Some afterthoughts on Rio Paralympics

Paralympics are over, and with them the cycle of Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. Once again the city was able to put up a good show, and thankfully all went well in the Cidade Maravilhosa. But not everything is alright in Rio: even more than the Olympics, the Paralympics were able to show the contradictions between the city where we live everyday and the city of the event: Rio is not welcoming for people with disabilities.

At least in Brazilian Portuguese, political correctness has done a mess with vocabulary concerning the kind of people who compete in Paralympics. We are not supposed to say they are disabled (don’t even think about saying they are crippled!). I think the correct vocabulary today is, as I used, “people with disabilities.” But even that is under political correct scrutiny, so it seems. All this discussion about words springs from cultural Marxism, postmodernism, relativism and the belief that there’s nothing objective beyond our vocabulary. But words can’t hide the reality: Rio is unequal. The way it treats the blind, the lame, and even the elderly or the young, is completely different from the way it treats people in middle-age and more able to walk. And all that despite strong legislation in this area.

One of the greatest debates in political philosophy in the 20th century happened between American philosophers John Rawls and Robert Nozick. Trying to build on classical liberal foundations (but moving to egalitarian liberalism), Rawls pointed out that “equality was supposed to be the moral benchmark for social and political institutions, and that any deviation from equality had to be specially justified.” Nozick answer was that liberty upsets patterns. Even if we have a starting point in society where we have a perfectly equal distribution of goods or assets, the moment that we allow people to be free to make their own choices (as liberalism prescribes) they are going to make choices we cannot possibly predict, and these choices are going to upset any kind of pattern we established in the first place. That happens because each one of us is unique in its own right: each one of us have a specific set of values, preferences and circumstances that upsets any would-be planner. So, if you want to respect human liberty to make choices, you have to give up on any plan for material equality.

Nozick’s answer to Rawls has a lot of Adam Smith in it. In The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) (preceding the more famous Wealth of Nations both in time and argument) Smith presented a character called “man of system.” This person sees society as an architect sees a blueprint for a construction. Smith says such person is “apt to be very wise in his own conceit; and is often so enamored with the supposed beauty of his ideal plan of government that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it.” The problem is that humans have free will, the ability to make choices. And as such, they will upset any blueprint prepared for them. In other words, “individual people are not chess pieces you can move on a board with their dreams and desires ignored.” To the eyes of the would-be planner, “society must be at all times in the highest degree of disorder.”

So, material equality of outcomes (or at least of opportunities) is totally out of reach? Should we disregard it completely? Should the “invisible hand” prevail in spite of the weakest in our society? I don’t think so. Just the opposite! One of the very reasons I find classical liberalism morally appealing is the fact that no economic or political system ever conceived helps the weakest as it does. In other words, contrary to (what seems to me is) the popular belief, classical liberalism defends social justice more than any of its intellectuals alternatives. Answering John Rawls’s famous claim that “a just society will be one whose rules tend to work to the maximum advantage of the least well-off classes,” Friedrich Hayek pointed out exactly this. In The Constitution of Liberty, Hayek agreed with Rawls about the end at which social institutions should aim: the welfare of the least advantaged. He simply disagreed about the means Rawls thought would get us there.

Instead of thinking of us as chess pieces on a board, when can use the analogy of a soccer game (or football, or basketball – suit yourself). The outcome of the game is the result of the player’s individual abilities, but it is also the outcome of the rules. In other words, in a free society, where people are free to choose, the outcomes are not just the result of the innumerable decisions of countless individuals. They are also the result of the rules enforcing property rights, contracts, taxation, and so on. So, it’s important to think about the justice of these rules, as well as the outcomes they might have. The point is that we can embrace a theory of social justice, but that just tells us the end we are heading to, not the means to get there.

Contrary to egalitarians, progressivists and socialists claims, no theory “tends to work to the maximum advantage of the least well-off classes” as classical liberalism does. And that’s a great reason I support it. As I said in the beginning, Rio is very unequal, despite decades of egalitarian policies in the city and in Brazil as a whole. On the other hand, there’s plenty of evidence that classical liberal policies tend to help the very people others accuse it of ignoring. When it comes to doing social justice, it’s important to have not just the heart, but also the mind in the right place. And I believe classical liberal policies are this place.

References:
What’s Right about Social Justice?
Rawls and Nozick on Liberty & Equality
Adam Smith and the Follies of Central Planning
Fight of the Century

Trump for president?

I will vote for Gary Johnson knowing full well my vote doesn’t matter, since Hillary has a lock on California. But between Trump and Clinton, whom to root for? Trump is an empty suit with a filthy mouth. Clinton is pure evil, hell-bent on extinguishing what remains of our freedom and prosperity. Fascist dictatorship is her goal, draped in red-white-and-blue bunting. Will someone please write an update of the Sinclair Lewis novel, “It Can’t Happen Here”?

Forced to choose, I’d have to go with Trump. His election would be a much needed kick in the teeth to the Eastern establishment. We would have to hope he would listen to cool-headed advisors once in office. Or maybe get bored and resign.

But as I write, I remind myself that there is precious little any president can do, even Gary Johnson, to alter major trends that have so much momentum. You can recite the list as well as I can: government debt and unfunded liabilities, nuclear proliferation, race and class divisions, climate change hysteria to name a few.

To hell with them all. I’m going outside to enjoy the sunshine while I can.

Reply to Matthew Strebe on Hoppe and Immigration

In response to my recent post on immigration, fellow note-writer Mattew Strebe asserts two main objections to my defense of open borders: freedom of movement is not a right in the first place so immigration restrictions are not violating anyone’s rights, and that citizenship is relevant to the debate over the impact of policies. In order to make the case for the first, Strebe relies on Hans Herman Hoppe’s anarcho-capitalist counterfactual, which has been debated at length over the past twenty or so years by libertarians. I think the second argument is inconsistent with the first and winds up begging the question. Before I delve into the argument, I should mention that I neglected to bring it up in my first post because I hadn’t really seen many people bring it up in recent years and was addressing arguments which I considered most pertinent to the current discussion on this topic among libertarians. That said, it is worth addressing again since Mr. Strebe has brought it up.

The Anarcho-Capitalist Counterfactual

Mr. Strebe presents the argument that the right to freedom of movement is not really a right at all because, in the absence of a state, people would not have the right to traverse across owned property, and ultimately free movement would become a privilege to be handed out at the whims of private property owners, an argument originally made by Hans-Herman Hoppe.

This argument gets off to a bad start when Mr. Strebe, quoting Hoppe, claims the argument for free movement to work “it is – implicitly – assumed that the territory in question is unowned, and that the immigrants enter virgin territory (open frontier).” This assumption need not be made. Typically, when an immigrant seeks to come to another country they want to buy or rent some previously owned property which is being voluntarily sold or rented out to them. This would be perfectly acceptable under anarchism as, without a state to control who can contract with whom, there is little reason why person A can’t contract with person B just because a third party forces A away. Even from Hoppe’s perspective, borders are arbitrary; and this is hinted at when Hoppe himself calls them “unnatural” and “coercive.”

Even ignoring this, Mr. Strebe continues:

In Hoppe’s example of an anarcho-capitalist society, all land is privately owned, and so freedom of movement becomes absurd. How could one individual have the untrammeled ability to traverse another person’s property? The only proper relation is one of mutual freedom of association – one property owner may decide to hang out with, say, Mexicans, while another would not. Freedom of movement becomes dependent on individual consent, which in turn (using the historical example of the monarchy) is based on calculated self-interest. This leads to another possibility: all property owners could willingly confederate and decide they will not associate with Mexicans or some other group, and freedom of movement to that group, such as it was, ceases to exist. Thus, freedom of movement as a human right is absurd in an anarcho-capitalist society because there is no freedom to traverse the unowned land.

Even though this federation could hypothetically happen under anarchism, this does not mean freedom of movement is a farce. Freedom of movement does not simply mean freedom to traverse land, it also means freedom to buy land regardless of location, or contract with other consenting individuals regardless of location. Immigration restrictions not only forbid movement across land, they also forbid freedom of contract. When I said “freedom of movement,” I was referring to a bundle of rights. Even if you do not accept that freedom to traverse land is a human right other rights would exist under anarcho-capitalism are still trampled upon by immigration restrictions.

Further, what government does by restricting immigration is not at all analogous to what happens when a private owner of land puts up no trespassing signs. Government not only restricts immigrants from entering publicly owned land (such as the area near the border, or national parks), they also restrict the immigrants from entering privately owned land, most of which they would be welcome to buy up for themselves or work on by its rightful owners, simply because that land is on the other side of a line in the sand called the border. It would be as if two people agreed to contract together on a piece of privately owned land in anarcho-capitalism, yet a third person who owned another piece of land unaffected by the contract used force to stop the contract from happening. Government is not only restricting movement to land that it properly owns, but it also restricts movement to lands privately held by its citizens.

Hoppe himself acknowledges this in his discussion of “forced exclusion:”

Now, if the government excludes a person while even one domestic resident wants to admit this very person onto his property, the result is forced exclusion (a phenomenon that does not exist under private property anarchism). Furthermore, if the government admits a person while there is not even one domestic resident who wants to have this person on his property, the result is forced integration (also non-existent under private property anarchism).

Of course, Hoppe still favors immigration restrictions because he believes it will result in more “forced integration,” a point Mr. Strebe brings up which will be addressed at length in a moment. My point: even under Hoppe’s own argument, it is incorrect to say “in a monarchy, the king owns all the land, and in a democracy, an association of elected bureaucrats holds sovereignty over all land[.]” The government doesn’t own all the land, private citizens do. Restricting citizens from voluntarily contracting with non-citizens is, in fact, restricting those citizens’ own freedom of association as well.

But even if we concede that government owns some public land, this would still not be analogous to anarcho-capitalism as Hoppe argues for it. For Hoppe, the state is illegitimate in the first place because it acquires its existence (including the ownership of public land) through an immoral monopoly on force. To bring back the example of anarchism, suppose that I claimed ownership over all the land in a region which I gained by killing the previous owners and forcing everyone else on the territory into submission with guns. Does this grant me the moral right to stop people from moving onto land I stole and do not rightfully own? If so, then we have an extremely perverse notion of property rights. Government doesn’t really “own” any property, it steals it through force.[1] Private citizens own most of the land within a geopolitical border to begin with, and the land the government does own it does not rightfully own as it only acquires land through coercion.

Even if we grant that anarcho-capitalism would end all immigration and freedom of movement, how does this carry any normative force for what policies an existing state should have? As Don Boudreaux points out, under anarcho-capitalism, one is not allowed to speak freely on private property, and hypothetically a group of property owners could form a federation and ban the expression of certain opinions. Does this mean the government is justified in restricting free speech in publicly owned areas, or in the nation at large? Of course not. Further, no one would argue that this makes “freedom of speech” a farce as a human right because there is a scenario in which it hypothetically wouldn’t exist in its pure form under anarcho-capitalism.[2]

This brings us to the point about “forced integration.” To call allowing individuals to contract with other members of a nation-state or own land in a nation state “forced integration” is really bizarre. As Don Boudreaux argues:

[L]abeling open immigration as “forced integration” is disingenuous. Such a practice is identical to labeling the First Amendment’s protection of free speech as “forced listening.” But keeping government from regulating speech is not at all the same thing as forcing people to listen. Likewise, allowing people to immigrate to America is not the same thing as forcing Americans to associate against their wills with immigrants. Under a regime of open immigration, I need not hire or dine with anyone whom I don’t wish to hire or dine with. Indeed, whenever government restricts immigration it coercively prevents me, as an American, from hiring or dining with whoever I choose to hire or dine with. An immigrant who receives no welfare payments engages only in consensual capitalist acts with those (and only those) domestic citizens who choose to deal with the immigrant. Just as trade restraints are, at bottom, restrictions on the freedoms of domestic citizens, so, too, are immigration restraints restrictions on the freedoms of domestic citizens.

As Walter Block and Anthony Gregory point out, this type of argument could justify many other statist interventions:

Hoppe’s position that keeping illegals off public property because of their supposed “invasiveness” could easily be extended to other matters, aside from free trade. Gun laws, drug laws, prostitution laws, drinking laws, smoking laws, laws against prayer—all of these things could be defended on the basis that many tax-paying property owners would not want such behavior on their own private property. Such examples are hardly without a real-world basis. Large numbers of Americans would not allow guests in their homes if those guests had machineguns or crack cocaine in their possession. The principle of the freedom to exclude and set conditions for entry onto private property simply cannot be extended to the socialized public sphere, or else all sorts of unlibertarian, illiberal policies could be as easily justified as border controls. In other words, just because an individual—or many individuals—would not want act X to occur on their property does not mean that, according to libertarian law, it can be prohibited as a general principle, even on so-called “public property.”

To me, forced integration as a concept is incoherent. Allowing someone to exist within geopolitical borders is not the same as forcing others to associate with that person. It confuses the public-private distinction, which has been fundamental to classical liberal thought throughout the entire tradition.

But even if we accept it as a legitimate argument, Mr. Strebe and Hoppe need to prove why “forced integration” is more of a problem than “forced exclusion.” They believe they have shown this under democracies because democratic politicians will be a more predominant problem in democracies because democratic leaders are more likely to admit stupid riff-raff who will vote for them rather than people who the landowners would not want to associate with. Empirically, this argument seems implausible. If this were the case, then why does the US government need to forcibly stop private citizens from engaging in labor contracts with illegal immigrants?

But even if this were the case, wouldn’t that be an argument in favor of open borders? Open borders as a policy mean that democratic politicians can make no judgments on who can and cannot enter the country, including the “bums” and “parasites” Hoppe doesn’t like get in as well as the immigrants “superior” people would want to associate with. If the citizenry truly do not want to associate with these “bad” immigrants then the immigrants will have problems finding others to contract with (meaning they won’t find a job and will be destitute), face severe social exclusion by the citizens, and will be less likely to immigrate in the first place or will go back to their country due to their misery here. Freedom of association would win out under open borders. Why would closed borders—when democratic politicians really are the only ones making decisions about who can come into the country and who cannot—result in more forced integration than open borders?

Hoppe does have somewhat of a response to this when he points out how government owned roads and non-discrimination laws will increase “forced integration.” But as Alexander Funcke argues, these arguments are based on some pretty faulty assumptions:

As he notes that migrants may “proceed on public roads and lands to every domestic resident’s doorsteps […] and to access, protected by a multitude of non-discrimination laws, […]”, etc., he need to explain why they would be a greater nuance than the current population. To argue this, he claim a strong human ethno-cultural homophilia, e.g.: “[In a residential area, the] desire for undisturbed possession—peace and quite—is best accomplished by a high degree of ethno-cultural homogenity.” This claim, hinges on two questionable assumptions. First, that the ethno-cultural distances within countries dwarfs the between-state distances. This is far from obvious, New York City and London seem ethno-culturally closer than the two U.S. cities, New York City, NY, and Albuquerque, NM. El Paso, TX, seem closer to El Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, than to Boston, MA. Secondly, as Thomas Schelling and many after him has shown, what on the surface look like strong homophily often is a product of path-dependency and at most weak preference for at least someone similar.

Even if “forced integration” were a coherent concept and more of a prevalent problem, that in itself wouldn’t refute a policy of open borders. Many immigrants choose to relocate because of conditions of poverty or oppression, to find for themselves a better life. Is it just that the state should forcibly keep non-citizens impoverished simply because some citizens feel uncomfortable existing in the same geopolitical borders as someone they do not like? It’s a pretty counter-intuitive and morally questionable argument to make.

In sum, border restrictions are not consistent with anarcho-capitalism because they restrict freedom of contract and freedom of association as well as freedom of movement, even if you deny that freedom of movement is a fundamental human right. And even if anarcho-capitalism would abolish immigration, that carries no normative force for why existing states should do so.

Ingroup vs. Outgrouping on Citizenship is Inconsistent with Anarcho-Capitalism

Mr. Strebe thinks that he can show why my reduction ad absurdum doesn’t work because it is enforced on non-citizens and not citizens:

[I]t assumes there is an equivalency between immigration and any other government policy, such as Medicare or eugenics. Without such an equivalency, Mr. Woodman’s appeal to the faulty logic of his interlocutors’ argument falls apart, as his own argument no longer possesses the balance between its two examples it relies upon for its logical and persuasive force. Here’s the problem: Medicare or eugenics are internal policies that affect the ingroup, the citizenry, only. Immigration is an external policy that affects both an outgroup, the immigrants, and the ingroup, the citizenry.

This is simply begging the question: why would such an ingroup-outgroup dynamic in regards to citizenship be morally relevant in the first place? Mr. Strebe tries to address this in his conclusion:

It should be clear that this is a non-sequitur: non-citizens do not have rights to the sovereign territory of a country, which is held either by private citizens or the public. The government does not restrict their rights when it refuses to grant them the privilege of traversing land that is publicly held for the ingroup because they had no rights to that land to begin with. Because the government is nominally beholden to the ingroup, and not to any outgroup, rights discourse concerning the outgroup is fundamentally absurd when considered in terms of Hoppe’s arguments.

I’m not sure why asking for a major premise to be justified is a non-sequitur, but Hoppe’s arguments are contradictory with what Mr. Strebe says here. Hoppe’s argument hinges on the idea that the government and its citizens are the only ones who have the right to exist within a nation. Here’s how Mr. Strebe’s argument above works, correct me if I’m wrong:

  1. If an individual or group has rightful ownership over a property, they may rightfully exclude others from trespassing on the property.
  2. The government and its citizens rightfully own the territory within a nation-state.
  3. Therefore, the government is justified in prohibiting non-citizens from entering a nation-state but not citizens.

How does 2 at all follow from Hoppe’s argument?[3] Hoppe claims that government is an illegitimate monopoly on force. If this is the case, how can the state have rightful sovereign ownership over any property in the first place? If it is the case that the state is illegitimate, and the ingroup-outgroup of citizenship and borders distinction is itself only a result of the state’s “unnatural” existence (which Hoppe himself admits), then how can you claim that only citizens as defined by an illegitimate government “have sovereign rights over the territory of a country?” It’s an argument that is inconsistent with the whole premise of anarcho-capitalism in the first place, and again confuses the private nature of property ownership with the coercive, public nature of government. If it is the case that the distinction between non-citizens and citizens is simply the result of the illegitimate, arbitrary use of government force, then the analogies to Medicare and eugenics are still valid.

Conclusion

I think this whole discussion is misleading because I do not believe in deontological natural rights and think Hoppe’s conception of property is untenable in the first place. Despite this, Mr. Strebe and Hoppe’s anarcho-capitalist counterfactual fails on its own terms. A state which stops its citizens from contracting with non-citizens is a fairytale in the absence of the state because the concept of “citizen” and “noncitizen” is dependent on the existence of the state in the first place. Of course, property owners could prohibit certain individuals from trespassing on their property, but that is not at all analogous with what the state does when it restricts immigration. And even if we accept everything about the anarcho-capitalist counterfactual argument, there still is no moral reason to treat non-citizens differently than citizens.

But Mr. Strebe is right about one thing: my original post did not address the problem of tribalism, which I agree is the root cause of most opposition to immigration, but that seems to be a separate issue from Hoppe’s argument and I don’t see very many libertarians making purely tribalist arguments. There are two ways to coherently argue that my reductio ad absurdum is invalid: 1) by claiming that there is some moral reason for treating citizen’s rights differently than non-citizens (tribalism) or 2) by claiming that immigration restrictions are not really violating anyone’s rights in the first place. Hoppe’s argument doesn’t make a libertarian case for tribalism: at most, it can make the case that freedom of movement isn’t really a right and so immigration restrictions are not rights-violations. I believe it fails to make this case, but that’s a separate argument from tribalism. Even if I agree that freedom of movement understood simply as the ability to traverse land isn’t a right, I can easily reply: “Sure, freedom of movement per se isn’t a right, but immigration restrictions also violate freedom of contract, so the reductio still stands.” If Mr. Strebe wants to show why the reductio ad absurdum is invalid, he will need to 1) provide an argument for why treating citizens differently than non-citizens, or tribalism, is justified or 2) show that freedom of contract isn’t really a right or that immigration restrictions do not really violate this right.

I thank Mr. Strebe for this opportunity to discuss these topics with him, and look forward to his response.

[1] It is worth noting at this point that I think that discussion over who has the “natural right” over property based on past ownership is not the best way to approach property rights, which are themselves an ever-changing result of tacit knowledge and spontaneous order, see Hayek’s discussion of property in chapter two of the Fatal Conceit. Also, I think Hoppe’s vision of anarcho-capitalism is likely not what would happen and tends too far in the direction of a perverse crytpo-feudalism. However, the point is that to say government owns property and therefore is justified in forcibly controlling who can or cannot enter a country is inconsistent with Hoppe’s own deontological arguments against government in the first place.

[2] At this point, it is worth mentioning that David Gordon argues this is not self-evidently absurd because we do not talk about “rights” when discussing the use of public land, but prudential consequences. So it is fine to restrict the “riff raff” in, for example, an airport just as it is fine to restrict movement across public roads. Even if we accept this premise, then Hoppe’s argument that we should not consider consequences and only the morality of immigration, which is how he starts his argument, is thrown out the window and we are going into the realm of consequentialist arguments, which Hoppe admits are in favor of pro-immigration even with the added caveat that economic growth isn’t the end-all-be-all of welfare because value is subjective. Hoppe’s argument against immigration will then have to hinge entirely on consequentialist cultural-based argument, such as his rhetoric about “forced integration.”

[3] I would also heavily qualify 1 with a more nuanced notion of “possession” versus “property” inspired by mutualism, but that is a discussion for another day.

 

On Robots and Personal Identity

When I came across this documentary on robots and their ability to carry on a conversation between each other, the well-known ideas on the spontaneous emergence of language inevitably crossed my mind. The resemblances to Hayek’s Sensory Order are obvious as well, notwithstanding his later remarks on negative feedback processes, which involve spontaneous orders that are borrowed, precisely, from cybernetics. But what grabbed my attention the most was the importance attached to the fact that the robots had a body. According to the documentary, the shape of the body of the robots allows them to develop certain patterns of classification for facts and behavior that would be different if their bodies were different as well. In this sense, “to have a body” is a requisite characteristic of the robots to make possible artificial intelligence; to evolve following a process of negative feedback.

That brought me back the works of Peter Geach on personal identity. He confronted John Locke’s notion of personal identity as mere memory and stated, instead, that the body was essential to the said concept. Memory and human body are, in order to develop an individual personality, inherent to each other.

This is relevant to our discussions about the definition of individual freedom. If the body is inherent to our personal identity, there are not much place left for Spinoza’s freedom of thought, or inner liberty, as the ultimate definition of individual liberty. Besides freedom of thought, we need freedom to move in order to be regarded as free individuals, and our sphere of individual autonomy should be extended to our body and its surroundings. Moreover, it would be impossible to exercise any freedom of thought and expression if such individual liberties are not protected.

From the Comments: Foucault’s purported nationalism, and neoliberalism

Dr Stocker‘s response to my recent musings on Foucault’s Biopolitics is worth highlighting:

Good to see you’re studying Foucault Brandon.

I agree that nationalism is an issue in Foucault and that his work is very Gallocentric. However, it is Gallocentric in ways that tend to be critical of various forms of nationalist and pre-nationalist thought, for example he takes a very critical line of the origins of the French left in ethnic-racial-national thought. Foucault does suggest in his work on Neoliberalism that Neoliberalism is German and American in origin (which rather undermines claims that Thatcherism should be seen as the major wave). He also refers to the way that Giscard d’Estaing (a centre-right President) incorporated something like the version of neoliberalism pursued by the German Federal Chancellor, Helmut Schmidt, from the right of the social democratic party.

Thoughts about the relations between France and Germany going back to the early Middle Ages are often present in Foucault, if never put forward explicitly as a major theme. I don’t see this as a version of French nationalism, but as interest in the interplay and overlaps between the state system in two key European countries.

His work on the evolution of centralised state judicial-penal power in the Middle Ages and the early modern period, concentrates on France, but takes some elements back to Charlemagne, the Frankish king of the 8th century (that is chief of the German Franks who conquered Roman Gaul), whose state policies and institutional changes are at the origin of the French, German and broader European developments in this are, stemming from Charlemagne’s power in both France and Germany, as well as other areas, leading to the title of Emperor of the Romans.

Getting back to his attitude to neoliberalism, this is of course immensely contentious, but as far as I can see he takes the claims of German ordoliberals to be constructing an alternative to National Socialism very seriously and sympathetically and also regards the criticisms of state power and moralised forms of power with American neoliberalism in that spirit. I think he would prefer an approach more thoroughly committed to eroding state power and associated hierarchies, but I don’t think there is a total rejection at all and I don’t think the discussion of ordoliberalism is negative about the phenomenon of Germany’s role in putting that approach into practice in the formative years of the Federal Republic.

Here is more Foucault at NOL, including many new insights from Barry.

What sort of “Meritocracy” would a libertarian endorse, if he had to?

The first attempt to answer this question should say: “none.” Notwithstanding that this is the correct approach, we can’t help but feel uneasy about it. Libertarians have had to deal with this uncomfortable truth for so long. In respect to my own personal experience, I remember where I was when I read, for the first time, “Equality, Value, and Merit,” the title of Chapter 6 in Friedrich A Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty. I was attending a weekly reading group about that book, and we were gathered in a cafê in Buenos Aires. The number of attendees was enough to find every kind of reader you could expect (and not expect) to meet in such a group:

  • There was the one who had already studied and condensed each chapter and then was re-reading and re-assessing the whole book; the one who did his “homework” without any effort;
  • the one who the embarrassment of failing to accomplish the reading requirements for the meeting overcame the pleasure of any type of procrastination (i.e. me, mostly because I was one of the promoters);
  • and the one who gave to the group the enthusiasm to last for six months in a row and finish the whole book. The latter, in this case, was a truly “natural Libertarian,” the one who had the pure Libertarian position for each subject by not showing an excessive regard for what Hayek was actually saying.

I remember that I arrived to the “Equality, Value, and Merit” meeting with a feeling of uncertainty. Hayek argued that there is no merit to acknowledging in a market process, none of any sort, a just compensation for the value of one’s apportation – a value whose magnitude depends on the relative scarcity of the marginal product. The reader who always accomplished his reading duties without any effort shared my sentiment of awe. Almost the whole meeting was conducted by our companion who was reading the book for a second – or perhaps third – time. In effect, Hayek left no place to meritocracy, since it is impossible to decide democratically among any scale of merit (remember Kenneth Arrow’s theorem on the impossibility of democracy, cited later on the third volume of Law, Legislation and Liberty), so retributions based on value enable the system to adapt spontaneously to the changes in the environment with more efficiency. The explanation was a bit of an unpopular one, but accurate. Not without reluctance, almost all of us accepted it. All of us but one: our true spontaneous Libertarian. She would under no condition surrender her convictions on the merit of the retributions that the market process assesses spontaneously to each one in accordance to the marginal value of their activity. While we acknowledged no merit to the results of the market process, she was prone to endorsing a moral value to the blinded results of the allocation of goods adjusted to the changes in their relative scarcities.

Many years after our debate took place, I am now starting to acknowledge that there might be a particle of truth in the statements of our natural Libertarian and, what is most outstanding, that these statements could be deducted from other chapters of the same book (The Constitution of Liberty), particularly the one which concerns on the definition of liberty (“Liberty and Liberties”). I said a particle of truth, not the whole truth, but at least that particle which is needed to start an intellectual quest.

In The Constitution of Liberty, written in 1960, Hayek made a quick outline of the different notions of liberty that were popular at that moment in time. Positive liberty, negative liberty, inner liberty, individual liberty, freedom from, freedom to, and freedom of were some of the categories mentioned. He made it clear that an in-depth discussion of each notion was not his main aim, but instead that was trying to make a quick account of them in order to give a conceptual frame to the one of his choice: a variant of the individual negative liberty defined as “the absence of arbitrary coercion.”

Slavery is the subjection to the will of another person, without boundaries of any kind. A slave could be subject to a good master who allows him to keep a normal life, but he could lose all of his freedom on a whim of his master at any time. On the other hand, the boundaries to the freedom of a free man are imposed by abstract and general laws and by contracts and the judicial decisions based on those contracts. The ordinary experience of a man enables him to discover principles and patterns of what would be regarded by others as just conduct, and to form in such way expectatives on how a given conflict could be solved. This concept of individual liberty as an absence of arbitrary coercion stated by Hayek in 1960 finds a strong resemblance today in the notion of liberty as an “absence of domination” by contemporary republican authors such as Quentin Skinner, Philip Pettit and, here in Argentina, Andrés Rosler.

The outcome of such a system is that every individual is enabled with a set of possible actions to be taken at his sole will, which we call an “individual sphere of autonomy.” In principle, these spheres are delimited by general and abstract laws and any controversy on the limits between two of them will be solved by an impartial court whose decision will be based on principles expressed by these norms. These judicial decisions would be in accordance to the patterns of just conduct that everyone had previously formed by ordinary experience, so they will prove correct the expectatives of most people and then will be regarded as non-arbitrary.

Of course, we could find that some judicial decisions would be taken by equity or that some administrative decisions would be based on expediency. But such a system could stand some exceptions, most of them aimed to solve an unexpected situation. Some of these new “precedents” are compatible with the principles which inform the existing laws and then their formulation will be a sort of “discovery” of new norms that until that moment were “implicit” in such a normative system. A criterion to distinguish the discovery of new norms from a decision based on expediency might be that the universalisation of the former brings about stability to the system; it makes the law work as a negative feedback system while the universalisation of the latter would only cause an increasing process of disorder.

Friedrich Hayek developed his theory of law – savagely summarised in the previous paragraphs – in Law, Legislation and Liberty and it provides us with an accurate modelization of how it would work a legal system that could not be experienced as “arbitrary” by the individual. In Hayek’s legal model, the fulfillment of the law would imply the respect of individual freedom as the absence of arbitrary coercion, since all boundaries to one’s will are previously known or reasonably expected and, then, our individual plans are conceived and accomplished regarding such limits.

After such a long digression we may come back to our initial enquiry: if a Libertarian had to “do meritocracy,” what sort of meritocracy would it be? The usual answer is, as we noted above, “none.” But I suspect that the wrong statements of some intuitive Libertarians carry within them a kernel of truth: the assignment of functions and subsequent retributions are expected not to be arbitrary, because even the changing value of the marginal products implies (1) some sort of predictability, (2) an impersonal process, and (3) a learning feedback system that fosters increasingly correct pattern predictions.

If we state that liberty is one, be it political, economic or social, we cannot use a definition of liberty in the political realm and another notion of it in the economic one. The “none answer” implies just plain individual negative liberty (absence of coercion) in political economy issues, while our definition of individual liberty is “absence of arbitrary coercion,” and this should be applied to the definition of economic liberty as well.

Therefore, I dare to state that a non-arbitrary distribution of functions and its subsequent remunerations should be a central problem to economic liberty, if we define it as “absence of arbitrary coercion.” Since our spheres of individual autonomy are delimited by a system of norms of just conduct, general and abstract, which distinguish arbitrary from just coercion, the economic liberty is expected to be found in such a framework.

Usually, the legal framework of a free market is regarded to be a neutral one: general and abstract rules, whose source could be the legislation sanctioned by an assembly of deputies of the people and notable citizens or the customs acknowledged as mandatory by the judiciary courts. In any case, general and abstract rules that are not conceived by a single will but have the impartiality of a plurality of legislators or juries. In this sense, “absence of arbitrary coercion” is identified with “absence of coercion by discretionary powers of the state.” Nevertheless, we consider that this is not enough: we should be conceptually endowed to do an evaluative judgement about the outcome of such economic system. We need to determine if the result of a neutral legal framework produces a non-arbitrary distribution of functions and retributions.

A neutral legal framework works like a peaceful, predictable, and secure Lockean Civil Society – i.e. the opposite of a Lockean Civil Society. Since we accept that legal norms express rules of just conduct whose obedience brings about a rightful delimitation of each individual sphere of autonomy, the remaining normative conflicts will be related to moral and social norms. But these normative conflicts will not occur among competitive orders, such as legal order against moral order or against social order, since we acknowledge the preeminence of the rule of law over any other source of obligations. Modernity relegates moral and social norms to the inner of each individual sphere of autonomy or, at most, to conflicts among different individuals which will never escalate and balloon into physical violence. That means that morals and social customs will not bring about an alternative order to society, but that they will enable the individual with an order to rule the inner aspects of his personality and a limited scope of his interactions with other individuals. These sets of moral and social rules will not integrate the formal institutions – to use the categories coined by Douglass North – but will be embodied in “packs of precepts of life” that we usually name “virtues” (a term cherished by the republicans mentioned above and by libertarian authors such as Deirdre McCloskey.)

These “virtues” are expected to contribute to the fulfilment of most individual plans in a system of inner stability. What we regard as good and wrong are a set of received values accrued after generations of trial and error processes. “Being honest,” for example, might be considered as a pack of precepts of life which successfully spread all over the members of the society structured by a neutral legal framework. The unit of evolution is neither the society nor even the individuals, but the “virtues” that are spread among the individuals that compounds that society.

At this stage, we must admit that what we regard as “neutral” is just an analytical category that means a set of fixed elements that work as a framework for other elements which change their respective relative positions. This framework is what Hayek named “order” (we can find in his Sensory Order the most accurate definitions of this concept: more than one). These notions allow us to do a clear distinction between the concepts of “evolution” and “change.” Change occurs among the relative positions of different elements given a stable framework – a Hayekian “order” – while “evolution” – in our terms – is related to a modification in the framework where the ordinary events occur. In the words of Douglass North, “evolution” is an incremental change in opposition to a disruptive change – or revolution. Notwithstanding this use of the terminology at hand, only Hayekian orders “evolve,” while their elements (or events) simply “change” their relative positions.

Nevertheless, to use an Arthur Schopenhauer image, events are the eyes of the blind machine which is the spontaneous order. Given a certain abstract order, the population with some types of virtues extended among the individuals will prevail over other ones. For example, Max Weber, in his Protestant Ethic, showed how the habits of frugality, self-confidence, hard work, and so on, were once considered by most people as eccentric but eventually took over whole communities and changed the meaning of good and evil in a process that ended up in an “iron cage of liberty”: the dissolution of the transcendent values that had previously given a religious sense to those habits into a neutral framework of standard moral duties immanent to the social system.

Another classical book that illustrate a process of “natural selection” of virtues might be The Prince by Nicoló Machiavelli: from the very beginning, the author warns us that a different set of virtues would be needed to be develop in a Republic and that he treated that matter in another book, The Discourses on the First Decades of Titus Livius. The Prince, instead, is focused on determining which virtues is a Prince to be enabled with in order to survive in a realm where no one has the sense to be bound by any moral or legal obligation, i.e.: in a set of non-cooperative games. The whole book can be read as a succession of mental experiments about which virtue could make the Prince survive over his competitors. In Richard Dawkins terms, the ones which are competing are the virtues, and the politicians who struggle with each other are the “vehicles” of those virtues. A very well-known example shows how the population of the ones who seek to be feared at the risk of being hated will displace the population of the ones who seek to be loved at the risk of being scorned. To put this another way: in the “ethical pool” the trait “seek to be feared” will outshine the trait “seek to be loved.” Finally, at the last paragraph of the book, the very virtue of the Prince rules supreme among the other ones: the initiative.

Besides the fact that The Prince – as Quentin Skinner pointed out – should be regarded as a satire (but see Barry here and here for a contrary account) , the emergence of the virtue of the initiative as the inner quality of a political leader of a non-republican system scraps any moral sense of the term “virtue.” Virtues are a compound of personality traits that conditions the agent’s decisions from the inner. But certain virtues depend on the legal framework to spread over the “ethical pool.” As we have said, the virtues that will prevail in an authoritarian regime will be different from those which flourish in a republic. The “republican virtues” described by Machiavelli in his Discourse on the Decades can only proliferate among people within a given set of procedural rules. A similar distinction was made later by David Hume: “natural virtues,” such as empathy, can emerge at any given circumstances, as they are embodied in human nature, but artificial virtues such as “justice” will depend upon a determinate legal framework.

Virtues will erode or shore up a formal institutional framework by incremental change (D. North), yet this will occur only as a response to the change in the environment (virtues as the eyes of the blind machine of the spontaneous order). For example, Gutenberg’s press discovery allowed the evangelical movement to gain force since anyone could then start to count with a Bible. Within the Evangelical movement took place a Puritan one, which at its turn changed the sense of morality in the people for whom it took place. This resulted, for example, in the anti-slavery political movement in certain states of the US or cities of the UK such as Bristol, even at a price of high economic cost.

Nevertheless, while spontaneous changes in virtues lead to incremental political and legal change, a disruptive change of the latter could bring about a dramatic shift in uses and customs of the people involved. This need not to be a violent revolution, since democratic institutions are enabled to issue the required laws to make a significant change for the good – or for the bad – in the said virtues to spread among the society. Sound money is a condition for the virtue of frugality to appear, for example. On the other hand, the Adam Ferguson’s book When Money Dies shows how the people change their main traits due to the phenomenon of hyperinflation.

Since virtues are – in the definition stated here – a mere pack of ethical traits that condition the individuals who are their vehicles from the inner, allowing them to survive and pass their virtues to the next generation of individuals, on what basis should we endorse some virtues over other ones? Our theory cannot provide us with a normative answer by itself, since it leads us to the conclusion that what we regard as good and evil comes from a process of blind evolution. As we have said, a learned libertarian would not endorse a meritocracy of any kind.

However, the complex order compounded by the legal framework and the moral and social virtues extended in society might be “neutral” for each individual involved in such society, but the legal framework will not be neutral to the moral and social virtues that are spread in that society. Different types of frameworks will deliver different sets of virtues to be spread. An authoritarian regime will deliver the set or virtues described by Machiavelli in The Prince, while a republic will spread the virtues of The Discourse on the Decades of Titus Livius. Moreover, the difference between the former and the latter is found in the proportion of decisions taken on the basis of expediency and the ones taken on the basis of principles. The whole message of Hayek’s Road to Serfdom might be exemplified in the transition from a system of public decisions based on principles (i.e.: a republic), to a system of public decisions based on expediency. Each system will deliver a different set of “virtues.”

Thus, we are now in a better position to answer the question “what sort of meritocracy would a libertarian would endorse, if he had to?” A natural libertarian will expect that the distribution of functions and retributions will correlate with the virtues most expected to be found in a legal and political system in which most decisions are taken on the basis of general and abstract principles. Such a system of norms and values will be experienced by the individual as “non arbitrary” and then the ideal of negative individual liberty as “absence of arbitrary coercion” will be achieved, not only in the political realm, but also in the economic and social ones.

In a “Keynesian turn,” we could point out that a system whose decisions are taken purely on the basis of principles is an “especial case” and that we usually find mostly the opposite. In most constitutional systems the “macroeconomic policy” is not a matter subject to the courts and we have to acknowledge that the spreading of some virtues over other ones are more conditioned by monetary or tariff policies than by a neutral legal framework. Nevertheless, this reality is not a reason to disregard the value of the virtues that would arise should those policies be neutral (i.e. not being policies at all, but legal norms). Moreover, these objections just pointed out are good reasons to claim for a republican system of liberties as a fairer system.

To summarize: natural libertarians are not so wrong when they aim to achieve a special kind of meritocracy – the one in which the functions and retributions would correlate with the virtues spread in a society where liberty as absence of arbitrary coercion is respected. In such a system, most political decisions will be taken on the basis of general and abstract principles. After all, the dissatisfaction manifested by a natural libertarian when most of the wealth of a society goes to the rent seekers is rooted in a well founded claim for a “free and virtuous society.”