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Unmasking

Julian Sanchez writes:

I'm always a little puzzled by a rhetorical strategy I occasionally encounter in friendly political arguments. I'll often, unsurprisingly enough, end up taking a libertarian position, and midway through the back-and-forth, my interlocutor will respond with something like: "Well, you're a libertarian, so of course you think that, but..." as if to suggest that an ideology is some kind of suspect ulterior motive, along the lines of "Well, you work for ADM, so of course you're for ethanol subsidies." But of course, that's sort of backwards: I don't believe in low taxes, strong property rights, free trade, and robust civil liberties because I'm a libertarian. Rather, I'm a libertarian because I believe all those things for other independent reasons. (And the "because" here is constitutive, not causal--being a libertarian, in other words, just means believing those other things.) It's as though once you can slap a label on a view, you've banished it, in the way we used to think knowing the true magical names of evil spirits gave us power over them.
I think the best way to rationalize the use of this rhetorical device is to understand it as a means of located at what level of abstraction the debate is proceeding. You might have been assuming that you and your interlocutor had some shared premise, and you simply didn't understand how he could fail to see that your conclusion followed from the premise in question. But then you realize that you're disagreeing because he's a libertarian and doesn't agree with your background premise. You may then think that the dispute about the background premise isn't really worth having and say, "well, you're a libertarian, so of course that's what you think" secure in the knowledge that you're not missing some key step in the argument. Since any given casual conversation is probably not a good moment to decide that your entire ideology is wrong and you should be a libertarian, there's really nothing more to say, and you walk away sure that you're right.

The same kind of dynamic in reverse is why an article called "The Liberal Case Against The Minimum Wage" or "The Conservative Case for Gay Marriage" or "The Libertarian Case for Universal Health Care" would be more interesting interesting than the converse ones. "The Libertarian Case Against The Minimum Wage" and "The Liberal Case for Universal Health Care" are both pretty banal, and probably cover well-ploughed territory. People who aren't libertarians (in the first case) or liberals (in the second case) are going to feel that the author can just be ignored. He's a liberal so of course he thinks there should be universal health care, but I'm not a liberal so why should I care what he thinks about this.

The difference here is that Julian seems to think that he's come to various libertarian conclusions each on independent grounds and that it's just a kind of coincidence that when you add all these conclusions up what you get is libertarianism. I think a more realistic picture of people's political ideas (people who think a lot about political ideas, that is, other people probably have a very different belief structure) is that a small number of background beliefs about matters moral and empirical are driving their conclusions on various subjects. Correctly identifying those beliefs can be crucial in helping to understand what's going on.

June 30, 2004 | Permalink

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Comments

"The Libertarian Case for Universal Health Care"

Right-libertarian minarchists (as opposed to anarcho-capitalists) believe in the use of government resources to secure a person's property. But most libertarians believe that the right to property is dirivative of a right to life. So if government resources should be used to secure property, certainly they should be used to secure life. How free are you if you are dead, cripled, deaf or blind?

Posted by: Decnavda | Jun 30, 2004 3:07:54 PM

Well, that'd be a reasonable reading and a fair response from the other party if that's what we're going on. But I'm talking about discussions with people who're well aware of my general disposition, where (as they usually are, since I agree that in a short conversation it's not productive to get down to higher level value disputes) the argument is about the specific advisability of some policy conducted more-or-less on shared normative territory.

Posted by: Julian Sanchez | Jun 30, 2004 3:09:52 PM

As a relatively frequent liberal commentator over at Hit & Run, I would put it slightly differently: There are powerful pragmatic/consequentialist arguments for certain policies favored by libertarians and then there are what I think of as the "theological" arguments for such policies. By way of example: it is generally accepted, not only by libertarians, that the government should not set prices for retail consumer goods. The pragmatic argument for that position is that doing so is at best ineffective and at worst disastrous. The theological argument is something like "the government can never justly impair the exercise of the natural liberty of contract."

If you talk politics with (at least some) libertarians, you may find yourself -- in the midst of what you thought was a discussion of whether a particular policy is justified on pragmatic grounds -- suddenly confronted with a "theological" claim. "I think a school voucher program would be a good idea." "No, it wouldn't, because the government has no role in education or any subject other than minimal coastal defense." At that point, unless you feel like getting into a debate over an utterly crankish (IMHO) political philosophy, you just walk away.

That having been said, I would suspect that it does happen from time to time that a libertarian is accused of making one of those category shifts when he/she really isn't doing that. If Julian really doesn't "believe in low taxes, strong property rights, free trade, and robust civil liberties because [he's] a libertarian," I would expect that he might be falsely accused on occasion.

Posted by: alkali | Jun 30, 2004 3:26:22 PM

> If you talk politics with (at least some) libertarians, you may find yourself -- in the midst of what you thought was a discussion of whether a particular policy is justified on pragmatic grounds -- suddenly confronted with a "theological" claim.

Boy, am I familiar with that phenomenon.

But really, theology is irrelevant. Either libertarianism leads empirically to prosperity, or it leads empirically to poverty. If it leads to prosperity, there's no need for theological arguments. If it leads to poverty, then no amount of theology can save it - I reject any theology that demands that we live in poverty. In the long run, libertarianism needs to stand or fall on its empirical results.

So far, I haven't been that impressed with the empirical results.

Posted by: Josh Yelon | Jun 30, 2004 3:43:57 PM

Yelon,

When would theological arguments ( either in the Alkali sense or the usual sense ) be acceptable?

Posted by: WeSaferThemHealthier | Jun 30, 2004 3:50:51 PM

"small number of background beliefs about matters moral and empirical are driving their conclusions on various subjects"

I wasn't born with an expansionist view of the takings clause, and I can't really justify it well on the basis of experience or empirical evidence. It is a pretty complex subject. I just decided to lean that way out of I guess, some weird sense of intellectual integrity. I am not actually very interested in the subject.

Sometimes I agree with Matt's pragmatic reductionism (or whatever), many individuals would oppose abortion whether they were Catholic or Jewish or Buddhist, and the religion or ideology simply is a tool of justification. But he may be taking it too far. People can be self-motivated by chosen abstractions.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Jun 30, 2004 3:51:22 PM

Perhaps he should realize that for those involved in the form of politics which involves creatures called "human" on the planet known as "earth," continuing a discussion with someone after the have identified themselves as a libertarian is rather pointless.

Being libertarian means never having to say "I agree."

Posted by: Contrary Mary | Jun 30, 2004 3:56:55 PM

"libertarianism needs to stand or fall on its empirical results.

So far, I haven't been that impressed with the empirical results."

Say what? As far as I can tell, we live and have lived for 200 years, in a fairly libertarian country. I am not one to say that it is either an anarch-libertarian utopia or a Communist gulag, it is obviously a pragmatic and historial mix.

Is the SEC a liberal or conservative program? Maybe I need to understand what liberalism is.

But to be silly, I would say America was 30% liberal, 20% conservative, and 50% libertarian in actual policy. And we haven't done so badly.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Jun 30, 2004 4:05:51 PM

A lot of people who aren't libertarians would endorse a set of policies and institutions that are, roughly, "50% libertarian." Can't we all just get along?

Posted by: C.J.Colucci | Jun 30, 2004 4:13:05 PM

> But to be silly, I would say America was 30% liberal, 20% conservative, and 50% libertarian in actual policy. And we haven't done so badly.

Absolutely! I'm a big fan of mixed economies that lean a little toward the libertarian side. I just think if you go 100% libertarian, things fall apart.

You see, the libertarian who's my business partner is an extremist. As a result, when I think of libertarianism, I suppose I think of the undiluted form. When I say I'm unimpressed with libertarianism, I'm talking about those nations with no welfare state to speak of, and with no regulation to speak of. Those are the countries I'm not impressed with. My apologies for coming across as being completely anti-freedom. I'm a big fan of a mostly-free market.


Posted by: Josh Yelon | Jun 30, 2004 4:16:00 PM

> When would theological arguments ( either in the Alkali sense or the usual sense ) be acceptable?

I think theology is useful in defining our goals. For example, my statement of the goal of government would be: "The first goal of a government is to make sure everyone is safe and healthy. The second goal is to make sure that everyone has access to a broad range of opportunities for enjoyment, exploration, and advancement. Neither goal takes precedence over the other, rather, it should be viewed as a weighted maximization problem."

Where did that goal-statement come from? My theology.

Once you get down to the nuts-and-bolts of how to achieve the goal, you're into the realm of pragmatism.


Posted by: Josh Yelon | Jun 30, 2004 4:29:59 PM

I've noticed that Libertarians tend to be well off professionals living in stable democracies. I don't think that there are many Libertarians in unstable countries without the rule of law. In other words, Libertarians tend to be those who have benefited most from government programs.

Posted by: Lynne | Jun 30, 2004 4:31:41 PM

There's also a certain sense of "forming a gang" here. Parties, both organized and unorganized (I know, I know, the Democratic Party) are formed so that they have the numbers to gang up on opponents. If I think of myself as a member of a particular party, say the Very Silly Party, it's because I share most of the major ideas of that party and don't disagree with any of their minor ideas very much; I'm willing to swallow some of the less important things that I don't agree with (and note I decide what's important) for the sake of getting everyone else's help with the things I think are important. So when someone labels me as a VSP member, they are actually making the assumption that I'll either believe or profess to believe all of the positions of that party, at least in public.

Posted by: Bob Munck | Jun 30, 2004 5:25:16 PM

This is why I like Matt's blog. He may not be remotely libertarian, but he's at least fairly knowledgeable about libertarianism and treats it with respect. Thanks, Matt.

Posted by: Xavier | Jun 30, 2004 5:34:01 PM

Another possibility: 'libertarianism' is a fundamentally flawed and contradictory philosophy. Its first principles, or premises, are false; its premises aren't consistent; and its nonfeasible. It really doesn't logically exist in any coherent form, save for anarchocapitalism.

Thus, debating a libertarian is not unlike debating a member of the Flat Earth Society about geography--it can be done but only if one suspends the laws of physics.

Posted by: Jadegold | Jun 30, 2004 7:36:35 PM

Jade,

What premises are false?
What premises are contradictory?

Posted by: WeSaferThemHealthier | Jun 30, 2004 7:45:31 PM


Eh, hold on a sec. I don't agree with libertarianism in its purest form, but even I have to concede that their basic philosophy, that government shouldn't meddle in people's lives except to limit fraud and force, is a perfectly good goal as long as you temper it with certain other valid goals.

Posted by: Josh Yelon | Jun 30, 2004 7:46:42 PM

libertarian=Republicans on drugs.

"As far as I can tell, we live and have lived for 200 years, in a fairly libertarian country."

Since FDR? If you believe this, you don't know even the basics of libertarian utopian theology. Go look at their web site.

Find me one libertarian who believes that America since FDR has been significantly libertarian.

Posted by: joel | Jun 30, 2004 9:48:39 PM

Heh. Usually I get dissed for being obsessively consistant, when I get to talking political theory. But, then, I AM an anarcho-capitalist... I just harp on the Constitution because actually getting the government to obey it again would be a huge step in the direction of anarchy. LOL

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Jun 30, 2004 9:49:36 PM

BB illustrates nicely the fetishising of the Constitution that is the core of Libertarian theology.

Posted by: joel | Jun 30, 2004 10:03:34 PM

Nah, it's just a means to an end; As the saying goes, the Constitution isn't perfect, but it's better than what we've got now.

See, if you're trying to achieve anarchy, no government, then a government of limited powers, compelled to follow rules, is closer to your goal than a government of essentially unlimited power, exercised arbitrarilly. The rule of law is actually a step in the direction of anarchy, compared to where we are now!

True, I think the US constitution is one of the better ones, though it's got it's flaws, but this isn't a conclusion that's based on the merits of a particular constitution. It's based on the merits of having a constitution, AND FORCING THE GOVERNMENT TO OBEY IT, compared to being subject to arbitary power.

I happen to think that the various usurpations of power by the federal government, over the last 100 years, were quite damaging. But even more damaging is the fact that they were accomplished by violating the Constitution, instead of amending it. As a result, we didn't just lose limited government, we lost the rule of law, too. At least if FDR had gone on an orgy of amending the thing, and somehow gotten the states to ratify the amendments, the usurpations would be fixed and explicit, rather than subject to being expanded any time the government feels like it, and 5 guys in black robes don't feel like objecting. We'd still have a government of "laws, not men".

(Anarchy IS the rule of law, BTW. Where the only law is the non-agression principle. So the rule of law isn't contrary to anarchy, it's a prerequisit.)

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Jun 30, 2004 10:44:31 PM

"Since FDR? If you believe this, you don't know even the basics of libertarian utopian theology. Go look at their web site."

Well, this indeed why libertarians, along with the other two, would kick me out of their party.
I think freedom is divisible and can be partial, that if there is any infringement of liberty it does not mean all men are slaves of the state. I am also not obsessed with economic liberty.

In 1932 Ulysses was illegal.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Jun 30, 2004 11:31:20 PM

I also tend to actually look at the facts on the ground. The Voting Rights Act did not actually make Alabamans less free, although blacks had a theoretical right to vote before its enactment. I have no reason to believe there are less small business startups, relative to population, then there were in 1900.

"At least if FDR had gone on an orgy of amending the thing"

Do you really mean this? BB, if the expansion of the Commerce Clause were enshrined in the Constitution, you would have considerably less hope of getting the principles and policies reversed than you do now. No matter how screwy a polity gets, I vastly prefer the Constitution be left to itself. People, parties, fashions change.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Jun 30, 2004 11:57:55 PM

Hm. The libertarians I know seem to be struggling small businessmen who blame taxes and regulation for their problems.

Often, heavily-armed small businessmen who blame taxes and regulation for their problems.

Or else hi-tech whizzes with money to burn, but I think that they are fewer now.

Posted by: Zizka | Jul 1, 2004 1:07:51 AM

Maybe it's not "theology", and I'm capable of thinking for myself? Who knows, since I joined the party a year after it was founded, it's even possible I had largely formed my political views before I'd even heard of "libertarians".

Bob, the Voting Rights Act wasn't so bad. It at least had some constitutional basis. But a lot of what FDR did was flat out unconstitutional. And, which is better, a good constitution that's ignored, or a not quite so good constitution that's being obeyed? The latter can at least be amended, and make a difference, after all, but the former? Even if you manage to amend it, it doesn't accomplish anything, like the 27th amendment.

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Jul 1, 2004 5:22:10 AM

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