Market fundamentalism

A recent trend in progressive thinking is to accuse opponents of “market fundamentalism.” That seems to be a smart rhetorical tactic because a) it rides on the wave of concerns about any kind of fundamentalism, and b) the phrase appeals to people’s reasonableness. After all, if two ways of “organizing society” are available, only a complete fanatic would advocate markets over government in all cases.

A major problem with the phrase market fundamentalism is that it simply assumes that to be reasonable one cannot advocate the most extreme position on an issue. But as many historians can point out, views that would have been considered extreme or fundamentalist hundreds of years ago have become mainstream in contemporary society. Furthermore, with some creativity any position can be phrased to be a middle of the road view. “Surely you agree that shooting political opponents is the moderate policy between not prosecuting them at all and torturing them.” Finally, the pejorative use of fundamentalism can backfire  at progressives. With similar arguments, conservatives can argue that liberals hold fundamentalist views on other issues such as human nature and society (all nurture, no nature).

But perhaps the biggest problem with the accusation of market fundamentalism is that facts or arguments have been made irrelevant in favor of appeals to reasonableness. Does it even matter if there are logical, empirical, or moral arguments to prefer markets over government? One argument to generally prefer markets over government is that for a voter the cost of being irrational is close to zero. Another argument (and observation) is that we should get better results from competition than from monopoly, even if both mechanisms are not perfect. And last, but not least, logical and epistemological arguments favor the presumption of liberty, and thus markets over government.

One effective response to the accusation of market fundamentalism is to ask why the only alternative to government is a free market. For most people who have been accused of market fundamentalism the crucial distinction is not between government and market but between voluntary and coerced acts.

The lure of accusing someone of market fundamentalism is so strong that it does not even seem to matter anymore if someone is a market fundamentalist in order to be called one. As Bryan Caplan notes in his book The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies, “a standard rhetorical tactic is to equate modest reductions in the role of government with the elimination of government regulation altogether.” If the accusation of market fundamentalism is supposed to have any meaning at all, only a handful of economists or political thinkers could be labeled as true market fundamentalists. But the frequent use of the phrase would suggest that individuals like Murray Rothbard and Anthony de Jasay are dominating public thinking about markets.

But what about “democratic fundamentalism?” In the chapter on market fundamentalism Caplan writes:

A person who said, “All the ills of markets can be cured by more markets” would be lampooned as the worst sort of market fundamentalist. Why the double standard? Because unlike market fundamentalism, democratic fundamentalism is widespread. In polite company, you can make fun of the worshipers of Zeus, but not Christians or Jews. Similarly, it is socially acceptable to make fun of market fundamentalism, but not democratic fundamentalism, because market fundamentalists are scarce, and democratic fundamentalists are all around us.

The Myth of the Rational Voter is a major antidote to such democratic fundamentalism. Although a small minority of people object to democratic politics because all government is coercive and redistributive, the economic verdict that democracy fails because voters not do not face strong incentives to correct bias is likely to be more credible to most people, including economists.

The presumption of liberty

Perhaps no political philosopher has done as much painstaking work to review the legitimacy and need for political authority as Anthony de Jasay.  What makes de Jasay’s work stand out is his ability to engage with the technical arguments of political economists and philosophers without sacrificing common sense. For example, de Jasay understands the complications of enforcing contracts without a state but never loses sight of the obvious point that a hypothetical contract to establish a state cannot be treated as an actual contract.

Anthony de Jasay is a patient thinker; his work makes the advocates of government look like raving fanatics, too impatient to appreciate the value of contract and convention, substituting coercion for agreement without examining their arguments and/or the operation of markets in great detail.

Unlike many other thinkers in this tradition, de Jasay is not a system builder. The bulk of his work involves the examination of arguments for government and the mechanisms of its operation when it exists. The lack of a normative case for liberty is not an omission, however, but deliberate. As should be evident from writings such as “Frog’s legs, shared ends, and the rationality of politics” (PDF) and “Values and the Social Order” (both reprinted in the book Against Politics), as a non-cognitivist, de Jasay does not find justificationism in ethics and political philosophy credible. Although the values we hold are often means to other (higher) values, going down the line we will arrive at a point where arbitrary, subjective preferences are the sole remaining reason for believing in something. This non-cognitivist position is not necessarily harmful to the cause of liberty because it undermines most, if not all, arguments in favor of political authority.

De Jasay believes that the decomposition of liberalism in the 20th century reflects “a design that positively invited tinkering.” As argued in great detail in his Choice, Contract and Consent: A Restatement of Liberalism, the progressive loss of rigor in liberal thinking reflects a tension between its two elements; maximization of a goal (freedom) and observance of a rule (no harm):

With regard to both freedom and the interests across which it must not trespass, one can only take positions that are ultimately subjective, ‘unprovable’, supported by intrinsically unwinnable, contestable, but unrebuttable arguments. Within these loose limits, disparate content can be read into freedom and nearly any interest can be claimed to be sufficient ground for an inviolable right.

A recurrent theme in de Jasay’s oeuvre is that liberty should be presumed, not because we have a “right” to it, or because it is the most important value or goal, but because it follows from the requirements of epistemology and logic. His current thinking on this has culminated in an essay called Freedom from a Mainly Logical Perspective (2005).  In a nutshell, the argument (as I understand it), goes as follows:

There are two basic means of evaluating the truth of a statement, verification and falsification. The  preferred choice between these two means should reflect the nature of the proposition at hand. If a claim is made that someone is not free to do something, the burden should be on the person who challenges that freedom. The reason for this is that the challenger needs only a strong enough case that at least one reason against the act in question is valid. If the burden of proof would rest on the person whose freedom is contested, the number of arguments that need to be falsified in order to prove that there is no good reason against it would be impractically large, or even infinite:

Even if an action is not challenged for ulterior motives or out of sheer busybodiness, the formal requirement to show that it would cause no harm and breach no obligation (i.e., that no one’s right could be opposed to it) is sufficient to stop any and all action and freeze everyone in impotent mobility. (Before Resorting to Politics)

The philosopher of science and critical rationalist Gerard Radnitzky was so impressed with de Jasay’s case for the presumption of liberty that he stated that “for the first time the political philosophy of libertarianism and of classical liberalism has gotten a solid base in logic and epistemology.” Instead of appealing to a person’s preference for liberty, logic dictates that liberty should be presumed:

Jasay’s argument entails the request to any rational being, in particular to legislators, not to request (in sincerity) what is logically impossible (like falsifying the objector’s claim that there is an obstacle to my doing X, when the list of obstacles is denumerably infinite or de facto inconsistent). This has nothing to do with value judgments: the logically impossible is literally “unthinkable,” since thinking and logic are two sides of the same coin. “Ought implies Can” is a descriptive statement. (Against Politics, for “Ordered Anarchy” (PDF))

The presumption of liberty is in harmony with the fundamental rules of action in Roman and common law in which the accused is considered innocent until proven guilty, and possession gives rise to title unless the evidence proves otherwise.  Far from being a trivial principle, it is an antidote against the “rightsism” that pervades contemporary political culture:

“Rightsism” purports solemnly to recognize that people have “rights” to do certain specific things and that certain other things ought not to be done to them. On closer analysis, these “rights” turn out to be the exceptions to a tacitly understood general rule that everything else is forbidden; for if it were not, announcing “rights” to engage in free acts would be redundant and pointless. The silliness that underlies “rightsism”, and the appalling effect it exerts upon the political climate, illustrates how far the looseness of current liberal thought can drift away from a more strict structure that would serve the cause of liberty instead of stifling it in pomposity and confusion. (Liberalism, Loose or Strict (PDF))

If having a “right to liberty” is an incoherent concept, and rights can limit freedom, what is the source of rights? Here de Jasay argues that the source of rights is contract; “the deontology of rights is their epistemology.” Leaving to the side the concept of “natural rights,” we can distinguish between rights that are created by political authority or rights that reflect contract. In both cases, the right of  one person corresponds to an obligation of another person (or persons). But whereas rights that reflect contract can be confirmed by the bearer of the obligation, this is often not the case with the rights that are created through the political process. Such rights are imposed through power and not acknowledged by both the right holder and the bearer of the obligation.

Does this mean that strict liberals cannot loyally accept the government of their country as legitimate, and are in effect advocating anarchy? Logically, the answer to both questions must be “yes,” but it is a “yes” whose practical consequences are necessarily constrained by the realities of our social condition. (Liberalism, Loose or Strict (PDF))

But who is going to determine when a liberty causes a harm or breaches a contract? It appears that de Jasay prefers these questions to be answered by common law and convention instead of government. Although such sponteaneous order may be “inefficient,” and sometimes “unfair,” this should be prefered over the political process which is intrinsically redistributive and nonunanimous. Without the prospect to secure private gain from the political process and to socialize its costs, the presumption of liberty may be secure for practical reasons as well.

Richard Dawkins on fashionable nonsense

The Dutch psychologist Piet Vroon once opined that philosophy has lost much of its relevance because it  has lost touch with the (natural) sciences. Although philosophers associated with logical positivism and critical rationalism made great efforts to discipline the practice of philosophy by encouraging logical thinking and verification (or falsification), so far their efforts must be considered a failure, as evidenced by the fact that their scientific perspective is usually classified as just another school of thought within contemporary philosophy. A symptom of this development is that we often see the word “philosophy” substituted for “opinion.” It should not be surprising, then, that many life extensionists are greatly skeptical of disciplines like bioethics. As a general rule, when all is said and done, and the “learned” rhetoric has been dissected, there is not much left other than the philosopher’s personal opinion.

This 2007 review by Richard Dawkins’ of Intellectual Impostures by Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont  reminds us how much pretentious unscientific nonsense is circulating among “intellectuals.” Although the examples of continental philosophy that Dawkins discusses represent the extreme regions of academia, a lot of philosophy and “social science” that is dominating contemporary intellectual debate, and informing public policies, is still miles away from the disciplined approach to science that thinkers like Alfred Ayer and Karl Popper advocated in their writings.

Whereas the natural sciences have mostly remained sane because of the strong link between experimental science and practical applications, such mechanisms are often absent in the social sciences.  And to the extent social science is “applied,” the question of what constitutes success is (necessarily) arbitrary. This situation is further aggravated by the fact that many social scientists and philosophers are sheltered from market mechanisms and real accountability.

Scientific skeptics have sometimes been criticized for focusing too much time on phenomena such as parapsychology, astrology, tarot reading and UFOs at the expense of more widely shared superstition such as mainstream religion. Similarly, concerned scientists tend to focus on fashionable nonsense such as postmodernism and  post-structuralism at the expense of more widespread ideas such as the epistemological problems in most social science or the extreme “blank slate” view of human nature that informs most public policy. Most people may not believe that astrologists can predict the future, but we seem to have fewer problems when similar claims to knowledge are expressed by social scientists and economists.

The bell curve of individual choice

What is the relationship between individual choice and collective choice? What should be the domain over which a democracy chooses? Prevailing answers to these questions are an important factor affecting the size of government. One argument why imperfect foresight should favor limited government, or no government at all, involves the difference between how individual and collective choices shape a social state of affairs. As the political philosopher Anthony de Jasay writes in his essay “Is Limited Government Possible? (reprinted in the book Against Politics):

When a social state of affairs, instead of being collectively decided, is left to emerge from a large number of individual decisions, the effects of the latter tend to be normally distributed: a few prove disastrous, a few are superbly good, and most are middling. The likelihood of the resulting state of affairs being totally disastrous or wholly superb is negligible. When, however, one collective choice is responsible for a state of affairs, no normal distribution can be relied upon. A single wrong decision that “seemed a good idea at the time” suffices to cause disaster. (…) This is an argument for limiting the capacity of government to produce change; an argument which, if it does not appeal to everyone, should at least appeal to the mistrustful, the cautious, and the worldly-wise.”

A related and positive argument for allowing individual choice to prevail over collective choice is that the complex interplay of individual choice in a competitive environment will produce individual and “collective” outcomes that could not have been imagined by public policy makers. It is hard not to note the parallels of such a perspective and biological evolution.

De Jasay’s argument raises an important question. How do we evaluate whether a certain public policy  has produced a state of affairs that is a total disaster? One option is to compare it to what theoretically might have been possible. But a more realistic and popular answer is to compare it to the state of affairs in societies where such public policies were absent.

But this raises a troubling scenario for advocates of individual choice and competition. How can we properly evaluate the outcome of a policy when there is no society left that has not adopted it? As recent responses to real or imagined crises have shown, the dominant response to a failure of collective choice is not to curtail public choice, but to increase it and encourage “co-operation” and “coordination” between governments.

If the logic of collective choice puts us on the high road to one government, one policy, one currency, one central bank etc., how will we ever know by means of empirical observation that our policies are a disaster ? Would we trust a  biochemist who persistently claims to have produced a superior form of life after obliterating all competition between evolved and competing lifeforms?

Why do we support collective choice? Perhaps one reason is that we overestimate the effect of collective choice on our lives, are addicted to discussions about it, and underestimate the effect of individual choice. For most problems, “unilateral” individual choice is a more effective means to produce “change” than engaging in politics.  Problems that are not of this nature often involve the desire to make a person do something that he would not have done without compulsion.

Beyond politics

In the introduction to his collection of writings, Socratic Puzzles, Robert Nozick writes that  he never responded to the sizable literature on Anarchy, State and Utopia. His natural inclination would be to defend his views. As Nozick notes, “How could I learn that my views were mistaken if I thought about them always with defensive juices flowing.” Nozick’s confession raises a more general question for an individual as he thinks about society and his place in it. How can one pursue reason and virtue when “defensive juices” are continuously being triggered by politics and ideology?

The prospect of a de-politicized society seems remote. When individuals frame their interests as a function of collective choice, perpetual strife and division is born with it. The habit to look at society as a set of problems to be solved (whether through “piecemeal engineering” and tinkering or fanatical pursuit of grandiose ideas) instead of seeing it as “a cooperative venture for mutual advantage” (as John Rawls phrased it), cultivates and reinforces the political consequentialism that permeates contemporary opinion.  Far from being the defining element of modern liberalism, this teleological perspective on society unites most modern political thinking as expressed in appeals to “Fairness,” “Growth,” “Freedom” as values that should guide public policy.

It seems counterintuitive for (classical) liberal thought not to propose the pursuit of liberty as a goal for society. But as Anthony de Jasay points out in Before Resorting to Politics,

The question of whether freedom is valuable or a free society is good ought not to enter at all into a properly thought-out political doctrine, liberal or other. It should be resolutely ignored. Whichever way the question were answered would, it seems to me, inevitably steer us in a teleological direction, and undermine the foundations on which the society that we could consider free might stand and survive.

In his book Natural Rights and History, the philosopher Leo Strauss identified Thomas Hobbes as a thinker within the Epicurean tradition that perceived man as an a-political animal. But according to Strauss, Hobbes

…gives that a-political view a political meaning. He tries to instill the spirit of political idealism into the hedonistic tradition. He thus became the creator of political hedonism, a doctrine which has revolutionized human life everywhere on a scale never yet approached by any other teaching.

But instead of following Strauss in his rejection of Hobbes’ mechanistic worldview, we only reject his “political hedonism” and restore Hobbes to its a-political Epicurean tradition by rejecting his identification of individual choice with collective choice.

The German philosopher of science Regard Radnitzky notes that “there is a striking analogy between (a) the dilemma of contractarianism in political philosophy and (b) the “justificationist” dilemma in German epistemology.” Whereas the traditional Hobbesian argument for the state does not come off the ground because of the lack of an enforcer to enforce the contract to create Leviathan, the quest for certainty leads to descriptive statements without ground or an infinite regress of arguments. If rational choice does not require political choice and the search for objective values to inform public policy will be recognized as an occult endeavor, the Aristotelian image of man as a political animal will collapse and Epicurean withdrawal from politics may take its place.

At the 2005 Austrian Scholars Conference, Martin Masse spoke favorably of Epicurus as a forerunner of libertarian philosophy:

Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, were all statists to various degrees, glorified political involvement, and devised political programs for their audiences of rich and well-connected aristocrats. Epicurus focused on the individual search for happiness, counseled not to get involved in politics because of the personal trouble it brings, and thought that politics was irrelevant….He had no political program to offer and one can find no concept of collective virtues or order or justice in his teachings….

The Epicurean wise man will keep the covenant and not harm others not because he wishes to comply with some moral injunction being imposed from above, but simply because that’s the best way to pursue his happiness and keep his tranquility of mind.

Epicurus believed that tranquility of mind could not be found in political involvement, that we can choose life without fearing death, and rejected superstition in favor of empiricism. His contractarian theory of justice anticipated a philosophical tradition that looks for the source of morals in agreement (”neither to harm nor be harmed”), but that treats politics with skepticism.

The 20th century witnessed a progressive decomposition of liberal thought and the celebration of a politicized society. No person, or according to some people, no atom, should be exempt from the special plans that are being made for this world. Although the 2008 financial meltdown could have given pause to those that see society as a means to an end, the emerging wisdom is that the current problems were caused by a lack of control instead of a lack of restraint.

During the final years of his life the reactionary thinker Julius Evola had to face the question of how a  radical traditionalist was to act in a world that had evolved into the opposite of what he stood for. Evola recommended a detached life, or as the wisdom goes, “to be in the world, but not of it.” He advocated  apolitea, the withdrawal from contemporary politics and abandonment of political activism.  Instead of fighting the current age he recommended to “ride the tiger” until the tiger is exhausted.  One does not have to follow Evola in his obscurantist philosophies to appreciate this perspective.

This is part 3 in a 3 part series on voting, elections and politics.

Part 1: The calculus of voting
Part 2: The addiction to politics

The addiction to politics

“As the leader of a think tank dedicated to public policy, I would love it if Americans were as obsessed with policy as I am.”
(Arthur C. Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute)

Can politics become an addiction? A more realistic question is to ask why politics is an addiction for so many people. The most straightforward answer would be that a compulsive interest in politics just reflects a natural preoccupation with advancing one’s interest (or that of others). But as was discussed in the previous installment, The Calculus of Voting, as general rule, politics is not a very effective means to advance one’s interests. Could it be that the identification of advancing one’s interests and engagement with politics reflects tribal instincts? As Hal Finney writes on the blog Overcoming Bias:

We have this instinct that choosing our Leader is as important to our lives as it was when we were a tribe of two dozen, and that we have similar influence over the result. Following elections and participating in politics activates these vestigial tribal instincts in much the same was as sports, with similarly futile results.

Such an explanation helps in reconciling the mysterious discrepancy between the empowerment voters  experience when engaging in politics and the actual power it confers to them. If during most of mankind’s existence there was a strong relationship between participation in small-scale decision making and individual consequences, it should not be surprising that we have evolved to be “political animals” and that such instincts are even triggered in elections where millions of people vote and where most individual goals can be more easily gained by non-political individual acts.

It is interesting to note that the changed scale in human interaction does not produce similar effects in markets. Being a consumer of a product or service does not become more futile when more people consume  the good. A company can grow to serve millions of individuals in different nations and supply and demand generally ensures that one gets what one chooses. In his book Social Contract, Free Ride:A Study of the Public Goods Problem, Anthony de Jasay even argues that the absolute size of a group is not directly relevant to the rationality of voluntary contribution to public goods.

Although much ink has been spilled over political bias in the media, one rarely encounters the opinion that the media devotes too much attention to politics as such. Most people who shape public opinion and write for a living seem to share the Aristotelian vision of political participation as salvation. As William C. Mitchell and Randy T. Simmons write in their book Beyond Politics:

Participating in the political process is seen as a way of lifting oneself above the crass self-interest many believe characterize market transactions. In this essentially Aristotelian vision people are not able to reach their highest potential unless they participate in the political process. In fact, such participation is deemed necessary for human moral development.

But as public choice scholars have pointed out, the nature of man does not change as soon as he enters the political arena or takes office. Perhaps it even brings out his worst traits or selects for the people that have them. The short-term and divisive nature of everyday politics seems to be a very fertile ground for fanaticism and biased reasoning.

The desire to engage in political battle and to see one party as the enemy is so strong that, as Bryan Caplan speculates, people tend to ignore the absence of any real differences in public policy between the major parties for the  sake  of enjoying the illusion of a partisan rift:

So what is the “key difference” between the parties? Rhetoric. When Republicans advocate a small contraction of the welfare state, Democrats claim that Republicans totally oppose the welfare state. And many Republicans oblige them by standing up for “liberty” and “responsibility.” Similarly, when Democrats advocate a small expansion in the welfare state, Republican claim that Democrats oppose free markets. And many Democrats oblige them by saying things like “markets only benefit the rich.”

This rhetorical illusion is so powerful that when a Democrat like Clinton adopts many pro-market reforms, Republicans still hate him as a 60s radical. And when Bush II sharply expands the welfare state, Democrats still hate him as a billionaire’s lackey.

The observation that people can get so excited  about rhetoric despite minor differences in public policy does not bode well for the view of politics as salvation or as a source for wisdom or personal growth.

Although one would expect the views and temperament of people who advocate a de-politicized society to steer them away from a strong engagement with practical politics, a surprising number seem obsessed with everything political. It appears that the tribal instinct to engage in politics and strife does not necessarily exclude people who claim that society would be better off without it.

Some of the most remarkable examples of such libertarian obsession with electoral politics were displayed during the Ron Paul campaign. For example, self-identified libertarian anarchists were observed to continuously monitor the primary elections results and blog the latest results online. But when Ron Paul failed to win the primaries, many of his advocates returned to advocating non-voting instead.

Although campaigning to vote for a  politician on one occasion and advocating non-voting on another may reflect just pragmatic political strategy, such a mixed message risks leaving people profoundly confused. In some respects it is also incoherent. The orthodox economic argument that in large democracies  an individual vote has a very low probability of deciding the outcome does not change when Ron Paul runs for office.

But perhaps the most persuasive argument against resorting to politics is one of opportunity costs. All the time that has been spent in vain to political campaigning and producing handbooks to persuade politicians to  refrain from being politicians could have been spent on the creation of private alternatives for government, education of the general public, and legal assistance to people who are faced with government interference instead. One does not have to subscribe to the view that voting is an immoral act to agree that “if one takes care of the means, the end will take care of itself.”

Further reading: Carl Watner (ed.) & Wendy McElroy (ed.): Dissenting Electorate: Those Who Refuse to Vote and the Legitimacy of Their Opposition

This is part 2 in a 3 part series on voting, elections and politics.

Part 1: The calculus of voting
Part 3: Beyond politics

The calculus of voting

Is it rational to vote? For most people the question may seem absurd but quite a few economists and political scientists have made the claim that it is not. The reasoning is that in large elections the probability that your individual vote will decide the outcome is so small that voting is a futile exercise. A classic statement of the orthodox economic view of voting can be found in David Friedman’s Price Theory: An Intermediate Text:

“…consider someone making two decisions–what car to buy and what politician to vote for. In either case, the person can improve his decision (make it more likely that he acts in his own interest) by investing time and effort in studying the alternatives. In the case of the car, his decision determines with certainty which car he gets. In the case of the politician, his decision (whom to vote for) changes by one ten-millionth the probability that the candidate he votes for will win. If the candidate would be elected without his vote, he is wasting his time; if the candidate would lose even with his vote, he is also wasting his time.”

If the probability of affecting the outcome is negligible, there is no strong incentive to inform oneself of the  positions of the candidates. Contrary to respectable opinion, being ignorant about politics  can be rational. This  stands in stark contrast to the situation of a consumer in the marketplace who is going to get what  he chooses. Leaving aside the complicating issue of “public goods,” it might be argued that there is no tension between rationality and choice in the marketplace but there is a serious tension between rationality and participation in (large scale) democratic elections.

Strictly speaking, the negligible probability that one’s vote will decide the outcome of an election itself does not render voting irrational. A voter may place an extremely high value on a particular outcome of  the election. So even if the probability of deciding the outcome is very low,  a voter may still be motivated to vote. To use an interesting example, if one believes that the probability of resuscitation of cryonics patients is very low, one can still justify the decision to make cryonics arrangements because of the high value placed on being alive. But a contrary position is possible as well. If one does not care about the outcome of an election, the low probability of affecting that outcome will even further undermine the reason to go out and vote.

In his 1971 book for new voters, Why Vote?, the author William C. Mitchell is making this very point.  He believes that people who do not care about the value of the outcome in an election where the probability of influencing it is perceived to be very low is a good reason to abstain from voting. In all other scenarios, he recommends voting.  He also mentions another reason to vote; voting may be intrinsically rewarding and can be seen as an expression of values, such as the support for democracy. But in 1994, the same William C. Mitchell co-authored a book with Randy T. Simmons called Beyond Politics: Markets, Welfare, and the Failure of Bureaucracy, an introduction to public choice (the economic study of politics) that displays a far more negative vision on government and politics as evidenced by sections such as “In Dispraise of Politics—Some Public Choices,” “The Anatomy of Public Failure,” “In Praise of Property, Profits, and Markets.” The authors revisit the issue of voting as follows:

Voting is a painfully limited way to express one’s values and preferences. It accomplishes its results only indirectly; the vote does not immediately call forth that which is voted for. In fact, if we vote for something but are in the minority we do not get it at all, if we vote against something and are in the minority, we get it and are compelled to pay for the unwanted goods or services.

The authors also address the issue that as more voters participate in an election the individual power of  a vote decreases. In light of this, it is hard to make something of campaigns to “get out the vote” that appeal to the power conferred by  voting. The more people are persuaded by such a message, the less their votes matter.  Perhaps the value of a vote would increase if voters would be able to sell it. But there is a great taboo on  selling votes. But this taboo may not be consistent if one considers the fact it only applies to one part of the electoral process. Politicians routinely “buy” votes by promising entitlements to specific groups.

The value one assigns to different election outcomes is informed by one’s views on the relationship between a specific candidate winning and the effects on policy. For example, if one believes that in terms of public policy (not just rhetoric), there is not enough difference between the parties, the value one attaches to a specific outcome will lessen. If one further believes that contemporary democratic politics will generate an endless cycle between slightly different policies (for example, mixed economies with a bias on markets versus mixed economies with a bias on government), and substantial deviations from this generate their own incentive for  substantial reversals, the combination of a low chance of affecting the outcome and a decreased interest in a specific outcome of the election, will tip the scales in favor of abstaining from voting again.

The only argument that does not appear to be so vulnerable to considerations about the expected benefits from voting is that which claims that by voting one is expressing support for political democracy and ensures a non-violent transition of power. But there is an important flip-side to this argument because it can also explain why people may decide not to vote. By not voting people can “signal” to others their disapproval of a system that allows one person (or group) to gain at the expense of another. Historically such a perspective has been rare because of the conviction that the existence of government is necessary to solve public goods and coordination problems. But economic and political arguments for the necessity of government have been subjected to increased (technical) scrutiny by  some economists and political philosophers, culminating in a school of thought that seeks to substitute markets and private institutions for government.

It may be true that voting is not just about self-interest but about expressing oneself, but so is not voting.

Further reading: Doug Casey – None of the Above

This is part I in a 3 part series on voting, elections and politics.

Part 2: The addiction to politics
Part 3: Beyond politics

L.A. Rollins’ case against natural rights

Nine-Banded Books has done the world a great favor in publishing a new edition of L.A. Rollins’ The Myth of Natural Rights. Although one could argue that in one sense it is a mixed blessing because it indicates that there is still a need for such a book. While the idea of natural rights seems to be in decline in contemporary libertarian  philosophy, mainstream political culture is more infected with “rights-talk” than ever. In ordinary discourse the word “right” has become a substitute for “whatever I want for myself” or “whatever I want for others,” and if such demands are heeded, just another term to characterize the outcome of political power. But why not  just call a spade a spade and, for example, just demand that the rich hand over their money to the poor? Perhaps this would not be as effective; whereas power is associated with irrationality and aggression, rights convey the image of reason and peace. But what if all this talk about natural (or human) rights is “nonsense on stilts.” That is where L.A. Rollins’ book comes into play.

Although Rollins’ book can be read as a general argument against natural rights, he is mainly concerned with Objectivist and libertarian authors such as Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard. Broadly speaking, Rollins presses the argument that the case for existence of natural rights is neither empirical nor logical.

As of writing, Arthur Guyton’s Textbook of Medical Physiology is now in its 11th edition with more than 1100 pages, but so far no evidence for the existence of natural rights has been found in humans. So perhaps the case for natural rights needs to be found in man’s capacity for reason, or his “need” to use reason without coercion. But as Rollins argues, from a need to be free from coercion does not  logically follow a natural right to be free from coercion, let alone an argument for others to refrain from coercion.  Not only that, Rollins recognizes the flexibility in arguments from “need.” It should not be surprising then, that arguments derived from “needs” have been used to claim rights to virtually everything under the sun, from access to health care to a 36 hour work week.

According to Murray Rothbard natural rights “are embedded in a greater structure of “natural law.” But what is the status of such “law?” How does it differ from laws that are discovered by science?  Scientific laws,  such as the laws of physics, cannot be altered by human action. They describe how things are. Natural law does not describe how things are but how things should be. But what “nature” requires or dictates is in the eye of the beholder. Almost any conceivable form of morality (or public policy) has been defended by appeals to natural law. Adolf Hitler is reported to have said:

“The Earth continues to go around, whether it’s the man who kills the tiger or the tiger who eats the man. The stronger asserts his will, it’s the law of nature. The world doesn’t change; its laws are eternal.”

In the case of Ayn Rand, Rollins highlights a number of flaws in her derivation of rights such as the futile attempt to derive an ought from an is (which is a persistent error in natural rights thinking), the problem of using different meanings of the same word (such as “right”), and the unintended implications of her reasoning. For example, Rollins argues that Rand’s derivation of rights from the requirement of survival would not only give rights to humans but to animals as well, something that she would not likely approve of.

Murray Rothbard does not fair better in Rollins’ book. Although Ludwig von Mises is generally perceived to be a utilitarian of sorts, most contemporary Austrian economists reject utilitarianism as either methodologically confused or collectivist in nature (or both). As a consequence, Rothbard felt pressed to look for the source of libertarian rights in natural law and logic. Although these writings have been illuminating in some respects, the whole approach of deriving rights from man’s nature has been less than persuasive as can be seen in Rollins’ treatment of Rothbard’s argument. More recent attempts to derive self-ownership and private property from the requirements of argumentation (Hans-Hermann Hoppe) have met with great skepticism as well.

Perhaps the Austrian economists are on the wrong track in assuming the burden of proof for liberty and property. As Austrians like Rothbard and Walter Block have not failed to point out, one major problem in social contract defenses of the state is that hypothetical agreement is treated as actual agreement. So why do these Austrians not stick to a strict interpretation of contractarianism as an alternative? One argument could be that the custom of contract requires a “moral” framework to function. But this can be questioned. As argued by Anthony de Jasay in Social Contract, Free Ride, most contracts are self-enforcing (or have a  high probability to be self-enforcing) because they are mutually advantageous. And for contracts that are at risk of defection (for example, contracts where there is a time difference for the parties to deliver), private enforcement and/or mechanisms of social exclusion in case of defection will be an option.

So where exactly does this urge to find an ultimate moral justification for libertarian rights come from? As the political philosopher Anthony de Jasay often argues in his writings, such attempts at justification confuse the difference between a liberty and a right and (unintentionally) encourages a way of thinking (and political climate) in which one has to demonstrate a “right” to do something to lift it out of the universe of prohibitions. Instead, de Jasay argues that logic and epistemology dictate that liberty should be presumed and that that the burden of proof is on those that advocate interference with a liberty.

This does not mean that there is no role for moral or political philosophy at all. If anything, the most credible moral and political philosophy, and of which Rollin’s book is a good example, have been  exercises in demonstrating that most justifications for moral and political obligation are flawed. As TGGP points out in his excellent introduction, if there is any prospect for a positive theory of morality it  may be found in authors that subscribe to some form of moral contractarianism such as advocated by the late Benjamin Tucker or David Gauthier. Academic philosophers may argue that such an approach to morals is too minimal, “incomplete,” and at best could “only” justify (or perhaps we should say, explain) conventions (not necessarily laws)  against killing, stealing or cheating. But is is hard to see why this should be a concern to libertarians! As a matter of fact, one libertarian philosopher, Jan Narveson, has exactly drawn such conclusions. Such a position would not constitute a “justification” of libertarianism; libertarianism either follows from practical reason or it does not.

In his 2008 afterword to The Myth of Natural Rights Rollins asks “why does everyone have to play the moral game?” striking at the heart of not only natural rights philosophy but moral philosophy itself. A similar point has been raised by David Gauthier when he characterized the tendency of philosophers to assume that people need to justify their actions to others in a moral framework as “the secularized residue of the doctrine that persons seek to justify their actions before God. But once that residue is being recognized for what it is, it surely loses all credibility.” If there is a persuasive reason why amoral egoists would benefit from playing “the moral game” it may be found in Gauthier’s work (or others who work in this tradition). Barring the success of such efforts, Rollins’ book is a fatal blow to libertarian philosophy.

The new edition of The Myth of Natural Rights also includes an updated version of Lucifer’s Lexicon, styled after Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary, but with great emphasize on ridiculing self-styled libertarians (of all sorts) and, in its updated version, the doublespeak in contemporary political discourse. Some examples:

Agnostic,n. A Godfearing atheist.

Budget Cut,n. Formerly, a decrease in government spending. Now, a decrease in the rate of increase in government spending.

Social Security, n. Subsidized senility.

And there is a  definition of a certain Ayn Rand novel that is too naughty to publish here.

L.A. Rollins is drawn towards controversial topics as evidenced by his writings on holocaust revisionism and his “Open Letter to Allah,” which begins with, “Dear Allah, I’ve been reading your book, The Holy Qur’an. What a crock of sh#t!” As it turns out, Allah knows less about the solar system than we would expect considering his wisdom.

The Myth of Natural Rights is not just obligatory reading for libertarians with philosophical tendencies, but for anyone who believes in “rights,” from “liberal” activists to members of human rights organizations.  “Rights-talk” has been a major obstacle in clear thinking about human interaction and an inexhaustible source for imposing obligation without agreement and entitlement without a title.

Let’s hope Nine-Banded Books keeps delivering the goods.

The legacy of John Rawls

The Ludwig Von Mises Institute Senior Fellow, David Gordon, recently wrote an article on the legacy of the political philosopher John Rawls. In this piece, he discloses some interesting information about the relationship between John Rawls and Robert Nozick:

“In Anarchy, State, and Utopia, he had praised A Theory of Justice as a great work of philosophy, but he told me that he had polished off Political Liberalism in one lecture. Nozick, by the way, resented the frequent complaint that he did not respond to his critics. He wondered why people did not criticize Rawls for failing to respond, except very indirectly, to his arguments.”

Will John Rawls turn out to be the greatest political philosopher of the 20th century? If this turns out to be the case, it is doubtful that this reputation will reflect the general methodology of his work. Although John Rawls formulated his ideas in such a form that scholars with a background in economics and game theory can pursue some of the technical issues that Rawls raises as a fruitful research program, Rawls was not able to make his argument by staying within the orthodox rational choice framework.  Although usually not considered a political philosopher, the author that has done the most disciplined and rigorous work to reconcile reason and morality (and thus political philosophy) in contemporary thinking is David Gauthier. But the technical nature and the moderately libertarian implications of Gauthier’s work puts his work at a striking academic disadvantage compared to John Rawls.

If the question who should be considered the greatest political philosopher of the 20th century  allows for assessing the quality of the work, there will be a strong subjective component to it. Skeptical philosophers are usually not rewarded well in the history of ideas but one philosopher with at least an equal claim to being the greatest political philosopher of the 20th century (and perhaps the 21st century as well) is Anthony de Jasay for his focused and high-quality work on which economic and philosophic arguments (including those of Rawls) for political authority do not work. De Jasay and Rawls share a strong dislike of ultilitarianism in political philosophy, but in de Jasay’s work, the target of his skepticism includes most, if not all, justificationism in political philosophy.

Although John Rawls is often perceived as a liberal in the modern, “egalitarian”, sense of the word, it is not unreasonable to propose that libertarian principles would be chosen behind Rawls’s veil of ignorance. The line of reasoning here would be that strict property rights and freedom of contract are the best way to promote the interests of the least well off. How can we know? Because there is an empirical component to this question we would have to run history multiple times under different principles of justice to be able to make an evidence based decision. In absence of this, a decision would have to be made by public policy makers. As de Jasay has made clear in his work, such consequentialism ultimately collapses into a question of political power.

Another practical public policy issue in Rawls’s work is whether the difference principle should be applied on a national or international scale.  An international application of the redistributionist  interpretation of Rawls’s work would mandate massive wealth redistribution from wealthy Western countries to third world countries, a policy that some liberal philosophers may support, but that is unlikely to find much favor among most voters for liberal (and socialist) political parties. This issue highlights something that many politicians are hard pressed to admit; advocacy of redistribution of incomes may not necessarily reflect a sense of justice among voters, but (perceived) self interest. It also puts to rest the persistent myth in political discourse that “the Left” is concerned about justice and “the Right” is concerned about itself.

What distinguishes Rawls’s work from many other  advocates of income redistribution is that it does not provide much support for income egalitarianism as a value in itself. Redistribution of incomes (if warranted) follows from the dictates of impartiality, not from romantic, communitarian, or class based considerations. Another strength of his work is its implied methodological individualism. One may argue whether methodological individualism and rational choice would produce the same conclusions as Rawls, but his approach seems to be more immune against drifting in obscurantist directions than a lot of other political philosophy.

Although John Rawls and Robert Nozick may seem miles apart regarding the substance of normative political philosophy, the Rawls enterprise seems to be most vulnerable to a skeptical tradition in conservative thought that rejects the idea that public policy should be dictated by reason, and the kind of  normative philosophy that Rawls engages in, in particular.

In reality, “the inherent vagueness of the difference principle” needs to be resolved by intellectuals such as Rawls himself. For most of the 20th century intellectuals have argued against minimal government and for a politicized society. Whether because of self interest or temperament, it is doubtful that libertarian variants of Rawls’s philosophy will gain much popularity among academics. Notwithstanding its popularity, it is encouraging to see that some thinkers in the Rawlsian tradition are arguing that his philosophy may be less compatible with coercive redistribution as has been thought. One interesting line of thought would be to  question whether Rawls’s principles of justice require the existence of a state. From society as a “cooperative venture for mutual advantage” to the establishment of a state is not a trivial step.

The rationality of politics

In his paper “Frog’s legs, shared ends, and the rationality of politics” (PDF), Anthony de Jasay discusses the role of rationality in political philosophy. He writes that “much of the old confusion we deplore in political theory, and much of the fresh confusion we spread when trying to get rid of what has been spread, springs from false notions of what rationality is and what it does.” Not controversial is rationality as an attribute of thought that conforms to logic or grammar, or to express hypothetical imperatives in which the rationality of the means is evaluated to achieve a goal (what Max Weber calls “Zweckrationalität,” or instrumental rationality). But can we push the use of rationality beyond this? Can we ascribe rationality to ends (values)? De Jasay argues that “justificationism” or “foundationalism” is not possible:

Any finite regress of ends is ended by a final end or value, about which it is futile to ask to what else it leads, what comes after it, for what reason we pursue it. If the question were not futile, the end would not be final, non-instrumental. Since not every reason can have a further reason, the scope of rationality in choosing actions is strictly limited.

Where does this leave political philosophy? Can we say that one political arrangement is more rational than others? This does not seem possible because at some point down the line we will end up with a statement that is not a hypothetical imperative but a value judgment.  But “to each his own value” is problematic in cases where values are of such a nature that they can only be realized if everyone complies. An example of such a value statement is that there should be an equal distribution of wealth. At this point, de Jasay argues that when pressed to justify the rationality of such an end, we invariably end up with some form of the “common good” of which he says that “the content and drift of political philosophy depends to no small extent on whether it admits the concept of the common good, or rules it out as gobbledygook.”

De Jasay reviews three different versions of the common good (mystical, communitarian, and  as  an aggregate of the good of individuals members) and finds them all lacking in logical and/or empirical content. “Any political decision that, by invoking the common good, overrides the will and wishes of some to satisfy others, is the execution of a value judgment about individual wills and wishes.” Although these value judgments are not disreputable at such, it is disreputable to dress them up as facts or products of rational thought.

Although de Jasay’s argument that value judgments that require compliance of all will have to invoke an argument involving the common good could benefit from more elaboration, his point about the limited role that rationality can play in political philosophy is well taken. De Jasay’s oeuvre  is part of a small, but persuasive, tradition in which skepticism, instead of fanatical moralism, undermines most, if not all, reasons for engaging in politics.

A good deal, however, is left to be said about what is not to be done, and said, and why. Nine parts of practical politics is the making of non-unanimous decisions by some, that hurt others. Do we really want such decisions imposed as rational means to ends that are ultimately neither rational nor irrational, and must be posited by brazen assertion, mystical communion with the good, or occult value-comparisons between persons? Pareto-optimal outcomes offer a minimal morally legitimate space for a minimal state, and no more. Surely, it tells something about the ontology of politics that logic, morality, or both lend themselves so much better to condemning political action than to defending its legitimacy.