Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Guest Gentleman: Libertarianism

Today's post comes to us courtesy of K. Cerqueira, an educated gentleman who will today teach us a little more about the philosophy behind Libertarianism.

"There is all the difference in the world between treating people equally and attempting to make them equal." - Hayek

Quick philosophy lesson kids, you've probably heard this one. Say you're standing next to a train track shortly before a fork junction. On one side, 5 people lay tied up, and on the other side there's this fat guy. There's a switch in front of you that you can pull to flip the fork, sending the train to kill the fat guy while saving the other 5. What do you do?

Well there was this guy called Kant who didn't precisely have an opinion on this question (it was devised later by dumber philosophers who write useless papers for a living, in between giving puerile lectures at diploma mills) but he did have this to say about it: every action you take should be in accordance with some universal law which is applicable in all situations. A set of such universal moral laws is called a deontology because it proscribes a set of duties. So if your deontology says something like, thou shalt not murder, then the particulars of the situation, i.e. the very contrived way in which the consequences are set up, don't really matter. You'd be killing a guy by pulling the lever, so you can't contradict yourself by doing so. There are further complications in this example but we aren't philosophers playing fucked up language games, so let's keep it simple.

So who the fuck cares. Well we might, because deontologists like Kant are distinguished from consequentialists (utilitarians) by their view that it is motives and not consequences that define morality. A utilitarian might say, pull the lever, because five lives are more valuable than a single (fat) one. Kant says, if we allow that murder is permissible, we'd have a difficult time universalizing that maxim without logically contradicting ourselves. If, say, we can't obtain a self evident universal maxim that justifies pulling the lever, then we have to conclude that murder is not permissible maybe, and not pull the lever. What's important is that you act within a framework of universal law.

Alright so then there's libertarians. Libertarians have a strong view of rights, naturally, because they're pretty preoccupied with liberty (hint: it's in the name). That gives us a pretty good idea about the libertarian deontology. The liberties and rights of individuals are inviolable, and liberty is the primary universal good, says the libertarian. This, they say, we take to be our self evident universal maxim. And we take that to it's logical end to get our ideal model of the state, namely minimal central authorities that only exist to protect private liberties, property, and national sovereignty, and so on.

So you pose a thought experiment to a libertarian, that there's a minority demographic which seems to be systematically underperforming in economic and social terms. You offer the following dilemma. Option one is that you can institute various policy measures, special funding for various social programs and the like, aimed specifically to improve the econometrics of that demographic. Option two is do nothing.

This is kind of like the train fork story. There are two consequences; the systemic disadvantages faced by the demographic in question, and the increased taxation, short term loss of utility, and inconvenience faced by the rest of society for accommodating the implementation of social programs and etc. In consequentialist terms, the former is the lesser of two evils, just like 1 life is less valuable than 5. But the first option is also a possible impingement upon individual liberties, so Libertarians get Kunty and say no, this is not the role of the state, and it isn't fair/moral to do, option two please.

So why do libertarians think personal freedom is so important? Well they do, for a bunch of reasons. Read John Locke or Ayn Rand if you want to see why. The point is that they do and that's where they get their notions of fairness in society. But wait a second, what about all this free markets shit?

Well there are really two ways to argue for libertarianism. The one we've been talking about is the argument from morality, or deontological libertarianism. That is, it's the argument that Libertarianism is a good policy because it is a just policy. Free market arguments for Libertarianism try to demonstrate that it is practical economic policy. The difference is is that the latter is a consequentialist view; it is concerned with the practical consequences of implementing a libertarian state.

Q: Hey, what the fuck. First Libertarians are fuzzy metaphysicians arguing from some abstract as fuck moral philosophy, now they're economists?

Well yes, they're often both, but you'll notice the quote above is basically a normative statement (a statement about the way things should be), or a statement about fairness. The free markets shit can be decoupled from the fairness part, although you'll often find libertarians switching between the two aspects of their ideology in a fast and loose manner.

So say now that we're consequentialist libertarians who talk a lot about economics and free markets and shit. Then given the dilemma with the minority demographic blah blah, we'd again choose option two but not out of some allegiance to liberty as an abstract universal greatest good, but because we think that instituting social programs can only result in a net loss in welfare for everybody. So it's not like the train dilemma at all, it's as if we could do nothing and let five people die, or pull the lever and kill twenty more. Why do they think this? Bunch of reasons, read John Locke or Ayn Rand or Friedrich Hayek I guess. This free market pandering sort of economics is usually based at least in part on the theoretical framework of what is called Austrian economics, which is radically different from mainstream Keynesian economics. Wikipedia that shit.

Q: First we based libertarianism on metaphysical moral grounds and saw that it was maybe a little too silly to run a country with, and then we talked about an economic reasoning which got rid of the silly part. It seems like Libertarians say that their ideas are fair except when they're not fair in which case it's the magic of economics that makes it practical which makes it fair. Isn't the economics side of the argument just contrived to make the moral side of it less stupid?


Q: One more question. If the demographic minority in your example are some ethnic minority like blacks or hispanics, what do the libertarians have to say about that?

A bunch of things. At any rate they believe that any policy that amounts to affirmative action is unjust and shouldn't be implemented, and anything that causes undue taxation is definitely bad anyway. Some believe that the whole problem of racial discrimination is something that will sort itself out if the the government would ever stop meddling, or at least that it's something that the government can't make any better. Others believe that, given the same rights and freedoms, any two groups have the same potential for prosperity in a free market, so that any difference in incomes is concluded to be a result of a difference in aptitude among those two groups. That is, to defend free markets as equitable, it might be necessary to argue for racism (or racialism or race realism or whatever the fuck ever).

Q: That's pretty fucking convenient for anyone arguing against libertarianism. Just play the race card and you're done! Isn't that kind of lame?

It can be pretty lame, but racism is consistent with libertarianism, even if it isn't a mainstream view. It can't be the case that free markets secure the best social and economic outcomes for the population if some are systemically discriminated against for no economic reason. For the vast majority of libertarians who aren't (overtly) racist, they have to address the problem of differences in income across different ethnicities and demographics, which can't be explained economically if there is no heritable difference in aptitude between say, blacks and whites. If you're a racist, then you have a tidy explanation for that income disparity and hence, you don't have a problem here.

That's all, hope it was educational. Know what you're arguing for or against.

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