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.


Anonymous Wild Pegasus said...

It would be far cheaper just to give the poor the right to steal. Fewer bureaucrats, more decentralised distribution.

- Josh

6:46 PM  

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