Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Pitch (a First Draft...)

On a fundamental level, political philosophy exists to pursue a better understanding of how society ought to be organized. So it is rather unsurprising that students of the subject tend to view themselves as proponents of a certain kind of social order: socialists, social democrats, minarchists, anarcho-capitalists, etc. And to some degree, within communities of political philosophers and those who seek to emulate them, it makes sense to adopt these comprehensive positions and to debate their merits with those who advocate opposing views.

But in a world where most people do not think in terms of any coherent and complete political paradigm, this kind of approach to advancing one’s ideas makes less sense. It is, in a sense, like trying to get a person to buy into a particular diet as the objectively correct diet for human beings. Even if there were such a thing, most individuals would not even know how to begin to evaluate the idea being presented to them. They would immediately search for flaws, and cling to any lack of clarity or certainty as reason to reject the diet completely. And tellingly, we might expect this from someone whose existing diet is in all likelihood a really bad diet by any reasonable standard!

In advancing the cause of liberty, we have all experienced exactly this sort of thing. People don’t understand certain features of our standpoint, and accordingly reject the whole thing. I submit that this is not because of some flaw in our argument, or a persistent indoctrinated stubbornness on their part. Rather, it is simply a normal part of dealing with people who are not, and do not want to be, political philosophers.

Up to this point, I think that libertarians have largely focused on the idea that central governments should not be involved in various parts of our lives. The justification for these positions generally takes two forms, often advanced simultaneously in the same argument. First, there is a moral position that argues that there is something unjust about using the State mechanism to bring about a desired solution, and that people must realize this fact and respond accordingly. The second is a pragmatic position which points out that central governments are inherently ill-suited for dealing with the kinds of tasks with which they are entrusted, and accordingly, we should be not rely on them in the capacity under consideration.

It occurs to me that by making these two positions part of the same argument, libertarians have created a major hurdle for themselves. This is because the moral position they have been advancing is one which requires one to put herself into the role of political philosopher, and ask what sorts of principles ought to govern our social relationships. Most people are inherently ill suited for this kind of thing, and will too often either become recalcitrant or brainwashed.

Ultimately, neither is desirable. But by making the moral position a part of the core of their viewpoint, libertarians have created a set of circumstances where practically the only lay-people who acknowledge the other part of the core – the practical position – are the people who are on board with the moral argument. Those who reject the moral argument overwhelmingly seem to be ignoring or rejecting the practical argument.

There are a number of reasons why this is a regrettable state of affairs. Perhaps most significant of these is the fact that the practical part of the core is completely consistent with almost every other viewpoint. It is uncontroversial even among socialists that we cannot always know the best policy solutions to social problems, and that there are problems with entrusting centralized governments with the reigns of society. It is therefore perfectly in line with everyone’s viewpoint to consider the possibility that decentralized action might be the best way to deal with social issues, by their own standards. And if libertarians are right about the idea that decentralized solutions are more effective than centralized ones, this will appeal to everyone.

This leads to another critically important reason why the current state of debate is unfortunate. In a world where people understood that decentralized decision-making is often superior to central planning, we could reasonably expect people to be substantially more open to the possibility that freedom to determine one’s own course of action is a good thing. The person that says, “There’s no objective solution to this problem, so let’s try and work something out together,” is going to be someone who can easily be shown that imposing solutions on other people is a problematic way to deal with social problems. Essentially, what I am saying is that coming to terms with the practical part of libertarianism is actually a really effective way to get people to see the virtue of the moral part.

So what I’m proposing is that we organize ourselves to study how decentralized solutions can be found for social problems, and how government action is not necessarily the best way to deal with things. This seems like something that can appeal to people way outside of the libertarian circle, and I think we should take full advantage of that fact to bring the discussion into the mainstream arena. What I have in mind, essentially, is something like an Institute for the Study of Decentralization.

The appeal here, again, is twofold. First, it would serve the cause of liberty by helping to foster a mindset which seems likely to bring people closer to being open to the philosophy of freedom as a moral position. And second, it could help to bring a core part of the libertarian agenda – getting central governments out of their roles in social decision-making – into the mainstream policy arena, where it could form a basis for consensus between libertarians and even their most bitter opponents.

To be perfectly clear, I’m not saying that we could do this as a sneaky way to get people to be more vulnerable to being converted. My point is that we can legitimately argue that even if we’re wrong in our moral positions, our practical ideas are important and deserving of consideration. And further, we can say without controversy that once people come to appreciate our practical ideas, they’ll probably be able to see why we take the moral positions that we do.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Roderick Long on Property

I was reading Roderick Long's article, "Land-Locked: A Critique of Carson on Property Rights," and came across an argument that left me somewhat skeptical. I've recently become convinced that appropriation needs to be justified on the grounds of being a desirable "game," as Schmidtz argues in his essay, "The Institution of Property." But I don't want to rule out the possibility that a Lockean approach to understanding appropriation can be defended, so I figured it might be useful to spell out my confusion with Long's argument in order to see whether I (or anyone else) can make sense of any of it.

If I understood correctly, Long claimed that property rights arise from self-ownership essentially because "By transforming external objects so as to incorporate them into my ongoing projects, I make them an extension of myself, in a manner analogous to the way that food becomes part of my body through digestion" (91). But I feel like a number of questions need to be addressed in order to make this a complete theory.

First, what does it mean to "transform" something? I can incorporate all sorts of objects into my projects without physically transforming them at all, and I think that it makes a lot of sense to think that a homesteading principle might still want to cite me as their owner. For example, I might build a fence around a plot of unowned land, and claim it for my yard. Surely someone who believes in homesteading as a source of property rights would think that I owned the fence itself, and the land on which the fence was built. But it seems like I would also have a pretty reasonable claim for thinking that the land surrounded by the fence was also mine. Does surrounding something with a fence constitute a transformation?

If so, it seems like the transformation would have to be something purely subjective. But this seems like it would open the theory up to accusations of over-breadth. For example, if I build my house in a secluded area with a view of a previously undiscovered beach, do I own the beach? If I discover a new planet, and construct a telescope that allows me to gaze at it whenever it's over my house, do I own the planet? I don't think the answers are obviously "yes."

Further, I wonder why incorporation into one's projects should have anything to do with ownership. After all, I can incorporate things into my projects without owning them at all. My neighbor's house, for example, might produce a shady patch on my yard in the afternoon, allowing me to plant certain shrubs which would not have survived if they were exposed to direct sunlight all day long. Surely I don't need to own my neighbor's house in order to do this, and while it would certainly entail a frustration of my plans if my neighbor decided to knock his house down, it doesn't seem like this involves any violation of my self-ownership.

Approaching the issue from another direction: given the subjective nature of the transformation which confers ownership, it seems like we can frustrate the projects of a property owner without ever physically transforming an object, by changing the way that the owner views the object, or how others view the object. Generally, these sorts of things are not considered violations of property rights. But if property rights can be understood in the way that Long discussed, why would this be the case?

Also, the idea that property rights can be understood in terms of the relationship between an object and a valuer's ends, it seems like we would be led to an easement-based theory of ownership. But this is not the generally accepted view of property. Does this mean that we need to abandon that view?

I'm open to answers; I don't want to be unfair to this idea, largely because I once accepted it as correct, so any input would be great.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Directions for Research on Decentralization

From a conversation elsewhere:

I think it's absolutely relevant to explore the ways in which social problems can be solved without a centralized decisionmaker. Ultimately, so-called "market-anarchists" are rejecting the state model for social organization, and are suggesting that it be replaced with a model which relies on decentralized decision-making. Accordingly, it seems worthwhile to discuss some of the ways in which that model can be expected to function, if only to educate the market actors who are being expected to make the system work. After all, keep in mind that anarchy can only function in an ideological atmosphere where people don't want a state. If they do want a state, or don't know how to make things work without one, then they will have a state: you can bet on that.

So as philosophers, economists, etc., it's our job to show why centralized decisionmaking entities like our national governments provide inferior mechanisms for social organization. There are several parts of this argument which need to work in concert in order to truly convince people that decentralized decisionmaking is a truly better alternative. Relying on only one, and leaving out the others, will leave many people unsatisfied, as we're clearly seeing here. As I see it, those in favor of decentralization need to show the following:

1) The model of social organization which holds that everyone needs to get together and find the right answer, and then apply the right answer in the right way, is flawed. There is no "right answer" to social problems which can be discovered, even if we get the smartest, most creative, most honest people together to work on them, and even if there were, there would be no "right way" to implement it that could be instituted by coercing individuals to play their "part" in the solution. As David Schmidtz wrote in his book Elements of Justice, "In effect, there are two ways to agree: We agree on what is correct, or on who has jurisdiction - who gets to decide. Freedom of religion took the latter form; we learned to be liberals in matters of religion, reaching consensus not on what to believe but on who gets to decide. So too with freedom of speech. Isn't it odd that our greatest successes in learning how to live together stem not from agreeing on what is correct but from agreeing to let people decide for themselves?" (6). The advocate of decentralization takes this idea to its extreme, and needs to justify that position. Was John Rawls correct when, in his book Justice as Fairness, he suggested that there are "...profound and irreconcilable differences in citizens' reasonable comprehensive religious and philosophical conceptions of the world, and in their views of the moral and aesthetic values to be sought in human life" (3)? And if so, why is decentralization the proper response?

2) Decentralized solutions can effectively solve social problems, or perform comparably well compared to centralized solutions, or have benefits which make them more desirable than centralized solutions, in spite of their comparative weaknesses. Most people believe that a system of social organization should be judged, at least in part, by its capacity to bring about desirable social outcomes. Economics teaches us that in the absence of cooperation, markets can fail: free riders, externalities, collective action problems, tragedies of the commons, and prisoners' dilemmas can lead individuals acting separately to undesirable outcomes by the standards of all involved (see on this James Buchanan's essay, "Positive Economics, Welfare Economics, and Political Economy"). Advocates of decentralization need not only satisfy the alleged "statists" and "collectivists", who see government as a perfect substitute for a necessarily imperfect market, but also more reasonable objectors who see centralized solutions as having at least some potential for bringing about solutions in instances of prohibitive transaction costs. For example, in his essay, "Market-Based Environmentalism and the Free Market: Substitutes or Complements?," Peter J. Hill writes:

Market solutions are superior to coercive ones because voluntary exchange offers the assurance that social interactions are mutually advantageous. However, transaction costs prevent some potentially profitable voluntary exchanges from taking place. Through the use of appropriate rules, government can provide feasible alternatives. In the standard examples of roads and national defense, the transaction costs of individual exchange are high and the free-rider problem is substantial. Thus, there is at least some potential for using tax-financed provision of these public goods as a corrective mechanism. Of course, government provision of public goods is fraught with numerous problems, and one ought not to be overly optimistic that government will get it right. However, we should not automatically rule out all government intervention (389).

Advocates of decentralization need to show that actually, we should automatically rule out the kinds of solutions that can be produced through government intervention, or that decentralized solutions are capable of effectively emulating government intervention, so we don't lose tools from our policymaking toolkit when we move towards decentralization, or that decentralized solutions can actually produce solutions which work somewhat like government interventions, but are either inherently or more likely to be better suited to solving the problems with which they are charged.

3) Disputes can be resolved effectively and without violence in the absence of centralization of authority. In many ways, international law, corporate and industry dispute resolution, private arbitration, and private security companies set the stage for this conversation. But on the other hand, state imperialism, genocide, human rights violations, and the ineffectiveness of the UN (which lacks sovereignty) bring up questions which demand answers. Advocates of decentralization need to explain how a system without a central authority could bring about the settlement of disputes between individuals and groups effectively and predictably. And further, they need to show that such a system would be adequately resistant to things like bribing, corruption, and caprice, as well as being capable of enforcing rulings effectively. Failing this, decentralists would need to present the case that a decentralized system is more desirable for reasons which are not generally appreciated, perhaps because it would better preserve freedom of choice, it would recognize a lack of objective standards of justice (particularly procedural justice), or it would be better on balance than a centralized solution because of some flaw in the latter.

4) A decentralized system would be beneficial for those members of society who are less advantaged. Any "solution" which explicitly consigns people to death by starvation, exposure, or lack of routine medical care will simply be unacceptable to many people, and for good reason. Advocates of decentralization need to show how disadvantaged groups would benefit or at least not be made worse off by decentralization. And it will not do to demonstrate that those in need can be expected to be generally better off than they would be in other systems. Decentralists must show that there is no reason to worry about the fate of the disadvantaged in a decentralized society, at least any more than we worry in our current society. Alternatively, a case needs to be presented in substantially more convincing fashion that concern about the fate of those in need is misplaced.

5) There is historical precedent for effective decentralized decision-making. This one seems pretty self-explanatory, but ultimately it will not be the advocates of decentralization who actually go out and create the decentralized order which they are promoting. As the saying goes, there is no plan for freedom. Accordingly, it will be important to show that individuals who were not philosophers or "anarchists" have been able to successfully make decentralized decision-making mechanisms work for them, ideally without even realizing that they were doing it. Perhaps more importantly, it will be desirable to demonstrate why the failures of certain ventures in decentralized decision-making do not demonstrate a failure in the general idea.

And personally, I don't think that's such an unreasonable research program. I actually think there's something in there for almost everyone. And luckily, there's a lot already out there to start from. I've actually been toying around with the idea of putting together some sort of association of people working on these issues, and would love to hear from anyone who's interested in joining the effort.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Social Policymaking and the Libertarian Party

[It occurs to me that the beginning of this post is very poorly written, and does not convey the idea that I was trying to get across. I apologize. Feel free to read it anyway, but feel even freer to skip down a little until the next bracketed comment.]

I take it that most libertarians acknowledge that society does need certain institutions and rules in order to operate, and that these rules would require individuals to abide by agreements which might end up with outcomes that they don't particularly like, but have to abide by because of the agreements. For example, if I voluntarily enter into a living arrangement in an incorporated city which is governed by a set of laws, then I must abide by those laws so long as I continue to live in the city. Going further, it seems reasonable to believe that in such a living arrangement, part of my agreement would include a mechanism for deciding on new rules which could be enforced. For example, if the members of my community wanted to employ a lawn mowing service, perhaps we could somehow get together and decide to be bound to contribute to the lawn mowing fund.

Now, what I've just described is a public policy. This public policy would be one that I could advocate for some reason like "I think we can all agree that it would be nice to have mowed lawns in our town, so we should have lawn mowing," or "It seems to me that people aren't motivated to mow their lawns, but would be glad to pay the price of mowing their lawn if for that price they knew they would get their lawn mowed and also get to live in a town of beautifully manicured laws." And given that I would be living in a community where all the members had agreed to abide by the rules turned out by some rule-making procedure, it seems like such a policy would be perfectly consistent with the ideals of anarcho-capitalism.

Hearing this, it might occur to some members of our current social order to suggest something like the following: What's the point of being an anarcho-capitalist if that's what you're going to end up with? If you have a vision of what society should be like, you should try to convince enough people that you're right, and then you can direct the political process towards implementing that vision. That's how democracy is supposed to work, and you just need to get out there and let your voice be heard!

It is this sort of thinking, as far as I can tell, that leads to the idea that a Libertarian Party can be successful. The idea, then, is that if Libertarians get their message out, they can make the government give us back our freedom and stay out of our lives. Society, under such a government, would then be able to decide whether to disband the State entirely or to attempt to maintain a smaller, more limited State. And perhaps both. After all, what's most important is that we start working towards a point where such a conversation could even be possible on a national level.

But notice an interesting feature about what I've said so far about taking a position on social issues. First, I talked about anarcho-capitalism as a starting point, and then talked about public policies that I would personally advocate for implementation in my own society, which I had voluntarily entered, and where the other members could only be bound by rules produced by a procedure that they had directly agreed to. By contrast, the capital-L Libertarians, it appears to me, leave out the first step. Their objective is to determine what rules they would want to govern their society, and then to attempt to have those rules implemented (this manifests itself in some sort of private property regime where there are very few socially enforced rules besides respect for property).

[If you just read the above, see what I mean about me not talking sense? Yea...sorry about that, I wrote the beginning of this post at 2AM last night, and didn't notice how bad it was when I resumed writing today. What follows is the main idea of this post, and hopefully makes sense on its own.]

This difference is not insignificant. To illustrate why, imagine that there is a fraternity, Alpha Beta (AB), which throws a huge party every year with a sorority, Chi Upsilon Zeta (XYZ). Let's say that a member of Alpha Beta, Chad, decides that he doesn't like the XYZ parties and no longer wants to contribute to them, but the other members of AB are willing to use force if necessary to get the money from Chad if he refuses to pay and doesn't leave the fraternity. Chad first considers leaving AB to go live elsewhere, but unfortunately, all the housing with access to his college's campus belongs to the Greek system, and all the other fraternities on campus do things that Chad finds equally lame, but would be forced to contribute to. His situation, I take it, is somewhat analogous to the one in which libertarians find themselves today (though of course Chad could transfer or drop out, but whatever).

Now, if Chad were to pursue the sort of plan I outlined in the beginning of this post, what would he need to do? Essentially, he would have several options. He could attempt to convince the other AB's (or the members of another fraternity) to allow him to build a shed on part of their lawn to sleep in. While in his part of the yard, the fraternity's rules would not apply to him, including the one which forced him to help pay for the party with the XYZ's. Second, he could purchase a patch of yard from the AB's (or another fraternity) which would belong exclusively to him, where he could make rules for himself, and would not need to contribute to any kind of fraternity organization. Third, Chad could claim a patch of lawn for himself and defend it with force of his own if anyone tried to make him contribute to any fraternity programs. There are probably a bunch of other things Chad could do instead. But the common theme here is that what Chad is doing is entering a non-affiliated state of affairs.

I should note that Chad would be an idiot to do this alone, especially if doing this would prevent him from any sort of social cooperation with anyone in the fraternity system. I don't think any reasonable anarcho-capitalist would contend that non-affiliated status would "work" if it meant that people would be out on their own. Being on your own is awful--worse, I think, than being subject to unreasonable and involuntary rule. But this is besides the point of this post.

Now let's contrast the above strategy to the kind of thing that Libertarian Party libertarians are trying to do. Imagine if instead of looking for a way out of the fraternity system, Chad thought to himself, "Well, I don't like the parties with the XYZ's. So what I should do is get AB to stop throwing the parties; if people really want to throw the parties, they can get together and organize the party voluntarily. The AB fraternity shouldn't be involved in the party; the members who want the party should be the ones to organize it." Chad would then try to popularize this idea, and get enough people in AB to agree to stop funding the party to bring about a change in the fraternity's rules. If Chad were like the Libertarian Party, he would go about this goal by trying to convince the youngest and most impressionable members of the fraternity about why the party wasn't so great, and why it would be really great if everyone who wanted the party just got together and had it without involving any of the people who didn't want to have it. Eventually, if Chad were successful, enough of AB would be filled with this new generation of Libertarian AB's, and the fraternity government would be withdrawn from involvement in throwing the party.

See how that's a very different way of getting things done? Consider, for a moment, the consequences for the AB member who is perfectly happy with the XYZ parties, and is glad to pay the dues to fund them. In the first scenario, where Chad goes out of his way to leave in a way that does not disturb the AB system of governance, the members of AB who are happy with their fraternity government still get to have their party, and without any perceptible change except for the one we want them to feel, which is that now Chad no longer has to pay for something that he doesn't want, and they have to deal with the consequences of that. If the party was only worth it to them because they could make Chad help pay for it, then perhaps they would stop having the party, and that's a good thing. But otherwise, the remaining members of AB would get to continue living the way that they were living, and it would be on Chad to figure out a way to make his new life work outside of AB.

By contrast, in the second scenario the mechanism by which the XYZ party was formerly thrown has now been denied to the AB members who have always depended upon it in the past, and if they want to have their party, it will now be contingent on them to get together and negotiate a new deal. If AB were an extremely large fraternity, and the members did not have a very good way of communicating and negotiating with each other, this might be incredibly difficult for the AB's to organize. Certainly they would have an incentive to figure it out. But that doesn't mean that they would figure it out, and figuring it out would certainly involve opportunity costs that could be very significant to them.

The difference can be summed up like this: In the scenario I've advanced, where Chad separates himself from what he takes to be an oppressive system and strikes out to pursue his own goals, what Chad does is to remove himself, but to leave the existing system intact for those who want it to remain that way. He changes nothing for anyone except so far as others were depending on him to help further their own ends (using him as a means). In the scenario in which Chad embodies the Libertarian Party, on the other hand, the entire system of government by which the other AB's are used to coordinating their activities is disabled, and they must take it upon themselves to coordinate the party in its stead. As I've suggested, this might not be particularly easy for them to do, especially if the fraternity is extremely large and communication is difficult, and lots of coordination is required to get the XYZ party off the ground.

As I see it, the former strategy is the one most consistent with the ideal of just wanting to be left alone. The latter, it seems to me, effectively stops the other AB's from imposing things on Chad by creating a coordination vacuum, which could have seriously unpleasant consequences for the AB's. It's stopping an imposition on Chad by essentially imposing something else on the AB's: the responsibility to throw a party for which they had gladly delegated the responsibility away to their fraternity government.

Essentially, this is what I think that the Libertarian Party is trying to do. It's trying to take a government entity that many people rely on and that many people believe must be involved in certain areas of their lives, and destroying its ability to fulfill the tasks that these people are looking for it to fulfill. Sure, it's probably true that these people will be able to adapt to their new circumstances and perhaps be better off than before. But the point is, people who are not libertarians don't want to live in a society that reflects libertarian ideals. They would gladly submit to a coercive government if the alternative were trying to make all the decisions necessary to decide on what kind of life they want to live. To paralyze their government, I take it, would be to do these people a profound disservice. And because I like these people, I will advocate nothing of the sort.

Rather, I will advocate what I consider to be the high road. I would gladly endure greater oppression under the state, and gladly make greater sacrifices in order to bring about a world in which secession from our statist friends is a feasible solution for libertarians who no longer want to live under the state system, rather than advocate the destruction of the state system to serve my ends, at the great expense of those who very much want the state system to remain in place, and who have no interest in giving anarchy a shot.

I want to qualify that by saying that I'm finding it hard not to want to see McCain run this country into the ground in a spectacular fashion so that Americans will have reason to critically reexamine the ideas on which they base their social order. But I think that's sort of different from wanting to force people to act like libertarians: I want them to see how stupid their system is and change their minds, as opposed to wanting them to have to act as though their minds were changed when they really hadn't been.
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