Friday, December 05, 2008

On Empty Formalism

Libertarians claim to be interested in making people as free as possible. Motherhood and apple pie, you'd've thought; who has anything to say against people being free, after all? On the other hand, there's something pretty suspicious about appeals to values which no-one disagrees with. Why not just offer the moon on a stick along with that magic pony? It's not really 'all moral worlds contain loss', is it? donpaskini doesn't get it quite right here, when he says that "[i]t's not the arguments against libertarianism that are most devastating for its adherents, it's their own attempts to apply their beliefs to the real world", since running around waving your arms and shouting 'freedom! freedom!' is hardly really an argument. What really matters is what the libertarians mean when they run around waving their arms and shouting 'freedom! freedom!', and in the absence of anything else, it seems like the policies probably are what they mean. Freedom is having to apply to an unaccountable charity to get a licence to procreate, or being mugged because the police are busy raiding your house to check whether you're beating your kids. Your take-home lesson today: the plausibility of a general claim is the plausibility of its instances.


Jim Bliss said...

... the plausibility of a general claim is the plausibility of its instances.

Or as William Blake put it (and Gregory Bateson was so fond of quoting):

"He who would do good to another must do it in Minute Particulars. General Good is the plea of the scoundrel, hypocrite, and flatterer..."

Rob Jubb said...

Well, not really, since first, one's a claim about plausibility and the other is a claim about action, and second, one rules something out and the other gives a set of conditions under which something can be appropriate. I suppose I should make it clear that this post isn't really about libertarians at all, and knowing what it is really about is probably only knowable under a set of conditions which are very unlikely to be fulfilled by anyone other than me.

Rob Jubb said...

Obviously, the 'knowable' in the above comment should be replaced by a 'possible'. Bah.

Anonymous said...

Too right the post was a bit gnomic. Liz

El said...

I did wonder a bit

Rob Jubb said...

Well, obviously, the other people we might worry about empty formalism with are people who similarly go round making general claims without talking about the individual instances of those claims.

badconscience said...

The thing that always gets me about libertarianism is how idiotically inconsistent it is with its own stated commitment to "freedom".

To recap:

Libertarians think everyone should be free. They think that people would be more free if there was no/a very very limited state. To this end they would abolish most taxation, welfare redistribution etc.

Yet this is outstandingly illogical: if a libertarian-style minimalist government really existed, most people would be free to do hardly anything. Minimalist governments don't build motorways, so in Libertarian Land anybody not rich enough to own a Mad Max 4x4 and lots of ammunition won't be free to take a trip to London (forget about rail networks without enormous government subsidy, and no firm is going to build a motorway without government structure and security backing it).

And so on. What libertarians don't ever seem to get is that for the vast majority of people who are not relatively wealthy, the state is fantastically enabling, providing freedoms and opportunities they would never have if living in Libertarian Land.

Of course, this is all sort of irrelevant. Libertarians aren't *really* interested in freedom. Well, actually, some are - the one's who are really thick and can't see the hopelessness of their arguments. Most of them however are just dishonest: they don't care about freedom per se, they care about their personal freedom to get rich and not pay taxes.

Unfortunately that doesn't sound very nice, so they dress their claims up as believing in "freedom", thus pontificating vacuously as you describe.

It all reminds me of the old joke:
Q. What is the difference between anarchism and libertarianism?
A. Under anarchism the poor are allowed to shoot back.

Rob Jubb said...

What you really want for (right-)libertarians is the G. A. Cohen/Hillel Steiner point that all property rights are restrictions on liberty, and the proper way of phrasing the question is to ask how the liberty gets distributed. But to all of the above, yes. That said, I wasn't really having a go at (right-)libertarians; they're such a sitting duck, it's not really worth it.

badconscience said...

"I wasn't really having a go at (right-)libertarians; they're such a sitting duck, it's not really worth it."


only right-libertarian thinking informs an awful lot of "mainstream" political thinking in the US, for example.

Libertarians have a simple ploy: making their ideas seem very simple and common-sensical. That way they can sell them to people.

I usually think it is worth nailing them to the wall as often as possible to show how their "simple" arguments are a load of tosh.

Rob Jubb said...

I'm not really sure that right-libertarianism proper is as influential in the US as you might think: no right-libertarian could in good conscience support the sacrifice of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis for some unspecified future goal, for example, and no-one publicly prominent on the US right seems to have been making that complaint about the war. Support for 'free' markets can be on grounds other than liberty; equally mistaken grounds, no doubt, but different ones. So count me sceptical about the actual political influence of right-libertarianism. I suspect what passes for right-libertarianism in political discourse is some kind of vulgar desert theory or a bizarre belief that markets are a) allocatively efficient and b) allocative efficiency is morally significant regardless of the distribution which it arose from, neither of which seem to be distinctively libertarian positions.

Like I said, all you want for right-libertarians is the Cohen point that property rights are limits on other people's liberty (and maybe to point out that income taxation is not the direction of labour). I suppose what I meant by saying I wasn't really having a go at right-libertarians was that the point wasn't really to have a go at right-libertarians; that was kind of incidental shits and giggles; that opportunities to point and laugh shouldn't be passed up but that I wasn't seeking them out either. Anyway, I would be a fool to labour under the impression that anything I said had serious political effects.