I’m gratified that from what I can tell, we weren’t wildly unfair in our Nozick episode, and in particular that Metcalf’s participation apparently didn’t irredeemably taint our coverage, what with his being an already established opponent of the text.
As is typical when we cover and largely pan a work related to a movement that people are invested in, we get more requests to cover different texts that would make the case more effectively (in this case, a couple of people have brought up Michael Huemer. I would encourage such people to go create a Not School group right now to talk about it, as no further forays into this area are scheduled or anticipated. If you start a group and record your discussion, I will eventually get around to doing another Not School highlights episode, meaning that at least the beginning of your discussion will get shared with the full PEL listenership.
Our next planned steps in sort-of political philosophy are in economics, covering Smith first, then probably a Keynes-Hayek combined episode. We’ll also definitely get to an anarchism episode, i.e. Proudhon/Bakunin. That’s all I can safely predict at this point, though your suggestions are always welcome and will certainly be considered (especially if we hear the same suggestion from enough different people).
So that leaves us where we often are given our “great books”-based approach: we’ve considered the main representative of a view according to the philosophical canon, but arguably haven’t grasped with the issue itself. Disgruntled libertarians can join the Marxists and and atheists and theists and people who think we read the wrong Merleau-Ponty text or haven’t yet received proper guidance on Lacan.
So our opinions about libertarianism as a wider social position beyond Nozick’s book will for the foreseeable future instead be a product of lots of third-hand gossip and encounters with irritating dorm-mates or things we heard in the media or whatever, i.e. how people normally get their opinions who don’t make a concerted scholarly effort to grapple with a view. So I invite libertarian-leaning listeners to engage us here to help us understand what we may be missing.
To me, the rationality behind someone’s libertarianism has everything to do with what kinds of nasty government actions they have in mind when they say that government action is in general, or outside of specified narrow limits, unjustified. When Thoreau was complaining about government, he had in mind the stupid wars of his day and the enforcement of slavery, which are pretty damned good things to complain about. If your problem with the federal government today is foreign wars and drones, I’m with you, though I also recognize that I don’t actually know much about foreign affairs, and just about nothing about strategic defense of American interests. As we discussed as far back as our first episode and more recently on our Oppenheimer episode, we necessarily rely to a very large degree on expert opinions, and so when it comes to fighting terrorism or the like, the best I feel I can do is try to gauge whether the people we put in charge of such things are corrupt or not, i.e. whether they’re going to be doing primarily the bidding of their campaign contributors or whether they actually have the public interest in mind. I tend to think that most people in public service, given that public service doesn’t pay as much as the private sector, are at least trying to do the right thing.
What’s my rationale for that opinion? It’s a “bullshitty” one, to quote myself re. Thoreau. I work with some people with some government power (mostly in the transportation sector), and have thought and researched enough about the relationship between jobs and human nature to feel confident that people don’t want to live wasted, shitty, corrupt lives. While a low-level government job may attract many a person in search of a sinecure (this is one of my favorite words; look it up if you don’t know it!), if you’re actually going to work at something, you want it to matter. I have less understanding of real-world instances of the raw motivation toward power that characterizes public servants in our media, but, as with money, think it obvious that such a hunger would be much more easily satisfied in the private sector than in our checks-and-balances system.
Inevitably, any attempt to generalize about the psychology of libertarians is going to be highly inapplicable to many of them, but if we’re dealing in anecdote and near-groundless generalization, as semi-philosophical essays about the social apparently must according to Wes, then here goes:
Libertarians like Thoreau tend to be both highly cynical, contra my assessment of public servants above, and maybe also think that there’s something about government power in particular that corrupts more than other kinds of power, probably because of the whole monopoly on force thing. Someone high up an a corporate, or academic, or nonprofit political organization may well be an ass and promote policies that exploit others, but he can’t have his underlings and constituents arrested or killed.
The problem here is how to provide a tempered response to a real problem. I had a musician friend once who was so paranoid about being robbed that he would always keep his blinds closed so that no one passing would so much as see his equipment and start hatching plans to steal it. Some people are so worried about driving or flying that they simply won’t do these things. What makes for a rational response to a real risk is a matter of judgment, and so people with different sensibilities are going to put more or less emphasis on particular threats.
I actually found David Brin to be pretty persuasive on this: we shouldn’t discount any of our concerns about the power of any elites, private or public, but should recognize that it’s not the level of power someone has that matters (and we can’t do much about this anyway), but what’s done with the power. I’m not concerned with arguing that in principle, some elites need to be restrained from any possible bad moves, but am concerned with there being accountability for and checks on all elites.
Another point of what I’d call personality-engendered disagreement is how you view the possibility of social change and our personal and collective responsibility for bringing that about. I’m a liberal, of course, in the sense that I see many of the world’s evils as capable of being addressed… maybe not cured, but greatly greatly lessened. There’s no reason given our level of overall world wealth why we should still have poverty. There’s no reason why we have to keep wrecking our environment. We can’t remove natural disasters, but we can develop more effective ways of responding to them to mitigate long-term damage. We can’t stop disease and death, but we can invest a lot in medical research and more in propagating preventive care and other medical resources that we already have. We can’t get rid of religious strife and power struggles and general human dickishness, but we can change aspects of the culture through more communication and better guidance. (Would you have believed when you were a kid that bullying would actually be getting real treatment as a problem in the way it has been of late?)
So there’s a lot that I think needs to be done to address these problems, and I don’t really give a crap who does it. If a corporation can address one of these needs, great, and if they get rich in the process, fine. But as we know, corporations aren’t designed to serve the public interest (well, some are), so it becomes the task of government to defend those who don’t have the resources to defend themselves. This, I think, is the position of the very centrist Democratic party of today: We just want things to work, dammit. We want effectiveness, we want long-term planning, we want deep thought about a vision of the future but don’t want to sacrifice any incremental gains that might actually be politically achievable in the name of some principle that not enough people will understand or be on board with to allow it to result in new laws.
Given my mindset, I have little patience for someone who gets hung up on some bias against government action (or against private ownership, or again religious organizations, or against international aid, etc., etc.). You might argue that one can’t legislate change: that real change comes from within, from changing people’s hearts and minds in the war of ideas. This ignores one of Marx’s fundamental insights, which is that people adapt to their material circumstances, and typically our ideas express the status quo or the teleology inherent in the system in which we live. So, for example, you can’t legislate that people stop being racist, but you can use laws to discourage discrimination and positively give opportunities to minorities. In the short term, this creates tension, in that, for example, whites suspect that any minority in a position of power was only there because of affirmative action. But as a long-term proposition, the result is more minorities in positions of power, and people obeying that power as they generally must, and so what was most terrible about old, racist society largely dissipates.
I sometimes romanticize my time in school, because it’s an example of where most of us lived under a different kind of governing structure, and in my case (in my affluent Chicago suburb that to this day always votes “yes” on referenda to shower the high school with new and improved facilities), the result was very positive. No, I’m not advocating for a paternalistic society that determines our main activities, but what worked for me was that there was of course the main activity (classes) which was at least designed with our human capacities and interests in mind (yay, New Work), and then there were all these extracurricular opportunities (sports teams, drama, etc.) that only only gave us something to sink our ambitions into, but there was a culture that was amenable to fostering friendships and consequently cooperative efforts not sponsored by the school, like, say, starting a rock band or running an underground magazine.
I’m more than aware that lots of people had very different experiences of school, and am not urging that model on society as a whole, but it tells us something about the possible relationship between intentionally designed, institutional community and human thriving. College provides another set of models we can learn from, as do many civic, church, and business communities. To rule out government action on grounds of principle is as foolish as ruling out any role for technology in conquering our problems.
But any such openness to central (or highly decentralized!) planning, and any admission that there are problems that are “ours” as a larger collective instead of belonging to each of us as individuals or maybe at best families, already runs against what I’ve witnessed as the sensibilities of many a libertarian. Some are pessimists and/or cynics: the problems of the world are bad enough that admitting the world or even the whole nation to our circle of care will simply ensure that nothing gets solved… they’ll just drag us down, whether through their orneriness or laziness or simply because they’ve got it too bad for us to add their problems to our plate. Some deny the connection between human hardship and happiness, taking Freud to mean that we’re pretty much going to be unhappy however we structure things, so why worry about it? It’s hard enough dealing with your own shit. Some simply don’t give a shit at all about other people as a species, and deny on principle that we are fundamentally social beings.
In our Nozick discussion, this came up in our confusion/disagreement re. whether Nozick had anything to say about ethics proper. You could (as I interpret Nozick) take him to be arguing against any government duty towards positive ethical action (specifically, arguing that any attempt to follow such a duty would violate a moral side constraint) while accepting that as human beings, we do have duties towards each other. Seth maintained instead that Nozick’s position that individuals can’t have such positive duties either. Clearly, Thoreau was not only against government charity, but against charity altogether. Or you could believe that government shouldn’t try to help, but we still as individuals and voluntary agencies should. I take neither position to be well justified, but at least the latter isn’t obviously misanthropic.
Most often, I hear the accusation that we naive liberals just don’t understand economics, that we fail to recognize how somehow any action by government screws up the not-perfect-but-the-best-we-can-do action of free markets. This challenge I do take seriously, which is why we need to do a short survey of economic theory. My initial hypothesis is that economics is our modern theology, and that it’s just as bullshitty as old-time theology was. Collecting more data and examining historical patterns does not predict the future, and the disagreement among major economists (left- vs. right-wingers) as well as their failure under any administration to effectively address real-world economic problems (or tell us with with any confidence what the economy would look like if some actions had been taken or not) makes me think it’s all a high-priced guessing game, used, then, by this class of libertarian to justify their political opinions which are actually based on sentiment, i.e. bullshit.
By all means, I encourage our listeners to tell me what I’m missing here, and that means actually telling us here, not just pointing me at some 300 page text that for sure none of us will read. Thanks as always for your patience in reading my bullshit.