The Resurrection of Classical Liberalism
Peter A. Taylor
June 13, 2013
If you're trying to save the old libertarian America, you've arrived on the scene a little late. Electing Ron Paul is like showing up at an autopsy with a live human liver. Yes, it's true - the patient did die of liver failure. But that was a week ago. I suppose it can't hurt to try and put the thing in, but I really doubt it will do any good.
— Mencius Moldbug
I get exposed to a lot of left-wing criticism of libertarianism. Some of it is valid, but applies only to radicals like Murray Rothbard (e.g. people who want to abolish the EPA without offering a well-thought out alternative). Some of it is technically incompetent (e.g. over-confident claims about the minimum wage). Most of it, frankly, is just straw men and character assassination. I feel like I've heard everything that the leftists have to say, and I'm bored with it.
The arguments of social conservatives who base their criticism of libertarianism on religion are almost never cogent for me. These arguments also bore me.
However, my exposure to the secular far-right is a recent phenomenon. I find their criticisms much more interesting. I am indebted to several of these "reactionaries", such as Steve Sailer, John Derbyshire, and Carter Van Carter, for many of the ideas in my critique of libertarian immigration policy (which you arguably should read first). I also have some discussion of the differences between libertarians and neoreactionaries here.
I also find their psychological observations on the libertarian movement interesting. Foremost among these is John Derbyshire:
Modern libertarianism (there is a bit more to say about the older kind) is in fact a geek fad, a head game for high-IQ bourgeois types.
I think Derbyshire's view makes a lot of sense, but in order to explain why I think so, I first need to review some of the historical background for libertarianism.
How classical liberalism died
Here's what I think happened. The US began as an expression of classical liberalism. The founders were steeped in John Locke's ideas about natural rights, as modified and popularized by writers like James Otis, Thomas Paine, and Thomas Jefferson. What actually made it into the American political canon was a mixture of beliefs about natural rights and democracy. For example, the Declaration of Independence talks of unalienable rights and states "...That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed...." I see two problems here. First, the clause about securing rights sounds good to libertarians and Objectivists, but what does "consent" mean? And second, the basis for the government's legitimacy is overspecified. Do "just powers" stem from the necessity to secure rights or from consent?
Bernard Crick (In Defence of Politics) wrote that this "consent" consists of majorities choosing between alternatives presented to them by elites. Gordon Tullock and James M. Buchanan wrote in The Calculus of Consent that there is nothing magical about a 51% majority. If you have unanimous agreement, you have a rational basis for saying that one option is better than another, but with anything short of unanimity, it's not clear what you have. But as Crick (p. 26) put it, "...if there is absolute consent, there could be no government."
The slogan by James Otis, "Taxation without representation is tyranny," similarly conflates natural rights with majority rule. It is stirring rhetoric, but if you stop and think about it, it doesn't make a lot of sense. If I am part of an unpopular minority, how much good does "representation" do me? It is only likely to be marginally useful at best. Tyranny of the majority is still tyranny. As James Bovard put it, "Democracy must be something more than two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner." These slogans, I'm afraid, are better polemics than philosophy. I discussed some of these issues in my critique of libertarian immigration policy. Democracy may be a means of constraining a government to tend to its legitimate business, but it cannot be the source of the government's moral legitimacy. The distinction between a republic and a democracy sounds promising, but this distinction is only meaningful so long as the voters choose to honor it. Scratch the surface of a republic, and underneath you find a democracy.
And Senator Hill's principle (suffrage is a trust, not a right), while alien to modern Western thought, was widely understood in times past. As Robert Jenkinson (2nd Earl of Liverpool, Prime Minister 1812-1827) put it,
I consider the right of election as a public trust, granted not for the benefit of the individual, but for the public good.
There are also the matters of the Declaration's "We hold these Truths to be self-evident" and that men are "endowed by their Creator...." Modern intellectuals don't take the idea of a Creator very seriously. In fact, the Constitution is explicitly agnostic on the subject, not just in the 1st Amendment disestablishment clause, but also in Article VI ("no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States"). Furthermore, in so far as modern intellectuals believe in a Creator at all, they get their ideas about this Creator's opinions from contemporary intellectual fashion rather than from traditional sources. Modern intellectuals do hold some "truths" to be self-evident, often "truths" with a familiar evolutionary psychology smell, but these "truths" are often diametrically opposed to the Founders' ideas. John Locke's ideas about the importance of property rights are clearly not self-evident to most modern American opinion-makers. Consequently, neither of these sources of classical liberal moral authority have stood up well under scrutiny. (I suspect that Thomas Jefferson's comment about these Truths being self-evident actually served to undermine them by enshrining navel-gazing as a substitute for a traditional moral education.)
The classical liberal moral consensus broke down at the end of the 19th century. It was replaced by the Progressivism of Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin Roosevelt. Property rights were protected in the US by tradition and institutional hysteresis, and to some extent by common sense, but moral arguments in defense of property were decidedly out of fashion amongst intellectuals. By the mid-20th century, classical liberalism was essentially a corpse, and those intellectuals who still more-or-less adhered to it for practical reasons were looking for a way to reanimate it as a moral force. Modern libertarianism thus came into the world, as a sort of intellectual zombie. Think of the movie, Young Frankenstein, and you'll get the picture. The classical liberal tradition died, and young Frederick is trying to resurrect it. But it still looks pretty uncomfortable in a tuxedo.
Note that this is not the standard libertarian explanation for the growth of the US government. The conventional wisdom among libertarians is that the US and other Western governments grew because of slippery slope problems, as Western voters' political views changed in order to embrace the new status quo. As David Friedman (The Machinery of Freedom, 2nd ed., ch. 36) put it, "The logic of limited governments is to grow." This explanation views voters as "conservative" in the sense in which Friedrich Hayek used the term: they acclimate to whatever the government is currently doing (the slippery slope problem), and the politicians are always trying to get away with doing slightly more than what the voters are currently used to (the principal-agent problem).
But which comes first, policy or voter psychology? Robin Hanson argues that "Politics isn't about policy"; what it's really about is status competition. Bryan Caplan wrote in The Myth of the Rational Voter that "Political/economic ideology is the religion of modernity." Caplan explains voter behavior in terms of cognitive biases, which he treats as being innate, but capable of being overcome by education. Andrew Breitbart said, "Politics is downstream of culture." Culture is only loosely related to formal education. I see some truth in all of these claims. Culture is hard to separate from religion. People do have powerful urges to compete for social status, which manifests itself as a craving for a sense of moral superiority. The things people do or say in order to compete are affected by innate cognitive biases, formal teachings, and most especially by culture (i.e. peer pressure). Religion promotes some moral doctrines over others partly through formal teachings, but mainly by promoting culture (i.e. acting as a guide for peer pressure). In my view, governments grew because they were allowed to by the increasing moral rootlessness of the voters. As I explained in The Market for Sanctimony, I think the voters' behavior has always been quasi-religious, and the changes in what voters were willing to tolerate from their governments were driven by religious and cultural changes. Socialism moved in to fill an existing religious vacuum. Libertarians arguably tend not to understand this because they are also children of the enlightenment, and they tend not to take religion any more seriously than the socialist intellectuals do (and I suspect a lot of us have a touch of Asperger's syndrome). (See Guenter Lewy, Why America Needs Religion and my latest evolutionary psychology screed.) So while it's true that the "principal-agent" and "slippery slope" problems do tend to bias the size of government to be larger than what most people want, I don't see these as decisive. The problem is fundamentally quasi-religious.
If we're going to re-animate classical liberalism, it's important to get this right. We need to understand what went wrong with liberalism the first time. I see a number of flaws in it:
The critical point here is that classical liberal morality was too dependent on religion. Liberal moral ideas were a platform built on supernatural piers, which were eaten away by enlightenment termites. Most people still have ideas about the supernatural, but the "wisdom tradition" that supported classical liberalism is a vague memory. And on a deeper level, this weakness was more or less inevitable. The problem is that moral theories are never completely grounded in observable fact. Moral theories fall into various categories such as "sympathetic", "deontological", and "consequentialist". The moral theories that are not consequentialist are poorly grounded in observable fact by definition. (Bruce Ramsey, discussing Jeffrey Friedman, thinks this is unfair.) The consequentialist ones, such as utilitarianism, try to be grounded in observable fact, but human nature, culture, and the rest of reality is so complicated, so subject to delayed consequences and muddled causes, that in practice, they suffer from huge uncertainties, and moral analysis is far too subject to "motivated reasoning". In practice, morality is a credence good, "A type of good with qualities that cannot be observed by the consumer after purchase, making it difficult to assess its utility." Thus all moral theories have a strong flavor of religious faith, and all political movements are fundamentally quasi-religious.
Thus I find myself accusing libertarian scholars like David Friedman of having blown the autopsy on classical liberalism. The problem isn't in the institutions of government, but in the institutions of moral education. Consequently, radical libertarians have also prescribed the wrong approach to restoring the creature to health. They find themselves, in T.S. Elliot's words, "dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good" (i.e. anarcho-capitalism), when they should be looking at the "preacher" side of Sir Dennis Robertson's comparison:
There exists in every human breast an inevitable state of tension between the aggressive and acquisitive instincts and the instincts of benevolence and self-sacrifice. It is for the preacher, lay or clerical, to inculcate the ultimate duty of subordinating the former to the latter. It is the humbler, and often the invidious, role of the economist to help, so far as he can, in reducing the preacher's task to manageable dimensions. It is his function to emit a warning bark if he sees courses of action being advocated or pursued which will increase unnecessarily the inevitable tension between self-interest and public duty; and to wag his tail in approval of courses of action which will tend to keep the tension low and tolerable.
By all means, libertarians should look at the "economist's" side of things, but it was the "preacher" who really screwed the pooch as far as the death of classical liberalism is concerned. It is the preacher, not the economist, who most strongly influences how people vote (again, see Caplan). The problem is not that the "preacher" failed to preach benevolence, or what Buddhists call "right relationship" with other people, but that he offers incompetent and perverse advice on how to act in order to achieve this. The preacher and the economist are supposed to be working together. Instead, if we go back to the Young Frankenstein analogy, the Progressive preachers released a bunch of antibodies that attack the economic and moral reasoning on which free societies depend. Essentially, what classical liberalism died of is an auto-immune disorder.
The quest for moral clarity
Again, I find that the reactionaries understand this better than the libertarians. As "asdf" put it,
The problem is that various forces push most bureaucrats to believe certain things and act certain ways. I believe this largely happens to them before they are adults via education, media, and other pressures. If you can't solve that process there really is no way to fix the problem. Get rid of one batch and the next will be the same.
Rather than viewing DC as a dark heart in a pure nation, I see it as the dark heart at the center of an already rotting nation. It becomes a feedback loop between the two. DC could not be the way it is if there weren't reinforcing trends outside of DC pushing it in that direction.
That's the problem with declining empires. Even if you get a good emperor he can only clean things up for awhile. The rot is still there when he's gone.
I say we need "preachers", and that political movements are inherently quasi-religious. But earlier I endorsed John Derbyshire's claim that modern libertarianism was a "head game". What is the relationship between these two claims?
Libertarianism, like Progressivism, is quasi-religious in the sense of trying to promote moral rules and having to wrestle with the difficulty of demonstrating their correctness. It is also quasi-religious in the sense that part of the reward for participation is a sense of moral superiority. (I don't think I can separate moral indoctrination from social status competition; if one is perverse, the other is perverse.) But Libertarianism isn't nearly as much of a team sport. It's like the difference between participating in a potato sack race (Progressivism) and writing a hard science fiction story (Libertarianism). The "potato sack race" has teachers and coaches, many of whom are professionals competing for wealth and power at the highest levels. There are powerful emotional rewards for being on a team, and especially for being on a winning team. You can also be ostracized for going off-script; for taking your leg too far out of the sack, or not keeping up when the sack moves. The people involved in this "potato sack race" include "teachers" (professionals) and "children" (amateurs). At the "children's" level, the game is played partly for camaraderie, but mainly for social status, or at least a sense of moral superiority (if all these "children" wanted was camaraderie, they have many other choices of games they could be playing instead). But the social status points are awarded by other people, and to a considerable degree by professionals who have elections that they need to help win. You score points by saying things that might influence the outcome of an election. But the other children will also reject you if you spoil their fun. In practice, the way people convince themselves and one another of their moral superiority, the correctness of their moral doctrines, is by creating an illusion of consensus among "well informed" people. If you spoil the illusion of consensus, you get ostracized.
A science fiction writer may also be interested in getting an ego boost, and this is partly in the form of status points that are awarded by fans and other writers, but he judges his own work to a much greater degree, and even when others judge his work, the scoring is different. For libertarians, there is almost never any realistic hope of acheiving power, and even less opportunity for converting political power into wealth. Consequently, if you try to model libertarianism as a potato sack race, there is very little "adult" supervision (influence from people who are serious about winning elections). The other participants can try to ostracize you for breaking the rules, but (1) there isn't much of an emotional support network to be ostracized from, (2) the only rule is that you have to oppose the initiation of coercion, and (3) almost all libertarians admit that you have to break the rule to some extent, including anarchists like David Friedman and Eric Raymond. There isn't much of an illusion of consensus to spoil. It makes more sense to look at Libertarianism in terms of science fiction fans exchanging fan fiction ("fanfic"). Hard science fiction fans care if a story is elegant, internally consistent, and titillating, but they generally don't care that much if the assumptions or setting are especially plausible. Lacking an illusion of consensus, the writers are more concerned with suspension of disbelief (cognitive dissonance) than with supporting the party line. You get more points for novelty than for orthodoxy, and you especially get a lot of points for being able to make a story more plausible at the end that it appeared at first. But mostly you grade your own work.
Thus Progressives and Libertarians both engage in "cocktail party sophistry", but their styles are different. Progressives feel good about cogency and political cohesion where Libertarians feel good about elegance and internal consistency. Progressives are having fun running in a potato sack race. Libertarians are having fun daydreaming about the perfect destination for a potato sack race. "Perfect" here more or less means "most elegant". "Elegance" here more or less means "providing false moral clarity". Elegance is the curse of the libertarian movement. The tendency to value elegance, combined with a tendency to grade your own work, are what give the libertarian movement the feel of being a "head game". I believe this emphasis on elegance is closely related to the false diagnosis that a slippery slope problem (i.e. lack of moral clarity) was what did in the classical liberal tradition. Which came first, the craving for moral clarity, or the diagnosis that lack of moral clarity killed classical liberalism? I suspect the craving came first, but I'm not sure.
Libertarian principles sketch out an idealized system of property rights (basically 18th century British common law) as a moral optimum, but they lack convincing mechanisms as to how those rights will be enforced without the power of the crown behind them. Furthermore, they consider the power of sovereigns to be illegitimate/immoral.
Absolute property rights without sovereign force is the libertarian ideal. A unicorn. While I agree that property rights are attractive, the zero aggression principle has to go if libertarianism is going to travel from an abstraction to a reality.
— Jack Crassus
Let's go back to the Young Frankenstein metaphor.
The good news is that libertarians have got a partial solution to the problem of how to raise the classical liberal dead: the principle of non-initiation of coercion. This principle doesn't depend on theology. It is correctly suspicious of popular opinion as a moral principle. It is intuitively appealing to anyone who isn't a bully. It is also a pretty good heuristic.
The bad news is that libertarians don't know what to do when their heuristic stops working. As Emile Chartier wrote, "Nothing is more dangerous than an idea when it is the only one you have." Some libertarians (e.g. abolitionist anarchists) cling to this heuristic too tightly, and refuse to acknowledge that it isn't working. Others (almost all of the others) will acknowledge the problem, and let go of the heuristic, but then they tend to go catatonic because they have no other guiding principle to give them direction and moral confidence.
The abolitionist anarchists are correct that strict adherence to the principle of non-initiation of coercion, combined with conventional ideas about property, leads to abolitionist anarcho-capitalism. I can also sympathize with them for finding this attractive; laissez faire is simple, elegant, and it almost works. It can be shown to work a great deal more often than most people think it does. This provides opportunities for smart people to score points in cocktail party debates, which is part of its attraction as "a head game for high-IQ bourgeois types".
That sounds contradictory. To the extent that I'm actually talking to outsiders, it is arguably no longer a head game. But there's an old joke that a libertarian's idea of outreach is, "Drop your pants, yell 'taxation is theft', and run away." If I'm mostly grading my own paper, and not really serious about trying to persuade outsiders, it is still a head game.
But this head game takes place in a world of Platonic ideals, where economics textbook assumptions can be taken at full face value. In the ideal libertarian fantasy world, my rights are going to be so perfectly defined and enforced that I don't have to care in the slightest what my neighbor thinks or feels. Ideally, political culture would be irrelevant. Hence, people quote T.S. Elliot at us. Government, in this ideal world, is some sort of aberration. But if I leave this ideal world and back away from the non-initiation principle enough to form a stable government, I lose the elegance, and am back in the same very messy, morally ambiguous world as most of my peers.
Thus, a lot of libertarians seem to have fallen into the trap that Will Wilkinson complained about, that "limited-government libertarians tend to internalize more of the anarchist framework than they logically should." It's cool to find reasons why the government should not do something. Helping articulate the need for government to do something and helping figure out how to do it better is totally un-cool. So theoretically, a lot of libertarians support limited government, but in practice, many of them are simply not interested in participating in the practical workings of government. It's icky. It's more interesting to look for reasons for the government to do nothing than to face the uncertainties and work out the details of what its policy should be.
So to paraphrase the Christians, I have a challenge for libertarians: If you were accused of supporting the government in the proper execution of its legitimate duties, would there be enough evidence to convict you? Are you an heir to the classical liberal tradition or are you an anarchist? If non-initiation of coercion is the only idea you have, you are a functional anarchist.
Here's a second challenge for libertarians: name a level of taxation that you think is appropriate. If you're unwilling to specify a number greater than zero, you're an anarchist. (I'm thinking between 5% and 14%.)
More bad news: the anarcho-capitalist heuristic stops working pretty quickly. See "Why legal procedure is central to politics" by Nick Szabo, including the comments.
If politics could be deduced this might be called the Central Theorem of Politics -- we can't properly respond to a global initiation of force without local initiations of force.
Another libertarian failure mode is to try to join the mainstream, to pick up some of the crumbs of social respectability that fall from the Progressives' table. This results in what Derbyshire calls "Beltway" or "establishment" libertarians, specifically including Reason magazine and the CATO Institute. The most obvious, easiest way to partially follow mainstream Progressive fashion is by attacking social conservatives. This tends to result in the more "respectable" libertarians being partially co-opted by the left. This seems to be part of what has happened to the Libertarians with regard to internalizing the Democratic Party's immigration policy. This does not contradict the idealistic incentives to act stupid about immigration. Libertarians can score lots of points with themselves for internal consistency and elegance in the (utterly forlorn) process of trying to ingratiate themselves with the public opinion makers regarding immigration.
A third failure mode for libertarians is the one I fell into in writing The Dog Ate My Manifesto. Not knowing how to make moral arguments that were cogent for non-libertarians, I more or less abandoned moral arguments altogether, and restricted myself to practical arguments. If this seems like a good idea to you, I recommend Claire Berlinski's book, There is No Alternative: Why Margaret Thatcher Matters (my review here). If you were writing a computer program for an artificially intelligent benevolent despotic robot, or even a sovereign human king, practical arguments alone might make sense, but consider your audience. If you're like me, you are addressing human voters in a democracy, and they have the incentives explained in Bryan Caplan's discussion of the paradox of voting in The Myth of the Rational Voter (see my review). Your audience has no tangible incentives to listen to practical arguments. Their individual votes are astronomically unlikely to be decisive. Your practical arguments are of interest to your audience only in so far as these arguments entail emotional gratification. In other words, the only arguments that really matter are implicit or explicit moral arguments. Thus we see Berlinski's book peppered with Thatcher quotations such as,
Economics are the method; the object is to change the soul.
Making moral arguments cogent
Regardless of whether you conceive of libertarian philosophy as primarily moral or primarily practical, once we have taken the paradox of voting into account, we are firmly in the realm of moral education. As I argued earlier, moral teachings are never completely grounded in observable fact, and are always subject to motivated reasoning. Hence, they are credence goods, at least in practice, and any institution that is committed to promoting credence goods is fundamentally quasi-religious. At the very least, we have the coordination problem I described in ch. 20 of "Dog", analogous to trying to get large numbers of people in a society-wide potato sack race to all run in the same direction. Should we all drive on the right side of the road (US), or all on the left side (UK)? At the very least, libertarians need to avoid kidding themselves and others about how complicated and ambiguous moral philosophy can be. As I tried to show in my review of Berlinski, if you don't find moral philosophy horribly confusing, at least as it's presented in the popular press, you're not paying attention.
I should say a few words here about separation of church and state, which is important in the US. If you define "religion" narrowly as involving the supernatural, I am immune from accusations of mixing church and state because I am not making any supernatural claims. But there is also a fallacy of ambiguity. The First Amendment to the US Constitution has a "disestablishment" clause, written by James Madison. But leftists often claim that Thomas Jefferson's language about "separation of church and state" is equivalent to Madison's language, and insist on putting Jefferson's words in Madison's mouth. They then proceed to interpret Jefferson's words in ways in which Madison's words could not be interpreted. This allows them to call for a double standard, in which leftist quasi-religious moral claims are admissible in political debate, but opposing "religious" moral claims are not. If the idea of a hermetic seal between church and state were to be taken seriously, that would mean either that voters were forbidden from taking moral considerations into account, or that churches were forbidden from teaching morality. These conclusions are both patently absurd. Leave James Madison alone!
I also need to say something about meta-ethics.
I don't think Christians have to think about meta-ethics as much as atheists do. For Christians, "sin" is a well-defined concept: something God dislikes, and Christians are convinced that in the long run, they'll be happier doing God's will. As long as immorality is a subset of sin, or a euphemism for it, Christians don't need to worry much about what "morality" means. They need to worry about whether God has been misquoted, but for them, the concept of immorality is clear enough. On the other hand, if we want to teach unpopular ideas about morality to atheists and agnostics, we do need to explain what morality is and where it comes from. As Federico put it, "Not 'What is right?' but 'What is right?' Not 'What should I do?' but 'Should I do what I should do?'" I asked similar questions in my Lewy and Berlinski book reviews. If someone tells me that it's "immoral" to drink non-Fair Trade coffee, I not only suspect that he's mistaken, but even if he's right, it isn't obvious how much weight, if any, I should give to his claim. Instead of telling him he's wrong, I should probably first ask, "What does that even mean?"
In the previous section, I implicitly defined a moral argument as one that entails emotional gratification. For my (limited) purposes, a better definition would be that a moral argument is one that tells the listener that if he behaves in accordance with my doctrine, then he deserves to be respected for promoting a better society. In making these arguments, at some point I'm going to have to explain what I mean by "society". This will come later, as a discussion of "universalism" vs. "particularism". In addition, I also need to persuade both myself and a skeptical audience that my doctrines actually do lead to something "better". This has a "positive" side, figuring out what, in fact, my doctrines actually lead to; and a "normative" side, which is deciding whether or not we like these results. I need both positive and normative theories if I'm going to make a cogent argument for someone who isn't already a libertarian.
As an example, suppose we're arguing about painting a room. A positive question is whether it's faster to apply paint with a brush or a roller. A normative question is whether "we" prefer the color blue or yellow. It's possible that these questions are related. The local hardware store might only sell yellow paint in spray cans. But generally, these are two separate questions. You have to address both questions. Telling other people that their feelings are invalid does not count as "addressing" the normative question.
Even with a normative argument that is sensitive to other people's feelings, we still have to figure out who "we" are and what it means to say "we" like something or decided on something when the people who comprise the "we" don't actually all agree with the choice. These "we" questions are a large part of what makes an argument a "moral" argument as people normally use the word, "moral".
Libertarians and objectivists typically engage in what I consider to be hand waving about human nature, and then gloss over these meta-ethical issues. I call their arguments "Shazam transforms", after a standing joke at Virginia Tech about math proofs that were missing critical steps. They haven't been able to articulate their reasoning to my satisfaction, and I haven't been able to explain my objections to it to theirs.
Fortunately, James A. Donald explained what I think is essentially the same line of reasoning with his several (ostensibly equivalent) definitions of Natural Law. I encourage you to read the article; I found it quite helpful. I'm going to criticize this argument, not because I think it goes very far wrong, but because it does an especially good job of articulating this common libertarian and objectivist position, and it is just wrong enough to enable me to make my point.
Two definitions I like are
Natural law is, or follows from, an ESS [evolutionary stable strategy] for the use of force: Conduct which violates natural law is conduct such that, if a man were to use individual unorganized violence to prevent such conduct, or, in the absence of orderly society, use individual unorganized violence to punish such conduct, then such violence would not indicate that the person using such violence, (violence in accord with natural law) is a danger to a reasonable man. This definition is equivalent to the definition that comes from the game theory of iterated three or more player non zero sum games, applied to evolutionary theory. The idea of law, of actions being lawful or unlawful, has the emotional significance that it does have, because this ESS for the use of force is part of our nature.
An act is a violation of natural law if, were a man to commit such an act in a state of nature, (that is to say, in the absence of an orderly and widely accepted method of resolving disputes), a second man, knowing the facts and being a reasonable man, would reasonably conclude that the first man constituted a threat or danger to the second man, his family, or his property, and if a third man, knowing the facts and being a reasonable man, were to observe the second man getting rid of the first man, the third man would not reasonably conclude that the second man constituted a threat or danger to third man, his family, or his property.
Donald also writes,
Disagreement on the nature of the good is only a problem with minor and unimportant matters, not worth fighting over, and when the state is absent or weak, precedent on such matters swiftly becomes customary law. For example on the American frontier conflict consisted of mostly of fair fights conducted more or less in accordance with the code duello, and the rest was mostly straightforward uncomplicated ordinary everyday evil, simple crime, no deep philosophizing required.
Of course since natural law is external and objective it has to be complete and consistent, but our understanding of natural law is necessarily incomplete and imperfect, so our understanding of it might have been dangerously incomplete, inconsistent, or plain wrong. The experience of the Dutch strongly supports the belief that our understanding of natural law, the medieval theory of natural law as interpreted by medieval lawyers, is fairly close to the truth.
See also David Friedman's article, A Positive Account of Property Rights.
I also note this comment from Eric S. Raymond, in Homesteading the Noosphere:
It is fashionable in some circles to describe human property as an arbitrary social convention, but this is dead wrong. Anybody who has ever owned a dog who barked when strangers came near its owner's property has experienced the essential continuity between animal territoriality and human property. Our domesticated cousins of the wolf know, instinctively, that property is no mere social convention or game, but a critically important evolved mechanism for the avoidance of violence. (This makes them smarter than a good many human political theorists.)
I need to put Donald's argument into my own words in order to clarify my response to it:
I'm a little bit nervous about #1. For one thing, I think men and women have significantly different cognitive biases, which show up in statistics on the "gender gap" in electoral politics. But I'll let that one slide.
I also suspect that #2 understates the evolutionary importance of organized violence, but I'll let that one slide, too, for now.
#2 and #3 together create a problem: in the "state of nature", it may be hard to find a "reasonable" man. There is an old saying, "Me against my brother, my brother and me against my cousin, my cousin and me against a stranger." If we evolved to live near our kin, and to be loyal to our kin, it may be unnatural for me to witness a dispute and not feel that my interests are involved, unless the two principals are equally close relatives. It may be that the reference state Donald is thinking of is not the EEA, but rather the end result of 500 years of social engineering by the Catholic church.
#6 is a problem if I'm trying to make a moral argument cogent for a typical voter. By "perverse", I mean economically inefficient; distribution of wealth is another matter. This argument is cogent for me, but it's not cogent for someone very much to my left. A leftist would say that the distribution of wealth is much too important to ignore (as well as denying some of the positive claims that Donald makes). Also, I'm okay in today's world with getting the government out of the redistribution game, but I can't guarantee that this will always be so. I can imagine technology and a free economic system developing along the lines of Kurt Vonnegut's Player Piano, where distribution is a more important problem. There is also a question about how we draw the boundaries of "society" (universalism vs. particularism). These are not fatal objections to Donald's line of reasoning, but in order to persuade skeptics (e.g. most of the people who go to my church), we need to add some arguments to discourage them from being too optimistic about how governments handle distributional justice.
This is the normative part of the argument, not the positive part. It's not about demonstrating objective results, it's about whether various people like those results. What I can't do if I want a normative argument to be cogent for other people is to dismiss other people's moral sentiments as illegitimate without actually addressing them. If I demand that other people sympathize with my feelings without me being respectful of theirs, then I'm not making a sincere attempt to persuade them; I'm just playing a head game. (Don't despair. If we're lucky, what they really want is not "distributional justice" so much as respect from other people. We can offer them respect.)
I also have problems with #7. I think a wise person can learn from history, but I know a lot of people who I don't think are wise, and many of them vote. Megatherions, as ugly as were ever born of mud! There is too much ignorance and too much "motivated reasoning".
There is also the question of how #5 (a theory about psychology) relates to #7 (an empirical claim). I am treating violence and perverse incentives as a single variable, but the latter is a broader category, so the theory is questionable here to begin with. But there is also an implication that I will get the same answer as to what natural law is even though I am asking two different questions: (1) How do typical men feel about the use of violence in a given situation? and (2) What legal systems seem to have worked out well historically? The latter question strikes me as harder to answer, but a far more reliable indication of what is likely to work today, because ...
The step I really have problems with is #4. In my opinion, Donald presents (1) the practical consequences of actions that violate natural law, (2) social norms, and (3) human psychology as being way too tightly coupled. I think this greatly understates the difficulty of the problem we classical liberal re-animators face. I greatly prefer the view of human nature that Adam Smith described in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (TMS). Jonathan Haidt also paints a more realistic picture of human psychological complexity than this natural law view in The Righteous Mind.
Yes, there are connections between practical consequences, social norms, and psychology, but these relationships are "loose, vague, and indeterminate" (TMS). If the point of #5 is to enable libertarians to argue that their feelings about the use of force are a reliable guide to the long term interests of society, then the libertarians are in for a frustrating time when they try to present this argument to the progressives, or any skeptical audience. It puts libertarians in the position of saying, "My feelings are a trustworthy guide to the long term interests of society, but your feelings are not." I'll set aside the empirical argument for now (i.e. the Dutch Republic) and focus on evolutionary psychology. I'm going to argue that the skeptics are justified in their skepticism.
Does evolution optimize only for individual reproductive success, or does group selection play an important part? Is there a discrepancy between reproductive success and happiness? Is there a discrepancy between the maximization of reproductive success of the most dominant "alpha" men (at the expense of the "betas") and the minimization of acts of violence committed by those men? (See Sultan Moulay Ismail "The Bloodthirsty" of Morocco, and Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters, by Satoshi Kanazawa and Alan S. Miller. We are primarily the descendants of alpha men, not the more typical beta men.) Is evolution up to date with the internet and modern agriculture, or is there a long time lag during which humans are maladapted? Was organized violence part of the environment for which we are already adapted, making this "state of nature" actually unnatural? Do biological limitations prevent the human brain from being all that well adapted even to past environments? Are there multiple solutions to the ESS problem, such as for example the Society of Status and the Society of Contract? Or did our past environments, including the "environment" consisting of other people, change too rapidly for any fixed psychological mechanism for Natural Law to be workable, forcing Mother Nature to give us a very flexible toolkit? Do psychological types matter? Do male and female matter?
Yes, to some extent, people do have innate morals. Haidt writes of disgust as an innate mechanism for avoiding contaminated food. But we have moral controversies about important issues because in many circumstances, people do not have innate morals so much as we have innate capacity for building moral systems. Mother Nature didn't provide us with One True Path through the psychological wilderness. She gave us psychological map-making tools. The moral sentiments Smith described are in some sense maps, but our maps always have errors, because California is too big to fold up and put in your pocket. We have mechanisms for correcting some of these errors, but these mechanisms have biases. For example, people we meet face to face usually affect our emotions more than people we read about in the news, and we usually have better knowledge of them.
Then there are the conflicts of interest, along with self-deception and deceit. Haidt is very good here, and I took his reference to Plato's brother, Glaucon, as the name I want to give to the church I would like to start. Social norms and moral sentiments are largely mechanisms for managing conflicts of interest between people who are sort of on the same team and sort of not. The complexity of these relationships may be why humans have such large brains in the first place. Haidt emphasizes our capacity for "motivated reasoning". The human moral sense, the "righteous mind" that Haidt writes of, is in large part a weapon rather than a truth-seeking instrument. I'm therefore inclined to view moral indoctrination to some degree as being analogous to a gun safety class.
In my view, "the grain of human nature" is only part of the story of how people's feelings are determined (and avoiding violence is only part of this "grain"). Smith's argument was that we don't literally feel one another's pain; we have to imagine it. This use of the imagination is partly a matter of habit and partly an act of will. Moral education consists largely of training people to use their imaginations in certain ways. This is affected by social norms, which in turn are affected by any harm that may be done to people we encounter in normal life.
Consequently, people's moral sentiments are not necessarily a reliable guide to the general welfare. It depends on how we train our imaginations. I claim that old school Christianity did a tolerably good job of training people's imaginations, but modern cultural Marxism does an extremely bad job of it. In any case, we can't trust a typical modern person's feelings. I wouldn't really trust my grandmother's feelings, either, but I definitely don't trust the average American voter's feelings about what constitutes a reasonable use of force. I might trust the average American property owner, circa 1800, but I wouldn't trust the average Papua New Guinea highlander that Jared Diamond wrote about in Guns, Germs, and Steel.
This doesn't mean that Margaret Thatcher was wrong to talk of working "with the grain of human nature", but that it's complicated. Capitalism and socialism are both unnatural, but in different ways, and to different degrees. What is natural is living in groups of about 50 nomadic hunter-gatherers, mostly closely related to one another. Socialism is natural for families, but not for groups of 300 million strangers. Socialism doesn't scale. Capitalism scales up well, but it requires an unnatural forbearance from the use of force. Democratic capitalism depends on unnatural institutions and highly refined pedagogy (i.e. Deep Heritage), but it is consistent enough with people's innate psychological predispositions to be feasible, given the right circumstances. Socialism in large groups requires a level of pedagogy that is literally superhuman, or else we get disasters like the Soviet agricultural system.
I also have doubts about Donald's discussion of game theory. Richard Dawkins was able to show in The Selfish Gene how the iterated two-player prisoners' dilemma resulted in people's behavior evolving toward relatively good outcomes, but in the n-player version it becomes impossible to retaliate against specific miscreants, and the outcomes turn back to being as bad as they were in the original prisoners' dilemma. Michael Strong devotes pp. 66-70 of Be the Solution to a discussion of people, especially the more altruistically inclined, having innate tendencies to want to punish "free riders". The discussion suggests that punishing free-riders and punishing people who don't punish free-riders may be part of an evolutionary stable strategy to enhance one's social status. There seems to be a lot more going on here than just trying to minimize violence. It also doesn't scale well. Strong writes (p. 69, regarding altruists), "In a small tribe of 150, their punitive instincts were likely to be effective. In a complex world of six billion, the same instincts will rarely be effective and may often be destructive." It is not clear how consistent this is with game theory. Jonathan Haidt, discussing similar issues in The Righteous Mind, invokes group selection in order to explain why human social behavior is "90% chimp and 10% bee".
There is also the problem of scope. Donald restricts himself to behaviors that are morally actionable, behaviors that I would consider responding to with violence or calling the cops. I need more than that if I'm looking for a foundation for libertarianism. I'm interested in how voters vote, how friends discourage one another from self-deception, and how we manage other situations where the restraints on irresponsible behavior have to be internal, or at most limited to harsh words. (I also need a doctrine that can tell me how high taxes can be before they're too high. I don't think asking whether people feel threatened gives me a clear enough answer to this question. Is it permissible to use tax money to build a flood control dam, or some other public good that is merely nice to have, but not life-saving? Thomas Schelling's answer might be that there is a difference between a majority taxing themselves for something they want, and a majority taxing a minority for something the majority want. So maybe, but this is not clear to me.)
My answer to Federico's question, "What is right?", is mostly that I'm looking for a good set of social norms. I also want to be able to make moral arguments that will be cogent for people who don't already agree with me. Beyond that, I'm interested in how these norms are enforced, and when it would best further my values to violate them. Morality is not a suicide pact. "Right" behavior is the sort of behavior that would make me happy to have you as a member of my club, i.e. allow you to wander my neighborhood unsupervised, have the right to vote, or marry my daughter. It's highly subjective, and culture plays a huge role in influencing these sorts of judgments. Saying that it's an ESS is seriously underdetermined.
Update (hat tip: Instapundit): The Devil, as communicated to Arthur Leff, offers an analysis of the limited number of ways in which ethical systems can be grounded. He makes a similar distinction between monotheist and natural law approaches, but seems to find none of them satisfactory:
My own opinion is that the Hand that holds you suspended over my fiery pit doesn't abhor you, but has forgotten completely that It has anything in It.
Universalism vs. particularism
Let's return to the question of what do we mean by "we"? What is this "society" that we're trying to take credit for improving? Do I care equally about everyone in the whole world, or do I only care about my immediate family? Or something else? The Christian theological jargon for conducting this sort of conversation is "universalism" vs. "particularism". (This is not how Mencius Moldbug uses the word, "Universalism".) The parable of The Good Samaritan illustrates universalism. The Israelites' treatment of the Medianites illustrates particularism. Obviously, both themes are present in the Bible, and people have been arguing about them for at least 5000 years. This language unfortunately comes across as presenting us with a binary choice:
| . . . . . . . . . . . |
concern |. . . . . . . . . . . .|
| . . . . . . . . . . . |
|. . . . . . . . . . . .|
tribe member non-member
| . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . |
|. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .|
tribe member non-member
In real life, normal people's attitudes are more like the "me and my brother" saying, with degrees of caring that drop off gradually with distance. As the biologist, J. B. S. Haldane, put it,
I would jump into a river to save two brothers, but not one, or to save eight cousins but not seven.
| . . .|---------|
concern |. . . |. . . . .|--------|
| . . .| . . . . |. . . . |------------|
|. . . |. . . . .| . . . .| . . . . . .|------------------|
self brother cousin countryman foreigner
Part of the purpose of religious, political, and other types of moral "education" is to train people to use their imagination in order to modify this "normal people" affiliation profile so that it more closely resembles either the particularist or the universalist profile, perhaps depending on how friendly the neighboring tribes are. Sometimes this involves self-deception (i.e. psychological projection and denial), hypocrisy, or outright fraud (e.g. making dubious claims of moral superiority, trying to get a neutral party to join your side in a war, or trying to get two groups of enemies to fight amongst themselves instead of uniting against you). Steve Sailer had a colorful description of this:
In contrast, modern liberals' defining trait is making a public spectacle of how their loyalties leapfrog over some unworthy folks relatively close to them in favor of other people they barely know (or in the case of profoundly liberal sci-fi movies such as Avatar, other 10-foot-tall blue space creatures they barely know).
Another example of manipulation of universalist and particularist sentiments would be "anti-racism" hysteria being promoted by political organizations whose electoral prospects are heavily dependent on sympathizers of groups like La Raza and The New Black Panthers. This can result in oddly-shaped affiliation profiles.
Progressives ("Liberals"), per Steve Sailer
| . . .|--------|
concern |. . . |. . . . | |----------------------------|
| . . .| . . . .| | . . . . . . . . . . . . . .|
|. . . |. . . . | |. . . . . . . . . . . . . . |
self allies countrymen 10' tall blue space aliens
What Progressives demand of people who are not members of the Progressives' votebank
| | . . . . . .|
concern | |. . . . . . |----------------------------|
| | . . . . . .| . . . . . . . . . . . . . .|
|------|--------|. . . . . . |. . . . . . . . . . . . . . |
self allies enemies 10' tall blue space aliens
My point here is not that particularism is bad or that universalism, properly understood, is bad. What I actually want is an appropriate balance between the two. My point here is that double standards are bad. Any system of moral education, such as much of contemporary Western Christianity, that tolerates double standards like these is dysfunctional, and needs to be replaced.
The observations that excessive tribalism or factionalism is bad, and that double standards are bad, don't necessarily have much to do with race. If everyone in the US were the same race, it wouldn't stop Americans from dividing themselves into factions and irrationally hating other factions. In fact, America's race problems are more symptoms than causes of factionalism. To a large extent, blacks are props in a white theatrical production. The underlying problem is mostly status competition among whites. The factions are based on religion, culture, political substitutes for religion, wealth, and having attended the right colleges. Lee Kuan Yew has argued that trial by jury is incompatible with a multi-ethnic society. Similar claims could be made for democracy in general. I expect that it would be more accurate to say that these things are incompatible with a society that is too highly polarized. Whether the factions are based on skin color, religion, wealth, or educational status is almost irrelevant. But if the prevailing cultures in a society allow it to become deeply polarized, and it is multi-ethnic, ethnicity provides the most obvious basis on which factions are likely to form. If biological differences between races happen to be important, that just exacerbates the problem.
An honest discussion about "race" would have to disentangle socio-economic status, culture, genetics, and beliefs about culture and genetics, as well as tribalism and psychological projection. Unfortunately, US political elites and elite wannabes are overwhelmingly dependent on "white theatrical productions" for power and moral justification. The problem with having an honest discussion about race in the US isn't that genetic differences are all that important, but that the government's legitimacy depends too heavily on lying about culture.
One of the reasons why Bryan Caplan's argument for open borders fails to persuade me is that his normative position is radical universalism. His argument depends on me caring about Mexican citizens, et al, as much as I care about my fellow US citizens, my neighbors, my family, and myself. This is somewhat confusing, because the positive part of his argument also fails, for similar-looking reasons. The normative part of Caplan's argument fails because I am not willing to sacrifice the objects of my concern for the objects of Caplan's concern. The positive part of the argument fails in part because, even if I did care as much about foreigners as about my fellow citizens, I still wouldn't trust them as much. I say this is confusing because one of the reasons for my lack of trust is because (1) I think most Mexicans, like me, are fairly "normal", with attenuating concentric circles of loyalty, rather than being radical universalists, (2) I don't think the average Mexican immigrant thinks of me as being a member of his "tribe", and (3) I think many of them are not especially interested in becoming members of my "tribe" (i.e. committed to something close to classical liberalism and also interested in being able to communicate with me). It's nothing personal. My wife has been rescued on the side of the road several times by Hispanic men, on one occasion with fire extinguishers. The problem, as Gideon J. Tucker put it, is that "No man's life, liberty, or property are safe while the legislature is in session." I don't want people to aquire the right to vote on what happens to my life, liberty, or property unless I trust them, and I don't want their children getting the right to vote unless I think my children can trust their children. Phillip K. Howard warned in The Death of Common Sense that the rule of law is like Tinkerbelle: if you stop believing in it, it goes away. I don't trust the majority of my current fellow citizens to take the rule of law (and my property rights) seriously. What basis do I have for trusting people who are being encouraged to immigrate by a political party based on socialism and identity-politics precisely because those immigrants are part of a demographic group seen as reliable voters for that party?
Libertarian moral arguments can fail in a number of ways related to excessive universalism. If a "libertarian" policy produces both winners and losers relative to the status quo, the argument for it may fail because I may not care about the particular group of winners as much as I care about the particular group of losers. But even if I were a strict universalist, the argument may fail because I have prior commitments to a particular group that go beyond any commitments I may have to humanity in general. For example, if I am an officer or a voting member of a club, or even a non-voting member, I am likely to have commitments to the other members of the club that I do not have to non-members. This is especially true if the club controls pooled or jointly produced resources, and especially if the nature of these resources is rivalrous (e.g. subject to crowding). From this perspective, a nation is a type of club. Nations exist, among other purposes, to provide mutual defense. They are also odd in that membership is not entirely voluntary. But nations do exist, and their existance has moral consequences. Sometimes you really do need to dance with them that brung you. Caplan's open borders argument fails in part because he fails to take into account the moral implications of a set of pre-existing relationships, i.e. the existence of the United States. As a voting member of this club, even if I am a radical universalist, or even if I actually prefer some group of non-members over my fellow members, I would in general nonetheless feel that I have a moral obligation not to lightly give away partial control over the club, or rivalrous goods and services that are owned collectively by my fellow members, even if I don't like the way they were produced.
James A. Donald's emphasis on the distinction between organized and unorganized violence in defining natural law is related to my claim that the existance of nations has moral consequences. For example, is Elliot Ness violating natural law in preventing me from selling alcohol? Would a reasonable man conclude that rumrunners shooting at the police are not a danger to reasonable men? The emotional significance of natural law is supposed to be hardwired into human nature, but I can't say what course of action is more dangerous, siding with the police or the rumrunners, without knowing which side has a stronger army. Part of the problem is that the use of violence is often a package deal. I can't fight the government to defend my natural right to sell alcohol without fighting the people I depend on to maintain basic order, including keeping out other governments and suppressing other kinds of crime. Elliot Ness ends up like Schrödinger's cat. I have to simultaneously have him both alive and dead.
One way of describing the moral consequences of this package deal would be to say that order (sovereignty) comes before liberty. Bernard Crick says in In Defence of Politics that this is both logically and historically true.
The above moral arguments are in addition to the practical argument that it is dangerous to piss off the fellow citizens on whom my life, liberty, and property depend. It is also distinct from public choice arguments involving logrolling among selfish voters.
One of the questions libertarians sometimes argue about is whether there are moral-practical dichotomies. That is, are there ever situations where doing "the right thing" from a moral standpoint conflicts with doing "the right thing" from a practical standpoint? To someone like me, in the "moral sympathy" school of thought, it's a silly question. The relationships under consideration are "loose, vague, and indeterminate". It's complicated. We probably don't even have the same people's interests in mind when we ask the question. Who exactly are my tribe? Is "morality" something I personally choose to benefit myself, or is it a set of social norms my peers impose on me as the (possibly exorbitant and possibly evadable) price of associating with them? Jonathan Haidt's definition (from The Righteous Mind) mostly supports the latter view:
Moral systems are interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, technologies, and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate self-interest and make cooperative societies possible.
The challenge for me is to understand how anyone could imagine that there were not moral-practical dichotomies. I have several answers:
I define morality to be what is practical in the long term. But if I define morality to be what is practical, then I can never be sure if an act is moral unless and until I know the long term consequences. I may feel that some policy is immoral (e.g. cigarette taxes), and I may have a rule that says it is immoral (i.e. predicts bad long term consequences), but I can't be sure until I see unambiguous long term consequences. In real life, this kind of clarity is rare, and acheived too late. In practice, what I am likely to have with this approach is a fallacy of ambiguity, in which I keep switching definitions of "morality" between long term practical results and my current emotional reactions. It confuses sentiments for syllogisms. This is consistent with Federico's comment, "Deontology is rationalised emotion."
I believe, implicitly or explicitly, in a God who will ensure that violations of my predetermined set of rules will be punished. I might unconsciously continue in this belief even after having consciously rejected a belief in the sort of God who would do this.
I'm using bad inductive logic. I have a rule that seems to work 90% of the time, but the evidence in front of me is confusing. Do I say that the rule is only approximately true, and has roughly a 10% error rate? Or do I conclude that the rule is perfectly true, and that I have 10% bad data?
Again, that Bruce Ramsey article on Jeffrey Friedman is worth reading. He wrote in his concluding remarks about a priori vs. consequentialist ethics,
Each side paints a caricature of the other.... The reality is, everybody in this debate uses principles.... But the ultimate end has got to be consequences: the good society, the fulfilling life, lots of smiling faces—something like that—and anyone who severs all connection between his political theory and worldly consequences may be dismissed as a fool.
A simple illustration of a moral-practical dichotomy is the question of whether might makes right. Psychologically, the answer is no, at least for most modern Westerners. (Jonathan Haidt would know where to find counter-examples readily.) Thomas Jefferson claimed that our Creator gave us "unalienable" rights, implying that moral rights are independent of any Earthly might, so he would apparently say no. But from a practical standpoint, the answer is yes. As Steve Sailer put it, "all property rights come out of the barrel of a gun." As Voltaire said, "God is on the side of the big battalions." To some extent, the fact that might sometimes makes right is codified in formal moral doctrine. The "just war" doctrine forbids killing people on behalf of hopeless causes. The "reasonable" thing to do in some circumstances is to surrender to superior force. Or not. As Assistant Village Idiot wrote,
In revolutions, even violent ones, it is revealed all in a moment that many who were prepared to be passive and cooperative for many years are equally prepared to risk all if they sense the moment is right. They are not willing to sacrifice themselves fruitlessly on an altar just for show, even if their cause is just.
Are there moral/practical dichotomies? There have to be. The world is too big to be represented perfectly within the limbic system of your brain, any more than California can fold up and fit inside your glove compartment. A heuristic can't be too reliable without getting prohibitively complicated.
Moral arguments have to take practical considerations into account, but they can't be only reflections of force, because their purpose is to direct force.
So what does the libertarian movement need to get right in order to raise the classical liberal dead?
Further thoughts on religion for atheists may be found in The Baby and the Bathwater and Designing The Church of Glaucon.