Consequentialism Reigns Triumphant

Will Wilkinson "gets" thick libertarianism:

One of the embarrassments of the American libertarian movement is its failure to sufficiently acknowledge how collective bias against blacks, women, gays, immigrants etc. deprives blacks, women, gays, immigrants, etc. of their freedom. To my mind, serious forms of structural discrimination are much worse for liberty than certain kinds of coercion. Libertarians make themselves look ridiculous when they claim that everyone is fully and equally free as long as no one is coercing anyone. Now, this isn’t obvious. At least it wasn’t to me. It took me a good while to come around to this view—to see just how much structural bias does deprive people of their freedom or of the value of their freedom. But I am embarrassed that it took me as long as it did.

Here’s where I’m coming from philosophically. I am no Rothbardian or Randian. I do not understand the argument that concludes in the categorical prohibition of all coercion, but which permits some other things far more harmful to the pursuit of happiness than most ticky-tack government regulation. I agree with some aspects of the 19th century criticism of classical liberal freedom as “merely formal.” I believe that the liberty most worth caring about is positive liberty—the ability effectively to enact one’s plans, to achieve ones ends. In my judgment, a regime of strong negative rights is the best guarantee of positive liberty. Government attempts to guarantee the worth of our liberties by recognizing positive rights to a minimum income or certain services like health care often (but not always) undermine the framework of market and civil institutions most likely to enhance liberty over the long run, and should be limited. But this is really an empirical question about what really does maximize individuals’ chances of formulating and realizing meaningful projects and lives.

Within this framework, racism, sexism, etc., which strongly limit the useful exercise of liberty are clear evils. Now, I am ambivalent about whether the state ought to step in and do anything about it. Maybe I’ll get into the complexities of that question some other time. What I am not ambivalent about is that racism and sexism, etc. deprive many millions of Americans of the full value of their freedom. ...

In my opinion, it is the responsibility of decent people concerned with liberty to at least denounce, if not actively work to tear down, the racist beliefs and norms that enable liberty-killing structural discrimination. If you don’t think ending discrimination is the government’s job–that this is the sort of thing that should be done by persuasion, not force—then you should take this responsibility extra seriously. It’s your job to persuade. If you think the government should do nothing but stay out of the way, but you are indifferent to racism and people who publish racist newsletters for financial and political gain, then it is not unreasonable to conclude either that you don’t really care about other people’s liberty, or think racism has nothing to do with it. In either case, you would be wrong.

I detect a distinct, David Friedmanesque undercurrent to all this. And I like it.

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Sounds more like Hayek, with

Sounds more like Hayek, with the definition of liberty he's going for, or Cowen. I've never heard David Friedman wax on about sexism and racism the way Wilkinson goes on in that passage, or the positive responsibility put on people to tear that stuff down.

Some comments:

Here’s where I’m coming from philosophically. I am no Rothbardian or Randian. I do not understand the argument that concludes in the categorical prohibition of all coercion, but which permits some other things far more harmful to the pursuit of happiness than most ticky-tack government regulation. I agree with some aspects of the 19th century criticism of classical liberal freedom as “merely formal.” I believe that the liberty most worth caring about is positive liberty—the ability effectively to enact one’s plans, to achieve ones ends. In my judgment, a regime of strong negative rights is the best guarantee of positive liberty.

I'm not sure if any of this conflicts with Rothbard or Rand. It's been a while since I've read either, but my take is that both thought that all the political sphere need concern is the protection of negative rights. That does not rule out the importance--perhaps the overriding importance--of positive liberties. It just denies providing those liberties is a goal of good government. Maybe that's right, and maybe it's wrong, but significantly, it is one of the positions Wilkinson here flirts with himself:

Within this framework, racism, sexism, etc., which strongly limit the useful exercise of liberty are clear evils. Now, I am ambivalent about whether the state ought to step in and do anything about it.

Emphasis added. I've said this before: libertarianism is about protection of negative liberties. That does not mean we don't care about positive liberties and it doesn't mean we don't care about football. It's just that those concerns aren't what the movement's been about.

One of the embarrassments of the American libertarian movement is its failure to sufficiently acknowledge how collective bias against blacks, women, gays, immigrants etc. deprives blacks, women, gays, immigrants, etc. of their freedom... Libertarians make themselves look ridiculous when they claim that everyone is fully and equally free as long as no one is coercing anyone.

But, if we're speaking of negative freedom, then everyone really is fully and equally free as long as no one is coercing anyone, by definition. And, by the same token, if we're speaking of positive freedom, then everyone is not. Wilkinson, who brings up the distinction later, obviously recognizes it. So, more accurately, what he's saying is that libertarians who claim that everyone has the same positive freedoms so long as coercion isn't present make themselves look ridiculous. That's true, but it lacks the force of Wilkinson's own ambiguous phrasing.

To his point that anyone, libertarian or otherwise, who denies racism or sexism et al. affect how one exercises his or her liberty, is an idiot--I agree. But I also imagine few people fall in that group, and so find this point pretty weak.

Tangentially, this:

Government attempts to guarantee the worth of our liberties by recognizing positive rights to a minimum income or certain services like health care often (but not always) undermine the framework of market and civil institutions most likely to enhance liberty over the long run, and should be limited.

...strikes me as an evident attempt to hide a libertarian belief in a utilitarian framework, a framework that doesn't justify the original belief. And that does strike me as ridiculous.

Libertarians generally don't believe the government should interfere in private relations, even when (non-violent) racism is involved. Because of this, it's easy to attack us as racists or sexists. Some libertarians, in response, harp on how much racism there is and how bad it is etc. to prove that we're not racists. This strikes me as such a move. I find it a tad annoying, but to each his own.

I'm not sure if any of

I'm not sure if any of this conflicts with Rothbard or Rand

You have to be kidding. They where visceraly opposed to that line of thinking (and so am I). Take a look at "Egalitarianism as a revolt against nature" from Rothbard for example.

Well, you can read elements

Well, you can read elements of Rand and Rothbard that are supportive (at least to some extent) of a thick conception of left-libertarianism. See Rod Long's Equality: The Unknown Ideal and, along with Johnson, Libertarian Feminism: Can This Marriage Be Saved?

But they are definitely not supportive of the primacy of consequences over negative rights Will espouses, and neither is Long or Johnson.

I've never heard David

I've never heard David Friedman wax on about sexism and racism the way
Wilkinson goes on in that passage, or the positive responsibility put
on people to tear that stuff down.

Right, the David Friedman connection is the second paragraph. This is worth pointing out, because it's rare to see a libertarian publicly adopt this sort of position.

It's just that those concerns aren't what the movement's been about.

And Will is arguing, and I'm agreeing, that these concerns are what the movement should be about, in addition and not in place of what it's already about. Again, this goes back to the thick vs. thin libertarian argument.

strikes me as an evident attempt to hide a libertarian belief in a
utilitarian framework, a framework that doesn't justify the original
belief. And that does strike me as ridiculous.

Huh? I don't get this argument. For consequentialist, non-deontological libertarians (usually economists), this simply is the argument for their position. If they didn't hold the libertarian belief (based on empirical evidence and the logic of economic behavior) that attempts to guarantee a certain level of income or social welfare benefits would generally lead to worse outcomes than otherwise, they wouldn't be consequentialist libertarians; they would be consequentialist social democrats.

Some libertarians, in response, harp on how much racism there is and
how bad it is etc. to prove that we're not racists. This strikes me as
such a move. I find it a tad annoying, but to each his own.

Correct. And I find the lack of harping a tad annoying, for the reasons Will gave. It's not just bad marketing to feed in to the worst suspicions and accusations of one's opponents, we (at least those of us who dislike bigotry and think a libertarian society would be a less bigoted place) have a special obligation to show that we understand the problem and wish to address it in non-statist ways.

It may be a minor

It may be a minor vocabulary point, but I think libertarianism refers to a deontological theory of right. Some consequentialist share libertarian conclusions about rights, but that doesn't make them libertarian. I am not sure if many people make that distinction, but I believe DF makes it (for example when he wonders if anacho-capitalism is libertarian).

Since I consider myself both

Since I consider myself both a libertarian and not a deontologist (and so does Friedman, to a lesser extent than me), I obviously have a broader view of what counts as libertarian than you do. And for the seperate question of whether anarcho-capitalism is libertarian, if I recall correctly, Friedman's hypothesis is that the overarching system would tend to lean in that direction, as would (to a lesser extent) the individual legal sub-systems. When people actually have to directly pay for the costs of enforcing their lifestyle preferences on others, instead of just emotively voting for them, far fewer people would support drug prohibition, laws against sodomy, etc. than currently do.

Yes, yes, I know the

Yes, yes, I know the argument, my point was not to dwelve on this particular issue but rather to show that to friedman, libertarianism was understood as a set of law, and not a set of institutions. It is hard to argue that the theory of right as defined by libertarianism doesn't rely upon deontology. One may accept the set of law produced by the axiom of non-agression as efficient for example, and thus self-describe as a libertarian, but I don't believe that would be accurate.

 

Huh? I don't get this

Huh? I don't get this argument. For consequentialist, non-deontological libertarians (usually economists), this simply is the argument for their position.

I am denying that this is the reason for their position. The true reason Wilkinson holds his belief about the minimum wage is because he believes it violates some right of contract. But he's sheepish about saying that, so he rationalizes that belief with utilitarian dress.

And Will is arguing, and I'm agreeing, that these concerns are what the movement should be about, in addition and not in place of what it's already about. Again, this goes back to the thick vs. thin libertarian argument.

Will's doing more than that--he's arguing that people in the movement don't care about positive liberty, which is false. Movements are of course open to change, but this change is likely too radical. If enacted, we'll indeed have a movement--but I doubt it'll still be libertarianism in any meaningful way. It'll be libertarianism in the same way that modern day liberalism is classical liberalism.

Again, I don't see the Friedman connection. Friedman thinks there are many utilitarian arguments for a libertarian society, yes, but Wilkinson seems to think those are the only arguments that matter: Friedman does not.

Doesn't it bother or scare

Doesn't it bother or scare you to assume false consciousness in another? We might, deep down, suspect that someone else, deep down, has different "true reasons" for holding position X than what they publicly admit are their reasons, but without lots and lots of evidence, isn't the charitable thing to do to keep our suspicions private and take others at their word?

It does bother me, but as I

It does bother me, but as I know that people use the tactic I describe--because I've done it--I'm less scared of the assumption here.

For what I've read from

For what I've read from David Friedman, I do not share your feeling at all, but you may be more aquainted with his ideas than I am.

I did not feel that this article defended consequentialism, but rather the old marxist notion of freedom as capacity and positive "rights". This is not 'thick' libertarianism, it's leftism.

Part of the difficulty here

Part of the difficulty here is that Will's post discusses multiple issues that are usually discussed seperately: consequentialism vs. deontology, thick vs. thin conceptions of a liberal order, and right vs. left. Will is defending, and I am agreeing with, a consequentialist, thick, left-liberal version of libertarianism.

Well, either you completely

Well, either you completely defend formal freedoms or you don't. If you start considering that they are merely means to a higher objective, then you'll very soon find yourself in a position where you would defend infringement of formal freedoms, and that's when you stop being a libertarian. Voluntary actions, culture, institutions, ostracism, boycott, leave some leeway, but not much.

I feel so superfluous

Here I am, ready to respond, and Scott says at length what I was thinking, and Arthur says bluntly what I was feeling. And probably better than I would have. Oh well.

I must be missing it too

Your concluding sentence puzzles me.

See paragraph two. It's

See paragraph two. It's right out of MoF. Well, not in style but in substance.

Right, you said that above

And I still don't see it. I don't remember DDF ever saying much about positive liberty. I guess you're referring to negative liberty not being the only value that's important, that sometimes good consequences outweigh negative liberty.

Correct. Friedman doesn't

Correct. Friedman doesn't use the term positive liberty, but the arguments are nearly identical. Further, both Wilkinson and Friedman are exploring the underlying justifications given in support of axiomatic negative liberty and finding them wanting.

hermeneutics

I think you mean :

"both say we should treat negative liberty as a mean rather than an end"

is that correct?

That would be a normative statement, I have read very few normative statements by DF, so I cannot tell. The vast majority of arguments I've read from DF are in the form, if we do this, this will happen... if we have no infringement on formal liberty, then this will happen and I believe you will find it desirable. This is a purely positive statement, I don't think it implies that DF thinks we ought to treate negative liberty as a mean.... once again, he may or may not think that, but from the understanding I have of his published writings it cannot be inferred.

Friedman's motivations

Friedman's motivations behind his critique of negative rights are mostly strategic rather than strictly philosophical: finding them to be unpersuasive and therefore less useful when arguing with people who don't already share the same opinions, or unhelpful in answering tough questions.

Incidentally, the relevant chapters(41-43) of MoF are webbed.

That was also my

That was also my understanding. Would you then say that DF is not making a normative critic of formal freedom, nor is he embracing opportunity or capacity as a normative goal?

If so, I hardly see how the quote you make is DFesque.

I think deep down inside,

I think deep down inside, Friedman has deontological gut intuitions, as do I, and as do most consequentialist libertarians. But we are either skeptical of their truth value, or skeptical of their marketing value. It's hard to really tease out these two skepticisms. Both can be seen in Friedman's arguments, and both can be seen in mine. And if you read enough Wilkinson, you will see them there too.

Yes and no

I'm a consequentialist and never took natural rights/deontological ethics seriously. I can't go in with Will though. Coercion is a useful concept. It is not synonymous with "things I do not like", and that is an advantage of libertarianism. Totalitarian ideologies have a poor track record, and limiting libertarianism to the issue of coercion is an asset. Other, logically distinct (even if in many ways sympatico), movements can handle other issues. If you are both a libertarian and Singularitarian (I'm sure adherents of the latter would argue that it's more important than the other issue given exponential acceleration and whatnot) that is fine and may indeed be common, but it is not necessary (nor particularly desirable, in my opinion) to do so. I like libertarianism in part because I think it will lead to economic growth, but libertarianism is still open to ascetics, luddites or others who don't care for "dynamism". Subserving negative liberty for "positive liberty" in the past led from liberalism to "progressivism" and socialism. Much of "positive liberty" seems to me simply something that we like or want, which is a subjective thing for each person that a single ideology cannot cover. Coercion is more easily definable, and likening other things to it with talk of the "violence" of outsourcing comes off as laughable (on a related point, see Randall Collins on "symbolic violence").

Tying in with libertarianism's focus on coercion is its focus on the state, which is the institution claiming a monopoly on its legitimate use. In a hypothetical situation in which the state has disappeared non-state coercion would then be the pressing concern, but we are a long ways away from there. When we instead start thinking of balancing negative and positive liberties we may be apt to forget that the state is an actor that, like a market firm, has certain incentives in its behavior (notably, to grow), and that powers given to it are apt to be used later on in a manner unanticipated. I'm not an anarcho-capitalist for consequentialist reasons, but I'll concede my deviations (often intended to preserve negative liberty through checking coercion) are in some sense unlibertarian add-ons to make it work rather than a "thicker" version of libertarianism.

Here is a critique of Hayek's conception of coercion.

Stephan Kinsella has done a good job of explaining ownership of property itself as opposed to the value of that property (related to Wilkinson's "full value of that freedom"), with a nice round-up here. A monopoly is highly valuable and becomes less so when competition is introduced, so if someone was considered to have a right to that value it would imply protection of that monopoly and prohibition of competition.

Positive Liberty

Hey guys, Great discussion. I could have been clearer, obviously.

By "positive liberty" or "positive freedom" I mean real ability or opportunity. Increasing freedom in this sense means increasing the range of real opportunities--the economist's "feasible set". Because I'm a value pluralist, I don't care so much about whether individuals are maximizing happiness, pleasure, utility, etc., so much as the size of the set of opportunities to realize whatever values individuals have. I do think of rights as conventional and instrumental. Libertarian negative rights are a good means of maximizing the range of real opportunities within which individuals can build lives they find meaningful and valuable. On the other hand, racism, etc. are good means of shrinking the range of real opportunities for many people. The reason to care about negative rights is the same as the reason to care about racism and sexism: their effect on the range of real opportunities available to individuals.

Here's an earlier discussion of the positive/negative freedom distinction.

I agree with Will. What

I agree with Will. What matters is the range of options available to people. As libertarians, we feel most deeply when those options are restricted by coercion. But to ignore the many situations where options are restricted by lack of opportunity would be foolish. This is why I am excited about psychology and personal development, as well as helping poor people: all of these things increase liberty. You can increase liberty in other ways than reducing coercion.

Libertarianism being

Libertarianism being concerned with justice, it is normal that its interest lies in options being restricted through coercion since their is an obvious guilty party. When options are restricted from lack of opportunity, this is called nature. A man falling from the 3rd floor has little options but to obey the law of gravity. Would you interpret this as a lack of liberty? His he deprived of his freedom to stand on firm ground? While his situation is certainly not desirable, it is not relevant to justice, as it would be foolish to revolt against gravity and even more expensive to sue. The left is constantly revolting against nature by trying to define justice as a desirable condition rather than the institution drawing a line between conflicting party. The whole concept of "social justice" relies on the same fallacy, defining justice as condition.

You may very well take capacity, lack of constraints as desirable goals, and I certainly do too, but they are not, and should not be the goals of justice. 

Hey, me too

This is why I am excited about psychology and personal development

Hey, me too. I just don't call it libertarianism. I call it my other interests. I don't define myself as just a libertarian, and I don't try to cram everything I care about under the label "libertarianism".

There are tons of people out

There are tons of people out there already fighting the good fight against racism. We should concentrate our energies where we are most useful - defending negative liberty. Let the anti-racists specialize in anti-racism.
Put another way, the marginal value of one more voice against racism isn't much at this point: racism isn't tolerated in polite society. The marginal value of one more person defending fundamental negative liberties is much greater, since far fewer people are doing it.

What Will and I (and thick

What Will and I (and thick libertarians) are proposing is a little bit different than your characterization. By tying together public anti-racism with public libertarianism, and making the connections between the two as explicit as possible, we are strengthening both. We are making anti-racism more palatable to libertarians, and libertarianism more palatable to anti-racists. We are demonstrating how libertarianism can be made stronger as an ideology if it explicitly includes anti-bigotry among its central goals, and how anti-bigotry can be made stronger if it incorporates libertarianism as a side-constraint on its efforts.

So while the specialization argument is well taken, cross-disciplinary efforts are often more than the sum of their parts.

passive vs. active rights

In standard rights theory jargon (see Tierney for a good historical analysis), the standard distinction is between "active" rights (freedom of speech, right to freedom of religion, etc.) and "passive" rights (right to welfare, etc.).

You'll need to read a lot on the Franciscan property debate and afterwards to understand how passive rights actually got formulated....a lot of it was from interpretation of natural law and property went from being held "in common" to being linked with one person.