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.

No comments:

Philosophy Blogs - BlogCatalog Blog Directory Libertarian Blogs Add to Technorati Favorites Back to the Drawing Board - Blogged
"Rational philosophy is on the march. It will f--- up all of your sh-- and leave you without any teeth."