Thursday, October 26, 2017

Moderate libertarian explains himself

There is much to like in the explanation given by Will Wilkinson at the nice libertarian Niskansen Centre as to what makes their approach different from your regular, ideologically driven, Ayn Rand and gun sympathising, leave-me-and-my-money-alone!, government-welfare-is-for-losers, climate change? who-cares?-even-if-it's-real, and-I'll-chose-to-fence-sit-on-that-because-I-hate-taxes, I'll-be-on-my-floating-island-with-my-fellow-libertarians-genetically-engineering-embryos-for-life-on-Mars-anyway average libertarian.

Some key parts:
Many political philosophers, and most adherents of radical political ideologies, tend to think that an ideal vision of the best social, economic, and political system serves a useful and necessary orienting function. The idea is that reformers need to know what to aim at if they are to make steady incremental progress toward the maximally good and just society. If you don’t know where you’re headed—if you don’t know what utopia looks like—how are you supposed to know which steps to take next? 

The idea that a vision of an ideal society can serve as a moral and strategic star to steer by is both intuitive and appealing. But it turns out to be wrong. This sort of political ideal actually can’t help us find our way through the thicket of real-world politics into the clearing of justice. I’ve discussed the problems with ideal theory at length, in the context Gerald Gaus’ tremendous book The Tyranny of the Ideal, in a Vox column. This piece will be easier to understand if you read that first. Jacob Levy’s paper, “There’s No Such Thing as Ideal Theory,” is an outstanding complement. And, on the more technical side, the work of UCSD’s David Wiens is state of the art, and adds texture to Gaus’ critique...

The fact that all our evidence about how social systems actually work comes from formerly or presently existing systems is a huge problem for anyone committed to a radically revisionary ideal of the morally best society. The further a possible system is from a historical system, and thus from our base of evidence about how social systems function, the more likely we are to be mistaken about how it would work if it were realized. And the more likely we are to be mistaken about how it would actually work, the more likely we are to be mistaken that it is more free, or more equal, or more socially just than other systems, possible or actual.  

Indeed, there’s basically no way to rationally justify the belief that, say, “anarcho-capitalism” ranks better in terms of libertarian freedom than “Canada 2017,” or the belief  that “economic democracy” ranks better in terms of socialist equality than “Canada 2017.”

You may think you can imagine how anarcho-capitalism or economic democracy would work, but you can’t.  You’re really just guessing—extrapolating way beyond your evidence. You can’t just stipulate that it works the way you want it to work. Rationally speaking, you probably shouldn’t even suspect that your favorite system comes out better than an actual system. Rationally speaking, your favorite probably shouldn’t be your favorite. Utopia is a guess.
He then looks at some rankings that countries are given in terms of personal and economic freedom by the Cato Institute (not entirely sure I'm sure their methodology is sound, but still) and makes the observation:
Every highlighted country is some version of the liberal-democratic capitalist welfare state. Evidently, this general regime type is good for freedom. Indeed, it is likely the best we have ever done in terms of freedom

Moreover, Denmark (#5), Finland (#9), and the Netherlands (#10) are among the world’s “biggest” governments, in terms of government spending as a percentage of GDP. The “economic freedom” side of the index, which embodies a distinctly libertarian conception of economic liberty, hurts their ratings pretty significantly. Still, according to a libertarian Human Freedom Index, some of the freest places in on Earth have some of the“biggest” governments. That’s unexpected....

That is our basic data. It doesn’t necessarily imply that the United States ought to do more redistributive social spending. But when a freedom index, built from libertarian assumptions, shows that freedom thrives in many places with huge welfare states, it should lead us to downgrade our estimate of the probability that liberty and redistribution are antithetical, and upgrade our estimate of the probability that they are consistent, and possibly complementary. That’s the sort of consideration that mainly drives my current views, not ideal-theoretical qualms about neo-Lockean libertarian rights theories.
And I like these paragraphs too:
Ideal theory can drive political conflict by concealing overlapping consensus. Pretty much any way you slice it, Denmark is an actually-existing utopia. But so is Switzerland. So is New Zealand. The effective difference between the Nordic and Anglo-colonial models, in terms of “human freedom” and “social progress” is surpassingly slight. Yet passionate moral commitment to purist ideals of justice can lead us to see past the fact that the liberal-democratic capitalist welfare state, in whatever iteration, is awesome, and worth defending, from the perspective of multiple, rival political values. We miss the fact that these values fit together more harmoniously than our theories lead us to imagine. 

I suspect this has something to do with the fact that utopia-dwellers around the world seem to be losing faith in liberal democracy, and the fact that  “neoliberalism” can’t get no love, despite the fact that they measurably deliver the goods like crazy. Yet ideologues interpret this loss of faith as evidence of objective failure, which they diagnose as a lack of satisfactory progress toward their version of utopia, and push ever more passionately for an agenda they have no rational reason to believe would actually leave anyone better off.    
Really, the article is a bit of a high falutin way of saying what I have felt about libertarians for years - they don't really care about the evidence of what works in other nations in terms of tax and welfare mix, and regulation:  they just have their pat idea that small government, low taxes and little regulation is obviously a good thing.  Governing by set ideology, though, is never a good idea, whether you are a Marxist or a member of the cult of Ayn Rand. 

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