Exchange with Jeff Thompson on Libertarianism


Editorial Note

Trying to overcome some typical misconceptions, or misdirections, about libertarianism. I do not seem to have succeeded, although I think the basic point is simple enough:  a "symbolic" statement about helping the poor is worthless and hypocritical if the paternalistic measures taken to express this "symbol" actually hurt the poor rather than help them.

Names and identifiable references to some third parties have been blocked out.


Date: Sat, 24 Feb 2001 13:51:19 -0800
From: Jeff Thompson 
Subject: Libertarianism

Hi Kelley.  You may remember me from the open@shore.net list I ran for Piet
Hut a while back.  I was looking through your site, initially because of
your interest in Popper, and was interested to find out you are
libertarian.

I usually score very libertarian when I take tests like the one you provide
at http://www.friesian.org/quiz.htm.  My main problem with the libertarians
I've met is that they don't seen to understand the point Nozick was making
in The Examined Life, which I think is a good point.  For example, here is
a libertarian position I find typical, as quoted from
http://www.thelockeinstitute.org/monographs/shaftesbury_5_review1.html

      Nozick, author of the libertarian classic Anarchy, State, and Utopia
      (1974) stunned readers of The Examined Life (1989) by a sharp change
      of opinion. Previously, Nozick had opposed the welfare state:
      compulsory taxation to benefit the poor, he held, is a type of
      forced labor. In his new book, Nozick shifted completely. By
      compulsory provision of welfare, a society could express its
      "symbolic commitment" to the value of aid to the less fortunate. 

      True enough, taxation for welfare violates property rights. But those
      unwilling to contribute, were they allowed to freely abstain, would
      prevent society from symbolizing, as a united body, its commitment to
      the poor.  Property rights, to Nozick, cease to be absolute; their
      value must be balanced against the competing value of symbolic
      expression.

I have read these passages in The Examined Life, and I don't believe this is
what Nozick means by "symbolic."  Nozick is not concerned about the
"symbolic acts" which the state is to make.  Rather, he had discovered that,
unlike himself, most people do not live rational, reflective lives.  They
do not analyze their assumptions, they do not question their cultural
identity.  Rather, most people live very unreflective lives, and the way
that meaning gets into an unreflective mind is not through rational
investigation, but through existing in an unquestioned symbolic
infrastructure provided by culture, family, religion, etc.

My understanding is that Nozick (like myself) does not refute the arguments
in Anarchy, State and Utopia showing that taxations is coersion and a kind
of violence.  What he discovered, though, is that the libertarian system is
rational and fine-tuned for thinking, reflective people, but that most
people have symbolic minds, not rational minds, and that the libertarian
system wouldn't provide the kind of fixed, traditional, unchanging symbolic
infrastructure that their unreflective minds need in order to be stable.
Nozick began thinking about non-coersion because we wanted a society which
is better for people, but then he discovered that while the rationalized
libertarian system would be good for him and other thinking people,
it would be a psychological disaster for most people with their
unreflective, symbolic minds.

I agree with Nozick (as I interpret him).  I believe libertarians are
absolutely correct in that taxation is violence, etc. and that their
arguments are rock solid in saying that libertarianism is the most ethical
system from the standpoint of non-aggression.  But what I have never found
is a libertarian who can admit that such a system which relies on the
individual to reflect and rationally choose their own actions would be a
disaster for most people who live utterly unreflective (symbolic) lives.
Rather, the libertarians I've talked to have this fantasy that if only the
state would stop helping them, people would wake up, think rationally and
flourish.  

I would like to meet a libertarian who will say that libertarianism is the
best system to embody principles of freedom (which I agree with) and that
they will stick to it *despite* that fact most people will suffer under it
because they are not ready to be responsible, rational beings (instead of
resorting to the fantasy that a libertarian system would be good for
people).

- Jeff


Dear Mr. Thompson,

I hear that Piet has fended off the attempt to oust him from the Institute.

I think it is a real misunderstanding of a libertarian position, whether by Nozick or anyone else, to think that it works for rational persons and not for anyone else. I've criticized Ayn Rand at http://www.friesian.com/rand.htm for the danger of leaving this impression.

The free market works on the basis of what people want. They don't always want what the more "rational" think that they should want, which makes me suspicious that Nozick, rather than worrying that people will not get what they want, instead is actually worrying in the old paternalistic way that people will not want what people like him think are the right things.

Provision for the poor is another matter. The federal government of the United States was designed as a government of limited powers that would have no business in matters like provision of relief. The fact that it has gotten into such business means (1) it is run on the basis of colossal dishonesty, since the actual Constitution was never amended to allow for such action, and (2) the politicization of relief has turned charitable concern into just another rent-seeking swindle for political gain.

To any proper libertarian, society expresses "symbolic commitment" to the poor through the traditional charities of CIVIL SOCIETY, primarily religious and fraternal. It is not so much that taxation for welfare is coercive theft, but that taxation for welfare is a system that enriches politicians and bureaucrats while creating perverse incentives that corrupt the poor, destroy the virtues that would enable them to emerge for poverty, and turn them into political peons who vote, as 90% of blacks did in the last election, for the politicians who promise the largest free lunch.

I do not happen to be one of the "taxation is theft" libertarians, and it bothers me that fixation on the "non-coercion" principle confuses issues such as the incentives created by the free market and by political action, and the ahistorical either/or picture of the welfare state vs. social darwinism. The debate over whether relief should be provided by the government or by private means already happened back in the early 19th century, when the provision was largely transfered back to the private sector, just because government provision was seen not to work. The evidence of that was never denied, but a later generation of "reformers" simply figured that THEIR version of government action (Hegelian bureaucrats) would do it better. They were wrong, as Benjamin Franklin (let alone Thomas Jefferson) could have told them.

Like many philosophers, Nozick may have made the mistake of systematizing a single a priori principle, without considering whether it was the right principle for what it was purportedly representing. Discovering his error then meant throwing the baby out with the bathwater, and a profound betrayal of what he had actually misunderstood in the first place.

Best wishes,
Kelley Ross


Date: Mon, 26 Feb 2001 12:22:41 -0800
From: Jeff Thompson 
Subject: Re: Libertarianism


"Kelley L. Ross" wrote:
>I hear that Piet has fended off the attempt to oust him from the Institute.

Yes indeed.  Piet has a web page describing the saga at:
http://www.sns.ias.edu/~piet/lawsuit/index.html

>It is not so much that taxation for welfare is
>coercive theft, but that taxation for welfare is a system that enriches
>politicians and bureaucrats while creating perverse incentives that corrupt
>the poor, destroy the virtues that would enable them to emerge for poverty,
>and turn them into political peons who vote, as 90% of blacks did in the
>last election, for the politicians who promise the largest free lunch.

Do you believe that if politicians were no longer able to offer poor people
government money that their virtues would no longer be destroyed and that
the removal of support is what they need to emerge from poverty?


Dear Jeff,

At 12:22 PM 2/26/01 -0800, you wrote:
>Do you believe that if politicians were no longer able to offer poor
>people government money that their virtues would no longer be destroyed
>and that the removal of support is what they need to emerge from
>poverty?

There is a great Benjamin Franklin quote:

I am for doing good to the poor, but I differ in opinion of the means. I think the best way of doing good to the poor, is not making them easy in poverty, but leading or driving them out of it. In my youth I travelled much, and I observed in different countries, that the more public provisions were made for the poor the less they provided for themselves, and of course became poorer. And, on the contrary, the less was done for them, the more they did for themselves, and became richer.

Virtues of prudence are what enabled many unpopular minorities to prosper in hostile environments, Jews in Russia, Chinese in Malaya, Indians in Uganda, Japanese in California. On the other hand, when political power was obtained by the American Irish, and political patronage jobs could be distributed to the community, this did not help raise the overall Irish community very much. There was, in short, a profound cultural difference between the Irish and American Jews or Italians, reflected in their very different economic progress.

When most charitable work was in private hands, the poor were helped who were clearly willing to help themselves. No one believed in giving someone money who would just go off and buy alcohol. Yet today there is a whole industry in laundering foodstamps so that the money can be used for alcohol and drugs. Worrying about this is usually regarded as "blaming the victim."

Kelley


Date: Mon, 26 Feb 2001 15:55:56 -0800
From: Jeff Thompson 
Subject: Re: Libertarianism

"Kelley L. Ross" wrote:
>There was, in short, a profound cultural difference
>between the Irish and American Jews or Italians, reflected in their very
>different economic progress.

What would you say is this profound cultural difference?

>When most charitable work was in private hands, the poor were helped who
>were clearly willing to help themselves.  No one believed in giving someone
>money who would just go off and buy alcohol.  

Or I would add to the more the more obvious gross misuse of money to buy
alcohol, the more common misuse of getting a nicer house or more jewelry
before providing for proper nutrition and education for one's chilren,
getting oneself out of debt, and other long term goals requiring a more
sophisticated mind to comprehend.  All this happens, even for the parents
who will state that what they want is a better life for themself and their
chilren.  But the sad fact is that many people don't have the wherewithall
to translate this want into action.  They don't even have the wits about
themselves to purchase the proper services offered to them on the free
market which will meet a subtle long-term goal such as improvement for
their children.  The free market will much more eagerly meet their short-
term desire for that nice wrist watch.  I wonder if we could even agree
that there are people who just stumble through life making foolish short-
term decisions, screwing themselves and their children out of long-term
goals like stability and prosperity, regardless of whether we would agree
about whether/how they should be influenced.


Dear Jeff,
At 03:55 PM 2/26/01 -0800, you wrote:
>"Kelley L. Ross" wrote:
>>There was, in short, a profound cultural difference
>>between the Irish and American Jews or Italians, reflected in their very
>>different economic progress.
>
>What would you say is this profound cultural difference?

Customs and habits that contribute to economic success.

>>When most charitable work was in private hands, the poor were helped who
>>were clearly willing to help themselves.  No one believed in giving
>>someone money who would just go off and buy alcohol.  
>
>Or I would add to the more the more obvious gross misuse of money to buy
>alcohol, the more common misuse of getting a nicer house or more jewelry
>before providing for proper nutrition and education for one's chilren,
>getting oneself out of debt, and other long term
>goals requiring a more sophisticated mind to comprehend.

There is the mistake. It does not take a "sophisticated mind" to comprehend prudence. Many brilliant people are extremely imprudent, in part because they having reasoned themselves into believing that they have a right not to be, and that it's all bourgeois bullshit anyway. No, it is the humble and less rational who are often the more prudent, and any group of people can learn prudent habits under the right incentives.

>All this happens, even for the
>parents who will state that what they want is a better life for themself
>and their chilren.

When they are TOLD, by the more sophisticated, that what they need is money from the government and a college degree. This is not true and is a millstone around several ethnic groups. The more rational, by corrupting the government, end up corrupting those who would respond to more sensible incentives.

>But the sad fact is that many people don't have the wherewithall to
>translate this want into action.  They don't even have the wits about
>themselves to purchase the proper services offered to them on the free
>market which will meet a subtle long-term goal such as improvement for
>their children.

Again, it doesn't take wits. Which is where Aristotle has the advantage over Plato. Virtues are usually just habits, not rational principles, especially when the rational principles themselves can be confused and corrupted by false doctrine.

>The free market will much more
>eagerly meet their short-term desire for that nice wrist watch.

And then they learn, like anyone getting burned, that they better save the money in the future for something more important.

>I wonder if we could
>even agree that there are people who just stumble through life making
>foolish short-term decisions, screwing themselves and their children out
>of long-term goals like stability and prosperity, regardless of whether
>we would agree about whether/how they should be influenced.

When they are influenced by the natural incentives of responsibility, there is a wealth of evidence that most people correct their behavior. An excellent example is the black illegitimate birth rate in this country. In 1960 fewer black children were born out of wedlock than white children are now. Now there are inner city neighborhods where 80% of the children are illegitimate, often never even knowing who their fathers were. But this did not happen in a vacuum. It happened when the government decided to pay for the support of illegitimate children, in part because of intellectuals who suddenly became "non-judgmental" about things like single parenthood.

Kelley


Date: Mon, 26 Feb 2001 17:22:01 -0800
From: Jeff Thompson 
Subject: Re: Libertarianism

I should say that the case I have in mind is not a poor addict in the
ghetto.  I'm thinking about people like XXXXXXXXX.  After two months,
XXXXX dropped out of college to go seek glamour in New York.  Later,
with only a high school education, she got the work she could, but her
financial situation wasn't good.  Then, due to the emotional stress of her
difficulties keeping steady work and relationships, I watched in
slow-motion astonishment as she made one decision after another.

For example, when she needed a car, instead of getting a used Honda, she
went into deep debt to buy herself a new $30,000 sport utility vehicle
just like everyone else.  She did this for "symbolic" reasons in the sense
I have been trying to outline.  She said "I deserve it," not "I can afford
it," etc.  She just "wanted" it.

You are right: the free market is good at offering people the consumer
items and services they want.  XXXXX wanted a status symbol of power
and success, and the free market offered it to her at $30,000 with the
help of payment plans and credit cards.  

After several decisions like this, XXXXX had to declare bankruptcy by the
age of 30.  Yes she wanted the big car.  But she only has a short-term
mind which is attracted to symbols like shiny objects.  The long term
consequence is bankruptcy, a ruined credit record and more frustration than
she could imagine.  Now what she wants is peace and security, but this is
not the kind of "want" which the free market so easily responds to
when she has screwed herself and doesn't have anything to buy this with.

Luckily for her, she has a family to bail her out, a mother to live with
for three years and a financially stable man who is willing to marry her.
But without the family, she would have been on the street.  She is not a
stupid person.  But she is short-sighted, and I think rather typical.

Regarless of what you think the government's role should be in her life,
do you recognize my description of her type of mind which lives for
short-term desires of strong personal and emotional value, unable to
cognize the long-term strategic consequences which can actually counteract
those very same desires?  She's XXXXXXXXX.  I'm telling you that's
how she exists.  You must know people like this.

Dear Jeff,

I think part of the problem is the approach to libertarian or free market thinking through an a priori moralist like Nozick as opposed to an economist like F.A. Hayek, whom I read before Rand and before I had even heard of Nozick.

At 05:22 PM 2/26/01 -0800, you wrote:
>For example, when she needed a car, instead of getting a used Honda, she
>went into deep debt to buy herself a new $30,000 sport utility vehicle
>just like everyone else.  She did this for "symbolic" reasons in the sense
>I have been trying to outline.  She said "I deserve it," not "I can afford
>it," etc.  She just "wanted" it.

Already a sign of corruption by elite culture and the absence of good habits of prudence. The idea that one has a right to what one wants is promoted by no traditional religion or morality, but only by secular utopians whom only the educated have heard about. Whatever your upbringing was like, it may have imposed no realistic discipline on her. Of course, one reason for this is the unnatural prolongation of childhood in modern society. When someone is apprenticed at 7 or working for a living at 14, unrealistic habits do not have a chance to build. But when working life begins at 18, 21, or in my case, 35, it is easy to have gotten unrealistic notions in one's head, without any habits of prudence having been learned.

>You are right: the free market is good at offering people the consumer
>items and services they want.  XXXXX wanted a status symbol of power and
>success, and the free market offered it to her at $30,000 with the help of
>payment plans and credit cards.  
>
>After several decisions like this, XXXXX had to declare bankruptcy by the
>age of 30.

Discipline at last.

>Yes she wanted the big car.  But she only has a short-term mind which is
>attracted to symbols like shiny objects.

Not a short term mind: short term habits.

>The long term consequence is bankruptcy, a ruined credit
>record and more frustration than she could imagine.  Now what she wants is
>peace and security, but this is not the kind of "want" which the free
>market so easily responds to when she has screwed herself and doesn't
>have anything to buy this with.

If she actually learned her lesson, she will be in better shape, and probably better off without a good credit history.

>Luckily for her, she has a family to bail her out, a mother to live with
>for three years and a financially stable man who is willing to marry her.
>But without the family, she would have been on the street.  She is not a
>stupid person.  But she is short-sighted, and I think rather typical.

Lucky from the prudence of others. But the welfare state is then a gigantic transfer of wealth from the prudent, so that they cannot enjoy the fruits of their own labors, to the imprudent, who are protected from the lessons of their own irresponsibility.

>Regarless of what you think the government's role should be in her life,
>do you recognize my description of her type of mind which lives for
>short-term desires of strong personal and emotional value, unable to
>cognize the long-term strategic consequences which can actually counteract
>those very same desires?  She's XXXXXXXXX.  I'm telling you that's
>how she exists.  You must know people like this.
Certainly. When we have a society that promotes irresponsibility and imprudence, they are all over the place. But it is not a matter of rational knowledge to know better. Rational "knowledge" is what has created the disincentives to prudence. It has been the implicit knowledge of traditional, customary morality (the despised and ridiculed "Protestant work ethic" -- or its Jewish, Chinese, Japanese, etc. counterparts) that has mostly enabled people, especially groups of people, to become prosperous. But instead of being honored for their virtue, very often such groups, like the Jews, have been viewed as venial thieves and swindlers, even while those condemning them have plotted to steal their hard-earned wealth. It is always the paternalistic rationalists, as Nozick seems to have become, who decide that it is up to them to "redistribute" the ill gotten gains of Jews/Chinese/Lebanese/Indians/Japanese more "fairly" to the less successful -- thereby protecting them from the developing, let alone honoring, the habits of success.

Kelley


Date: Tue, 27 Feb 2001 09:13:51 -0800
From: Jeff Thompson 
Subject: Re: Libertarianism

"Kelley L. Ross" wrote:
>>After several decisions like this, XXXXX had to declare bankruptcy by
>>the age of 30.
> 
>Discipline at last.
> 
>>Yes she wanted the big car.  But she only has a short-term mind which is
>>attracted to symbols like shiny objects.
> 
>Not a short term mind:  short term habits.

There is more that one way someone can react to such hard lessons:

1) They learn their lesson and get their act together, and start taking
care of themself.
2) They get more frightened, desperate and get deeper in trouble as people
prey on their gullibilities, and because of their conditioning they never
learn their lesson.

You have described compellingly the first case where someone learns their
lesson.  That's the easy case.  But your omission suggests that you don't
believe the second case ever happens where the person just never gets it.  

I have a friend from XXZXZXX who I see now and then.  Every time I see him,
I hear another story of how he got suckered by someone from his own country,
often by people in his own extended family.  He has deeply wired in ethnic
loyalty which he doesn't even have the capacity to question.  (Believe me,
I've tried.)  This is a gullibility which people easily exploit.  All they
have to do is suggest that he is not loyal and in order to prove himself,
he will fork over money, or invest in their loser venture, etc.  He just
doesn't seem to have the cognitive apparatus to perceive in any depth what
they are doing.  In order to learn from an event, a person has to be able
to perceive the event, but this is just the clue he lacks.

It is easy to describe the case where someone gets a good hard lesson and
is all the better for it.  And it is easy to try to believe everybody is
really this way, or would be if given the chance.  But my experience is
that the world is also full of people who tragically just don't have the
perceptual apparatus to get what lesson is there to learn and will never
learn those virtues you and I may admire.

It is not the case that 100% of people's situation will be improved if
there is no government safety net.  The position of some will deteriorate.
What is your thinking on this other case?  I don't want to go away from
this conversation thinking that you have convinced yourself that it never
happens.

Dear Jeff,

Comments at end:

At 09:13 AM 2/27/01 -0800, you wrote:
>1) They learn their lesson and get their act together, and start taking
>care of themself.
>2) They get more frightened, desperate and get deeper in trouble as people
>prey on their gullibilities, and because of their conditioning they never
>learn their lesson.
>
>You have described compellingly the first case where someone learns their
>lesson.  That's the easy case.  But your omission suggests that you don't
>believe the second case ever happens where the person just never gets it.
>
>I have a friend from XXZXZXX who I see now and then.  Every time I see
>him, I hear another story of how he got suckered by someone from his own
>country, often by people in his own extended family.  He has deeply wired
>in ethnic loyalty which he doesn't even have the capacity to question.
>(Believe me, I've tried.)  This is a gullibility which people easily
>exploit.  All they have to do is suggest that he is not loyal and in order
>to prove himself, he will fork over money, or invest in their loser
>venture, etc.  He just doesn't seem to have the cognitive apparatus
>to perceive in any depth what they are doing.  In order to learn from an
>event, a person has to be able to perceive the event, but this is just
>the clue he lacks.
>
>It is easy to describe the case where someone gets a good hard lesson and
>is all the better for it.  And it is easy to try to believe everybody is
>really this way, or would be if given the chance.  But my experience is
>that the world is also full of people who tragically just don't have the
>perceptual apparatus to get what lesson is there to learn and will never
>learn those virtues you and I may admire.
>
>It is not the case that 100% of people's situation will be improved if
>there is no government safety net.  The position of some will deteriorate.
>What is your thinking on this other case?  I don't want to go away from
>this conversation thinking that you have convinced yourself that it never
>happens.

What you describe with your friend from XXZXZXX is not an inability to learn but powerful cultural habits, of loyalty, as you describe it yourself, of which your friend cannot divest himself. Not only does this make your friend individually vulnerable, but it probably also means that the accumulation of capital among many XXZXZXXns may be very difficult, if they cannot trust each other to deal honestly. This would be one reason why XXZXZXX, or XXZXZXXns, would remain poor, as the Irish did for very long.

I have no intention of denying that such people, individually and culturally, exist, the question is what can be or is to be done about it. The implication I get from you in this whole discussion is that such people have a claim to be supported by others and so protected from the consequences of their imprudence. My contention is (1) that this is immoral, because taking money by force from those who are productive and responsible and giving it to those who are unproductive and irresponsible is simply theft, a very pre-libertarian term, unrelated to distinctively libertarian principles. (2) Doing this, as Tallyrand said of one of Napoleon's judicial murders, "is not just a crime, it is a mistake," because it creates no incentives for a change of habits either in the individual or in the collective cultural actions of groups. If bad or irresponsible habits are protected, then the message loud and clear is that prudence and responsibility are unnecessary, so that no pressure exists for their correction, on any time or social scale.

If your XXZXZXXn friend continues to get swindled because he refuses to abandon his principles of trust and loyalty, are you going to make good his losses? If he has a right to be protected, then you owe it to him. Or, perhaps you think that the government should just tax Donald Trump more, he doesn't need it, and then reimburse your friend that way. Of course, in law and morality, your friend has a claim against those who swindle him, not against any others.

Those who are so imprudent that they end up in the gutter, need not remain there because there have always been, and will always be, people who through charitable motives have been willing to try and help them. The differences are that they never thought that the indigent were OWED anything, their own gifts and care were voluntary and compassionate, and their attentions, beyond a certain point would be CONDITIONAL, as I previously described. Thus, the bum is picked up out of the gutter, cleaned up and fed, but then expected to do something sensible. If he merely ends up back in the gutter, then the cycle can start over again, until he gets his act together, ends up in jail, ends up committed for insanity (rarer now when it is harder to commit anyone involuntarily -- the new movie *The Caveman's Valentine* portrays such a man), or dies from the rigors of his bad habits. This is pretty much the way it works now, where even generous welfare and homeless shelters (in "liberal" bastions like NYC or San Francisco) still do not prevent people from living in subways or spending every dime of their money on alcohol or drugs.

It is not the educated and enlightened who commonly object to subsidies of irresponsible behavior, but less educated people who live, not by their wits or degrees, but by less humble skills. They deeply resent having to work, not only to support themselves and their own families, but to support others who are protected from the consequences of their own imprudence. It is they who are right, which is why F.A. Hayek is a better introduction to free market and libertarian principles than Nozick. The only reason that the United States, or anyplace else, embarked on projects of open-ended and unconditional welfare spending was that the intelligentsia decided that it was right and proper to do so. Yet it was not upon them, or on the responsible, that the consequences of this fell the hardest. Although the decay of the black American family is now casually said to be the result of slavery or Segregation, the simple fact is that it was the result of the Great Society, which was supposedly designed, in part, specifically to help black families. As Walter Williams likes to say, that Ku Klux Klan could not have formulated programs more damaging to black progress and achievement.

Whatever it is that you think I am not addressing, you are not addressing such points, which I have already made. Nor have you addressed what level of paternalism you think is necessary to protect someone like your XXZXZXXn friend from his own imprudence. Is he to be deprived of control over his own money, lest he be swindled again? Are you, as the rational and educated one, to conduct his affairs? Or, as I have suggested, are the incentives of prudence to gradually alter the cultural conditions of his community, as they did with the Irish, who were never "protected" by discrimination laws, paternalism, or welfare? Another good example of this would the practices of the Navajo, described in a quote by Tony Hillerman at http://www.friesian.com/discrim.htm, who have trouble running businesses, because they tend to give away their stock to relatives who ask for it. Hillerman says he admires that, but in fact it means that most Navajo will remain poor, despite federal subsidies for education, medical care, etc. They have a perfect right, of course, to remain poor in their traditional rural occupations (sheep herding), but they then really have no reason to expect otherwise, and certainly have no right to expect forced subsidies from others, except, of course under Treaty obligations, which typically included the provision of supplies. With most Indians, such provision simply enabled them to live in squalor, neither returning to true traditional livelihood (buffalo hunting) or going on to modern occupations. Few regard this as good.

So I would like you to be a little clearer about what you are advocating. Do you or the new Nozick approve of "welfare rights" or, say, Swedish socialism? Do you believe that these are morally right, or effective in promoting wealth creation and the economic progress of communities or individuals?

Kelley


Date: Thu, 01 Mar 2001 09:49:09 -0800
From: Jeff Thompson 
Subject: Re: Libertarianism


"Kelley L. Ross" wrote:
>I have no intention of denying that such people, individually and
>culturally, exist, the question is what can be or is to be done about it.
>The implication I get from you in this whole discussion is that such people
>have a claim to be supported by others and so protected from the
>consequences of their imprudence.  My contention is (1) that this is
>immoral, because taking money by force from those who are productive and
>responsible and giving it to those who are unproductive and irresponsible
>is simply theft, a very pre-libertarian term, unrelated to distinctively
>libertarian principles.  (2) Doing this, as Tallyrand said of one of
>Napoleon's judicial murders, "is not just a crime, it is a mistake,"
>because it creates no incentives for a change of habits either in the
>individual or in the collective cultural actions of groups.  If bad or
>irresponsible habits are protected, then the message loud and clear is that
>prudence and responsibility are unnecessary, so that no pressure exists for
>their correction, on any time or social scale.

You and I both perceive that a political system sends a message which people
hear, and my main point is that the message often was not intentionally
put there by the creators of the system.  My approach will seem
inconsistent until I clarify what I am most concerned about.

I agree that right now the system sends the message (whether or not intended
by its creators) that the less you work and the more of a lazy bum you make
yourself, then the more you will be taken care of (or something to that
effect which encourages economic stagnation).  But my real concern is this:

>As Walter Williams likes to say, that Ku Klux Klan could
>not have formulated programs more damaging to black progress and
>achievement.

I would say this is not correct.  You seem to think that the worst that can
happen to someone is that they would end up poor and a bunch of losers.  I
passionately disagree.  The worst that can end up to people is that they
are killed.  The simple fact is that the worst that the Ku Klux Klan has in
mind for black people is not that their economic progress would be stifled,
but rather that they should be eliminated.  The fact that you do not take
seriously that there are those who want the unworthy in society to "go
away", in the fashion of the worst that fascism has to offer, is my greatest
concern and is the key to my view on all these issues.  As far as "sending
unintended messages," when you quote Walter Williams like this, the
unintended message (which I have met many people who will pick up) is that
the worst fate is to be poor and pathetic, a fate worse than being dead.
This is not to be treated lightly.

>So I would like you to be a little clearer about what you are advocating.
>Do you or the new Nozick approve of "welfare rights" or, say, Swedish
>socialism?  Do you believe that these are morally right, or effective in
>promoting wealth creation and the economic progress of communities or
>individuals?

I have said that, if people in general were astute enough to internalize
the clearly thought-out system of libertarianism and we could have courts
which could be relied on to enforce its principles as originally intended,
then it is the system I prefer.  But unfortunately, this is rather moot.
My model is that people tend to screw things up on a colossal scale, and so
I am not going to choose the system which promotes the best vision, I am
going to choose the system which prevents the worst scenario.

The people who scare me the most are not the ones who say it is okay to
take taxes to support the undeserving.  The people who scare me the most
are the ones who say the undeserving are expendable, because today the
undeserving are the lazy bums, but tomorrow the undeserving are the ones
who don't uphold "the moral code befitting of true human beings."  And as
soon as people think in terms of moral uprightness and start thinking that
the morally undeserving are expendable, then who knows whether I may be
seen as one of the expendable.  This scenario of a society which begins
to look on types of people as expendable is the scenario to be avoided at
all costs because it can firestorm into outright fascism as it has before.
And the rather unpleasant vaccine against this scenario is a society which
visibly protects people who might be seen as the expendable ones (although
unfortunately with taxes involuntarily extracted).   

In contrast to what it sounds like you are saying, the worst scenario is
not a system which sends the message that you don't need to be economically
successful (as ours presently does).  Rather, the worst system is one which
sends the message that there are morally undeserving people and that they
are expendable - because although you do not intend it and although the
principles of libertarianism strictly forbid it, I believe it is nonetheless
the case that libertarian language appeals to a vision where all the 
undesirable and contemptible people in the world "go away" at last.

If you don't perceive that libertarian language, albeit unintentionally by
you, plays into these visions of a society finally cleansed, and you are
not concerned that it does, then I can see why my questions and approach
may seem inconsistent.  If you don't think this could ever happen in
America or that it is not the greatest concern, or that it is just a
hyped-up straw man, then I'm sure my concerns will seem ridiculous to you.

What I'm trying to do is this:  We are in the unpleasant circumstance of
having to design  a system whose main goal is to keep people's latent
fascist potential in check, because to let it function freely is worse
than anything else.  And I am trying to find the least bad system which
will realistically meet this criterion.


Dear Jeff,

At 09:49 AM 3/1/01 -0800, you wrote:
>I agree that right now the system sends the message (whether or not
>intended by its creators) that the less you work and the more of a lazy
>bum you make yourself, then the more you will be taken care of (or
>something to that effect which encourages economic stagnation).  But my
>real concern is this:
>
>>As Walter Williams likes to say, that Ku Klux Klan could
>>not have formulated programs more damaging to black progress and
>>achievement.
>
>I would say this is not correct.  You seem to think that the worst that
>can happen to someone is that they would end up poor and a bunch of
>losers.  I passionately disagree.  The worst that can end up to people is
>that they are killed.

Walter as exaggerating for rhetorical effect. Most people would passionately disagree that poverty is worse than death.

>The simple fact is that the worst that the Ku Klux Klan has in mind for
>black people is not that their economic progress would be stifled, but
>rather that they should be eliminated.  The fact that you do not take
>seriously that there are those who want the unworthy in society to "go
>away", in the fashion of the worst that fascism has to offer, is my
>greatest concern and is the key to my view on all these issues.
>As far as "sending unintended messages," when you quote Walter Williams
>like this, the unintended message (which I have met many people who will
>pick up) is that the worst fate is to be poor and pathetic, a fate worse
>than being dead.  This is not to be treated lightly.

This is a rather astonishing turn, since I was not aware that you believed, or were arguing, that libertarianism would allow the Ku Klux Klan to start killing people. If you really think so, I wonder what you have been reading. If this really was your "greatest concern," it is a little odd that you hadn't mentioned it already. The discussion previously was about what can be done for the poor, not that somehow I would allow a legal regime in which people could be murdered in the streets. Walter's exaggeration is certainly not to be treated lightly, and was not intented to be, since it highlights the amount of damage that welfare policies had done, which, short of actual murder or expulsion, is certainly, in the context of the designers of the Great Society, the worst thing that could happen.

>>So I would like you to be a little clearer about what you are advocating.
>>Do you or the new Nozick approve of "welfare rights" or, say, Swedish
>>socialism?  Do you believe that these are morally right, or effective in
>>promoting wealth creation and the economic progress of communities or
>>individuals?
>
>I have said that, if people in general were astute enough to internalize
>the clearly thought-out system of libertarianism and we could have courts
>which could be relied on to enforce its principles as originally intended,
>then it is the system I prefer.  But unfortunately, this is rather moot.
>My model is that people tend to screw things up on a colossal scale, and
>so I am not going to choose the system which promotes the best vision, I
>am going to choose the system which prevents the worst scenario.

Again, I have DENIED that libertarianism relies on people "internalizing the clearly thought-out system of libertarianism." You continue to invoke a version, by Nozick, that I do not allow is helpful or proper. A free market works on incentives, not intentions, and on virtues, not abstract principles. And, as I have said, the humble are just as likely, or even more likely, to have the virtues than the educated. The courts, indeed, are a problem, since judges try to apply abstract principles, and often end up using the wrong ones, but then this circumstance calls for few and simple laws, and limited government, rather than some statist alternative. Indeed, if judges cannot be relied upon to be sufficiently educated, rational, or intelligent, then a legal system with simple libertarian rules has a better change of being fairly enforced that a legal system, like the present one, with increasingly vaste, complex, vague, and self-contradictory laws and regulations.

>the people who scare me the most are not the ones who say it is okay to
>take taxes to support the undeserving.  The people who scare me the most
>are the ones who say the undeserving are expendable, because today the
>undeserving are the lazy bums, but tomorrow the undeserving are the ones
>who don't uphold "the moral code befitting of true human beings."

Again, this totally disregards what I have been talking about, and I really don't want to have to say it all over again. SO: do you mean that libertarianism is going to allow thugs to murder and rob people? Or, do you mean that libertarianism is some kind of Social Darwinism in which the poor are thought to be better off dead?

>And as soon as people think in terms of moral uprightness
>and start thinking that the morally undeserving are expendable, then who
>knows whether I may be seen as one of the expendable.

Perhaps you think that we should simply not be judging some as morally worthy, i.e. virtuous, and others as not. Those judgments, however, are part of traditional morality, not unique to libertarianism. Nor is the criterion of judgment difficult: if people fail in their lives through lack of prudence or responsibility, they have failed to attain the virtues that are necessary for success. If you have a problem with this, if you think that we should suspend judgment about all things and regard the poor or unsuccessful as all equally worthy, and so equally deserving of public or private relief, then my response would be that you therefore endorse taking money by force from the responsible and giving to the irresponsible, which is theft and violence, and no favor to anyone, since it promotes and subsidized failure.

>This scenario of a society which begins to look on types of people as
>expendable is the scenario to be avoided at all costs because it can
>firestorm into outright fascism as it has before.

How "expendable" got into this, I do not know. If you want to accuse me of wanting to murder people (fascism), say so!

>And the rather unpleasant vaccine against this scenario is a society which
>visibly protects people who might be seen as the expendable ones (although
>unfortunately with taxes involuntarily extracted).

No, the pleasant vaccine is that "society," i.e. Civil Society, practices a bit of tough love with charitable provisions that are not unconditional, as was the case in the United States before the Great Society.

>In contrast to what it sounds like you are saying, the worst scenario is
>not a system which sends the message that you don't need to be economically
>successful (as ours presently does).  Rather, the worst system is one which 
>sends the message that there are morally undeserving people and that they
>are expendable - because although you do not intend it and although the
>principles of libertarianism strictly forbid it, I believe it is
>nonetheless the case that libertarian language appeals to a vision where
>all the undesirable and contemptible people in the world "go away" at last.

This is nonsense. Our present system, as you say, doesn't just send the message that "you don't need to be economically successful," it sends the message that you can be economically comfortable at the expense of the labor of others. This means it is OK to be a parasite. But the alternative is not the idea that people are "expendable," the alternative is the system of incentives that enables people to learn how to be prudent, or takes care of those who are unable to do so, from some incapacity.

>If you don't perceive that libertarian language, albeit unintentionally by
>you, plays into these visions of a society finally cleansed, and you are
>not concerned that it does, then I can see why my questions and approach
>may seem inconsistent.

Where this "finally cleansed" stuff comes from, I have no idea. I gave you an excellent Benjamin Franklin quote, about how the poor can be helped, but you have ignored it, and its elaboration, and instead have trotted out some fascist bogeyman about "expendable" people. I find this a little offensive, especially when you have just come up with it now.

>If you don't think this could ever happen in America or that it is not the
>greatest concern, or that it is just a hyped-up straw man, then I'm sure
>my concerns will seem ridiculous to you.

This great threat of a fascist state has nothing to do with the previous discussion. If this is really your concern, you should have said so right from the beginning. Or you could write Nozick and congratulate him for having avoided fascism. In fact, I addressed the notion of Social Darwinism in an earlier exchange, but you ignored it at that point, to now bring it up absurdly as though libertarians would allow the Klan to ride again.

>What I'm trying to do is this:  We are in the unpleasant circumstance of
>having to design a system whose main goal is to keep people's latent
>fascist potential in check, because to let it function freely is worse
>than anything else.  And I am trying to find the least bad system which
>will realistically meet this criterion.

This seems to be a complete red herring. If the question was about how to help the poor, with incentives or with unconditional aid, the plain answer is that incentives work and that unconditional aid is a social disaster. I do not find you responding to this. Whether the poor should be murdered and or allowed to starve in the street is a false alternative, since no libertarian would allow a legal regime in which people could be murdered, and no libertarian would desire a social regime that would be lacking the charitable resources of civil society, as actually existed before the advent of the welfare state, to take care of the indigent. The dispute there was always whether private provision or public provision of aid was more effective or more compassionate, but you are not addressing that issue. Instead, you seem to be arguing that allowing for the private provison of charity means that we would just as soon see the poor starving or dead. This is morally false, and historically false. It is also kind of insulting, considering what I have already written.

KR


Date: Fri, 02 Mar 2001 22:03:24 -0800
From: Jeff Thompson 
Subject: Re: Libertarianism

I still have not figured out a way to communicate.  I'm out of ideas at
this point.


Dear Jeff,

Only one question: are voluntary relationships among people more conducive to charity and progress than coercive relationships? I.e. Persuasion, or Police?

At 10:03 PM 3/2/01 -0800, you wrote:
>I still have not figured out a way to communicate.  I'm out of ideas at
>this point.

Date: Sat, 03 Mar 2001 20:53:59 -0800
From: Jeff Thompson 
Subject: Re: Libertarianism

"Kelley L. Ross" wrote:
>Only one question:  are voluntary relationships among people more conducive
>to charity and progress than coercive relationships?  I.e. Persuasion, or
>Police?

Volutary relations are better if both parties understand to what they 
are consenting.  But that is a big if.  If someone signs on the dotted
line, legally and for argument's sake you can say they entered into a
voluntary agreement.  But they may have not had the experience to
understand the ramifications of their agreement, or what is more usual is
that the person may have been desperate.  Surely you know that many
people are desperate.  Or they don't have the financial or poilitical
resources to be in a position to evaluate the alternatives so they
"voluntarily" agree to the immediate thing in front of them.  

A "voluntary" agreement made with a person who is under duress or is not
capable of understanding all to which they are consenting can make the
agreement, in reality, a coercive one.  It is common to take advantage of
someone in a coercive way, even though they themselves may believe they are
doing something voluntarily and don't feel coerced.  These are things that
make it not a simple question, I why I don't just answer yes or no.

At 08:53 PM 3/3/01 -0800, you wrote:
>A "voluntary" agreement made with a person who is under duress or is not
>capable of understanding all to which they are consenting can make the
>agreement, in reality, a coercive one.  It is common to take advantage of
>someone in a coercive way, even though they themselves may believe they
>are doing something voluntarily and don't feel coerced.  These are things
>that make it not a simple question, I why I don't just answer yes or no.

Agreements under duress or fraud, or made with the incompetent, are not valid or enforceable agreements under present law, or the common law of contract. This issue is therefore not relevant for a critique of libertarianism. It would only be relevant for someone who thinks that society needs to be a lot more paternalistic than it is, because most people are actually not competent to look after their own interests. A much more paternalistic society, however, requires that the wise and enlightened are in a position to take care of the foolish and incompetent. This is the opposite side of the problem of freedom. Even if everyone is a complete idiot, it won't matter if those in power are complete idiots also. Pardon me, but that happens to be the case. The educated and intelligent are not necessarily the wise. Both Socrates and F.A. Hayek would agree that often the less educated and less intelligent have more in the way of real practical wisdom (i.e. virtues). But I gather from both Nozick and you that people like you think that everything would be great if such people had less power, and you had more -- i.e. that the wise (you) should rule, because the commoners cannot be trusted with their own affairs. The rationale, which I have seen you give several times now, is that you know what you are doing with your freedom, but they don't.

KR


Date: Sun, 04 Mar 2001 16:54:36 -0800
From: Jeff Thompson 
Subject: Re: Libertarianism

"Kelley L. Ross" wrote:
>Agreements under duress or fraud, or made with the incompetent, are not
>valid or enforceable agreements under present law, or the common law of
>contract. This issue is therefore not relevant for a critique of
>libertarianism.

Just because it's not legal doesn't mean it doesn't happen all the time.
To reverse a contract made under duress means that the party needs to
know they can reverse it and that they have the financial power to
hire lawyers to get it reversed, etc., etc.

The way in which it is relevant to a critique of libertarianism is that
it is characteristic of libertarianism to only speak from the viewpoint
of people who are in a position to take full advantage of what the law
has to offer.  And it is also characteristic of libertarianism to quickly
scoff off the concerns of someone without that wherewithall.

We are not going to get any farther along in this discussion.  I should
thank you for your generous time and apologize if I started a conversation
I would not have the energy to push past a certain limit.


Dear Jeff,

At 04:54 PM 3/4/01 -0800, you wrote:
>The way in which it is relevant to a critique of libertarianism is that
>it is characteristic of libertarianism to only speak from the viewpoint
>of people who are in a position to take full advantage of what the law
>has to offer.  And it is also characteristic of libertarianism to quickly
>scoff off the concerns of someone without that wherewithall.

The present legal regime about contracts owes nothing to libertarianism. It becomes part of your critique of libertarianism because you apparently want to take away people's freedom much more than is presently the case. How are competent adults going to be prevented from agreeing to contracts that are either illegal (duress, etc.) or not in their best interest? I haven't noticed a suggestion in that respect, unless it is just to treat all adults as children.

>We are not going to get any farther along in this discussion.  I should
>thank you for your generous time and apologize if I started a conversation
>I would not have the energy to push past a certain limit.

To summarize, the discussion began with you mentioning that Nozick had abandoned libertarianism because he (and you) decided that for it to work, people would have to be sufficiently rational to consciously internalize its principles. My response was that this is FALSE, both in fact and in most libertarian theory. What counts in a regime of freedom, with protections of person, property, and contract (capitalism), is virtue, not the understanding of abstract principles. You seemed to have two objections to this:

(1) Some people just cannot become virtuous. My response was that your apparent solution, unconditional public support for people, causes and has caused, as a matter of fact, untold social damage. Without the incentives of a system where virtue is rewarded and vice punished, naturally, the virtuous no longer have any reason to try, and those who can actually BECOME virtuous have no reason to bother. This ends up victimizing those who continue to work and produce, as others become parasitic on them. To avoid this, the judgment about who is REALLY incapable of improving or taking care of themselves, should be left to the resources of civil society, i.e. private charities, as in fact it was, before the advent of the welfare state and all of its disincentives. To your accusation that such a system is a way of "cleansing" society of the "unfit," I answered that this is either a misunderstanding, or a damn lie.

(2) Some people are just too stupid to be allowed freedom, even if rights of person, property, and contract are protected, and even if charitable means exist to take care of the indigent and those incapable of taking care of themselves. My response to this, which I think is really Nozick's motivation also, is that it presupposes that the educated and intelligent know what they are doing, and are in a position to oversee the lives of those who are less educated and intelligent. To this, my response is (a) it is FALSE as a matter of fact, since the educated and intelligent often display the most elaborate follies, like the present "Education" establishment, and (b) it is incredibly arrogant and self-serving. If you want to run other people's lives, that is your business. If you use the force of the state to do that, it makes you a tyrant.

Which is why I think that the bottom line here is not libertarianism, which you continue to mischaracterize, after the fashion of Nozick, but paternalism, whereby those of us with the mental wherewithal should take away the freedom of others, for their own good. Thus, great "liberals" like Martin Sheen, are against the decriminalization of drugs. Sheen was even against Proposition 36, which simply mandated treatment rather than jail for the first two drug offenses. Sheen is glad that his son Charlie got arrested. Perhaps he would be happier if Charlie had gotten raped or murdered in prison. But "liberals" can only justify this with an argument from incentives -- prison will discourage drug use. That, if drug use is bad, it already will have negative incentives, apparently isn't good enough. The "liberals" are, consequently, really paternalistic authoritarians, not liberals at all.

If you ever want to continue this discussion, let me take back something first: I was too apologetic about Walter William's reference to the KKK. You notion that this means that we don't worry about the actually murderous intentions of the Klan was completely off-the-wall and ridiculous -- even insulting. The point was that IF anyone wanted to design a social system that would keep black people (or anyone) impoverished, EVEN those the MOST hostile to such people, like the KKK, couldn't have come up with anything better. Your accusation, totally irrelevant to the issue at hand, made it sound like libertarians don't care about protecting people from organizations like the KKK. This would be false even for Nozick's erstwhile libertarianism, and seems to go back to some such notion as "libertarians don't care about people." But that never was true or even made any sense, unless you still only had in mind Nozick's view that libertarianism is simply about the maximization of freedom, regardless of any other considerations. Since the very first thing I said in the exchange was that this is false, it was kind of irritating to have it sneak back in as a way of avoiding the point about the destructiveness of the welfare state.

KR


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