A preliminary argument against moral blameworthiness

For a while now I’ve advocated not an absence of morality, but an absence of moral blameworthiness. Here’s a first, brief attempt to jot down the basic idea.

There’s two arguments. First let’s consider the epistemic conditions that must hold to make a moral judgment. For any enunciator of a moral judgment, e.g. “this murder, being unprovoked, was wrong,” the speaker must have knowledge of specific details of the case — who committed the crime? was there malice aforethought? — and also moral knowledge, knowledge with normative validity. To judge something as moral or immoral, then, requires information of one kind which is open to forensic methods and of another kind which is … highly contested as to its epistemic foundations. Obvious thus far. Now, this is the situation of the bystander judging retroactively. The perpetrator of the immoral act is in an even worse predicament. Most people would agree, as a basic axiom of juvenile jurisprudence, that a person must have “knowledge of right and wrong” in order to be morally blameworthy. This allows us to discriminate between mentally competent adults, on the one hand, and children or mentally challenged individuals on the other. However, like we have said, this domain of right and wrong is highly contested by highly intelligent people, enough to cast skepticism into all but the most stubborn, and so most people, acting according to their ethics, understand themselves to be acting uncertainly. And, unlike the bystander judging retroactively, the perpetrator is on a time crunch, and must make snap decisions without the luxury of an analysis of the objective conditions — who, what, how, why — or a literature review of the subjective conditions, the theories.

So, to sum up, moral blameworthiness requires knowledge of right and wrong. This knowledge is highly contested (and widely considered to be emotional rather than rational); thus, people must act, but must act under highly uncertain information. Without an agreed-upon rubric moral action is more or less guessed. The doer is in a more uncertain situation than the judger so his judgment is likely to be less justified, more forgivably wrong.

Okay, but now as a friend has pointed out, where morality is highly contested is on the margins, and not the fundamentals. There is a lot of agreement that unprovoked murder is wrong, this does not seem highly contested (though certainly there is disagreement provided the forensic circumstances). So, can we not hold a murderer morally accountable?

Here, in response to that, is the second argument, which is much more fundamental and probably exposes me to some logical consequences I don’t want to accept. With action, there is something we could call a “regression to non-autonomy.” Traditional perspectives on morality and punishment emphasized the individual making a choice to commit an offense. This choice reflected bad moral character. More recently, the social sciences have impacted the way we think about choices: people are shaped by their environments, and often they do not choose these environments. Get the picture? But, it is even worse than that. We could say that the murderer chose to pull the trigger; but, he did not choose to be the sort of person who in that situation would pull the trigger. That person was a product of their environment and their genes. Aren’t they also a product of “themselves”? Yes, but they did not choose to be themselves; they simply are. And, even when someone “chooses to be a better person,” this choice logically presupposes the ability to choose to become a better person, which, again, is an ability bestowed upon some and not upon others and is never of our own choosing. Thus if we go back far enough we find autonomy, or a self-creative element, is not at root in our behavior and choices. And non-autonomous action cannot be considered morally blameworthy.

This is my argument (I do not claim originality; many people have said similar things). The murderer is doing something immoral, but finding them worthy of blame seems, to me, almost if not always out of the question. This ends up being hard to accept psychologically: I want to find history’s greatest villains morally culpable. I cannot, though. Instead of any sort of retributivist punishment — found, now, to be psychologically satisfying but morally confused — we are left only with punishment policy that seeks to deter or isolate offenders, the category of “moral blameworthiness” found to be lacking.

I invite criticisms of the arguments as sketched out here — preferrably, ones that don’t require us to get into what actually is moral or the status of free will.

Advertisements

Ayn Rand and International Politics

In a previous post I promised to write about Ayn Rand and her views on international politics, based on a recently published article.

I find Ayn Rand a fascinating figure in libertarian history, for a number of reasons. Her life style and ways she went about it in her life are so far distanced from me, that made me curious. Some of her philosophical ideas are great, others do not appeal to me at all. I plainly admire her for making the moral case for capitalism and individualism, which stands out in the economist-dominated libertarian tradition.

I am on the one hand annoyed by the way she fostered such cult-like circle of followers, in her own day and after her death in 1982, that led to dogmatism and intellectual isolationism, which goes against all basic academic standards I think are crucial.

On the other hand, I think the people at the Ayn Rand Institute do a great job preserving her legacy and attempting to widen her appeal. Overall, I am convinced that no matter what your take on this fascinating figure or her work is, Rand deserves to be studied in academia, because she remains influential to this day, especially in the US, and left a serious collection of writings that warrant intellectual analysis, even by people who do not consider themselves Randian.

Against this background I made a comparison between mainstream liberal theories of International Relations (IR) and the ideas on world affairs of Ayn Rand. The brief summary of the first is as follows:

  • World peace is attainable, in the belief that humans are rational enough to overcome war and conflict.
  • The nation is seen as a problematic actor in world affairs. Its room for maneuvering needs to be curtailed, including the importance of the balance of power between states, and the alleged influence of ‘war mongering’ diplomats and the so-called military-industrial complex.
  • Peace oriented foreign policies can be fostered by domestic institutional arrangements, most notably democracy (democratic peace theory).
  • In the international realm, there is an important role for intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations, regimes and international law (liberal institutionalism), which aim to overcome or neutralize the effects of the logic of power politics.
  • International trade is also expected to foster peace, often in combination with the alleged pacifying influence of interest groups and public opinion of foreign policy decision-making.
  • A recent addition is the broad support for humanitarian intervention.

To keep this blog at readable length I will not go into the details of Rand’s writings, but limit myself to her main views on these ideas, which should be seen in the context of her fierce opposition to the Soviet Union and its allies in the Cold War, and her concern for America losing its super power position through internal causes, not least the loss of the individual liberty-enhancing spirit among the American people.

  • In contrast to classical liberals from Smith to Hayek, Rand did indeed think that world peace would be attainable, but only in an Objectivist world. Among rational men living according the Objectivist principles there would be a harmony of rational interests. Yet in the current world there was also abundant irrational behaviour, bad morality, and other grounds for dispute.
  • The main causes of war were not material issues, domestic interests, institutional arrangements, or the structure of the international system. Rather, war was rooted in human nature. It went back to the tribal era, when brute force was the prime rule of conduct. The (socialist) dictatorships were contemporary examples in her mind, with their lack of respect for the rights of their own citizens, and those of foreigners alike. ‘Statism needs war, a free country does not’.
  • Rand was inconsistent in her valuation of the power of public opinion. She noted that most people often do not want war. Yet the origins of war still lay with those civilians, also in non-democratic regimes, because they failed to reject the doctrine that it was right and justified to achieve goals by physical force. If people put up with a dictatorship like the Soviet Union, or decided not to flee, they were co-responsible for the deeds, and deserved the same fate as their government.
  • Rand recognized that individuals live in groups or communities, but she regarded respect for tribal roots, ethnicity, and regional languages as uncivil and, above all, irrational and a limit on individual liberty. Ethnicity was also an important cause of war. Nationalism was perhaps less abstract than Marxism, but it was at least as vicious in stirring emotions such as hatred, fear, and suspicion. Therefore rational people would altogether disregard their roots as guides in (political) life.
  • Rand had two positions on the issues of sovereignty and intervention, depending on the moral character of the nation in question. Sovereignty was a right that had to be earned, but could also be forfeited. If a nation fully respected the principle of individual rights, it’s right to sovereignty was morally secured and should be respected by other nations. However, if a state violated the rights of its citizens it would lose its sovereign rights. ‘A nation ruled by brute force is not a nation, but a horde, whether led by Atilla, Genghis Khan, Hitler, Khrushchev, or Castro.’
  • Dictatorships were outlaws and could therefore be invaded as a matter of choice for the free nations, although there was no duty to do so. The right to self-determination and sovereignty only existed for free nations, and for societies seeking to establish freedom.
  • Yet this way, anarchy loomed. Rand divided the world into three groups of countries. First, countries complying to the Objectivist principles, with full sovereign rights. Second, countries on their way to freedom, often referred to as ‘mixed economies’, or half-way houses between freedom and dictatorship. Third, countries not worth existing, such as dictatorships and tyrannies. Unfortunately, the world lacked fully free countries. The mixed economies did not have unlimited right of intervention, they could only interfere when another country seriously breached Objectivist principles, for example by establishing one party rule, enacting censorship laws, executing people for political offences without trial, or nationalizing or expropriating private property.
  • Rand acknowledged the perpetual influence of power in world politics. The character of international politics was, and always had been among states, a balance of power game.
  • The US army was under domestic, non-patriotic attack for its virtues, for being a competent and strong force. It was unwise to cut the defence budget, while -in another contrast to liberal IR thought- ‘the military-industrial complex’ was ‘a myth or worse’.
  • Statism at the international level, in the form of ‘a planetary community’ and other cosmopolitan ideas had to be rejected. The collaboration of semi-free countries with communist dictatorships in the UN was evil and stood in contrast to reason, ethics, and civilization. The UN provided the Russian camp with prestige and moral sanction, suggesting that ‘the difference between human rights and mass slaughter is just a matter of opinion’.
  • Another point of contention with the social liberals was development cooperation. Foreign aid was nothing but ‘altruism extended to the international realm’.
  • While, in contrast to social liberals, she lacked faith in international law as such, Rand did regard international treaties as firm obligations.
  • Also, Rand saw peaceful effects of laissez-faire capitalism, because it was based on the recognition of self-interest by free individuals and the non-initiation of force. Capitalism fostered a society of traders. Therefore the essence of Objectivist foreign policy had to be free trade.

To briefly sum up: Rand’s writing show that not all liberals are peace-seeking cosmopolitans, attempting to minimise the role of the nation, the balance of power, the military, and warfare in international relations. She rejected most forms of international governmental organization and other expressions of liberal institutionalism. Often her ideas lack sufficient (legal) detail, while they are also centred on America, and hence limited to the perspective of an influential super power with large military capacity. Yet her writings show that fostering liberty in international relations can be done in several ways, and that different liberals have different ideas about the route towards that goal.

What if we have already been ruled by an Intelligent Machine – and we are better off being so?

Common people and even reputed scientists, such as Stephen Hawking, have been worrying about the very menace of machines provided with Artificial Intelligence that could rule the whole human genre in detriment of our liberty and welfare. This fear has two inner components: the first one, that the Artificial Intelligence will outshine human intellectual capabilities; and the second one, that the Intelligent Machines will be endowed with their own volition.

Obviously, it would be an evil volition or, at least, a very egotistic one. Or maybe the Intelligent Machines will not necessarily be evil or egotistic, but only as fearful of humans as they are of machines – although more powerful. Moreover, depending on their morality on a multiplicity of reasonings we cannot grasp, we could not ascertain whether their superior intelligence (as we suppose the feared machines would be enabled with) is good or evil, or just more complex than ours.

Nevertheless, there is still a additional third assumption which accompanies all the warnings about the perils of thinking machines: that they are a physical shell inhabited by an Artificial Intelligence. Inspired by Gilbert Ryle’s critique of Cartesian Dualism, we can state that the belief of Intelligent Machines provided with an autonomous volition rests upon the said assumption of an intelligence independent from its physical body: a self-conscious being whose thoughts are fully independent from the sensory apparatus of its body and whose sensations are fully independent from the abstract classification which its mind operates by.

The word “machine” evokes a physical device. However, a machine might as well be an abstract one. Abstract Machines are thought experiments compounded by algorithms which delivers an output from an input of information which, in turn, could be used as an input for another circuit. Theses algorithms can emulate a decision making process, providing a set of consequences for a given set of antecedents.

In fact, all recent cybernetic innovations are the result of the merging of abstract machines with physical ones: machines that play chess, drive cars, recognize faces, etc.. Since they do not have an autonomous will and the sensory data they produce are determined by their algorithms, whose output, in turn, depends on the limitation of their hardware, people are reluctant to call their capabilities “real intelligence.” Perhaps the reason of that reluctance is that people are expecting automata which accomplish the Cartesian Dualism paradigm of a thinking being.

But what if an automaton enabled with an intelligence superior to ours has already existed and is ruling at least part of our lives? We do not know of any being of that kind, if for a ruling intelligent machine we regard a self-conscious and will-driven one. But the ones who are acquainted with the notion of law as a spontaneous and abstract order will not find any major difficulty to grasp the analogy between the algorithms that form an abstract machine and general and abstract laws that compound a legal system.

The first volume of Law, Legislation, and Liberty by Friedrich A. Hayek, subtitled “Norms [Rules] and Order” (1973), is until today the most complete account of the law seen as an autonomous system, which adapts itself to the changes in its environment through a process of negative feedback that brings about marginal changes in its structure. Abstract and general notions of rights and duties are well-known by the agents of the system and that allows to everyone to form expectations about the behaviour of each other. When a conflict between two agents arises, a judge establishes the correct content of the law to be applied to the given case.

Notwithstanding our human intelligence -using its knowledge about the law- is capable of determining the right decision to each concrete controversy between two given agents, the system of the law as whole achieves a higher degree of complexity than any human mind might reach. Whereas our knowledge of a given case depends on acquiring more and more concrete data, our knowledge of the law as a whole is related to more and more abstract degrees of classifications. Thus, we cannot fully predict the complete chain of consequences of a singular decision upon the legal system as a whole. This last characteristic of the law does not mean its power of coercion is arbitrary. As individuals, we are enabled with enough information about the legal system to design our own plans and to form correct expectations about other people’s behaviour. Thus, legal constraints do not interfere with individual liberty.

On the other hand, the absolute boundary to the knowledge of the legal system as a whole works as a limitation to the political power over the law and, thence, over individuals. But, after all, that is what the concept of rule of law is about: we are much better off being ruled by an abstract and impersonal entity, more complex than the human mind, than by the self-conscious -but discretional- rule of man. Perhaps, law is not at all an automaton which rules our lives, but we can ascertain that law -as a spontaneous order- prevents other men from doing so.

Words on the Move

I just listened to a recent(ish) episode of Econ Talk: John McWhorter on the Evolution of Language and Words on the Move.

I particularly enjoyed this episode because:

  1. Emergent order (duh!).
  2. It shed new light (for me) on a category of words that serve a function but don’t really mean anything. “Well” doesn’t really mean anything. Well, sometimes it means a hole filled with water, but in this sentence I’m using it as a “pragmatic.” Other pragmatics like eh, and huh feel like filler, but they’re really a part of oral communication where the speaker can casually and non-disruptively check in with the listener. Pretty cool, huh?
  3. And the discussion of accents was interesting in light of an experience I had just the other day. I’ll get to that at the bottom, but let me set the stage…

I’ve been particularly aware of my own accent since a young age because kids have always been quick to point out how different I’ve always sounded. At around age 7 I moved from the prairies to southern Ontario and I remember some kid asking me if I was British. They might have been picking up on regional variation in the Canadian accent, or it might be that my accent was affected by the movies and TV shows I had watched to that point (I suspect watching Monty Python at a young age deeply affected me).

Later (aged 17) I moved from Canada to Texas where I worked very hard to ditch my Canadian accent and gain some Southern drawl. When I moved to California I kept trying to lose the Canadian parts of my accent but gave up on trying to gain the drawl. When I moved to Boston I picked up some affectations that now makes me stand out on Long Island. I drink kahfee instead of quofee, but since I never did like the mwahll, my pronunciation of “mall” is probably the slightly-off version I would have picked up in my youth.

The other day I was talking to a student and noticed something especially bizarre–as our conversation moved from seafood (note to self: soak calamari in buttermilk for 3 days) to boar hunting I found myself involuntarily moving back into my Texas voice! (You’ve probably already guessed that this was an econometrics student.) I have zero experience with hunting, but I had to suppress this reflexive change in my accent. Somehow, all the automatic processes in my brain have lined up in such a way that made it clear that not only do I have a lot of tacit knowledge, but I even have unseen triggers for how I communicate.

Libertarianism, Classical Liberalism, Right Wing Populism, and Democracy

An interesting exchange has occurred between Will Wilkinson of the Niskanen Center and Ilya Somin writing for the Washington Post on the issue of the influence of libertarianism over the modern Republican Party’s erosion of liberal democratic norms. In his initial piece, Wilkinson seemed to argue that the Libertarian view of absolutism in regards to property rights which was a way to offer an emotionally gratifying alternative to socialist redistribution was responsible for the Right’s adoption of a populist outlook which eroded democratic norms, for example, policies like Voter ID and Gerrymandering. Ilya Somin responded by pointing out that the libertarian “absolutist” conception of property rights had next to nothing to do with why many libertarians Wilkinson cites are skeptical of democracy. Wilkinson responded by saying his initial argument was confusingly stated, not that absolutist property rights is driving democratic erosion on the part of the right, by trying to clarify his distinction between “libertarian” and “classical liberal.” Somin pointed out that this response undermines the force of Wilkinson’s initial argument and took issue with some of his other points.

I wish to contribute to this debate because, even though Somin is largely right that Wilkinson’s argument is weakened by his clarification, I think both have missed that Wilkinson has fundamentally misunderstood what right-wing populism is and why it is a threat to democracy. Modern right-wing populism does not try to erode majoritarian democracy, even if it erodes some of the institutional norms which make it possible for modern liberal democracy to function. Rather, populism, in its many forms, weaponizes democratic rhetoric which is premised on the very notions which libertarians and classical liberals critical of democracy seek to challenge. Attempts to tie such criticisms to the modern right is absurd and distracts us from confronting those aspects which are actually threatening about the right’s pathologies. Afterwards, I will comment on some of the other minor confusions into which I believe Wilkinson falls.

Populism and Folk Democratic Intuitions

In Wilkinson’s genealogy, the root of modern libertarianism is an attempt to weaponize classical liberalism’s defense of property against the desire for socialist redistribution. As he tells it, classical liberals like Hayek and Buchanan sought to put trigger locks on democracy in the form of constitutional constraints on majority rule whereas radical libertarians like Rand, Nozick, and Rothbard sought to disarm democracy altogether from violating property rights. This conception leaves no room for any analysis of or support for democratic decision-making. Since the end of the Cold War, the right has continued to believe this absolutist property rights argument was extremely important even after the Red Menace had been slain and so is willing to do anything, including throwing democracy under the bus, to defend property rights. As Wilkinson puts it:

And that’s why ideological free-market conservatives tend to be so accommodating to, if not exactly comfortable with, populist white identity politics. In their minds, mundane left-right differences about tax rates and the generosity of the welfare state are recast as a Manichean clash between the light of free enterprise and the darkness of socialist expropriation. This, in turn, has made it seem morally okay, maybe even urgently necessary, to do whatever it takes—bunking down with racists, aggressively redistricting, inventing paper-thin pretexts for voting rules that disproportionately hurt Democrats, whatever—to prevent majorities from voting themselves a bigger slice of the pie.

In his follow up, after Somin pointed out that irrational factors like partisanship are more likely to influence a voter’s decision than complicated moral theories such as property rights, Wilkinson attempted to make this argument more plausible by giving the hypothetical example of a white working-class republican voter who, while not fully libertarian, uses his thin knowledge of libertarian property rights absolutism as a form of motivated reasoning justifying his erosion of democratic norms:

Burt is a moderately politically engaged mechanical engineer with ordinary civics-class ideas about democracy, as well as a strong distaste for paying his taxes. (He wants to buy a boat.) One day Burt picks up Atlas Shrugged on the recommendation of a friend, likes it a lot, and spends a few weeks poking around libertarian precincts of the Internet, where he encounters a number of libertarian arguments, like Rand’s, that say that taxation violates a basic, morally inviolable right. Burt happens to find these arguments extremely convincing, especially if he’s been idly shopping for boats online. Moreover, these arguments strongly suggest to Burt that democracy is a dangerous institution by which parasitic slackers steal things from hyper-competent hard workers, like Burt.

Now, none of this leads Burt to think of himself as a “libertarian.” He thinks of himself as a Lutheran, a moderate Republican, and a very serious Whovian. He’s suspicious of “free trade.” He’s “tough on crime.” Burt would never disrespect “our troops” by opposing a war, and he thinks legalizing drugs is bananas. Make no mistake: Burt is not a libertarian. But selective, motivated exposure to a small handful of libertarian arguments has left Burt even more indignant about taxes, and a bit sour on democracy—an altogether new attitude that makes him feel naughtily iconoclastic and a wee bit brave. Over time, the details of these arguments have faded for Burt, but the sentiments around taxation, redistribution, and democracy have stuck.

Ayn Rand and the other libertarian thinkers Burt encountered in his brief flush of post-Atlas Shrugged enthusiasm wanted him to be indignant about redistribution and wanted him to be sour on democracy. He drew the inferences their arguments were designed to elicit. The fact that he’s positively hostile to other elements of the libertarian package can’t mean he hasn’t been influenced by libertarian ideas.

Let’s suppose that, a few years later, a voter-ID ballot initiative comes up in Burt’s state. The local news tells Burt that this will likely make it harder for Democrats to win by keeping poorer people without IDs away from the polls. Burt rightly surmises that these folks are likely to vote, if they can, to take even more of his money in taxes. A policy that would make it less likely for those people to cast a ballot sounds great to Burt. Then it occurs to him, with a mild pang of Christian guilt, that this is a pretty selfish attitude. But then Burt remembers those very convincing arguments about the wickedness of democratic redistribution, and it makes him feel better about supporting the voter-ID requirement. Besides, he gives at church. So he votes for the initiative come election day.

That’s influence. And it’s not trifling, if there are a lot of Burts. I think there are a lot of Burts. Even if the partisan desire to stick it to Democrats is doing most of the work in driving Burt’s policy preference, the bit of lightly-held libertarian property rights absolutism that got into Burt’s system can still be decisive. If it gives him moral permission to act on partisan or racial or pecuniary motives that he might otherwise suppress, the influence might not be so small.

The problem here is not just, as Somin says, that this dances around the issue that people like Burt have become less libertarian over time and so it seems silly to blame libertarianism for his actions. It sounds as if Wilkinson has never actually talked to a populist-leaning voter like Burt. If you do, you will not find that Burt is skeptical of democracy or sees himself as defending some important ideal of laissez-faire capitalism against irrational socialist voters who are using democracy to destroy it. It is more likely that you will find that Burt sees himself as defending the “silent majority” who democracy should rightly represent from evil liberal, socialist and “cultural Marxist” elites who are undermining democracy, and how Trump will stop all the elitist liberals in the courts and media from alienating the common man with common sense by “draining the swamp.”

Read, for example, Rothbard’s original call for libertarians to ally with nationalist right-wing populists. In it, you’ll find no mention of how small “d” democracy attacks property rights because voters are rationally ignorant, and you won’t find, to quote Wilkinson, skepticism towards “a perspective that bestows dignity upon democracy and the common citizen’s democratic role.” Instead, you’ll find that the “grassroots” of the right-wing common man like the secessionists and neo-confederates who are defending property rights against the “socialist tyranny” of the “beltway elites,” Clintons, and the Federal Reserve. Modern adherents to this Rothbardian populist strategy define populism as “a political strategy that aims to mobilize a largely alienated base of the populace against out-of-control elites.” It sounds more like a radically majoritarian, Jacksonian screed about how the voice of the people needs to be truly represented.

Importantly, what the libertarian populists are trying to do is take the folk democratic intuitions which populist right-wingers have, intuitions upon which most peoples’ beliefs in the legitimacy of democracy rely, and channel those intuitions in a more thinly “libertarian” direction. Unfortunately, this is why many modern right-libertarians in the style of Ron Paul are impotent against white supremacists and often try to cozy up to them: because an important part of their strategy is to regurgitate the vulgar democratic rhetoric in which populists believe.

By contrast, modern skeptics of democracy in libertarian circles (or “classical liberal” or “cultural libertarian,” whichever semantic game Wilkinson wants to play to make his argument coherent), such as Ilya Somin, Bryan Caplan, and Jason Brennan, fundamentally undermine those folk democratic intuitions. While right-wing populists believe that the “common man” with his “common sense” knows better how the world works than the evil conniving academic elite does, the libertarian skeptic of democracy points out that the majority of voters know next to nothing and fail to be competent voters due to their rational ignorance. While populist voters believe that the voice of the majority should rule our governing structure, public choice tells us that “majority will” is mostly an illusionary concept. While populist voters believe that the “trigger locks” like courts are evil impediments to the people’s will and regularly attack them, libertarian skeptics of democracy view such institutions as the last line of defense against the irrational and ignorant mob of hooligan voters.

In fact, if people listened to folks like Somin and Brennan, populism of the sort that we’ve seen on the right would be an impossible position to maintain. This is partially why Rothbard largely rejected the public-choice analysis on which scholarship like Somin’s depends.

To try to link modern public choice-inspired skepticism of democracy with populism of any form, even in its most pseudo-libertarian form of the late Rothbard, is to grossly misunderstand populism, classical liberalism, and libertarianism. It seems rather odd to blame Somin and company for the rise of a political ideology which their arguments render incoherent. A Nancy MacLean-like conspiracy to undermine majority rule doesn’t have much of anything to do with the modern right when they think they are the majority who’s being oppressed by elites.

Neither is this some trivial matter of simply assigning blame incorrectly. The problem with populism on the right which has eroded American democracy is not that it thinks democracy is wrong, most populists naively have a lot of folk intuitions which imply some sort of vague proceduralist justification of strongly majority rule. Rather, they’ve taken the majoritarian, quasi-Jacksonian rhetoric (rhetoric to which libertarians other than Rothbard and classical liberals alike have mostly been opposed) which democrats often use and weaponized it in a manner that undermines the non-majoritarian norms on which liberal democracy is dependent for functioning. For someone like Wilkinson, who defends liberal democracy vigorously, misunderstanding the very nature of the threat seems like a particularly grave error as it renders his arguments impotent against it.

Democratic Majoritarianism versus Democratic Norms

In part, I think Wilkinson falls for this trap because he makes a conceptual confusion between the non-majoritarian liberal ideals on which democracy depends—towards which most libertarians are sympathetic—and democracy’s institutional form as majority rule. I’ve described this as a distinction between “institutional democracy” and “philosophical democracy” in the past, and have argued that one can uphold philosophical democratic norms while being skeptical of the current institutions in which they are embedded. Wilkinson argues, citing an article by Samuel Freeman, that libertarian absolutist conception of property is inherently illiberal as it implies a sort of propertarian, feudalist order. Of course, Wilkinson neglects to mention a response to Freeman by Peter Boettke and Rosolino Candela claiming that Freeman misunderstands the role property rights play in libertarian theory.

I am not an absolutist natural property rights-oriented libertarian at all, however in their defense, it is wrong for Wilkinson to think that belief in absolutist property rights—even to the point that one becomes an anarchist like Rothbard—means one is necessarily willing to do anything to undermine democracy to defend property rights. As Somin mentions, not all libertarian absolutists in property completely disbelieved in government like Nozick, but more importantly one can be an anarchist who is strongly skeptical of democracy for largely propertarian reasons but still believes, given that we have democracy, certain norms need to be upheld.

Norms such as equality before the law, equal footing in public elections (which Gerrymandering violates), and equal access to political power (which Voter ID laws violate). Just because one believes neo-Lockean arguments about property rights are valid does not mean one cannot coherently also endorse broadly Hayekian accounts of non-majoritarian liberal norms which make it possible for democracies to function (what Wilkinson calls “trigger locks”), even if in particular instances it might result in some property rights violations.

In other words, one can be skeptical that institutional democracy is moral for libertarian reasons while still embracing a broadly philosophically democratic outlook, or simply believe it is preferable to keep some democratic norms intact given that we have a democracy as an nth best possible solution.

What Wilkinson takes issue with is how the modern right attacks the sort of norms which make democracy work, norms with which no libertarian ought to take issue with given that we have a democracy as they are precisely the “trigger locks” which Hayek called for (even if libertarians want much stronger trigger locks to the point of effectively disarming governments). To think these norms are identical with how many libertarians think the specific voting mechanisms which democracy features are flawed is a conceptual confusion.

An Alternative Account of the Relationship between Libertarianism and the Right’s Pathologies

To me, it seems that Wilkinson’s attempt to shoehorn the somewhat nuanced (by the standards of electoral politics, if not by the standards of academic philosophical argumentation) philosophical arguments of Nozick and Rothbard into an account of the rise of Trumpian politics seems fundamentally inconsistent with the way we know voters act. Even if voters sometimes use indirect intellectual influences as a way to reason about their voting preferences in a motivated manner likes Wilkinson imagines, it’s not really explaining why they need to use such motivated reasoning in the first place. Here’s an alternative account:

During the Cold War, as Wilkinson notes, libertarians and conservatives had a common enemy in communism and socialism. As a result, fusionism happened and libertarians and conservatives started cheering for the same political team. After the end of the cold war, fusionism continued and libertarians found it hard to stop cheering for the “red” team for the same tribalist reasons we know non-libertarian irrational voters remain fiercely loyal to their political parties. Today, even though the GOP is becoming extremely less libertarian, some libertarians find it hard to stop cheering for the GOP for the same reasons New England Patriots fans still cheer for Tom Brady after the deflation scandal: old tribalist affiliations are hard to break.

The only real link between libertarians and modern right-wing pathologies are that some voters who have vaguely libertarian ideas still cheer for populist right-wingers in the GOP because they’re irrational hooligans who hate the left for tribalist reasons. This accords better with the fact voters aren’t all that ideological, that they (unlike Burt who’s interested in just lowering his own taxes selfishly) vote based off of perceived national interest more than self-interest, and how we know generally voters behave in partisan tribalist patterns. But this doesn’t make libertarianism any more culpable for the rise of the modern right’s erosion of democratic norms any more than (and probably less than given its limited influence) any other ideological current which has swayed the right to any degree.

How does this make sense of Wilkinson’s only real, non-hypothetical evidence of libertarian influence on the modern GOP, that some right wing politicians like Paul Ryan and Rand Paul sometimes cite Ayn Rand and Rothbard? Politicians sometimes use intellectual influences haphazardly to engage in certain sorts of motivated-reasoning to cater to subsets of voters, even though they overwhelmingly disagree with those thinkers. This why Paul Ryan first praised Ayn Rand, to get some voters who like Rand, and then later emphasized how much he rejected Rand. This is why Rand Paul cites libertarians simply to virtue-signal to some subset of libertarianish voters while constantly supporting extremely un-libertarian policies. Ted Cruz has said that conservatives “should talk about policy with a Rawlsian lens,” but nobody thinks that Rawls has been particularly influential over Cruz’s policy decisions. All politicians do when they cite an intellectual influence is try to play to cater to the tribalist, pseudo-intellectual inklings of some nerdy voters (“I read the same guys as you do, therefore I’m on your team”), it usually doesn’t mean they really were deeply influenced by or even understand the thinker they cite.

Libertarians and Classical Liberals

Let me conclude this article by addressing a side-issue of how to parse out the distinction between classical liberals and libertarians. One of Wilkinson’s ways of clarifying his disagreement with Somin was by claiming that there is something fundamentally different between “libertarianism” and “classical liberalism.” As Wilkinson puts it:

Absolutist rights-based libertarianism isn’t really part of this conversation at all. It’s effectively an argument against liberalism and the legitimacy of liberal political institutions, which is why it’s so confusing that the folk taxonomy lumps libertarianism and classical liberalism together, and sets them against standard left-liberalism. The dispute between liberalism and hardcore libertarianism concerns whether it’s possible to justify democratic political authority at all. The dispute within liberalism, about the status of economic rights and the legitimate scope of democratic decision-making, is much smaller than that.

Thus, Wilkinson seems to think that libertarians think political authority can’t be justified given that property rights are absolute and that classical liberals just think economic liberties should be included as liberal liberties. However, in my view this taxonomy of ideologies is still confused. Many who typically count as “libertarians” do not fit neatly into such a schema and need to be ignored.

You need to ignore significant portions of libertarians who still endorse property rights but think they are insufficient to a full conception of liberty and endorse other liberal freedoms, like the aforementioned Peter Boettke paper. You need to ignore intuitionist libertarians who do not endorse an absolutist conception of property rights but still dispute that political authority is justified at all, like Mike Huemer. You need to ignore consequentialists who do not embrace absolutist property rights as a philosophical position but think some sort of absolutist property-based anarchist society is desirable against liberal democracy, like David Friedman and Don Lavoie’s students. You need to ignore “thick” left libertarians like Charles Johnson and Gary Chartier who endorse libertarian views of rights yet think they imply far more egalitarian leftist positions. Further, you’d need to claim that most people the public readily identifies as some of the most influential libertarians of all time, like Hayek and Milton Friedman, are not actually libertarian which obscures rather than clarifies communication. Basically, the distinction is only useful if you’re trying to narrowly clarify disagreements between someone like JS Mill and someone like Rothbard.

I agree that there are distinctions between “libertarians” and “classical liberals” that can be drawn and the folk taxonomy that treats them creates a lot of confusion. However, it seems obvious if one talks to most libertarians, there is more going on in their ideology than just “property rights are absolute” and that there is a strong intermingled influence between even the most radical of anarchist libertarians and classical liberals. It is also true that there are a small minority of libertarians who are thoroughly illiberal (like Hoppe), but it seems better to just call such odd illiberal aberrations “propertarian” and still treat most libertarians as a particularly radical subset of classical liberals.

Ultimately, however, I think this taxonomical dispute, while interesting, isn’t particularly closely related to the problem at hand: the relationship between right-wing populism and libertarianism.

A feast of classical liberal thought: Mont Pelerin Society in Stockholm

Last week, Stockholm hosted a special meeting of the Mont Pelerin Society (MPS) on the populist threats to the free society. MPS meetings are held under Chatham House rules, which means I cannot report in any detail about the proceedings. Yet a few impressions can be shared.

I have been a MPS member since 2010, when my nomination was accepted at the end of the general meeting in Sydney. In those days the old rules still applied, which meant you had to attend three meetings before you could be nominated for membership. However, this strict rule led to the erosion of the membership base (the MPS was literally starving out), so the rules to join as a member have been made easier.

My first MPS meeting was in Guatemala City, in 2006. I had participated in the essay contest for young scholars which is always organized in the run-up to the bi-annual General Meetings. As a runner-up I won free entry to the meeting. I happened to be in the south of the USA in the weeks before, doing PhD research at the Mises Institute in Alabama, so could easily make the trip to Central America. Because I lived in Manila during those years, I could also easily attend the 2008 meeting in Tokyo.

I had are number of reasons for wanting to join the MPS. First of all, the quality of the meetings offer a great chance to listen to and speak with the leading scholars within current classical liberalism. Increasingly multidisciplinary (back in the old days the economists dominated), the programme committees of the MPS Meetings always succeed in attracting an impressive crowd of high quality speakers and commentators from across the globe. I always find this a great intellectual treat. Second, the meetings are characterized by extremely pleasant and open atmospheres. Everybody mingles with everybody, you can talk with everybody, no matter your age, or academic background. Thirdly, the meetings take place across the globe, so they offer a great opportunity to travel and see places. Although it must be added that even when you do not stay at the conference hotel, the meetings are never very cheap, so it remains an investment. Fourth, for a Hayekian like myself, it feels very good to be a member of the society founded by the master himself, which had and has such an illustrious membership, ever since its beginnings 70 years ago.

Besides the big one week General Meetings held every two years, there are shorter regional or special meetings in the other years. Last week’s MPS meeting in Stockholm was a special meeting, very well-organized by the Ratio Institute. The theme was discussed from numerous angles, through sessions on Russia’s foreign policy, the economic issue of secular stagnation, or the danger of political Islamism. Two sessions were focused on new classical liberal ideas to counter the threats. At the opening day there was a session for young scholars to present papers. This was of course also a way to attract new talent and interest in the MPS. And at the end of the second day there was something different: beer tasting while listening to Johan Norberg. A rather splendid combination!

The speakers and commentators were high level, including MPS chair Peter Boettke (George Mason), David Schmidtz (Arizona), Deirdre McCloskey (Illinois), John Tomasi (Brown), Leszek Balcerowic (former president of Poland’s Central Bank), Russia specialist Anders Aslund, German thinker Karen Horn, Jacob Levy (McGill), Mark Pennington (Kings College London), Paul Cliteur (Leiden), Amigai Magen (Hoover Institution), and the energetic Ralf Bader (Oxford). A lineup like this guarantees a number of new insights, solid arguments, and general intellectual stimulus. Many answers were provided, yet in true academic fashion, many questions remain.

While well represented in this program, International Relations are normally a minor topic at MPS meetings, and there are not many IR scholars around (nor are sociologists or legal scholars, by the way). Personally I am convinced that the future appeal of classical liberal thought also relies on taking into account world affairs. So there is a need to keep on writing and publishing about it, to expand the basis for thought, also in the MPS. To hear about the concerns and insights of other classical liberals in other disciplines helps my thought process, besides remaining up to speed with current classical liberal issues in general.

So it was a great meeting again, And for all you young scholars out there: if you are interested make sure to regularly check the MPS website (www.montpelerin.org) to see if there are opportunities to participate in one of the upcoming meetings.

Catalonia: a philosophical case for Secession

Yesterday, the Catalan government has overwelmingly voted for independence from Spain and to establish an independent republic. 70 were in favour, 10 were against, and 2 votes were blank. Unfortunately, it was rejected by the central governments of Spain and many other countries. Nonetheless, the Catalan case may inspire the other independence movements in Europe.

In this post I’d like to provide a philosophical case for the ethical right of secession based on a libertarian perspective of self-ownership. My argument is exclusively theoretical, although a discussion on how secession could be achieved practically would be interesting as well. I may save that for a post in the future.

Below, you can find a map of other places in Europe with strong secessionist movements:

Structure of my argument

My argument is deductive and runs as follows:

  1. People have the right of self-ownership in accordance with the non-aggression principle, and based on the natural rights philosophy put forward by the political philosopher Murray Rothbard;
  2. If people have the right of self-ownership, they also have the right of voluntary association, voluntary formation of communities, and the right to choose their own leaders;
  3. Sometimes the state that the individual belongs to, violates the rights of the individual to the extent that the individual does not feel associated with it anymore;
  4. Under such circumstances the individual may perceive the state as an unacceptable aggressor, and he is justified to revolt by separating himself from the state. He can form communal associations to secede as a new political unit;
  5. There is no limit to secession. Provinces have the right to secede from a state, a district from the province, a town from the district, a neighbourhood from the town, a household from the neighbourhood, and an individual from the household.

The right of self-ownership and property rights

In For a New Liberty (1973), Murray Rothbard deduces natural law from the essential nature of human beings. He writes that it is in man’s nature to use his mind in order to select values, ends and the means to attain these ends so that he can “act purposively to maintain himself and advance his life”. He furthermore contends that it is absolutely “antihuman” to interfere violently with a man’s “learning and choices” as “it violates the natural law of man’s needs”. Therefore, man’s nature should be protected through his right of self-ownership. This right asserts that man has the absolute right to “own” his body and “to control that body free of coercive interferences”. This right includes the practice of such essential activities as thinking, learning, valuing, and choosing ends and means without any coercion, since such activities are necessary for the enhancement of man’s life.

From this natural right follows the right to do anything with one’s body, including the right to form free associations and communities, and the right not to be violated in one’s self-ownership. Thus, one has the right to associate oneself with the leader of one’s choice, but not the right to impose a leader unto someone else. Likewise, people should be free to join and to leave communities voluntarily.

In addition to the right of free association, people also have property rights. Rothbardian property rights are directly derived from self-ownership rights, and are based on the Lockean homesteading theory. It states that since man owns his person, he owns his labour, and therefore he also owns the fruits thereof. John Locke (1689) has put homesteading theory in the following way:

… every man has a property in his own person. … The labour of his body and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever, then, he removes out of the state of nature hath provided and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with it, and joined it to something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property.

Given that man has the right of self-ownership, and that he must employ natural objects for his survival, then the sculptor has the right to own the product he has made through the mixing of his labour. In other words, by producing something with one’s energy through the utilization of unowned nature, one has, as Rothbard calls it, “placed the stamp of his person upon the raw material”. One therefore rightfully owns the product. Any violation of self-ownership and property rights should hence be regarded as an act of aggression.

The state

The state is nonetheless a social institution that has historically interfered most often with people’s self-ownership and property rights. Max Weber has recognized it as an institution with a territorial monopoly of compulsion in his essay ‘Politics as a Vocation’ (1919). Hoppe, in Democracy – the God that failed (2001), asserts that every government will use this monopoly to exploit its citizens in order to increase its wealth and income.

“Hence every government should be expected to have an inherent tendency toward growth”. (Hoppe)

State exploitation happens in the form of expropriation, taxation, and regulation of private property owners. A state at best respects the rights of individual sovereignty and private property, but because its functioning is dependent on the expropriation of its citizens’ wealth there is a natural conflict between the state and its citizens. According to Franz Oppenheimer (1908), the state can impossibly finance itself without its productive citizens. It can only take that what has already been produced, and therefore it can only exist as a result of the “economic means”. However, this confiscation often involves state violence and aggression as nearly no one is willing to give up on his property voluntarily.

Under such circumstances, it is understandable that conflicts may arise between citizens and the state; sometimes resulting in citizens’ feelings of dissociation from their governments.

Secession

Frédérik Bastiat maintains in The Law (1850) that if everyone has the right to “his person, his liberty, and his property”, then

“a number of men have the right to combine together to extend, to organize a common force to provide regularly for this defense.”

Following Bastiat’s reasoning, I believe that citizens who feel dissociated can then revolt and opt for secession as a form of self-defense against state aggression on their self-ownership and property. Any state that does not recognize its citizens’ rights of secession does not sufficiently recognize the sovereignty of its people. Secession is a powerful means of political action to show the people’s discontent with their leaders. If secession would be impermissible, then the people who want to disassociate themselves from the state have the following three options:
(1) continue living under the oppressive state rule;
or (2) revolt against the state;
or (3) emigrate to another state.

By doing (1), the people continue living under perpetual state aggression, and their sovereignty is continually violated.

If the people choose option (2), then there will be severe and costly consequences which can involve war and destruction of private property. In addition, there are also no guarantees that the revolt against the state will be successful. For these two reasons, this option seems to most secessionists to be the least preferable of the three.

The people can alternatively choose (3) and emigrate to another state. This alternative is often used as an argument against secession under the presumption that those who are unhappy within one particular state, should simply emigrate. However, the cost of emigration can be so significantly high that it is unfeasible. One has for example the costs of finding information on the procedure of emigration, becoming accepted by the other state, finding a new workplace etc… The state can also exert barriers of emigration through tedious bureaucratic processes and passport controls, which makes emigration even more unattractive.

Who are morally justified to secede?

Following man’s right of free association, the answer should be: anyone, as long as it happens on a voluntary basis. Even though most secessionist movements are built on a common ethnicity or common cultural heritage, such precepts are not necessary to justify secession. Moreover, secessionists should not be prescribed any form of social organization as they should be free to choose their own form of government. This means that a multitude of social organizations are possible, including those that are currently non-existent. By being epistemologically modest of what governmental form is best, communities are allowed to experiment and find their own form of government. This will eventually add to our understanding of human social organizations.

Lastly, it is important to note that if secession is ethical, ultimately based on the principle of self-ownership, then it follows that the individual has the right to secede as well.

This right cannot be exclusively granted to groups, because only individuals can have ownership of their own bodies. Self-ownership cannot be shared, just like the mind cannot be shared. The mind is an attribute, inherent only to individuals, and collectives only derive their rights from the rights of their individual members. Therefore the right of self-ownership must necessarily imply the right to practice unlimited secession.

As Rothbard would assert, provinces should have the right to secede from a state, a district from the province, a town from the district, a neighbourhood from the town, a household from the neighbourhood, and an individual from the household. This logical consequence is anarchism.

Conclusion

In setting forward a natural rights defense of self-ownership, I have concluded that individuals have the right to free association and property rights. Unfortunately, states sometimes violate these rights to the extent that its people do not want to be associated with their state anymore. Under such circumstances they retain the right to secede. Secession should however not only be limited to communities. Single individuals also bear the right to secede, since only individuals can possess self-ownership, and since groups can only derive their rights from its individual members.