Give Me Liberty, or Give Me Endless Arguments about It on the Internet

4 Jul

The Crooked Timber post on libertarianism and freedom that Chris Bertram, Alex Gourevitch, and I wrote has been heating up the interwebs. So much so that the three of us have now been dubbed “BRG.”  We’ll be responding in due time, but for now here’s a roundup of all the links.

Tyler Cowen: “I am not comfortable with the mood affiliation of the piece.  How about a simple mention of the massive magnitude of employee theft in the United States, perhaps in the context of a boss wishing to search an employee?…If I ponder my workplace at GMU, I see many more employees who take advantage of the boss, perhaps by shirking, or by not teaching well, than I see instances of the bosses taking advantage of the employees.” [As one wag on Twitter said in response: "I tend to be more sympathetic to libertarians than @coreyrobin, but it's like Tyler Cowen is *trying* to prove his thesis."

Alex Tabarrok: "Workers have more rights than employers since workers are not subject to anti-discrimination law; that is, employers are prohibited from discriminating against African American workers but workers are not prohibited from discriminating against African American employers." [In 2007, 7.1 percent of all non-farm businesses were owned by African Americans. They hired 921,032 workers, constituting 0.8% of all paid employment in the US. Admittedly, I'm not an economist, but something tells me that the real force protecting whites from having to work for blacks is not the absence of anti-discrimination laws compelling them to do so but the fact that black people, on the whole, don't have enough money to hire white people.]

Arnold King: “Just be careful about assuming that there must be a perfect option. For example, if the exit option is imperfect, that does not mean that the voice option works perfectly. My own view is that neither option is perfect.” [Our own view is that neither option is perfect either. We aren't saying exit isn't a potential antidote against workplace tyranny, just that it isn't sufficient.]

John Holbo: Excellent restatement and elaboration of our thesis via a nimble use of Hayek: “Freedom is not ‘in’ the right to exchange. If you exchange your freedom for a TV you become an unfree person with a TV, not a free person with a TV, even if you prefer a TV to freedom….So how do you maximize freedom? Here rubber meets road. You don’t maximize it by ensuring property and contract rights the way Hayek and other libertarians want. As BRG say, this will sometimes result in less freedom, overall, than you might otherwise attain, due to the fact that ensuring these rights is consistent with the emergence of highly coercive, freedom-destroying private regimes of power.Libertarians can, of course, just come out and say that they prefer contract rights to guarantees of freedom….What they can’t say is that contract rights guarantee freedom, much less that guaranteeing contract rights maximizes freedom.”

Adam Ozimek: “I think a major point of this entire debate is that liberals wish libertarians to admit that overall freedom can be increased by restricting some freedoms. I don’t have any problem admitting this is possible, but I also don’t think it matters much in the real world.”

Jessica Flanigan: “BRG propose law, regulation, and economic democracy. They call it more voice. I call it more bosses. I see that BRG have a different conception of rights and freedom. What I still don’t see is why workplace democracy and regulation would be liberating on any conception of freedom. Why are these self-proclaimed liberals are so hostile to the UBI?…How did we get to this point where the libertarians are the vocal advocates of a basic income while the Marxist liberals are arguing that what workers really need is less choice?” [Again, we're not hostile to the UBI; we just don't think it does all the work that the Bleeding Hearts think it does. We also don't think they've fully faced up to the taxation and redistribution issues it raises.]

Matt Yglesias: “My standard approach to this is that in almost all political contexts, including this one, both the concept of freedom and the concept of property rights are red herrings.”

And while this article by Josh Eidelson on Facebook firings is not a response to our piece, it’s certainly worth mentioning in this context.

So that’s it, for now.

14 Responses to “Give Me Liberty, or Give Me Endless Arguments about It on the Internet”

  1. Douglas D. Edwards July 4, 2012 at 6:45 pm #

    [Our own view is that neither option is perfect either. We aren't saying exit isn't a potential antidote against workplace tyranny, just that it isn't sufficient.]

    [Again, we're not hostile to the UBI; we just don't think it does all the work that the Bleeding Hearts think it does. We also don't think they've fully faced up to the taxation and redistribution issues it raises.]

    Your Crooked Timber post might have generated less notoriety if its tone had been closer to that of these bracketed rebuttals from the present post above. They sound like steps in a reasoned discussion of ways to reach a common policy goal, in collaboration with people who seek the same humane ends that you do, but differ in fundamental ways as to the ethically permissible range of available means. The justly infamous Crooked Timber post, by contrast, was framed as an argument that the “Bleeding Heart Libertarians” were probably just as cold-hearted and uncaring as any callous right-libertarian (“the same old black heart of libertarianism we all know”). What kind of response did you expect?

    Inevitably, when you’re debating people who recognize moral constraints (of liberty of contract, etc.) that you don’t, and those constraints prohibit the adoption of what you believe to be necessary measures toward the achievement of the imperative you seek to fulfill, there will be a temptation to suspect them of evil motives, and to doubt the sincerity of their professed devotion to the ultimate humane goal. And clearly many libertarians are lacking in empathy and sympathetic to private power, a fact that even some left-libertarians clearly recognize (and that is, predictably, further revealed by some of the responses to your Crooked Timber post). But do you really think you can solve the social problem of right-libertarianism by making that lack of empathy your principal focus?

    Note Jeff Sharlet’s tweet (from June 5th, 2012) on Walker’s victory in Wisconsin (clarifying an earlier facetious tweet about the influence of money):

    @DougHenwood Nope. Just joking. Walker, a crook, beat Barrett, a hack. Unions were unimaginative. & lots of people really do love Ayn Rand.

    Indeed they do. Libertarianism is probably the most common and effective rationalization for conservative political policies in the USA. But it would not be nearly so effective a rationalization if it were only a rationalization, if it were so utterly lacking in ethical merit as you seem to think. You underestimate the extent to which libertarians feel compelled (rather than merely permitted) to restrict their range of policy choices to those compatible with their notions of freedom of contract and so forth. As much as you might wish it otherwise, the application of basic facts and logic to libertarian ethical principles is not likely to lead to their outright downfall. Instead, it is likely to lead to the mutualist “market anarchism” of Kevin Carson and the Center for a Stateless Society (C4SS), a viewpoint that appears to me (so far) to differ little from that of non-market anarchists (except in its origins). The Bleeding Hearts are likely to represent an intermediate step on the path from right-libertarianism to market anarchism. You may not like anarchism either, but surely you recognize that breaking down its theoretical base will not be easy — and that anarchists can often be allies in practice, not opponents like right-libertarians. So please take seriously, and make use of, the market anarchist analysis of libertarian theory — even if you don’t agree with it. I don’t entirely buy into it myself, but I see its strategic usefulness.

    • Bill Jackson July 6, 2012 at 12:48 pm #

      So Douglas, it sounds like you’re concluding that a lot of libertarians are also devout Christians who are bringing their religious sensibilities to politics – the idea of compulsive restriction of notions seems to bear that out. If that is the case, it would follow that these libertarians will be difficult to reason with, seeing as how theirs is the “One True Way.”

      Could it be that, excluding intellectual and rational libertarians, we are seeing a resurgence of a push for a Protestant theocracy?

  2. Sancho July 4, 2012 at 8:09 pm #

    I think it’s great that this discussion is happening. In Australia, where I am, the local conservatives have looked at the US Tea Party and started branding themselves “libertarian”, but with very little understanding of the history or philosophy of libertarianism.

    With luck, the content of some informed discussion will trickle down and make an impact on the sloganeering that occurs on the ground level of politics.

  3. Aaron (@polite_gunfight) July 4, 2012 at 8:47 pm #

    Wow, how much paper do they steal at GMU?

  4. jonnybutter July 5, 2012 at 9:11 am #

    Inevitably, when you’re debating people who recognize moral constraints (of liberty of contract, etc.) that you don’t, …. there will be a temptation to suspect them of evil motives, and to doubt the sincerity of their professed devotion to the ultimate humane goal.

    I think you are misreading the post, DDE. I think it’s very clear that what the authors doubt is not the overt sincerity of libertarians about their goal, but rather that their program makes sense in terms of those goals – or at very least, in terms of what we all could agree to call ‘freedom’. The ‘cold heart’ stuff is just style, and is a riff on the Bleeding Heart Libertarians – which, notice if you haven’t already, is what they call themselves.

    Since this post has a tone you find more agreeable, why don’t you answer substantively? (I notice your other big post over at CT is along the same lines as above. You accuse BRG of lacking goodwill. Even if that were true – which I don’t grant – I would ask: how is the soundness of arguments affected or not by goodwill?)

    • Douglas D. Edwards July 5, 2012 at 1:16 pm #

      “jonnybutter” writes:

      I think it’s very clear that what the authors doubt is not the overt sincerity of libertarians about their goal, but rather that their program makes sense in terms of those goals – or at very least, in terms of what we all could agree to call ‘freedom’. The ‘cold heart’ stuff is just style, and is a riff on the Bleeding Heart Libertarians – which, notice if you haven’t already, is what they call themselves.

      These comments tell us everything we need to know about jonnybutter’s sense of style, and of political argumentation. In attempting dialogue with representatives of an opposing political viewpoint, you don’t use rhetoric that reflects adversely on the motives of your interlocutors unless you mean it, especially when it is a “riff” on rhetoric that they have used to affirm their own good will in the face of existing doubts. As I wrote on Crooked Timber:

      I applaud the willingness of the authors of this post to engage with left-libertarians. Too few liberals and pro-state leftists even acknowledge their existence. But this is only a beginning, and not a particularly auspicious one, particularly in view of its foregrounding of doubts about the good will of left-libertarians toward workers. (If the references to “cold” and “black” hearts aren’t supposed to mean that, what justification can there be for using such imagery at all?)

      Doubts about the good will of libertarians toward workers are common, and are often justified. The question is whether the Bleeding Hearts are different. Their very name was chosen to indicate that they are. If BRG take them at their word on that, then the rhetoric about “cold” and “black” hearts was wildly inappropriate and unfair, and an apology and retraction from BRG (as to that rhetoric specifically, not necessarily as to other points they make) would be in order. If (and this is how I read BRG) they meant and continue to mean what they said about the coldness of the self-styled Bleeding Hearts, then an attempt to fall back entirely on discussion of the effectiveness of the Bleeding Hearts’ proposed solutions is an evasion. In comments on Crooked Timber, Chris Bertram took issue with my characterization of the Bleeding Hearts as “left-libertarians”, and described their use of UBI as hand-waving, which implies that it is cavalier and dismissive — that it is not only ineffective, it is not a sincere attempt to come to grips with the problems it claims to address. That is the case that needs to be made if the rhetoric about “cold” and “black” hearts is not to be retracted.

      “jonnybutter” also writes:

      Since this post has a tone you find more agreeable, why don’t you answer substantively? (I notice your other big post over at CT is along the same lines as above. You accuse BRG of lacking goodwill. Even if that were true – which I don’t grant – I would ask: how is the soundness of arguments affected or not by goodwill?)

      I had more than one “big” comment at Crooked Timber, and dealt at length with the importance and effectiveness of UBI, among other substantive issues. (In any case, a question as to motives and goodwill is itself a substantive point, as well as a matter of tone; these two possibilities are not mutually exclusive.) Other readers of this blog, please do not be misled by jonnybutter’s inaccurate characterization of my contributions at Crooked Timber. In any case, I would much rather continue the discussion of all relevant substantive issues on this blog, and preferably with Corey Robin himself, since of those I attempted to engage at Crooked Timber, it is principally his opinions that I care about. I respect his other work highly, although the Crooked Timber post was not his finest hour, to put it mildly. (Incidentally, the people whose goodwill, or lack thereof, is principally relevant are the Bleeding Hearts, not BRG; see above.)

      As argued in my original comment, libertarianism — a philosophical viewpoint that ought to unfold as a form of far-Left anarchism — has somehow been perverted into the dominant rationalization for reactionary politics in the USA. Evil motives do, I believe, play a common and significant role in that rationalization, but so does a principled ethical viewpoint shared by at least some on the Left. Libertarianism could not be so effective a rationalization if it were only a rationalization. Keeping open the channels of constructive dialogue with libertarians who show even the faintest signs of a trend back toward a leftward spin on libertarianism ought to be a high priority for all elements of the Left in the USA. Instead, the Bleeding Hearts have held out a hand to BRG, and drawn back a stump.

      • jonnybutter July 6, 2012 at 9:11 am #

        I hereby apologize for suggesting that your only comment at CT was the one I cited. (Was that bad faith on my part or just a sloppy error?) But I’m still mystified. Your original comment was that if the tone of the original post had been more like the bracketed comments, it would have attracted ‘less notoriety’, whatever that means. My contention is that it would have made no difference at all to the quality of the ensuing discussion, nor should it have.

        In attempting dialogue with representatives of an opposing political viewpoint, you don’t use rhetoric that reflects adversely on the motives of your interlocutors unless you mean it, especially when it is a “riff” on rhetoric that they have used to affirm their own good will in the face of existing doubts.

        Are we reading the same piece? I don’t see that that BRG was trying to ‘reflect adversely on the motives of their opposing interlocutors’. Rationalizing and bad faith are hardly the same thing – if one is acting in bad faith, why bother to rationalize? And besides, what is at issue here is not motives. Those were my only points. I would also submit that handwringing about tone and motives is a distraction, although I won’t speculate about whether it reflects bad faith or not, since I don’t have any idea.

        And although no one really *needs* to know anything about my sense of style or how I argue, I will say that I endorse Mill’s dictum that unless one throughly understands one’s opponent’s position and the arguments in support thereof, one doesn’t understand one’s own’s position (from ‘On Liberty’ I believe). And I think that ought to apply to the BHLs just as much as BRG.

        I would also think that anyone with a most basic sense of humor could see that both BHL and BRG are simply having fun with names. It would be shocking if there were ‘stumps’ (presumably bloody), except if they were just an hysterical and wildly inappropriate metaphor.

        Lighten up for christ’s sake.

  5. Will Boisvert July 5, 2012 at 5:02 pm #

    @Corey Robin et al,

    I like your takedown of “humane” libertarianism, but I still think you guys are selling the UBI short.

    First of all, you did the math wrong. For the government to give a poverty-line grant of $11,170 to all of the 310 million U. S. citizens would cost $3.5 trillion, which is about 23 % of U. S. GDP of $15 trillion, not the 40 % you calculated in your piece. To give everyone a minimum-wage grant of $15,080 would cost 31 % of GDP, not 50% as you wrote. The easiest way to handle the UBI is as a fully refundable tax credit, and most of the sums involved would be paper transfers: upper income people would have their UBI credit offset by higher taxes on their income. And much of the UBI would simply replace funds that we already spend on social security, welfare and unemployment benefits, further reducing its net impact on the public fisc. So a UBI would be a much smaller and more feasible effort of taxation and redistribution than you estimated.

    Second, you don’t register just how transformative and liberating a UBI would be to poor families. With a poverty-line grant, a single mom with two kids could count on an income of $33,000 per year even if she loses her job. That’s not the lap of luxury, but it’s a tolerable standard of living. A $15,000 UBI would guarantee the family $45,000. Either way, that’s enough economic security to let working-class people tell the boss to take this job and shove it. (And to agitate for a union without worrying overmuch about being fired.)

    I think a UBI really would do the heavy lifting of social justice. (Which is also, alas, why libertarians would probably abandon their lip service to it if it ever came close to being implemented.) The left should trumpet it, not poke holes in it.

    • Corey Robin July 5, 2012 at 8:29 pm #

      Hi Will. Nice to see you around these parts! We’re going to be writing a follow-up at some point, in which we’ll deal more thoroughly with the UBI, but for now let me make two quick points. First, I think you may have mis-read what we wrote (or perhaps we weren’t sufficiently clear). This is what we said: “The current, rather miserly, poverty line for a single person in the United States is $11,170. Providing a UBI of $11,170 would require taxing roughly 40 percent of current GDP. Tax revenues now consume 20% of GDP, so tax rates would have to double.” In other words, we weren’t assuming that it would be solely a UBI of $11,170 that would require taxing 40% of GDP; we were assuming it would be the UBI PLUS current outlays. Again, perhaps we could have been clearer. Second, we really weren’t trying at all to poke holes in the UBI so much as point out two things vis-a-vis our Bleeding Heart friends: that we don’t think they’ve fully confronted the amount of money it would cost (insofar as it would be able to do the kind of work you’re talking about it doing) AND that we don’t think that even a fully funded UBI would sufficiently solve the problem of exit that they think it would solve. It would definitely help at the front end, as we say, but we doubt it would do all that they (and perhaps you as well) think it would do at the back end. It’s definitely critical, but it’s not sufficient. For the rest you need voice and law — which I know you agree with.

      • Will Boisvert July 6, 2012 at 1:13 pm #

        You’re right, I misinterpreted your sums, thanks for clarifying that for me. My guess, though, is that if we analyze a UBI for just its net additional transfers, excluding paper transfers that are basically a wash and current transfer payments that a UBI would simply replace, it would not be a staggering increase in total government transfer payments. But then, you’re also right–any net increase in government transfer payments at all would probably be a deal-breaker for libertarians.

  6. Kristoffer July 5, 2012 at 5:12 pm #

    What do you mean by “left libertarians”? The word libertarian – as Iain McKay, one of the people behind An Anarchist FAQ – explains in a comment ( http://crookedtimber.org/2012/07/01/let-it-bleed-libertarianism-and-the-workplace/#comment-420423 See also Chomsky talking about this in a short clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wriQGI5NGOM ) on the initial article has throughout history meant just about the exact opposite to what it has come to mean today. Libertarian was used by the “anti-state socialists” before the right snatched it. You talk about Karson as being a left libertarian. Well, first, the market-friendly anarchists are only a very small minority of libertarian socialists (libertarian left), but I can go with that. And one of the primary, if not THE primary reason as to what makes him left, despite his affection for markets, is the fact that he actually is concerned with workers rights. He doesn’t just turn a blind eye to other types of illegitimate authority than the goverment, like your typical libertarian does. If you, like most people on BHL seem to do – albeit perhaps not quite as extreme as some other self proclaimed libertarians – take pretty much every chance they’ve got to argue against any notion of rights of workers on a workplace, I can’t see how one can possibly consider them to be left. Unless I’ve missed something crucial, a concern with workers rights is at the core of what it has always meant to be “left”. It’s sort of a bare minimum. I mean, just read some of the responses to the articles on CT. They’re just bizarre.
    So mutualists thoughts on the subject, at least from what I’ve read, isn’t at all representative of the BHL croud. So I see why BRG wouldn’t focus on them and their ideas rather than the rest of the guys.

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