Friday, May 18, 2012

Libertarianism and collective destiny

The fundamental dichotomy that reverberates throughout popular political discourse could be summarized no better than by this line from a recent Washington Post article:
Romney is promoting the God of "I": individual accomplishment and personal success. Obama is promoting the God of "we," in which the fates of all are intertwined.
Replace "Obama" more broadly with "the left" and "Romney" with "the right" and you get a pretty typical understanding of American politics. I'll hand it to the author of the article: she has a very balanced approach to this dichotomy and frames it provocatively in the context of Christianity's theological history. The whole thing is worth a read.

But that's not exactly what I'm going to talk about. What I want to talk about, instead, is what eventually one me over to "libertarianism," or perhaps more correctly "classical liberalism," in the first place. The most abiding critique of libertarianism is that the individualism on which it is based is immoral or impractical or both. Clearly we all need each other. The human race cannot survive without cooperation among different members of the species. We all owe our success to others. These observations have both moral and practical implications for our political philosophy such that the radical individualism underlying libertarian philosophy must be false.

Until fairly recently, I more or less accepted this critique of libertarianism. What changed everything for me was ultimately an essay called, "Individualism: True and False," by none other than F. A. Hayek (it always comes back to Hayek). In it, he gives the following definition of "true" individualism:
What, then, are the essential characteristics of true individualism? The first thing that should be said is that it is primarily a theory of society, an attempt to understand the forces which determine the social life of man, and only in the second instance a set of political maxims derived from this view of society. This fact should by itself be sufficient to refute the silliest of the common misunderstandings: the belief that individualism postulates (or bases its arguments on the assumption of) the existence of isolated or self-contained individuals, instead of starting from men whose whole nature and character is determined by their existence in society. If that were true, it would indeed have nothing to contribute to our understanding of society. But its basic contention is quite a different one; it is that there is no other way toward an understanding of social phenomena but through our understanding of individual actions directed toward other people and guided by their expected behavior. This argument is directed primarily against the properly collectivist theories of society which pretend to be able directly to comprehend social wholes like society, etc., as entities sui generis which exist independently of the individuals which compose them. The next step in the individualistic analysis of society, however, is directed against the rationalistic pseudo-individualism which also leads to practical collectivism. It is the contention that, by tracing the combined effects of individual actions, we discover that many of the institutions on which human achievements rest have arisen and are functioning without a designing and directing mind; that, as Adam Ferguson expressed it, "nations stumble upon establishments, which are indeed the result of human action but not the result of human design"; and that the spontaneous collaboration of free men often creates things which are greater than their individual minds can ever fully comprehend. This is the great theme of Josiah Tucker and Adam Smith, of Adam Ferguson and Edmund Burke, the great discovery of classical political economy which has become the basis of our understanding not only of economic life but of most truly social phenomena.
The above quote is dense, but I have decided to post it in its entirety so as not to deprive the reader of Hayek's sophisticated explanation of the core issues. Having said that, I will now try to explain what effect this passage had on me and what I think should be the real selling point of libertarianism.

To ask whether we should focus on the individual or focus on the collective is simply the wrong question. The right question is, what is a good society and how does it work? That's the question to which I believe Hayek and others have given the best answers.

A good society is one in which people cooperate. We can do far more if we specialize into different tasks and share the fruits of our labor than if we each keep to ourselves. We are also far healthier and happier if we have right relationships with one another: friends, families, and so on. In a good society, each individual has a role to play in benefiting every other individual, whether directly or indirectly.

A good society also consists solely of people who do not and cannot have access to the kind of knowledge which would be necessary to delegate to all individuals the tasks, relationships, and roles which individuals ought to play in society. It is not possible to "construct" or "plan" a good society.

Here we have a conundrum: a good society must consist of individuals working together toward the common good, but those individuals can't have any idea what precisely they are working toward.

Classical liberalism succeeds where other political philosophies fail because it (a) sees the conundrum as it is and (b) provides a solution. Which means, yes, classical liberalism is indeed concerned with our collective destiny. You must keep this in mind as you read about individual liberty, private property, constitutional constraints on government, and so on: all of these ideas are meant to provide a framework under which individuals may work together toward the common good without actually having a plan for doing so. I say this merely by way of invitation (not even introduction) to the classical liberal way of thinking; if I were to attempt to provide the complete answer, I would be stuck writing all night.

As I see it, modern American liberalism fails at point (a), since they insist that we can answer questions which are simply unanswerable, while American conservatives usually fail at point (b) by clinging to traditions which don't necessarily address this conundrum effectively.

I agree with conservatives that our moral traditions play a key role in the constitution of a good society. However, I do not agree that these moral traditions are beyond question or revision, and I also do not agree with the proposed application of said moral traditions. There many things which may be immoral to do, and yet it may also be immoral to prevent a person from doing those things.

With liberals I have a tougher time because it is generally quite difficult to get them to understand the knowledge problem. Many of my peers are attracted to liberalism because they are smart and believe that smart people ought to work together toward the common good. In this sense I, too, am a liberal. The difference is that I believe we must work toward the common good beginning with the humble acknowledgement that we don't know precisely what that is, and the broader our impact on the world the less of an idea we will have whether we have done good or bad. In my opinion this difference explains the modern liberal's obsession with statistics: the gap between rich and poor, under-representation from minorities, median incomes in third world countries, average scores on standardized tests--the list goes on and on, because there's always another aggregate quantity to try and fix. If the liberal could only understand how little we really know about where these numbers come from, he might be able to understand why I oppose his policy proposals.

I hope this is a helpful contrast. It certainly helps clarify in my own mind why I believe as I do, and why I believe America needs a different direction politically.


  1. Many thoughts:

    The Washington Post article is poorly researched. Yes, your view of God predicts your politics, but it's not a collectivist-individualist binary, as easy as that sounds. Baylor research says it will come down to an authoritative God (which predicts a more conservative ideology) vs. a benevolent God (more progressive ideology). Another possible binary would be imminent vs. transcendent theology: if you are skeptical of the afterlife and an eternal reckoning, you will be more likely to support fixing things in the here-and-now. Inversely, if you've got eyes set on "the roll called up yonder" you are likely to be disinterested in imminent justice issues.

    Secondly, to read the "individualist" God of Romney onto the New Testament may be the worst reading of the New Testament I've ever encountered. I think the author is reaching for a "Protestant Ethic" type Christianity, which is distinctly 16th-17th century European, highly debated as a historical reality, and at least in the American context was almost always practiced within tightly-bounded social collectivities (think Puritan settlements). I actually wouldn't consider Romney's "God" (from the article) within the bounds of orthodox Christianity, but that's just me.

    Thirdly, it angers me that collectivism is so often equated with statism and the agenda of the left. That we can't imagine collectivist-leaning social orders without strong federal intervention shows our imaginations have been severely limited to post-FDR post-LBJ visions of politics and can't remember the America that existed beforehand. I'm sympathetic to the communitarians, who recognize you're-on-your-own individualism is foolish and are looking to build a good society from the full menu of institutions available to them, including local, federal, religious, etc.

    Fourthly, the Hayek quote is good in the sense that it recognizes the inescapability of social institutions. But I don't completely buy into the sweeping dismissal of an inability to "plan" a good society. As you recognize, private property actually had to be "planned," and this was a strong predictor of which economies have had the most growth in the last few centuries. But even beyond the minimalist views of the state, other "planned" steps seem to have done good things for us: we outlawed child labor, decided worker conditions shouldn't be determined by the factory owner, retirement accounts shouldn't be taxed, food should be tested before thrown out on the free market, a national highway system should exist, etc. All these things were problems for which a "centralized" state offered a solution, and we're pretty happy with the results. So I don't get this sweeping planning-phobia thing.

  2. (part 2)
    I look at something like the 1996 Welfare Reform, which conservatives were pretty happy with (progressives swore America would be in shambles from it) as the sort of successful technocratic planning that Hayek doesn't believe exists. Reagan's earned income tax credit (supported by Friedman) would probably also fall in this category: all the characteristics of centralized planning are there, not "noble individuals" serendipitously bringing about good institutions by accident. I remember when Romney argued for the mandate back in the day, he pointed out that we've already committed to universal access to emergency rooms, it's just a matter of who pays. This recognizes that having public-access emergency rooms requires centralized planning as well, and again, we're pretty happy with that.

    So in sum, I don't get the whole planning-phobia. And your skepticism toward solving problems based on statistics and numbers will indict nearly everything that goes on at Heritage, Cato, and any other Right-ish think tanks (and anything the Koch brothers are funding right now) so I am not sure who is left standing in this anti-planning vision. Certainly not any GOP-controlled Congress of the last...ever. One could play the "i just have purer ideology"card here, but that makes libertarianism fairly incommensurable in discussions on government, if no historical person has ever governed from such a position. Even Marxists can do better than that.

    You can just tell me to go read Hayek...

    1. Yeah, you can just go read Hayek. Most of these comments were pretty far off base.

    2. More seriously, though:

      (1) I guess we mostly agree on the Washington Post article. So your first and second points need not be discussed.

      (2) "Collectivism" has a meaning in political philosophy, and it is, as you say, usually associated with statism. If you prefer to connect it with something else, it might as well be libertarianism. In other words, if you force the word to mean anything other than statism, it kind of loses all meaning. Kind of like how Noam Chomsky refers to himself as a "libertarian socialist." That sounds great and everything, but there is absolutely no coherent theory behind it.

      (3) Private property did not have to be planned. Law does not have to be planned. Libertarianism rests squarely on natural law. Law is discovered through deliberation. Perhaps the implementation of law has to be planned, but the law itself is not the result of human reason. Only the recognition of it can be said to be the product of reason.

      (4) You mention a lot of things the state does "which we're pretty happy with," but it's not altogether clear to me that this kind of argument cuts against my central point. We're pretty happy with these functions of the state as a result of social evolution, not of planning. If we had to do it all over again, we might be able to think of different ways to delegate those powers. For my part, I think our child labor laws are too extensive, our food laws have become downright absurd, and our national highway system is not all it's cracked up to be. What you see in America isn't so much planning in the traditional sense as it is bureaucracy for its own sake: if you work in a government office, you apparently have to justify your existence somehow.

      (5) In part (2) of your comments, you simply drift off into a total confusion between "conservative" and "libertarian." I'll ignore the 1996 Welfare Reform since I don't know much about what it actually did. Your comment about "noble individuals" makes absolutely no sense to me. Who said anything about noble? As you drift into talking about a universal mandate, you simply start to confess that "we're pretty happy with" centralized planning of certain aspects of our lives. I happen to think this is a mistake, but I respect the fact that many disagree with me.

      (6) Heritage is not libertarian. The GOP is certainly not libertarian, and, yes, you're right, probably never has been. Playing the "I have purer ideology" card here is not even a game, it's just a simple fact: Republicans are not libertarians.

      (7) I never said statistics couldn't be part of scientific research. The major point I was making is that in popular discourse, even among "intellectuals," is that statistics are taken to mean something *in themselves.* This is not true. Statistics are merely signs that point to some far more complex reality. Without a satisfactory theoretical explanation, they are meaningless.

      (8) Libertarianism often receives the same criticism as Marxism: beautiful in theory, unworkable in practice. I disagree. Our basic morals, which for most of us govern our daily lives, are all consistent with libertarianism. The only thing radical about libertarianism is that it seeks to constrain the state under those same basic guidelines. Many nations, including our own, have been laudably successful at doing this, but it's never perfect. Ours is getting worse in many ways, better in others.

      Marxism, on the other hand, can be and has been successfully implemented, with one exceptional flaw: it sucks. It doesn't deliver what it promises, because it can't. The more planned a society becomes, the more constrained it becomes to a particular, limited, flawed human vision of what the world should be like.

  3. Okay, I am going to try to write this in 20 minutes...

    2) Maybe "collectivist" isn't the term that I mean, then, if it has been inseparably intertwined with statism, as you suggest. But I do think there's something to be said for societies that believe in a collective spirit and ensuring justice for everyone, even at the cost of individual prosperity sometimes. Maybe a society that provides for widows and orphans, perhaps, or doesn't trample on the heads of the poor. Most people like to think their system of choice could meet that criteria of collective justice (Rand-ians being the exception), but I think it's regrettable that most people think of this matter through one of three lens: a) we ensure collective justice through federally-controlled bureaucratic interventions and those ONLY b) we ensure collective justice through private giving to charity and that ONLY or c) we ensure collective justice through a vibrant free market with no interventions or handouts for anyone and that ONLY. I am far more interested in political ideologies that put all three of those options on the table.

    3) This is historically inaccurate. Private property does indeed have to be planned. It matters not what "natural law" says, what matters is whether the government is going to recognize private property. Neil Ferguson has an argument that Latin America still suffers today because the Spanish colonists chose central administration and shared commons of property, as opposed to the North American colonists adopting a British system of private property. Fergeson says Latin America has far more natural resources and probably should have smoked North America, but they chose the wrong political institutions. So yes, you can argue "natural law" in every time period in every culture endorses private property, but it really doesn't matter when governments don't centrally plan it.

    4) Recognizing imperfections in the FDA and child labor laws is fair, but if you follow Hayek and his anti-centralized planning diatribe, you are making a far more severe argument: because no one has access to sufficient knowledge, individuals should be left to blindly stumble upon things like food regulations and fair child labor policies. Perhaps you're imagining other setups: let states do their own food regulation and labor laws, but that still violates the principles of Hayek. In the end, Hayek seems to be ready to place it in the hands of individuals. Having this much faith in human nature is severely discounting a) human depravity, and b) centuries worth of evidence of how capitalism works. As Friedman argued, corporations' only duty is to pursue profit within the constraints of laws. If you invalidate the centrally-planned and established food and labor laws, you will be no-restraints profit maximization (Friedman would recognize this). In every case where that's happened, human dignity is quickly violated. In fact that's the story with some of the greatest violations of human dignity in history--human trafficing today is a testament to this.

    Perhaps libertarians believe natural law somehow enforces itself? I would like to see this argument articulated.

  4. Part 2

    6&7) Cato is libertarian. The Von Mises Institute is libertarian. I think both, in practice, violate your skepticism toward statistics, despite what their principles claim. Von Mises is right now pointing out the statistics from Germany suggest having no minimum wage for youth helps teenage employment. I think they're right, but let's also recognize the game they are playing: we can trust statistics, at least sometimes, at least when they support our worldview. I agree statistics need a "theoretical explanation" to connect with reality, but I don't see how such a need leads to opposing centralized planning. Everyone seems to like the statistics that support their cause, theory or no theory.

    8) I'll play the Lincoln card here: "Government should do for people only what they cannot do better by themselves, and no more." I totally agree, but Lincoln is implying there is a category of tasks that the government is uniquely capable of doing. If one subscribes to this view, I don't see how the application of "the same basic guidelines" of our personal morality is going to serve as a good guide for these tasks. In fact, I think it will be vastly inadequate. Even if you're a state minimalist, things like defense and ensuring private property are not things individuals deal with or have personal morals on. I guess I just don't see what the argument would be here.

    No defense of Marxism here.

    Okay that took a full hour to write.

    1. OK, rather than respond to every point, I just need to clarify two major misconceptions.

      First, what we mean by "planning." Not all government policy is planning. That would make anyone opposed to centralized planning by definition anarchists (which is actually a rhetorical move anarchists themselves try to make on us libertarians, and it's really annoying). A government that enforces property rights is not "planning" property rights. It is simply acknowledging a certain set of rules that it will enforce. Enforcement of these rules is always in response to a violation of them. Planning, by contrast, is a system of government behavior in which the government sets a positive agenda and carries it out using political means. See Hayek's writings on law and legislation for a more in-depth comparison.

      Second, in regard to knowledge, you're either misunderstanding me or I have misstated something somewhere. Nothing I have said should be construed to mean that we don't know anything and can't disseminate any information which would help people make decisions. You're grossly misunderstanding Hayek's principles on this matter, but I think I'll save a thorough explanation for an entirely new post.

      Finally, I will address your first comment about taking care of widows and orphans. There's no question that a free society will want to have governmental institutions that support people in distress. I think your trichotomy is silly, and it shows how distorted our political discourse has become. The question is not whether, but how, the government should provide institutional support for people in extreme need. A libertarian solution would be to make the government response to extreme need more or less predictable, automatic, and standardized. By contrast a collectivist solution would be to establish bureaucracies whose purpose would be to judge different types of need and address them on a "case by case" basis. I can explain this better, perhaps, in a separate post, when I find time. Or, you can read Hayek--or Friedman, for that matter.

  5. Alright sounds like I have to read Hayek.

    "Planning, by contrast, is a system of government behavior in which the government sets a positive agenda and carries it out using political means."

    This is where all the good philosophers (in my mind) get off the libertarian train: there is no government that doesn't have a "positive agenda." As one guy says, liberalism is the only moral system that tries to convince us it's not a moral system. And it does a very good job of that.

    Also in my experience with libertarians, I would have guessed libertarians are the ones who like case-by-case. "Predictable, automatic, and standardized" sounds like foodstamps, unemployment pay, minimum wage, Head Start, death panels, and one-size-fits-all federal solutions. The libertarians I spent my summer with a few years ago seemed to find all statistics on poverty or "living wage" morally repulsive because regional-costs-of-living weren't factored in: they essentially used a need for case-by-case evaluation to justify stripping away the entire welfare state. But maybe this was not very Hayek-ian of them.

    So I guess my understanding of libertarianism is not as Hayek-ian as it should be.

    1. I think most libertarians need a more Hayekian view, but here's one place you could start:

      I completely disagree with you on this: "liberalism is the only moral system that tries to convince us it's not a moral system." The whole point of classical liberalism--as stated quite explicitly in The Wealth of Nations--is to constrain government to arbitrating justice and providing for the defense of the people. I'm not sure what you think I mean by positive agenda. Arbitrating justice between people is not what I mean by positive agenda. A positive agenda would be, for example, training a certain number of mathematicians each year or making sure the percentage of women in the work place reaches a satisfactory level. A government constrained by classical liberal principles could not pursue such goals explicitly, no matter how desirable they are, because it might require coercing people even when no moral law has been broken.

      Your laundry list of government programs is interesting because all of those examples are extremely different from one another. Let me give you, from my interpretation of Hayek, what he'd approve of and what he wouldn't approve of, perhaps subject to slight modification:

      (1) food stamps: approve
      (2) unemployment pay: approve
      (3) minimum wage: disapprove
      (4) Head Start: disapprove
      (5) death penals: wtf omg disapprove

      "One-size-fits-all federal solutions" are not actually solutions, and that's the thing we should always keep in mind. The government should play a role in alleviating poverty and distress, but it can't actually solve the problems that cause them. This is where I believe libertarianism and conservatism are both more reasonable than modern liberalism. If you want to actually solve the problems that lead to poverty, you do have to work on a case by case basis, which I think that precludes the possibility of finding political solutions. Real long-term solutions come from real relationships between people, not from institutions formed to reach political ends.


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