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December 05, 2006

Philosophy v. Policy

I have some long comments on the "Liberaltarians" craze that's sweeping the nation over at Tapped, but as a slightly more superficial observation, an alliance between liberals and libertarians is going to be hampered by our fundamentally different methods of understanding our movements. Every libertarian who's written about the possibilities for a grand alliance has talked about Hayek and Rawls. On the other side of the divide, both Kevin and I critiqued the concept on the level of policy disagreement -- neither of us refer back to treatises.

That's not a coincidence: Libertarians, who're something of an ideological movement without much hope for political power, tend to spend a lot of time puzzling through the theory and philosophy of their ideas. Liberals, who're something of a political movement without much hope for ideological purity, tend to think through policies and outcomes. Because of that, the libertarians see a lot of philosophical common ground, which to them suggest important points of similarity, while liberals see a lot of policy disagreements, which to them suggest near-irreconcilable differences.

As example, Will Wilkinson thinks that Social Security privatization is more Rawlsian than the current system, and this strikes Will as the sort of argumentative approach that liberals will find compelling. That's wrong. It's the sort of argumentative approach Will Wilkinson would find compelling. Liberals could discover a lost Rawlsian text called "Universal Health Care Is A Really Bad Idea And Liberals Shouldn't Support It," and no one would care, save for those who'd have to stop naming Rawls as an intellectual inspiration. This difference actually strikes me as pretty fundamental, and makes an enduring rapprochement seem somewhat unlikely.

Anyway, read the Tapped post.

December 5, 2006 | Permalink


This is an interesting insight to me, related in my own way of thinking to the point about economists in the next thread down. One point seems to be that libertarians are more philosophically grounded than liberals in general are, in a way that seems to imply that liberals may not have any distinct philosophical foundation. This is presented as perhaps a good thing, given that libertarians are open to criticism as being too philosophical.

I admire and share the rational impulse that leads to seeking out a rational philosophical foundation for economic/political policy. After all, if you don't have a philosophical foundation of some kind, you haven't got any rational response to basic questions like why you should even be a liberal. The need to deal with such questions becomes clear if you liken the philosophical theory to a compass and the economic/political theories as means to get to where the compass points. There are strong arguments of that or some similar kind that we should all base our policy more directly on a well founded philosophy.

Unfortunately, this is an area where the desire for rationality can easily outrun our capacity to get at the truth. The problem with basing one's view on a well defined philosophical view is that there is little good reason to believe such views, and (as a rule) the more substantive they are in their claims, the less reasons we have to believe them. What's the evidence that Rawls is right? By his own admission, he starts with a few assumptions about fairness that he hopes others will share and goes from there, but he has no way of proving his assumptions, which really function as subjective values rather than objective empirical points. And of course, even if you accept the foundational values, the way he spins out the implications is also open to question, and generally the kind of question that can't be settled by empirical means.

Economics isn't free of similar concerns, but it's more empirical than philosophy, and for that reason it's more likely to get at the truth, in my view. Since it lacks any basic compass of the kind Rawls would provide, those bearings must be found elsewhere. I do think some kind of philosophical base is called for, but a suitable degree of uncertainty and humility in that area is also called for. Possibly it's better in practice to just intuitively gravitate towards liberalism without any sound philosophical foundation for that, and recognize that lack, than to attach too strongly to some particular philosophical theory. The former would probably reflect effectively enough the subjective values that, as I see it, found our actions, but even if we hope for something more objective and well worked out, as Rawls tries to be, the recognition of the flimsiness of what we now have seems appropriate and beneficial.

That's a little rough and long, but I don't have time to make it more clear and short ...

Posted by: Sanpete | Dec 5, 2006 1:40:18 PM

Ezra, If we discovered the lost Rawlsian text, the important thing wouldn't be that Rawls said it. The important thing would be whether the argument was sound. And if it was, you still think "no one would care"? That is, you wouldn't care? If so, then that's just really sad.

You either care about certain moral ends or you don't. If it is shown that the ends you profess to care about are best achieved by certain means, but then you reject those means because you don't like them (or identify them or they cut against the grain of your coalitional commitments), then that's just a way of rejecting the ends you profess to care about.

If you're saying you don't actually care about democratic transparency, open deliberation among political equals, equality, fair terms of association, and social solidarity--which are what my social security paper focuses on--then you should just feel free to say so. Otherwise, you're under a burden to say what's wrong with the argument.

If your fixed points are not actually moral ends, but just a disconnected hodge podge of policies you happen to be committed to, then what are you in it for? Power? Status? The fun of the fight? If that's it, I can understand why you wouldn't want to openly admit that you don't actually value liberal ideals. But I don't believe that about you.

If you do genuinely care about liberal ideals, you can't honestly avoid an argument about means. That's the kind of conversation Brink (and I) would like to have. I'm personally sick to death with conservative who basically say, "oh yeah, sure, I like limited government, but what does that have to do with banning gay marriage?" If intellectuals on the left are really just the mirror image of that--"oh yeah, sure, I care about equality and human welfare and all that crap, but if that gets in the way of universal health care, then fuck it"--then I'll be despondent.

Posted by: Will Wilkinson | Dec 5, 2006 1:50:50 PM

libertarians are open to criticism as being too philosophical.
I think the better word for "philosophical" would be ideological. Libertarians, in my experience, are nothing more than conservatives with intellectual pretensions. Their hero is the mythical Lonesome Cowboy, out on his own, and only freedom from government, i.e. societal regulations, stands in his way of being the Fountainhead.
any rational response to basic questions like why you should even be a liberal.
Humanist values
Economics ...is more empirical than philosophy, and for that reason it's more likely to get at the truth....
To think that, you are saying that Man is solely an economic animal, which is a rationalist statement.

Posted by: Mike | Dec 5, 2006 2:03:08 PM

The idea that one shouldn't react as strongly to means as to ends boggles me. One of the ways I test the desirability of an end is the means it would take to get there, and if the means are sufficiently bad, I don't regard an otherwise good end as holding up to the standard of "yes, but do I really want to do that?"

I'm also puzzled that one could find the idea of conflicting goods puzzling or strange. If I thought there were usually uniquely correct solutions to many ethical (or other) dilemmas, I'd...well, I'd be a very different sort of person than I am, I guess.

Posted by: Bruce Baugh | Dec 5, 2006 2:09:17 PM

The other side of this is the libertarian ideas and arguments, when used in actual policy debates, are typically the rhetorical tools of closet authoritarians, who seek to protect wealth and the private authoritarianism associated with wealth from state regulation or taxation.

The goal of "smaller government" is just a convenient obfuscation of the real goals of most advocates using libertarian arguments. Less regulation is sold as getting government off the backs of the individual, but, in practice, it involves removing government protection against corporate power.

Civil liberties arguments are similarly perverted. An insistence on color-blindness is trotted out to the pointed disadvantage of members of minority groups, subject to sub rosa discrimination. 1st Amendment claims are made to empower religious bigots, who want, say, to harass gays in the public schools.

Libertarians do not aspire to political power in the way that liberals do, because libertarians prefer their role as tactical handmaidens to the fascist ascendancy.

Posted by: Bruce Wilder | Dec 5, 2006 2:10:00 PM

"Liberals...tend to think through policies and outcomes" and nobody else does?

Isn't that what policy debate is all about? You have an end-result, a goal in mind, and you debate the best way to get there. Liberals don't have a monopoly on that concept. In fact, I've found Liberals to be less likely to really look at actual outcomes, as opposed to intentions. There's a big difference between how you'd like things to turn out and how things actually do turn out.

Posted by: Asa | Dec 5, 2006 2:21:11 PM

Sigh. Those are some leaps there, Will (where does that first graf even come from?). What I'm arguing is more limited: That, as you can see, the libertarians are much more focused on the philosophers than the liberals are. I'm a big fan of Rawls, but I think the idea that the uninsured should be covered would do fine without him. Indeed, I have no problem with those who reach it intuitively, rather than through philosophical examination.

Meanwhile, the point of my post is the one you elide: Liberals tend to be more focused on pragmatic outcomes than libertarians, if only because our political movement has more of a governing component. There were a great many arguments made by liberals on why privatization would have negative outcomes. The argument you made was, I think, an interesting and worthwhile one, but it represented an approach that made a lot more sense to you than it did to its targets. And despite your bristling reply, none of this is meant as criticism -- just observation on why liberals and libertarians often talk past each other. If liberals, or even Republicans, wrote the Lindsey article, I doubt it would've have made reference to Rawls or Hayek.

Posted by: Ezra | Dec 5, 2006 2:21:46 PM

I don't think liberals are without a philosophical foundation. However, the more politically viable a movement becomes, the less philosophically "pure" it can hope to remain (unless, of course, your movement is willing to sacrifice everything to the sake of ideology, in which case things usually get Very Ugly). Put another way, once a movement becomes politically viable, it's got to deal with actually running things as opposed to simply talking about why things should be run a certain way. At that point, two things happen. One is that the discussion within the movement becomes more focused on practical goals and less focused on their philosophical underpinnings. The other is that everything gets leavened with a lot of pragmatism.

It's a good thing for a movement to remind itself every once in a while of its underlying values, but the fact that a movement doesn't spend all its time talking about those core values may simply mean that it has reached a certain political and intellectual maturity.

Posted by: nolo | Dec 5, 2006 2:23:27 PM

Yes, and If someone unearthed a long-lost papyrus scroll of Ayn Rand calling for unemployment insurance, the Randroids would dutifully contort their politics to comply with their goddess.

Posted by: Adrian | Dec 5, 2006 3:15:13 PM


Do you think liberals are more focused on pragmatic outcomes, or more focused on political outcomes?

Social Security being a good example I think. There are various ways to create a program that cares for the poor and elderly. It seems to me though, that rather than discuss any of the pragmatic outcomes, most liberals were happy to focus on a political outcome that would give them credit for 'saving social security' and let them demonize Republicans.

I have heard numerous excuses for this, most frequently that Republicans were the threat they were painted to be and not interested in a useful discussion on the matter. I suppose miliage varies on those, but they didn't convince me.

Posted by: Dave Justus | Dec 5, 2006 3:15:32 PM

Of course liberalism is with a philosophical foundation ... multiple ones in fact. There's Rawls of course. Kant could be read in a "Rawlsian" manner (or probably more precisely Rawls could be read in a Kantian manner, or even as an secular-egoist variation on and exposition of Jesus' "that which you do to the least of them, you also do to me") so you can speak of Kantian liberalism, which justifies much religious liberalism in my religion (and possibly others).

And speaking Kant (and Kantiana, if I may coin a term), let's not forget the Pragmatists ... they were, IIRC, generally some of the first to participate in the shift from the "classical" liberalism of the Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment eras to modern progressive liberalism. So, while of course we must distinguish between the common use of the term "pragmatist" and the Pragmatists, there are points of similarity: which is why the original distinction between the ideological and the policy ends is somewhat overdrawn.

Posted by: DAS | Dec 5, 2006 3:20:00 PM

I don't see any need to be wordy here - this is a great post, Ezra, and you make a really good point, one that has bugging this liberal about libertarians for some time. I also love the comments this has generated, but as I say, I have little to add - I think most liberals have a philosophy, but it's personal and tends to be built on pieces from other thinkers without subscribing wholesale to one interpretation (the point, I think, of your Rawls/UHC example). In that sense liberalism in the modern sense seems vaguely existential. Which I like.

Again, kudos. This was impressive.

Posted by: weboy | Dec 5, 2006 3:21:00 PM

Asa: "Liberals...tend to think through policies and outcomes" and nobody else does?

Well, some people of other persuasions do not. Libertarians tend to be strongly process-oriented on lots of issues; get the process right (usually assigning the problem to the "market") and the actual outcome is not a consideration.

Religious conservatives tend to value certain rules, but do not concern themselves with objectives, per se, and, therefore, do not worry overmuch about unintended consequences or tradeoffs between costs and benefits. Most want abortion to be illegal as an end in itself; liberals, who try to interest them in practical educational and welfare programs aimed at reducing abortion rates by reducing unwanted pregnancy -- especially programs that involve "artificial" birth control, another no-no -- don't get many buyers.

Liberals can be overly optimistic about the efficacy of good intentions, just as conservatives, especially the ethically challenged and empathy-deprived versions dominant in current American politics, tend to be too pessimistic, when they are not actually lying on behalf of a paying client.

Posted by: Bruce Wilder | Dec 5, 2006 3:57:27 PM

Dave J's question is a good one. I think liberals see their insistence on some particular means as in the service of practical goals, but it does seem easy to confuse the two.

Liberals can be overly optimistic about the efficacy of good intentions, just as conservatives ... tend to be too pessimistic

That much has some truth in it.

Of course liberalism is with a philosophical foundation ... multiple ones in fact.

Multiple and contradictory ones. It may be that libertarians hanker more after consistency than most liberals.

Is being "vaguely existential" different from being vaguely inconsistent?

I think the better word for "philosophical" would be ideological.

Mike, I'm not entirely sure what distinction you have in mind, but in any case Ezra's point was about libertarian ties to philosophical theory, which, since he regards himself as a liberal more than a libertarian, implicitly raises the issue that they might be too closely tied to it. Possibly there is another point to be made about ideology, if there's a difference.

Why the link to the Humanism site? Are you implying that liberals generally regard themselves as Humanists, and that some Humanist philosophical theory holds the same place in liberal thinking that Rawls and others hold in libertarian thinking? It's worth noticing that the Humanist philosophy outlined is very vague and broad, and that it's probably accepted by as many libertarians as liberals. There are also conservative, non-libertarian Humanists. Rawls, whose views are consistent with Humanism, is far more specific to the issues involved in economic policy.

you are saying that Man is solely an economic animal, which is a rationalist statement.

I'm not saying that. Whether a study is empirical doesn't depend on whether its objects are rational or "economic" agents (though whether the science is useful does depend on whether their behavior is predictable in some way at some level). I'm just saying that empirical science is more likely to get at the truth than philosophy (to the extent the two are distinguished). This doesn't directly imply any view about rationalism vs. empiricism, though it rules out some strong kinds of rationalism.

Posted by: Sanpete | Dec 5, 2006 4:16:48 PM

Social Security being a good example I think. There are various ways to create a program that cares for the poor and elderly. It seems to me though, that rather than discuss any of the pragmatic outcomes, most liberals were happy to focus on a political outcome that would give them credit for 'saving social security' and let them demonize Republicans.

The reason (smart) liberals were unwilling to discuss other alternatives, the reason we focussed on 'saving social security', was that the only 'reform' that stood any chance of being enacted was Bush's privatization...which would have had a far worse outcome than the current system. In a perfect world in which all rationally defensible alternatives are on the table, and everyone sits down and discussed them rationally until they come up with the alternative that yields the best outcomes, and there is no disagreement about what 'best outcomes' means, then yes, it would be a good thing to think seriously about alternative systems. This is not a perfect world, and it was particularly imperfect back in 2005, when the privatization debate was going on. Rallying around the status quo, which appears to you to be either ideologically based or a matter of political gamesmanship, was in fact a pragmatic attempt to achieve the least undesirable outcome given that imperfection.

Posted by: Tom Hilton | Dec 5, 2006 5:19:33 PM

I think the fundamental problem is that, while there are certain points on which libertarians and (philosophical?) liberals are in almost wholehearted agreement on both means and ends, there are also points on which libertarians and liberals are in absolute and irreconcilable disagreement. While Rawls' first principle ("Each person has an equal claim to a fully adequate scheme of basic rights and liberties...") is something that probably just about any libertarian could endorse without controversy, his second principle ("Social and economic inequalities ... are to be to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged members of society") is the antithesis of libertarian ideology. While this makes possible alliances between the two groups on issues of mutual agreement, it also condemns that alliance from the start. There can be no reconciliation, because the basic principles of the two groups are entirely incompatible.

Posted by: George Tenet Fangirl | Dec 5, 2006 5:27:35 PM

I teach polisci (int. relations) in a southern university and I have to say that commitment to principles over pragmatism is a common source of dispute I observe. For example, North Korea now has demonstrated nuclear capability and students in my courses were absolutely okay with that because the Bush Administration had stood up to the NK regime for suspected cheating in 2002 and not appeased them like Clinton. Non-proliferation (the outcome) was subordinate to the principles driving foreign policy (Bush Doctrine, your with us or against us, Axis of Evil).

Posted by: Drew | Dec 5, 2006 6:01:13 PM

There are various ways to create a program that cares for the poor and elderly. It seems to me though, that rather than discuss any of the pragmatic outcomes, most liberals were happy to focus on a political outcome that would give them credit for 'saving social security' and let them demonize Republicans.

Liberals and Democrats were of the opinion, with enough factual evidence to think so, (in the interest of brevity, being that we're all frequent readers of this blog, I'll refrain from citing the various examples here) that the Republicans solutions to this matter WERE so damaging to, as you put it, 'pragmatic outcomes', that to cede any ground to those solutions would be a dangerous move, not just politically, but practically as well. At worst then, the most they could be accused of was kicking the can down the road, a charge I wouldn't reject outright.

As for the demonizing, the Republicans did that to themselves when they choose to attack one of the most popular programs ever.

Posted by: Adrock | Dec 5, 2006 6:08:24 PM

One thing that confuses me is when liberals talk about this they say, "ahh, libertarians will never really buy into a libertarian, liberal partnership because liberals support this or that." But aren't Republicans against choice, gay marriage, ect freaking ect? So why is what's unattractive to libertarians about liberals so much more of a road block than what's unattractive about Republicans?

Posted by: Mike | Dec 5, 2006 7:37:39 PM

Hell probably some of the best arguments against liberalism would come from the anarchists and syndicalists when they attacked Lenin and Trotsky and the communists:the commies were preserving and strengthening the heirarchal power structures that tsarism used to oppress, and eventually whoever was in charge, and the faces would change, the structure and oppression would remain. It was a liberaltarian argument.

Dudes, capitalism is inequality. That is how it works. The conservatives and scoundrels will always be able to take it from you and rip us off. You can't tame this tiger, you can only kill it.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Dec 5, 2006 11:48:39 PM

Mike -
What most libertarians I know, find attractive about the left, over the republicans, is that we walk the walk for civil liberties. While the republicans restrict them and fail on the smaller government front, the only thing that libertarians would support.

Posted by: DuWayne | Dec 6, 2006 12:53:05 AM

This whole discussion is indicative of the cancerous nature of the two party system. On a host of issues, liberals and libertarians agree. So we should damn well work together on those issues. We are natural allies when it comes to civil liberties. But when discussions about UHC come around, we are not going to be allies - just not going to happen. Health and safety regulations are another snarl. There are many others, to numerous to count. Even more frightening, there will be issues where more traditional conservatives will agree with liberals, in opposition to libertarians.

It would be far more effective government, if people ran on their own volition - not a party. If they had to build coalitions for each piece of legislation. If they had to work with people who apposed them on previous legislation.

I just don't understand why one can't say hey, we agree pretty strongly on this set of issues, let's work together to fight for these. Let's also set aside our differences, not change our positions on those differences, just recognize that on other issues, we will not be allies. Certainly, when we are in opposition, we will have a mutual respect that may soothe the way, but make no mistake, there are areas where liberals and libertarians will not agree. Just as there are places where traditional conservatives and libertarians do not agree. The only advantage liberals have over conservatives in the eyes of libertarians, is that where our beliefs converge, liberals actually follow through. Whereas, the "conservatives," well, just look at the last six years.

Posted by: DuWayne | Dec 6, 2006 1:12:30 AM

So why is what's unattractive to libertarians about liberals so much more of a road block than what's unattractive about Republicans?

Economics, pure and simple. Libertarians care more about whats in their wallet than what other people do in the bedroom. They're willing to look past Republican social discretions provided they don't feel squeeze financially by Republican policies. This is why you'll see some Libertarians defecting, because much of the Republican economic policy as of late has been slightly liberal in nature.

Posted by: Adrock | Dec 6, 2006 12:59:55 PM

"oh yeah, sure, I care about equality and human welfare and all that crap, but if that gets in the way of universal health care, then fuck it"

Will, principles have to mean something when it comes to policy. And if "equality and human welfare" do not include universal health care in your mind, then they seem to me like empty words. (By a happy coincidence, practical considerations agree with principle on this subject.)

I'm surpised nobody's pointed out that U.S. voters currently seem to disagree with these liberaltarians on every single issue, except perhaps gun control (where I feel unusual sympathy for the right wing) and medical marijuana. Americans want health care and Social Security. I think they currently want to ban gay marriage, though we all know their grandchildren will feel embarassed about that position. Perhaps libertarians should stay quiet, and hope public enthusiasm for liberal economics translates into quicker approval of the liberal positions they agree with.

Incidentally, a guy by the name of Brad Hicks has a series on liberalism and conservatism that might clear up a few questions.

Posted by: hf | Dec 6, 2006 5:46:36 PM

Will is being more than a little harsh on Ezra 2. Try searching for Rawls at a liberal think tank versus searching for Hayek at a libertarian think tank. Or for Rawls at the latter for that matter. Supposedly foundational philosophy is simply not how liberals generally interface with their ideology. Whereas it seems the preferred mode of discourse among young libertarians in DC.

While some kind of philosophical coming together might be a good pitch for a book deal, in terms of more down-to-earth policy debates you're probably not going to win too many hearts and minds by going that route. This doesn't refer to Will's SS paper necessarily (I'll read that tonight) but more to his blog post, e.g. "If you fortify Rawls’ theory of justice with a Hayekian grasp of the coordinating function of prices, and the dynamics of spontaneous order [etc]..." I hate to be anti-intellectual, but that's just not the level where I think about (or even understand) policy or politics.

On the other hand, we do have debates about means. Our debate about SS took place a year and a half ago. I personally engaged with quite a few libertarian articles. I'd be surprised if Ezra 2 here didn't as well. It just wasn't on the level of basic philosophical axioms. More like: is the crisis really the way you say it is? How can you make that prediction about the stock market while simultaneously assuming such a poor economy? Etc. You remember.

And I suspect there is a reason for this beyond Ezra 2's idea that liberals just have to worry about reality more. Are any committed libertarians truly open to the idea that the free market does not adequately solve almost any economic problem? If so -- there's a starting point.

Posted by: Ezra 1 | Dec 6, 2006 7:26:25 PM

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