Saturday, 25 September 2010

Getting Past the Words

‘Libertarianism’ is just a word.

Ideologies are not some kind of special, ontologically privileged thing.

Rather, an ideology is just a strongly compacted set of beliefs about the world.

You don’t arguing for an ideology, you argue for those facts about the world. The ideology is just a convenient categorisation; something that will fit on a bumper sticker. The goodness or badness of a policy isn’t caused by whether or not it’s libertarian; it’s caused by facts about the world.

Because libertarianism is just a word, you should be able to justify your beliefs without having to appeal to the word ‘libertarian’. You should be able to taboo ‘statist’ and still argue against higher taxes, be able to advocate free speech without appealing to ‘liberty’.

If you can’t follow the chain of concepts back to brute facts about the world, then your beliefs aren’t rooted in the real world: they form a free floating bubble, each idea backing up each other one. But because your beliefs are independent of the real world, they no longer provide evidence about it. If you would believe them regardless of the physical state of the world, then they’ll always recommend the same policies, regardless of whether or not those policies are the best; they no longer restrict anticipation.

And your evidence can’t just be ‘The Soviet Union was terrible’. There’s more than two options, and you need to have evidence to distinguish between Libertopia and a stable western mixed economy, not a straw-man.

Take healthcare. You should be able to trace your belief back past liberal pieties like ‘free choice will cause competition and improve standards’ to actual facts about the world. You should know of the RAND health insurance experiment, in which thousands of poor Americans were given varying degrees of health insurance, and ten years later those with total coverage were no healthier than those without. Then you’ll know your position has empirical, not just rhetorical, support.

And you’ll stump any socialists you argue with. Won’t that be grand? Instead of your talking in Libertarianesse, and his talking in Socialesse, you’ll be basing your arguments in the same reality he lives in.

And as politics makes everyone stupid, he’ll never expect it.

But you can’t stop there. You can’t just look for the evidence you want to find – you have to take into account all the consequences of the evidence, even those that don’t fit neatly into a ‘libertarian’ shaped box. And you can’t help but find evidence on both sides.

You have to notice that the RAND study didn’t investigate catastrophic care, and so isn’t evidence either way on the value of public funding for really expensive, but effective, treatments.

You have to notice that the RAND study is also evidence that privately funded medicine isn’t that useful either. Not as strong evidence as it is against publicly funded medicine, because the people in the control group still bought private medicine, but if private and public money is buying the same type of medicine...

Or take trade unions.

You can argue that trade unions are monopolies, and that monopolies make consumers worse off. But that’s not obviously true for all monopolies; what about natural monopolies? Or what if the benefit to consumers, in the form of companies and then shareholders, was outweighed by the benefits to workers, who value money more?

What does your opposition to trade unions actually imply about the world? How much lower would prices be without them? What would be the difference in working conditions? If you’re not willing to put your money where your mouth is on these issues, you shouldn’t base your beliefs on them.

Instead, you could read Robert Wiblin’s post. It turns out that trade unions don’t transfer income from evil capitalists to hardworking workers: they transfer money from hardworking workers to unionist workers.

We can use Libertarianesse to communicate between Libertarians. If we already agree on a lot of things, you can transmit information very quickly just by saying something like ‘conscription is slavery’. But without the shared background, the agreement on things like differing conceptions of the good, the opportunity cost of time, the effectiveness of slaves in combat, the effect of wars of war domestically and abroad, the incentive problems involved with slavery... without this, saying ‘conscription is slavery’ is just rhetoric. You need to be able to dissolve the question, and get at the underlying facts.

1 comment:

Suboptimal Planet said...

Some valuable points here, but your approach seems solidly utilitarian.

I don't dispute the importance of utilitarian arguments, but this approach has its limitations.

As Stephen Kinsella put it,

utilitarianism is methodologically flawed (value is ordinal not cardinal and not interpersonally comparable) and morally bankrupt (it's immoral to steal from A to give to B even if A is richer, even if the money taken "means less" to A than it does to B)

Although focusing purely on principles can leave one mired in philosophy, I think there is value in attacking the moral precepts of socialism. You can do this without a deep understanding of the RAND experiment, or any other empirical studies.