Rationalism vs Pluralism, once more with feeling!

Jim Manzi channels Hayek and Popper.

A central insight of Hayek, Popper & Co. was that our ignorance of human society runs deep. We need the experimentation of an open society not only because different people often want different things, but even more importantly because we’re never sure what works. I generally support, for example, a high degree of legal toleration of behavior that I find personally objectionable. I recognize, though, that others believe that what I think should be tolerated goes too far and threatens social cohesion, or what Buckley called morale. How do we resolve this impasse?

The best answer for conservatives or libertarians is federalism, or more precisely, subsidiarity – the principle that matters ought to be handled by the smallest competent authority. After all, a typical American lives in a state that is a huge political entity governing millions of people. As many decisions as possible ought to be made by counties, towns, neighborhoods and families (in which parents have significant coercive rights over children). In this way, not only can different preferences be met, but we can learn from experience how various social arrangements perform.

The characteristic error of contemporary conservatives in this regard has been a want of prudential judgment in trying to enforce too many social norms on a national basis. The characteristic error of contemporary Libertarianism has been the parallel failure to appreciate that a national rule of “no restrictions on non-coercive behavior” (which, admittedly, is something of a cartoon) contravenes a primary rationale for libertarianism. What if social conservatives are right and the wheels really will come off society in the long run if we don’t legally restrict various sexual behaviors? What if left-wing economists are right and it is better to have aggressive zoning laws that prohibit big-box retailers? I think both are mistaken, but I might be wrong. What if I’m right for some people at this moment in time, but wrong for others or wrong the same people ten years from now? The freedom to experiment needs to include freedom to experiment with different governmental (i.e., coercive) rules.

Now, obviously, there are limits to this. What if some states want to allow human chattel slavery? Well, we had a civil war to rule that out of bounds. Further, this imposes trade-offs on people who happen to live in some family, town or state that limits behavior in some way that they find odious, and must therefore move to some other location or be repressed. But this is a trade-off, not a tyranny.

We live in an imperfect world. Ironically, given the deeply anti-utopian orientation of Hayek and Popper, contemporary Libertarianism has veered off into increasingly utopian speculations disconnected from the practical realities that ought to animate it. At the same time, the Conservative movement has become increasingly ideological about enforcing moral norms. Both could learn a lot from re-engaging with one another.

This brings up one of the most popular documents in this blog's history: Jacob Levy's Liberalism's Divide paper (for which Brian Doss is a self-proclaimed "total pimp"); see below for more posts. Politically, I'm a libertarian, meaning that I generally favor libertarian policies. Epistemically, unlike most libertarians, I'm a pluralist rather than a rationalist. There's a clear limit to human knowledge and without the ability to experiment, we won't get closer to the truth. I have strong opinions but don't believe I have all the answers. When no answers are self-evident, I yield to tradition as a first line heuristic.

Despite being a small rock surrounded by large belligerent nations including communist China, Singapore somehow managed to stay independent and showed the world that a third world country can become one of the richest countries in the world in a single generation through free market policies. Without the ability to carry out this experiment, the world would have less knowledge and be worse off. Few things convince the skeptics more than hard data. When there's a conflict between libertarian policy and federalism, I'll favor federalism 99% of the time. Let a thousand Singapores bloom even if some ultimately wilt. The world will be better off.

Aside from facts are matters of taste and morality, questions which may have no final answer. It wouldn't make much sense for me to proclaim my tastes as univerally correct (though clearly, my taste in television is better than everyone else's). People have their own conceptions of the good life and ought to be allowed to seek them as long as they're able to leave the communities that don't meet their inclinations.

I strongly believe that without federalism, the liberal project is doomed.

Of the Plural and the Rational - Brian Doss
Levy on Pluralist and Rationalist Liberalism - Randall McElroy
We can Allow Individuals to Opt Out - Jonathan Wilde
On Liberty and Liberal Indeterminacy - Brian Doss

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Epistemically, unlike most

Epistemically, unlike most libertarians, I'm a pluralist rather than a rationalist.

I get the feeling that Hume is much neglected in libertarian circles. There is much to like in his politics if you are a pluralist, especially if you are a bit conservative. I plan to do a more detailed post on this as (one of) my Hume class(es) gets into book III of the Treatise, but here is a taste of Hume's views:

  • Conventional account of property- no Lockean rationalism here
  • We owe allegiance too our government primarily because it has the power it has- stems primarily from conventional nature of property
    • Caveat- not if we are stuck in a bad convention (whatever that means)
  • By and large, there is a 'standard' convention of property for humanity, involving private property for largely economic reasons (the system is instrumental).
  • Questions of property rights aren't always easily settled, and in many cases, an arbitrary side must be taken for practical reasons
  • Revolution is the hell of it (yes I stole that from where you think I did)
  • A built in bias for the status quo for a variety of reasons
  • There is nothing special about democracy

There are plenty of interpretation issues (was Hume a utilitarian of some sort? A natural law theorist? Something else?) which I don't pretend to be able to solve after reading him on my own, but hopefully by the end of the semester, the two classes I'm taking on Hume will give me the tools to at least take a position.


Federalism is Minarchism is Government

If it's wrong or a bad idea to have 'libertarian' coercive laws at the national level, then it's also wrong to have 'libertarian' or other coercive laws at the state, county or city level. Allowing any level of government to exist is exactly the same as allowing any level of thievery to exist. History has also shown that even a miniscule amount of government will over time grow into a cancerous tyranical monster. The prime example is the history of the US government. Asking wether to support a national or local level of coercive laws is the wrong question. The right question is how to completely eliminate government at every level as fast as possible. The best current answer is in 'Man, economy and state' by Murray Rothbard.

Proudhon's anarchism is federalism

Subject line according to Bob Black.

Having the federal government smother state and local governments does not lead to the elimination of the state, just the strengthening of the national one. From my perspective the larger the political unit, the more of a threat it is. The central government will attempt to undermine rival power centers, which include smaller political units. It is to the libertarian's advantage that those units be able to resist the central government.

How much government did Murray Rothbard actually eliminate? It seems to me that Milton Friedman is the only libertarian that actually achieved any liberty. That reminds me, Bryan Caplan has a good set of posts on where Rothbard went wrong on central banking and why.

I've got a post responding to this post here, with links to other posts on federalism (though decentralism might be a better term).

My "anarchism" is also federalism

See this post.

Allowing any level of

Allowing any level of government to exist is exactly the same as allowing any level of thievery to exist.

This depends on the Lockean notion of property, as seen in Nozick and Rothbard, among others. Problem is, this notion hasn't received much of an argument since Locke himself tried to use the existence of God to prove it. Since then we've seen plenty of appeals to self evidence, but they are no more convincing than Descartes' appeal to the self evidence of the existence of God. Even if the Lockean conception is true, your statement is false. Government is a subset of thievery, the two aren't coextensive, unless you are defining it that way but lets not play the semantic game.

If, however, we take a Humean approach, i.e., property is a convention among men which is instrumental to satisfying material desires (which may or may not imply utilitarianism of some sort), then government isn't theft, it's merely part of the convention. And a convention which allows for federalism on a massive scale-- a bunch of small polities experimenting with all sorts of governments subject to (hopefully nonviolent) competition-- is probably going to be ideal for a variety of reasons, some of which are found in Patri's dynamic geography argument.

Federalism/pluralism/decentralism is the only real practical check we know of on the centralization of power. It may not be perfect, but working to improve methods of decentralization is surely a better idea than trying to eliminate a current centralized power only to have a power vacuum suck in our very own Napoleon. This applies for Lockean libertarianism as well- if you have to eliminate the state, you don't have to be stupid about it (didn't David Friedman say that?).

Pluralism is the essence of Dynamic Geography

so I couldn't agree more.
Some libertarians see seasteading/dynamic geography as something to enable libertarian society and demonstrate to the rest of the world that it works. I think that is short-sighted. The more nuanced view is that it will enable many societies, including ours. And it will produce empirical evidence about many systems, including ours. And that empirical evidence will not only be "libertarianism works", but also which kinds work best - and which don't actually work.
So I guess I'm pretty deep pluralist.

More from mentioned authors

Levy also has a paper called Federalism and the Old and New Liberalism. Chandras Kukathas discusses the "Union of Liberty" versus "Federation of Liberty" in Two Constructions of Libertarianism. Mill is critiqued from conservative perspective in the first part of James Stephen's Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, though I did not think much of the critique.

To Acton, Montesquieu, Burke, de Toqueville I would add Bertrand de Jouvenel. I reviewed his "On Power" here. He doesn't so much celebrate local authorities providing liberty as observe that they are the only check on the "Minotaur", which always gives less liberty as it expands even though it promises the opposite.

I too prefer pluralism. But

I too prefer pluralism. But that's because pluralism is entirely consistent with libertarianism. And I only support that pluralism so long as it respects basic libertarian principles--which is to say one society shouldn't go stealing from or inflicting injury upon another. And no society has a positive obligation to help another.

I suspect most of us are similarly meta-libertarians. Indeed, most of this pluralism talk reminds me of Part III of Anarchy, State and Utopia, where Nozick discusses the merits of libertarianism.

When there's a conflict

When there's a conflict between libertarian policy and federalism, I'll favor federalism 99% of the time.

You want competing experiments within a federal framework. It seems like Utopia to me. That federal framework must already by completely libertarian, and the competing experiments must somehow respect both that framework and the other experiments. I don't see what's so good about a federal framework. If it is libertarian, the goal has already been reached; but it never stays libertarian so what's the point. Instead, we have small experiments and power battles all across the world manifesting themselves in the framework we call reality, and some experiments, like Singapore or other ex-British Empire areas, are more successful than others. I think the data is already out there, and it's not going to convince anyone who isn't by nature favorably inclined towards libertarianism.

Did you mis-speak?

Jonathan: When there's a conflict between libertarian policy and federalism, I'll favor federalism 99% of the time.

a young curmudgeon: You want competing experiments within a federal framework.

AYC's criticism makes me think you might not have said exactly what you meant, Jonathan. Do you support competing governments within a federal framework? Or simply competing governments?

The example you gave of Singapore, and your earlier posts (such as this one), makes me think you just mis-spoke. You probably meant, "I'll favor competition 99% of the time". Am I right?


"Competition" is the correct word. I am using "federalism" in its modern sense to mean "decentralization" not in its classical sense (in which case I'd be an "anti-federalist".)

Choice of words

I suppose it's really "decentralism" rather than federalism that I favor. If I could eliminate all higher level government and bring things down to the city-state level (the smallest that seems workable), I would.