Thursday, January 15, 2009

What Does It Mean to Empower a Person's Life?: The Beginning of a Reply to Lapidus

Over at the University and State blog, I've started having a discussion with David Lapidus (a fellow contributor to the site) about the proper role of economic policy. David is a smart guy and an economist, but comes from a very different end of the spectrum from me. Because this blog is dedicated to bridging gaps between views and taking other perspectives into consideration, I'd like to discuss a few of the ideas that David has brought to the table. Hopefully in doing so, we will be able to see whether one or both of us is somehow wrong (because our views are inconsistent, or because we are taking improper account of certain facts), whether we have to agree to disagree, or whether we were actually on the same side all along.

In this post, I'd like to address something that David said in his comments to me, which I think reflects something that a lot of people think:
I believe that a government intervention in the economy should empower our lives or get out of our lives. I want to see the largest possible creation and accurate communication of value in the economy. In some areas of our capitalist economy the private sector does this best, while in others, the government does a better job.

In thinking about this idea, it will be important to ask ourselves several questions. Exactly what would it mean for the government to empower our lives? Can a government entity do this effectively and in a way that we would find morally acceptable? If so, is the federal government the best entity to carry out this task? I began writing this post intending to answer all of these questions, but it's quickly becoming clear to me that this is a pretty enormous project. Accordingly, this post will answer only the first question.

What does it mean to empower a person's life?

Generally, when we're thinking of empowerment, we have in mind the capacity to do things which are important to our flourishing and prosperity as individuals. Most simply, we identify empowerment with liberty. As Isaiah Berlin famously pointed out, there are two ways to think about liberty: a positive sense and a negative sense. In the negative sense, liberty is the freedom from obstacles, barriers, or interferences. In the positive sense, liberty is the presence of a capacity to do something.

Approaching liberty strictly in the negative sense (as many libertarians do), one might come to the conclusion that the best way for the government (or any other social decision-making entity) to respect the value of liberty would be to involve itself as little as possible in the affairs of individuals. But there are some problems with this view. Perhaps the most obvious is that in a world entirely free of barriers, anyone could do anything they wanted to anyone else. Surely this would not be desirable. In their everyday affairs, individuals need to have some conception of a "right of way" for the use and control of worldly objects (including themselves). This is generally embodied in some conception of "rights"; these are barriers which enable us to establish "mine," "yours," and "ours," as well as procedures for adjudicating disputes. These barriers need not be established or administered by governments, and historically, many of them were not the products of government intervention. But nevertheless, they represent areas where we acknowledge a need for limitations on our negative liberty in order to live together peacefully, respectfully, and productively.

But thinking about liberty from the negative perspective can lead us to an important insight: in actively imposing constraints on others, we need to have justification for what we're doing. In most liberal traditions, individuals are viewed as having a basic right to self-determination; we can constrain this right, but only with good reason. The need to find a way to live together can be a good reason, but it is not necessarily always a good reason. Some anarchists would be quick to point out that you don't necessarily need to live with me peacefully; we can go our separate ways and agree to disagree on the appropriate way to order society. In some ways, our modern state system embodies this idea on a global scale. Perhaps a society caring more about liberty would extend this notion to intra-state affairs. But the idea to take away from this is that most people accept the broad notion of a right to self-determination, and that an important part of this idea is that we need a good reason to constrain this right in others.

This focus on reasons for infringing on one's negative liberties leads immediately to the other conception of liberty: the positive one. Many would point out that negative liberty is well and good, but we need to acknowledge that the reason we care about not being constrained or interfered with is that we want to do stuff. Most libertarians would focus on the fact that we want to live our own lives without being subordinated to the will of others. Social norms which coordinate interaction through the recognition of rights and boundaries allows us to pursue those plans on our own, without harming others and without appealing to them for permission. As Mark Pennington notes in his essay, "Liberty, Markets, and Environmental Values: A Hayekian Defense of Free-Market Environmentalism":
Market processes allow contradictory ideas to be tested simultaneously against one another without the need for majority approval. Employing the exit option enables individuals who dissent from the majority to follow their own ideas without impinging on the ability of those who support the majority opinion to follow theirs.

On the basis of insights like this, some hard-libertarians (to steal Arneson's terminology and accompanying scepticism) insist that these rules for interaction are the only sort of infringements on negative liberty that can be coherently justified by any view seeking to empower people. They reason that these boundaries help us to think about the treatment that others are due within a social context; we don't murder each other, take each other's stuff, or interfere with each other's business because to do so would be to disrespect the reasonably uncontroversial right to self-determination which we discussed above. Because of their fixation on negative liberty, they immediately construe any further infringement on negative liberty as an attack on liberty, broadly conceived. If we think about liberty and empowerment in this way, we would almost undeniably arrive at the conclusion that empowering people means setting and enforcing rules of social interaction which allow people to make their own plans and pursue their own ends without interference or subjugation.

But as Gerald Cohen points out in his book, Self-Ownership, Freedom, and Equality, "...the propertyless proletarian who cannot use means of production without a capitalist's leave suffers a lack of effective self-ownership" (94). The crude libertarian account seemingly leaves out an important component of positive freedom: the possession of the means for pursuing one's dreams. By insisting on adherence to socially defined right-of-way conventions, we allow for the possibility (and, if the world around us is any evidence, the probability) that a great many people would end up in pretty rough shape.

As a number of libertarians have pointed out over the years (perhaps most famously and memorably, Milton Friedman), there are a number of reasons why we might expect that a society which did a better job of protecting negative liberties would end up producing better consequences for the least well-off (though as productivity and ingenuity decreases the costs of tapping foreign markets, the "least well-off" shift from being poor Americans to the very much poorer citizens of other countries, often with unfortunate consequences for those poor Americans). As Ludwig von Mises noted in his book, Economic Policy: Thoughts for Today and Tomorrow:
There is no western, capitalistic country in which the conditions of the masses have not improved in an unprecedented way.

But there's nothing about setting the rules of social interaction which necessarily and irrevocably requires that there be no people with vastly unequal access to the means necessary to pursuing a variety of lifestyles which are only open to those with a substantial command of social resources. And to the extent that empowerment has to do with our opportunities, such a lack of access would represent a lack of empowerment.

It must be noted in passing that this is not the same thing as a disempowerment; one person's poverty is not necessarily caused by others. As F.A. Hayek noted in his essay, "The Atavism of Social Justice":
...there can be no distributive justice where no one distributes. Justice has meaning only as a rule of human conduct, and no conceivable rules for the conduct of individuals supplying each other with goods and services in a market economy would produce a distribution which could be meaningfully described as just or unjust. Individuals might conduct themselves as justly as possible, but as the results for separate individuals would be neither intended nor foreseeable by others, the resulting state of affairs could neither be called just nor unjust.

However, it may nevertheless be argued that an opportunity for empowerment exists to the extent that the government can deliver resources more those who have not been empowered by the market process, and who have an effective lack of positive liberty in light of their social position. Because as liberals, we generally like expansions of liberty, I think it's fair to say that if we ignore how it is that the government goes about empowering those individuals, we can relatively uncontroversially say that the empowerment itself is a good thing (setting aside, for the sake of discussion, objections from those who believe that the expansion of liberty is not necessarily such a good thing -- h/t Gregory Rader from a while ago).

I'm going to stop on this point for now, but I'm already working on the next part, focusing on whether the government could effectively empower people in this way without offending our moral sensibilities. When I've finished with that (rapidly ballooning) project, I'll post it as a followup (here).


Michael said...

"As a number of libertarians have pointed out over the years (perhaps most famously and memorably, Milton Friedman), there are a number of reasons why we might expect that a society which did a better job of protecting negative liberties would end up producing better consequences for the least well-off".

This is what I call the "Paradox of Positive Rights": if government enforces positive rights, e.g. welfare rights, then the poor will be worse off than if positive rights were ignored.

Because government tends to respond to special interests, any centralized government welfare system will likely hurt the poor more than it helps them.

On the other hand, if we don't enforce welfare rights and leave the poor to the whims of the market, they will be better off, for familiar reasons: competition leads to low prices, capital accumulation raises the marginal productivity of labor and hence increases wages, and most of all, the government is no longer screwing the poor over with price controls, regulations, tariffs, corporate welfare, taxes, warfare, etc.

This is kind of like the reverse naturalistic fallacy with the minimum wage: "because no worker’s services ought to be worth less on the market than whatever hourly wage is specified by the legislature as the ‘minimum wage,’ no worker’s services are in fact worth less than this amount."

Maybe this is just an issue of choosing the appropriate means, e.g. decentralized over centralized, but I think this is important to take into account when discussing positive rights.

Danny said...

I'm not sure that I like the idea of "positive rights" to begin with. As I've discussed elsewhere, it's difficult to sustain the idea that we can simply have a right that something be the case. The reductio's are just too readily available. Perhaps my favorite way to think about the problem is to imagine a person on a deserted island. Where's her right to health care then? Is it violated? By whom? It seems much more reasonable to me to talk about duties to empower than to think about rights to be empowered.

I'm not entirely sure that your "paradox of positive rights" is correct, though, even if we rephrased it in terms of duties. It seems clear that we cannot know a priori that interventionist policies to help the least-well-off will make them worse off than they would otherwise have been. And it's hard to imagine how we would defend the claim that feeding a starving person, or curing a person of a life-threatening disease, is worse for him than letting him die. It may be that over the long term, the poor would be generally better off (in an aggregative sense) under a freer system. But it's almost certainly not true that each individual would benefit from the absence of a social safety net.

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