Doctor Science Knows

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Libertarianism and philosophy: some old comments

Way back in June 06 there was a very long debate on Obsidian Wings that strongly influenced my thinking on a number of issues. I just realized I never posted my comments here, so I'm doing it now.

Back then hilzoy, a moral philosopher, was weighing in on a left blogostan debate about Libertarians: Can we offer them someonething to de-Republicanize them?

Libertarians And The Democratic Party: Part 1

I came to play:

In my observation, libertarians are people who don't believe that humans are social animals. They do not want to care about other people and they do not want other people to care about them. This at least is more honest than conservatives, who want to be cared for without being caring.

Presumably, she believes this not because she wants poor people to have untreated illnesses; I imagine that if libertarians could cure all poor people's illnesses by waving a magic wand, they would.

It's not exactly that they want poor people to have untreated illnesses, it's that they don't believe anyone should expect something (like medicine) they haven't earned, preferably in the marketplace. They certainly don't believe in magic wands -- you can't get something for nothing, everyone's got to stand on their own two feet, and if all they have is stumps, well, libertarians never told you life is *fair*, did they? So if poor people have to die to prove that life is unfair, that's just reality, not the fault of libertarians.
later in the thread, I wrote:

It's quite possible that I *am* confusing libertarians (in general) with Randroids, because all the people I knew in my formative years who called themselves "libertarian" were, in fact, Randroids.

I am basing my opinions about libertarians not on the Libertarian Party nor even the Cato Institute, but on conversations I've had with self-identified libertarians over the years. And on Heinlein.
The discussion rolled over to a part II, to discuss libertarian ideas about justice and property.:
Libertarians And Democrats: Part 2. I wrote:
Heaven knows how long this discussion will be by the time I get my entry typed in.

Putting on my Evolutionary Biologist Hat, I say:

The "state of nature" for Homo sapiens is social. We are social animals, so our state of nature is one where we live, forage, and raise our young with other members of our species. The philosopher's state of nature is not just a theoretical construct, but untrue: it is an attempt to describe human nature in a way that is not our nature.

When I use a word, it means just what I want it to mean, and so when I say "state of nature" I mean: small groups of hunter-gatherers, related by blood and marriage, moving around a lot and interacting with other small groups from time to time. That is the human state of nature.

I agree completely with Hilzoy that Nozick and Hayek are mistaken in postulating that their concept of property is in some way the most basic, logical, or fundamental. On the contrary, it is highly derived and specialized, dependent on a particular set of social & historical constructs.

Now you see why in the other thread I described libertarians as "people who don't believe humans are social animals".

In the human state of nature we can expect ideas about property not to be based on a simple principle (such as the "labor theory of value") but on a system in which the concept "ours" is at least as important as "mine" -- because we are social animals.

Hilzoy kills the antelope and Mona comes to take it. In the human state of nature, *everything* depends on the relationship between Hilzoy and Mona.

If they are part of the same family unit, the antelope may belong to both of them regardless of who killed it, and Hilzoy may be considered immoral or thievish if she doesn't give Mona at least half.

If Mona is Hilzoy's mother or grandmother, it may be Mona's obligation to take the antelope from Hilzoy for redistribution, and Hilzoy might be a thief if she tries to hang onto it.

Or the antelope may be thought of as belonging to a goddess, and now that it is dead Hilzoy has the right to use certain parts of it, but others must be given away or burned.

None of Nozick & Hayek's views of property are found in nature.

1. you can own pretty much anything

If you look at any basic ethnography overview (the one I grabbed first is Indians of North America by Harold Driver) you see that in most societies what can be owned by individuals is restricted: tools and ordinary clothes are the most common individual property. Houses, different kinds of land, different kinds of food, ceremonial or fancy clothes and chattels, the right to farm, hunt or gather in a particular place, even songs and other incorporeal property -- all these things are usually owned by groups, anywhere from a couple to a whole tribe of tribes.

2. you can give or sell what you own at will

This is almost never the case. Even if the chattel is one you own directly, you may not have the right to sell it, exchange it, or allow others to use it. Frequently, a group will own land and have the exclusive right to use it, but not to give it away: it's basically entailed, and *must* be inherited.

3. you are entitled to all the proceeds of any voluntary transaction you enter into.

This situation doesn't correspond to much that happens in the human state of nature, but when it does the individual who makes the transaction almost never gets to keep all the proceeds.

Here's an example of modern property that is held in a way typical of the human state of nature, but doesn't correspond at all to Nozick & Hayek's views:

"My" wedding dress was made by my grandmother's sister for my grandmother's wedding. A generation later, it was worn by my aunt, and then by my mother, at their weddings. Still later, I wore it at my wedding. It is currently in storage, waiting for my daughters to grow up.

Who does this dress belong to? I wore it most recently, so N&H might say it's mine. But if you think I or anyone else in the family can give it away or sell it "at will", you're psychotically mistaken. The dress is the collective property of all the women in my family line, both living and dead. Everyone gets to use it, but no-one gets to sell it, and delicate negotiations would be required if someone else wanted to use it, e.g. a woman who married in to the family.

This dress is property, but it is about *relationships*, and property rights are really about what sorts of human relationships you think are most likely and important.
still later:
My goodness, what a thinky bunch.


We are not merely on different pages, but seem to be reading from different books, so I'm not sure it's worth either of our times to try to understand each other better right now, especially given the stunning length of the comments here.

In general, as I think about this so very thought-provoking post and discussion, it emphasizes for me how absolutely critical it is to avoid leaping to postulates.

Nozick's postulates are deeply libertarian, so he's bound to come up with some pretty libertarian conclusions. He (and other libertarians) talk about radically individual humans, who enter only into voluntary associations, who mostly deal with strangers, for whom property is completely alienable in exchange for completely fungible money.

I'm arguing that none of these conditions are met by humans in a human state of nature (who are born into extended families, who encounter few strangers, who possess very little in the way of stuff, and who have no money at all). Because the human state of nature lasted far, far longer than our libertarian present day, thought experiments based on that state are likely to given results that fit our unconscious emotional needs, they will feel "right".

My gut reaction to Hilzoy's discussion of the "patterned view" of justice versus the "process view" is to go all Jewish-prophet-y and say, "Justice will come when you pay less attention to your damned stuff, and more to other people!"

Example: the story of Solomon and the two mothers with one baby (1 Kings 3:16-28). The evidence does not permit the King to judge which is the mother, so he says he'll do the "fair" thing and chop it in half. One mother says, "OK, that's fair", and the other says "No, give the baby to her, just don't hurt it!" By this Solomon knows that the protesting mother is the "real" one, and deserves the baby.

Solomon's threat is the threat of fairness; Solomon's justice is that he restores right human relationships. "Property justice" is not measured by a pattern -- of uniformity or otherwise -- *or* by a fair process which must logically produce fair results. "Property justice" occurs only when it supports just human relationships. It doesn't matter how fair the process, if a beggar starves while a rich man feasts *this is not justice*, because justice is about having the right human relationships.

Libertarians are extremely principled people, but my own philosophy is closer to "persons before principles" (quote from the works of Lois McMaster Bujold).

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  • There are just simply too many half-truths and confusions in the above to identify, let alone untangle. But let's take a few:

    (1) The charactization that "humans are social animals" because they live in small groups [tribes or bands] in a "state of nature" is a nearly useless observation. We aren't in a state of nature. Haven't been for millenia. We, at least those of us who haven't recently been bombed back to the stone age, live in "mass societies." Principles of social organization that work well at the level of the small group don't work at all in a setting where many [most?] interactions are among mutually anonymous individuals.

    (2) Yes, property rights are of many types and forms. They also are of many types and forms in, say, contemporary American society. If you want to "share" certain of your property, you can form a partnership or even a cooperative. These are really really honest to gosh forms of formally and legally owning and using property. They are also not all that popular. Wonder why that is if such communal arrangements are as superior as you seem to think? Isn't there this "evolution" thing that would cause people to chose the best form of property for themselves if given a choice between various forms?

    By Blogger Craig J. Bolton, at 2:49 AM  

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