.

5:13 PM  
Anonymous Mitch Ullman said...

I hate to use the line that most uber-libertarians give me when I talk of things not being representative, but I will here. Move, hippy.

7:53 PM  
Blogger John T. Kennedy said...

If I were on your property I'd of course leave upon your request.

But I'm not.

8:45 PM  
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