« Words Fail Me | Main | One Percent »

June 21, 2006

Comments

Excellent post.

I'm no expert on libertarianism (not even close), but I gather their central complaint is that governments by their nature are either too inefficient or susceptible to political influences to be the keeper of the public services which you outline.

For instance, libertarians would probably have no argument against the existence of traffic laws, but may instead argue that traffic laws could have come about in the same way that technical standards such as ASCII came about once people got sick of gridlock and accidents. (Not sure how the purists would address enforcement).

Likewise, they believe that private organizations would be better at administrating certain social functions currently overseen by government agencies such as the FDA, EPA, etc.

If it all seems like a rose by any other name, the primary libertarian argument is that bad private organizations can be eliminated/corrected via the free market where bad governments cannot (at least not easily -- and in totalitarian cases, not at all).

Personally, I find the purist libertarian perspective a bit Utopian in the same, but opposite way that I find Socialism/Communism a bit Utopian -- both are too dependent on some ideal vision of human behavior.

Most interesting and enjoyable.

. . . libertarians would probably have no argument against the existence of traffic laws, but may instead argue that traffic laws could have come about in the same way that technical standards such as ASCII came about . . .

And you'll probably find libertarians arguing -- with some justification -- that that's exactly how the bulk of our traffic laws and conventions did come about, via what Rothbard and Hayek called "spontaneous order." Traffic laws, as such, are just a codification of what emerged as more people drove automobiles. Personally, I have no problem with that; as order and convention emerges within systems that have that kind of societal impact, it often makes sense to codify them legally.

Likewise, they believe that private organizations would be better at administrating certain social functions currently overseen by government agencies such as the FDA, EPA, etc.

In some cases, yes; in others, no. But the question should always be asked, "Is government the best/least-worst/most efficient way to accomplish this task?" In her food-safety example, hilzoy jumps from "I don't want to test all my food myself" to "Let's get an FDA going here, stat!" by ignoring about a dozen or so intervening possibilities. (I always like to bring up Underwriters Laboratories as a counterexample. I understand that even that relies upon a legal/government framework that includes product liability, insurance, tort law, etc. But it's a valid point in terms of accomplishing a task that doesn't have to be surrendered to government. Likewise, the FASB, despite its strong ties to and reliance on a government framework, is a private organization.)

Phil,

I can see things like driving on the right emerging more or less spontaneously, but what about things like speed limits and traffic lights? Surely these require some central authority. People aren't going to agree that N-S traffic goes for thirty seconds, and then E-W traffic goes for twenty seconds, spontaneously.

Traffic lights are interesting also in that they sacrifice a measure of fairness (i.e. first-come, first-served) in order to achieve higher throughput. Not sure whose side that argues for, though.

Well, I think we can distinguish between traffic control devices and traffic laws, although I'm not sure I can articulate it well. But, ideally, traffic control devices arise from and change in response to individual driver behavior and patterns -- an intersection that was fine with a 4-way stop might eventually require a light due to changes in density, things like that -- rather than any kind of centrally-determined predictions about how traffic is going to change. Those are generally doomed to disaster. (Trust me, I live in Fairfax County, VA, the poster child for "doomed to disaster" traffic management.)

Speed limits, however, particularly for freeways, are generally set far lower than the "natural" speed limits that safe, competent drivers would find themselves driving at. There is a spontaneously-arising set of speed limits; the powers-that-be set the legal ones lower. (Have the states that have raised theirs in the last several years found themselves with any significant increases in per capita accidents or fatalities? I honestly don't know.)

Anyway, I have no particular beef with the concept of traffic laws or signals (particular applications, on the other hand, like the four-minute light I wait at every morning . . . ); just pointing out that spontaneously ordering systems do exist on various scales, and many of our laws and customs are reflections of them.

Phil: I didn't mean to ignore possible alternatives to the FDA; just to say that as far as I'm concerned, the FDA produces a net gain in freedom over me doing the testing, and that since it seems to be working, I see no reason to mess with it.

Oh, sure, although these days there's a lot about the FDA that could use changing. Anyway, I'm just saying that, from any given starting point, the necessary answer to "How can I stop wasting my time performing this function?" is not always "Let the government do it."

Phil: I agree completely. (Also about the need to change other parts of the FDA. Longer story, though.)

slippery slope towards socialism

I wonder if it's because the freedom-as-opportunity view doesn't require capitalism -- so poof! there goes the lovely proof that one's favored system is required by justice. Ouch! I can relate, having in my youth had my face rubbed in the non-infallibility of dogmatic Marxism.

Nowadays I'm a fallible and hopefully non-dogmatic anarcho-socialist. I'd love to see us slide down that ol' slippery slope, because I see capitalism as causing both misery (starvation, wars) and recklessness (global warming). And partly because I see a rough egalitarianism as a good in itself, come to think of it.

But I'd agree that freedom-as-opportunity is a crucial way of judging the worth of a society -- I just have different beliefs about the best way of getting maximal opportunity.

FDR's Second Bill of Rights

"This Republic had its beginning, and grew to its present strength, under the protection of certain inalienable political rights—among them the right of free speech, free press, free worship, trial by jury, freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures. They were our rights to life and liberty.

As our nation has grown in size and stature, however—as our industrial economy expanded—these political rights proved inadequate to assure us equality in the pursuit of happiness.

We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. “Necessitous men are not free men.” People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made." ...FDR

I would regard these, as additions to the First Bill of Rights, viewed as rights not privileges, the minimum and possibly the maximum requirements of an equal opportunity society, a free society.

the question should always be asked, "Is government the best/least-worst/most efficient way to accomplish this task?"

That's true as long as "best" encompasses more than mere economic efficiency. Sometimes government should do something because it can do it more fairly than a private entity, or more reliably. With regard to the latter, how would the incessant pressure for cost-cutting affect a private-sector equivalent of FEMA or CDC? Not well, I think. Sometimes there are multiple ways of doing something, with one way more cost-effective and therefore likely to be favored by a profit-making entity but another actually better for the people. Lastly, there are things government does because they simply can't be entrusted to the private sector. Consider the military as an example of that.

It's great when organizations like Underwriters Labs can handle what might otherwise be regulatory tasks of government. We should seek and pursue such opportunities whenever possible, but we should also never lose sight of the fact that government is not there to make a profit. Government often explicitly assumes responsibilities that business wouldn't touch, and their efficiency in discharging those responsibilities must be measured in something other than dollars. That doesn't mean fiscal efficiency doesn't matter, but it's not the measure of government.

To amplify Platypus' point, consider the many reasons why we do not want to replace the US Armed Forces with a competitive market in armies.

Even the accidents are not intentional interferences with anyone's freedom, unless they were deliberate ... For this reason, as far as I can see, someone who thinks that government interference with individual freedom can be justified only when it is necessary to protect us from greater interferences by others (e.g., murder, assault, theft, or invasion) should regard the traffic laws as illegitimate

I don't think that most libertarians hold that harm has to be intentional to be considered an infringement, merely that the harm be a byproduct of a choice by the actor. By chosing to drive a car, you accept the risk that you may cause an accident and be held liable for it. Some libertarians accept preemptive restriction of behaviors that are highly likely to result in harm (ex. driving drunk or shooting a gun randomly in a populated area) whereas others (I think Rothbard is an example, but may be wrong) think that the behaviors should be detered primarily by the risk of torts resulting from the damage done.

As for traffic rules and signals, the road presumably is someone's property, and in the case of public roads, the government's, so the road's proprietor has the right to set the terms of usage. It would be illegitimate for the government to set the rules for private as well as public roads, but private road proprietors would be inclined to set rules and supply the means of indicating and enforcing them to maximize the value of the road for customers, as the gov't's does for its "customer," the public as a whole.

With regard to the latter, how would the incessant pressure for cost-cutting affect a private-sector equivalent of FEMA or CDC? Not well, I think.

There's actually some direct evidence to this effect, viz. the private contractor (whose name I suddenly forget) that was supposed to help New Orleans in the event of a catastrophe like Katrina and simply failed in its duties.

others (I think Rothbard is an example, but may be wrong) think that the behaviors should be detered primarily by the risk of torts resulting from the damage done.

This sort of idea is what makes much libertarianism seem insane to me. Why in the world shouldn't the government prevent drunk driving (or shooting a gun into a crowd!!) rather than wait for the actual damage to happen. Lawsuits do not bring people back to life, or un-paralyze them. And why is the government action needed to conduct a trial and enforce a judgement more legitimate than simple laws aagainst idiotic behavior?

I guess the idea is that you can't prevent all behavior that creates risk for others. But why that suggests you can't make judgments about degrees of risk, etc. is incomprehensible. I tend to class this sort of thinking with Marxist orthodoxy. Blind ideology trumps common sense and real-world conditions in both cases.

I do understand that you did not endorse this position. I also believe that those who do, (including Rothbard? - I don't know either) enjoy some prestige in libertarian circles.

The common libertarian fascination with tort is one of the things that drove me into a realization that I no longer believed in the stuff.

In the first place, lawsuits produce outcomes that are more widely and more unpredictably variable than regulation. They also cost a lot. And then we see libertarians joining in support of measures that would restrict most people's access to civil lawsuits...which means, "We'll cut off the existing channel and make sure you don't have a replacement." That's not liberty-increasing, to put it mildly.

Benard/Bruce - Regulation via torts arguments tend to strike me as having the same flaws as arugments for ecomonic planning - they object to inefficiencies in other models, but assume that their model will work just fine despite the fact that it's glaringly obvious that it won't.

On the other hand, sending people to jail won't bring people back to life either. Most of the time law enforcement does not have the opportunity to preempt the harm done, so relying on deterence via the torts system for civil matters isn't that radically different that relying on deterence via crimial law. Implementing a torts-driven regulatory system wouldn't lead to anarchy so much as endless litigation.

From the libertarian perspective, a strong objection to torts-based regulation is that it allows someone to force a transaction on you. If my neighbor hates my cat sufficiently that that he expects that the compensation that a jury would extract from him is less valuable to him than being rid of my cat, he has no reason not to kill it. I may be compensated for my loss, but the terms were determined entirely by my neighbor and the jury.

sending people to jail won't bring people back to life either. Most of the time law enforcement does not have the opportunity to preempt the harm done,

OK, but law enforcement does preempt harm some of the time, and it does not eliminate tort liability. In fact, in the case of drunk driving I'd say the general crackdown we've seen in recent decades has made a huge difference. Further it seems to me to be a much better deterrent than tort liability. I suspect many potential drunk drivers worry more about being picked up by the police than about causing accidents.

Given that law enforcement does work, and still allows tort claims, I think the burden is on its opponents to show why it shouldn't be used, rather than on its proponents to show that it is perfect.

Bernard - I agree that the preemptive role of law enforcement works as a complement to deterence, but wanted to point out that eliminating it wouldn't necessarily mean that people will suddenly start shooting randomly into crowds or driving drunk with no thought of the consequences because libertarians of all stripes sometimes get accused of wanting a society where people shoot randomly into crowds and drive around drunk out of their minds.

Matt,

Of course the "forced transaction" issue arises any time penalties are prescribed by other than the victim. This is an argument for vigorous deterrence. Another problem with torts is that the person doing the damage may be "judgment-proof," that is, he may lack the ability to pay the damages.

And to the extent that that irresponsible people tend both to have financial problems and to behave recklessly that becomes a serious issue.

hilzoy- I've been offline the last couple of days so I'm just getting to this, but I always thought of libertarianism as a tendency or way of looking at things rather than an absolute. As an economist I naturally think that much of our lives are determined through interaction with the economy. (hopefully not the most important parts but still...) The state has grew pretty much inexorably for much of the last century. I personaly love the provision of free stuff but I worry that more and more of our lives will end up under close government control and supervision. That wouldn't be so bad, but I think that it's inevitable that bad actors like President Bush will sometimes end up with supreme power in systems like that, and then you are living in the movie Brazil.

Frank: I personaly love the provision of free stuff but I worry that more and more of our lives will end up under close government control and supervision. That wouldn't be so bad, but I think that it's inevitable that bad actors like President Bush will sometimes end up with supreme power in systems like that, and then you are living in the movie Brazil.

The thing is, though, that while in a non-democracy you do have to fear the government - and in a democracy, it's vital to keep politicians reminded that they are appointed by us and work for us and can be voted out by us if we're not happy - I fear what happens under a system where corporations have control. Because, even in a non-democracy, government usually functions with some sense of responsibility towards the citizens (the Bush administration is an exception, yes, but still) but a corporation doesn't even have that: a corporation has responsibility only to the shareholders, and to them, only the responsibility of making a profit. Often the shareholders in a corporation are another corporation - pension companies and the like - who further impose on a corporation only the responsibility of making a profit.

More and more of our lives are under close corporate control and supervision, whether as customers or employees. I see a strong democratic government as the best means of protecting citizen's rights against encroaching corporations: I can think of worse movies than Brazil to be in, when a corporate drive to profit runs everything.

And that, to me, is the primary problem with right-wing libertarianism: the notion that restrictions on individual freedom are perfectly fine if imposed by a corporation for profit.

Jes- What you say is true and yet...While corporations are sociopaths their need for profit is a constraint that is predicable, and even though the corp may be evil you often have the choice of doing business with someone else, thats not as true with govenrments. Also I can't think of a corporation which can simultaneously get all your financial records and all your phonecalls while also examining what you are doing on the internet.

And while I'm ok with universal healthcare at this point, I'm pretty sure its going to turn out that its cost efective to keep constant medical telemetry on all of us at some point in the near future. I don't want to imagine what kind of abuses that will make possible, but I think we'll all see.

Frank: While corporations are sociopaths their need for profit is a constraint that is predicable, and even though the corp may be evil you often have the choice of doing business with someone else, thats not as true with govenrments.

I don't care for a system where my "choice" comes down to which sociopath I can "do business" with.

I'm pretty sure its going to turn out that its cost efective to keep constant medical telemetry on all of us at some point in the near future. I don't want to imagine what kind of abuses that will make possible, but I think we'll all see.

Oh, I can easily imagine a corporate employer assuming the right to keep constant medical telemetry on all its employees - and possibly, all its customers, if that was profitable. The only way to stop that kind of abuse would be the power of people acting collectively to enforce sane rules and restrictions on corporations - government, in other words.

"I think that once we have satisfied the conditions already mentioned, we should try to set things up in such a way that the least well off have as much money as possible. To the extent that inequality works to provide incentives that benefit everyone, either by motivating people to do useful things or by discouraging behavior that benefits no one, fine. But given a choice between two systems, one of which provides greater rewards to the most well off but less to the least well off, while the second makes the poorest a little less poor at the cost of reducing the benefits to the rich, I think we should choose the second."

I think you have hit the crux of the problem between liberals and libertarians here. A liberal tends to believe that 'to the extent that' will be a fairly smallish amount. A libertarian tends to believe that it will be a huge amount. The incentive to avoid failure can be very motivating.

A good liberal/libertarian economic critique of the Bush administration would notice that he has dramatically softened the threat of failure for some large companies. Instead of allowing the market to force reform on their bad practices, they get propped up. Instead of allowing them to be sidelined in favor of other companies that could do better, they get massive assistance from the government. This hurts the companies that could do better and hurts the public which would benefit from the company that would do better.

The same is true of individuals.

If 'freedom' doesn't allow for the freedom to fail, it won't often inspire improvement.

I can buy into the desire to provide government services at very basic levels since some failure is just bad luck. I can even buy into the idea that providing that basic level to everyone who is below it is more efficient than trying to figure out who was hit by bad luck and who caused the problems themselves. But I believe that the extent that unequal outcomes motivates positive change is very large, so I'm skeptical of trying to largely cushion it.

Seb: I'm not sure that the amount needed is, in fact, small. I do tend to think that e.g. the marginal tax rate going up or down by a few percent on high incomes is not significant, but I also tend to assume that, say, a system whose result was that those who made the most money (the Bill Gates and Warren Buffets of the hypothetical world) made, say, only ten times the amount that those who made the least made would not be optimal.

For my money, the big differences will come in the equality of opportunity part, not the difference principle part. Education; health care.

Certainly for me right now, the big concern is the kinds of things that folks at the bottom (and anywhere else but the top) should be expected to worry about, and in what ways. I'm much less concerned about what goes on at the top as long as the foundation is secure. It's just that so often raising the ceiling comes precisely at the expense of the foundation, like now.

I think that a society where a significant fraction of the population is in dread and uncertainty about basic elements of life is unhealthy, and is at risk for demagoguery and tyranny. In fact, I basically agree with Bismarck about this.

hilzoy -

I'm a little late to this discussion, so it's possible no one will see it, but I'd like to give it a shot.

I'd like to take issue with the idea of freedom-as-opportunities. Now, I always dread to write responses that are not really responding to the point being made, so please tell me if I've failed to faithfully reproduce your argument. I just finished reading all three parts, and I have no interest in arguing with a straw man.

The liberal (I say liberal not in the modern American sense, but in the original sense -- as I'm a hard determinist, it's not appropriate to call me "libertarian") ideal, as I see it, is not and has never been of freedom as the opportunities available to you.

To start, I'd like to challlenge something you said about rights:
"As the preceding examples illustrate, one apparent difference between freedom as non-interference and freedom as opportunity is that the latter is something we can maximize, whereas this is a lot less clear about the former. (That is: it's clear that in some cases interfering with people's freedoms will produce gains in opportunities; it's less clear that interfering with their freedom can produce gains in non-interference.)"

I'd very much disagree with this. Freedom as non-interference is far easier to maximize than freedom as opportunities. The concept of boundless opportunity, especially when you earlier described physical limitations themselves as constraints, is an apparent imossibility. Any constraint, including a physical law, automatically makes opportunities impossible to maximize. There will always be things that people in their given circumstances can't do (indeed, as a hard determinist, I'd argue that "opportunities" are maximally limited no matter what you do, but choice may not be -- another discussion for another time, perhaps), no matter how resources are distributed.
On the other hand, the idea of maximizing freedom as non-interference is easy to formulate, because it's based not on the principle of having no effect on someone else, but on not doing harm, e.g., physical harm or stealing (though of course we have to be realistic about what is verifiable harm). One can sum that up as, "your right to swing your fist ends at my nose" -- to slightly alter Justice Holmes' saying, "My right to swing my fist ends where your nose begins." This is (you might recognize) a nice formulation of the concept of "negative rights." If this is enforced, that allows for the maximum possible degree of freedom without harm.

I'd like to respond to some of the statements you made, some normative and some not:
Statement 1: "As far as I can tell, libertarians think that freedom is not being coerced by other people, either directly or through various organizations including the government. I, by contrast, think a person is free to the extent that she has the opportunity to live the sort of life she chooses."

I believe that this ideal -- maximizing each person's opportunity to live the sort of life he/she chooses -- becomes impossible right from the beginning. Nobody can live the life he or she chooses. Even supposing people had limited wants -- a supposition against which I would argue -- how would it be possible to secure all of those wants if any of the things that people want are exclusive goods?
For example, say two people out of all the people in the world each wish they could live alone on top of the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, to have the roof of that building all to themselves. Automatically, those two people will be unable to live the life of their choosing, because if one gets the roof to herself, the other cannot have the roof to himself. How do we resolve this conflict, since neither's idea of the life they want to lead involves sharing the roof of the Getty with another person? In short, the problem is scarcity.

What it comes down to is that each person must be willing to do something to have that exclusive good.
Liberals tend to follow the economic logic of this situation, combined with the idea of negative rights, to queue the attainment of that exclusive good by what each person is willing to give to the current owners of the Getty Museum. In a society where the Getty curators are under no obligation to open the rooftop to anyone, nor to provide it to one person or the other of the two people in the world who would like to live there, they can decide for themselves what someone has to do to attain it. Perhaps, given their current situation, they prefer the roof to be unoccupied. Or perhaps, as is often the case, the Getty curators recognize that they do want certain things and have something valuable to trade for the things they want. In this case, they can do what every liberal economist would expect them to do: queue it by means of the price mechanism.
Say they set up a minimum price at which they are willing to consider opening the rooftop to residence, and start an auction.
The two people who want to live there both see living on the roof as part of the life they want to lead, but they are unequal in talent and luck -- perhaps one was just born earlier and got a head start on earning money. One has more money than the other, because in this liberal fantasyland, one has been able to trade her labor for more things that other people value, e.g., units of currency. If she has done no harm to anyone else in the attainment of this currency, if she has not cheated or stolen to attain her currency and has only obtained that currency through consensual activity, then her ability to afford what she wants is determined solely by her service to her fellow men and women. They have all traded things to her based on their perceived valuation of what she had to offer.
So the exclusive good goes to the person who has given the most to society.
That is, for many, the liberal fantasyland, Libertopia in a nutshell.

But what of our other person who wanted that exclusive good? He's unhappy because he was unable to obtain it given his lesser contribution to society, as perceived by those with whom he had to trade. It may seem awfully unfair that he wasn't endowed at the time with as much "opportunity" as the person who is happy with her current home atop the Getty, but he couldn't have led the life he wanted to lead at the same time as she did anyway, so someone had to get the short straw this time. Perhaps he'll settle for his second choice of ideal home, or perhaps he'll someday be able to buy the Getty home from the person who won.

The key element to all of this, you may be arguing, is the idea of opportunity. Well, given that neither he nor she was able to cheat to obtain his/her currency -- this is Libertopia, after all, and they each have every red cent they ever earned -- is it unfair that they had unequal opportunity to get the house? They had equal opportunity, given that nothing was stolen from them, to provide something valuable to society in exchange for currency -- exactly what society thought their talent and time were worth, in fact -- but they had unequal outcomes.

If you believe in not performing ad hoc interventions to produce a "better" outcome (however defined) than one contented individual and one crestfallen individual, then what is the basis -- moral, practical, or otherwise -- for any rule that would change their relative opportunities to live the life they want to live?

Equal non-intervention -- that is, equal restriction against harmful activity -- produces different outcomes, pleasing some more than others, because people can only have things of a value commensurate with what they have provided others, and some people -- by virtue of different talent and luck -- have provided more than others. Even if those who benefit the most from the public good of, say, security have to pay that much more for that security (commensurate with their benefit), one cannot realistically argue that outcomes would be equal: people are demonstrably unequal in terms of marketable talent and luck (like when they were born).

The idea of robbing opportunities from one person to provide another with opportunities, whatever the good intentions may be, is robbing people of real equal opportunity, because lacking the ability to enjoy the spoils of success, what is the point of equal opportunity? The concept of private property, of capitalism, has its merits in that it dares people to take risks by dangling the possibility to succeed. I'm not one to often paraphrase (or quote?) Ayn Rand, but there it is: it works because the greater the ability to enjoy the spoils of success, the more people will do things that others value to obtain what they want. Each person, whether through "greed" or ambition or wish to survive, must serve others in ways that those others value in order to obtain what he/she wants. One's rewards would be commensurate with one's contributions, insofar as those others subjectively value their contribution (which may not be entirely rational).

Of course, it's inevitable that many people who take risks will fail. But without that dare, that coupled prospect of success and threat of failing to obtain what they want, people are reluctant to take risks in the first place, and automatically "lose." By not taking that risk, they won't serve others, they won't endure trial and error, they won't value learning the way to succeed by their own mistakes or by others' examples. They won't enter what Samuel Adams called "the animating contest of freedom" and won't compete.
Why? Because people respond to incentives (if not always perfectly rationally).

Statement 2: "Taxing people in order to provide for the national defense or the police is a better case: here, I lose a certain amount of property in order to gain greater security. Interference is, in this case, justified by its results."

Again, I disagree. This kind of interference is supposed to be justified by the contract we have to form a government, the United States Constitution. That Constitution sets out a set of powers for the government, including the power to provide for a common defense. Those who choose to live in the United States are protected by the military, and they loan their power to the government to allow it to do so, keeping all the time the right to hold that government accountable for stepping outside the boundaries provided in the contract. It does not make any claims as to the justification by results; it is justified by the mass consent of the people of the United States. What leads those people to consent or dissent is their business.

You also made a third set of statements regarding the justification for traffic laws (I think I remember you saying something about that, anyway; I've been typing for a while). In accordance with what I posted earlier -- i.e., the rule of negative rights -- people would have the freedom to do as they please so long as they do not harm anyone else. Keep in mind also that coercion is only one form of harm. You can swing your proverbial fist wherever you like as long as you do not do harm to others (try it in the privacy of your home sometime :)). But if you start swinging and hit someone -- or it is clear that you are about to do harm, recklessly putting somene else in danger -- then others have the recourse of the law and of trying to stop you from doing harm by necessary means; you have broken the contract and infringed on someone's negative rights, and in so doing have waived your own insofar as it is necessary to stop you. Example: if you place someone in mortal danger, and the only way to stop you is to kill you, then you have waived your right to life and can be killed legally.

What government has done today is encode a set of rules to ensure that everyone knows what is and is not likely to cause harm. In short, they've created a reasonable set of expectations which, if not followed, show that the drivers were putting other drivers in harm's way -- recklessly swinging their proverbial fist where they should not be. They should not be there because other proverbial "noses" have a reasonable expectation of driving unobstructed there.
So if someone drives on the wrong side of the road, we have empowered the police -- by loaning power to them -- to punish those who are swinging their fists in the wrong places.
Now, we can argue about whether some of those rules are reasonable for preventing harm, or whether they are needlessly restrictive in some cases (e.g., some speed limits?), but there is a different rationale for traffic laws than that which was offered up here.

Now, I have other arguments specifically as pertain to the nature of government and how it solves problems as opposed to other institutions, to respond to other commenters, but I'll save that for another time. For now, I just wanted to clear up the philosophical arguments made by some liberals ("libertarians") in favor of our idea of freedom. I can't argue for all libertarian-types, as some have moral arguments dealing with God-given rights and free will, while others just chafe at various government interventions, but I can offer that one perspective.

OrneryWP: Thanks for your thoughtful comment. A few responses:

(1) "The idea of robbing opportunities from one person to provide another with opportunities, whatever the good intentions may be, is robbing people of real equal opportunity, because lacking the ability to enjoy the spoils of success, what is the point of equal opportunity?"

Here I'd say: the point of this post was to ask by what criteria we should assess different systems of rules, including the rules governing private property. Different rules produce different characteristic distributions; within each, people might get what they're entitled to under the rules, but what justifies us in picking one set of rules over another?

You seem to suggest that there is some neutral, baseline set of rules, and adopting a different one constitutes "robbing" people of opportunities. In part 2 of this series, I tried to argue that there is no such neutral baseline that we can all take for granted. For this reason, I'd reject your characterization here. It's not about robbing anyone.

(2) You point out that no one can have perfect freedom-as-opportunity. Of course this is right. But this does not (it seems to me) do much to settle the question: is it the right sort of freedom to care about for the purposes of the question I'm asking?

(3) Also, of course, no two people can have the freedom to enjoy the same exclusive good. I would have thought that any set of rules of the sort I'm discussing here would involve some way of determining who gets to enjoy it, so I'm not sure I see how this is germane.

(4) Also, as I said, I am of course going to need an account of which opportunities matter, and that account will have lots of problems if it turns out to involve the government, or society, deciding what is really important in life. My response to this is basically Rawls', which I explain here. Luckily, opportunities to live alone on top of the Getty do not figure prominently.

I apologize ahead of time for the length of my response, but I'm trying to cover all my bases:

Regarding #1:
“(1) "The idea of robbing opportunities from one person to provide another with opportunities, whatever the good intentions may be, is robbing people of real equal opportunity, because lacking the ability to enjoy the spoils of success, what is the point of equal opportunity?"

”Here I'd say: the point of this post was to ask by what criteria we should assess different systems of rules, including the rules governing private property. Different rules produce different characteristic distributions; within each, people might get what they're entitled to under the rules, but what justifies us in picking one set of rules over another?
You seem to suggest that there is some neutral, baseline set of rules, and adopting a different one constitutes "robbing" people of opportunities. In part 2 of this series, I tried to argue that there is no such neutral baseline that we can all take for granted. For this reason, I'd reject your characterization here. It's not about robbing anyone.”

Ah, I see where I suggested that.
I don't believe in (or haven't seen evidence of) an objectively existing standard of morality, so in asking “by what criteria we should assess different systems of rules” and “what justified us in picking one set of rules over another,” it would seem to me that you are really asking, “to whom can certain criteria be justified?” and “to whom can picking one set of rules over another be justified?”
Rawls' answer to that question, it seems, is what can be justified to people behind a hypothetical veil of ignorance. But this, as with all philosophies, assumes a philosophical Good: the answer of the rational, self-serving, but otherwise featureless individual -- not the irrational, possibly somewhat altruistic, and decidedly "featured" people who inhabit the real world.

And whose opinion wins out in that real world? What you can justify to them is based on their physical form and circumstances (e.g., the electrochemical state of their brain at given times), and will be characterized in large part on emotional responses and the limited memes they've encountered in their lives (possibly including, of course, Rawlsian philosophy, to the degree that they believe in it :)).

As for the robbery question: those real people can obtain less than they produce, more than they produce, or exactly as much as they produce. If you obtain more than you produce, either someone's giving you charity or you've taken from them without their consent. I say taking something you did not produce, without consent, is called robbery, while trading (perceived) equally valuable property is not robbery. That's my “neutral baseline.”
(Of course, then there's the criticism from those who believe we never really produce anything, that we're always robbing from, say, the Earth or from future generations who cannot give their consent. But I don't think we're debating that just yet.)

Regarding #3:
(3)Also, of course, no two people can have the freedom to enjoy the same exclusive good. I would have thought that any set of rules of the sort I'm discussing here would involve some way of determining who gets to enjoy it, so I'm not sure I see how this is germane.

I thought it was germane because getting to live the life you want to live runs into limitations, while you said “freedom as opportunity” –- “opportunity to live the sort of life [one] chooses” -– is “something we can maximize.” I thought it was relevant to point out that not only do people's wants far outweigh their capacity to provide these things for themselves, but they also sometimes want exclusive goods. No system of rules, including Rawls', can allow two people to live the life they want to live if acquisition of an exclusive good is part of the life they want to live, even assuming people have limited wants.
If one sees freedom as opportunity, that means we certainly cannot maximize “freedom as opportunity,” contrary to your claim.

Regarding #4:
(4) Also, as I said, I am of course going to need an account of which opportunities matter, and that account will have lots of problems if it turns out to involve the government, or society, deciding what is really important in life. My response to this is basically Rawls', which I explain here. Luckily, opportunities to live alone on top of the Getty do not figure prominently.

First, I'd like to thank you for linking to the Rawls piece you did. I wasn't at all familiar with Rawls before following that link, though someone asked me what I thought of the Rawlsian “veil of ignorance” just last weekend (and I had to confess ignorance). Rawls has a very tempting philosophy here, one that on the surface seems quite reasonable.

Nevertheless, I have a few concerns, a few problems, and a few questions regarding Rawls' ideas on justice.

Perhaps my main concern is with the assumptions Rawls makes; just as with economists, my first question based on any model is “what are the underlying assumptions?” I ask this first because while models limited by assumptions can tell us interesting things about the world even when the assumptions are relaxed a bit, prescriptions based on that model may be thrown out nearly entirely if the real world is different enough from the model's assumptions.

Rawls here tries to come up with an theory of objective justice, which may be laudable, but doesn't really help us. An objectively just system in a world populated by people of uncertain qualities (let's just stick with human persons for simplicity's sake), which best allows those people to live the life they want to live, will not obtain the same optimal results when thrust on a world where people do have certain qualities in certain quantities. Once you relax the assumption of uncertain qualities in uncertain quantities, the whole structure of “just” rules immediately loses its ability to optimally meet the demands of all those very real people who want to live their life in certain ways.

It won't do to simply say that people are in fact not entirely rational, and that people are not entirely self-interested; but what will throw off Rawls' structure of rules is that altruism and rationality both vary in the population. Similarly, it won't do to simply say that people have different “genders, races, religions, and so forth,” but that a system that allows people of indeterminate gender/race/religion/etc. to get what they want out of life will not provide a similarly optimal result with people of definite gender/race/religion/etc. It's a one-size-fits-all philosophy that doesn't fit any real situation, and will fail to differing degrees in each society in which it is tried.

I think I can anticipate the answer to the question that this begs: Why start with an objective system of justice that doesn't produce optimal results for our particular world in the first place? Well, of course we don't know everything about our particular world, and that particular world is changing all the time; this objective system of rules is at least consistent and leaves the least room for human error.
But to behave as we would if the veil of ignorance did exist is to rob ourselves of the benefits of what knowledge and wisdom we do have about our particular situation.

My second concern regards the nature of time in Rawls' work; that is, it doesn't factor in. What if, for example, you have two different generations living in different times, and (to use your metaphor) slicing the cake perfectly evenly in the earlier generation produces less than optimal results for the later generation? Behind the veil of ignorance, what is unjust for this generation might create a just situation for the next generation. For one over-the-top example, one could posit that allowing only the efficient people to enjoy the spoils of success in this generation, and leaving the rest without those basic rights and to die without breeding, the next generation would be better able to live their lives as they want to live them. The alternative in this posited world, then, is that given a system that lavished all persons with Rawls' scheme of basic rights and furthermore was of the greatest benefit to those who were the least advantaged (and contributed the least), the next generation would be hobbled in its attempt to live life as they wanted. Their opportunities would be curtailed. In fact, the degree to which success was rewarded (and the manner in which it was rewarded) in the earlier generation would certainly affect the qualities and quantities of the people in the later generation!

Unfortunately, it's difficult –- perhaps impossible –- to tell what will create a more just system in the future (justice being: people living the lives they each respectively wish to live), because the future is largely unknown to us. Perhaps we know how best to provide for the current generation to live the life they want to live, but don't realize to what degree that rule structure that provides this optimal result will hobble people in the future.
But let's say we put everyone in all generations behind the veil of ignorance, in their Original Position. What rule structure do we create for these people of uncertain qualities in uncertain quantities at uncertain times? At that point, particularly if one believes that there are going to be many more people in future generations, the self-interested person behind the veil of ignorance might just say, “Anyone who becomes a burden on future generations shouldn't have that 'fully adequate scheme of rights' that Rawls is talking about.” Because who knows how many future generations there are? Who knows how much a rule structure that lets you live the kind of life you want to live now will hobble the ability of all of those future generations to live as they want to? Your biggest problem here is not a hypothetical veil of ignorance about the present, but an all-too-real veil of ignorance between the present and the future. A Rawlsian system thus cripples those who comprehend that there are an indeterminate number of people in posterity as well as those who wouldn't exactly know how to predict the effect of a current rule structure on the future generations even if he/she knew exactly how many people had yet to be born... unless, of course, they're interested in rules that are only "just" for a fleeting moment in time.

Now, I'm generally rather disposed in favor of liberty. But I don't pretend to conform to any standard of justice or morality; instead, I value the results of allowing people -– including me -– to compete openly and freely, with a system of consensual transactions allowing people to rise and fall on their own merits. This is not a utilitarian principle or an egoist one; it's simply what I do. This is not for a rational reason, I suppose, conforming to some rational philosophy. I don't even rationalize it.

Let's say, however, that you are a dedicated Rawlsian and are determined to come up with an optimal system of justice. I will leave you with one extra assumption, to help you deal with the time problem: that humanity will survive forever. In this case, you have an infinite number of future people who want to live as they see fit. Your recourse, behind the veil of ignorance, is to create the maximum number of opportunities not for your generation, but for posterity. In this case, then, it seems to follow that you would want a system of rules that ruthlessly promoted success and punished failure modes, regardless of how many people were harmed in this generation, because hey: there are a lot more people behind that veil, yet to be born, who will have fewer limitations on them because you sacrificed the way you wanted to live such that they would have as little problem with scarcity and ignorance as possible, for perpetuity.
But then you've got a snag: every generation would sacrifice everything for all the generations to come after them. At no point can anyone sit back and just enjoy the benefits; they will only enjoy what you've given them insofar as they can live how they want to live while providing that benefit to the future. For their sake, let's hope they like living that life.

Unless, of course, you relax that assumption and believe humanity is doomed. Then you can resolve the time problem if you can successfully predict how many people will be born...

Finally, I also have a problem with Rawls' proposed “fully adequate scheme of basic rights.” When he says “adequate,” that implies an end, and I presume he means, “adequate to allow each individual to live life as he/she chooses.”
Well, I have a problem with that on deterministic grounds. What is freedom of thought? That assumes an alternative exists; if freedom is opportunity, then freedom of thought means having a choice between an infinite number of possible thoughts –- and I just don't think that's possible. I believe what you are capable of thinking is limited (indeed, I believe it's 100% constrained, but if it's anything besides 0%, my objection still holds) by your circumstances -– your physical form and your full set of experiences. If your mind has not been stretched by the full set of ideas, who can say you're really think freely?
The conclusion to this would mean that you're limited in what you can believe in, including your “conception of the good” as you put it. Well, behind the veil of ignorance, why should you care whether you can live life as you please, if what you please is determined by forces beyond your control? So that you can feel good about obtaining whatever it turns out is pleasing to you? That's justice? Kinda makes “justice” seem like a hollow word.

Again, I apologize for the length of my response, but I also thank you ahead of time for your time and consideration.

The comments to this entry are closed.

Blog powered by Typepad