Tag Archives: Difference Principle

Liberaltarianism: The Turducken Of Politics

Will Wilkinson and Brink Lindsay once proposed that libertarians have more in common with liberals than they do with conservatives.  But now that we collectively wait for the Keynesian surge to fry the system, Jonah Goldberg and John Hood wanted to raise the question to libertarians: siding with the left under Bush was one thing, they say, but now, with that side of the boat taking on water, is it time for the libertarians to come back whence they came?

Many have weighed in–Virginia Postrel, Ross Douthat, Matt Welch, and Reihan Salam.

For his part, Wilkinson seems to be framing the debate for the others, and I’m unhappy with Wilkinson’s framing since it’s based on his style of moral philosophy. Let me explain. The most telling comment I can think of relating to this problem occurs during a BloggingheadsTV interview Wilkinson conducted with Jonathan Haidt. Outlining the differences between conservatives and liberal moral sensitivities, Haidt said something to the effect of, “The difference between liberals and libertarians is that the libertarians are liberals who’ve read some economics.” It was clear Wilkinson agreed.  But, even though this may be true for many of us, the observation is false to the spirit of liberty. It’s based on a gross confusion Wilkinson has been sensitive to in other contexts. The confusion is this: the Haidt comment overlooks the fact that we can believe some act to be morally wrong, and yet, at the same time, believe it to be legally permissible.  That is the heart of liberty. One obvious example of a despicable act that fits this mold is infidelity. Cheating on your loved one is wrong–one of the worst ways to hurt a person–and yet no one few in the West believe it should be a crime. What is morally wrong is not always legally wrong. Wilkinson had that right in a post about emotional coercion. 

But I believe this is one of the greatest political problems of our time: how to cleave apart our moral intuitions from our political philosophy.  There is no grand unifying theory here. And so modern freedom, the freedom of Constant, was born out of war along just this divide. It took a century or more of blood shed during the Reformation to cleave apart people’s religious judgments from their political ideals. One of the more troubling tasks for modern politics is to separate the moral–how we interact with others–from the political–how we interact with hundreds of millions on a scale that boggles the mind.

Wilkinson abhors conservative moral sentiments. But in this he is not a lover of liberty. A libertarian is not defined by what moral intuitions he has regarding sacred spaces, the integrity of the body, or even in group/out group biases. Rather, libertarians are defined by their views on the limits of state power, always harboring the doubt that their particular moral judgments may not translate readily into state action. In Haidt’s terminology, we should expect both conservative and liberal moral settings among libertarians. Conservative moral intuitions need not craft policy.

Of course, in recent history, liberals and Republicans have forsaken many checks and balances on state power.  They are one and all eager to base national policy on moral inclination.  Libertarians, insofar as they stand athwart anything, stand in front of that unified, soul-crafting theory of the state. For liberals and national greatness Republicans, this is a problem. I suggest we keep it that way. Let the Spitzers of the world try to fucking steamroll us.

And another thing. Rawsekianism is a nice rhetorical move, but on deeper reflection, it’s misguided.  I’ll hazard a guess that this formulation of Rawls relies on a Harsanyi interpretation of the difference principle.  Rawls spent the second half of his career trying to move away from that.  User beware.


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Applied Nozick: Finessing The Entitlement Theory

Richard Epstein uses Robert Nozick’s entitlement theory of justice to interpret the ideology behind the financial meltdown. From Epstein’s latest Forbes column

Behind this lending fiasco lay the strong collective preference for the “patterned principles” of justice that Robert Nozick attacked so powerfully in his 1974 masterpiece, Anarchy, State, and Utopia.

Believers in patterned principles hold that there is some preordained social order that is more just than others. Accordingly, the function of the state is to use the levers of power to manipulate behavior to achieve the desired outcomes. These patterned principles stand in opposition to historical principles of justice, which are content to establish the rules of the game and then let the legal moves by individual players determine the social outcomes. For Nozick, the key rules were rules of justice in acquisition (to set up the initial property rights) and justice in transfer, whereby those rights (and others derived from them) could be exchanged or combined through voluntary transactions.

What were the patterns of justice our time-serving congressmen wished to impose on our society? Apparently one that says the US economy should have 12% of all mortgages issued to low-income borrowers in 1996, 20% in 2000, 22% in 2005 and 28% by 2008. I can’t think of any coherent political philosophy that would specifically set these goals with clear justifications. Time-serving bureaucrats must have simply thought 30% was a good number. It sounds like a fair share of the housing market pie, but then again, why not just say 50%? Hell, let’s say 80%! (Bonus question in applied political philosophy: try to justify any pattern in home-ownership according to Rawls’s Difference Principle.)

On the entitlement theory things would have been different. Channeling Nozick, Epstein makes a plea:

Let people rent or buy in unsubsidized markets and then watch with supreme indifference what residential patterns emerge. That distribution would have been a lot less toxic than the brew generated by our fevered political leaders. So says our frustrated libertarian. 

And so I say, too. When Nozick introduced his entitlement theory back in 1974, he thought he was providing a rights-based argument against competing theories of justice, one powerful enough to outshine the others without having to appeal to the consequences of acting on the theory. Utilitarianism was the bugbear. Nozick had hoped his principles of transfer and acquisition would have greater intuitive moral appeal, enabling the entitlement theory to rise above any type of anything goes consequentialism. Let justice be done tho the heavens may fall–that was the thing. But, intrinsic moral value aside, Epstein’s right here. Applied Nozick turns out to yield the best consequences. Ironically it also satisfies Rawls’s Difference Principle along the way, too.

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