Monday, November 23, 2015

Anarchism: every man for himself?

"A radically liberal society might be imaginable in which there is nothing left for government, a monopoly of the use of force, to do. The legal services government now provides could be provided competitively, according to the laws of supply and demand. According to free-market anarchism, all the fundamental institutions necessary for the market to function—money, police protection, and even justice—would themselves be "for sale on the market." Of course, to say justice would be "for sale on the market to the highest bidder" is to invite ridicule. If a court is deciding law according to which party to the dispute can pay better, then the "service" it is supplying does not deserve the name "justice." But as with any good, everything depends on what specifically the suppliers and demanders actually want. It is imaginable that the demand for legal services could be well-defined, so that competitive pressures could force suppliers to offer fair adjudication according to widely understood principles of the rule of law.
Whether Rothbard or Friedman's imagined schemes for competitive legal institutions—and indeed whether any particular government-supplied legal system—can work depends completely on what Hospers calls "ideology," and what I prefer to call the "political culture." It depends on what the general public in this particular society considers morally acceptable behavior. To this, Rothbard answers: Of course, everything does depend on such general beliefs. I agree with this concession by Rothbard, but I think it suggests that radical liberals have been ignoring what is really the most important issue in the question of the state: the political culture. 
The source of the difficulty with the anarchists' argument, as well as the arguments of their critics, is, in my view, the economistic vice of analyzing individual human beings as autonomous, cultureless "agents." In practice, each of the disputants presupposes a set of beliefs that seem reasonable to him, beliefs which his critics charge beg the question. The solution is not to pretend to avoid discussion of beliefs altogether, but to make the issue of such beliefs the central theme of political discourse.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

General rules, specific outcomes, and #refugees

The S.S. St. Louis was a ship full of unscreened potential refugees with unproven economic potential coming from a war zone filled with enemies of Canada and the United States, but seeking refuge.

We see the rejection of the St. Louis' would-be refugees as a tragedy, but by the standards many people advocate for determining which refugees we should accept, we would turn it around again today.

Rules should be general, not specific. Sometimes our general rules will not give us the specific results we want and bad things will happen. We'll let in a criminal, a spy, or a radical, or we'll condemn innocent people we could have saved to die. Perfection isn't an option, and neither is a costless policy.

Whether or not we should have a rule that would require us to turn away the St. Louis today is arguable, not a discussion beyond the pale. But people who advocate for that rule should have to own up to the potential costs of their preferred policy, not just preach the virtues of caution.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

A response to Liz Wolfe on free speech and not being a jerk

Because constructive criticism was (and continues to be) so important to finding my voice, and because the author has expressed her desire to hear it, I'm responding to the post Libertarians, It’s Time to Decide: Compassion or Free Speech Purism? from the Students for Liberty blog (which has also generated an excellent response). 

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

'Duties' in democracy

The argument that we must vote goes like this: since it affects all of us in an important way, it can only work if enough of us participate, and we each have the power to participate, we have a duty to vote. Because it's a duty, doing it is always the right thing to do, so we should vote 'no matter what' and 'do our part' for democracy.

But if democracy is about more than putting ballots into boxes and instead about, as Don Lavoie puts it in 'Democracy, Markets, and the Legal Order: Notes on the Nature of Politics in a Radically Liberal Society', "openness and publicness, not some particular theory of how to elect the personnel of government", and, "not a quality of the conscious will of a representative organization that has been legitimated by the public, but a quality of the discursive process of the distributed wills of the public itself", then electoral voting is only how we choose a single organization playing a part in the ongoing process of democracy - a small part of a whole.

Democracy, more broadly considered, is the process that establishes the limits of public opinion, values, and culture. As Lavoie puts it:
"What makes a legal system, any legal system, work is a shared system of belief in the rules of justice—a political culture. The culture is, in turn, an evolving process, a tradition which is continually being reappropriated in creative ways in the interpersonal and public discourses through which social individuals communicate... Everything depends here on what is considered acceptable social behavior, that is, on the constraints imposed by a particular political culture. Where slavery is considered offensive, those who attempt to practice it are easily overwhelmed by the horror of the public. Where it is thought by the general public to be justifiable, no amount of constitutional design will prevent it.those who attempt to practice it."
In elections, the scope for discourse is narrow and closed, occurring between sets of ideas drawn from all of acceptable public opinion. But the process by which we establish acceptable public opinion, or our 'political culture', is broad and open, and that's the only way it works. To build our culture, we propose ideas from in and outside the norm and test them through study, discussion, and argument. It must be open to all if we're to know what ideas and values are most important, and enough of us have to participate for it to work.

This process is more important than electoral voting because it is a prerequisite for free elections. All free societies, regardless of how they choose their governments, depend on it. If the importance of elections is a compelling reason to participate, the argument for taking part in this process should be far more persuasive. It affects all of society in an important way.

You have the right to study public policy, philosophy, economics, and psychology to try to understand them, to debate them, and test their mettle. You have a right to spend your time trying to persuade others of what you think you've discovered. Doing all of these things will make you a powerful contributor to political culture and you have the power to do them. But while you have a right to do all of it, you don't have an obligation to do any of it. No moral obligation follows from having rights, even if using those rights contribute to democracy and democracy is socially important.

If voting is a duty because of the need for broad participation, the potential for wide societal impact, and the ability to contribute, then there should also be a duty to participate in serious, ongoing study and dedication to democratic participation. If, on the other hand, these reasons are insufficient to make deep, ongoing commitment to democracy a duty, then they are insufficient to make voting a duty.

Someone who participates in only the lowest-cost form of engagement, voting, has the power to do more, but chooses not to. That's fine. Part of the process of democracy is moving in and out of participation, and it's not the only thing in life that matters. But it shows us that these reasons for considering voting a duty might not be sufficient, after all - it might be fine to abstain from even the lowest-cost form of engagement. A broader conception of democracy helps untangle the rhetoric around participation so that we can decide whether and when it's worth participating, along the most meaningful way to do so.