Sunday, November 12, 2006

Atlas Mugged? A reply to Duncan Bayne and Peter Creswell

A bloke by the name of Peter Creswell and one of his Objectivist fellow travellers, Duncan Bayne, have been kind enough to blog replies of a sort to my ‘essay’ “What’s the Matter with Libertarianism”. I say “of a sort” because Creswell and Bayne both appear to primarily replying to a post on NoRightTurn, which linked to my essay. They claim to be responding to me, yet it is fairly apparent that neither has read much of my essay. Nevertheless, given that their responses have been aimed in my general direction and given that they bandy my name around, I feel like I ought to reply.

First I’d like to thank them for taking the time to write (if not read) and for attempting to explain the rationale behind their beliefs.

In the interests of being both systematic and rapid I will respond to Bayne and Creswell in Turn – Starting with Bayne.

Duncan Bayne

Bayne starts his response with a pithy explanation of why he is a libertarian:

I am a Libertarian because I am capable of running my own life, and think others are too. Libertarianism is the political expression of Mill's statement of harm…

Duncan’s obviously written this in haste. I can empathise: in blogging we often find ourselves reaching for a succinct, evocative sentence – one which we latter regret. So I won’t linger too much on the first part of his opening sentence which is so dreadfully vacuous it’s embarrassing. For what it’s worth I’m glad to hear Duncan is capable of running his own life, but if he doesn’t give some credit for this to the altruistic acts of others (family etc) or to the benefits of collective action – public roads, schools, prisons etc. – then he’s being completely intellectually dishonest. Furthermore, if he thinks that the rest of the world shares the privilege of self-actualisation that he feels he possesses, he really needs to get out more often . (I mean honestly Duncan, do you include in “others” elderly, children, invalids, people starving during a drought…?)

With regards to his evoking of Mill, this is the first evidence that Bayne has simply not properly read my essay. Under the heading “No Man (or Woman) is an Island” I spend quite some time explaining why Mill’s maxim, while being perfectly reasonable, simply isn’t a defence of libertarianism. I suggest that Bayne read this section of the essay as I don’t have time to repeat myself.

While Duncan couldn’t make time to actually read what I wrote, he did have time to have a read about the ‘about me’ section of my blog. This has lead to him writing:

“Terence – who is happy to be described as having a ‘latent hostility to capitalism’ while, of course, availing himself of technology made & sold by capitalists in order to express that hostility.”

I’ll ignore the fact that, when it comes to computer technology, we all benefit from state investment in IT R&D and that open source software (no property rights here guys) continues to be some of the best. I’ll simply note that I reproduced the accusation because it is (a) quite funny on its own terms and (b) totally incorrect. By advocating for the reforms necessary to humanise capitalism I’m hardly expressing hostility to it.

Duncan then moves on to “clear up a misconception”: me conflating libertarianism with Objectivism. This, sadly, is more evidence that he hasn’t read my essay as I point out early on that I am aware of the differences between different libertarian thinkers. I’m also aware that Rand believed herself to be telegraphing a deeper world view into the political philosophy that she espoused. Yet the political philosophy is, for all extents and purposes, libertarianism. Hence my inclusion of Rand in my critique.

I am grateful to Duncan for providing some information on the splits amongst different libertarian groups in the USA. This is interesting, and appears to be one of those pleasant-ironic ‘reflections’ that makes history so much fun to follow: libertarians squall as much, and over as trivial things, as Trotskyites.

Duncan then, after move’s into the “deep” philosophical underpinnings of his own, Objectivist, libertarianism, noting that:

As Rand has explained, people live by rationality and production – liberty is merely a necessary precursor, borne of the requirement that in order to act rationally, one must be free from compulsion.

This sentence is – taken as a whole – incoherent so I’ll try to address the points I think it makes, one at a time:

people live by rationality and production

People do, indeed, live – in part – by rationality and production (with the exception of hunter-gathers, of course, weren’t so much into production). But they also survive and thrive, thanks to a whole bunch of other attributes, including: empathy, intuition, instinct etc. By ignoring this, Duncan is simply engaging in the reverse engineering much beloved by ideologues everywhere. That is: my utopia looks like X. For X to be realistically plausible world people need to be like Y. Therefore I will claim that people are like Y and so – logically – X is the type of society I need.

liberty is merely a necessary precursor, borne of the requirement that in order to act rationally, one must be free from compulsion.

Two points here:

1. (Which is slightly tangential) rationality itself, is partially a product of nurture, being the product (in part) of the environment we are raised in and the education we receive – in other words: if you really care about cultivating rationality you’ll understand that positive freedoms matter .

2. (Which borrows from Richard’s excellent point made in the comments of my own original post). If Duncan believes that reason can only realised through non-interference then what does he make of this thought experiment:

Annie lives in a libertarian utopia. Sadly her husband Robert became gravely ill several years ago and their medical bills have driven them to the edge of destitution. Annie and Robert live next to Murray (Muzza to his mates). Muzza is happily wealthy. One day Annie and Robert’s situation becomes particularly grave: their infant son Milton is struck with disease too, and will die is he doesn’t see a doctor. Unfortunately, there is no money for this.

Now Annie has long ago suppressed her emotional attachment to her child (love, what a repulsively un-human sentiment!) But, thinking purely rationally, she knows she needs Milton alive to support her and Robert in their dotage. So Annie makes the rational choice to burgle Muzza’s house. Muzza call’s the cops. And they stop Annie.

Did Muzza have the right to do this? Do the cops have the right to stop Annie?

Not if Duncan’s thinking at all consistently.

Duncan then goes on to argue:

Furthermore, a right can only be proscriptive.

Really says who? why?

And then, a little further on:

But that doesn't mean that anyone is obliged to support me if I'm incapable of doing so

Compare this with the horrors he sees in social democracy:

After all, (and especially in a socialist state where healthcare is paid for by the general citizenry) one could easily concoct an economic rationale for the execution of the terminally ill, retarded, or recividist [sic] criminals.

Social Democracies might conceivably (but in fact never do) do this, meanwhile Duncan’s own utopia appears to explicitly countenance the leaving the needy to their fate. Executed, starved – they’re still dead.(1)

Duncan also notes that:

to demand charity from a productive member of society is equivalent to mugging him.

Atlas mugged! Duncan should read up a little bit on social contracts here. If society – that inextricably linked web of individuals, causes, and effects – decides, through a democratic mechanism that everyone should contribute in the name of a greater good, which itself leads to improved individual good, then no mugging has taken place. The free rider problem has simply been put paid to.

Duncan then ‘moves on’ to address my critique of the utilitarian argument for libertarianism. It appears that he is unaware that he has, from time to time, already being making a utilitarian argument for libertarianism (if Objectivism is not to be impaled on the “is ought” problem then an intermediate step through utility is required).

Duncan claims:

There is a clear relationship between liberty and propserity [sic]. This has been demonstrated by the case of North and South Korea, which are visibly different from orbit, and in the failure of socialised education.

These two sentences deserve a prize for a truly amazing error to word ratio.

Firstly – Duncan, once again, hasn’t read my essay at all carefully. Up until a point “liberty” does indeed lead to increased economic prosperity. Beyond that point the correlation simply doesn’t exist. And that point is several light years to the left of a libertarian society . It’s called Sweden. So spare me North v South Korea. All that tells us is that totalitarian societies inhibit growth (there are interested exceptions to this though – maybe in a future blog post) it does not tell us that libertarian societies will have stratospheric rates of growth. Moreover, the state actually played a significant role in South Korea’s economic miracle. As it does in all other economic success stories.

My own post on taxes and growth for more on this explores these matters further. Or, if you have time, search for William Easterly’s cross country regression analyses that show that (short of being punitive) tax take is not negatively correlated to economic growth. Or just read the book I linked to in my original post – it contains careful analysis rather than hair-brained comparisons.

Secondly – I think you’ll find that in South Korea (that libertarian paradise) the state’s involved in the education system too. As it is in almost every developed country. So – if you view economic development as good – it’s ever so slightly hard to claim that socialised education has failed miserably. Indeed, here in New Zealand literacy rates are very high, secondary completion rates are high, tertiary uptake rates are good. Things could improve, true. But it’s very hard to characterise this as a failure.

Duncan then, with nary a flap of his sails, tacks away from utilitarianism and back to defending Nozick and justice. He makes a – sort of – fair point about the Libertarianz not supporting the Seabed and Foreshore Act (good for them). And then goes on to agree with me that it would be simply impossible to create a just distribution of property rights as per Nozick’s terms. Fine, here’s hoping that his libertarian brethren now ever-after cease to make any claims for the fairness of their system. What he doesn’t do is explain (other than the banal “two wrongs don’t make a right”). Why, if we accept that we can’t possibly get a just distribution of property in a historical sense, we should then accept start from now libertarianism over some other form of distributional justice.

Peter Creswell

Peter Creswell is(?) was(?) a fairly senior figure in the New Zealand libertarian party – the Libertarianz – so I’m grateful he’s taken time to respond to my essay.

Some of what he says is similar to Duncan Bayne’s claims so I will concentrate on what I see as additional points of some form.

Creswell starts out by (possibly unwittingly) making a utilitarian defence of property rights, which can surmised as: we need property rights, and the incentives and protections they provide to enable us to produce. And we need to produce to survive. Now this claim is not incontestable of its own accord (any anarchists around?). It’s also unclear why Creswell would choose property rights on there own here rather than say property rights and education. However, up to a point, I don’t entirely disagree. There’s a place for property rights, but if you are making a utilitarian claim for them you don’t need to be absolutist about it. I.e. (and this is my own belief) up to a point, a clear and transparent system that fairly protects property rights – for the entire population – is desirable. (This point is mostly uncontroversial in economics (see North, Rodrik or Acemoglu on institutions)). However, absolutely inviolable property rights aren’t consistent with a utilitarian defence of property rights whatsoever. As I noted – pretty fucking clearly I thought – in my original essay and, as I have repeated above, one relatively clear lesson of economic history is that some compromise between property rights and other societal needs – enforced well – appears to lead to the best outcomes. For an excellent vox pop theoretical explanation of this I recommend Dani Rodrik here in Finance and Development.
Right about now I think you’ll find Creswell retreating into an absolutist defence of property rights (stubbing his toe on the is-ought dilemma on the way).

Creswell then goes on to claim that: “Markets are simply the sum of voluntary choices taken by individuals seeking to better themselves”. Peter (and anyone else inclined to agree), please, take the time to read the section in any first-year economics textbook on market failures. This will explain why that just ain’t so. To paraphrase Joseph Stiglitz: part of the reason the invisible hand is invisible is that, much of the time, it doesn’t actually exist.

After this Creswell disputes my interpretation of freedom.

The chief problem with positing freedom as something different to this, as for example so variant of ‘freedom from want’ is that reality provides no guarantees on that score, and the state is in no position to fake reality any more than you or I or Jacques Derrida.

This, I think conflates freedoms with rights somewhat, but, glossing over this, I’ll simply note that – in New Zealand – the state is quite capable of providing education and some health care. While, in other parts of the world, (often partially because of the result of poor education and epidemics) it is unable to provide the freedoms that Mr Creswell wants anyhow.

Creswell then argues that.

If providing ‘freedom from want’ is considered to be the state’s job, then coercing those who provide the means of life is what the state is required to do, and (as history shows) there goes the whole voluntary interaction deal…

The trouble with this claim is that the moment you get the state involved - for any reason – it brings with it coercion. And the end of the “whole voluntary interaction deal”. Don’t blame positive freedoms for this.

Finally, Mr Creswell makes the same point as Duncan about distributive justice, Maori and the Libertarinz. So he can refer to my answer to Duncan on that point.

One sentence after indicating that he places some worth in Nozick’s view of justice. Mr Creswell writes:

I’d like in conclusion to just point out to both Terence and Idiot Savant that I am not a Nozikian, and I know no libertarians outside academia who are. There is a reason that Nozick is popular in university politics departments, and it’s not because he provides robust arguments for liberty. Quite the opposite.

Actally, the reason that Nozick is popular in the academy is because his philosophical thought (which extends much further than political philosophy) is considered credible and worthy of consideration. This includes his defence of libertarianism. In my opinion it’s faulty, but it least it starts from premises which aren’t full of errors and which other political philosophers can meaningfully engage with. Rand, on the other hand, trips on the is-ought problem right after take off and then falls forwards. She comes up with an explanation (as I understand it, a mix of utilitarianism and the idea that the only moral act is an un coerced one) but then loses it in the subsequent flailing of arms and ideas. In the end she crunches to the ground painfully. I’m not a political philosopher but I’d imagine that most political philosophers have quite wisely decided to steer well clear of the crunch.

All of which reminds me that I did, at one stage in my original essay, promise to poke fun at Rand. This would have been mistaken, for Rand’s life was a tragic one. And I think that her world view stems from the trauma her family suffered at the hands of Bolshevism.

Ms Rand went through this tragedy and generated a misguided philosophy as a response. When, as she aged, someone close to her treated her with all the selfishness that she herself espoused, she degenerated into sorrow and bitterness. Not an Island after all. And not deserving of humour, just pity.

(1) If you support Social Democracy either from a Rawlsian perspective or from a sophisticated/indirect utilitarian perspective then you would never support the these actions. Pace Rawls – no one, behind a veil of ignorance, would rationally choose to live like this. In sophisticated utilitarianism, because we are not oracles, we do put in place systems of rights [including ones precluding the types of acts that Duncan describes] because, in the long run this is the best way to preserve our well being.


PC said...

Terence, let me just say that you seem insistent on conflating my answers,which you don't seem to have grasped, with the answers of people with whom you have already wrestled.

Let me say it bluntly.

I am not an advocate of John Stuart Mill. Duncan might be, and more's the pity, but I ain't.

I am not an advocate of Nozick, no matter how you might insist otherwise, though you do prove yet again why he's a useful straw man.

To explicata Hume's 'is-ought' silliness is to rebut it. Facts are not value-free, but inherently 'value-laden.' Think about that next time you're having sex.

To psychologise Rand without ever addressing any of her arguments is, well, frankly silly. To be frank, I'm not really sure why you even bothered?

Meaty criticism of libertarianism are of value, but this I'm sorry to say is both boneless and without value.

PC said...

PS: BTW, Terence, you start by saying, "Creswell [sic] starts out by (possibly unwittingly) making a utilitarian defence of property rights..."

Again, you misunderstand by trying to fit me into a box already familiar to you.

I am not a utilitarian. If you seek one-word descriptions, as you seem to, then the argument I make is characterised by Tara Smith as a teleological argument for property rights, based on what Tibor Machan and Israel Kirzner characterise as an entrepreneurial basis for the creation of property.

Terence said...

you're suggesting that I think of David Hume and (shudder) Ayn Rand next time I have sex. Sir, are you suggesting some sort of cure for premature ejaculation?

Terence said...

yes but your teleological argument is - as far as I can tell - a form of rule based utilitarianism (utilitarianism being a type of teleological philosophy). If your ultimate argument for property rights is not increasing wellbeing then what is it?


ps sorry for spelling your name wrong

Duncan Bayne said...

Sorry it's taken me so long to getting back to this ... I'm actually not an advocate of Mill, I just happen to think his Maxim is a pretty good one-line summation of Libertarian politics.