A Philosopher's Blog

Is Libertarianism Viable

Posted in Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on June 29, 2015

The United States has had a libertarian and anarchist thread since the beginning, which is certainly appropriate for a nation that espouses individual liberty and expresses distrust of the state. While there are many versions of libertarianism and these range across the political spectrum, I will focus on one key aspect of libertarianism. To be specific, I will focus on the idea that the government should impose minimal limits on individual liberty and that there should be little, if any, state regulation of business. These principles were laid out fairly clearly by the American anarchist Henry David Thoreau in his claims that the best government governs least (or not at all) and that government only advances business by getting out of its way.

I must admit that I find the libertarian-anarchist approach very appealing. Like many politically minded young folks, I experimented with a variety of political theories in college. I found Marxism unappealing—as a metaphysical dualist, I must reject materialism. Also, I was well aware of the brutally oppressive and murderous nature of the Marxists states and they were in direct opposition to both my ethics and my view of liberty. Fascism was certainly right out—the idea of the total state ran against my views of liberty. Since, like many young folks, I thought I knew everything and did not want anyone to tell me what to do, I picked anarchism as my theory of choice. Since I am morally opposed to murdering people, even for a cause, I sided with the non-murderous anarchists, such as Thoreau. I eventually outgrew anarchism, but I still have many fond memories of my halcyon days of naïve political views. As such, I do really like libertarian-anarchism and really want it to be viable. But, I know that liking something does not entail that it is viable (or a good idea).

Put in extremely general terms, a libertarian system would have a minimal state with extremely limited government impositions on personal liberty. The same minimalism would also extend to the realm of business—they would operate with little or no state control. Since such a system seems to maximize liberty and freedom, it seems to be initially very appealing. After all, freedom and liberty are good and more of a good thing is better than less. Except when it is not.

It might be wondered how more liberty and freedom is not always better than less. I find two of the stock answers both appealing and plausible. One was laid out by Thomas Hobbes. In discussing the state of nature (which is a form of anarchism—there is no state) he notes that total liberty (the right to everything) amounts to no right at all. This is because everyone is free to do anything and everyone has the right to claim (and take) anything. This leads to his infamous war of all against all, making life “nasty, brutish and short.” Like too much oxygen, too much liberty can be fatal. Hobbes solution is the social contract and the sovereign: the state.

A second one was present by J.S. Mill. In his discussion of liberty he argued that liberty requires limitations on liberty. While this might seem like a paradox or a slogan from Big Brother, Mill is actually quite right in a straightforward way. For example, your right to free expression requires that my right to silence you be limited. As another example, your right to life requires limits on my right to kill. As such, liberty does require restrictions on liberty. Mill does not limit the limiting of liberty to the state—society can impose such limits as well.

Given the plausibility of the arguments of Hobbes and Mill, it seems reasonable to accept that there must be limits on liberty in order for there to be liberty. Libertarians, who usually fall short of being true anarchists, do accept this. However, they do want the broadest possible liberties and the least possible restrictions on business.

In theory, this would appear to show that the theory provides the basis for a viable political system. After all, if libertarianism is the view that the state should impose the minimal restrictions needed to have a viable society, then it would be (by definition) a viable system. However, there is the matter of libertarianism in practice and also the question of what counts as a viable political system.

Looked at in a minimal sense, a viable political system would seem to be one that can maintain its borders and internal order. Meeting this two minimal objectives would seem to be possible for a libertarian state, at least for a while. That said, the standards for a viable state might be taken to be somewhat higher, such as the state being able to (as per Locke) protect rights and provide for the good of the people. It can (and has) been argued that such a state would need to be more robust than the libertarian state. It can also be argued that a true libertarian state would either devolve into chaos or be forced into abandoning libertarianism.

In any case, the viability of libertarian state would seem to depend on two main factors. The first is the ethics of the individuals composing the state. The second is the relative power of the individuals. This is because the state is supposed to be minimal, so that limits on behavior must be set largely by other factors.

In regards to ethics, people who are moral can be relied on to self-regulate their behavior to the degree they are moral. To the degree that the population is moral the state does not need to impose limitations on behavior, since the citizens will generally not behave in ways that require the imposition of the compulsive power of the state. As such, liberty would seem to require a degree of morality on the part of the citizens that is inversely proportional to the limitations imposed by the state. Put roughly, good people do not need to be coerced by the state into being good. As such, a libertarian state can be viable to the degree that people are morally good. While some thinkers have faith in the basic decency of people, many (such as Hobbes) regard humans as lacking in what others would call goodness. Hence, the usual arguments about how the moral failings of humans requires the existence of the coercive state.

In regards to the second factor, having liberty without an external coercive force maintaining the liberty would require that the citizens be comparable in political, social and economic power. If some people have greater power they can easily use this power to impose on their fellow citizens. While the freedom to act with few (or no) limits is certainly a great deal for those with greater power, it certainly is not very good for those who have less power. In such a system, the powerful are free to do as they will, while the weaker people are denied their liberties. While such a system might be libertarian in name, freedom and liberty would belong to the powerful and the weaker would be denied. That is, it would be a despotism or tyranny.

If people are comparable in power or can form social, political and economic groups that are comparable in power, then liberty for all would be possible—individuals and groups would be able to resist the encroachments of others. Unions, for example, could be formed to offset the power of corporations. Not surprisingly, stable societies are able to build such balances of power to avoid the slide into despotism and then to chaos. Stable societies also have governments that endeavor to protect the liberties of everyone by placing limits on how much people can inflict their liberties on other people. As noted above, people can also be restrained by their ethics. If people and groups varied in power, yet abided by the limits of ethical behavior, then things could still go well for even the weak.

Interestingly, a balance of power might actually be disastrous. Hobbes argued that it is because people are equal in power that the state of nature is a state of war. This rests on his view that people are hedonistic egoists—that is, people are basically selfish and care not about other people.

Obviously enough, in the actual world people and groups vary greatly in power. Not surprisingly, many of the main advocates of libertarianism enjoy considerable political and economic power—they would presumably do very well in a system that removed many of the limitations upon them since they would be freer to do as they wished and the weaker people and groups would be unable to stop them.

At this point, one might insist on a third factor that is beloved by the Adam Smith crowd: rational self-interest. The usual claim is that people would limit their behavior because of the consequences arising from their actions. For example, a business that served contaminated meat would soon find itself out of business because the survivors would stop buying the meat and spread the word. As another example, an employer who used his power to compel his workers to work long hours in dangerous conditions for low pay would find that no one would be willing to work for him and would be forced to improve things to retain workers. As a third example, people would not commit misdeeds because they would be condemned or punished by vigilante justice. The invisible hand would sort things out, even if people are not good and there is a great disparity in power.

The easy and obvious reply is that this sort of system generally does not work very well—as shown by history. If there is a disparity in power, that power will be used to prevent negative consequences. For example, those who have economic power can use that power to coerce people into working for low pay and can also use that power to try to keep them from organizing to create a power that can resist this economic power. This is why, obviously enough, people like the Koch brothers oppose unions.

Interestingly, most people get that rational self-interest does not suffice to keep people from acting badly in regards to crimes such as murder, theft, extortion, assault and rape. However, there is the odd view that rational self-interest will somehow work to keep people from acting badly in other areas. This, as Hobbes would say, arises from an insufficient understanding of humans. Or is a deceit on the part of people who have the power to do wrong and get away with it.

While I do like the idea of libertarianism, a viable libertarian society would seem to require people who are predominantly ethical (and thus self-regulating) or a careful balance of power. Or, alternatively, a world in which people are rational and act from self-interest in ways that would maintain social order. This is clearly not our world.

 

 

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Why Do Professors tend to be Liberal?

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on December 23, 2013
from Princeton University Press

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One common conservative talking point is that academics is dominated by professors who are, if not outright communists, at least devout liberals. While there are obviously very conservative universities and conservative professors, this talking point has considerable truth behind it: professors in the United States do tend to be liberal.

Another common conservative talking point is that the academy is hostile to conservative ideas, conservative students and conservative professors. In support of this, people will point to vivid anecdotes or make vague assertions about the hostility of various allegedly dominant groups in academics, such as the feminists. There are also the usual vague claims about how professors are under the sway of Marxism.

This point does have some truth behind it in that there are anecdotes that are true, there are some groups that do  consistently express hostility to certain conservative ideas, and some professors do embrace Marxism or, worse, analytical Marxism.

Obviously, I am far from the first person to address these matters. In an interesting and well researched book, Neil Gross examines some of the myths relating to the academy, liberals and conservatives. Gross does make some excellent points and helps shed some light into the shadowy myths of the academy. For example, the myth that professors are liberal because they are more intelligent than conservatives is debunked. As another example, the myth that there is an active conspiracy to keep conservatives out of the academy is also debunked.

As to why professors are liberal, Gross expands on an idea developed earlier: typecasting. The general idea is that professors have been typecast as liberals and this has the effect of drawing liberals and deterring conservatives. A more common version of typecasting is gender based typecasting. For example, while men and women can serve equally well as nurses, the field of nursing is still dominated by women. One reason for this is the perception that nursing is a job for women. In the case of professors, the typecasting is that it is a job for liberals. The result is that 51% of professors are Democrats, 14% Republican and the rest independent (exact numbers will vary from year to year, but the proportions remain roughly the same).

It might be thought that the stereotyping is part of a liberal plot to keep the academy unappealing to conservatives. However, the lion’s share of the stereotyping has been done by conservative pundits—they are the ones who have been working hard to convince conservatives that professors are liberal and that conservatives are not welcome. Ironically, one reason that young conservatives do not go on to become professors is that conservative pundits have worked very hard to convey the message that professorships are for liberals.

While the typecasting explanation has considerable appeal, there are certainly other reasons that professors would tend to be liberal or at least have views that would be regarded as liberal.

One factor worth considering is that professors have to go through graduate school in order to get the degrees they need to be professors. While there are some exceptions, being a graduate student gives a person a limited, but quite real, taste of what it is like to be poor even when one is working extremely hard.

While it was quite some time ago, I recall getting my meager paycheck and trying to budget out my money. As I recall, at one point I was making $631 a month. $305 went to rent and I went without a phone, cable, or a car. Most of the rest was spent on food (rice puffs and Raman noodles) and I had to save some each month so I could buy my books. I did make some extra money as a professional writer—enough so I could add a bit of meat to my diet.

While I was not, obviously, in true poverty I did experience what it is like to try to get by with an extremely limited income and to live in cheap housing in bad neighborhoods. Even though I now have a much better salary, that taste of poverty has stuck with me. As such, when I hear about such matters as minimum wage and actual poverty, these are not such theoretical abstractions—I know what it is like to dig through my pockets in the hope of finding a few missed coins so I can avoid the shame of having to return items at the grocery store checkout. I know what it is like to try to stretch a tiny income to cover the bills.

I have spoken to other professors who, not surprisingly, had similar experiences and they generally express similar feelings. In any case, it certainly make sense that such experiences would give a person sympathy for those who are poor—and thus tend to lean them towards liberal positions on things like food stamps and welfare.

Another factor worth considering is that some (but obviously not all) professors are professors because they want to be educators. It is hardly shocking that such people would tend to accept views that are cast as liberal, such as being pro-education, being in favor of financial aid for students, being in favor of intellectual diversity and tolerance of ideas, favoring freedom of expression and thought, and so on. After all, these are views that mesh well with being an educator. This is not to say that there are no exceptions. After all, some people want to train others to be just like them—that is, to indoctrinate rather than educate. However, these people are not nearly as common as the conservative talking points would indicate. But, to be fair, they do exist and they perform a terrible disservice to the students and society. Even worse, they are sometimes considered great scholars by those who share their taste in Kool Aid.

Given that conservatism is often associated with cutting education spending, cutting student financial aid, opposing intellectual diversity and opposing the tolerance of divergent ideas, it is hardly surprising that professors tend to be liberals and opposed to these allegedly conservative ideas. After all, what rational person would knowingly support an ideology that is directly detrimental to her profession and livelihood?

Thus, what probably helps push professors (and educators) towards liberalism and against conservatism is the hostility expressed against professors and educators by certain very vocal pundits and politicians. Fox News, for example, is well known for its demonization of educators. This hostility also leads to direct action: education budgets have been cut by Tea Party and Republican legislatures and they have been actively hostile to public educational institutions (but rather friendly to the for-profits). As such, the conservative pundits who bash educators should not express shock our outrage when educators prefer liberalism over their conservatism. Naturally, if someone insults and attacks me repeatedly, they should hardly be surprised when I do not want to embrace their professed values.

It would seem, in part, that the reason professors are liberal is because certain conservatives have done an excellent job demonizing the profession. So, conservatives would tend to avoid the profession while those that enter it would tend to be pushed even more away from the right. So, if the right wants more conservative professors, they need to stop doing such a good job convincing everyone that professorships are for liberals.

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China & Freedom

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on January 21, 2011
National emblem of the People's Republic of China
Image via Wikipedia

As most folks know, China and the United States are economically linked. The Chinese own many of our debts and we sell a lot of stuff to each other. We also have other strong ties involving our cultures and our educational systems. While our professed ideologies are different, we do share many common political goals. For example, we are both interested in a stable world with ongoing economic growth.

One major difference between the United States and China is, of course, in the area of freedom. While Americans do face challenges to their liberties, Chinese officials strive to ensure that their citizens hold what they regard as correct views. To this end, Chinese officials employ wide ranging censorship and other classic tactics of oppressive states. This is, of course, fundamentally different from the United States.

That the Chinese officials use such tactics is understandable.  First, this approach seems to be inherent to the “Marxist” approach to government.  Of course, “Marxist” has consistently just been another name for dictatorship. Second, the current Chinese government arose out of a chaotic situation and this probably had a lasting impact on Chinese ideology. Think of, for example, the impact that the English Civil War had on Hobbes’ political philosophy: chaos is to be avoided at all costs and this can only be done by a very strong state. Third, the leadership is probably worried that it would not be able to maintain its power without such means and hence they are doing what they think is required to do what is so dear to all politicians: stay in power.

Not surprisingly, the matter of freedom is a point of contention between the United States and China. While the United States has been quite willing to cozy up with the worst tyrants we rather like thinking of ourselves as the good guys who love freedom, liberty and justice for all. Provided, of course, that these things match our “national interest” at the moment.

It is tempting to cut China the same sort of slack that we cut (and are cutting) other countries that are not very nice but still quite useful to us. After all, we need them to buy more of our debt so we can keep burning billions on defense (in part to protect us from the Chinese). We also need them to sell us cheap stuff so we can continue to live the lifestyles we like. We also want them to buy our stuff so we can get our economy spinning up again.

However, a strong case can be made for pushing China on this and other moral issues. After all, if we profess to be the land of the free and we take that talk of liberty and justice seriously, then we have to live up to those words. Otherwise we are just making righteous squeaks.

Fortunately, pushing for more freedom and justice in China is also to our advantage and even to the advantage of China (though probably not to the ruling class).

More freedom in China would provide us with more opportunity to influence the Chinese people and, to be honest, infect them with our culture. While democracies are not always best friends, a more democratic China would probably be more inclined to act in ways that would coincide with American interests.

The Chinese people would also benefit. First, there would be the obvious benefits of not being subject to a rather oppressive state. Second, increased freedom tends to lead to economic, cultural, academic, scientific and technological improvements. It is no accident that free societies dominate such areas and that free societies tend to be fairly prosperous.

Of course, the current ruling class would put itself at risk by allowing such freedom and it seems unlikely that they are willing to allow the People’s Republic to really be a people’s republic. Then again, our own system shows that a ruling class can stay in power even within a relatively free society.

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