Archive for the ‘Political Philosophy’ Category

Greg believes that spontaneous order can be too broadly applied so as to become meaningless.  Sure, if the analysis is too broad, then socialist states could be viewed as federalist experimentation, but I think this reading is intentionally mischievous.

Knowledge belongs to individuals.  This was a theoretical foundation from which Hayek was working.  A corollary of the normative defense of spontaneous order is that for any centrally planned system, central planners can’t have the knowledge to produce outcomes as efficient as a system where empowerment is decentralized to individuals to take advantage of the knowledge that they have.  This is enough to defend spontaneous order as a normative prescription.  It would be an abuse of language to say that socialist Cuba is spontaneously ordered because of a kind of international federalism, because political power is so concentrated there, relative to other types of systems.

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Lately I’ve been thinking about how consequentialism is true, and how misguided it is to derive libertarianism from first principles.  I suppose it is attractive to young minds who first encounter a framework to explain so much moral, ethical, and political order.  I certainly went through such a phase.  It seemed to tackle everything, but in due time, I’ve grown to accept that it’s better to use such first principles as more of a heuristic.

Rand was one such original thinker who advocated for individual rights from first principles by always critiquing the initiation of force.  That line of argumentation can take you quite far, but it’s ultimately misguided, or even dishonest to say that we can somehow derive morality while disregarding the consequences of actions.  Why is the initiation of force usually consequentially wrong?  It is a barrier for individuals to achieve their aims, and if it is desirable for individuals to be best equipped to achieve their goals, which will maximize their welfare with Pareto improvements, it would be unethical to prevent that.

I once heard a prominent Objectivist author and lecturer repeatedly invoke Milton Friedman to defend free markets.  This indicates to me that this person subconsciously recognized that Objectivism wasn’t sufficient to defend free markets, and needed to rely on the more potent consequentialist arguments that Milton Friedman provided.

To say that consequences aren’t the bases of ethics is dishonest.  Why choose to identify or classify a particular set of rights if those rights were not to produce more welfare for people, rather than less?  If I describe a morality that would objectively produce more human misery than some other possible morality, wouldn’t the one that produced more suffering be more immoral, by definition?  Ethical actions should maximize human welfare.  Don’t misunderstand.  I’m not a utilitarian; cardinal utility is a myth.  Also this topic is difficult because philosophers and economists define utility differently.

I bring all this up because of a recent challenge from a market anarchist, over at FR33 Agents.  Justin Longo posits a possible exchange:

IL: What’s the difference between you being forced to purchase health insurance for your own good and you being forced to purchase roads and road repair for your own good? You don’t seem to mind that Governor Bill Ritter has what you call a gun to your head, forcing you to buy road construction from him. You also don’t seem to mind that the local police chief forces you to buy his services. How do you explain that?

TP: Well, that’s all okay. We don’t mind paying for those vital services, we need those things.

IL: So you don’t mind being forced to buy things against your will, as long as they are services you like? That’s convenient. I happen to approve of forcing everyone to buy health care. Surely you wouldn’t also reject forcing everyone in a school district to buy the services of their local schools would you?

TP: Well, that’s different! Kids need to be educated!

IL: I don’t see how that’s any different than health care. Roads, police, fire, schools, health care and the like are all things that benefit everyone. We are all better off if we are forced to buy them. You can’t be a freeloader!

TP: But….. but….

IL: It’s pretty obvious that you would like to just pick and choose what you are paying for. You can’t have it both ways, it doesn’t work like that.

I see the drive to revert to deontological market anarchism to avoid getting caught in a trap like this, but that would be primitive.  The logically consistent way to advocate liberty is to concede that coercion can be moral, but must be justified.  Everywhere on the political spectrum different forms of force can be justified.  Gene Callahan explains:

After all, every wavelength of the political spectrum considers some coercion to be OK, and some to be “aggression.” Anarcho-capitalists believe that coercing a trespasser off of one’s property is OK coercion, and collecting taxes to be “aggressive” coercion; while Marxists consider dividing up the social product per “each according to his need” is OK coercion, while hiring guards to block workers from ownership of the means of production to be “aggressive” coercion. So the question is not who is for or against coercion (since everyone is for “just coercion” and against “unjust coercion”), but, rather, what makes a particular act of coercion just or unjust?

This is why deriving libertarianism from first principles is poor reasoning.  Good reasoning should concede the use of force as legitimate, in the proper social context.  I don’t have all the answers, but I can defend economic justifications for coercion by a state or in an anarchic legal system:  imperfectly competitive markets, asymmetric information, and external effects.  Coercion is justified economically on these three grounds.  It is not necessary to get tripped up into conceding that justifications for different forms of government involvement are just matters of personal political preferences.

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This month’s issue of Cato Unbound features a pretty good discussion of Hayek’s conception of spontaneous order.  Timothy Sandefur’s first critique in the lead essay is provocative, but has some flaws.  On Hayek’s description of how law is constructed, Sandefur writes:

“No system of law,” Hayek admits, “has ever been designed as a whole, and even the various attempts at codification could do no more than systematize an existing body of law, and in doing so supplement it or eliminate inconsistencies.” Even the most sophisticated bureaucratic, top-down plan is going to incorporate lessons learned through historical experience. In other words, the “partially different rules” that compete in the spontaneous order are necessarily “constructed” ones. And because Hayek incorporates these elements of constructivism into his account of spontaneous order, he ends up making it impossible to discriminate between a spontaneous and a constructed order.

This misses the point!  Hayek uses the idea of spontaneous order to comment on how centralized or decentralized power, knowledge, and decisions are in a social system.  Sure, a system of primarily constructed order can have feedback from the bottom, and a system of spontaneous order can have top-down universalities.  That doesn’t mean that if features of one type exist within a system of the other that the distinction between each becomes meaningless.  After all, Hayek was contrasting central planning with a market economy.

Sandefur oversimplifies.  He wants to classify systems into absolute categories while ignoring the existence of messy continua.  While it is possible to nitpick, we can easily classify the United States as a liberal market economy, and Cuba as a socialist economy.  It would be dishonest to deny these categorizations; we wouldn’t say that because the U.S. has public schools, and that because Cuba has a money supply, we simply can’t distinguish any difference between these economies.

Hasnas corroborates my sentiment that the difference really is simple:

If there is anything more to this problem, I am blind to it. Spontaneous orders are the product of human action but not human design; constructed orders are the product of human design. That’s about it. The former implies the absence of a conscious final decision maker; the latter implies its presence.

Sandefur attacks Hayek for making a normative critique of constructed orders.  Though he builds this argument from the supposed lack of distinction between spontaneous and constructed orders, he contradicts himself by acknowledging the existence of the difference, so that he can continue.  Given that the distinction does exist, is Hayek justified in making a normative critique of constructed orders?  Yes, he is!  Hayek’s point is that spontaneous order can handle more complex systems than constructed orders.  Constructed order can only be as complex as the central planner can design it, but spontaneous order can handle far more complexity.  This is a good thing.  A more complex system is able to handle more information and processes, and is able to give more people more of what they want.  Sandefur lays this in the introduction, so why not accept this normative claim at face value?

Sandefur chastises Hayek as lacking a basis for advocating social reform since spontaneous order will have provided some optimal socially constructed order.  That could be true, but that’s not how I read Hayek.  I read him as desiring to decentralize power and decisions, which would be social reform in and of itself.  Did Hayek really ever consider reform of social institutions that had already arisen from spontaneous processes?  Wasn’t the point just to criticize social processes that had been implemented from a central authority?

Obviously Hayek was a liberal, in the true sense.  He defined himself as such in “Why I Am Not a Conservative.”  So it doesn’t make sense that he would position himself against social change–he welcomed the dynamism of free markets, which carries a kind of social change.

Hold on!  Was the decision of Lawrence v. Texas justified by spontaneous order?  Sandefur is correct in pointing out that Hayek’s framework is ambiguous enough to both attack and defend the decision.  It’s a strong example of an instance where the logic of spontaneous order does not provide a clear normative prescription.  Does that matter?  Spontaneous order is a useful analytical tool, but it doesn’t apply to everything.

Hasnas’s normative defense of spontaneous order seems accurate, that true spontaneous order advances legitimate moral values, but also indicates the proliferation of them.  Also, Hasnas agrees that Hayek stretched the applicability of spontaneous order when using it to describe law.

Another point that comes up in the discussion is whether Hayek was making normative claims at all.  Caldwell writes:

Another way to make sense of Hayek is simply to assert that he was making no normative claims at all, that he was doing positive science. This would probably be Hayek’s preferred route, given that the Austrians always claimed to be following Weber’s strictures regarding Wertfreiheit. Thus when he criticized central planning, Hayek was actually claiming that, given the goals of socialists, central planning was not the appropriate means by which to reach them.

Is this true?  It seems to me that socialism has always held egalitarianism as its goal, not uplift.  Have you ever heard of a socialist discuss positive-sum game?  I haven’t.

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