Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Random Thought On Perry's Press Conference

At least he knows how to pronounce "nuclear".

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

I Think It's A Little More Complicated Than That

Update: Roderick Long also has a good take on this. Unfortunately, his three-step answer is no more suited to the context of a contemporary debate than the objections I outlined below. I beginning to think that libertarians should respond with "You got fifteen minutes?" when they get these kinds of question.

(via Digby) I'm in agreement that people who laugh at the thought of other people dying a probably assholes. That said, the question directed to Ron Paul at the last GOP debate is harder to answer than my friends on the left make it out to be.

Consider that this was not the case of an unemployed individual (such as Kyle Willis) dying of some simple malady because they couldn't afford insurance. Rather, the hypothetical proposed by Wolf Blitzer involved a healthy individual who could afford, but chose not to buy, health insurance. While his specific question focused on healthcare at its heart it's really a question of when society should intervene to save people from themselves.

The position which seems to be implicit in criticisms of the audience's behavior is that of course we should pay for the gentleman. As Greg Laden says he's in that position because he "made a mistake in not getting proper insurance coverage"; it's unconscionable that someone someone should die on account of such an easily-remedied mistake.

I'm sympathetic to this view; it speaks well of our species as a whole that we generally try to keep our fellows from dying. Where I disagree with Greg (and probably the bulk of humanity) is in the use of the word "mistake" to qualify the gentleman's actions. "Mistake", at least as it is used here in the context of a discussion of moral dessert, seems to imply a misunderstanding or lack of knowledge that leads the actor in question to draw an erroneous conclusion. In such a situation its easy to give the actor a mulligan when it comes to the consequences of eir actions, especially when the actor is acting in good faith and/or did eir best to become appropriately knowledgeable. If an actor's actions lead to a consequence which could not have reasonably been foreseen there's a decent (though not airtight) case to be made that they have some sort of claim of aid from their fellows.

In the hypothetical currently under discussion, however, this sense of "mistake" is totally absent. There's no suggestion that the actor in question had bad information of failed to form an accurate picture of the consequences of his actions1. He simply rolled the dice and lost, which makes his moral claim to assistance highly suspect.

We can, as a society, still choose to help the gentleman out of his predicament, but to do so opens up a big can of worms. If you do it for this gentleman you must do it for others in the same situation as well (on what ground can you discriminate?), at which point you've got a classic example of the free rider problem on your hands2. Free riding, apart from being a morally dubious practice, has a lot of corrosive, knock-on effects if left unchecked.

There's also the question of personal autonomy; to rescue this gentleman is to deny that he's a competent steward of his own life. Once we've rendered this judgement he effectively becomes a ward of the state, at which point we may be morally obliged to intervene in other aspects of his life as well. It would take far more space and time than I have here to fully explore all the ramifications of this intervention, so instead I'll just offer one stark example which springs immediately to mind: his kids. If we've determined that he's not capable of making decisions for himself, what does that say about his ability to look after children? It seems to me that, if we're being consistent, we're going to have to assume some portion of his parental responsibilities as well.

You may say that I'm being unduly alarmist and that all these problems can be solved by providing him with health insurance whether he likes it or not. But recall what I said in the beginning that Blitzer's question was only nominally about healthcare. What it's really about is how far we trust individuals to make decisions for themselves. If it's not healthcare then it's something else: smoking, drinking too much, eating transfats, driving without a seatbelt. We're uncomfortable letting people experience the consequences of their actions when we deem those consequences to be too severe. Instead we instead limit their choices and deny them their full personhood, a move which is designed primarily to relieve our own discomfort. Thank you, but no.

As an aside I feel a little bit bad for Ron Paul. Sure, he gave a inane response, but there was no way in hell he could provide a nuanced answer in the context of a GOP debate (try explaining "supererogatory act" to a Tea Partier).

1 My wife, an ER doc, suggests that people are uniquely bad at assessing risk to themselves in the context of medical decision making. This may be true, and is certainly relevant to the larger discussion if it is, but isn't part of the factual background implicit in Blitzer's question.
2 Yes yes, I know you could require everyone to buy insurance ahead of time; again, not part of Blitzer's hypothetical.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

Michael Lind's Anti-Libertarian Hatchet Job

Michael Lind's latest article in Salon, Why Libertarians Apologize For Autocracy, is a masterpiece of smear-by-insinuation. With a title like that you'd think that it'd be full of choice examples of prominent libertarians touting the virtues of autocratic rule. What you get instead are a bunch of quotes which suggest, at their worst, that some libertarian voices from the past were insufficiently critical of various autocratic regimes.

Let's start with one that he attributes to Ludwig von Mises, since it's the most damning of the lot:

It cannot be denied that Fascism and similar movements aimed at the establishment of dictatorships are full of the best intentions and that their intervention has for the moment saved European civilization. The merit that Fascism has thereby won for itself will live on eternally in history.

I was going to grant Lind partial credit on this one; that statement does seem like a full-throated endorsement of Fascism. But then I looked up the full quote:

It cannot be denied that Fascism and similar movements aiming at the establishment of dictatorships are full of the best intentions and that their intervention has, for the moment, saved European civilization. The merit that Fascism has thereby won for itself will live on eternally in history. But though its policy has brought salvation for the moment, it is not of the kind which could promise continued success. Fascism was an emergency makeshift. To view it as something more would be a fatal error.1

Hello, quote mining much? Mises saw the Fascists as a necessary evil in the fight against Bolshevism and The Third International2. Sure, I guess that technically counts as an apology for autocracy, but it's not like Mises was endorsing their methods. Far from it:

What distinguishes liberal from Fascist political tactics is not a difference of opinion in regard to the necessity of using armed force to resist armed attackers, but a difference in the fundamental estimation of the role of violence in a struggle for power. The great danger threatening domestic policy from the side of Fascism lies in its complete faith in the decisive power of violence. In order to assure success, one must be imbued with the will to victory and always proceed violently. This is its highest principle... The suppression of all opposition by sheer violence is a most unsuitable way to win adherents to one's cause. Resort to naked force—that is, without justification in terms of intellectual arguments accepted by public opinion—merely gains new friends for those whom one is thereby trying to combat. In a battle between force and an idea, the latter always prevails.3

Not quite so damning in context, is it?

The rest of Lind's examples are laughable; he's just playing "7 Degrees of Augusto Pinoche":

  • Milton Friedman: He gave a speech, in Chile, and failed to denounce all the bad things which had happened under Pinochet's watch.
  • Friedrich Hayek: OMG, he spent time in Chile! He even had the nerve to hold a meeting there!
  • Jose Piñera: He was part of Pinoche's cabinet!

It's all innuendos and guilt by association. With the exception of Hayek's expressed preference for a liberal dictatorship (which I'll get to in a second) none of the evidence which Lind proffers amounts to an apologia for autocracy. The bit about Jose Piñera is particularly egregious, a prime example of poisoning the well: Piñera was part of Pinochet's cabinet and now he works for Cato thus, by the transitive property of badness, libertarians eat babies. I mean really, c'mon...

I suspect that Lind's real beef with libertarians is that they're not cheering loud enough for democracy. Consider his complaint against Patri Friedman:

The Cato Institute’s problem with democracy is not limited to its appointment of a former functionary of a mass murderer to direct its retirement policy program. Cato Unbound recently hosted a debate over whether libertarianism is compatible with democracy. Milton Friedman’s grandson Patri concluded that it is not:

Democracy Is Not The Answer

Democracy is the current industry standard political system, but unfortunately it is ill-suited for a libertarian state. It has substantial systemic flaws, which are well-covered elsewhere,[2] and it poses major problems specifically for libertarians:

  1. Most people are not by nature libertarians. David Nolan reports that surveys show at most 16% of people have libertarian beliefs. Nolan, the man who founded the Libertarian Party back in 1971, now calls for libertarians to give up on the strategy of electing candidates! …
  2. Democracy is rigged against libertarians. Candidates bid for electoral victory partly by selling future political favors to raise funds and votes for their campaigns. Libertarians (and other honest candidates) who will not abuse their office can't sell favors, thus have fewer resources to campaign with, and so have a huge intrinsic disadvantage in an election.

Patri mistrusts democracy... so what? He's in esteemed company; none other than John Stuart Mill warned against the tyranny of the majority. And, if you want a more contemporary reference, I give you Isaiah Berlin:

Democracy may disarm a given oligarchy, a given privileged individual or set of individuals, but it can still crush individuals as mercilessly as any previous ruler. An equal right to oppress - or interfere - is not equivalent to liberty. Nor does universal consent to loss of liberty somehow miraculously preserve it merely by being universal, or by being consent.4

You going to tell me that Berlin is one of those autocracy-lusting libertarians too?

History is witness to the fact that democracy isn't a panacea. Glenn Greenwald, also writing for Salon, has spent an enormous amount of time documenting the various and sundry atrocities committed by both the Bush and Obama administrations. If your primary concern is the protection of individual liberties from encroachment by the state then it's rational (and wise) to be skeptical of democracy.

So really, I have to ask, what's Lind's problem? He accuses all libertarians of being apologists for autocracy but has a hard time coming up with any direct evidence to that effect. The best he can do is dredge up a few examples where prominent personalities haven't been sufficiently condemnatory for his taste. And the he goes on to say that libertarianism is incompatible with democracy when all he's really done is demonstrate that libertarians are as wary of democratic governments as they are of any other type.

A charitable interpretation of the above is that Lind has simply fallen prey to a false dichotomy: on one hand there's democracy (which is good, virtuous, and noble) and on the other hand there's not-democracy (which apparently involves regular human sacrifice). Thus if you're not in favor of democracy you must therefore be in favor of fascism/totalitarianism/authoritarianism/etc. This is, to some degree, understandable; alternative forms of government such as minarchism don't get a lot of exposure these days.

Of course the fact that he's grasping at straws to prove his point makes me think that he's merely looking for evidence to support an existing conclusion. Hater.

1 Liberalism, p. 51
2 Ibid., p. 48.
3 Ibid., p. 50.
4 Liberty, p. 209.
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