On Libertarian Progressivism

Like Wilkinson, I'm unsure how I missed Ed Glaeser's now 10-day old post on libertarian progressivism. And also like Will, I find there's much to recommend here.

Here's the nutshell version of Glaeser's position:

Libertarian progressivism distrusts big increases in government spending because that spending is likely to favor the privileged. Was the Interstate Highway System such a boon for the urban poor? Has rebuilding New Orleans done much for the displaced and disadvantaged of that city? Small-government egalitarianism suggests that direct transfers of federal money to the less fortunate offer a surer path toward a fairer America.

I know the idea won't find a lot of favor with many DR folks. Structural libertarian types, in particular, are going to see this as only a modest improvement (more efficient stealing, perhaps?).

But, for those who do see value in policy libertarianism, Glaeser's post provides important insights. There is very little chance of convincing a large swathe of people that taxation is stealing. (Mostly because it's not. But that's a different argument.) But there is a pretty large chunk of people who think that a big government is a problem. There's also a bit chunk of people who think that government ought to help out those who can't help themselves. And there is a fair amount of overlap between these two sets.

Our current political arrangement currently has four positions:

  1. The Big Government Liberal: This is the familiar FDR type who says there's no problem that can't be solved with a government bureaucracy and a few million taxpayer dollars. Occasionally pays lip service to the market, but mostly bad-mouths it. See Obama, Barack and Congress, U.S.
  2. Big Government Conservative: The Bush Republican who is willing to spend boatloads of taxpayer money on programs that are thinly-disguised corporate giveaways. Prone to enacting mercantilist policies in the name of the "free market." Also known as Big Government Liberals Who Hate Sex. See Bush, George and McCain, John.
  3. Small Government Conservative: The Reagan Republican who wants to slash spending on social programs. They have never met a social program that they like. Unless that program involves limiting people's sex lives, in which case, groovy. See Paul, Ron and Kyl, John.
  4. Libertarians: Small Government Conservatives who like sex. There are pretty much none of these in government.

Libertarians tend generally to despair (aka, turn to structural libertarianism and/or political apathy) once they realize that no one is likely to get elected to office on a pure libertarian platform or else they latch on to the libertarian-like traits of figures in one of the other categories (like, say, Ron Paul or even Obama). But those mired in despair tend to forget that a lot of the people who end up in either the Big Government Liberal or the Small Government Conservative category by default. Many BGLs don't really like the Big Government part and many of the SGCs don't much care for the Conservative part.

Libertarians would do well to remind voters that there is another option. Caring for the poor need not entail massive government programs. Indeed, many such programs (think tax deduction for mortgages, public education or farm subsidies) end up doing serious harm to (or, at the very least, not helping) the poor. If we spent money more efficiently, it'd be possible to cut government and continue to help those most in need.

Better still, moving more people into the "progressive libertarian" category gets us one step closer to actual libertarianism. Though, if the truth be told, it's not entirely clear to me that the basic idea behind Glaeser's "progressive libertarian" direct transfers of cash to the poor is really all that different from Milton Friedman's plain old libertarian negative income tax.

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AFAIK, Milton Friedman's

AFAIK, Milton Friedman's negative income tax was meant a second best, a solution which is not as good as the repeal of all welfare yet better than welfare because it involves less bureaucrats.

I'm not sure this is "Libertarian progressivisim"

There is very little chance of convincing a large swathe of people that taxation is stealing. (Mostly because it's not. But that's a different argument.)

Want to discuss that? It's probably going to turn in a pointless discussion about semantics, but if you define stealing as taking someone's property against his will by threat of force or fraud then it is.

And no, merely being on the American continent between the 49th N parallel and the Rio Grande does not imply consent to be taxed by the US government no more than it implies your consent to be anally raped by my pet Gorilla just-because-I-said-so.

Stealing

This probably deserves a longer post, but the short answer is that I don't really believe in the whole notions of "rights" as anything more than just a convenient shorthand. Or, rather, I believe that people can have contractual rights; I just don't think that there are any natural rights.

I do think, however, that there are a lot of really good pragmatic reasons for having extremely strong presumptions against certain kinds of activities. Private property and unrestricted markets, for example, make everyone better off. But those presumptions need not be absolute. If property rights are grounded in consequentialist justifications (as I think they are), then we need not assume that those rights will be absolute and unlimited. In fact, it's strange to me to think of any right that is absolute and unlimited. Raise the stakes enough, and we're justified in abrogating pretty much any right you might care to name.

Also, for the record, I think your definition of stealing as "taking someone's property against his will by threat of force or fraud." After all, that definition means that I steal when, say, I free sex slave some dude has chained up in his basement. We have to caveat the definition with something like "justly acquired property." And, if we want to allow things like a judicial system that requires punitive damages for torts, then we also need a caveat about how we can't take your justly acquired properly by threat of force or fraud unless doing so is required by justice. But that, of course, leaves a lot of ground to cover.

The problem, here, is that these issues are really complicated. It is a naive to think that we can solve all political problems by asking whether it conforms to a one-sentence, one-size-fits-all slogan (i.e., taxation is theft or the principle of non-aggression).

This probably deserves a

This probably deserves a longer post, but the short answer is that I don't really believe in the whole notions of "rights" as anything more than just a convenient shorthand. Or, rather, I believe that people can have contractual rights; I just don't think that there are any natural rights.

If there is no right, there is no wrong. Would you not say it's wrong that I butcher your family ?

Besides, if you don't believe in "natural rights" then what does theft even means for you ? Thefts is what the government says is theft ? Do you realize the absurdity of rejecting a natural definition of theft to an arbitrary one ? If tomorrow the government says the definition of theft is playing harmonica, will you now claim that this is what theft is or will could cling to an irrational, natural definition of the word ?

False Dilemma

If there is no right, there is no wrong. Would you not say it's wrong that I butcher your family ?

This doesn't quite work. I think that you're maybe equivocating on the word "right." To say that there's no such thing as a natural right (as in, some universal, abstract moral constraint that no one is ever permitted to violate) is not to say that there's no such thing as morally right (as in, all morality is up for grabs). That's just confusing two different senses of the word "right."

Besides, if you don't believe in "natural rights" then what does theft even means for you ? Thefts is what the government says is theft ? Do you realize the absurdity of rejecting a natural definition of theft to an arbitrary one ? If tomorrow the government says the definition of theft is playing harmonica, will you now claim that this is what theft is or will could cling to an irrational, natural definition of the word ?

There are plenty of stable positions between "X is a natural right" and "morality is whatever the government says it is."

One of those positions, for example, is some form of rule-consequentialism, which would hold that we create a set of rules that, when generally followed, will maximize overall good consequences. We'll then decide what particular acts we should perform based upon the set of rules we've picked out.

Of course, not all rules are created equal. Consider, for example, that we'll likely end up with one rule that says: Don't lie to people and another one that says Don't kill people unjustly. Obviously those rules are not equally important; there are a lot of cases when violating the first one might still be the right thing to do. There are very few good violations of the second rule. So what we want is a good way to distinguish between the really really important rules and the other kinds of rules. One suggestion: we can call the really really important ones rights. And since they're really really important, we should teach people that it's wrong to violate rights.

Those aren't natural rights. But they're also not rights that are based upon arbitrary fiat.

You did not say what theft

You did not say what theft meant to you, which was the question. If there's no right, there's no property right, if there's no property right there's no theft. Is it an empty word to you?

Besides you claim that you recognize that some thing may be morally right or wrong. I submit to you that a natural right is something that cannot morally be opposed by force.

I fear

That we're just talking past one another. Or, more specifically, that we're using the word "right" in entirely different ways. Here's an account of the two major justifications for talking about rights:

There are two major contemporary philosophical approaches to explaining which fundamental rights of conduct there are, and why these rights should be respected. These two approaches are broadly identifiable as deontological and consequentialist. Status theories hold that human beings have attributes that make it fitting to ascribe certain rights to them, and make respect for these rights appropriate. Instrumental theories hold that respect for particular rights is a means for bringing about some optimal distribution of interests. Each approach has characteristic strengths and weaknesses, and the long-running contest between them is ongoing.

So when I say that there is no such thing as a natural right, I'm rejecting the "status theory" (or deontological) approach to rights. But that doesn't mean that I'm somehow giving up on rights entirely. Rather, it's that I think that when we talk about rights, what we're really doing is using shorthand for talking about some form of maximizing of good consequences.

You're right to say that a natural right is something that cannot morally be opposed by force. More specifically, what you're saying has the form:

    If X is a natural right, then X cannot morally be opposed by force.

That is true. But you then slide from that true claim to the following claim:

    X cannot morally be opposed by force if and only if X is a natural right.

That claim, however, is not obviously true. If it were true, then anyone who denied the existence of natural rights would ipso facto also be denying the existence of morality. Fortunately, there are lots of other possible justifications for saying that it would be wrong to do X. So we need not say either natural rights or nothing.

The shorter version: you're using "natural right" to mean "morality." The two things aren't synonyms, though. To use "natural right" as if it just was equivalent to talking about "the right thing to do" begs the question.

Slaves are Not True Property

"After all, that definition means that I steal when, say, I free sex slave some dude has chained up in his basement. "

Actually that's not true because there is an world view it's based on. In that world view having property in a sex slave is an impossibility.

Taxation as Theft

"There is very little chance of convincing a large swathe of people that taxation is stealing. (Mostly because it's not. But that's a different argument.)"

That depends on the rational for the taxation, how it's enforced, and whether the taxes are actually being spent on things that support that rational. All union payments aren't theft either unless the union bosses are going to break your legs for not joining, and are siphoning cash out of the retirement plan.

In other words, it's possible for it to be both theft and something else. Like donations to a charity that actually helps some poor but also enriches the directors via non-disclosed favorable loans.

policy

I see plenty of value in policy libertarianism. As I see it, the steps to structuralism are:

1) Convince people that current policies are bad
2) Agitate for better policies.
3) Eventually realize that the very thing which makes policies bad (waste) makes them inevitable choices for selfish actors. The very thing which makes policies good (efficiency) means no one gets paid off and you can't get it passed.
4) Become a structuralist.

(1) is convincing people to be members of any radical party that wishes to change the status quo (libertarian being one of many). (3) is almost inevitable, since it is almost impossible to make good policies happen. Then we get another structuralist recruit.

(Actually I skipped a 3.5 where one generalizes the understanding of the bad consequences of the structure of democracy, explores other structures, realizes that they offer hope for consistently better policy generation).