Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Psychological Egoism Just Isn't True. And I'm Not Saying That Just 'Cause It's in my Self-Interest, Either

In a recent post, I commented that arguments for psychological egoism are laughably bad and that I thus wasn’t going to address them further. Tom, quite fairly, called me out on the claim, asking whether I could provide either a summary or a link to a good argument against PE. So in what follows, I’ll attempt to show why psychological egoism is a doctrine that ought to be rejected.

First, we should probably explain what psychological egoism actually is. Or rather, we’ll start with what it’s not. PE is not a normative theory; it is not a claim about how people ought to behave. Rather, PE is a descriptive claim, a claim about human psychology. Formally, PE maintains that, as a matter of fact, all human beings are always selfish. Proponents of PE have included Thrasymachus from Plato’s Republic, Thomas Hobbes, Jeremy Bentham and Ayn Rand. (Right now, I’m hearing the old Sesame Street song. You know. “One of these things just doesn’t belong here…”). The trouble, of course, is that on its surface, PE is just, well, false. Plenty of people do plenty of unselfish actions. I give money to charity. I help an old lady cross the street. I buy my son a book at the bookstore and pass on getting one for myself. I give my girlfriend the last glass of wine. All of these acts appear, on the surface, to be unselfish acts.

Of course, the PE has an explanation. One strategy to take is to offer what James Rachels has called the wants argument.[1] Here’s the argument:

  1. Everyone always does whatever he/she most wants to do.
  2. Always doing whatever one wants to do is selfish.
  3. Therefore people are always selfish.

This is indeed an argument for PE. It’s just a really crummy one. Indeed, it’s an example of the fallacy known as a definitional dodge, salvaging the argument by changing the meaning of a word (“selfish” in this case) into something not generally recognized as being what the word means. Consider: the claim that the PE is making here is that selfish just means “always doing whatever one wants to do.” Or in other words, because all of our actions have the general form

Miller most wants _________

it must be the case that all of our actions are selfish. Whatever action goes into the blank, be it “to save the starving” or “to steal from the poor,” the action will be selfish because, in either case, I will simply be doing whatever it is that I most want to do.

The problem, however, is that saying “Miller most wants X” is not what we generally mean by the word “selfish.” Rather, whether or not I am selfish depends upon what does into the blank space. The mere form of this statement does not make Miller selfish. Rather, the question of whether Miller is selfish depends upon what goes in the blank. If I want only my own happiness regardless of the consequences to others, then I am selfish. If I want other people to be well-off even at some cost to my own happiness, then I am unselfish. To say that everyone is selfish because we all do whatever we most want to do is to misuse the word “selfish.”

A second possible argument for PE is what Rachels calls the satisfaction argument. The form of the argument is pretty similar to the form of the wants argument:

  1. We always perform whatever action will give us the most satisfaction.
  2. Performing the action that maximizes our own satisfaction is selfish.
  3. Therefore we are always selfish.

As with the first argument, the difficulty here will be with (2). Consider the following example, cited in just about every intro-level paper on psychological egoism:

Mr. Lincoln once remarked to a fellow-passenger on an old-time mud-coach that all men were prompted by selfishness in doing good. His fellow-passenger was antagonizing this position when they were passing over a corduroy bridge that panned a slough. As they crossed this bridge they espied an old razorbacked sow on the bank making a terrible noise because her pigs had got into the slough and were in danger of drowning. As the old coach began to climb the hill, Mr. Lincoln jumped out, ran back, and lifted the little pigs out of the mud and water and placed them on the bank. When he returned, his companion remarked: “Now Abe, where does selfishness come in on this little episode?” Why bless your soul, Ed, that was the very essence of selfishness. I should have had no peace of mind all day had I gone on and left that suffering old sow worrying over those pigs. I did it to get peace of mind, don’t you see?”[2]

To see why this is a bad argument, let’s change the example slightly. Suppose pretty much the same example except that this time, I am in Lincoln’s place. This time, however, when I ask the driver to stop, I get out of the coach, walk over to the baby pigs, and hold their tiny heads under the mud until the struggles stop. I then walk back to the coach, grab a bat, and beat the mother pig to death. When you, looking rather appalled, ask me what the hell I was doing, I reply that I hate pigs, that I was afraid the mother might find a way to rescue the piglets and that even if she didn’t, the damn thing would just go have another litter of the bastards anyway; I just couldn’t have lived with myself had I passed up the opportunity to off a few of the fuckers. Now according to the PE, there is absolutely no morally significant difference between my drowning of the baby pigs and Lincoln’s rescuing of them. Nor would the story change if I substituted human infants for the baby pigs. In both cases, Lincoln and I simply act to satisfy our preferences.

The problem, once again, is that the fact that I satisfy my preferences isn’t by itself enough to show that I act selfishly. Rather, whether or not I am selfish depends on what kinds of preferences I actually have. To the extent that I get satisfaction from helping others, I am unselfish. To the extent that I fail to get satisfaction from helping others and instead get satisfaction only when I help myself, I am selfish. To put the point another way, to say that I get satisfaction from X is to say that I already had some preference for X or some desire to X. And it is the prior preference for or desire to X that is either selfish or unselfish. The fact that I act on that preference or desire is not itself evidence that I act selfishly.

Indeed, the very claim that humans always act to satisfy their preferences is itself incoherent. As Joel Feinberg points out, the very formulation of the theory leads to an infinite regress.[3] Consider:

“All men desire only satisfaction”
“Satisfaction of what?”
“Satisfaction of their desires.”
“Their desires for what?”
“Their desires for satisfaction.”
“Satisfaction of what?”
“Their desires.”
“For what?”
“For satisfaction.”

And so on, ad infinitum.

In short, the claim that people are always selfish because they always act to satisfy their preferences is (a) false, since it “selfish” means something entirely different, and (b) not even really coherent in the first place.

Perhaps, then, we could reformulate PE yet again. Maybe PE isn’t claiming that we’re all selfish. Perhaps instead the claim is just that we’re all self-interested. What’s the difference? We might define selfishness as

S: P acts selfishly in performing A iff A benefits P and A harms Q and P ignores the harm that A causes to Q.

Self-interest, on the other hand, we might define as

SI: P acts self-interestedly in performing A if A will benefit P.
To act self-interestedly, in other words, is to act in such a way as to benefit myself. Selfishness implies an additional step, one in which I actively harm (or at the very least, actively ignore the harm my action might cause) someone else. The reformulated version of PE, then, would hold that people always act self-interestedly. Unfortunately, this won’t do, either. It’s just plainly false. There are a number of activities that people perform that are not in their self-interest. I might ignore the signs that I have cancer. Or have sex with a prostitute without wearing a condom. Or ride a motorcycle without wearing a helmet. Or smoke two packs of cigarettes a day. All of these actions might well give me pleasure. Not a single one of them is in my self-interest, though.

There is, however, one final version of the theory. Let’s try it one more time:

PE: people always act in such a way as to maximize their expected utility.

This is probably the strongest version of PE that there is. It does, however, suffer from the problem that it looks to be empirically false. Plenty of people claim that they don’t do this sort of thing when they act. The typical PE response here is that people who claim not to act in such a way as to maximize their expected utility are really just deceiving themselves.

It’s hard to know where to start analyzing this baldly elitist claim. Do I begin with the arrogance of your claiming to somehow have a better understanding of what goes on in my head than I have? Tempting, but, elitist as it sounds, it may very well be the case that some experts have a better understanding of my psychology (or rather, my brain chemistry, but I’m speaking loosely here for a moment) than I have. So instead, I’ll point out that a defense of PE that rests upon the claim that most people deceive themselves regularly about their motives is, quite simply, no longer within the realm of empirical science. Alex Moseley explains the problem nicely:

On this point, psychological egoism’s validity turns on examining and analyzing moral motivation. But since motivation is inherently private and inaccessible to others (an agent could be lying to herself or to others about the original motive), the theory shifts from a theoretical description of human nature--one that can be put to observational testing--to an assumption about the inner workings of human nature: psychological egoism moves beyond the possibility of empirical verification and the possibility of empirical negation (since motives are private), and therefore it becomes what is termed a “closed theory.”

A closed theory is a theory that rejects competing theories on its own terms and is non-verifiable and non-falsifiable. If psychological egoism is reduced to an assumption concerning human nature and its hidden motives, then it follows that it is just as valid to hold a competing theory of human motivation such as psychological altruism.

Moseley goes on to offer a quick sketch of psychological altruism, or the view that all our actions are motivated by altruistic behavior. Like PE, PA cannot be refuted by empirical evidence, since, after all, any empirical evidence can be explained away as an act of self-deception. PA is also a closed theory, one that will in fact explain the world just as well as PE (since, again, nothing can really count as empirical evidence against either claim). In the end, our decision to side with PE rather than PA will be arbitrary; one might as well just flip a coin. A coin flip, however, is hardly an appealing way of determining the account of moral motivation that we’re going to use as the backdrop for the science of economics.

What does appear to be true is that humans are largely motivated by self-interest. That weak claim is enough to get economics off the ground. It does mean, however, that sometimes we will perform actions that are not motivated by our own self-interest. At times, we act altruistically. We’re just more complicated than the PE wants to admit.

[1] See James Rachels, The Elements of Moral Philosophy, 2nd ed, (McGraw-Hill, 1993).

[2] Quoted from the Springfield (Illinois) Monitor by F.C. Sharp in his Ethics (Appleton Century, 1928).

[3] Joel Feinberg, “Psychological Egoism,” from his Reason and Responsibility, 4th ed. (Wadsworth, 1978).

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Monday, June 26, 2006

The Age of Aquarius

Okay, this is kind of a waste of time, but it's at least a marginally interesting waste of time. Via Kevin Drum, I came across this survey that purports to determine social values through questions about consumer preferences. People are then lumped into various "tribes" that vary according to generation (there are three tribes for pre-boomers, four for boomers, and six for us lucky Gen Xers.)

I end up falling into the New Aquarians. It's a pretty goofy name, I'll admit. In fact, pretty much all the names for Gen Xers are goofy, though I think that New Aquarians is probably the goofiest of the entire list. Icons for me turn out to be Naomi Klein and Rage Against the Machine. I'm not really quite sure what to make of that. Rage is one of my favorite bands, but I'm not really always such a big fan of their politics, which strike me as somewhat naive. Good music, though, so I guess I can live with Rage as one of my icons. I guess.

Actually, the descriptions don't actually seem all that far off. I'm not very traditional (surprise) and somewhat social, but not too far off in that direction (I'm not sure whether the y-axis is really supposed to be that far to the right of the chart or what; they all look like that, so perhaps it's accurate. Why such a small set of groupings on the Individual side?) Anyway, according to the folks at Environics Research Group (the people responsible for the survey), my key values are
  • Adaptability
  • Concern for the less fortunate
  • Concern for the environment
  • Respect for education
  • Contempt for traditional authority
  • Hedonism
Not, bad I suppose, especially considering that the survey takes all of 5 minutes to do. Try it out. Let me know how you turned out.

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Friday, June 23, 2006

Interpersonal Comparisons of Utility

At Catallarchy, there's a rousing, extended (several days now, which is extended in blogosphere-time) discussion of interpersonal comparisons of utility. Several of the regulars there have weighed in on the issue, and there is some disagreement among the Catallarchists themselves regarding whether or not it's possible to make interpersonal comparisons of utility. (See here, here, here, here, and here. Keep checking back, too, as Patri Friedman has promised a post on the subject as well.) It will probably come as no surprise to anyone who reads this blog regularly to hear that I do in fact think that it's possible to make interpersonal comparisons of utility. It'd be rather hard to be a utilitarian otherwise. For the record, here's the nutshell version of the argument.

For starters, different activities bring different amounts of happiness to different people. That's obvious enough. Also fairly obvious is that utility has a diminishing marginal value. What that means is that for some given activity, X units of that activity will bring Y pleasure. Adding an additional unit of the activity will not, however, deliver a steady increase in the amount of pleasure. In other words, once X is reached, then X+1 units of activity will bring about Y+Z pleasure. But adding X+2 units of the activity will bring about Y+Z+A, where A is less than Z. To put the point in layman's terms, a shot of bourbon will provide a certain amount of pleasure. The second shot of bourbon probably will too. But the 7th additional shot brings less pleasure than did the one before. Keep going and they will stop being pleasurable at all. We can also translate this sort of claim into talk of money. Here the idea is that my 1st dollar has more value to me than does my 100th which in turn has less value to me than does my 1,000,000th. This is all just basic economics and isn't really in dispute at all.

Where utilitarians sometimes get into trouble is in assuming that one can straightforwardly apply diminishing marginal utility across persons. While it is certainly true that I get more pleasure from my first than from my millionth dollar, it's not at all certain that I will get more pleasure from my first dollar than you get from your millionth. Your utility function and mine are different and while we can expect some rough similarities, there are just no guarantees that the two functions will be identical to one another. Indeed, there is good reason to expect that they are not identical at all. After all, our preferences are not identical. So if, for example, you think a quality evening would mean a six-pack of Bud Light (hey Jimmy), while I think that a quality evening involves a 1982 Chateau Lafite-Rothschild, then your utility curve at $4.97 and mine at $842.72 (Sotheby's auction price) will just about match up. The numbers will map far more closely if I prefer a six-pack of Harp to your Bud Light.

Strictly speaking, then we cannot apply the principle of diminishing marginal utility across persons. But there is a danger in pushing this point too far. Brandon's post at Catallarchy makes this point rather nicely. The comments and Brian's response rather nicely illustrate Brandon's claims. (Couldn't resist.) Brandon grants the point that utilities cannot be compared with complete certainty, but then points out that
in some cases, particularly those in which proponents of redistribution are most keenly interested, you can guess with near certainty which of two people will value a particular resource more. In virtually all cases, taking $1,000 from a billionaire and giving it to a starving beggar will help the beggar more than it hurts the billionaire. No, it’s not true 100% of the time, but you don’t need complete certainty; if you’re right 95% of the time, that’s good enough for government work.
This strikes me as being exactly right. Brian (and others) object that Brandon and Jonathan and I all mistakenly see utility as being somehow objective when in reality, utility is not at all objective. Brian quotes approvingly an analogy from Rothbard, who argues that utility is purely a subjective and not an objective experience at all (and, of course, since it's not objective, it can't be compared). Here's Rothbard (via Brian):
A favorite rebuttal is that subjective states have been measured; thus, the old, unscientific subjective feeling of heat has given way to the objective science of thermometry. But this rebuttal is erroneous; thermometry does not measure the intensive subjective feelings themselves. It assumes an approximate correlation between the intensive property and an objective extensive event—such as the physical expansion of gas or mercury. And thermometry can certainly lay no claim to precise measurement of subjective states: we all know that some people, for various reasons, feel warmer or colder at different times even if the external temperature remains the same. Certainly no correlation whatever can be found for demonstrated preference scales in relation to physical lengths. For preferences have no direct physical basis, as do feelings of heat. (Brian's emphasis)
I'm sure that at least a few of you can anticipate my response here: this is a great argument if you're a spooky Cartesian dualist who thinks that minds (and hence qualia) cannot be reduced to an objective, purely physical phenomenon. I can't think of any good reasons for being a spooky Cartesian dualist, though, nor can I see any reasons whatsoever for privileging subjective mental phenomena over objective brain states. It's bad neuroscience. It's also a bit surprising that Catallarchists, who so pride themselves on their scientific rationalism when it comes to applying economics to politics, would then turn around and ground their economics on the mumbo-jumbo of psychology rather than the hard facts of brain chemistry. The simple fact is that what I express (very roughly and imprecisely) as a subjective preference is itself an approximation of the--very empirical--brain state that I'm currently experiencing. Those are objective and can be measured. That you express a stronger preference for A just means that you have more of whatever brain state leads to preferences-for-A than I have. Unless you want to posit that your brain and mine are radically different in the way that they operate, then we can compare the two things. What you report subjectively (and hence fuzzily and imprecisely) would seem to have exactly zero relevance to the way the world actually is.

So yes, I do think that utility can be compared. In terms of utils, even. The problem is not an in principle problem. Rather, the problem is an in practice one. We don't yet know how to do this with 100% certainty. That doesn't mean that we can't do it at all. Our fuzzy intuitions that, as Brandon says, get us to 90% or so are generally pretty good. In fact, it'd be just plain silly to deny that we can and do accurately gauge how much happiness we'll get from some amount of money (or time) versus how much happiness someone else will get from the same amount. That's why I buy people presents. It's why I give to charity. It's why I give up my afternoon to talk to my friend when she's having a bad day. (Though one of the commentors, Constant, simply denies that we do even this much. He argues the psychological egoist line--that I do those things because they work out well on my own utility function. But arguments for psychological egoism are so laughably bad that it seems not really worth it to reject them. I'd suggest an introduction to moral philosphy course. We'll do it in about 20 min.)

One other point...sort of unrelated, but at least on the general topic. Brian accuses me at one point of arguing in bad faith, pointing out that even if my claims were true, the fact that interpersonal comparisons of utility are not 100% accurate leaves me with the following dilemma:
The bad faith argumentation comes when redistributionists do start to try and defend their policy on utility. I say this because of the following: if it were such that one could show that the billionaire’s utility loss is greater than the utility gain of the starving man, the redistributionist would have to make two choices- either the redistributionist agrees to let the starving man starve, and therefore reveals that they don’t actually care about the starving/less well off at all (and thus their program is sold to the public on a lie), or else they say “take it from him anyway", in which case the whole exercise in ‘utility comparison’ is moot and a sham. All the hand-waving in the world about how ‘this will never happen’ does not change the fundamental problem posed by the extreme case. I suspect that Joe would not let the starving man starve, even in the presence of a ‘utility monster’, and thus I think his arguments in favor of the IUC are in bad faith, since they are not the actual justification for the taking. (no offense)
I'm not offended here. That doesn't make the argument any less bad, though. No offense. ;) The problem here is that Brian has posited a false dilemma. These aren't the only two options available to a utilitarian who defends redistribution. Admittedly, if I were an act-utilitarian I'd have precisely this problem. But I'm not an act-utilitarian and I wouldn't defend redistribution on act-utilitarian grounds. Indeed, a policy of redistribution is just that--a policy. That makes it a rule-utilitarian principle, almost by definition. Here's a definition of rule-utilitarianism (one of the better ones, IMHO) from Brad Hooker (those of you in my Moral Theory course this fall will come to know this definition well, as we'll be reading Brad's book through):
An act is wrong if and only if it is forbidden by a code of rules whose internalization by the overwhelming majority of everyone everywhere in each generation has maximum expected value in terms of well-being.[1]
Now whether or not we will want a policy of redistribution on rule-utilitarian grounds will require considering a lot of possible consequences. But to the extent that we might decide on a policy of redistribution, we will do so not because we think that every single case of redistribution will be utility-maximizing. Rather, we'll do so because most cases are utility-maximizing. And we'll redistribute even in cases where that isn't true because having the policy in place--having that particular set of rules--is itself optimific. Either way, the alternatives that Brian points to do not exhaust the set of possible utilitarian responses. I need neither give up on the claim that I'm interested in helping the poor nor argue in bad faith.

[1] Brad Hooker. Ideal Code, Real World (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2000), p. 32.

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Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Luck and Desert

During my ritual reading-of-blogs-in-order-to-put-off-work-I- should-be-doing-this-morning, I came across this post by Chris Bertram at Crooked Timber. There Chris discusses, among other things, Luck Egalitarianism and the relationship between luck and desert. Luck Egalitarianism rests upon something like John Rawls' criticisms of desert as a morally useful concept. Rawls points out that much of our success in the world turns on pure luck. The thinking is that I deserve credit only for those things that are somehow under my control, that are the outcome or product of choices that I've made or actions that I've taken. However, many of our traits are not at all earned.

Consider, for instance, physical attractiveness. That, by and large, is genetic and hence not under our control. I made this same point to a friend recently when I remarked that she was a clear winner in the genetic lottery. She laughed, whether at my charm or at the lameness of my compliment I'm not sure. I know which one I'm going with; sometimes ignorance really is bliss. She did ask if I'd write do a blog post on the subject. I doubt that this is exactly what you had in mind, but here it is anway. Philosophy and brownie points all at the same time. I love my job. But I digress. Where was I? Oh, right, desert. So all sorts of studies show that attractive people have lots of advantages (they are more likely to get hired, for instance, and more likely to earn higher pay. At the very least, they tend to get lots more free drinks in bars). Any success that results from pure physical attractiveness, however, is not deserved. How one looks, after all, is in large part not something that one can control.

Many other traits are the same way. Creativity. Motivation. Intelligence. Charisma. None of these things seems really to be something that I deserve. This isn't to say that all of these traits are genetic. One needn't come down either way on the nature/nurture question for the problem to kick in. Maybe motivation is learned behavior. That learning, however, would require certain conditions to be in place (good teachers, good parents, etc.). Those conditions are not chosen by the individual and thus cannot form the basis of desert either. To the extent that my character is a product of some combination of genetics and early upbringing (and to the extent that my character is conducive to success in the world), then I've done nothing to earn that character and hence can't really be said to deserve anything that I derive as a product of that character.

I tend to think that such criticisms of desert are exactly right. That's not to say, however, that I'm an egalitarian or that I think that we ought to be egalitarians. Here's how I see the argument for egalitarianism working, roughly.
  1. Most of what people earn is a product of luck and thus undeserved.
  2. If a person does not deserve his/her property, then he/she can have no good grounds for objecting to having part of that property taken away.
  3. Thus desert is not an in principle reason for objecting to redistribution.
  4. There are independent arguments for thinking that redistribution is a good thing.
  5. Thus we ought to redistribute wealth.
Obvsiously (4) is pretty vague here, and that's intentional. I'm not really interested in the arguments for egalitarianism, nor do I want to presuppose one particular version. Rather, I'm trying to suggest the argument that all egalitarians have in common.

Personally, I buy 1-3. I'm not so sure that I necessarily buy (4). At the very least, I'm pretty sure that I don't buy into any of the most prevalent arguments for (4)--Rawls, Dworkin, Arneson, etc. I think that what 1-3 do is to knock down a lot of deontological arguments for libertarianism, but as I've said elsewhere, I think that deontological arguments for libertarianism are fatally bad anyway. That this is an objection just means that rejecting deontological libertarianism is overdetermined. It's sort of like shooting me while I'm standing in the gas chamber.

There might well be (and I think that really there are) good consequentialist arguments for acting as if desert really matters. Without desert, for instance, meritocracy is a pretty meaningless concept. But meritocracy is useful and efficient, so it might be good to keep it around even if we lack any deep moral justifications for it. That, however, is another post for another day.

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Monday, June 19, 2006

Liberals and Libertarians, part III

Last week, I posted an argument that I received via e-mail positing that the difference between liberals and libertarians is that liberals adopt a zero-sum morality while libertarians are able to grasp that, in a post-hunter/gatherer society, morality really is positive sum. I promised a longer response than the one I gave there. You thought I'd forgotten, didn' you? Well, I didn't. I'm not sure that I've done justice to the argument yet, but this is the blogosphere and not academe. Thinking about questions for months on end before writing anything down doesn't really work so very well. So instead, I'll give you my (sort of) quick take.

First let me begin by saying that I'm not sure that I buy the argument that the hunter/gatherer world was quite as zero-sum as my e-mailer makes out. Here's the argument again:
Prior to agriculture, humans were really not producers so much as they were predators. We would hunt animals (and gather plants) that nature provided us, but we were limited to what amount of plants and animals nature provided, and it was never enough for everyone. This was a zero sum world. An animal that I killed and ate represents one less in the forest for you to kill and eat. If you and I were in competing tribes, then we would have been zero sum competitors for the scarce resources available, and your success would have meant my failure and vice versa. Your very existence was a threat to mine.
I worry, though, that this might ignore the fairly significant evidence that nature may actually select for altruism rather than for self-interest. Indeed, much work in Ev Psych seems to show that humans really do cooperate with one another when doing so is to our advantage. That we are uncommonly good at detecting instances of cheating is some evidence that evolution has selected for those who are good at picking out who will cooperate. I fear that the picture of human morality sketched above may not be wholly consistent with what Ev Psych seems to be telling us.

But I'm hardly an expert in this area, so this is, for me at least, a minor quibble. Let's suppose that this story of zero-sum and positive-sum morality is substantially correct. What then? Well, I'm not sure that it shows what my e-mailer thinks that it shows.
My tentative hypothesis is that the difference between liberals and libertarians relates not so much to our personal preferences, or our upbringings or educations, but to our relationship with the negative sum mentality inside us. The libertarian is somehow able to set it aside. The liberal cannot. I have no explanation for why this would be. (Emphasis added)
It's that last part that is exactly my sticking point as well. I worry about a comprehensive explanation that concludes that everyone who disagrees with me is inexplicably acting irrationally. It seems to me that what you're left with at that point is an explanation that doesn't really explain anything. The assumption has to be that all liberals are simply unable to see past their instinctive, evolved zero-sum morality. Libertarians, however, all have that ability. That seems like an explanation that a Randian might really like. I just know that I don't want to have to be the guy who tells Brad DeLong that he doesn't really understand that economics isn't actually zero-sum. I have a feeling that he understands that point already...probably far better than I do. Perhaps it really is true that a noncognitive explanation such as the one my friend offers is the correct one. I submit, though, that we should move to this sort of noncognitive explanation only if we cannot find a suitable cognitive one. That is, the principle of charity suggests that we call someone irrational only when all possible rational explanations have been exhausted.

So, then, what are the rational explanations? I think that there's no easy answer to this, in part because there are at least two different kinds of philosophical liberals. The answer to why liberals aren't libertarians depends on whether we're talking about deontological liberals (who are by far the majority, at least in philosopical circles) or consequentialist liberals (me, for instance). The first, I've already sort of answered here. In a nutshell, the argument is that deontological liberals (e.g., Rothbard or Rand) account only for negative freedom, or freedom from outside coercion. Those who tend toward liberalism argue that real freedom requires that the individual in question be able to make meaningful choices. And that, in turn, requires that certain basic necessities be filled. Liberals argue that the state is the only way to ensure that these sorts of positive freedoms are met for all citizens. The disagreement between deontological liberals and libertarians, in other words, has pretty much nothing to do with economics, per se. Rather, the disagreement lies in what sorts features of individuals are valuable. For deontological libertarians, free markets and only free markets guarantee complete negative freedom for individuals. Any interference with the market is an unjustified intrusion on my negative freedom. For deontological liberals, positive freedoms must also be protected, and doing so requires redistribution of wealth.

I, however, am not a deontological liberal, and I'm not even remotely tempted by deontological libertarianism. I can't see any good moral justification for limited my concern to negative freedom only, and all of the attempts that I've seen to do so rest on deep and astoundingly serious misreadings of Locke and Kant. I am a consequentialist liberal; I want to maximize good consequences, and it seems to me that some redistribution accomplishes that goal. It's true that I'll say things that sound like deontological liberalism (e.g., that we ought to protect positive freedoms), but I hold that position because I think that protecting positive freedoms maximizes good consequences. Why? Well, because--contra many libertarians--I think that it's possible to make some (fairly crude) interpersonal comparisons of utility. My not starving to death brings me more pleasure than your new yacht will bring you. Most certainly my not starving to death brings me more pleasure than you would get from the difference between the 70 ft yacht you buy after paying taxes and the 85 ft yacht you would have bought otherwise. Oh, I'll admit that it's possible that you might be such a utility monster that you really do suffer tremendously from your 15-ft-smaller yacht. But ought we really base social policy on such extreme unlikelihoods?

Anyway, there you have it. The quick and dirty version, anyway. Deontologists differ over whether or not to consider positive freedoms. Consequentialists differ over what policies will, over the long run, produce the best set of consequences. It's a rather boring answer. Certainly it lacks the zing of getting to claim that one side is irrational. I think that such disagreements are perfectly reasonable ones to have. That's probably why I pay more attention to libertarians than other liberals might. I don't think that we're really speaking a different language at all. We just disagree about what parts of the language are most important.

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Muscular Liberalism

Via Kevin Drum, I see that North Korea is preparing to test-launch a missle that is capable of reaching parts of Alaska. That same missle is also thought to be capable of delivering nuclear warheads. Kevin posits that this news is an excellent opportunity for muscular liberals (Peter Beinart, for instance, has been making a great deal of noise with his recent book--The Good Fight-- calling for liberals to take a firmer stand in foreign policy) to put their money where their mouth is by calling for some specific action against North Korea.

Kevin's suggestion, picking up on a theme from The National Review's James Robbins, is to use North Korea's launch as an opportunity for a live test of our much touted (but so far spectuacularly unsuccessful) missle defense system. What's to lose here? Either the bloody thing works, in which case we send a clear signal to rogue nations that developing nuclear ICBMs is a losing proposition or it doesn't, in which case we at least know that perhaps we ought maybe rethink spending billions of dollars putting a completely ineffectual missle shield in place.

Now I'm not sure to what extent Kevin really thinks it's a good idea to try shooting down a North Korean missle. After all, if the thing doesn't work (and there's good reason to think it won't, something that Kevin knows quite well--why else the double-dog-dare to try it?), then there are additional consequences to that failure. After all, a system that doesn't work may still prove a deterrent as long as no one is certain that it doesn't work. A botched attempt to shoot down the missle would, I fear, have pretty much the same effect on international opinion as Desert One, the botched attempt to rescuse hostages in Iran had back in 1980.

That said, I do think that there is something to Kevin's more general challenge. For those liberals who do advocate a more muscular stance in international affairs (a group that includes yours truly), this does seem an opportunity to take a public stand. So here goes.

North Korea is, I think, a clear threat to the United States. Nuclear weapons, together with the ability to launch them at the United States, coupled with a seriously unstable regime...well, now that's something that, I think, may actually rise to the level of aggression necessary to trigger some form of preemption. Yes, it may be that North Korea simply wants a shield that would allow it to make mischief in other ways while lessening the threat of American retaliation. And were the Koreans planning to conduct their test entirely within their own borders, that would be one thing. But--and here's the crucial part--the missle will leave Korean airspace. No nation has the right to fire missles at other parts of the world; it seems to me that firing (or planning to fire) a missle outside of one's borders is grounds for a military response.

If I thought that our missle defense system would work, then I'd be calling for shooting down the test launch. Since I think that the system is more likely to fail spectacularly, then I would support airstrikes on the Korean launch facility. I'd call for such a strike even more loudly were it not for the fact that the bulk of our soldiers are effectively tied down in Iraq. The United States still carries a big stick, but Iraq has shown the limits of our reach. I think that the stick is probably still big enough to swat down a North Korean missle without triggering a regional war in East Asia, though obviously I'd want to leave the final determination on that empirical question to the folks who know more about our capabilities and about the likely response of the North Koreans. But I'll go on the record here as saying that I am, in principle, in support of the use of force against North Korea should Pyongyang decide to continue with its launch.

So there.

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Post Father's Day Blogging

The Great Puke Adventure. That's what Matthew (my almost-4-year-old, for those of you not in the loop) and I have agreed to call Friday evening. It wasn't supposed to be that way. For the last month, Matthew has been excited about Grandpa's promise to take him to see Cars when it opened. Actually, I'm not sure which of them has been more excited; my dad is a huge NASCAR fan, and I think that he's looking to make a convert since neither of his sons is much into watching cars make left turns for four hours. Anyway, we decided to make it a pre-Father's Day outing. All three of us would get dinner and go see the movie. So we piled in the car for the drive to Southern Pines.

All was going according to plan. We bought tickets and then went in search of dinner. We'd just found a restaurant and gotten seated when Matthew, who was sitting on my lap, decided that I really ought to know what he'd had for lunch. I'd have been content with him just telling me about it, but he showed me anyway. It was ham. Nice little squares of ham. There may still be one in my pocket if you're really interested.

Two hastily-purchased changes of clothes and a sponge-bath in the restaurant bathroom later, we seemed good to go. Matt was running around laughing and talking excitedly about seeing the movie. I figured that it was nothing more than a bout of the carsickness to which he is sometimes prone. Just a minor setback. In fact, Matt stole some chips off my plate at dinner and cheerfully set into the popcorn at the theater. I know. You're all wondering how any responsible father lets a kid who just vomited all over him eat popcorn. Hindsight is great. I thought he was carsick. And it was supposed to be a special occasion. We were hoping to salvage the evening and still have our really fun outing.

I'm sure you can guess what happened next. In the movie theater. About 10 minutes before the end of the film, right in the middle of the big car race. Popcorn and tortilla chips coming back to haunt me. We wiped the big stuff off in the bathroom. I dressed Matt in an old shirt that my dad happened to have in the trunk of his car, and we drove the 30 minutes back home, Matthew sound asleep in his carseat and me with a shirt and lap covered in the remains of Matt's junk food. Matthew slept all through the night; although he was a bit pale the next morning, he survived (courtesy of some Dramamine) our drive to his mom's house. He spent three hours jumping into her pool--after eating four slices of peanut butter toast. I wish my powers of recovery were that impressive.

At the end of the day, it makes a fun story. Amazingly enough, wearing Matthew's vomit wasn't the worst thing that had happened to me last week. In fact, it wasn't even in the same ballpark as my lowest point of the week. Plus, I can't wait to tell the story the first time he brings a girl (or a boy, I suppose, depending on his preferences) home meet dad. Actually, the only thing that's at all annoying about the whole experience (aside, obviously, from the fact that puking all over himself wasn't all that much fun for Matthew) is that I've no idea how the film ended. I suppose that I could just look up the ending, but that seems like cheating somehow. I do, however, have a pretty strong suspicion how it all ends. After all, I've watched all the Pixar films at this point (most of them several times; I think that I can quote most of Toy Story, Finding Nemo, and Monsters, Inc.). Plus they are written so that children can follow them; there's about as much subtlety in a Pixar film as there is in a Steven Spielberg flick. Anyway, what follows is my best guess as to the ending.
  1. At some point in the big race, Lightning listens to Doc, his new race manager, and actually gets a new set of tires rather than going it on his own. His Radiator Springs pit crew turns out to be far faster than the professionals.
  2. At some crucial moment, Lightning remembers Doc's advice, gleaned on the dirt track at Radiator Springs, and "turns right to go left." It works, giving Lightning the lead.
  3. Just when Lightning has the race all sewn up, something happens (no idea what, but something) that requires Lightning to choose between the personal glory of winning the race and helping someone else out. He chooses the latter.
  4. Lightning decides to stick with his original sponsors despite better offers.
  5. Lightning settles down in Radiator Springs, takes on most of the town as his pit crew, and brings renewed prosperity to the once-dying town.
Did I miss anything?

The lessons learned, then? Listen to your elders; they are wiser than you. Put your friends ahead of yourself. The simple, rustic life is way better than the fast-paced modern world. Everything will work out for you if you just stay true to yourself and loyal to your friends. It's all pretty standard stuff for a Disney/Pixar flick. (I'm sure the Randians must love it.) Unless, of course, I totally blew the ending. Maybe the Pixar people have been hanging out with M. Night Shyamalan. Somehow I doubt it though.

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Friday, June 16, 2006

Why I Am Not a Baptist

As several of you know, I grew up as a Baptist. Not just any Baptist, either. A conservative Baptist. My church didn't belong to any particular Baptist convention because those organized Baptists were just way too liberal (though I think that, after the conservative take-over of the Southern Baptist Convention in the '90s, my old church may have decided to affiliate itself with the SBC). In the intervening years, I've mostly been able to repress the cult-like awfulness (I remember sitting around my Bible class--I went to a church-run school--and singing songs about how I wasn't related to monkeys and chanting that I would not drink, smoke or listen to 'rock music'). Indeed, after years of hard work, I've finally realized the essential silliness of bowing down to a bronze age deity that was "modernized" by a Jewish legalist with a penchant for throwing rocks at heretics.

That said, every once in a while, I receive this horrible flashback to the world that I left behind. Just today, via Andrew Sullivan, I came across this blog by what seems to pass for a liberal Baptist these days. The particular post in question is in response to a new policy requiring absitnence from alcohol among leaders of the SBC. Among my favorite passages:
I teach my children and my church that abstinence is a wise choice for every Christian, and the best way to avoid drunkenness. I wholeheartedly support all believers who have an abstinence conviction. However, I believe the authoritative, inspired Word of God forbids drunkenness, not necessarily the drinking of an alcoholic beverage.
However, let me use this "alcohol" issue as discussed by Southern Baptists at our Convention as an example of the overall lack in our convention of sound, Biblical exegesis. The idea that to drink a glass of wine, or any other alcoholic beverage, is a sin against God is so foreign to the teaching of the inspired, inerrant Word of God that for anyone to say to a Christian who has no abstinence conviction, "You are sinning against God when you drink a glass of wine" is a sin in itself. To do so would be to accuse Jesus of possessing personal sin, the epitome of liberalism.

Jesus drank wine. The disciples drank wine. Jesus turned the water into wine. Paul commanded Timothy "Drink a little wine for your stomach." The Biblical prohibition is "drunkenness." The inerrant Bible says "Be not drunk with wine."

And make no mistake: Drunkenness is a sin. It is a scourge on our society. We must sharply rebuke anyone, including the alcohol industry, who minimizes or encourages drunkenness. Our church disciplines people for the sin of drunkenness, and we treat the sin very, very seriously.

However, the sin of drunkenness is similar to the sin of promiscious sex. We don't teach that a man should abstain from sex with his wife because other people are sex addicts. Similarly, we don't teach that individuals MUST abstain from alcohol because some commit the sin of drunkennes.

Likewise we don't DEMAND that those who are single get married, or those who choose to abstain from alcohol drink. Some things are matters of personal conviction and conscience. The pastor's job is not to force those who use sex properly, or alcohol properly, to abstain from either because some others cannot control the lusts of their wicked hearts, but rather, the pastor's job is to teach the Bible and urge God's people to live by Biblical principles.
Well, now, that's some serious enlightenment. I mean really. Since when it is a liberal position to point out that people in 33 CE drank wine? I mean, grape juice?! WTF? Hello, people. Grape juice ferments. Quickly. Especially in fucking Palestine before the advent of, you know, refrigeration.

Sorry, got carried away there. It drives me a bit nuts when people insist on some pre-defined conclusion and then bury their heads in the sand when reality fails to map on to their picture of the world. It's like Cheney and Iraq. English professors and Marxism. Christianists and natural selection. Libertarians and global warming. Sorry, I couldn't resist. Just seeing if you're still paying attention.

More specifically in this case, I still don't quite understand what it is that fundamentalist Christians seem to have against, well, pleasure. It's as if there is some unspoken 11th Commandment: Thou shalt not have any fun. We're talking about a God who bans eating shrimp. I don't think that such a being actually exists. But just ask yourself this. If heaven's all-you-can-eat buffet doesn't include a giant bowl of cold, boiled shrimp, do you really wanna wait in line? I'm sure they've got assloads of shrimp in hell. And I bet they'll let me drink wine until I'm totally shitfaced, too. Really good wine, too. 'Cause you just know that most of the population of France is going to be there too.

If getting into heaven requires a life without booze, R-rated films, good cigars, women in miniskirts, Rage Against the Machine cranked to just below "bleeding-from-the-ears" on the volume dial, porn, the occasional bong hit (and don't forget the shrimp!), then count me out. Gladly. God's party sounds pretty lame anyway.

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Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Liberals and Libertarians, part II

Continuing the recent theme, an e-mailer asks me about the differences between liberals and libertarians. My e-mailer's suggestion: perhaps the answer is to be found in evolutionary psychology. Here's the argument in its entirety.
One of the very first attractive selling points of libertarianism to those who are inclined to accept it is its symmetry and consistency with regards to government intervention in the "economic" and "social" spheres. I'm sure you've seen the world smallest political quiz and its 3 dimensional political spectrum, mapping out this basic idea.
Anyway, the novice libertarian is prone to see the liberal and conservative sides as blatantly contradictory and absurd on their faces. How can the same government be trusted in one instance but not in another? This apparent contradiction has always been bothersome to me, because it is too blatant a mistake for a reasonable person to make. So either liberals/conservatives are plain unreasonable, or there is an explanation I am not appreciating. One of my goals has been to discover the grounds for drawing a distinction between the economic and social spheres in the minds of liberals (conservatives are another topic for another day).
Here is the argument I find most convincing:
If you believe in evolutionary psychology, then you might find appealing the argument that human beings evolved under zero-sum conditions, and hence are prone to believe they still exist. Not as a reasoned conclusion, but as an instinct.
Prior to agriculture, humans were really not producers so much as they were predators. We would hunt animals (and gather plants) that nature provided us, but we were limited to what amount of plants and animals nature provided, and it was never enough for everyone. This was a zero sum world. An animal that I killed and ate represents one less in the forest for you to kill and eat. If you and I were in competing tribes, then we would have been zero sum competitors for the scarce resources available, and your success would have meant my failure and vice versa. Your very existence was a threat to mine.
And so it is intuitively pleasing to think that, under such conditions, we would evolve to have certain attitudes, perspectives, and responses towards each other consistent with a zero sum reality. Natural selection would demand that humans develop hostility towards and distrust of competing humans. You see this in the wild with any number of other animals. They do not love their own kind, they are locked in a perpetual war with their own kind, a competition for survival.
Now the advent of agriculture changed the rules of the game. The rules in a productive world are different. Now each human, as a potential trading partner, is a potential benefit to me, and not necessarily (or likely) a threat to my existence. Your gain must no longer be my loss and vice versa. In fact, the opposite is true. So long as the two of us are engaged in productive work, your gain is my gain and vice versa. To the extent that we expend our energies in production and trade, it is now a positive sum world between us.
But while the rules changed, the players did not. Positive sum gains made survival all the easier, and natural selection ceased to have much influence on human traits. We never evolved beyond our zero sum mentalities, we never had need to. Negative sum mentalities can still survive and prosper under positive sum rules. You don't need to understand economics to function within the economy. The zero sum mentality has never been weeded out and it persists to this day.
My tentative hypothesis is that the difference between liberals and libertarians relates not so much to our personal preferences, or our upbringings or educations, but to our relationship with the negative sum mentality inside us. The libertarian is somehow able to set it aside. The liberal cannot. I have no explanation for why this would be.
But assuming I am correct so far, then everything seems to fall into place rather nicely and the initial contradiction I spoke of is cleared up. A zero sum mentality has reason to designate the economic sphere as distinct from the social, and therefore subject to different rules. Enjoyment of the so called "social" freedoms does not imply an injury to somebody else, even in a zero sum world. But enjoyment of economic freedoms does. To the zero sum mentality, all economic activity is potentially injurious of innocent parties. This is quite different indeed.
Egalitarianism is the perfect philosophy for a civilization living in a zero sum world. If we are to be civilized, if we are to elevate humans above mere animals, then we should come to some sort of agreement on fair rules for the distribution of the fixed pie, since unfair rules could mean death to the weak. In a zero sum world, egalitarianism IS the thoughtful, kind, "looking out for the little guy" philosophy it claims to be. Indeed, "survival of the fittest" or "every man for himself" is a pretty heartless and brutal philosophy in a zero sum world, and probably not worth defending, unless we want to scrap civilization altogether and become savages again.
But because we do not live in a zero sum world, egalitarianism is instead the destructive force libertarians know it to be. I don't need to explain to you the libertarian arguments for why egalitarian policies tend to hurt those they are intended to help. I'm sure you're familiar.
The zero sum mentality comes equipped with its own zero sum morality. This is the morality that would be proper and appropriate to a zero sum world, the world we once lived in, the world in which we developed our moral instincts. I suggest that while liberals can learn market economics, and understand the positive sum nature of the economy, they cannot shake their zero sum morality. Of course, a zero sum morality is all too often at odds with a positive sum economy, and so we get the modern position of liberals, which I call the "market as a necessary evil" position. No longer socialists, modern liberals understand that the market must be tolerated if society is to avoid utter collapse, but they still find it morally repugnant and look for any opportunity they can to alter its outcomes in ways consistent with the zero sum morality.
As a self-proclaimed Liberal, I ask you what you think the Liberal's relationship is with the zero sum mentality/morality I've described. The Libertarian never ceases to remember that ours is a positive sum world. That fact is always in the front of his mind when dealing with any economic issue. It is a fact relevant to both consequentialist and natural rights defenses of the free market economy, and so the Libertarian will never forget it. Can you say the same for the Liberal? How much thought does a typical Liberal give to the significance of zero sum v positive sum? And of course, if I've completely missed the point of Liberalism, if I'm so off base as to render all of this meaningless or moot, please explain.
The question deserves a longer response than I can give right now. I'll be putting up a separate post in response sometime in the next couple of days. I suppose that my quick reaction would be to say that it's not clear to me why it would be the case that if we evolved with a zero-sum morality, some of us seem stuck with it while others are able to transcend that morality. That's a little to Nietzschean for my tastes. I suspect that the biggest difference between liberals and libertarians is going to come down to the claim that liberals hold that there are moral values that are not captured by the functioning of the free market. I'll try to elaborate on the theme in my longer response.

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A Rose by Any Other Name

Am I really a liberal Democrat? That's the question posed to me recently by a reader of this blog and a regular commentator at Catallarchy, Steve Podraza. I'll let him speak for himself. In a very nice e-mail to me (which he kindly gave me permission to quote here), Steve submits that:
You insist that you are not a libertarian, but a liberal and a democrat. My own reaction to this is to believe that you are now discovering that you are now and have always been a libertarian, but are suffering some sort of liberal seperation anxiety. Alternatively, you are a libertarian who likes the word "liberal" so much that you insist on defining it to suit you. I just don't think it is possible for a person to be a true liberal democrat AND be as reasonable and appreciatitve of libertarian and anarchist thought as you are. You can understand us, can speak our language, and I've never known a liberal capable of even that.
I'm still not quite sure how to properly answer Steve. I suppose that I can begin by saying that at the very least, I'm pretty sure that I wasn't always a libertarian. I've had some leanings (or at least sympathies) in that direction since reading Anarchy, State and Utopia as an undergraduate. I became less convinced that Nozick really had gotten Locke right in graduate school where I was, understandably I suppose, swayed first by John Christman's and then even more thoroughly by John Simmons' interpretations of Locke. I was, moreover, strongly persuaded by Simmons' arguments for philosophical anarchism. I tend to think he is right when he claims that all of the philosophical arguments that one might muster in defence of the moral legitimacy of the state simply fail to work as justifications for any state that actually exists. Thus, if a state is to have any justification at all, it will have to be a pragmatic justification. That is, a state can be justified if and only if it is the best (weak version) or only (strong version) means of bringing about some other states of affairs that we have independent reasons for valuing.

Given my position as a philosophical anarchist, I'm not in principle opposed to minarchy or even to anarcho-capitalism. My objection to both is that the state may well turn out to be the best (or possibly the only) means of bringing about certain kinds of social goods. My very first guest post at Catallarchy, for example, argues in favor of what I called natural rights of recipience. (Those of you who are regular readers will know, of course, that when I use the term "rights" I mean it in a pretty loose sense. I'm still a consequentialist.) That post is pretty clearly being written by a liberal in the modern rather than classical sense.

So I guess that the answer to the first part of Steve's question is that, no, I've not discovered that I always have been a libertarian.

It's the second part that gives me a bit more pause. Am I now a libertarian? And the answer here is, I don't know. I agree with libertarians on a whole lot of issues. On the entire range of social issues, I doubt that you'll find a libertarian who is more radical than I. If you're looking to go out on a flag-burning, meth-snorting, pornography-reading, cross-dressing, gay-polygamous good time, then you just have yourself a ball. Hell, I don't care if you want to bang your cousin on primetime television and then ride your motorcycle home at 140 mph without a helmet. They're your heads; do with them as you please.

On the fiscal issues, I've a lot of sympathy for libertarian--or more specifically, marketists--positions. I like free markets. The elitist in me may make fun of Wal-Mart for selling a lot of cheap Chinese plastic crap, but when I go out to buy my groceries later today, guess where I'm gonna get them? I'll go to Harris Teeter for better quality if I'm going to cook a really nice dinner in place of going out (or better still, when I can convince someone who actually knows what she's doing to cook a really nice dinner in place of going out). But when it's just me and Matthew here, I'm gonna do my part to make the heirs of Sam Walton just a little bit richer. Why? Because it's cheap. I like capitalism. I like the fact that it makes us all rich enough that we can buy all sorts of things that we don't need. I really like the fact that it's made us rich enough that we now think of all sorts of extravagances as basic necessities (my wireless phone, my wireless broadband, a shelf full of DVDs, etc.)

So why doesn't that make me a full-blown libertarian? After all, what I've written so far could have been written by most of the people at Catallarchy. And maybe I'll end up there at some point. But I still hold on to one core insight of liberalism: respect for autonomy means more than just non-interference. I can have all sorts of freedoms from various things, but those freedoms don't mean a damn thing if I'm too cold/sick/hungry/stupid/isolated to exercise them. And I remain convinced that, at least for right now, the only way to ensure that everyone has the shelter, medicine, food, education, and access needed to enjoy his/her freedom is through some form of redistribution. Insisting that you redistribute part of your wealth is no more a violation of your autonomy than is insisting that you refrain from hitting me in the nose. Both hitting me in the nose and refusing to help those too poor to exercise their freedoms are violations of autonomy.

Notice, though, that my argument here is a consequentialist one. I think that the state should exist and should redistribute wealth because I think that that is the best way of ensuring that everyone's autonomy is respected. But I realize that there are those who disagree. I also realize how little economics I really understand. I've learned both of those things by talking with really smart libertarians. (I suppose that I should get around to learning something from smart conservatives. And I'll do that just as soon as I meet one. So far, all the smart ones I've encountered turn out really to be libertarians.) Over the past year, I've found myself going back and rereading my college economics texts. I also read Hayek and Friedman. There is something to be said for the argument that an unfettered market will increase wealth and that the overall increase in wealth will, in the end, help the poor far more than will redistribution now. So I think that I currently find myself somewhere in the middle. Let's deregulate markets. But I submit that we're rich enough that giving up some future wealth in order to provide a safety net now isn't an unreasonable thing to ask.

Does that make me a libertarian? I still don't know. Some libertarians (Hayek, most famously) argue in favor of a safety net. Maybe the term libertarian is broad enough to capture me. Perhaps I still haven't said anything all that different from what at least a couple of hardcore libertarians might say. I'm not sure. Ask me in another year.

In the meantime I'll continue to identify as a liberal. The label fits either way, after all. And I'll continue to shell out money to the DNC. That's not because I'm a die-hard Democrat. It's rather that I find the social conservatism of the Republican Party far more morally repugnant than the socialism of the Democratic Party. There's also one other point. Republicans have held the White House for 22 of my 34 years. Guess how many of those years the party of fiscal restraint has managed to spend less money than it took in? Zero. (FY 2001 was Clinton's budget). The Democrats haven't exactly showered themselves with glory, but a Democratic president did manage the feat 4 out of 12 years.

Until further notice, I'm still a Clintonite neo-liberal.

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Saturday, June 10, 2006

No Exit

So what the hell am I doing ripping off a Sartre title? No, really, what the hell am I doing ripping off a Sartre title? I'm the guy who rolls his eyes at the very mention of French philosophy. So what's the explanation? I suppose it could be that I've realized the truth of Sartre's claim that hell is other people. Or perhaps I'm really tired. Or maybe it's that I'm dating an existentialist. Actually, it's partly all of the above. Mostly, though, I'm making a long-winded and very obscure connection to political philosophy, particularly to a couple of recent posts from Jonathan Wilde and Micha Ghertner responding to a post by Kos who claims to be, of all things, a Libertarian Democrat.

Now let me first say that I think that Kos is, well, on crack if he thinks that he's anything like a Libertarian Democrat. Sure he's libertarian in the sense that he is a social liberal. But Kos has also rather loudly and famously claimed that he is not particuarly interested in political theory; he's a political operative interested in winning elections for Democrats. As such, any move he might make toward libertarians is purely a matter of political expediency and not one of theoretical solidarity. As such, I think that Jonathan is right to be wary, and Micha is right to point out that Kos is asking for an alliance with libertarians without bothering to offer any sort of concession.

While I don't have nearly as big a loudspeaker as Kos, I am nonetheless a Democrat who has pretty strong libertarian leanings. And I'd like to make a case for bringing libertarians into the fold. Kos' strategy is to argue that Libertarian Democrats ought to believe in all of the things that regular old Democrats pretty much all believe in, namely that the state should protect basic freedoms such as the Bill of Rights and privacy and the like and that the state should also provide certain basic services such as roads and schools and so forth. The first part strikes me as exactly right. The second part, however, is a bit of a stretch. Libertarians very much do not believe that the state ought to be in the business of providing much in the way of public utilities such as roads or schools or internet acess or electricity or the like. The libertarian argument is that private institutions do such things more efficiently, and it's really hard to see why that shouldn't be so. Take a look at universities in this country. Of the top 25 universities, all but four are private. And those public universities that are highly ranked are often effectively private universities (When I was there, the University of Virginia, my own alma mater, received only about 11% of its non-medical-school operating budget from the state).

So if I wanted to bring libertarians on board the Democratic Party, what would I offer? Experiments. Democrats (to the extent that there is any old-fashioned liberalism left in the party) claim to be interested in helping people out. That's great. But there is no reason to be dogmatically committed to the position that only governments can help people out. That old invisible hand works fairly well a lot of the time. So if I wanted to bring libertarians into the fold, I'd offer to experiment with market-based alternatives to government programs. Let's try a means-tested voucher program for schools. Or let some cash-strapped state auction off its roads to private bidders and see how it works. Perhaps we can offer to privatize NASA and deregulate space exploration. Push alternative energy not by regulating current energy sources but by offering incentives to those who experiment with new sources. You know, sweeten the market rather than trying to thwart it.

Libertarians won't necessarily be ecstatic about all of these proposals. Nor will Democrats in many cases. That's why they are called concessions. But they are concessions, and from the libertarian perspective, they are a step in the right direction. Moreover, many Democrats rather famously claim to be reality-based. Presumably that means being good empiricists and adopting programs that actually work rather than programs that map onto a particular ideology. Many libertarian seems to be in the same camp. So let's try these sorts of things. If they work, then great. That's what Democrats are supposed to be after. If they don't, then I assume that reality-based libertarians would admit their failure and adjust accordingly.

Anyway, there's my offer. Not that anyone in any sort of position to make a real offer is likely to read it. But there it is anyway.

Oh, yeah, and that whole No Exit thing. It's a reference to the fact that the preferred libertarian solution to political philosophy, namely exit, isn't a realistic option right now. Voice, however poorly it might work, is an option. For those libertarians open to gradualism, I submit that their voice might be effective if added to the neoliberal wing of the Democratic Party.

See, I told you the title was a bit contrived.

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Friday, June 02, 2006

On Changing One's Mind

Twice now in the last couple of weeks, I've been accused of an unwillingness to change my mind. Now as a philosopher, I take great affront to such a charge; we are, after all, supposed to be willing to go wherever the best arguments lead us. I suspect that, in both cases, the person in question confused my defending the position that I think is conclusion of the best arguments with my holding a position (for whatever reason) and refusing to give up on it no matter what. That the discussions in question were philosophical ones and that I might in the course of my professional career happened to have already run into and rejected the arguments that my interlocuters were raising seems not to have occurred to either.

Anyway, the conversations led me to think about the beliefs that I have changed. And since this is my space for thinking out loud, here is the list.
  1. Theism. I was raised in a Christian fundamentalist home and attended fundamentalist church-affiliated schools for most of my pre-college education. I was a committed theist, really, up through just a few years ago (my almost four-year-old son was baptized an Episcopalian). But the more I considered the problem of evil, the free will defense, and the problem of reconciling free will with omniscience, I discovered that I simply can no longer square that particular circle.
  2. Cosmopolitanism. This one is also of pretty recent vintage. Not so long ago, I rejected the very idea of having states as a silly eighteenth-century holdover. But I have begun to see the appeal of federalism. Partly this has to do with the virtues of exit as a political strategy. Mostly, though, I'm persuaded by a roughly Millian line that different political experiments are the best route to the truth.
  3. Egalitarianism. Many of the arguments for egalitarianism I still find fairly persuasive. Indeed, I think it fairly problematic that success in the world should turn so heavily on what are really just matters of luck. That said, I'm less convinced that externally-imposed corrective measures are likely to help very much. Perhaps it really is a better strategy simply to make everyone rich enough that inequalities aren't all that relevant any longer.
  4. File-sharing. There are some arguments to be made against the practice; there is a sense in which a film or a piece of music belongs to the person who created it. Articulating what exactly that amounts to is not especially easy to do, but the intuition remains. That said, it strikes me that I am the one who owns the CD or DVD I just bought. If it really is my property, then I ought to be permitted to do with it as I wish. If that includes copying it and sharing those copies with 10,000 of my closest friends, well, then that's totally my call.
  5. Meat-eating. My brother and sister-in-law spent a couple of years as vegetarians and I picked on them without end for doing so. I rather regret that now. At the time, I continued to eat meat on the grounds that animals have no rights. I still very much believe that. (I'm a consequentialist, remember? I don't think that anything really has any rights.) I do, however, think that one ought not inflict needless suffering. Given that it's perfectly possible (if less enjoyable) for me to live a life without eating animals, and given that factory farming does in fact cause considerable suffering, it seems to me that I ought not eat animals.
Those are the big ones that I can think of offhand. I'm sure that there are a number of others (like many, I had to revise a number of my beliefs when I got to college and encountered, you know, actual facts). All the views that I have listed, however, are positions that I have changed within the past, oh, three or four years. Enough to get me off the hook as close-minded?

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