Libertarians who believe in non-consequentialist natural rights — that is, in the view that people have certain rights, as free individuals, which everyone is bound to respect regardless of the economic consequences of respecting them, and which they have for reasons that have nothing conceptually to do with economic consequences — still often invest a lot of energy in making a case that freed markets would produce better economic outcomes than markets distorted by government or by other forms of institutionalized coercion. Why is that? After all, if we believe that the right reason to be a libertarian is that other people are not your property (or some other suitable moralism), and not because of the good results that liberty might tend to produce, why spend time talking about those good results, or about the bad results that come from government coercion? If it convinces anybody to become a libertarian, won’t we be convincing them with the wrong reasons? When natural lawyers argue that freed markets produce good results, are they engaging in a form of bad-faith propaganda?
That’s the question that the good ol’ post-ideologist, Jeffrey Friedman, raises in his comments on Mario Rizzo’s recent post defending ideological libertarianism. In response to Rizzo, Friedman argued:
While I agree with everything you say at the abstract level, Mario, if we want to understand why
our ideas are so readily dismissed as
ideological by the likes of Obama and the intellectual world generally, we have to look beyond the myopic problem-by-problem approach that’s endemic to social democracy (based on the underlying notion that the economy and society are legible enough to reveal clear diagnoses of social problems). We have to look at the specific
ideology that they have in mind–which, in Obama’s case, clearly is libertarianism.
Some folks, he says again and again, think any government intervention is wrong in principle–and he does not mean the slippery-slope principle. He means the
coercion is evil principle (or rather the coercion is evil/taxation is theft principle). This kind of thinking about free-market ideas is commonplace in the intellectual mainstream, and it is not unjustified. The great scholar of ideology, Philip E. Converse (The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics), pointed out that ideologies are packages of beliefs that are usually connected to each other only by
pseudo-logic. Libertarians have discredited their good (Austrian) ideas for nearly 50 years by packaging them together with non-consequentialist arguments about
natural rights, the
virtue of selfishness, the equation of liberty with private property, and so on that make the Austrian empirical-theoretical part of the package eminently dismissable.
— Jeffrey Friedman, comments (2009-03-14) on Mario Rizzo, ThinkMarkets (2009-03-14), In Defense of Reasonable Ideology
To which Sheldon Richman replied:
But government intervention IS wrong in principle.
— Sheldon Richman, comments (2009-03-16) on on Mario Rizzo, ThinkMarkets (2009-03-14), In Defense of Reasonable Ideology
Which elicted this reply from Friedman:
Then tell me, Sheldon, why bother with all the economic arguments made in The Freeman about why government intervention tends to have counterproductive effects? Is that just propaganda to get people to believe in the predetermined moral
I reject the consequentialist-nonconsequentialist dichotomy (Rand, for example, doesn’t fit neatly into one camp or the other, though I am no Randian). I will simply take the easy way out here and say your question strikes me as simply ridiculous. Why wouldn’t I want people to understand the damage government does to innocent people? Someone who believes in moral philosophy (at least as I and many other conceive it) is not foreclosed from noticing consequences. Quite the contrary.
Friedman, in reply:
simply ridiculous is not an argument. Nor is it an answer to my question.
Is free-market economics, or is it not, merely propaganda, however truthful, that you publish in order to get people to support free markets for the wrong reasons–given that it seems that you think that the right reasons lie not in the poverty that capitalism alleviates, etc., but in
the nature of man qua man,
natural rights to private property, or
the intrisic value of freedum-cum-private property?
I didn’t try to answer the question because it answers itself. Your question is based on a premise I reject (see above), but I can say that free-market economics informs people of facts they might appreciate knowing. I don’t know why the word
propaganda would occur to you. Unless you take the approach I suggest above (the reintegration of
nonconsequentialism), I don’t know how you can tell a good consequence from bad.
Friedman then accused Sheldon of being disingenuous. (He also, both here and above, wrongly supposes that Sheldon is arguing in favor of
capitalism. Actually, Sheldon argued in favor of free markets, which is not necessarily the same thing.) Anyway:
Sheldon, that is disingenuous. The Freeman does not publish articles about nutritional, home repair, automotive-purchase, or an infinite number of other types of
facts [people] might appreciate knowing. The only facts about which it informs people are the bad consequences of government and the good consequences of the market.
Nothing wrong with that–but it counts as propaganda if you don’t think that its good consequences don’t provide the real argument for capitalism (which is, you seem to think, inherently good because it embodies freedom, regardless of its consequences), nor that its bad consequences provide the best argument against government (which is, you seem to think, inherently bad because it depends on coercion).
So as I originally said, libertarianism is an
ideology that packages together superficially related topics: moral reasoning about the nature of man, coercion, freedom + economic reasoning about the sources of, and barriers to, material prosperity. (NATURALLY someone who has bought into this package will reject the consequentialist/deontological dichotomy! After all, that dichotomy threatens the coherence of the ideological package.)
A young Obama encountering this pseudo-logical libertarian confection will logically conclude that it is an unreasonable
ideology. And so young Obama’s own unexamined ideology goes unchallenged, because he dismisses the good elements (Austrian economics) along with the bad (libertarian philosophy) as part of a big incoherent stew. And when he becomes president, he has a nice whipping boy–the dogmatic, unreasonable free-marketeer–as his opponent, an opponent thoughtlessly provided to him by US.
The first problem with all of this is that Jeffrey Friedman seems to have concluded, without giving much reason for why he concluded this, that the primary purpose of The Freeman is to convince people of the truth of libertarian political philosophy. That is a claim which is in need of some defense — actually, I would not find it surprising at all if the crew at The Freeman, the flagship publication of the Foundation for Economic Education, is actually mainly concerned, in that publication at least, to educate people about economics (freed-market economics in particular), not to convince them of the truth of libertarian political or moral principles. Of course, Friedman might then throw out another accusation of disingenuousness, and ask
Well, why educate people about freed-market economics, if not to convince them of libertarianism? Well, I don’t know; why educate people about nutrition, home-repair, or buying an automobile? There are lots of things you might learn which have some bearing on libertarianism but which are not learned primarily as a means to convincing people of libertarianism.
Of course, the outcome of the education will probably not be irrelevant to libertarianism, in this case. Presumably becoming convinced of the economic importance of freed markets will make people more likely to support freed markets, and thus more likely to become libertarians. But if so, does it necessarily mean that their reasons for becoming libertarians are consequentialist reasons — and thus, for those of us who believe in natural rights, the wrong reasons, or at least reasons that fall short of the best ones? Only if you confuse the occasion of forming a judgment with the evidence that warrants the judgment; and therein lies the deeper problem with Friedman’s position. Friedman repeatedly asserts, without any particular argument beyond the polemical term
pseudo-logic, that ideas about the econmic consequences of government coercion and ideas about the immorality of government coercion, cannot be related to one another in any meaningful way — unless one accepts the consequentialist view that the moral judgments conceptually depend on the economic results. But in fact there’s a much richer set of possible relationships between these two topics than Friedman seems to imagine. The connection is not just so much confectioner’s sugar; there are in fact at least three major reasons that might lead a non-consequentialist say something about the bad consequences of an act that they consider wrong in itself.
Reasons of urgency. Some evils things are evil in themselves; others are neutral or even in themselves, but evil in light of their consequences; and some are both evil in themselves and also produce evil consequences. As an example of the first kind of evil, you might consider laws that force a church to limit the size of big-ass crosses, on its own private property, to not more than 25 feet. I think this is a classic example of chickenshit petty tyranny; but I doubt it has much in the way of dire economic consequences. Other government zoning laws, on the other hand, do have some serious economic consequences — for example, laws that effectively forbid working-class people from living in certain neighborhoods by forbidding multiple unrelated people from living in a single house, or laws which force small businesses to take on huge additional fixed costs for storefront space because they are forbidden from operating outside of their homes. These have profound and destructive economic consequences (in fact, I’d argue that they have much more profound consequences than many conventionally pro-capitalist libertarians seem to realize). Both kinds of zoning laws are wrong, dead wrong, on natural-rights grounds — both are tyrannical invasions of the individual liberty to make any peaceful use you like of your own land. But if one is deciding which one to focus limited time and resources on changing, it’s not disingenuous or covertly consequentialist to think that the latter kind of law is more egregious, and a more urgent object of critique, than the former, in part because of the fact that the consequences are worse. Non-consequentialist libertarians hold that individual rights provide side-constraints on political action, not that they determine absolutely every detail about strategy or priorities in deciding which violations of those side-constraints we should focus on resisting.
Reasons of consequence thickness. If an evil is the sort of evil which is not only evil in itself, but also produces evil consequences, then libertarians are entitled (for reasons of consequence thickness) to complain, not only about the intrinsic evil but also about the destructive consequences that follow from it — even if the destructiveness is in some sense external to the coercion that causes it. Even if consequences are not what make something bad, they may make it worse than other things which are similar in everything except for their consequences, and if someone already has some independent reasons for considering an intervention bad, there’s nothing particularly propagandistic about also taking some time to mention to her the factors that make it even worse.
Dialectical reasons. But suppose that your reader is not a libertarian yet, not even partially; suppose she does not yet have any particular reasons for considering an intervention bad, other than the destructive consequences that you’ve just mentioned. Actually, I think this describes very few readers, even non-libertarian readers; most people already recognize, to some extent, that it’s good for people to have control over their own lives and that it’s wrong to coerce peaceful people. The issue is that they make exceptions to that principle in the case of certain arbitrary claims of political authority; or that they try to rationalize coercion by saying that some kind of collectivity makes it not really coercive — didn’t
we agree to that tax increase?, etc. And the best way to undermine those exceptions or those rationalizations may not have anything in particular to do with pointing to some theory about economic consequences. But supposing that our reader just yet sign on for individual liberty on the particular topic under discussion; what then?
Well, as I said before, some evils are both evil in themselves and also conducive to evil consequences. Among those are some evils that produce evil consequences because they themselves are evil. Here’s an example: getting beaten or tortured over and over again can lead to long-term consequences like depression or debilitating flashbacks. The beatings and the torture aren’t evil because of the long-term effects — they’d be evil anyway, even if the victim had no memory of them at all — but rather the long-term effects for the victim are what they are, in part, because of the wrongness of what’s been done to her. (Of course those memories stir up fear and agony; what happened to her was profoundly wrong.)
If you are trying to convince someone of the evil of something that falls into this last category — where an evil produces evil consequences because it is evil in itself — it may be an important part of the dialectic for your interlocutor to come to understand how the consequences are evil, in order to understand how the root cause is evil in itself. Not because the evil of the root cause logically depends on the evil of the consequences (as in consequentialist argument), and also not because your interlocutor is being mislead to believe that it does (as in Friedman’s imagined
propaganda). Rather, it’s because, once you understand that the consequence is evil, grasping the explanation for the destructiveness of the results may have something to do with grasping the evil of the root cause.
Why is it that the survivor of abuse feels helpless and afraid sometimes, even in a situation with no obvious immediate threat? Well, it has something to do with the fact that she was abused for so long, and specifically to do with the fact that she’s reacting to the awfulness of how she was treated at the time. (If the way she had been treated weren’t so awful, she wouldn’t react the way that she does.) Now, why is it that statist intervention has such bad economic consequences? Well, the economic consequences have something to do with basic facts about the kind of creatures that people are, and the kind of treatment that statist interventions necessarily entail — the fact that we are rational and creative beings operating with limited resources and with imperfect knowledge, and the fact that statist coercion violently overrides the creative consensual solutions that people adopt in order to make an honest living. The independent wrongness of trampling all over peaceful people’s considered judgments and their individual liberty to dispose as they see fit of their own person the fruits of their own labor has something to do with fully understanding why the trampling so often results in ignorant, irrational, impoverishing, or stultifying distortions to our daily lives. Seeing the evil of the interventions — the wrongness of shoving around or cannibalizing one group of people for the benefit of another — is part and parcel of fully understanding why it produces the bad economic results that it produces (and also of seeing why it is that the results that it produces, whatever those may be, ought to be counted as the bad sort of results).
It’s important to emphasize here the difference between dialectic and propaganda (in Friedman’s sense). Friedman seems to be using the word
propaganda to describe a conclusion-driven approach, in which the idea is to get your reader to the conclusion you want by whatever means, even if the argument that leads them to accept that conclusion is (what you’d consider to be) a bad argument. But the idea of this sort of dialectical approach is not that. It will seem like that only if you’ve confused dialectical starting-points which lead to a recognition of first principles, for points of evidence which logically justify those principles. The idea, then, would be to introduce the reader to the consequences partly for the sake of pure economic understanding; and partly also because the reader may, on considering not only the consequences but the explanation of those consequences, be led to understand something else beyond the badness of the consequences, because that something else provides the best explanation for what the economic argument has convinced her of.
Of course, none of this is to say that beginning from freed-market economics, and proceeding through this sort of dialectical process, is the only way, or even the best way, for a convinced natural lawyer to try to advance her ideas about the evils of coercion. Sometimes it is a good way, and sometimes it’s not; in point of fact I think there are many cases in which a simple moral appeal is more likely to make the case to your audience than trying to pull out some graph paper to do some fancy economic kung-fu. (This often goes unrecognized, in intellectual circles, because intellectuals have something of a professional interest in underestimating the importance of simple, non-technical arguments; and because people who would like to consider themselves engagé have often been suckered, by the preferences of a handful of people in the media, government, and academe, into believing that the kind of people who are more likely to be convinced by technical economic arguments than by fire-eating moral arguments are the only kind of people who exist, or at least the only kind of people worth trying to convince of your political views.) But while direct moral arguments may sometimes be preferable, for natural lawyers, to dialectical engagements that begin with arguments about consequences, it doesn’t follow that the latter must be carried on in bad faith. Taking an indirect path to the topic of the natural law is not the same thing as leaving out the topic of the natural law; and leading people down an argumentative path is not necessarily a matter of misleading them about where it’s going.