24 October 2009

Mill keeps getting into my way

Libertarian contest consisting of slapping reasons around

First off, Kerry (no, not that Kerry, this one) is now my new hero. I'm thoroughly ashamed to be me when I know there are people like her around.

I don't give her a 100% supportive argument because the seductive appeal of technocratic worlds don't quite work 100% of the time when it comes to social values and the various incentives and dogmas that they create. They work very well for simple, unobtrusive things like hand washing, starting a 401k, or vaccinations. I'm not so sure they work as well for complex cultural issues like women's liberation, racism, or other variously good or bad forms of human diversity of opinion and formal behavior.

There's some sort of balance needed between tolerance and behavioral control that I'm not sure is fully appreciated when one advocates strongly for societal progressivism, even coached in the language of individual rights and boundaries as she suggests. There is still too much of a seduction to think that we, as reasonably informed subjects, always know better than individuals or other forms of local knowledge and that there are objective formal answers which can be attained instead. There are specific circumstances where the costs are imposed upon others, through injury, death, or property damage for which we may have some social value in imposing those answers (my perspective on education or vaccinations for example). But even these are more closely tied to property rights and personal harm limitations than a sort of cultural revolution.

My own moral theory would lead me to conclude that there are indeed "objective" formal answers but that these are reached through often very subjective evaluations of circumstances. That is, I think there is in any case a best case scenario answer that one should strive for. But that this best case is necessarily very different from someone else's situation and expresses itself through a variety of personal preferences and modifications. So primarily it makes more sense to advocate for individualism and individual rights but to assure that this does not stray into its own breed of tyrannical collectivism (as I think Rand did by imposing an effective tyranny of the self). Kerry's own argument here seems to note that important social changes of the sort she envisions are happening. But they seem to be happening because of changes in local conditions brought about by market changes (that is: incentives are re-aligning because of market shifts and property rights). Not because people are advocates for them.

These changes, I agree I think, are happening slowly and in rather specific ways. But because they are largely internalized responses to the external world, they're far more lasting and valuable to the societies that spawned them, even if unintentionally. Simple nudges away from sexist aligned preferences, racial prejudices, and other culturally imposed tyrannies can be devastatingly effective over time even if radical shifts have often produced results in our recent history with equal, perhaps greater, aplomb. What is more essential is the underlying quest of a classical liberal to free individuals, and to provide them with a society that requires minimal societal compulsion to coordinate itself. I think she gets this more than most (certainly more than phase two of the debate there). But I'm troubled by the amount of coercion required to reach that happy state of affairs. I look at the damaging effects of religion or racism or nationalism on the individuals who hold those views and find that I cannot compel them away if that is what they wish to hold. All I can do is punish them for taking overt harmful action and demonstrate for others with more openness to ideas the error and folly of their ways.

It becomes necessary to recognize that there are other societal forces which work to compel or to control. Religion has long been such a force for example. It does not automatically compel us as libertarians to create alternative forces in the form of a unified political philosophy to combat these. Instead it seems sufficient to deconstruct any of these external forces into their various components and still allow people to select them if that is their wish, retaining the central unifying philosophy that individuals should have the maximum autonomy they wish to have (and can responsibly use). I am reminded of France's attempt to ban burqas when considering this. It is clear that this is an imposed "choice" for some, perhaps many Islamic women living in France. But a state ban to oppose this societal force? Sure you can conclude that on average it is a symbol of oppression, but it's not exactly a marker of it in all factual cases such that it demonstrates a reliable and certain proxy for harm and societal damage in the women who wear them. As another point, in Superfreakonomics, there's a case mentioned in 2002 where 50 Islamic states met and agreed to condemn "terrorism". What they couldn't come up with was a basic definition of what it was, what it was doing, what it's goals were, and so on. They have no idea what it means because it means different things to each society or its various state actors (businesses, labour forces, parents, children, and terrorists themselves). Sort of like "pornography", "obscenity", or even more deliberate terms like "racism", it's actually substantially difficult to define legally and socially what these things are, what they do, why they are bad, or what the goals of the individual or state actors are. We end up tossing them out on things that they don't quite apply to and in so doing risk broadening the definitions to render them useless for our purposes.

There's some danger in getting caught up in moral and ethical arguments like these and pushing for them because the net result is that too often people ask "how is your world better" and it's not always clear how to explain that it is. Simply because the benefits and costs are measured and internalized against very different worldviews. That's in part why the moral police systems that Americans rely on are so successful politically. Rather than rational solutions to issues like the drug war or prostitution, and especially with less defined issues like marriage/divorce rates. I noticed this line of argument with the Ron Paul interview on the Daily Show where Stewart asks if you get rid of the Fed or much of the regulation, what's to protect us from corporations. Economic arguments like that are pretty easy to batter back down once you understand economics and things like regulatory capture or lobbying and protectionism (and interest group favoritism in politics). And yet people still cannot imagine how a system with nobody in charge doesn't result in a tyranny. It's even harder to explain to people how this works to protect them against drugs, against perceptions and changes of race and gender roles (as if such things were actually important to begin with relative to individual autonomy). So the criticism that "property rights are hard enough" is one valid, if limited, problem with her argument. Realistically, the problem is that it's too ambitious to consider that "we" know better than everybody and can impose some sort of "repressive tolerance". Even if we should and, somehow, could demonstrate that people will benefit, I fear the tyranny of the majority there just as much as I might fear a tyranny of our current bureaucracies and corporatism sentiments. I would rather live with a position of advocating tolerance, even toward those whose views and sensibilities are repugnant, and simply not feeding most of the infamous social beasts with attention to arguments we "should" find irrational to provide them with fuel on which to muster support and action. Arguments which gain credibility or societal currency, sure, these must be battered into submission and dissected for points of contention. Those which have the backing of experts and careful study? Absolutely. These must be examined and argued over to prove their value to others. Arguments which have no value should be attached none to allow them to wither and die. There is not a need to power them with substantive debates because they are silly and incredible. They can be simply buried under either mountains of facts or other topics of credible interest.

Update: Ilya over at Volokh had some fine words to say on the subject here as well.
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