Monday, August 23, 2010

Moralizing Isn’t Getting Libertarians Anywhere

If you’re a regular reader of mine, you may notice that I don’t really go out of my way to espouse moral propositions, only clarification. For example, I might write that abortion is something that libertarians should try to compassionately minimize because it is not an ideal, liberty maximizing solution to the problem of unwanted pregnancies or children. In such a case, I am offering an interpretation of an actual issue in terms of an already defined ethic. The purpose of such discussions is to get people who already consider themselves to be libertarians to step back and reconsider their position on whatever topic I’m addressing.

However, when I leave the realm of libertarianism and attempt to make arguments designed to engage non-libertarians, the strategy is to build a bridge -- to establish a common language and set of goals. From there it is possible to work out the differences in ideology and attempt a reconciliation. I consider this to be advantageous for both of us. If I’m in error, then I can adjust my arguments or alter my ideology in a way that may prove more effective in the future. If my debate partner, upon hearing my arguments, finds himself to be wrong, then I’ve made an advance for those causes I’ve tried to further. Such discussions may revolve around me pointing out apparent inconsistencies within their moral code or explaining cause and effect through the use of economic or sociological theory. Whatever method is chosen, a dialogue is opened up from where some sort of progress can be made.

It is for this reason that I consider it problematic when libertarians take the alternate approach of just harping on the “morality of libertarianism” or the “immorality of government.” This isn’t a way of stroking my ego -- that all arguments must cohere to the way I do things. I argue the way I do for a reason; I want to accomplish something when I make arguments. I don’t want to come away from one not having changed a single perception of my debate partner or, worse, accomplishing the opposite of what I had intended. The purpose is to learn and/or pull them to my ideology. The kind of moral argumentation engaged in by many does not have this effect. Instead, it has an alienating effect. Most people indirectly associated with the actions of government simply don’t want to be accused of violence. And whether or not it’s true that they are guilty of supporting violence, they’re not going to take kindly to anyone accusing them of it. They are either going to shut you out and walk away or retaliate with their own hyperbolic claims.

So I’d like to give a little more detail and note that some of the following was inspired by and will overlap with aaron0883’s and Brainpolice’s arguments.

Not all Statists are inconsistent

Being in support of the State or of governance does not make a person inconsistent by virtue of that fact alone. It is rare that you’ll meet a Statist that is as blatantly inconsistent as, say, a “pro-war pacifist” would be. Every person has a hierarchy of values. At least one of those values will include notions of “ought.” For example, a person might consider food acquired by peaceful means to be their number one value, but food acquired by violent means to not be valuable at all. The distinction demonstrates a moral or rational (possibly both) value for peacefully acquired food. What if the person holds them in roughly equal regard? For economic or sociological reasons, it might be a demonstration of stupidity or ignorance, but that’s about it.

But the statements don’t have to remain so simple because there are a lot of qualifiers that can be added to them. One may say using violence, possibly limited, to acquire food when you’re starving isn’t wrong, but that it becomes wrong when you’re well fed. Many moralists attempt to equate the circumstance qualified values. And while this equivocation may represent truth, it certainly isn’t as obvious as the statement 2+2=4. There are reasons why philosophers still argue about such things and why there are deontologists, utilitarians, egoists, nihilists, etc. Because, even after all the discussion, things remain terribly vague. Your speculation about values should not be interpreted as some obvious fact.

Statists commonly have such qualified ethics. A liberal who supports state funded healthcare may argue that a person has a right to spend their earned money on a Ferrari, but only on the condition that everyone else has healthcare first. In other words, the right to healthcare supersedes the right to a fancy car. I, depending on the context, would actually be sympathetic to such views, but would at the same time temper my argument in accordance with economic realities. If the means used to accomplish the end result in the inability to accomplish the end, then those means should be eliminated. Statist may just be lacking the facts and theories necessary to make an informed decision. They aren’t necessarily being inconsistent, though they may be very sloppy with the way they explain their positions. Plus, rhetorical dishonesty does not mean moral inconsistency.

Morality is a dead end

Why are fundamentalists annoying? From my point of view, the reason is because 1) they usually don’t even understand what they advocate and 2) they are completely oblivious to there own fallibility. If libertarians seek to turn people to libertarianism strictly on the basis of “this is the correct way to behave,” I wouldn’t be very suprised, that upon achieving success, the people of the future will quote Rothbard as gospel (as some already seem to do -- out with Christ, in with Rothbard). And even if the ideas did create utopia and peace on earth, they will always be susceptible to that age’s skeptics who claim to have found a "better" way. I’m perfectly fine with people making arguments and metaphysical speculations and then attempting to justify them, but fundamentalism places virtue in holding a belief rather than in being able to justify it. The major religions of the world aren’t vapid and without any substance, but the lessons and meaning that could be derived from their legends have been overshadowed by the assumption that they don’t need or, worse, can’t to be criticized. I hope libertarianism doesn’t become tired and worthless folklore. And if the American bastardization of “liberty” is any indication, we should have good evidence that it can happen.

"Against Me"

Stephan Molyneux’s “against me” argument is supposed to put the libertarian on the offensive by personalizing the aggression between himself and his debate partner. The goal of which is to get the non-libertarian to denounce violence that would be used against any libertarian who acts perfectly in line with their principles. To some extent this can be explanatory. A libertarian may say: “If I smoke marijuana, I could go to jail. Do you think I should be sent to jail for smoking a plant?” Taking it this far only serves as a means of communicating the way in which laws actually affect people and phrasing it in such a way that it becomes more relevant to whoever you’re talking to. But if the response confirms that one should be put in jail for smoking pot, the advice set forth by the “against me” argument devolves into a “well then we aren’t friends anymore.” Talk about juvenile!

Beyond its basic illustrative purpose, the “against me” argument is useless. This particular argument doesn’t mean anything. All libertarians except pacifists would use violence in some way to defend what they consider justly owned property. It’s based on a pretense of knowledge regarding what is justly acquired and simply begs the question. If someone were to make the case that all natural resources are owned in common, it becomes quite easy to justify, if based on nothing but moral questions, that people be forced to do certain things. Property owners justify forcing people to do stuff on their property. If it’s everyone’s property, then everyone gets to force everyone to do anything. The communist could just as easily turn to Molyneux and say, “Are you going to use violence against me if I walk into your house?” It’s the science and theory that resolves such issues.

But further, disengaging an argument is the last thing you could possibly want to do. There are people who are not worth debating, but to disengage over a difference of opinion is absurd. People hold their opinions for reasons. If they think life on earth is going to come to an end if libertarians get their way, then opposing libertarians seems pretty reasonable to me. It’s the perception of reality that needs to change.

Almost every libertarian began as a non-libertarian. Demanding evidence that libertarian ideas won’t result in the devolution of society is hardly a sin. Libertarian ideas need to be nurtured, not imposed. That would just be another form of statism. In the words of Bob Marley, “emancipate yourself from mental slavery.” Using emotionalism to convert people to libertarianism is unsustainable garbage.