Friday, April 17, 2009

Libertarianism and Civic Engagement

As always I've been following the conversation going on at Cato Unbound, this time on the prospect of the the prospects of projects like seasteading and the Free State Project. My reaction to these sort of projects is mixed.

I believe in wild experimentation, if only because it encourages people to entertain far out but good ideas.  I hope Patri Friedman's seasteading project brings some benefit. I doubt they can hurt.

Yet I have pretty strong reservations. For one, I doubt these projects will succeed in their primary goals of creating free societies. As Jason Sorens alludes to, these kind of projects will tend to attract the most socially marginized of libertarians- that is to say, loonies. And there are a lot of libertarian loonies, many of whom have crazy, even repugnant, views (remember the Ron Paul campaign?). I have my doubts that these kind of folks will create a blossoming utopia, even if their actual policy preferences may be closer to mine in many ways than the average American voter.  A flourishing and just society requires more than people who distrust government. It requires a certain kind of civic mindedness. Bigotted views like nationalism, homophobia, and xenophobia are socially destructive, whether or not they are specifically carried out in public policy. A lot of libertarians might be afraid to admit it, but it's pretty clear to me that a society with fairly libertarian political institutions filled with vicious homophobes or racists will likely be a less just society than a socially tolerant social democracy. 

I also feel that libertarians, and others authentically interested in promoting human flourishing, can do real things to improve the lot of people by being engaged in mainstream society. Radley Balko at Reason has done a great deal to bring to problem of paramilitary police force in the U.S. to light, has exposed corruption in government, and may end up saving an innocent man from death row. There are lot of people who are suffering at the hands of the state, and most of them, at least in the short term, will not benefit from seasteading or the Free State Project. They often can be helped by passionate advocates like Balko. 

I feel part of the problem here is that libertarians focus on the issues that their ideology highlights, especially in contrast to other ideologies, such as taxation and regulation (though conservatives tend to support lower taxes, they also tend to support hugely expensive ventures like the Iraq war). But its precicely on areas where there's potential for common ground with others that a lot of progress might be made. There is, for example, the possibility of a growing consensus on drug decriminilization in the U.S. Libertarians can do and have done a lot to bring the horrors of the War on Drugs to light. This is all to say that thoughtful, constructive civic engagement can improve the lives of many people, and this seems like something libertarians ought to be interested in. 

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Stop Questioning Motives and Start Convincing People

Crookedtimber is a great blog with a lot of insightful writing. But there's also quite a bit of "Wow, look at how dumb and vicious conservatives are! Haha!" This post from John Holbo, about an editorial in National Review, is a good example:

What do the editors [of National Review], and Gallagher, really think? The
ick argument, I’ll wager. They want to stop same-sex marriage as a way of
sending a message of ‘ick’ to gays, and about gays. But they also don’t want to
be labeled homophobes. That is, although saying ‘gay marriage shouldn’t be
allowed because I believe gay sex is icky’ is actually a less terrible argument
than anything they’ve got – hey, it’s not flagrantly internally incoherent, it’s
basically honest (I’ll wager), and who doesn’t believe that on some level people
steer, morally, by emotional attraction-repulsion drive? – it’s considered
embarrassing. (Homophobia: the yuck that dare not speak its name.) And, even if
it weren’t embarrassing, it’s obviously not strong enough in the current
environment. So what do you do? You end up thoughtlessly backing into something
that’s frankly orders of magnitude worse than just saying gay sex is icky.
Namely, gays are un-persons, so far as the state is concerned.
What makes
these arguments so weird is the mildness of the underlying opposition to
homosexuals and homosexuality – the implicit inclination to be basically
tolerant. ‘C’mon, gays, you know you’re ok, and we know you’re ok, and you even
know that we know you’re ok, but we don’t like it, so can’t there be some way
that we can insist on us being a little better than you? It can be a small
thing. Symbolic, but slightly inconvenient for you, so people know it’s also
I also like the sweet innocence of the assertion that “marriage is
by nature the union of a man and a woman.” My very own daughter is charming in
just the same way. Just the other day she was asking which boy cats the various
girl cats in the neighborhood are ‘married to’. There are kittens in our
neighborhood, you see.

Now, I strongly disagree with almost everything in the NR editorial, but this sort of snarky psychoanalysis only serves to pander to the sense of superiority of people who already agree with Holbo's view. Shouldn't we be trying to convince conservatives that their view is wrong, rather than antagonize them?

I doubt the editors of National Review will be ever be convinced, but I suspect that there are plenty of people with conservative sensibilities who can be convinced that there are conservative reasons to favor the expansion of marriage rights. Heck, based on some stuff that I've heard from him, George Will seems to have been quietly convinced by the patient, non-condescending, and careful arguments of Jonathan Rauch.

I hope that it will someday be seen as common sense that antagonizing people you disagree with almost never has any constructive purpose. People who recognize this should do more to point it out.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Just desert for me, please!

I just finished listening to this bloggingheads episode with Will Wilkinson and Lew Daly. I haven't read Daly's book, so I can only address his argument as he presents it in the dialvlog (boy, I hate that word). I want to focus on what Daly's argument highlights for me about the deficiencies of a desert-based theory of distribution, and points to the necessity for more fruitful arguments for a system of individual desert and responsibility.

Will Wilkinson gives an excellent summary and refutation of Daly's argument. I find his argument pretty unconvincing, largely because, like Wilkinson, I don't really buy a pure desert-theory of distribution.

Daly claims to be making a political, as opposed to philosophical, argument. I can see what he's getting at. Most people who defend the existing distribution of wealth do so on the basis of desert. I think Daly is using this sort of logic against itself. This is fine, but I would take it more as a reductio of purely desert based arguments, not as an argument for radical redistribution, as Daly would seem to have it.

What this says to me is that libertarians ought to follow Hayek and abandon the desert based argument all together. The tricky part is, I think we should still argue for a desert and individual based ethic, but not on the basis that such an ethic has any sort of basis in fact, but rather because such an ethic is the most conducive to desirable social outcomes.

The problem with this kind of take is that it sets one up as having to sort of hold up a noble lie. I say "sort of" because I don't see as one. For me, its perfectly fine to say the ethic of personal responsibility is endogenous to a just system (to paraphrase DWAnderson, a particular astute commenter on Wilkinson's blog). But for many folks, this isn't going to cut it. People want to believe that their moral instincts have a deep reality behind them. This brings me to a cute way I came up with to describe this problem: Ethical inquiry tends to put us in a position of having to at once critique our culture and participate in it.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

One of the Problems with Conservatism

I have to say that, much as I try to avoid snark, this James Poulos post really makes me inclined to let some loose. Intead I'm gonna try to give some well reasoned and civil reactions.

Behind all of the academic sounding language there lurks the most fundamental, and wrong, conservative belief: Our culture is in a state of decay.

Smart conservatives like Poulos seem to me forced to revert to increasingly opaque arguments to make this point. This may be because there's so much to say against it.

If you think abortion is a great moral crime, I'll admit that there may be some reason to hold contempory society in low regard. But there's one consideration that conservatives seem to systematically ignore: Might it be that private behavior was not in any real sense more virtuous, but people just didn't talk about it? After living in conservative China for two years, I'm increasingly inclined to think this is correct. Given the past strong taboos surrounding talking about anything sexual, and the fact that clearly all kinds of nastiness was out in the open in the past, wouldn't this be the more parsimonious explanation?

It is probably true that teenagers are more sexually active than in the past, but again I want to suggest that there is a far simpler explanation than the standard conservative cultureal decay theories: More effective birth control has drastically reduced the cost of having sex.

It seems like Poulos wants to have a neat picture that views political correctness as not only inneffective, but also causing the kind of social decay that conservatives bemoan. But shouldn't one at least consider that social norms have simply responded to technological and economic changes, and that, on balance, these have been positive?

As an aside, I think this relates to Jonathan Haidt's ideas about morality. What we're seeing are sensibilities that are becoming more liberal, and less deferential to the sources of authority to try to regulate sexual behaviour, like religion. The thing is, society as a whole really does seem to have become more humane in ways that, I'm pretty sure, almost all smart and thoughtful conservatives like Poulos accept.

I suspect that Haidt is right and that conservatives just have different sensibilities that tends to make them regard sexual promiscuity as more than just imprudent or aesthetically unpleasing, but morally wrong. If you feel that way, you're going to be inclined to agree with Poulos that there is something valuable being eroded in today's society. But even if you accept that presupisition, this seems a bit silly:

"Yet the regulation of the sexual mores of the young, with or without condoms, continues to lose steam and confidence justified by any standard other than official gentleness — with all the efficiency value, as a constant in the risk-calculation factor of resource-allocation projections, that mass gentleness has for officialdom. But our public obsession with security and health parallels our ‘private’ tastes for risk and self-poisoning, and our loving, de-eroticized pieties concerning Respect for All grow apace with our beastly appetite for erotic impieties."

I think you could also read this through a Haidtist lense, as saying that liberal sensibilities neglect certain kinds of private sexual morality. But my basic reaction is still mostly, 'huh?'. There are just so many dubious and unsupported assertions about society here. Have we really become privately more attracted to risk and "self-poisining"? I mean, what's the reason to even suspect this other than being horrified watching E?

Even if we have ,what exactly does encouraging children not to call each other ‘retard’ or ‘faggot’ have to do with it? It certainly seems farfetched that there’s some kind of negative correlation between positive social norms and negative private ones. Rather, it seems more likely that people are more humane, in a liberal sense, both in public and in private, but perhaps more immoral by conservative standards. This may just be because sexual norms have changed along with many things in our society. If you have conservative sensibilities, you find some of these changes to be for the worse.

I guess what I’m getting at is that Poulos is saying nothing substantive here other than “Public and private norms have become more liberal. I’m a conservative, so I disapprove of liberal sexual norms.” I suspect he’s saying that private sexual behavior is somehow destructive beyond the conservative sexual purity sense, but then I’d want to know in what way and what that has to do with ideas about public morality.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

The New Polis

Hi folks, 

Due to a mishap with my old Google account I was forced to to abandon the old blog and start a new one (there may well be a way to salvage it, but I'm lazy and mostly computer illiterate). So I'm taking it as an opportunity to blog more consistently, now that I have access to a PC at home. I'm also a little relieved to be able to divorce myself a bit from my previous writing. So consider this an attempt at a new start. Of course, it isn't clear that I'll actually do anything differently.