In Defense of Reasonable Ideology

March 14, 2009

 

 

by Mario Rizzo

 

There have been many statements recently to the effect that we should not let “ideology” or “philosophy” stand in the way of solving our economic problems.  Indeed, the Obama Administration (and the previous Bush Administration) are keen to persuade us to drop all of this prejudice and to go after each problem – banking, stimulus, and so forth – on its own terms. We should examine each solution on its own merits.

 

President Obama’s inaugural address includes an apparent attack on ideology:

 

“What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them – that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works …”

 

 

What appears to be a sensible idea to turn our problems into purely technical ones is, on the contrary, profoundly unscientific and, more generally, anti-intellectual.

 

This is a big subject and deserves comprehensive treatment. Let it suffice here to make a few crucial observations.

 

In the first place, this point of view is not new. I cannot trace the full extent of its intellectual roots – they are deep and wide – but we can find it in such essays, relevant to our current concerns, as “The End of Laissez Faire” (1926) by John Maynard Keynes.

 

Keynes believed that one of the most important functions of economics is to determine what belongs to the State’s agenda and what does not. “The important thing for Government is not to do things which individuals are doing already, and to do them a little better or a little worse; but to do things which at present are not done at all.” Keynes was referring to decisions that fall outside of the sphere of the individual “to those decisions which are made by no one if the State does not make them.”

 

The sphere to which Keynes referred is the aggregate outcomes of individual decisions. He did not have much confidence in the spontaneous order of the market. He rejected what he thought were the “metaphysical or general principles upon which, from time to time, laissez-faire has been founded.” So, “[w]e cannot settle on abstract grounds, but must handle on its merits in detail…to determine what the State ought to take upon itself to direct by public wisdom…”

 

1. Ideology as a Presumption

 

Keynes is rejecting any presumption that the “results of human action but not of human design” (F. A. Hayek citing Adam Ferguson) are beneficial. He seems to be saying that we can operate without any presumptions at all; we can simply look at each “problem” on its own merits and make an individualized decision in each case. But a presumption is not an arbitrary belief; it is not “metaphysical” in the sense that it is completely impervious to new evidence. A presumption is a belief we accept until sufficient evidence to the contrary is forthcoming. 

 

However, evidence is rarely definitive or overwhelming. We need to begin from somewhere. The Bayesian statisticians say that we begin with prior probabilities and then update them with new evidence. Prior probabilities are only slightly modified with incremental evidence. These priors function is a manner similar to a presumption.

 

2. Ideology as Scientific Framework or Research Program

 

In the realm of scientific hypotheses, even the “falsificationist” Karl Popper accepted a principle of tenacity which had it that hypotheses are not to be dropped in face of any conflicting evidence. No hypothesis will have a 100% of the evidence in its favor.

 

Is this rational? It depends on the nature of the prior probabilities or the prior hypothesis. Suppose someone says: “By and large the free market is best, among all of the feasible alternatives, at promoting human welfare.” Is this ideology?  I think most people would say it is. What is it based on? Well, for some people it may be a religion or faith or sorts. But then its negation can be as well. However, it need not be a faith.

 

I think that for almost all economists who subscribe to the statement, it is a generalization based on evidence. The evidence is in the form of a general way of looking at the world – a framework or research program that is supported in many specific cases. Note that the statement itself goes beyond the individual specific cases. It must go beyond them to deal with new problems and new events. It must function, in a specific application, as a conjecture about novel situations.

 

Looked at in this way, “ideology” is useful in scientific discourse. In fact, I suggest it is indispensible. How else can we approach new problems when the likely outcome of our search for specific evidence is inconclusive?   

 

3. Ideology as a Window on Indirect or Long-Run Consequences

 

One of the difficulties attendant upon looking at each problem and each solution individually is the tendency to ignore indirect or long-run effects.  Look at problem X, we are told, and just solve it. Suppose solution Y makes the adoption of further policies more likely, because, for example, it changes the balance of political forces, and these policies are likely to be negative. (See Eugene Volokh on slippery slopes  and Mario Rizzo-Glen Whitman on slippery slopes.)  Should we not care? Suppose solution Y solves problem X but causes another problem Z.  Should we not care?

 

Ideologies stress the interconnections among policies and problems.  They may point us in the direction of the general principle implied by a policy and hence the implicit rationalization of further policies. They may make us alert to unintended changes in incentives in related problem areas especially when this worsening of other problems has happened time and again. They show us that when the State intervenes there is more than just some pinpointed technology involved.

 

 

4. Ideology as Shortcut for Rationally Ignorant People (most of us)

 

Most people are not scientists, economists or intellectuals. They are not testing hypotheses. They have other things to do. They are often rationally ignorant. How can they make up their minds about public policy? Many, though not all, are ideological. They choose a set or complex of beliefs that comports best with their observations and experience. For them too it is not rational to give up the world view because some (few) observations seem to conflict. Forgive some of them who are not willing to throw away long-held beliefs on the say-so of a president who is someone most never heard of eighteen months ago.

 

5. Ideology as an Ethical Framework

 

Public policy questions are not simply technical questions. They involve ethical issues. The economist John Neville Keynes (the father of John Maynard Keynes) divided economics into: science, ethics and art. (See J.N. Keynes, The Scope and Method of Political Economy , Chap. 2). The science is the technical aspect: causes and effects. The ethics involves the standards that are applied to determine whether a state of affairs is good or just. And the art involves the sometimes intuitive judgments of how to apply the science to get (or allow) the outcomes policymakers want.

 

An ideology can serve as a rough guide to ethical considerations. For example, some people believe that it is immoral to “reward” people for irresponsible economic behavior. Maybe a policy wonk disagrees because he thinks that systemic effects are all that matter. Is the citizen to be faulted for acting or evaluating on the basis of this belief ? In general, the belief makes good sense. As a long-run rule of behavior, the idea that economic actors should bear both upside and downside risk would have saved us, for example, from the Fannie-Freddie over-expansion in the first place as shareholders would not have believed in implicit guarantees. Is this an idea we want people to give up without resistance?  I do not think so.

 

 

Ideology is okay. It is fine to be ideological. It is indispensible to effective analysis of the world. Just make sure that the ideology makes real sense.

 

 

 

 

 

 

33 Responses to “In Defense of Reasonable Ideology”


  1. […] Mario Rizzo has an excellent post on the proper use of “reasonable ideology” in framing political discussions. As Mario points out, ideology represents a set of default beliefs, beliefs that need not be irrational, but can be based on the accumulation of prior evidence. Like a Kuhnian paradigm, an ideology helps prioritize different types of evidence, helps establish ground rules for thinking about problems, and facilitates the operation of “normal science.” Like Bayesian priors, ideologies change slowly, as new information is revealed; indeed, they shouldn’t be abandoned based on one or two pieces of supposedly contrary evidence. […]

  2. Jeffrey Friedman Says:

    While I agree with everything you say at the abstract level, Mario, if we want to understand why “our” ideas are so readily dismissed as “ideological” by the likes of Obama and the intellectual world generally, we have to look beyond the myopic problem-by-problem approach that’s endemic to social democracy (based on the underlying notion that the economy and society are legible enough to reveal clear diagnoses of social problems). We have to look at the specific “ideology” that they have in mind–which, in Obama’s case, clearly is libertarianism. “Some folks,” he says again and again, think any government intervention is wrong *in principle*–and he does not mean the slippery-slope principle. He means the “coercion is evil” principle (or rather the coercion is evil/taxation is theft principle).

    Similarly, in the FT today is a little sidebar blaming the crisis on Ayn Rand via Alan Greenspan. Somehow Greenspan’s (somehow!) deregulatory policies are attributable to his Randian, *moral* (rather than pragmatic, consequentialist) ideology.

    This kind of thinking about free-market ideas is commonplace in the intellectual mainstream, and it is not unjustified. The great scholar of ideology, Philip E. Converse (“The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics”), pointed out that ideologies are packages of beliefs that are usually connected to each other only by “pseudo-logic.” Libertarians have discredited their good (Austrian) ideas for nearly 50 years by packaging them together with non-consequentialist arguments about “natural rights,” the “virtue of selfishness,” the equation of liberty with private property, and so on that make the Austrian empirical-theoretical part of the package eminently dismissable.

  3. Bogdan Enache Says:

    I object to this broad use (to not say “abuse”) of the term ideology. Although the word had different meanings historically(originally it was supposed to designate a science of how we acquire the ideas that we have based on the empiricist premise that our mind is at birth a tabula rasa – something that almost a century later became what we now call the sociology of knowledge), so although the term, like many other terms, is historically polysemous, it is not appropriate to use this label, as the post-modernist writers have done, in order to describe the general ideas behind any message whatsoever. Some social scientists consider that advertising for instance is also a form of ideology! Etcaetera. When a term is trivialised in this way what scientific/theoretical value does it have anymore?

    There is a group of social scientists, on the other hand, which have have tried to demarcate the concept from other systems of ideas, like religion, political philosophy, ethics, science, culture and so on. In their view, which I share, ideology is neither one of these, but a coherent, universal and unilateral system of ideas, i.e. it covers many social realms, looks at only one side of the story, as it were, it takes the form and appearances of a science, but at the some type contains as inseparable a normative imperative, finally it has as primary objective persuasion or propaganda. In this sense, ideology is a caricature antithesis of anything reasonable, since it is reasonable to have different moral convictions, religious values, political doctrines, cultural perspectives and scientific theories but it is unreasonable to bundle them all into One-and-Only-One, holistic, explanation of everything (and nothing).

    Classical liberalism is not – or at least was not – an ideology, but a political philosophy, the political philosopy of Western modernity. It did not pretended that it had an answer to everything. It’s normative content was not a substitute for ethics per se, as is socialism, but a framework for making possible – in the words of Hayek – different people to live together, as peacefully as possible. It was not concerned per se either with ethics, science, religion or – and this might sound surprising – economics. That liberalism made possible scientific advances, freedom of religion, individual moral choices or great prosperity was a happy side effect – neither one was it’s basis.

    You don’t create society in order to optimise economic value; no, a society exist first and then people try to make the best they can in their economic endeavours. You don’t have a scientific theory about how society should function and then create a society – first there is a society and then people in it pursue scientific endeavours. You don’t have a “true” ethics or value system and then you build a society around it – no, you have a society and people share more or less, in different orders and with different intensities, some values…Ecaetera.

    Ideology – pervasive ideology – is the problem, the systemic problem. In no way and to no degree is ideology the solution.

  4. Mario Rizzo Says:

    Jeff,

    I have frequently wondered why certain beliefs are tied together in ideologies as we see them in the real world. Much of this is bonding material is, I agree, pseudo logic. I could dismiss your concerns by saying that I am defending only “reasonable ideology.” However, if we want to understand why people actually react with hostility to particular ideologies, we do need to understand how ideology functions in our political system. But I disagree with you here that the libertarian ideology is the relevant one, say, to Obama. I think the “conservative ideology” is what he and his team are thinking about. This ideology, especiallly perhaps in the form practiced by Bush over the past eight years, was filled with inconsistencies and even pure nonsense (like anti-Darwinism). But to emphasize this aspect is to miss the broader point about why many interventionists don’t want people to think in terms of the long run consequences of policies. They know that people won’t like those consequences. I think ideology can be the “poor man’s” shortcut to these considerations.

    BTW, I am a consequentialist in ethics — kind of a Humean rule consequentialist. My own interpretation of the natural law tradition emphasizes those consequentialist aspects of the tradition which you can find in Pufendorf among others. But, yes, I too get frustrated by the extreme non-consequentialist versions of the tradition.

  5. Jeffrey Friedman Says:

    Mario–I don’t know, I don’t hear Obama saying Bush was inconsistent. And yes, of course he objects to specifically conservative aspects of Bush’s agenda. But on economic issues, it’s pretty clear (to me) that he thinks of the opposition as holding deep in its heart an unreasonable (“ideological”) objection to any and all intervention. He says this again and again.

    Obama is a product of Columbia University and Harvard Law School. He also spent time at the U of Chicago Law School. He’s just about my age, and my experience at places like that convinces me that Obama is not just making up a stereotype of free-market ideologues out of thin air. He’s met some of them.

    I, too, am a consequentialist, but despite Obama’s typical confused Rawlsianism (it is very clear that he’s [mis]read Rawls as saying that there’s something inherently unfair about an unequal income distribution), Obama seems to be a consequentialist too. He just disagrees with us about what the consequences (of laissez faire) are. Surely you don’t think that he knows that interventionism produces bad consequences over the long run and doesn’t want us to think about them?

    How would he know that? He did not, unfortunately, major in economics, nor attend NYU. And if he did know that, then why would he remain a liberal?

    Jeff

  6. Mario Rizzo Says:

    Bogdan,

    Your response does make clear the different meanings attached to the word “ideology.” What I mean by ideology is a group of ideas connected in a reasonable way that enables its holder to view the world in broad terms: to see relationships among issues on many levels (economic, political, ethical), to have corroborated generalizations about the problems we face, to understand that the solution of a problem here may have consequences for other sitiuations elsewhere and in the future, etc. It is not religion because it is sensitive to empirical evidence but not *just* evidence about one specific, even urgent, problem of the day. My major complaint is that in attacking ideology Team Obama and others are throwing out the baby with the bath water.


  7. But government intervention IS wrong in principle.

  8. Jeffrey Friedman Says:

    Then tell me, Sheldon, why bother with all the economic arguments made in The Freeman about why government intervention tends to have counterproductive effects? Is that just propaganda to get people to believe in the predetermined moral “principle”?

    Jeff

  9. Jeffrey Friedman Says:

    Or rather, I should have said, propaganda designed to get them to agree with the libertarian policy conclusions generated by the alleged moral principle–but for irrelevant (consequentialist) reasons?

    Jeff


  10. I reject the consequentialist-nonconsequentialist dichotomy (Rand, for example, doesn’t fit neatly into one camp or the other, though I am no Randian). I will simply take the easy way out here and say your question strikes me as simply ridiculous. Why wouldn’t I want people to understand the damage government does to innocent people? Someone who believes in moral philosophy (at least as I and many other conceive it) is not foreclosed from noticing consequences. Quite the contrary.

  11. Danny Shahar Says:

    Sheldon, just to clarify: are you saying that government intervention is wrong in principle because coercive action taken by the human embodiments of a society’s collective decision-making mechanism is inherently objectionable, or because the existing government entity somehow fails to properly embody the kind of collective decision-making mechanism which would be justified in taking coercive action?

  12. Jeffrey Friedman Says:

    Calling something “simply ridiculous” is not an argument. Nor is it an answer to my question.

    Is free-market economics, or is it not, merely propaganda, however truthful, that you publish in order to get people to support free markets *for the wrong reasons*–given that it seems that you think that the right reasons lie not in the poverty that capitalism alleviates, etc., but in “the nature of man qua man,” “natural rights to private property,” or “the intrisic value of freedum-cum-private property”?

    Jeff


  13. Danny, I don’t dignify the state by calling it “society’s collective decision-making mechanism.” That begs the question, doesn’t it?

    Jeffrey, I didn’t try to answer the question because it answers itself. Your question is based on a premise I reject (see above), but I can say that free-market economics informs people of facts they might appreciate knowing. I don’t know why the word “propaganda” would occur to you. Unless you take the approach I suggest above (the reintegration of “consequentialiam” and “nonconsequentialism”), I don’t know how you can tell a good consequence from bad.

  14. David Says:

    One of the attractive features of consequentialism is that it permits an open-ended research program. Natural-rights arguments are only attractive to true believers. How can you have a productive discussion with someone who simply states “individuals have rights”? By virtue of what? Natural rights, you say. But how did nature endow those rights? “Might makes right” seems to be the most common “natural” right through human history (oops, that is an empirical argument, and therefore illegitimate).

    The other disturbing feature is that natural-rights theorists have a tendency to avoid or trivialize the difficult cases (there is no better example than Rothbard’s assertions regarding externalities, i.e only negative externalities count, no, only negative measurable physical externalities count — people have an absolute “right” to be protected against those, but no rights regarding all other types).

  15. Jeffrey Friedman Says:

    Sheldon, that is disingenuous. The Freeman does not publish articles about nutritional, home repair, automotive-purchase, or an infinite number of other types of “facts [people] might appreciate knowing.” The only facts about which it informs people are the bad consequences of government and the good consequences of the market.

    Nothing wrong with that–but it counts as propaganda if you don’t think that its good consequences don’t provide the real argument for capitalism (which is, you seem to think, inherently good because it embodies freedom, regardless of its consequences), nor that its bad consequences provide the best argument against government (which is, you seem to think, inherently bad because it depends on coercion).

    So as I originally said, libertarianism is an “ideology” that packages together superficially related topics: moral reasoning about the nature of man, coercion, freedom + economic reasoning about the sources of, and barriers to, material prosperity. (NATURALLY someone who has bought into this package will reject the consequentialist/deontological dichotomy! After all, that dichotomy threatens the coherence of the ideological package.)

    A young Obama encountering this pseudo-logical libertarian confection will logically conclude that it is an unreasonable “ideology.” And so young Obama’s own unexamined ideology goes unchallenged, because he dismisses the good elements (Austrian economics) along with the bad (libertarian philosophy) as part of a big incoherent stew. And when he becomes president, he has a nice whipping boy–the dogmatic, unreasonable free-marketeer–as his opponent, an opponent thoughtlessly provided to him by US.

    Jeff


  16. Well, I have to make a living, so let me just say that I am slightly uneasy when I’m in the company of people who abstain from coercing me ONLY because, at that moment, they believe the consequences of coercing me will be bad by some arbitrary standard. Who knows what they will think five minutes later or after an conducting “open-ended research program”?

    FYI: Roderick Long has elaborated the position I hold here: http://hnn.us/blogs/entries/5110.html

  17. Jeffrey Friedman Says:

    There is nothing wrong with rules. The question is what the rationale for the rules is.

    Rule-utilitarianism is good, and what I would call “political-system utilitarianism” is better. It reduces uncertainty and therefore increases utility. But that doesn’t necessary have anything to do with minimizing coercion.

    We can have an anti-interventionist principle based on slippery-slope arguments and other accounts of the realities of mass politics. But the reason we want to generalize our particular arguments against intervention may be that we think all coercion is bad, inherently, regardless of its economic consequences; or it may be that systemically allowing intervention (or even “coercion”) will lead to disasters like the current crisis. The latter rationale for non-interventionist principles is at least compatible with economics as a social science.
    The former rationale renders economics irrelevant at best, ideological propaganda at worst.

    Jeff

  18. koppl Says:

    Aren’t you going a bit too far at the end, there, Jeff? I’m a consequentialist to the bone and I don’t like the sort of moral stance Sheldon seems to adopt. But it is not inconsistent of him to 1) support “freedom” even it did not “work,” and 2) point out to others, who do not share is moral aversion to “coercion,” that “intervention” leads to consequences they themselves abhor.

    Pretend it’s 1840 and we just learned that slave holding causes, say, tuberculosis in the slave holder. Surely you would have a moral obligation to render precisely that medical argument as vigorously as you could. It would be no sin against medical reasoning to push the argument, would it?

  19. lxm Says:

    I think you are all missing the elephant in the room:

    Mr Rizzo states:

    What appears to be a sensible idea to turn our problems into purely technical ones is, on the contrary, profoundly unscientific and, more generally, anti-intellectual.

    This sentence is, at best, just name calling. Fancy name calling to be sure, but just, at heart, name calling.

    Is President Obama unscientific when he says stale political arguments should not influence scientific judgments? Do you all really believe that right wing and left wing political calculations have anything to do with science?

    Grow up.

  20. koppl Says:

    Ixm,

    You might have a look at my post on Science and Truthiness (https://thinkmarkets.wordpress.com/2009/03/12/science-and-truthiness/). I argue that the appeal to a supposedly neutral “science” can harbor dangers if the epistemic power of science is exaggerated or one source dominates funding. The link to Butos and McQuade will connect you to a scholarly literature on the topic. It sounds great to say, “We’ll put aside partisanship and turn to science.” But there are dangers in that path as my post suggests.

  21. Dain Says:

    I’m skeptical of the claim that there’s anybody working at such a high level of government free of ideology.

    I see an ideology at work that can claim Woodrow Wilson as an adherent, who similarly espoused a self-consciously non-ideological ideology roughly termed “Centrism,” “Pragmatism,” or, historically, “Progressivism,” which set the tone for millions of future political thinkers; so numerous, however, as to not be considered ideologues at all, but simply “the mainstream.”

    For them, whatever supposedly “works” in a necessarily limited duration of time is good a priori, with this to be determined – as a rule – by gathering great minds and experienced individuals in government and business to discuss plans for achieving certain political ends via instrumentally rational, efficient administration.

    We’ve seen this all before. It too is an ideology.

    I like this: http://www.truthout.org/112608R

  22. David Says:

    Jeffrey,

    Is the “political-system utilitarianism” that you advocate a sort of meta-utilitarianism that looks at the consequences of rules about how to arrive at political decisions? How is this different from Buchananite constitutional economics? (just curious)


  23. Rule utilitarianism, as has been pointed out, is self-subverting. The moment you decide that a given rule should be followed, not because in every case it will surely have good social consequences but rather because over the long haul it TENDS to have good social consequences, you are no longer a consequentialist in practice but a deontologist. As Roderick Long writes (see link above), “One cannot treat certain values as absolute in practice and still meaningfully deny their absoluteness in theory; a belief that is not allowed to influence one’s actions is no real belief. Most consequentialists are morally superior to their theory and, thankfully, pay it only lip service.”


  24. “Is President Obama unscientific when he says stale political arguments should not influence scientific judgments?”

    Ixm: You may have more in mind than this, but wWhether or not to tax people to finance scientific research is not a scientific question.

  25. koppl Says:

    Sheldon,

    I think you could dispute whether “indirect utilitarianism” is still utilitarianism. I don’t get how you could say, however, that it is consequentialist. Let’s just stick with straight rule utilitarianism. Consider the following fanciful example. We used to think that first cousin marriages were an abomination and genetically dangerous. Recent science reveals that first cousin marriages are happy unions in (let’s say) all cases and that they produce uniformly healthy and productive offspring. Thus, we conclude, we will modify the rules of morality to allow first-cousin marriage. That scientific correction is just not possible with deontology is it? Surely, then, rules utilitarianism and indirect utilitarianism are consequentialist, not deontological? (IMHO they should count as “utilitarian” as well, but what’s in a name?)

  26. koppl Says:

    I meant, of course, “I don’t get how you could say it is *not* consequentialist.” Oops.

  27. Jeffrey Friedman Says:

    Roger–I didn’t say there’s anything sinful about propagandizing for a good cause. I just said that we should recognize–as our opponents have–that it *is* propaganda, from the perspective of a deontological libertarian, to constantly talk about the good consequences of laissez faire.

    Moreover, such propaganda can be ineffective (and thus subvert the cause–and perhaps in *that* sense may be sinful) if it is so patently “pseudo-logical” that one’s opponents actually delight in bringing it up to use it as a whipping boy. And that is what Obama is doing.

    Jeff

  28. koppl Says:

    I don’t know, Jeff. It seems like you’re using the word “propoganda” as a kind of swear word. Here is what Merriam-Webster says:
    1capitalized : a congregation of the Roman curia having jurisdiction over missionary territories and related institutions
    2: the spreading of ideas, information, or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person
    3: ideas, facts, or allegations spread deliberately to further one’s cause or to damage an opposing cause ; also : a public action having such an effect

    Sense 1. is irrelevant to our discussion. So we’re left with 2. & 3. Given those definitions, isn’t “propaganda” just “acts of persuasion that I don’t like”?

    If we speak of, say, Nazi propganda, then I think I see a difference between propaganda and argument. The propagandist can block other voices and thus gets to control what the “facts” are. But Sheldon has no such epistemic monopoly. He competes openly with other voices including yours.

    I completely get the idea that there is this “principled” libertarianism that seems unreasonable to anyone who is not in the choir. I get that Obama might be responding to that and thus in some degree justified to rail against “ideology,” although I think that’s loose reasoning given the ubiquity and necessity of ideology Mario rightly notes. But I get that maybe Obama’s loose talk derives from a real experience along the lines you indicate. What I don’t understand is why you said above, “The former rationale renders economics irrelevant at best, ideological propaganda at worst.” Sheldon’s apparent moral absolutism does not mean he is not permitted to make “economic” arguments. Nor does it mean that his persuasive acts are tainted from the start as “mere propaganda,” because there is no boundary line I can see between “persuasion” and “propaganda” when no one has an epistemic monopoly.

  29. Rad Geek Says:

    David,

    You wonder how one can have a productive discussion with someone who simply states “individuals have rights.” Really, I don’t know, but of course it is a ridiculous caricature to suggest that natural rights theorists “simply state” that. It is generally asserted as the conclusion of an argument (Rand inferred it from prior ethical conclusions to the effect that the life of the individual being is its standard of value, together with an auxiliary premise that widespread respect for individual rights is a precondition for the form of life proper to human beings; Hoppe infers it from argumentation ethics; etc.). Maybe you’re not aware of those arguments, but if not, that’s your problem, not natural rights theorists’ problem. Maybe you know those arguments but don’t like them (I’m not especially fond of Rand’s argument or Hoppe’s, myself), but your time would be better spent engaging with the arguments than walloping on straw dogs.

    Or perhaps you mean to say that once “individuals have rights” is concluded, there is no further interesting discussion to be had, whereas a conclusion to the effect that “you should maximize good consequences and minimize bad ones” allows for all kinds of subsequent argument about the application of the principle. Of course, if the argument for the conclusion is a good argument, then I can’t for the life of me see why it would matter that the conclusion settles the issue. (In light of the proof, is there any more productive argument about whether or not you might need more than four colors to color a map? If not, how is that an objection?) But it is in any case a mistake to suppose that there are no discussions about how to best to apply principles of individual rights to actual cases. (See, for example, the debate between Walter Block and other open-borders libertarians as against Hoppe on immigration; see also debates among Roderick Long, Rothbard, Spooner, Rand, et al. on intellectual property; see also debates among Rothbard, Block, Nozick, et al. on the possibility of selling yourself into slavery; etc.)

    As for whether this style of argument appeals only to “true believers” — that is, whether or not it is an effective form of outreach for libertarianism when speaking with non-libertarians — well, first, I think that whether or not an argument is a good argument is independent of, and more important than, whether or not it is broadly convincing. (The purpose of argument is to justify your beliefs, not necessarily to convince others of them.) But, secondly, I think you’re supposing — without argument — that non-libertarians don’t share a commitment to the non-aggression principle. I think actually that most people do already have some commitment to it; in their own lives they act on the principle that coercing peaceful people is wrong and the problem is that they make unjustified exceptions to that principle in the case of common arbitrary claims of political authority, or else rationalize coercion as not really coercive, in light of some theory about political collectivity. (Didn’t “we” agree to the tax increase?) But if so, the thing to do is to attack the basis for making the exception or the rationalization — something which is quite possible to do, philosophically, without appealing to some kind of claim that they produce bad consequences above and beyond the violations of individual liberty involved.

    Jeff,

    Perhaps this has not occurred to you, but the primary purpose of a magazine published by the Foundation for Economic Education might turn out to be primarily to educate people about (freed-market) economics, rather than to convince them of libertarianism as a moral principle. Of course, you might ask “Well, why educate people about freed-market economics, if not to convince them of libertarianism?” Well, I don’t know; why educate people about nutrition, home-repair, or buying an automobile? There are lots of things you might learn which have some bearing on libertarianism but which are not learned primarily as a means to convincing people of libertarianism.

    Of course, the outcome of the education will probably not be irrelevant to libertarianism, in this case. But if one thinks (as I do) that libertarianism is a moral imperative independent of its economic outcomes, that hardly means that people who move in a more libertarian direction because of becoming more educated in economics are moving towards libertarianism for the wrong reasons. Some evils are evil in themselves; others are good or neutral in themselves but evil in light of their full consequences; and some are both evil in themselves and also produce evil consequences. Among the last are some things that produce evil consequences because they themselves are evil. (Getting beaten or tortured over and over again can lead to long-term consequences like depression or debilitating flashbacks. The beatings and the torture aren’t evil because of the long-term effects — they’d be evil anyway, even if the victim had no memory of them at all — but rather the long-term effects for the victim are what they are, in part, because of the wrongness of what’s been done to her.) In this last sort of case, it may be an important part of the dialectic to come to understand how the consequences are evil — not because the evil of the root cause depends on the evil of the consequences, and not because the student is wrongly pretending that it does, but rather because once you understand that the consequence is evil, the explanation for the evil of consequences may have something to do with seeing the evil of the root cause. Why does statist intervention have bad consequences? Well, it has something to do with the fact that it violates peaceful people’s rights to make an honest living through consensual economic arrangements. Seeing the evil of that is part and parcel of fully understanding why it produces the bad economic consequences that it produces.

    Incidentally, Jeff, on a different but related topic, as a consequentialist, no doubt you have some notion of what sort of consequences are good consequences and what sort of consequences are bad consequences. (I mean, some notion beyond just “utility,” which apparently you are using to mean not “usefulness,” but rather as a synonym for “the balance of goodness over badness in a consequence.”) Do you suppose you could tell me which are which? What makes a set of consequences a good set or a bad set? And how did you decide that?

  30. David Says:

    Rad Geek,

    “Individuals have rights” or something like it is the opening sentence of Nozick’s AS&U. In effect, the same sentence pervades Rothbard, Block, Hoppe et al. When I was about 20, I read Nozick and described myself as a natural-rights minarchist libertarian.

    But somewhere along the way I perceived what I believe is the “hollow core” of all natural rights theories, whether libertarian or not. At the center of this hollowness is the Lockean assertion of “mixing land and labor.” Sure, I still think that a natural-rights theory that is limited to labor is intuitively appealing to lots of people, including myself. But what is “mixing land with labor,” say from an Austrian subjectivist perspective. A slightly silly case is that I could claim Antarctica or the Pacific Ocean because I’ve been thinking about how to use those areas (thinking is labor, isn’t it?). But more seriously, there is the problem of externalities, which do not only apply to pollution, but even to such seemingly private goods such as the sight of a (subjectively evaluated) attractive or unattractive person. “Mixing land and labor” becomes extremely vague after we introduce subjective preferences, knowledge, and expectations as well as entrepreneurship into economics (this was of course not the way Locke or Adam Smith thought about the economy).

    Then there is the problem of why we should accept that people have a right to land after “mixing” it with their labor, however the act of mixing is defined. Why not become Georgist land socializers instead? The natural right is then that the land belongs to humanity as a whole. I would argue that private property in land is generally better than socialized land because it produces more wealth and it is easier to accomplish heterogeneous uses for a diverse population -a consequentialist argument.

    In a nutshell, this is my argument from economics. But there is also the “propaganda” side. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that people like Hayek or Friedman are taken much more seriously by non-libertarians than Rothbard or Hoppe (for the sake of clarity I should admit that Hoppe is to me probably the world’s least attractive libertarian thinker – he makes both neoconservative and social democratic societies seem more attractive than his utopia/dystopia).

  31. Bogdan Enache Says:

    It’s an illusion to believe that one can substitute ethics with economics (or whatever) and viceversa. Is there a contradiction in asking at the same time how much money I can get from selling product X to Y and whether selling product X to Y is a good or a bad thing? There are two distinct universes of discourse in human life. Evidently, they intersect because none of us lives his life in in sequences that are only “ethical”, only “economical”, only “aesthetic” etc but we just have to admit that we don’t have a theory encapsulating simultaneously everything we live – and we may never had such “out of this world understanding”; we just live and are aware of different things. Moreover, there’s a limit to what one should expect from abstractions. They’re an indispensable guide, but not the answer to everything.

    On the other hand, the broad sort of textbook classification of normative ethical theories, such as teleological, jusnaturalist, deotological or utilitarian or consequentualism is primarily historical and not a classification of philosophical issues in ethics properly speaking. Vaguely stated none of them means anything and can mean almost anything. Throwing around utilitarianism to as a label to this or that doesn’t get one anyware : what sort of utility? when? where? for whom? We sort of have an intuitive idea of what we suppose to mean, but theoretically there are so many versions of utilitarianism to almost any position generally attributed to deontological ethics, jusnaturalism, or any other system (including, for instance, a normative utilitarianism, i.e. things have value in themselves). This goes the other way around as wel. Mill argued that Kant’s categorical imperative, for instance, was derived through consequentialist arguments and thus consequential in nature; in the melting-pot of philosophical ideas that made up the classical pragmatism of Charles Pierce, for instance, one can say he found a utilitarian deontologism (“can useful not be good?”); but then one can equally see deontological ethics as a restatement of teleological ethics (the duty to due good is the same as the natural function or purpose to the do good), or teleological ethics as a consequentualist ethics, or is teleological ethics only the ancestor of jusnaturalist? but which version of natural rights theory? ……We can go on and on, but one idea is clear : however you justify them, people have some moral feelings and develop moral claims to each other. This is something that happens all the time, it’s *real*, it’s *natural*. The idea of individual rights (natural, inaliable, political, “unatural” whatever you want to call them) regulates these moral claims people have to each other, part of them at least. Individual rights (or “collective rights”) is thus not a category of moral philosophy or ethics proper, but a category of political philosophy….


  32. […] we need is to create or restore a secular “religion” or dogma. We need a dogma of laissez-faire. As long as John Maynard Keynes’s argument in “The End of […]

  33. John Says:

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